I’m sitting four rows back as the stage is being set facing stacks of Marshall amps all humming at the Café au Go Go. It’s October 7, 1967 - Cream’s debut in a small Greenwich Village night club. To the right of me, a set of drums that look as if they were reserved for Buddy Rich or Louie Bellson rather than a rock musician.
Only months before, I was shopping in a plaza south of Los Angeles and I come across an unusual looking record cover – Fresh Cream, featuring my favourite guitar man, Eric Clapton. I bought it and returned to my apartment, dropped the needle, and repeatedly spun into the next day. I dialled a couple of guitar playing friends and screwed with their heads. This was authentic. Something new; something extraordinary.
Those moments are critical, defining moments in Eric Clapton’s long journey from a child copping blues licks to a rising star, christened “God of the electric guitar.” After the accolades and drug and alcohol addictions, he's now at peace with his life.
Clapton signed off on the at times painful and mundane read of his eventful life that is Life In 12 Bars, assembled by Oscar-winning producer Lili Fini Zanuck – Driving Miss Daisy, Cocoon and Mulholland Falls. It’s all there. “None of that would have happened if not for the trust that we have and the fact that he gave me the responsibility and didn’t second guess me”, says Zanuck.
The film runs chronologically from birth to abandonment – a mother who declares he’s not her son – to the present day. Clapton narrates a good portion interspersed with interview excerpts from family and heroes like B.B. King, Duane Allman, Jimi Hendrix, George Harrison, Patti Boyd, all close friends and collaborators.
The film is dense with archival photos, Super 8 captures of family and friends, behind the scenes indulging, rehearsals, the extended jams and amazing footage of Duane Allman describing the jam sessions with Clapton in Derek and the Dominos. Those ferocious Cream concerts in both large and small venues are front and centre.
Rarely do music documentaries reserve space for big passion scenes that extend beyond work or love for art and instrument. Life in 12 Bars delves into Clapton’s play for George Harrison’s wife Patti Boyd, every man’s 60s’ dream girl, who Harrison met on the set of Hard Day’s Night in 1964. Boyd was surrounded by musicians central to the British invasion –Mick Jagger/Keith Richard, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, etc. The Boyd pursuit extends into years of seclusion and heroin addiction, topped with rounds of cocaine and whatever other substances were available during their nine-year marriage.
As my pal Everton Paul said after the screening, “he would have never stayed in a drug induced coma for as long as he did if he’d never collected all of that money so early in life. He would have never been able to afford to live in a remote mansion.”
There’s ample footage of the comebacks and battles with alcohol, the stumbling about on stage and blistering catcalls from audiences, the brief appearances and tarnished reputation, stained by overlapping addictions.
Thankfully, Zanuck keeps the fans in mind. Blues Breakers! The story behind the recording is all there with footage of the session. Clapton discovering Marshall amps, compelling the studio engineer to move the microphones back away from the amp and let him experiment to get his sound. Listening to those tracks in big-screen cinema is just as thrilling as the first moment I sampled them in a ‘head shop’ in St. Paul, Minnesota. Clapton shifted from traditional blues guitar and fattened up the sound. His style was aggressive, revolutionary and in tune with the times.
The loss is there too. Son Conor, four and a half, falling to his death from an open window forty-nine floors high. There is the aftermath, the reevaluation of a life lived mostly in a fog, without regard to those close by, and on to rehabilitation.
The film ends on a high note – new wife and family, children raised with a father fully engaged.
Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars keeps pace with the current run of music docs: Amy Winehouse (Amy), Sharon Jones(Miss Sharon Jones!), Nat King Cole (Afraid of the Dark). All great artists, at times indifferent, loving, complicated and abusive, yet, much like most people, just sorting out the days ahead, facing an assortment of pressures, demands, and unwelcome health issues that at times overwhelm, interrupt and nearly bury.