Stern Magazine

Interview with Eric Clapton
by Gabriel GrŁner

"Perhaps it will be a gigantic flop"

 Rock legend Eric Clapton worked his soulís pain into a new album - and is afraid of his young fansí reactions. "Hi, Iím Eric Clapton" says the 52-year-old - and doesnít look like someone for whom rock fans once sprayed "Clapton is God" on Londonís walls. The man who can make his black Stratocaster-guitar cry so beautifully that you "feel explosions in head and soul", as the German newspaper "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" puts it, is wearing a worn-out brown pullover, loose sailing trousers and a pair of unfashionable sneakers. He pours himself a glass of water and talks about his new album that will be released in early March, "Pilgrim". An almost programmatic title since Clapton, the restless, being 52 years old is still searching for himself. Raised without a father in the English province he became famous and rich as a white blues guitarist in the sixties' "Swinging London" but at the height of his fame he crashed down with drug addiction. In the 1970's, Clapton managed a comeback, another crash-landing followed, this time with whiskey and beer. In-between countless affairs with women and finally the lowpoint, the death of his four-year-old son Conor who fell from the 53rd floor of a New York skyscraper in 1991. Clapton withdrew himself for a time, and returned in 1992 after a long silence to the stage and the studio. "The true virtue of the blues musician is to accept his life," he commented on his pain laconically.

Q: Five years ago the "New York Times" described you as an elder man who sings quietly and urgently about death. Your new album is also about dying and loss. Do you still mourn for your son Conor?

CLAPTON: Yes, I can get over this shock only step-by-step. But I'm going through a last, healing phase now.

Q: What did help you the most?

CLAPTON: The condolence mail from complete strangers. For months I got up to two hundred letters a day. And my guitar, for one year I put it aside only to sleep. A few songs that I've been composing then are on the new album.

Q: "Pilgrim" is atypical of you because it's almost made up entirely of your own compositions.

CLAPTON: It's my first autobiographical album. The songs are about my son's death and the loss of a woman. (Clapton is referring to his affair with musician Sheryl Crow. - Ed.)

Q: Is that why you sound so bitter? Once you said you could only write "ridiculous love songs".

CLAPTON: I've had quite a few failed relationships behind me. Somehow I'm not able to bind a woman.

Q: Why is that?

CLAPTON: It's tied to my unfortunate relationship with my mother and grandmother and my first sexual experiences. I've gotten used to being lonely but I still feel this longing for a woman.

Q: You never got to know your father and mistook your grandparents for your parents for a long time?

CLAPTON: Yes, that's still haunting me. I'm jealous of people who are raised in close family ties. Even if they are quarrelling all the time at least there's someone when they get home in the evening.

Q: Your drug addiction and alcoholism are legendary. "I always have to push myself to the edge.," you once said.

CLAPTON: Today I'm frightened by the price I'd have to pay. For ten years I haven't been using drugs anymore, stopped smoking and drinking.

Q: But you're still playing your hit "Cocaine".

CLAPTON: Actually, that's an anti-drug-song. The fans only listen to the refrain: "She don't lie, she don't lie, cocaine" But it says: "If you wanna get down, down on the ground, cocaine." It's sad how young people destroy themselves with drugs. I hate listening to my old records which I did stoned or drunk.

Q: Middle of the sixties John Mayall got you for his group, the "Blues Breakers" because he was looking for a non-commercial blues guitarist. Today you're doing pop for the masses.

CLAPTON: I don't know what doing popular music means. Perhaps the new album will be a gigantic flop. The most I'm afraid of that it won't appeal to young listeners. People my age won't like it anyway because I have experimented with drum-computers and strings.

Q: Are you interested in current pop music?

CLAPTON: The whole pop music scene is in a crisis, mainly in England. Today it's more about advertising, fashion and image than it's about music. If you wear a Nike training suit you have to listen to Prodigy. Where are the artists talking with their heart? Sad, when the philosophy of a band like Oasis is just "F*** you".

Q: During the sixties you weren't famous for being a gentleman either.

CLAPTON: We were naive and dumb. We thought we were part of a big revolution. It took more than 30 years and many deaths like Jimi Hendrix's or Janis Joplin's until I realised that I, as an artist, have a responsibility to society. I thought that young bands like Oasis had learned from our mistakes. Instead they are irresponsible and arrogant. They act like hooligans. They are a load of s*** to me.

Q: Do you like any of Oasis' records?

CLAPTON: No, because there's something scornful, self-righteous about their music that nauseates me. I like bands like Radiohead or Tricky. But when I just want to feel good or need some comfort I'm almost solely listening to modern rhythm'n'blues by Puff Daddy or Babyface.

Q: You sold the guitar riff from one your most beautiful songs "Layla" to Opel so that they can make advertisements with it. Would you have done so as a musician from the Yardbirds?

CLAPTON: One of the first pictures with the Yardbirds, early sixties, was an advertising shot. We were wearing awful white shirts and I felt miserable about it. I lost my innocence as an artist then.

Q: Did the industry swallow the rebel Clapton?

CLAPTON: What does it mean to be a rebel? The label rebellion is always forced upon rock & roll. If you're doing what you like in the beginning you're a rebel. If you are successful with it later you are part of the establishment.

- Following the interview Clapton is supposed to pose for a photo - suddenly the polite interviewee changes into a nervous diva. "I hate photos, they steal my soul," said "Mr. Slowhand," as he crossed his arms and looked so dark that you can see all his years and scars. "Happiness is something very precious," he declared, "I seldom had it."