Thirtysomething years ago a teenage Eric Clapton was toting his acoustic guitar from pub to pub in London and nearby towns such as Kingston, playing and singing what was then called “folk blues” for drinks and pocket change. His idols were Big Bill Broonzy, Leadbelly and other black American songsters until friends he made in the pubs introduced him to the more hard-edged and emotionally compelling sounds of Mississippi Delta bluesmen Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. Once he heard what Muddy Waters had done with Johnson’s legacy and an electric guitar, there was no turning back. He abandoned the acoustic music of the pubs and coffeehouses for electric blues, and within a few years he had become the most admired British blues and rock guitarist of his generation. He was still in his early twenties when his more vociferous admirers began leaving graffiti on London walls proclaiming, CLAPTON IS GOD.
Within the last year, Clapton has come full circle – and then some. The acoustic guitar is back in his professional life; songs by Broonzy, Leadbelly, Johnson and Waters are back in his repertoire. But instead of doing his folkie bit in the pubs, he has reached an audience of millions with a landmark appearance on MTV Unplugged and the album from that show, which has become the most successful recording of his career, scaling the charts and winning six Grammy awards. Even when he was “God,” Clapton never managed anything quite this spectacular; he is now more visible, and more widely popular, than at any other point in his career.
For longtime Clapton fans, the unprecedented success of Unplugged is both puzzling and ironic. For Clapton himself, his new popularity has been won at great cost. During the early Seventies, heroin addiction almost wrecked his life. He fought the beast to a standstill, only to have to confront the demons of alcoholism a decade later. But his trials and tribulations during the last five years have been even more devastating. In 1988 his relationship with Patti Boyd, the inspiration for his 1970 masterwork Layla, finally ended in divorce. In 1990 he lost four of his closest associates and friends, including his bodyguard, tour manager and booking agent, as well as fellow blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, in a postconcert helicopter crash. And on March 20th, 1991, his four-and-a-half-year-old son, Conor, fell to his death from a fifty-third-floor Manhattan window. “Tears in Heaven,” which won a Grammy as Song of the Year and is the emotional centerpiece of the disc Unplugged, has been widely perceived as a response to his son’s death. Clapton hasn’t just been singing and playing the blues, he’s been living the blues.
But Clapton has endured these tragedies, transforming personal suffering and temporary defeats into lasting artistic victories. That’s the kind of artist he is. The commitment to emotional expression and unalloyed truth-telling that has characterized his best work has enabled him to rise above the vicissitudes of his life, and it’s this quality that informs the soft-spoken but deeply felt performances on Unplugged. The acoustic format may downplay the very qualities guitarophile fans most admire in Clapton’s playing – the unexcelled richness of his sound, the fat sustains, the deft balance of fluid phrasing and crackling intensity. But Clapton has never valued technique for its own sake.
“I’m very much a romanticist musically,” he said in a mid-Eighties interview. “I prefer to be drawn into something by the way it makes me feel emotionally. It’s not technique that I listen for; it’s content, feeling, tone. With one note, if it sounds right, you can create everything.” And, he might have added, that one right note doesn’t have to come from the guitar. Though he’s always been insecure about his vocals, Clapton at his best sings with an emotional honesty unmarred by mannerisms and cliches. And vocally, Unplugged is surely his finest hour.
Eric Patrick Clapton was born March 30th, 1945, in Ripley, a small village in Surrey, some thirty miles outside London. His mother was young and unwed, and he was raised by his grandparents. Early rock & roll stirred his spirit: Years later he remembered hearing recordings by Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly and, especially, being impressed by a television performance featuring Jerry Lee Lewis. “What knocked me out really was the bass player, who was playing a Fender Precision bass guitar,” Clapton recalled. “I just knew it was a guitar, and I thought, ‘This is the future’ . . . There [on television] was something out of the future, and I wanted to go there.” By the time he was fourteen or fifteen, Clapton was teaching himself to play an acoustic guitar. At sixteen he went to art school, but a year later he dropped out. He did manual labor for about a year while playing and singing in local coffeehouses and pubs. Then he joined his first electric band, an R&B outfit called the Roosters.