Raised by his grandparents in a small English town in the 1950’s, Eric Clapton would first encounter a guitar at the young age of 13. The shy young man was moody and distant for his age, possibly as a result of being raised in a split household. Eric grew up in his grandparents household as an illegitimate child between his 16 year old mother and 24 year old father, a Canadian soldier who abandoned the family to return to his wife in Canada. Guitar and playing and blues became the young man’s obsession over the next decade, one that would consume his life and ironically lead him to his next greatest obsession: drugs and alcohol.
Clapton was inspired by blues legends like Freddie King, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and more to pick up the electric guitar and begin playing for groups across the countryside. By the young age of 20, he was already being hailed as one of the greats in the English music scene, earning the nickname “Slowhand” as well as the accolade of “God” when an admirer sprayed the words “Clapton is God” on a wall within the Islington Tube Station. The young guitarist was a blues purist who poured himself into his music, flitting from band to band and gig to gig. Somewhere along the line however, the rocker lifestyle began to grow out of hand.
“I would always go to that place to find some peace. It would always be a staple for stress.” - Clapton on playing guitar
By the time the 1970’s rolled around, Clapton was touring with multiple bands, falling in with the party crowds, falling in love with women, traveling the world, and - throughout it all - getting stoned and drunk. One infamous event during a concert in Birmingham resulted in a particularly drunken tirade against immigrants that would turn many against the rocker. Another concert took place entirely on Clapton’s back, an incident that Clapton attributes to being so drunk that he couldn’t stand and so decided to play the show laying down.
Although Clapton had experimented with psychedelic drugs as a youth, the 70’s would acquaint him with harder substances, specifically heroin and cocaine. One incident remains scarred in Clapton’s memory forever during that period. In 1970, he bought his good friend and fellow artist Jimi Hendrix a left-handed Stratocaster. The next morning, Hendrix was found dead, asphyxiated on his own vomit after a night of drinking, amphetamines, and sleeping pills. Less than a month later, Janis Joplin would be found dead from a heroin overdose in her LA hotel room. The two events startled the world, but they wouldn’t be enough to deter Clapton and many others from continuing to party with hard drugs.
RSO Records, Eric Clapton (1976)
“I'd bought Jimi Hendrix a guitar -- this white left-handed Stratocaster. The following day, I learned that Jimi was dead, that he'd passed out after getting stoned on a mixture of booze and drugs, and choked on his own vomit. Why didn't that stop me? Well, I can only say that it was arrogance. Arrogance in that I believed that I was going to be alright. I guess I was behaving like some sort of pseudo artist, you know, exploring the dark side. It must have been risky business for the people who tried to stop me. Upon reflection, I can see all the care and love that it took to come talk to me during the period when I was underground. I can see how fucking careless and callous I was to slap them all in the face by not listening.”
Bandmates of Clapton from the time mention that Clapton wouldn’t show up to the studio high, but that didn’t stop him from drinking whiskey, snorting cocaine, and doing heroin the night before, producing noticeable effects the next morning. According to an interview with Rolling Stone, Clapton estimates that during the height of his addiction he was spending upwards of 8,000 pounds, or $16,000 dollars per week on heroin.
"The thing about that kind of addiction that's pretty funny, on reflection, is that I always thought, 'I'm handling this. I can handle it. I can stop anytime. I just don't want to stop right now,'"
Altercations and incidents with bandmates and managers eventually lead to Clapton kicking heroin sometime during the 70’s. However, alcohol quickly filled in the hole left by opiates. While flying to Tulsa, Oklahoma for a gig, Clapton got drunk on the plane and was thrown into jail upon landing. The reason? Getting into a physical altercation with another passenger while intoxicated. In November of 1978, the headline “Clapton Too Drunk to Play” was splashed across national papers for a missed gig in Germany.
Clapton eventually entered Hazelden Treatment Center in 1982, but months later relapsed and began drinking again. His wife, Pattie Boyd, former spouse of George Harrison, left him in 1987 and Clapton, distraught, consumed a full bottle of 5mm Valium pills. As a benzodiazepine, the drug merely knocked him out instead of killing him. Clapton re-entered rehab that year and this time was able to maintain his sobriety afterwards.
“My identity shifted when I got into recovery. That's who I am now, and it actually gives me greater pleasure to have that identity than to be a musician or anything else, because it keeps me in a manageable size. When I'm down on the ground with my disease -- which I'm happy to have -- it gets me in tune. It gives me a spiritual anchor. Don't ask me to explain.”
In 1993, Clapton was appointed the director of Clouds House, a treatment center for drug and alcohol dependency in the U.K. In 1998, he established the Crossroads Center in Antigua. One of its principles is to provide subsidized care for the poor population in the Caribbean who can not afford such care on their own. In 1999, Clapton auctioned 100 of his guitars, including “Brownie” (the guitar on which he recorded “Layla”), at Christie’s Auction House in New York. netting almost $5 million for the foundation as well as the Crossroads Guitar Festival, which raises funds for the treatment center every year.
Since getting sober, Clapton has used his experiences and success to help others in recovery. He plays benefits for Alcoholics Anonymous groups and continues to promote the 12 Steps for others. Today, he prefers spending time with his family and children as opposed to going on big world tours. Clapton attributes music with helping him get through some of the worst times during his addiction.
Clapton’s journey through drug and alcohol addiction can serve as an inspiring story to anyone in a similar position. His rocker lifestyle made it difficult to achieve sobriety, but through hard work and the support of loved ones he was able to balance sobriety while continuing to perform well into old age. It’s never too late to get the help of a certified drug and alcohol rehab center to stop the progression of addiction. Trained counselors and certified medical staff will help you to get sober and learn how to stay that way. Visit Landmark Recovery to learn about more tools and resources for overcoming addiction.