Last month, Eric Clapton suggested that his days of touring are over. “The road has become unbearable,” he said. “It’s become unapproachable, because it takes so long to get anywhere. It’s hostile – everywhere: getting in and out of airports, traveling on planes and in cars.”
Understandable, when you’re nearly 70, I guess, but the good news is that it sounds like he doesn’t intend to stop doing studio work or one-off performances. Clapton has been entertaining us and enthralling us with his blues-based guitar work for nearly 50 years. Ranked by Rolling Stone magazine number 2 in their “Greatest Guitarists of All Time” (surpassed only by Jimi Hendrix – fair enough!), Clapton was once hailed “god” by an adoring fanbase. He’s had 17 Grammys, was awarded the CBE by the Queen, and songs like Layla or Tears in Heaven will be enjoyed and played long after Clapton is gone.
But Clapton is essentially a blues artist who has hailed Robert Johnson as the biggest influence on his guitar playing. He said of Johnson, “His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice.” Clapton’s tribute to Johnson, on his 2004 album, Me and Mr. Johnson, is one terrific blues album, with excellent arrangements which really showcase Johnson’s genius and some outstanding playing and singing from Clapton. Clapton had previously said that Robert Johnson’s best songs had “never been covered by anyone else, at least not very successfully — because how are you going to do them?” This album and the follow-up Sessions for Robert really do Johnson’s songs justice.
B B King has said of Clapton, “I admire the man. I think he’s No. 1 in rock ‘n’ roll as a guitarist and No. 1 as a great person.” He credited Clapton, with other British artists, with breathing new life into the blues in the late 1960s. The collaborative album between King and Clapton, Riding with the King, won the 2000 Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album, and although some felt it was just too polished for a blues album, it is a thoroughly enjoyable record that shows off both men at their very best.
Clapton’s struggles with drugs are well documented, not least in his autobiography, making for painful reading. “In the lowest moments of my life, the only reason I didn’t commit suicide was that I knew I wouldn’t be able to drink any more if I was dead. It was the only thing I thought was worth living for…they had to practically carry me into the clinic.” In 1987, he checked into Hazeldene Treatment Center in Minnesota for the second and last time, and recounts how, after a month there, just going through the motions, he had a quite profound experience.
He says, “At that moment, almost of their own accord, my legs gave way and I fell to my knees. In the privacy of my room I begged for help. I had no notion of who I was talking to, I just knew that I had come to the end of my tether…I knew that on my own, I wasn’t going to make it, so I asked for help and, getting down on my knees, I surrendered.”
He goes on to say, “From that day until this, I have never failed to pray in the morning, on my knees, asking for help, and at night, to express gratitude for my life and most of all, for my sobriety. I choose to kneel because I feel I need to humble myself when I pray…If you were to ask why I do all this, I will tell you…because it works, as simple as that.”
Clapton’s been sober for nearly thirty years, and worked with a number of addiction treatment organizations before establishing the Crossroads Centre in Antigua in 1998 which helps people recover from the devastating effects of addictions to drugs and alcohol. Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival, which has featured a who’s who of top guitar talent in on four occasions since 2004, raises funds for this centre.
I saw Clapton play on a couple of occasions, most notably in the tour which supported the Robert Johnson album. He didn’t engage with the audience much, but it was enough to be treated to a lengthy set of blues songs and classic Clapton numbers and to admire his fret-work on the big screen – the video-team clearly knew their audience, spending the majority of time on Eric’s guitar playing as opposed to shots of the band as a whole. It was a great night’s entertainment. If he’s decided to retire at this stage, then – thanks for your massive contribution to music and the blues and thanks for the memories.
But for the immediate future, we all can look forward to The Breeze: An Appreciation of JJ Cale, in tribute to JJ Cale who died last year, which will be released at the end of 29 July 2014. It features 16 Cale songs performed by Clapton, Christine Lakeland, Mark Knopfler, John Mayer, Willie Nelson, Tom Petty and Derek Trucks.