Drunken violence, racist abuse, flagrant drug-taking and ‘disgusting’ behaviour. Eric Clapton: Life In 12 Bars is not your usual brand-bolstering music movie.
In one of many shocking confessions in the film, Clapton admits, ‘The only reason I didn’t commit suicide was the fact that I wouldn’t be able to drink any more if I was dead.’
Anyone expecting a whitewash should look away now.
Stripped of the customary talking heads and cosy in-studio reminiscing, the feature-length documentary simply tells the superstar’s shadow-strewn story, often in Clapton’s own gruff voice, and in doing so may have forged a new movie genre: rock-star noir.
Life In 12 Bars delves into Eric Clapton’s addiction, insecurity and jealousy, even his brief flirtation with racist buffoonery in the mid-Seventies
The unflinching film examines the dark and turbulent times of the legendary British guitarist, and it goes deep. Rarely has a national institution been so fearlessly explored, and all with the musician’s full co-operation.
Director Lili Fini Zanuck, Clapton’s friend of 25 years, has created such a frank account of her subject’s drinking, drug abuse, grief, deceit, fear and confusion that her film could almost be a blues song.
‘I think it was a deeply cathartic process for Eric,’ says Zanuck, who conducted hours of ‘extraordinary, exhilarating’ audio interviews with Clapton. ‘He is a very private person, but part of his nature is that he’s also extremely interested in the truth and has no problems in exposing his own foibles. ‘Eric had to put a lot of trust in me,’ adds the Oscar-winning producer of Driving Miss Daisy. ‘He knew I wasn’t going to sugar-coat anything.’
Fans will be enchanted by the quality of the footage unearthed but Life In 12 Bars also shines a light on the sadness at the heart of the music and into the soul of the man.
Clapton was born with the blues, the trouble starting with his mother. He grew up in ‘a house of secrets’, believing that his grandparents Rose and Jack Clapp, Clapton’s birth name, were his mum and dad and that his real mother, Pat, was his older sister.
This would ultimately affect all his future relationships, from wives to girlfriends – Clapton famously stole Beatle George Harrison’s wife Pattie Boyd – and his own family.
Life In 12 Bars delves into Clapton’s addiction, insecurity and jealousy, even his brief flirtation with racist buffoonery in the mid-Seventies, flaws that would have had most controlling rock stars frantically fumbling for the edit button.
Clapton playing with Cream. Fans will be enchanted by the quality of the footage unearthed but Life In 12 Bars also shines a light on the sadness at the heart of the music
Clapton with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Clapton was born with the blues, the trouble starting with his mother
Clapton with The Yardbirds. The band and Clapton are members of the rock ‘n’ roll Hall of Fame
Not Clapton. For all his failings as a man – his achievements as a musician are inarguable: Jimi Hendrix called him ‘the fairest soul brother in England’ – you can’t question his courage in endorsing such a raw and revelatory project. But this clear-eyed study of the 72-year-old virtuoso begs one big question: how the hell is Clapton still alive? As Zanuck notes: ‘This man was doing everything he could to kill himself.’
I once asked the reclusive bluesman how he’d managed to avoid such a grim finale.
‘The mystery is, why haven’t I died?’ he chuckled, and in person Clapton is remarkably cheery company. ‘I’ve certainly walked through a lot of fire.’
Later he added, ‘By rights I should have kicked the bucket a long time ago. For some reason I was plucked from the jaws of hell and given another chance.’
Clapton’s soulful sound has spoken to successive generations since his discovery as a 17-year-old electric guitar prodigy in 1963.
A clutch of Clapton classics
SUNSHINE OF YOUR LOVE Cream’s acid-rock wig-out from the Disraeli Gears album. Brilliant British psychedelia with a riff inspired by Jimi Hendrix.
BADGE Co-written with love-rival George Harrison. A Beatles-esque pop song until Clapton lets fly with an unforgettable solo.
LAYLA Eric’s lyrical attempt to win the heart of Pattie Boyd (then Mrs George Harrison). The deathless guitar duel with Duane Allman on the original recording defies the decades.
I SHOT THE SHERIFF Languid take on the Bob Marley anti-authority anthem that fired Clapton to No 1 in the US and helped catapult the Jamaican singer to superstar status.
LAY DOWN SALLY Seductive shuffle with an infectious chorus sees Clapton at his breezily effortless best. Big hit and FM radio staple Stateside.
WONDERFUL TONIGHT Drunken, grumpy but still somehow lovable. Clapton’s silky Stratocaster transforms a cynical, aren’t-you-ready-yet? moan into a tender love song.
TEARS IN HEAVEN Written after the tragic death of his young son Conor in 1991. The saddest song of them all.
OLD LOVE Imperial modern blues from the old master. Romantic regret elegantly expressed through taut songwriting and peerless guitar expertise.
He was a legend by the age of 20, having forged a reputation as a fearsome player and a surly blues purist to boot. ‘I was very scholarly about the music,’ he recalls of his early days. At 25 he made what is widely considered the best blues-rock album of all time as Derek And The Dominoes, Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs.
Clapton is the only three-time inductee to the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall Of Fame, as a solo artist and as a member of The Yardbirds and Cream, and is estimated to be worth in the region of £150 million.
Having overcome some serious health scares, firstly with peripheral neuropathy, a condition that causes shooting pain and numbness in the extremities, then a chronic skin condition that required him to wear cotton gloves (‘it’s all part of getting old, man’), Clapton has returned to live work and plans to play a homecoming show at Hyde Park this summer.
It is little wonder that the excitable slogan ‘Clapton Is God’, daubed on walls in London during the late Sixties, has begun to re-appear around town. When I met him in the mid-Nineties for a lengthy interview, he expressed a preference for the nickname Slowhand. The conversation veered between hilarious and harrowing.
He’d been sober six years (‘because one drink is too many and a thousand isn’t enough’) and off the cigarettes for three months, which he had quit using hypnotherapy.
Clapton and Boyd had divorced in 1988 after a short-lived marriage and since then he had so many glamorous girlfriends, including models Naomi Campbell, Carla Bruni and Marie Helvin, it was difficult to keep up.
‘The one thing that was always glaringly obvious to everyone else apart from me is that I don’t do very well in relationships,’ he said.
It was just three years after the death of his four-year-old son Conor, who had fallen from the window of a Manhattan skyscraper in 1991 and the subject was still too raw to dwell on. ‘When I lost my son, I didn’t run off and hide,’ Clapton said softly. ‘I wrote a song [Tears In Heaven] and gave it to the world, and I think people respected that.
‘It’s like a prayer. I wrote three or four lines of prose and I knew that other people would immediately recognise the feeling within those lines.’
The segment of Life In 12 Bars that covers the tragedy is devastating. ‘I felt as if I had stepped backwards out of myself,’ says Clapton in voiceover. ‘I could not grasp it.’ Had he lived, Conor Clapton would have been 32 this year.
In a curious twist of fate, Clapton’s 1992 Unplugged album, which featured Tears In Heaven, went on to sell 26 million copies and receive three Grammys, becoming his most commercially successful recording and the best-selling live album ever, making him a global superstar all over again.
‘But once you find out that money and fame and success doesn’t do it, where do you go then?’ Clapton pondered that afternoon.
Clapton with his son Conor who fell to his death from the window of a Manhattan skyscraper in 1991. Clapton wrote Tears In Heaven to process the grief
Life In 12 Bars moves briskly through the depressed drinking days. Clapton guesses that he was consuming up to three bottles of brandy a day, holed up in his Hurtwood Edge mansion in Surrey, but can’t remember much other than ‘being in that alcoholic tunnel’.
I once had the good fortune to travel on Concorde alongside a non-drinking Clapton as he returned from an awards show in New York in the late Eighties.
While jetting in supersonic splendour, the thrifty riff-meister made a surprise purchase of 400 duty-free cigarettes. ‘Kind of sums me up, doesn’t it?’ he hooted, when reminded of the money-saving move, years later. ‘I was probably in between my working-class bloke and international playboy phases.
‘All those years when I was being a drunk I wore second-hand clothes and ate fish and chips and baked beans. So right up until my 40s I was living out this phoney working-class ethic. It was part of that drunken prejudice, like a hardline bigot.’
This might partially explain Clapton’s notorious ‘Enoch Powell’ speech at a Birmingham concert on his 1976 UK tour. Using unacceptable language, the guitarist declared his support for the controversial former Conservative minister, and insulted immigrants, stating that Britain had become ‘a black colony’.
Clapton agonised over including printed excerpts from the racist rant in Life In 12 Bars, before deciding to take full ownership of his past behaviour.
Clapton pictured with model Carla Bruni in 1989
Clapton takes a break from recording his album “No Reason To Cry” at Shangri La recording studio in 1975
‘When I realised what I had said,’ Clapton confesses in the film, ‘I was just so disgusted with myself. It was shocking and unforgivable and I was so ashamed of who I was, a kind of semi-racist, which didn’t make sense.’
‘The racism thing was very hard for him,’ adds Zanuck. ‘Because he doesn’t even know who that person is. It was the only part he even mentioned to me, but he didn’t ask me to take it out.
‘He says in the movie, even listening back to some of his old music is tough, “because I can hear how drunk I am”.
‘But he has also said to me that when you’re an alcoholic or drug addict, that it is just suppressing something. That a**hole is in there somewhere.’
Clapton cleaned up his act, got sober and lived to tell the tale, invariably through his eloquent guitar playing. His influence can still be heard today. On Jools Holland’s Hootenanny this evening, long-time Clapton devotee Ed Sheeran will play a rendition of Layla. In turn, the older musician has taken an interest in Sheeran. The two sang together on Clapton’s I Will Be There last year.
Clapton pictured with with his ‘soulmate’ Melia McEnery, 41, his wife of 16 years
Life In 12 Bars ends on an upbeat note. We join Clapton, the contented husband and father, larking around with ‘my soulmate’ Melia McEnery, 41, his wife of 16 years, and their three daughters, Julie, Ella and Sophie.
‘I finally found the family I always wanted, and always needed, and now here they are and I’m one of them, my life is completely full,’ Clapton says, revealing that the man we called God was only human after all.
‘Life In 12 Bars’ will be broadcast live in cinemas on Jan 10 followed by a Q&A with Eric Clapton and Lili Fini Zanuck hosted by Jools Holland. The film is released nationwide on January 12