Eric Clapton’s longest-standing nickname is ”Slowhand” (if you don’t count ”God,” as the famous graffiti in 1960s London had it). ”Poker Face” would be a good one too. Clapton has always been the least demonstrative superstar in a genre not usually prized for its reserve — the soulfulness of his guitar playing matched only by a personal dignity bordering on inscrutability. So there was no small intrigue in August when ex-wife Pattie Boyd published an autobiography that included excerpts from the unbelievably florid letters Clapton sent her while she was still George Harrison’s spouse, mash notes filled with passion and desperation merely hinted at in his song about their triangle, ”Layla.” Perhaps, under that placidity, Clapton really was the most galvanic of rock gods after all.
In the charming and surprisingly candid Clapton: The Autobiography, rock’s most beloved ax-wielder does come off as a man of deep and profound feelings — in the moments of clarity that accidentally transpire before he can get back to the smack (in the early ’70s) or another bottle of booze (mid-’70s through the late ’80s) or another gorgeous British bird (all of the above eras and then some). He’s equal parts sexual aggression and emotional passivity, dogging a reluctant Boyd for years and then, once she succumbs, resenting her for the next decade-plus. (At a party celebrating their wedding, he hid in a cupboard, waiting to spring out and seduce one of his new bride’s friends…but passed out and spent the night there.) Passages dealing with the tragic 1991 death of his son, Conor — who was memorialized in the hit ”Tears in Heaven” — are less harrowing than you’d expect, if only because Clapton seems a little too detached in his then-new sobriety to deal much with his grief. Finally, after noting that he made a bed for the first time in his life in the ’80s at the rehab center Hazelden, Clapton allows that he never had to grow up till fairly recently, and you sigh with relief: He does get what we’ve understood for the last 300 pages.
Musically at least, there are upsides to a life of whims and impulsiveness. Never has there been a less ”careerist” rock celebrity: He quits the Yardbirds just before their first hit because, as a blues purist, he feels they’re selling out. He’d rather join Delaney & Bonnie’s traveling revue than keep his lucrative supergroup Blind Faith together, just as a decade later he aggravates his manager by jaunting off to go out as Roger Waters’ pickup guitarist. Forty years into his stardom, he’s happy to be somebody else’s sideman or booster, just as long as he can maintain his addiction to playing. May they never come up with a 12-step program for that. B+