Eric Clapton: A Life In 12 Bars Bends Strings, Plays Straight

A slow hand doles out deep blues in Eric Clapton: A Life in 12 Bars.

If you’re going to play more than two or three notes you better have a story to tell, legendary blues guitarist B.B. King explains about musicianship in Eric Clapton: A Life In 12 Bars. Eric Clapton’s story was told in 12 bars because he had some deep blues in his soul. The documentary, directed by Oscar-winner Lili Fini Zanuck (Rush, Driving Miss Daisy), posits that the guitar god’s bitter buzzkill was rejection.

Clapton was rejected by his mum, a military half-family, a Beatle’s wife and Jimi Hendrix. When the voodoo child with the gypsy eyes ended his experience, Clapton cried all day. He didn’t cry because he was going to miss his friend and jam-mate, he cried that he’d been abandoned to drown his blues alone. Hendrix died shortly after Clapton’s classic album Derek and the Dominoes Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs failed. It didn’t fail because it wasn’t a hit, which it wasn’t when it was first released. It failed because, at the end of the day, that Beatle wife went home to her Beatle, rejecting Clapton yet again.

Eric Clapton had, and has, one true love, a witch of trouble in electric blue, though he could make love with her on acoustic too. Clapton was a little spoiled as a kid, though not by his nightmarish mother who asked him whose child he was to his face, he was spoiled by his grandmother, who he thought was his mother. He found solace in art, and the pics the documentary profiles, shows a deft hand with a some fun pencils. But the most fun thing he loved to draw was his true love, his guitar. A lot of Gibsons, some Fenders, and a Marshall amp were his best communication. Clapton, who wasn’t very fond of life, found something to love. Rhythm and Blues, RnB.

All the kids in England found it around the same time. Childhood friends Mick Jagger and Keith Richards reunited as teens over each other’s blues records on a train stop. The Beatles’ home town Liverpool was a port town and blues bent their fingers as much as rock and roll records. Everyone collected records in the early sixties in Great Britain, but Blues records were a specialty, and Clapton had a varied collection: slow, dirty blues, fast country blues, angry rhythmic blues all with enough space between the notes for the players to fit their lines, harmonize over phrases, give rhythmic bursts under an explosive payoff.

Ad – content continues below

Clapton was a blues purist. The records taught him the history of the blues. He had the feel for it and knew the notes. He was so much a purist when the Yardbirds grew their hair into Beatle cuts Clapton knew they sold out. Hits like “For your love” weren’t pure, they were written by the same guy who penned hits for Herman’s Hermits. He dropped the band on the eve of their biggest hit to wring raw blues through his fingers with John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers for about five months.

Clapton then turned blues psychedelically aggressive with the Cream of British virtuosos drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Jack Bruce. The band hit their stride doing improvisations at the Fillmore West where the audience was hipper. The songs went on for forty minutes and the band became LA legends, but they were whipped cream. Sadly the rhythm section were always at each other’s throats and the experience was dreadful for all. What the documentary doesn’t point out is that Clapton broke Cream up after one bad review in Rolling Stone.

Clapton brought more than stock phrases and runs to one high point for the guitarist and the documentary. Eric did a session for Aretha Franklin at Atlantic Records studios in December 1967 for the song “Good to Me As I Am to You.” The track was off Franklin’s classic Lady Soul album, which included the iconic hits “Chain of Fools” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Aretha looked at Clapton in his psychedelic clothes and permed hair and laughed, until his fingers started working. Clapton was featured over guitarists Jimmy Johnson and Bobby Womack Franklin sang and played beautiful soul, backed by Spooner Oldham (organ), Tommy Cogbill (bass) Roger Hawkins (drums), and Melvin Lastie, Joe Newman, Bernie Glow, Tony Studd, King Curtis, Seldon Powell, Frank Wess and Haywood Henry on horns and reeds. The documentary catches Clapton recalling thinking “if that comes out I’ll never have to do anything again.”

The documentary plays a clip of Clapton and Stevie Winwood performing with Blind Faith, but skips Delaney and Bonnie and Clapton’s Plastic Ono Band appearance at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival with John Lennon in favor of his friendship with George Harrison. The Beatle guitarist, who Clapton met at a Christmas show in 1964, was busted by infamous British Police Inspector Pilcher, who made a name busting all the pop musicians. The corrupt cop planted drugs on Harrison’s wife Pattie Boyd, and Eric split, for the first time touching the money he’d made with Cream.

But he couldn’t stay away for long. Pattie Boyd was the most desirable woman on the planet to Eric and to George, even Lennon had a thing for her, according to some Beatle documentaries. Clapton’s girlfriends tell the camera the guitarist had a lot of confusion about women. Early girlfriend Charlotte Martin said the guitar was his voice. She would talk, and Eric would answer with a lick of the guitar.  Clapton drowned his sorrows in the pink cotton wool covering of heroin, and dove headlong into the root cause of his blues by putting the band together to record George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass album.

Clapton assembled the band in Miami to record love songs, ballads with a different tempo and feel. Musicians who could bring out what we can’t see and feel. The love songs were all about Pattie and the centerpiece, “Layla,” was based on Arab poet Nizami Ganjavi’s 7th century love story Layla and Majnun. Clapton met southern rock guitarist Duane Allman, told him “come on down, let’s make a record.” On the song, Duane plays bottleneck on a Gibson Les Paul and Eric is on a Fender Stratocaster, though he does dub a Leslie in later in the song. If you can tell a Gibson and Fender apart you know who plays what, who otherwise you can hallucinate. Also on the session were Bobby Whitlock on keyboards, Carl Radle on bass, and Jim Gordon on drums, and playing piano on the coda.

The Derek and the Dominos Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs album didn’t work. All that work was for nothing Pattie went home to George and the album didn’t sell because no one knew Derek was Eric.

Ad – content continues below

Clapton was told his dad was dying after a show in America during his solo years and he flew home to sink back into deep blues. The guitarist went from heroin to booze and when he was drunk he was chauvinistic and fascistic. Attempting to get all the people who loved him to turn on him to leave him alone with his bottle of Corvoisier and cognac.

The early nineties death of Clapton’s son turns the musician around for the last portion of the documentary, which sees him rise above his morbidity to find the funkier side of twelve bars. Eric Clapton: A Life in 12 Bars is an insightful look into a master artist that could have used another half hour, even if it was just to jam in E.


4 out of 5