God was dead, in the rock world anyway, or at least among those worshippers who scrawled graffiti all over England reading CLAPTON IS GOD. For three years Eric Clapton, the Segovia of the blues guitar and the white British virtuoso who most sensitively evoked the black American experience, was burned-out and succumbing to heroin. But now again, at 29, Clapton has wrested himself from his addiction and returned to dominate the rock scene.
He has released his first studio album in nearly four years, 461 Ocean Boulevard (the last was Layla), and with his five accompanists has been storming across the U.S. on a five-week, 25-city tour which has now revived the legend he left behind.
Clapton’s new sound is more subdued than his work with such earlier groups as the Yardbirds, Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith or Derek and the Dominoes, but his singing is richer and more alive. The new Clapton, friends say, is looser, warmer and more responsive. The “laid-back” (mellower) quality of the new album reflects a new degree of inner peace. Onstage, though, his roaring, scorching solo bursts in Clapton classics, such as Badge, Let It Rain and Key to the Highway, quickly recall the fluid brilliance of his golden-record age.
Raised by grandparents after his parents abandoned him, Clapton was a reclusive teenager who spent his school lunch hours plucking out blues licks on his guitar. Throughout his struggling start (his first gig was a fill-in when Mick Jagger got a sore throat), his superstardom, hibernation and current reemergence, Clapton has been a diffident demigod. He has shied away from even the quasi-groupie rock press, preferring to concentrate on music and keep company only with his coterie of close friends. Backstage, though, he is more boisterous, indulging in pie-throwing free-for-alls.
“Eric is incredibly modest and helpful to the rest of us,” says his zingy colead singer, Yvonne Elliman, who played Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar. (She herself added a guitar to the sextet until mid-tour, when a whiskey bottle flung onstage broke her left thumb.) “All he needs now is his Layla,” says Yvonne, referring to a lost love in Clapton’s life who inspired the title song of his most felt album. “But he also wants to be a gypsy. Eric will always have a lonely spot. Yet friends who have known him for a long time say this is the happiest moment of his life.”