Wednesday, March 12, 2008


This entry is way off the mark for this blog, but it is my blog after all, so what the hell. I just finished reading Eric Clapton’s autobiography and I feel like a raw nerve. It’s not because of his dissertations on the purity of blues or the numerous guitars he’s owned or all the famous people he’s known, it’s because of his journey through serious drug and alcohol addiction and his emergence on the other side.

I don’t know exactly why I picked up the book. It was my wife’s book. Unlike me, she has a love for blues and blues-infused rock. I’m more of a pop or folk-oriented rock fan. To put it simply, I’m a Beatles fan rather than a Rolling Stones fan. I always found Clapton grating in interviews with the way he babbles on about the blues. I thought Cream was ridiculous. Just to have the audacity to call the band Cream (as in “cream of the crop”) was annoying enough. Then seeing the concert footage of those rambling guitar solos, which always sounded like musical masturbation to me, just sent me over the edge. Only stoners can get into music like that where the pointless runs up and down the fret board are only background noise for their altered states of being.

The gossip of Clapton's own substance abuse problems also were a negative tic in my book. I’m still wrestling with issues I have over my late father, an alcoholic who never fully broke his bond with the bottle. While I understand the disease from years of dealing with my dad and his numerous trips to rehab, I have little patience for addicts. The fact that Clapton got clean later in life was a point in his favor, but I still wasn’t sold.

I did enjoy the original Layla by Derek and the Dominos, but then Clapton had to ruin the memory by putting out that awful acoustic version which was mercilessly repeated on rock radio stations. I felt sorry for him when his son Conor met such a tragic end, but was put off by his capitalization of the event when he released Tears in Heaven. Just didn’t care for the guy very much.

Anyway, I was looking for something to read and I usually like biographies, especially about people who lived through interesting eras in pop culture, so I thought I give it a try. I almost took the attitude, “Let’s see what the man has to say for himself.” Well, he had a lot to say, and I was impressed with the way he said it.

Written in an honest, straightforward manner, Clapton takes you through his humble beginnings, his love of the blues and his pursuit of a career in music making. He also recounts the public life and musical accomplishments of which we are all aware. I completely disagree with his perspective on music, but since I’m only an avid listener and not a musicologist, I have no quibble one way or the other about such things. The part that drew me in was when he discussed his descent into heroin addiction, his recovery, and his descent into his new addiction to alcohol.

What strikes me most when I observe addicts or hear them recount their experiences is that they all exhibit the same personality traits. Their backgrounds and experiences are different, but the behavior patterns are always the same. The maddening part for me is that they are so much in denial about it. Protecting their addiction becomes more important than saving their relationships or their lives. It’s a clear path the hell and they are looking the other way.

That tendency to dismiss or marginalize the reality of it is what I find most off-putting when I hear or read testimonies from addicts. Even those who are clean may still dilute the truth as a way to protect their own self-image. Clapton takes no such easy road, and I found his honesty so refreshing. One line that walloped me like a ton of bricks was when he talked about his first wife Pattie, “However much I might have thought I loved Pattie at the time, the truth is that the only thing that I couldn’t live without was alcohol.”

After going through various rehab adventures with my dad, he managed to stay sober for 23 months when I was 12 to 14 years old. Then, during the Christmas holidays in 1978, he fell back into drinking. I had gone through his on-again-off-again drinking bouts countless times, but this time was particularly devastating, and for years I could not quite figure out why. It wasn’t until a few years ago, long after my dad’s death, that I realized what it was. On some subconscious level, I realized that my father’s need for alcohol outweighed his love for his wife and children. Pretty hard notion to swallow at age 14, so I never allowed myself to articulate it until I was an adult. However, from that Christmas onward, I treated my father as an obligation. Someone I had to love and care for because he was family. He was no longer the dad I looked up to and admired. Because his love was conditional, mine had to be as well.

The inspiring thing about Eric Clapton was that he finally got it. He’s been sober 20 years and continues to work the 12-step program that is so essential to remaining clean. This was something my father could never bring himself to do. He knew all the right things to say and how to pretend that he was okay, but he never could truly do the hard work it took to stay sober. In the epilogue, Clapton writes, “My family continues to bring me joy and happiness on a daily basis, and if I were anything but an alcoholic, I would gladly say that they are the number one priority in my life. But this cannot be, because I know I would lose it all if I did not put my sobriety at the top of that list.” If only my father could have learned that lesson, maybe it would’ve all been different.

Seeing the travails of addiction through the eyes of the addict, depicted in such an honest and forthright way, was a harrowing and ultimately cathartic experience. I even came to realize that Tears in Heaven may have been helpful to others rather than a crass way to cash in on tragedy. This is so much more than just another pop star tell-all. I would recommend it to anyone who is wrestling with addiction or who is struggling with a loved one who is addicted.

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