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Clapton opens up about life, love, music and drugs

Arguably the best guitarist to ever live, Eric Clapton tells TODAY that he's only come to really understand himself during the last 10 years. To get there, he endured great personal pain and challenges while nonetheless thriving as a musician.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

More than once, Eric Clapton contemplated taking his own life, and the only thing that stopped him was the realization that if he were dead, he wouldn’t be able to drink anymore.

Sober now for 20 years and really self-aware for just the past 10, the titan of the guitar listened as TODAY co-host Matt Lauer recited a litany of his trials — addictions to heroin and alcohol, the suicide attempts, medical problems, car crashes — and then asked him why he’s still alive.

“I still must have something left to do,” the 62-year-old Clapton, who’s won 18 Grammys and been enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three times, finally decided.

One of those things was to pack his life into a book, “Clapton: The Autobiography,” which is being released along with an accompanying CD of his life’s work: “The Complete Clapton.”

“It was like I was writing a letter to myself,” he said of the book. “We started out with a ghostwriter, and then I had to rewrite it because ghostwriting allowed me to blame people.”

Dressed in a T-shirt and a rumpled and nondescript jacket, the stubble-faced Clapton, with his sensible haircut and plain glasses, looked more like a retired teacher than one of the greatest guitarists the world has ever known.

He spoke softly and simply, like someone who didn’t need to punctuate his self-importance. Like someone who’s finally discovered who he is.

It’s not surprising that self-discovery took a while.

Clapton was born in March of 1945, at the dreg ends of World War II, in the town of Shipley in England. His mother had been a girl of 15 when she got pregnant by a Canadian serviceman who shipped out to the war before he was born and returned home to Canada when it was finished.

He was raised by his grandparents, unaware through his early years that they weren’t his real parents or that the children with whom he shared a house that had neither electricity nor plumbing weren’t his brothers and sisters but were, rather, his aunts and uncles.

It was only at the age of 9 that he finally was told that the woman he had thought was an older sister who had moved away from home was really his mother. The little boy asked her if he could call her “Mummy.” She told him he couldn’t.

Was that, Lauer wondered, what forced Clapton to escape into music?

“It made me very cautious, shall we say, about approaching members of the opposite sex,” Clapton replied.

But, he said, his childhood — at least until that revelation — was not unhappy. “What was good about it for me was I was being raised like any other normal kid with a great deal of love — maybe even more, because sometimes love from grandparents can be more objective in a way, and so I had a kind of blissful childhood,” he said.

His passion for music preceded his discovery of his origin. “It comes back to the other question, ‘Why am I still here?’” he said. “It may have been just intuitively knowing things weren’t 100 percent without really knowing why. But I did go to music really early on, even when I was 4 or 5, I was responding to music probably in ways other kids were not.”

His first guitar was a Hoya he got when he was 13, and trying to learn to play like the great blues guitarists he admired nearly defeated him.

But he stuck with it, figuring out the chords and progressions through painful practice and experiment.

“Music became a healer for me,” he writes. “And I learned to listen with all my being. I found that it could wipe away all the emotions of fear and confusion relating to my family.”

A withdrawn student in school, he turned his passion into work with local bands as a teenager, joining his first big band, the Yardbirds, in 1963, at the dawn of what would be called the British Invasion of rock ’n’ roll. When the Yardbirds began to abandon their blues roots for such pop hits as “For Your Love,” Clapton left and joined John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers in 1965, just after he turned 20.

Their album, “Blues Breakers,” established him as a great guitarist and inspired someone to scrawl the graffito “Clapton is God” on a subway wall in 1967.

Clapton had already formed the band Cream by then, one of many groups he would play with in a career that he describes as really being a solo artist who played with bands for specific projects and purposes. His other groups include Blind Faith and Derek and the Dominos.

Lauer asked whether the “Clapton is God” slogan helped push him into the drugs and alcohol that almost destroyed him.

“I don’t think the two things were connected, to be honest with you,” he said. “The fast life — I didn’t get onto that particular elevator until I was in my late 20s.”

His early years, when he was establishing his reputation among his peers, were glory years in retrospect.

“I think something about my obsession with music and my belief in the mission I was on kept me from really getting involved in other stuff too heavily,” he said. “It was only when I started becoming really well known — with bands like Cream and Blind Faith — that I was really prey to that.

“I think I got a little bit insecure.”

Long, difficult roadThe tumultuous years, so well chronicled, followed. The most famous chapter was his affair with and marriage to Pattie Boyd, the wife of his best friend, former Beatle George Harrison. His classic song, “Layla,” is about her.

“She represented security, to a certain extent because she was the complete woman,” he told Lauer. He said that he didn’t know what he wanted himself, so he went with what his best friend was so enamored of, because, if that was what Harrison wanted, “It must be good. It was validation. I don’t know that love, in the early days, was really what it was about.”

But Clapton said alcohol got in the way and the relationship never really was normal.

"It's very hard to make a clear appraisal of what that relationship would have done without the other thing being in there - the need to drink and drug all the time, which we were both wrapped up in."

Love wasn't the only aspect of Clapton's life that was affected by drinking.

“I thought there was something otherworldly about the whole culture of drinking, that being drunk made me a member of some strange, mysterious club,” he wrote. “It also gave me courage to play and, finally, to get off with a girl.”

He claims no special virtue for finally sobering up. He hit several horrible rock bottoms, he said, but they were no worse than any other alcoholic’s. What allowed him to come to grips with his addiction, he said, was that he finally admitted he needed help.

“Up until then I’d been totally self-reliant,” he told Lauer. “The stuff that happened to me as a child made me made me totally insular — I thought I could do all of this on my own. It wasn’t until I was quite a bit older that I finally did ask for help.”

His marriage to Boyd would eventually come to a crashing end, as would others until he finally met Melia McEnery, an artist, in 1999. He was 54 at the time and she was 23, but they married in 2002 and have three daughters together. Clapton also has a 22-year-old daughter with Yvonne Kelly, with whom he had an affair while he was married to Boyd. In 1986, he had a son, Conor, by Lory Del Santo.

In 1991, Conor fell from a window in the 53rd-story New York apartment where he was staying with a friend of his mother's.

The song he wrote about Conor, “Tears in Heaven,” won a Grammy.

Lauer recounted how Clapton’s editors weren’t happy with his treatment of Conor’s death, feeling that he held back in writing about it.

“It’s impossible to really totally assimilate what happened there,” said Clapton, who had driven past the place where he died on the way from the airport to Manhattan on Monday. “My metabolism will only allow so much of it to enter my consciousness at any one time.

“It’s kind of a grief that I’ve dealt with as best I can, but it will always come back in some kind of measure for as long as I live.”