To some people, Eric Clapton is god. But for author and journalist, Philip Norman, the Slowhand guitarist is unquestionably human. A talented star sure, but also a fallible guy. Slowhand: The Life & Music of Eric Clapton is a detailed biography covering Clapton’s extraordinary career.
Clapton’s life has been chronicled before. The legendary artist has published his own memoirs (with the help of a ghost writer). He has also appeared in other biographies and in the fabulous documentary, Life in 12 Bars. You could argue that the world doesn’t need another Clapton biography and in some respects you would be right. But, what Slowhand has going for it, is that it is a detailed and well-researched examination of this artist’s life.
Norman interviews Clapton’s management and crew, fellow musicians and childhood friends. The biggest coup here was his speaking to Pattie Boyd, Clapton’s former wife and the former wife of Clapton’s’ best friend, George Harrison. Their love triangle was legendary. Boyd has published her own memoirs and there’s no denying how important she was to Clapton’s career. She was his muse, inspiring the hits, “Layla” and “Wonderful Tonight.”
In this biography, Norman paints a portrait of the enigmatic Clapton. The guitarist was abandoned as a child after his teenage mother moved to Canada. Clapton was then raised by his grandmother and was lead to believe that she was his actual mum. The truth eventually came out with devastating consequences.
The author attempts to explain some of Clapton’s more troublesome behaviour on this difficult childhood. Norman describes how Eric was spoilt and indulged as a kid. It was this atmosphere – along with the heartbreak of losing his Mum – that set him on a path of self-destruction into: promiscuity, infidelity, alcoholism and drug abuse. While this may seem like some plausible excuses, there are other people who have experienced similar upbringings who didn’t take this crossroad. However, some things about Clapton will remain unknowable and no matter how hard Norman tries, this was always going to be an incomplete portrait.
Norman does find a balance between a straight retelling of Clapton’s life and the broader context of his music, including his work with the groups: The Yardbirds, Cream and Derek and the Dominos. There is also commentary about Clapton’s collaborations with other artists, which should appease those readers who are audiophiles.
Clapton now leads a happy life as the father to three young daughters. His adulthood was filled with obsessive passions and bitter tragedies. The most shocking of these coming when his young son, Conor fell from the window of a high-rise apartment in New York. Conor’s premature death inspired Clapton’s classic song, “Tears in Heaven.”
Eric Clapton is a complex and multi-faceted character. In many ways, Norman’s biography captures this finer detail with storytelling that straddles the line between objective truths and some rose-tinted sympathy. It may not answer every question, but you do gain some understanding of what shaped Eric Clapton and why he sings the blues.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Philip Norman’s Slowhand: The Life & Music of Eric Clapton is available now through Orion Publishing / Hachette Australia