The Heart of Eric Clapton #2

After delving into the 1970-1985 period, Alessandro Vailati continues his exciting journey through Clapton’s output, this time focusing on the middle part of his career. It is a crucial phase for Eric, whose songwriting proves to be inextricably linked to his existence, between falls, rebirths, blues, soundtracks and masterful songs, some of which were included in the setlist of recent Italian concerts.

The Heart of Eric Clapton (1986-1999)

Music as a refuge

Eric never allows his brain to get in the way between his heart and his fingers.”<<<Glyn Johns,producer of several Clapton albums in the 1970s and the recent I Still Do, 2016>>>

“Since my sobriety, never once have I seriously thought about drinking or taking drugs. I have no problems with religion, and I have always been curious and interested in spiritual topics, but my search has taken me away from church and community worship, and towards an inner journey. Before I started healing, I had found my God in music and the arts, with authors like Hermann Hesse, and musicians like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter. In a way, in some form, my God was always there, but now I have learned to speak to him.” <<Excerpt from autobiography, 2007>>

Scratching the surface, it all looks the same;A world full of anger with no one to blame. But who can I turn to? Who holds the key? And who has the answer? I think it’s inside of me.”<<<From Inside of Me, track 14 of Pilgrim, 1998>>>

We left off, in the previous article, at the time of the release of Behind the Sun, an album full of innermost torments in which Clapton tries to look inside himself for the answers to all his dissatisfactions. It will be a long and sometimes tragic journey, but his extraordinary inner strength, which even he did not really know, will lead him to liberation and redemption. Music always remained at the centre of his heart, the teaching of the blues masters and the urgent need to find a reason for his life would produce another fifteen years of wonderful songs, which we will look at, trying to highlight those that were autograph and a little less known, but just as full of meaning.

1986 was an eventful year for Eric, who, as usual, drew inspiration from personal vicissitudes to compose music. The tug-of-war with Pattie Boyd continues, and to this situation the British guitarist even reserves a song, Tearing Us Apart, which was used as an opener on the recent 2022 tour. “I knew it from the start, your friends are tearing us apart”, he sings in duet with Tina Turner, referring to the ‘committee’, the group of his wife’s friends that the musician blames for coming between them.

In fact, with typical male egotism, Clapton glosses over a detail that is as beautiful as it is painful. He is having an affair and is expecting a child with another woman, the Italian Lory Del Santo, for whom he also writes the rocking Lady of Verona, which, however, is excluded from the setlist of the new album to be released at the end of November. August, chosen as the title at the last minute in honour of Conor‘s birth, also contains the poignant ballad Holy Mother, dedicated to his fragile friend Richard Manuel, a pillar of The Band who committed suicide in March in the grip of depression and ghosts of the past, and becomes one of the most commercially successful albums of his career, once again aided by Phil Collins‘ production, this time in association with an old acquaintance of the Clapton world, Tom Dowd, the historical figure behind the Layla reels.

One of the LP’s highlights, besides the powerful and inspired Miss You, is definitely It’s in the Way That You Use It, co-written with Robbie Robertson, another leader of The Band, and also included on the soundtrack of The Colour of Money, starring Paul Newman and Tom Cruise.

For the film I would have preferred they had chosen the Bobby Bland classic I had reinterpreted, It’s My Life Baby, instead they opted for the tune Robbie and I created. But that one was the best.” <<<Excerpt from “Eric Clapton Day by Day”, Marc Roberty>>>

Once again, reluctance and humility emerge when he talks about his compositional skills. It’s in the Way That You Use It, although it suffers a little from the ‘plasticized’ arrangements of the 1980s, is of a high standard and features two beautiful solos, a pity it was very rarely performed in live shows by the artist and only then. The interest in film and everything related to TV series and cinema became stronger and stronger for the author of Wonderful Tonight, and after the first fruitful collaboration with Maestro Michael Kamen for The Edge of Darkness (1985), there followed the writing of the soundtrack for Lethal Weapon, but, above all, that of the original score for Homeboy, a strange and forgettable film with Mickey Rourke. Clapton‘s music, on the other hand, is memorable and leaves its mark for the beauty of the harmonies and variety in the use of guitars, especially the Dobro. Travelling East, Ruby, Country Bikin’ and the title track are spine-tingling instrumentals and deserve to enter the microcosm of our hidden wonders.

Travelling East

Journeyman was released at the end of ’89, in fairly serene circumstances, finally without too many clouds on the horizon: Eric is a happy father – albeit with many flaws and macerating sentimental bewilderments – again at the height of his success, an exciting world tour is in the offing and he feels more inspired than ever. The work includes the well-known Old Love, one of the most beautiful modern blues songs, conceived together with Robert Cray, and the underestimated Bad Love, which he hastily described as an attempt to coldly conceive a new Layla, based on a riff and a chorus. Two songs, as usual very personal, which respectively take up the theme of the unquenched passion for Pattie, ‘Old love, leave me alone’ and, with sincerity and a hint of naivety, incense the new relationship with Lory -actually already to the end- , ‘And now I see that my life has been so blue, with all the heartaches I had till I met you…’

The moment is a pivotal one for Clapton, who recently got completely sober from alcohol and drugs, mainly because of the truest thing life had given him: Conor.

“He really was a little angel, a divine being.” <<<Excerpt from autobiography, 2007>>>

The tragedy of March ’91, which we all know about and for which we can hardly hold back our tears to this day, becomes the test case for the new man Eric Clapton, who after months of despondency avoids falling back into the abyss of substances and finds the strength to re-embrace his guitar, as if it were his wonderful lost child, and decides to live for him, in the memory of what had saved his existence and in the confident acceptance of what was to come.

“I had been shown how fragile life was and, strangely, this had somehow refreshed me, as if my helplessness had become a source of relief.” <<Autobiography, 2007>>

Eric, thanks to his refuge in music, manages to recover, but it is a long and painful journey. All his suffering, all his shattered heart ends up in a handful of songs written on acoustic guitar, and it is precisely a recently cultivated activity, soundtrack writing, that comes at the appropriate time. One of his most famous compositions, the poignant Tears in Heaven, is part of the soundtrack to Lili Zanuck‘s film Rush: it tells the true story of a woman, a plainclothes narcotics agent, who in turn becomes a drug addict. In this way, alongside a series of beautiful instrumental compositions, perfect for framing the story, there is a piece that also speaks of a loss, in this case even more devastating than the loss of one’s life to drugs: the loss of a child, the most unnatural thing, against time and space, that could be lived in existence. And so a noble form of art, the popular song, becomes a vehicle of suffering, prompting one to think about this nightmare, about a father whose man-child is snatched from him by a fatality, a mocking and inescapable fate that takes back with interest what it gave before.

The lesser-known Help Me Up, included in the complementary collection, is also remarkable. It is a superb rock with a hooky riff that placidly touches the chords of the soul. Clapton manages to keep a clear-eyed gaze, albeit with profound emotion, on the inner world of feelings, suggesting to consciences that, in life, there is much pain, personal and universal, and the world of the suffering is, unfortunately, the most populated, but that there is always a way out of the most tormented situations, all it takes is to have faith, whatever that word may mean: ‘I don’t know where we’re going, but I guess we’ll start, and just to show that I mean it, Baby here’s my heart. Help me up, don’t you let me down. I’m gonna wake up in heaven, not the cold cold ground.”

Help Me Up

Here he is again, Eric Clapton’s heart, a heart that, a few months later, gives him the conviction to take on the MTV Unplugged broadcast; the blues, the origin of his passion, and a handful of autographed songs make that appearance special and unique. The album that was released in August 1992 grinds out millions of sales and half a dozen Grammys, despite the usual initial doubts as to whether the operation was really worthwhile. Rebirth, resurrection after all seemed lost. One song in particular, written in the dreadful period just after Conor‘s death, fully underlines the British guitarist’s continuous compositional growth: it is the touching Lonely Stranger, a calm reflection on the unbearable sadness and lacerating loneliness he went through after the disgrace and at the same time a tenacious attempt to continue his own path despite what had happened: ‘When I walk, stay behind; don’t get close to me, ‘cause it’s sure to end in tears, so just let me be.Some will say that I’m no good, maybe I agree. Take a look then walk away. That’s all right with me. ‘Cause I’m a lonely stranger here, well beyond my day. And I don’t know what’s goin’ on, so I’ll be on my way…’.

Moving, intense and delicate all at once.

Lonely Stranger

At the centre of it all is always Conor. His existence and then the terrible and inexplicable misfortune redeemed Eric Clapton, it was an unbearable experience from which he was able to draw a great lesson, to find universal value, salvation. As time goes by, trying to move on from such suffering, Slowhand manages to take back his own life, navigates by sight to find a reason and, just as in the last lines of Lonely Stranger, ‘He’ll be on his way’. The irrepressible success of Unplugged shows him that the time has come to follow what his heart suggests again, without compromise, and he releases the album he has always dreamed of making, From the Cradle, a wonderful tribute to his Blues Masters, to whom he owes so much and thanks to whom he felt less like a ‘lonely stranger’ when he was young.

Made at the end of ’94, From the Cradle continues the golden moment from an artistic and commercial point of view and is also very important for the man Clapton, now more and more sure of himself, who manages with unexpected vigour, in the following years, to detach himself from the manager Roger Forrester, father-master since the ‘drunken years’. A cruel, but necessary turn of events, in virtue of finally being able to decide for himself what is right for the future.

“I had told my friend, legendary drummer Steve Gadd, that I wanted to make the saddest record of all time.” <<<Autobiography, 2007>>

Pilgrim was published in March ’98 and already in its title and subsequent title track it reiterates the autobiographical image of a lonely guy on a quest. Two extraordinary songs from the Unplugged period are recovered, My Father’s Eyes and Circus Left Town, now abbreviated to Circus, which were excluded from the tracklist at the time because they were considered hesitant. The former undergoes several evolutions, and from an acoustic gem becomes a rock ballad in the live performances of ’92; now it turns into a reggae, perhaps in an attempt to evaporate despair. The lyrics are very intense and establish a parallel between the eyes of the son and those of the father he never knew. Circus also varies greatly from the poignant opening performance. The rhythm is faster, but the voice and the singing betray endless tears. Here, too, a metaphor emerges, between the last evening spent at the circus together with an exalted, enthusiastic and happy Conor, as often happens when one is a child, and the circus of Clapton‘s life, represented by his son… now that part of his existence, just like the final show they had witnessed, has sadly left town.

The process used by the British guitarist to find the right connotation for these tracks and the others on the setlist is to engineer a minimal production, pursuing the theory of ‘less is more’. Electronic shortcuts are studied, along the lines of the T.D.F./Retail Therapy experiment/project of the year before, which give modernity and restlessness to the various tracks, mainly written in their own hand and deeply intimate. Occasionally strings appear to fuel the melancholy.

River of Tears, another highlight of the recent tour and among the most emotional moments of The Lady in the Balcony, is one of the best compositions: the devastation of loss – be it of a family member, a love or a friendship – is universalized in moving words, in an attempt to alleviate the mourning by sincerely declaring their desolation and leaving a glimmer of hope in the background. “I wish that I could hold you one more time to ease the pain, but my time runs out and I got to go, got to run away again. Still I catch myself thinking, one day I’ll find my way back here, you’ll save me from drowning, drowning in a river, drowning in a river of tears”, Clapton sings with transport, at that juncture still mourning the departure of his son and far from a stable emotional relationship, at the mercy of another Italian girl, named Francesca, who is literally driving him crazy. One Chance, Sick and Tired, She’s Gone and Pilgrim itself, all written with the collaboration of Simon Climie, co-producer with him on the album, reflect this unstable love position, while You Were There affectionately reconnects with Roger Forrester and always deals with the theme of deprivation, in this case the waning of a friendship with a person important to the artist’s existential journey.

River of Tears

Pilgrim was a commercial success, but received a lot of criticism from the publicized press and a section of fans for its excessive use of electronics. Eric is also ‘accused’ of being monotonous because of the arrangements. Time, generally speaking, is a gentleman, and listening to the entire album twenty-four years later remains a pleasant sensation. You could call it a concept album that analyzes grief and the sense of loss and disorientation in all its facets with incredible sincerity. Try looking at Clapton‘s eyes in some photographs from the 1980s. They are eyes that evoke immense sadness, presenting the bill for a life of loneliness and excess. Eyes that probe the horizon with a thousand questions, dreaming of freedom, or perhaps just longing for a way out. Now look at that face at the end of the millennium: it is still a face with a broken heart, but, once again, it represents the figure of someone who has found the strength and will to live in music.

Here are a few lines from Broken Hearted, another gem -by the way, the tin whistle played by Paul Brady is fantastic!- hidden in Pilgrim:

To living lies with no escape, Lord, I would rather be alone. I press my fingers to the wood to tell you of my dreaming; to sing you songs from olden times, to keep the love light gleaming. ‘Cause there’s a place where we can go, where we will not be parted. And who alone will enter there? Only the broken hearted.”

Inside of Me closes the opera masterfully, leaving room, after so many storms, for a warm ray of sunshine. A timid warmth that can only be discovered by looking deep within oneself, that is where the immense power of the person lies.

The millennium ends with one last gem, (I) Get Lost, conceived as the soundtrack to The Story of Us (starring Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer), along with other instrumental tracks. The acoustic version is part of the soundtrack, but it is the single released that is striking for its contrast between almost techno-like T.D.F. sounds and melodies between sweet and passionate. The lyrics denote existential suffering and excruciating bewilderment, introjected in a sentimental relationship in which one is lost, amid tears and apprehension; the portrait of a soul in pain, who has just averted the abyss, but constantly has so much pain to absorb and guilt to atone for.

Also from this period is the project to set up a rehabilitation centre for drug addicts in Antigua. Eric Clapton puts his heart and soul into it, selling his most prized guitars at auction: only in this way does he feel right with his own self and make peace with the world.

Here ends the second episode of this journey through the British artist’s autograph and partly lesser-known songs. An artist who has laid himself bare, without artifice other than the simple sadness of a voice and a guitar creeping under his skin, a man who has been reborn after the worst misfortune that could have befallen him.

In the next article we will meet a changed person, who finds the love of his life and manages to make peace with the past once and for all, celebrating it with another intimate and brilliant work, dedicated to the family members important to him growing up, such as his uncle Adrian, nicknamed Reptile, who will inspire his title and song.

“The best moments, during those early years of sobriety, were those spent with my son…I had seen some pictures of my Uncle Adrian as a child, and Conor looked a lot like him.” <<<Autobiography, 2007>>

The circle closes and a new life begins, certainly a happier one, realized, this time, with the formation of his own family unit. And here a question arises: can one maintain a profound inspiration while being ‘basically’ happy? We will soon find out…

Alessandro Vailati

Italian version: link