“I went down to the Crossroads,
fell down on my knees,
begged the Lord for mercy,
‘Save me if you please…’”
Eric Clapton/Robert Johnson
Eric Clapton’s song “Crossroads” describes the guitar legend’s life and his life work. Clapton’s life work is not just playing the guitar; it includes being a recovering drug addict and alcoholic. Without a sturdy recovery from his addictions, the sixty-eight year old Clapton would not be able to perform at the remarkable level he is at today.
Technically, Crossroads isn’t Clapton’s song. It was written in the 1930’s by Robert Johnson. Johnson has been Clapton’s muse throughout the six decades Clapton has been playing guitar in public. Clapton co-authored the book Discovering Robert Johnson, in which he described Johnson as
"...the most important blues musician who ever lived. He was true, absolutely, to his own vision, and as deep as I have gotten into the music over the last 30 years, I have never found anything more deeply soulful than Robert Johnson. His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice, really. ... it seemed to echo something I had always felt."
By the time Clapton was born (1945) Robert Johnson had already been dead for seven years. Very little is known about Johnson’s life, which lends it an aura of mystery. We know he grew up black and poor in the rural south during the Great Depression. His musical career consisted of traveling from town to town looking for places to play his guitar. Often it was the street corner, with Robert living off donations to his cause.
As Johnson traveled he became involved with different women. He died in 1938 at the age of twenty-seven in Greenwood, Mississippi. He was poisoned, allegedly by a jealous boyfriend, and died in painful agony. Recognition of his artistry came decades later when Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and the Allman Brothers recorded Robert Johnson’s songs and sang his praises. Many of Johnson’s songs are now blues standards – including Cross Road Blues, made famous by Eric Clapton’s live version (Crossroads) when he was with Cream.
Outwardly, Clapton’s journey to the Crossroads seemed very different from Robert Johnson. Eric was raised in Surrey, a county just south of London, by a middle class family veiling an awkward truth: Eric had been born out of wedlock to a teenage mother. The family’s solution was to create a fiction: Eric’s grandparents pretended to be his birth parents, and Eric’s mother pretended to be his sister. The deception was deliberate and total. Eric grew up believing a lie.
When Eric finally found out his sister was really his mother, his personality changed. He became moody and remote. He began failing at school. He had been lied to by the people he trusted the most. Now he felt different from everyone else. Like Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton didn’t know who his father was.
At this time blues music came across the sea from America and acted like a transfusion to teenaged Eric. He began playing along to blues records with his guitar. He became a more defiant outsider, living almost exclusively in his interior world of music and the history of music, particularly black America’s blues and rock music. His appetite for his new world was voracious. He had to know everything he could, not only the music but the musicians: B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy - and Robert Johnson.
It is easy to see how blues music would appeal to a tortured, troubled teenager. The blues shine a light on the most painful aspects of being human - lost love, jealousy, betrayal - and then exorcises these agonies of life in an emotional musical catharsis. Eric’s personal demons may have attracted him to blues music, but the real story is how it revealed his musical gift: an ability to recreate the emotion of the blues singers with a fluid, evocative immediacy through his guitar.
Young Clapton quickly learned the blues musical catechism. What transformed his music was his ability to meld his own passions with the suffering of the musicians he listened to, and to express both in the fluent language of the electric guitar. After a few intense years of learning his new craft, Clapton moved to London, joined a blues band called the Yardbirds, and made a name for himself. In short order he was a world class musician and co-founder of rock’s first super group: Cream.
Cream was a great band with a short shelf life. Clapton went through a couple other bands before he formed Derek and the Dominos. The Dominos, with an assist from Duane Allman, recorded the seminal blues rock album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Layla was the code name for Patty Boyd, George Harrison’s wife and the object of Clapton’s affections. The record and Clapton’s bid for Patty failed. The Dominos broke up, Patty and George did not, and Clapton developed a heroin addiction.
By the end of the 1970’s Clapton had kicked heroin, released a solo album that established his talents as a composer and singer, and married Patty Boyd. Dreams do come true, but they don’t last forever. Eric stayed off heroin, but began drinking heavily. In 1982 Clapton admitted he was an alcoholic and entered treatment. Of this he said:
"In the lowest moments of my life, the only reason I didn't commit suicide was that I knew I wouldn't be able to drink any more if I was dead. It was the only thing I thought was worth living for, and the idea that people were about to try and remove me from alcohol was so terrible that I drank and drank and drank, and they had to practically carry me into the clinic.”
There were some relapse years but by the end of the 1980’s Clapton was sober. And divorced. He and Patty loved each other but just couldn’t make it work. The 90’s brought more hard times. Clapton’s good friend and fellow guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan was killed in a helicopter accident while touring with Clapton. Then Clapton’s four year old son Conor fell to his death from a New York City apartment window. Here was a daunting crossroads: how would Clapton respond?
He wrote a song about Conor called “Tears in Heaven” that won a Grammy. And he established a drug and rehabilitation center on the Caribbean island of Antigua. Clapton named it the Crossroads Centre.
Crossroads Centre is a non-profit residential drug and alcohol rehabilitation center that provides subsidized care for some of the poorest people of the Caribbean who cannot afford the help. A foundation was established to provide “scholarships” for these people and for people throughout the world. Crossroads Centre’s biggest fundraiser has been Eric Clapton.
In 1999 Clapton auctioned off 100 of his guitars for a cool $5 million dollars, which he donated to Crossroads Centre. A few years later Clapton began hosting the Crossroads Guitar Festival, an invitation only event for those guitarists Clapton deems to be the cream of the cream. The festivals have raised millions of dollars for the Crossroads Centre, and showcased many remarkable artists. Held every three years, the most recent one was last spring at Madison Square Garden.
In October 2007, Eric’s autobiography was published. It was a best seller and was translated into twelve different languages. Clapton talked frankly about his addictions to alcohol and heroin, and more:
“I found a pattern in my behavior that had been repeating itself for years, decades even. Bad choices were my specialty, and if something honest and decent came along, I would shun it or run the other way.
“All I am certain of right now is that I don't want to go anywhere, and that's not bad for someone who always used to run.”
These are the words of a man who has used the crossroads of his life to become a better person, and to share that wealth with others. Eric Clapton’s guitar playing has always been remarkable. Now it appears Eric the person is becoming as remarkable as his artistry: or are they finally one and the same?
Good on you, Eric - keep fighting the good fight, keep playing the blues, and keep smiling.
Eric Clapton’s official website, http://www.ericclapton.com/
Eric Clapton: The Autobiography, Century, 2007