If anything could be less wonderful than marriage to George Harrison it was marriage to Eric Clapton...
Marriage is hard; but marriage to a rock star is really hard. Everyone knows that – except perhaps the people who do it, like Pattie Boyd, who did it twice, first to George Harrison, whom she met on the set of Hard Day’s Night when she was working as a model; and then to Eric Clapton, whom she met through George. Harrison wrote the lovely song “Something” for her; Clapton wrote her the beautiful “Bell Bottom Blues” and that tacky anthem of longing, “Layla”. He also wrote her “Wonderful Tonight”, which Pattie finds painful to listen to but has adapted for the title of her memoir nevertheless, suggesting that if it wasn’t wonderful at the time she’s got over it now.
Indeed, the irony – or is it the pity? – of it, is that it was precisely because marriage to a rock star was so not wonderful that she found herself seeking solace in the arms of another one; and that once she’d married the other one, it was so not wonderful all over again that she regretted that she’d left the first one. If anything could be worse than marriage to George – who by the late days of their relationship was spending long hours chanting in a temple he had built at the top of their house, had moved in three Hare Krishna families, and was sleeping with Ringo Starr’s wife Maureen – it was marriage to Eric, who even in the early days of their relationship was (by his own account) “behaving outrageously with any woman who happened to come my way”, and getting through a couple of bottles of brandy a day plus “copious amounts of Special Brew, which I was secretly topping up with vodka, so that it looked like I was only drinking beer”. Pattie describes her new husband coming “to bed every night with a pint glass of brandy and lemonade, at whatever time he found his way upstairs – sometimes he would undress first, sometimes not . . . . And when he woke in the morning he would finish what was left, then pour himself a fresh glass”.
Alas, Pattie doesn’t seem to have had much left in the way of personal volition by this time to rally herself to a realization that she’d made a mistake. “Having lived with George for ten years, and spent so much time around other musicians I accepted Eric’s behaviour and I suppose I fell into the trap of doing the same as everyone else”, she sighs. Not that she ever seems to have had much of a say in things in the first place.
The way she tells it here, George picked her out at the end of the first day’s filming; and it was his manager’s permission that was needed before she could marry him. Modelling was not much of a preparation for anything. “You need to be told what to do and how to look”, she explains when describing what her job entailed. And it was in any case lowering for self-esteem. “Do you have any idea what having your face on the front cover of Vogue does for the ego?” Her increasing and then total uselessness was part of what was so problematic in her marriages. So if her book is instructive in any way, it is as a cautionary tale, on a kind of feminist model. George doesn’t like her working any longer. He doesn’t like her cooking, or gardening; she has no money of her own. She wanders through her pages in an agony of redundancy, taking up knitting, flying, art classes, chanting, and failing to get pregnant (the central sadness of her story). George doesn’t even need her for sex. At least when she moves in with Eric she’s allowed to install an Aga – though she has to get the money for it from Clapton’s manager. But she still has nothing of her own – not even her name, which Eric changes to “Nell”.
Clapton, to his credit, makes more of a fuss about this in his book than she does in hers, or at least explains it: calling her Pattie “really meant acknowledging that she was still George’s wife”, which was something he found awkward to face up to. But he also confesses that once he’d got her home he didn’t want her any longer. His attitude to Pattie is not unlike his attitude to cars, a passion which had also been sparked by George, whose Ferrari he’d coveted and later, significantly, crashed. It’s not uninteresting, given what Pattie says in her book, to hear what Clapton has to say in his, about, for example, his affair with Pattie’s sister Paula, whom Pattie says Clapton “destroyed” (he says he slept with her as a way of getting closer to Pattie) – or (most painfully) his having a baby with an Italian model, Lori Del Santo, when Pattie had been trying to conceive for twenty-one years and was going through a second bout of IVF (Lori’s son Conor died when he was five, falling from the 53rd floor of a New York apartment building, tying the central tragedy of Clapton’s life in a horrible way to the central sadness of Pattie’s).
Clapton implies (not very chivalrously) that Lori tricked him into a relationship because she was obsessed with fame; almost any celebrity would have done for her. But he also describes himself as “naturally inclined to fear the opposite sex”, and on a reading of this book it does look like he wanted to get the women first, before they got him. He opens with the sentence “Early in my childhood, when I was about six or seven, I began to get the feeling that there was something different about me” – and he’s not talking about his guitar-playing talent but about the fact that his mother gave birth to him when she was sixteen after an affair with a Canadian “wing commander” who then went back to his wife in Canada. Clapton never knew who his father was, and was brought up by his grandparents, believing, until the age of nine, that his mother was his elder sister. Years of therapy have led him to identify “a childhood resentment, connected to my feelings about my mother, to bring women down”.
And it is clear that that was also what lay behind his lack of self worth and the addictions to drugs and drink that nearly destroyed him. Eric Clapton: The autobiography is the story of an alcoholic before it is the story of a musician, and Clapton itemizes in instructive detail the dreadful stages of his decline (bleeding ulcers, late onset epilepsy, grand mal seizures) to rock bottom (“The only reason that I didn’t commit suicide was the fact that I knew I wouldn’t be able to drink any more if I was dead”). His relationship with drink is the principal relationship of his life: however much he thought he wanted Pattie, the only thing he couldn’t live without was alcohol. Pattie made the same mistake in believing she was marrying a rock star, when in fact she was marrying someone closer to the derelicts Clapton brought home on his way back from the pub.
But one can hardly blame her for not working it out, since Clapton is himself confused, unable to decide from the start if he’s special or just like everyone else, if he’s worthwhile or a write-off, a “god” or an ordinary bloke. He describes with joy the marble-halled Italianate villa he buys, the first time he had ever bought anything with his earnings as a musician, with its gardens inspired by Gertrude Jekyll and views for forty miles over the Surrey countryside, and then he treats it like a crack den on a sink estate, never leaving the telly room and sending his girlfriend out to score. (When Pattie moved in, she found the curtains had rotted, there were mice in the kitchen, bats in the bedroom and he’d let the dogs foul the hall.) When charged by a policeman in Tulsa, and asked “Are you Eric Patrick Clapton?”, the question enrages him: “Nobody calls me Patrick. You don’t have the right to call me that”. Without his guitar, he’s not anybody much. “I kept trying to tell them who I was, but they refused to believe me” – or they just weren’t interested, as they are just not interested when he’s finally in rehab and stands up to announce himself as Eric the Alcoholic.
Clapton wonders if his confusion has something to do with the famous graffito on the wall of an Underground station declaring “Clapton is God”. He says it pleased him at the time, since he’d recently left the Yardbirds just as they had had a hit (with “For Your Love”). But you cannot read this book and not notice how often he says he wanted to step back, to blend into the band or just to play rhythm. Anyone can hear how comfortable he is on the jamming tracks at the end of the reissued 461 Ocean Boulevard, or how much more relaxed he is playing the modest, warm, rhythmic music of J. J. Cale (The Road to Escondido, 2006), than he ever was playing with Cream, where you can hear his discomfort in the way he sings, and whose show-off personalities were so difficult for him to manage that he panicked at the thought of ever forming a group again. Surely he was in hiding when he was so drunk that he did whole performances lying down on stage?
It is a defining moment for Clapton when he realizes that he no longer wants or needs to have hits, and yet the hits keep on coming – a paradox made clear with his 1991 album Unplugged, which at last opened the door to his true musical tastes, was the cheapest album he’d yet produced, required the least amount of preparation and was full of bare acoustic work, and then became the biggest-selling album of his career. However much he’d thought he was sloughing off the virtuoso image, it seems only to have gone in the opposite direction, bizarrely taking him with it. Even he can’t hide from the fact that he is an international icon by the time he has narrated up to the present, and maybe he doesn’t want to: he ends the book with a strangely grandiloquent epilogue, in which he describes music and God as intertwined and defines himself as a spiritual healer and teacher, a missionary for the blues.
For those for whom hearing Clapton play the blues goes straight to the central nervous system, he provides a more palatable explanation with his earlier description of practising as a boy, playing repetitively until the music felt like it was part of his metabolism. But by now everything is tangled up with his recovery work (he has set up a rehabilitation clinic in Antigua called Crossroads). Twenty years sober (and sixty-two years old), Clapton is more twelve steps than twelve bars, and narrates his book for the most part with the flattened-out tone of the recovering alcoholic, though lurching at the end between an off-putting compulsion to itemize his rock star-style spending – on Rolexes, Ferraris, guitars and a beautiful 150-foot yacht – and an offputting compulsion to inform us of such family-man banalities as what kind of food he and his new young family like to eat.
Pattie Boyd also reports that she writes from a “healthy perspective” and “position of strength”, a measure of which is that she's happy to go to the shops “in a tracksuit without a trace of makeup”. “Going down is so much harder than going up”, she remarks shortly after describing how she had to negotiate the London Underground for the first time in twenty years, but it is instructive nevertheless: “I wish I’d known I didn’t have to be a doormat and allow both husbands to be so flagrantly faithless”, she comments in her epilogue. Hers is a recovery story too – but it is Eric Clapton she had to recover from, to whom she is far more forgiving than the readers of her book will be. She has put on a brave face to write it, and as the story of survival from a rock star marriage, Wonderful Today is something of a triumph.
Brief and to the Point:
Upon reading this article, it would be interesting to bring some of Layla's lyrics to light and question Mrs Boyd as to why Eric Clapton would have have written these lines:
What’ll you do when you get lonely And nobody’s waiting by your side? You’ve been running and hiding much too long. You know it’s just your foolish pride.
I tried to give you consolation When your old man had let you down. Like a fool, I fell in love with you, Turned my whole world upside down.
Let’s make the best of the situation Before I finally go insane. Please don’t say we’ll never find a way And tell me all my love’s in vain.