Eric Clapton was an out-of-control womaniser for whom love was just another addiction - then he went to a party in LA, and everything changed. He talks candidly to Robert Sandall about his rakish past, his new family and his latest album
It's day four of Eric Clapton's week off from paternal duties, and the born-again family man doesn't know what to do with himself. On Monday his 29-year-old American wife Melia flew to Columbus, Ohio, with their three small daughters to spend some time with her parents - leaving him to, well, whatever it is that 60-year-old rock stars get up to when left to their own devices in gated mansions in the Guildford area.
New man: Clapton's days as an alcoholic womaniser are over
Today so far has been much like any of the other rare days Clapton wakes up alone in the rockbroker belt: he rose early, jumped into the black Porsche and drove to his townhouse-cum-office in Chelsea. "I just can't be on my own in the country without the family, it's dreadful," he grumbles. "In my perversity I was really looking forward to this week, and now I'm climbing the walls. I can't wait to get on the computer to do the webcam and see the girls and talk to them. All I ever seem to do is drive to London, make up things to do till the evening and drive back again."
In fairness, Clapton will be usefully employed this morning talking about his new album. Then again this is unlikely to assuage his separation anxieties because the album is called Back Home and most of the songs on it deal with - guess what?
There's a jokey tune about him being kept awake all night by feeding babies (So Tired), a finger-picked acoustic hymn to domestic tranquillity (the title track), and any number of loving odes to his second wife, Melia, whom he married in 2000. It's the most clearly personal set yet from a musician whose best-loved songs - think of Layla, Wonderful Tonight and Tears In Heaven - have always spoken from, and of, the heart. "This album had to be about the family because what else in my life could I sing about? I don't have any interest in politics."
Back Home has been three years in the making and it was, he says, a struggle to finish. The music, which he sketched out with his regular writing partner Simon Climie, came easily. A tour of vintage R&B styles with a dash of reggae, a mandatory slow blues and some outrageously flash solos that put most young guitar-slingers firmly in their place, Back Home sounds like effortlessly classic Clapton.
But the lyrics were a nightmare. "Writing about a relationship that is productive and successful and loving without being boring or self-indulgent is difficult," he says. "It's so much easier writing in anger or sadness about something that's gone and lost. I kept stopping because I didn't think it would work." In late 2003 Clapton's first break took him off to France on his own for a week to write half a dozen lyrics. He came back with just one. So he promptly went into default mode - the blues - and knocked off an album of Robert Johnson covers, Me and Mr Johnson.
Last October, after several more months of agonised pencil-sucking, he came up with another cracking displacement wheeze: he decided he would re-form Cream. "That was very much a part of this album. It was born out of my home life, because what happened when I started to enjoy being a member of my own family was that I looked outside of it and thought, 'Where can I apply this?' And Cream are one of the few bands from that era that can actually re-unite because we are all alive and just about in good health."
Power trio: Cream, from left, Jack Bruce, Ginger Taylor and Eric Clapton
With that project jogging along in tandem, he finally delivered Back Home in February of this year. The Cream's Albert Hall concerts he thought were "all right", though he says he can only remember the last one because he had terrible flu for the first three.
This new, self-effacing Clapton looks every inch the family man.
An informal uniform of jeans, white T-shirt and sneakers has replaced the rock-and-roll gigolo gear he wore on the covers of albums such as 1987's August. Farewell Armani suits and floppy coiffure: with his weatherbeaten, beardy visage, wire-rimmed specs and tufty, bed-head hair, he could pass now as a regular middle England dad, the sort you would hardly notice in a DIY superstore, or a country high street.
The change was a long time coming. It began with the appalling, accidental death of his four-year-old son Conor, who fell 700 feet out of a window from his Manhattan apartment in March 1991. And it ended seven years later in Los Angeles when Clapton started seeing the only woman with whom, he says, he has ever enjoyed a genuinely equal relationship, an American of Korean-Irish parentage, Melia McEnery.
advertisementPrior to meeting her, Clapton was, by his own admission, an out-of-control womaniser for whom love had become just another drug. Following the break-up of his marriage to George Harrison's ex, Patti Boyd, in 1988, he embarked on a frantic dating spree which saw his name "linked" to a succession of models, actresses and rock chicks, including Naomi Campbell, Sharon Stone and Sheryl Crow. Well, it was probably better than moping at home. But it wasn't good for his soul, he found.
"I used to identify my self-esteem
with sex. Girlfriends became a way of avoiding being with myself. I'd see a
woman in a room and I'd be magnetised and usually that would be dangerous,
because I don't think you can be any good to anybody unless you're OK on your
With Melia, by contrast, he played the perfect gent. "I started asking her out, and we became friends. And with her I found I was able to respond to something that was actually good for me."
They met at a party in LA in 1998 thrown by Giorgio Armani, Clapton's partner in the Crossroads re-hab centre on Antigua. Melia was working for Armani at the time and she and others in his staff had been asked to host the event on the strict understanding that they were not to fraternise with any of the guests. " So Melia came straight up to me and said, 'My uncle's a big fan of yours, can I get your autograph?' And that was that. There was something about herů strength. She occupied her space with absolute authority. It was clear that even though she was half my age she was capable of being an adequate partner for anybody."
|Family man: Clapton has three
daughters with second wife Melia
Falling in love properly for the first time was one thing, but starting a family was another. Clapton's experience of his own parents did not make fatherhood an easy or natural role for him to adopt. He hadn't enjoyed a close relationship with either of the mothers of his two previous children - Conor who died and Ruth, now 22 - and, regrettable as this was, he had a readymade excuse.
An illegitimate child born at the end of the war, Eric Clapp was brought up by his grandparents and told that his mother Patricia was his older sister. He never knew his father. In 1997 he was confronted with evidence, which he doesn't find convincing, that his dad was a Canadian ex-serviceman, Ted Friar, who died in 1985. The only person who could confirm the truth of this was his mother Patricia.
"She was non-committal. And much as I loved her, I don't know whether she wanted to tell me the truth. I didn't press it with her because I sensed I was treading on thin ice. And I don't know if this is my suspicious nature, but I wonder if anyone was telling the truth, or even if they really know." Patricia died the year he married Melia, just after the birth of their first daughter, Ella.
The Claptons have since had two more girls, Julie Rose, who's now four, and Sophie, six months, and while he's thrilled to be the head of a real family at last, it took a thoroughbred bachelor such as himself a while to get into it. "At the beginning I was scared and not really sure. It was like, 'What's this going to be like when they're teenagers and I'm 70?' That's something I ought to try to put in a song one day."
The family love the new album. Melia's favourite is Run Home To Me: "She only has to hear the opening and she starts to cry, and me too, because that song is about us sitting on the stony beach in Bognor in winter. It was cold but beautiful and nobody was there and it was the most real picture I had of us becoming a family. That was the moment of realisation."
Julie Rose, on the other hand, prefers the album's jolliest number, One Track Mind. "I didn't want to put Melia on the spot but I would run things past Julie, singing words to her, and if she sang along then I figured they were OK. She actually chipped in a few things on that track," the indulgent dad smiles proudly, then the grizzled old pro remembers something. "She's not credited though."