Known world wide as one of the best and most influential guitar players in rock and blues music, Eric’s difficult upbringing and early identity confusion led him on a lifelong spiritual quest that has never been easy.
Brought up by his grandparents in Surrey, Eric was born as a result of a brief relationship between his mother and a Canadian soldier who left before he was born. For many years he grew up believing his mother was his older sister, and it was only after she married and moved to Germany that the real truth emerged. Eric struggled long-term with the circumstances of his birth and this significantly contributed to his too well publicised problems with alcohol and drugs. He became a mega star on the outside, but remained a tortured soul inwardly.
Eric was given an inexpensive steel strung acoustic guitar for this thirteenth birthday. It was difficult to play and he hardly used it for two years, but at fifteen he made up his mind to learn to play the guitar well. Practicing for many hours at a time, he recorded his sessions on a tape recorder and kept re-recording them until he got it right. He was very influenced by the blues which was becoming very popular with young bands in Britain at the time. After performing with a number of pub groups, Eric joined The Yardbirds in 1963. Commercial success came for the band in 1965, but Eric the purist blues guitarist was not happy with their move to ‘pop’ and left the band. In the next few years he played with a number of different acts, but is best known for his time in Cream from 1966 to ’68, and then Blind Faith in 1969 before developing as a mainly solo act in the 1970’s and ’80’s.
It was during a time of real personal crisis in 1969 that Eric made an initial commitment as a Christian. He had been intrigued by spirituality as a child and had attended church. Now he was being influenced by the genuine love and warmth of American duo Delaney and Bonnie when he toured with them. It was their influence which helped him to overcome drug addiction. As a thank you to both God and his Christian friends, he wrote the song ‘Presence of the Lord’ for the Blind Faith album.
But despite overcoming drug addiction, Eric continued to struggle with alcoholism. He battled for the next twenty years and was hospitalised, sent to rehab, and tried various ways to overcome. Eventually AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) proved the way forward. Founded by two Christians, one a doctor and one a businessman, AA combined faith, friendship, reality and discipline in a way that actually worked.
In the late 2000’s Eric made a number of physical breakthroughs alongside his spiritual growth. In 2007 he played a 133 date world tour to raise money for his substance abuse centre in Antigua. His book ‘Clapton: The Autobiography’ made the New York Times best seller list, he married Melia McEnery and had a new family, and he became the first rock star to be invited to play in North Korea.
Eric says that he “grew up with a strong curiosity about spiritual matters, but my searching took me away from church and community worship to the internal journey.” Experimenting with psychedelic drugs, promiscuity and a long term alcoholic problem took their toll and led him in the wrong direction for many years, but Eric is now in a good place spiritually. His favourite Christian hymn as a child was ‘Jesus Bids us Shine’. It includes the words, “You in your small corner and I in mine” – which in many ways have come to symbolise his understanding of faith. It has been very much a journey.
Starting as a child in church, Eric has always had a sense of God looking after him in the background. His friendship with Delaney & Bonnie Bramlett in 1969 gave him a real encounter with God. He said, “Delaney’s persona of a Southern Baptist preacher, delivering a fire and brimstone message … could have been off-putting, if it wasn’t for the fact that when he sang, he was … absolutely inspiring.” One night during the Blind Faith ’69 tour two Christians came to his dressing room and asked him to pray with them. he saw “a blinding light” and sensed God’s presence. Afterwards, he began telling people that he had become ‘a born-again Christian.’
But Eric again became addicted to alcohol during his successful solo years of the 1970’s. He eventually says he hit ‘rock bottom’ in 1987. Following rehab, he “surrendered to God” and his life eventually came together again. He writes, “
“In the privacy of my room, I begged for help. I had no notion who I thought I was talking to, I just knew that I had come to the end of my tether … and, getting down on my knees, I surrendered. Within a few days I realized that … I had found a place to turn to, a place I’d always known was there but never really wanted, or needed, to believe in. From that day until this, I have never failed to pray in the morning, on my knees, asking for help, and at night, to express gratitude for my life and, most of all, for my sobriety. I choose to kneel because I feel I need to humble myself when I pray, and with my ego, this is the most I can do. If you are asking why I do all this, I will tell you … because it works, as simple as that.”
His son Conor was also born later in 1987. However, just four years later Conor was killed when he fell form a 53rd floor apartment window. Eric wrote the song ‘Tears in Heaven’ about Conor’s death. It was a terrible time for the rock star, but he came through it and is now happily married with three young daughters.
Eric Clapton is seen by many as a ‘rock god’, an icon to be ‘worshipped’ – a genius to be emulated. Back in the late 1960‘s the slogan ‘Clapton is God’ was famously painted by a graffiti artist on a brick wall in London. It embarrassed Eric, because he knows that there really is a God who needs to be genuinely honoured and followed. Countless young men have aspired to be another Eric Clapton when they pick up a guitar, but the real Eric is a genuine, fallible human being broken before the only true God. He is a man with a real sense of his own mortality and his need of divine salvation. The words of his song ‘Presence of the Lord’ sum up a heartfelt gratitude to God;
I have finally found a place to live, just like I never could before
And I know I don’t have much to give, but soon I’ll open any door.
Everybody knows the secret, everybody knows the score.
I have finally found a place to live, in the presence of the Lord.
Story by Ralph Burden
Photo: Eric Clapton at Tsunami Benefit Concert 2005 Photo attribution: Creative Commons license 2.0 share-alike