Slowhand by Philip Norman review – Eric Clapton and the years of excess

The rock star secured fame by bringing US southern music to a new audience. Then the unrestrained hedonism began

Some time around 1965, when he was 20 years old and playing guitar with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Eric Clapton became the first British rock musician whose instrumental virtuosity inspired feelings of both admiration and lust. His blues-based riffs and solos impressed boys but their effect was particularly evident on his female listeners, which was odd because Clapton hardly seemed the obvious pop star type. He was handsome, but not spectacularly so. What imbued him with a special charisma was his seriousness. On a mission to expose the music of the US south to a new audience in as pure a form as possible, he captured the raw emotion of the sound he loved enough to transfix his young listeners.

A generation was discovering an alien language with which they instinctively felt at home. That cultural leap – which began with conversations in record shops, coffee bars and art schools, and eventually swept the world – is one of the key stories of the last century and is always worth re-examining, as Philip Norman does in this biography of one of the movement’s pioneers.

Clapton was not alone in this among young British blues musicians but he was certainly a figurehead. He moved on to join Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker in Cream, the trio that established the template for all forms of heavy rock, and thence to a solo career that, at its height, earned him six Grammy awards in a single year and a record-breaking run of 24 nights at the Royal Albert Hall.

Attempting to bring new insights to a familiar story, Norman has gathered testimony from a group of witnesses including a friend from Clapton’s childhood in a Surrey village, a fellow member of his first semi-pro band, a manager, a roadie, a personal assistant and – most significantly – Pattie Boyd, the former wife who was married to his best friend George Harrison when their relationship began. In the absence of access to his subject (who nevertheless allowed him to use some letters and a poem), Norman makes extensive use of Clapton’s own confessional memoir, published 10 years ago.

Eric Clapton in a 1955 Connaught car.
‘An obsessive enthusiasm that tended to fade as soon as the desired object was in his possession.’ Eric Clapton in a 1955 Connaught car. Photograph: Alamy

The consequences of success in rock’s boom years – the unrestrained hedonism fuelled by unimaginable wealth – would choke the lanes of Surrey with Ferraris overturned during stoned pre-dawn rides home from the London clubs where the in-crowd gathered. Clapton collected Ferraris like he had once collected Dinky Toys, with an obsessive enthusiasm that tended to fade as soon as the desired object was in his possession.

It was the same with women, some of whom flocked to him in the vain hope of loyalty as well as his company in bed. The models and “posh birds”’ step out of the pages of Vogue and Tatler into Norman’s narrative, some of them – including Boyd, for whom he wrote “Layla”, “Wonderful Tonight” and “Old Love” – just about resilient enough to survive their lover’s treatment, while others, such as the waif-like aristocrat Alice Ormsby-Gore, with whom he shared his heroin habit, fared less well. The only one to dump him seems to have been Carla Bruni, the present Mme Sarkozy, who took up with Mick Jagger en route to the Élysée palace.

Norman accurately describes Clapton’s characteristic expression as one of “wary anxiety”. But he also details the years in which the guitarist snorted powder through £50 notes, which were then tossed away, only to be quietly washed and pocketed by a servant, and there was always someone to clear up the mess after a hotel food fight. These were rock’n’roll’s Bullingdon years, and there are times in this account when the reader feels that the examples of debauchery are being held up for inspection between the thumb and forefinger of a white-gloved hand.

No such close examination is applied to the music, which is described in the most cursory terms, sometimes inaccurately (there is nothing “atonal” about Cream’s “As You Said”), and with little attempt to place it in a wider context. This is a pity, since the true value of Clapton’s music remains a subject worthy of debate, but there is a sense that the author can’t wait to get back to the themes that enable him to end a chapter with a sentence such as: “Pattie could hold out no longer.”

Clapton’s unusual childhood may have created the insecurity and irresponsibility that damaged him and others. He was brought up by his mother’s parents, whom he believed for many years to be his mother and father. The truth came out eventually, and his birth mother would return decades later, but the bond was never truly established.

He had stopped drinking and drugging by the time the deepest tragedy struck in 1991, when his four-year-old son, Conor, the fruit of a short-lived relationship, fell to his death from the window of a 53rd-floor apartment in New York. Clapton was preparing to leave his hotel, half a dozen blocks away, to take the boy on a trip to the zoo.

Now Clapton lives quietly in the Surrey hills, in the Italianate mansion he acquired at the height of the madness, with his second wife, Melia McEnery, whom he married in 2002, and their three young daughters. Shooting, fly-fishing and the part-ownership of a gentlemen’s outfitters are among his hobbies. He is coping with the onset of peripheral neuropathy, a condition that hampers his guitar-playing, while the Crossroads Centre, the clinic he founded and funded in Antigua, continues to help people shed the kind of addictions that had so many chances to kill him, and failed. Every now and then he buys a new Ferrari; some old habits die hard.

• Slowhand: The Life and Music of Eric Clapton is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. To order a copy for £22 (RRP £25) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Richard Williams

The GuardianTramp

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