A three-time inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Eric Clapton has performed for millions of fans around the world as a solo artist and as a member of such short-lived but legendary bands as Derek & The Dominos, Blind Faith and the recently reunited Cream.
But the iconic guitarist and singer has discovered recently that no audience is tougher to win over than the one nearest and dearest to his heart – his daughters Julie Rose, 4, and Ella Mae, 2. (At just 7 months, Clapton's youngest daughter, Sophie, has yet to offer much approbation of her famous father's music.)
"It's a humbling thing, playing for your kids, because they're entertained for only so long. Then, they find something else they want to do," said Clapton, 60, from his office in the upscale London borough of Chelsea.
"It's very hard, so I try and make it as engaging as it can be. But you have to face the fact that, no matter how good it is, you can only hold their attention for a little while."
Clapton's fatherly delight is one of two key inspirations for his enchanting new album, "Back Home" (Reprise Records), which includes a lighthearted song, "So Tired," that celebrates life as a sleep-deprived new parent.
"Well, I'm only a musician when I'm required to be, actually," he said. "And sometimes I'm required to be a father, too, and that's the beauty of it, that I can play (music) for (my kids). . . . "
"Their favorite tune is Robert Johnson's 'Hot Tamales,' and I have to play that as loud and fast as I can, and then they dance. But then I get tired, so then I tell them they're going to dance ballet, so that I can do simple arpeggios on the guitar and take a rest."
The album's other source of inspiration is the unexpected – for Clapton, at least – happiness he has achieved as the husband of graphic designer Melia McEnery, a 29-year-old American of Irish-Korean parentage. The two met in 1998 at a Los Angeles party, thrown by Giorgio Armani, to preview the sale of some of Clapton's guitars.
The instruments were being auctioned to benefit Crossroads, the guitarist's nonprofit drug rehab center on the Caribbean island of Antigua. Clapton, who has been sober since 1987, and McEnery were married Jan. 1, 2002, in Ripley, England.
The wedding took place in the same church where funeral services were held in 1991 for his son, Conor, who died after falling out of a 53rd floor window of a Manhattan apartment building, a tragedy that inspired Clapton's Grammy Award-winning ballad "Tears in Heaven." (He has one other daughter, Ruth, 20, from a previous relationship.)
To his palpable relief, Clapton has attained a sense of calm and purpose that had previously eluded him. After decades of drug abuse, alcoholism and serial womanizing, he has at last found fulfillment as a devoted family man.
Or, as he writes in "Back Home's" liner notes: "Most of all, I want to thank my wife and children for providing for me, with love and care, the home I have always yearned for, and will always hurry back to."
The album is one of his most moving, personal and rewarding ever. Like the once-restless man who made them, "Back Home's" dozen songs exude a welcome new sense of contentment.
"Yeah, I think I've finally landed on my feet in a situation where there is no greener grass," he said. "I always found myself on the lookout for something else. Wherever I was, the better party was always down the road; I didn't know what was going on, but I knew it wasn't this.
"I finally found the party – I'm actually at the party – so even at its most quiet and dire moments it's still the best place to be."
Beyond his dreams
Being a happily married father is a dream come true for Clapton. But he readily admits that he couldn't have even imagined his current scenario had anyone suggested it to him only 10 years ago.
"I think I would have been quite pleased, because 10 years ago I was quite low," he said. "But I wouldn't have been able to imagine that; I wouldn't have believed them."
His personal breakthrough has also been a source of joy for Clapton's close friends, including Nathan East, who has been the bassist in his band and a confidante since the mid-1980s.
"In rock 'n' roll, as we all know, the image is that it's one big party," East said. "But many times the reality is that it's the furthest thing from the party. There's the alcoholism and drug abuse that come because you're looking for that elusive 'thing,' and you don't know what it is or where it is. But you've got the money and the connections, and the choices are not always the healthiest."
East attended the Los Angeles party where Clapton met his young American wife-to-be seven years ago. The bassist was elated at the transformation that soon followed, which is vividly chronicled on several songs on Clapton's new album. Witness the blues-and gospel-tinged "Run Home to Me" and the gentle acoustic balladry of "Back Home's" title track, which both offer touching testaments to the power of love.
"I was around when it was a question (for Eric) of: 'Who's the girlfriend du jour going to be?' And you don't get fulfillment that way," East said.
"Melia is absolutely lovely, and so is her family. She's one of the sweetest people I've met, and it's for all the right reasons that she and Eric are so happy together."
As passionate as it is finely crafted, "Back Home" also features luminous versions of "Love Don't Love Nobody," a 1974 gem by the Spinners, and "I'm Going Left," a soul chestnut by Stevie Wonder and Syretta Wright (which Clapton was inspired to record as a tribute to Wright after her death last year).
Equally impressive is his version of "Love Comes to Everyone," which features Clapton's former Blind Faith bandmate, Steve Winwood, on synthesizer, and was written by former Beatle George Harrison. Clapton counted the former Beatle, who died in late 2001, as one of his closest friends. Harrison's first wife, Patti, later became Clapton's first wife and was the inspiration for two of his best-known songs, "Layla" and "Wonderful Tonight."
Asked about his criteria for selecting songs to record by other artists, Clapton said: "I think I probably am more influenced by the overall groove of the track, not even the song. If we pinpoint the songs (by others) I've done on this album, they were really more about the overall feel of the record than the lyrics. I mean, sometimes I don't even know what people are saying when they sing. When I was younger, it was phonetic; I liked the sound of the words much more so than the words."
For Clapton, part of the allure of recording songs by other artists – beyond his attraction to their work – is that bringing attention to their work also helps them financially. A key beneficiary has been J.J. Cale, the Valley Center-based musician who wrote two songs that were later popularized by Clapton, "After Midnight" and "Cocaine."
"That's part of the deal for me," affirmed the guitarist, who with East will be featured on Cale's next album. "It's always been the best thing I can do, to alleviate the fact that I don't really think that highly of my own output, is to know it might help somebody else."
"I just think I'm OK," Clapton said, matter-of-factly. "The object of most of my work has been to raise it above my standard. And so, you know, I never think I'll be as good as the people I look up to."
"J.J. is pretty close to the ideal focus for that," he replied. "I like his principles; I think he's a very principled man."
Cream rises again
As "Back Home" reaffirms, Clapton is a reluctant guitar hero, his groundbreaking albums with Cream and Derek & The Dominos notwithstanding.
That's why fans craving his extended solos will fare better seeking out Cream. The pioneering power-trio, which acrimoniously disbanded in 1968, is hoping to follow up its May reunion concerts in London with several shows at New York's Madison Square Garden in late-October.
"I felt it was time to be a little charitable, in terms of friendships and healing up old wounds," Clapton said of his reteaming with bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker, whose solo careers never ignited like his.
Where Cream thrived on extended improvisations, "Back Home" – like many of Clapton's previous solo outings – finds him carefully choosing his musical moments for maximum impact. The album features his impeccably tasteful playing in a concise format that requires him to makes every note count.
"That's something I've always strived to do," he said. "You can only really stretch, I can only do that now, in concert. I think on record it would throw everything out of proportion if one song had a really long solo and the others didn't; the overall picture gets redefined. If it's an album of songs, then that has to be the priority. . . .
"When I'm making a record, we're trying to preserve the perspective of the piece, that's the most important prerogative. On stage I have a much more open approach to it; it can go anywhere – and I think it needs to go anywhere. When the audience is sitting in front of you, it doesn't show any respect to them to confine it like the record. And that's the point, on stage, where we become musicians, when we learn to play off the songs and off each other. . . . I always look forward to playing, and the only time it becomes a chore is if I'm sick or tired or not feeling well. With each show, I'm always convinced this will be the best one ever."
Happy, at last, both on and off stage, Clapton has attained a balance in which his music is more important than ever, but not to the detriment of his personal life.
"It's just as important, it just doesn't play such a huge role," he said. "I think it's probably more important sometimes (now), because I don't focus on it so much. So when I come to it, it just has more power."
George Varga: (619) 293-2253; firstname.lastname@example.org
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