Eric Clapton was greeted with a standing ovation as he made a suitably god-like entrance at the British Film Institute on London’s South Bank, on the evening of 10 January. Moving in slow motion, arms outstretched, it looked as if he was walking on water as he took the stage after the UK premiere screening of Life In 12 Bars, an extraordinarily revealing film of his life story.
From his beginnings as a hardcore guitar hero on the British R&B circuit of the 60s to his enduring status as a mainstream global superstar, Eric Clapton has scaled unlikely pinnacles of creative success and plumbed equally extreme depths of personal despair.
Now 72, in an immaculately tailored dark suit, light shirt and tie, he combined the nobleness oblige of an elder statesman with the plainspoken charm of the common man as he engaged in an entertaining Q&A session with Rock N’ Roll ringmaster Jools Holland and the film’s American director, Lili Fini Zanuck.
Holland: Whose idea was it to make a movie of your life?
Clapton: Well a lot of footage had been amassed, without moving in any particular direction, and being the kind of cheerful person that I am, I thought I’d better do something with it before I kick the bucket. Having worked with Lili in the past [Clapton scored the soundtrack for her 1991 movie, Rush] I felt she was someone I could trust. So I asked Lili to make the movie. Then I kept out of the way and just let it happen. It was an act of faith. When I saw it, I thought, I don’t know if I can handle this. I still don’t know if I can handle it. It was like watching a film of somebody else’s life.
Holland: Did he really leave you to get on with it?
Zanuck: Yes, he did. He never asked me to take anything out, to change it, to soften something – nothing. And I was very touched by that. Because it’s even very difficult for me to watch some of it. It’s very truthful, very honest. The reason I took it on was because we had this mutual trust and I knew it would get real. I never knew it would get this real!
Holland: The clarity of the movie is like a Rembrandt portrait. The detail is very sharp. It’s also very intimate. Was it uncomfortable? Was there a point where you thought, I’d rather not go into such detail?
Clapton: I didn’t see it until it was premiered at Toronto a couple of months ago. We did our interviews and talked about it as it went along. Was I OK with it? I knew what we’d done. But it was still Lili’s project. And when I first saw it on the big screen I just thought: Who is this person?
Holland: You had huge success when you were still very young. When did you realize you were a global phenomenon?
Clapton: About the time (Derek and) The Dominos broke up (1971). That thing of calling my band The Dominos was me trying to back out of everything. I still don’t know how much money I’ve got or how much I’ve spent. I deliberately avoid knowing. Because I’m a working class boy. It seemed like my life, from the minute I started to listen to blues music…it was all about obscurity and mythology. I sabotaged everything I got involved with that started to look like it was going to be a success.
Holland: You kept leaving groups. As soon as they realized how good you were, you’d gone. Where you searching for the next musical thing? Or was it, on reflection, you sabotaging it?
Clapton: I think it was deliberate. Though maybe I didn’t know it at the time. It was subconscious.
Zanuck: It was also anytime it appeared to be a sell-out. Like when The Yardbirds wanted a pop hit. Eric was about being true to the music that he wanted to play. A lot of the time these exoduses weren’t to sabotage anything. He didn’t want a hit.
Clapton: I see (laughter) Yes, it is based on a loyalty to the music I was listening to. I wasn’t that interested in phenomenal success unless it was really worthy. Ray Charles, for example, was a huge success and was comfortable with it, and I don’t really understand how that can be.
Holland: But you always had a big following. When you were in The Yardbirds, it was your autograph that everyone queued up to get.
Clapton: I definitely have a split personality. I like having that, but I like pretending that it’s not there. If I do a show and I’m playing live, I can’t see anybody and I’m quite content with that. If I make eye contact with someone in the audience, it’s generally the person who’s snoring.
Holland [to Zanuck]: You said that [while making this movie] you’d never seen a man with so many different hairstyles.
Zanuck: That whole montage at the beginning of the movie was because of the tonsorial splendour of most of Eric’s life. Most men have one hairstyle and maybe in the 60s or 70s it gets a bit longer.
Clapton: The thing about watching the film tonight, and on previous occasions, is that there’s a bit where I say, “Cream was a big mistake. it should never have happened.” Tonight, I thought, I wish I’d stayed with all of those bands.
Zanuck: I put that bit in because when I watched it I thought, no one could be drunker than this.
Clapton: There’s one very disturbing bit when I’m doing an interview and the guy is asking me about how my life is and talking about being a father, and I’m stoned. That is very disturbing.
Holland: What would you have been if you hadn’t been a guitar player?
Clapton: Bricklayer or plasterer. For a little while I worked for my grandfather. And he was very strict and very noble. He never took a raise. He worked for the same amount of money all his life. And he was a master craftsman. And that was very important for me to observe. That I could take that ethic anywhere. He worked me very hard. So, I always thought, well, if music doesn’t work…’Cause I had the time of my life on that building site.