One of the few joys of this brittle and brutal winter is that the Winter Olympics are taking place. I was never a huge fan of the Olympics, but the Rock Chick watches these things religiously. Naturally, when we got married she pulled me into watching them with her. Every time I leave the B&V lab and go downstairs she’s got the Games on… I’m beginning to think she’s got money on the Curling event… I told her, when in doubt always bet on Norway. With a nickname like ‘The Fighting Vikings’ you can’t possibly go wrong.
Unfortunately my wife’s Winter Olympics Obsession has prevented me from screening the Showtime Documentary on Eric Clapton, ‘Life In 12 Bars.’ Finally, after meeting my old friend Tomas out for a few drinks last night, with my wife asleep, I was able to pull up the rockumentary. I’ve always been a huge fan of Clapton’s music. However, I have to admit, his latter career has puzzled me a bit. I haven’t found anything I can really get into since Me And Mr. Johnson his tribute to Robert Johnson. And if I’m being honest, that one disappointed me when compared to his brilliant blues album, From The Cradle. I posited a theory about the latter stages of Clapton’s career before on B&V, Analysis: Clapton’s Late Career – Is He Making Amends?. I think my frustration with Clapton’s late career stems from reading his autobiography. He’s one of the few people who I’ve read an autobiography by and thought less of the person afterward. However, seeing this documentary has completely turned me around. I think this arresting look at Clapton does a lot to help give the man’s life more context than his writing did. Oh, Eric, I just can’t stay mad at you.
In the first hour of the documentary alone, he goes from illegitimate child (like Jack Nicholson, he thought his grandma was his mother and that his mom was his sister) to the Yardbirds, to John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers to Cream to hanging with Hendrix and recording with the Beatles on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” And again that’s just the first hour of this two hour-fifteen minute film. That’s a pretty wild ride. I’ve always felt that rock and roll sprang from the fertile roots of the blues and blossomed out in all sorts of different ways. Eric Clapton just may be the living embodiment of that theory.
He began his career as a blues purist and left the Yardbirds after he felt they’d turned “too commercial” or “too pop-sounding.” After joining, leaving and rejoining John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers he recorded one of the most influential blues albums of all time, Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton only to leave and form Cream. Cream is where Clapton really broke into America. When he arrived in America, there’s a scene where they ask him what he’s listening to and he immediately shines a light on Jimi Hendrix and the Experience who hadn’t broken over here yet. Then he quickly added a list of black American bluesmen. Clapton and some of his other compatriots in the British Invasion brought black blues music back to America. It’s really cool to see Muddy Waters and B.B. King interviewed and hear them talk about how much those “English kids” did to help them. Thank God they did.
The documentary then follows Clapton through the brief career and collapse of Blind Faith, his band with Steve Winwood and Ginger Baker. Clapton retreated to his home in the English country-side where he was joined by keyboardist Bobby Whitlock. In the span of one year, 1970, these guys recorded Clapton’s solo debut (Eric Clapton), George Harrison’s landmark debut solo album All Things Must Pass and Derek and the Domino’s Layla…And Other Assorted Love Songs. That’s one hell of a year. I don’t think I’ve ever been that productive, that’s for sure. The build-up to the writing and recording of Clapton’s signature tune, “Layla” was a bit overwrought. I get it, it’s a great song, but there’s a lot more to Clapton than just that song. And I think everybody knows about his affair with Pattie Boyd, Harrison’s then wife. During those recording sessions in that momentous year of 1970 is when the heroin snuck in. Man, is that an insidious drug.
And this is where the documentary turns dark. They cover Clapton’s dissolution into heroin addiction and his retirement to seclusion. He was gone, out of sight for four years. When he finally kicked smack he emerged as an alcoholic. And when I say alcoholic, I mean the biggest asshole drunk I’ve ever seen. I described this documentary as unflinching mostly for the way it handles this portion of Clapton’s career. Clapton stood up on stage and made some horrid racist statements because he was drunk off his ass. Here’s a man who had carried the banner for black musicians in the 60s, spouting racist bullshit from the stage in the 70s. It just goes to show you how lost he really was.
It’s an important part of the story, his addiction and alcoholism, but they really blow past his solo music. He recorded some really great music in the 70s and 80s, 461 Ocean Boulevard and Slowhand just to name a few but the documentary just focuses on the alcoholism and the personal problems he faced. I guess I never realized how bad things got. Again, it’s important in understanding Clapton the artist to go through all this harrowing stuff but I felt the music of his solo career got short shrift. This is no happy tale. The man, like Gregg Allman, lived the blues. Naturally the last part of the documentary focuses on the tragic loss of his son, Conor. It finally ends on a lighter note when it highlights Clapton’s rehab clinic in Antigua. B.B. King gives a nice toast to Eric at the Crossroads Music Festival that is worth the price of admission.
I think everyone who is interested in music, the blues and Clapton will find this vital viewing. There are a lot of interviews, photos and film footage that I’ve never seen. I might also say, after watching the documentary, I was reminded of spending a whole afternoon back in my single days, just listening to Clapton’s monumental box set, Crossroads, which I think is the perfect sound track to listen to after you’ve seen the movie. Or, if you’re OCD like me, you’ll end up listening to the Yardbirds, Mayall, and now I’m in the middle of Cream headed to Blind Faith and on my way to Derek and the Dominos… I’ve got a lot of music to listen to between lady’s downhill races…
P.S. – At the beginning of the documentary Clapton appears to be on Skype. He gives a heartfelt speech about the passing of the legend B.B. King. In the midst of that he recommends a record by B.B., Live At The Regal. Clapton, in this case, is spot on – it’s one of the greatest live albums and one of the greatest blues albums of all time. It’s wonderful to listen to B.B. and his audience and the amazing rapport they had. It’s essential B&V listening.