Clapton, Blues and Conversion

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

Recently some friends gave me the autobiography of Eric Clapton (Eric Clapton, The Autobiography, N.Y., Random House, 2007 ) I generally shun the biographies of the rich and famous, but his story interested me. Eric Clapton is perhaps the best blues guitar player in the world, I have been a long-time fan of his music, and I knew nothing about his life. So I picked up the book.

I wasn’t disappointed. The book gives all kinds of insights into the inner world of rock music, but, more importantly, Chapton tells his story with a wonderful intelligence and disarming self- effacement. This isn’t a cheap celebrity, ego-trumpeting, book, but a story of art, youth, restlessness, search, falling, near-disaster, and life-saving conversion. And its real interest lies exactly in that latter element since, as Heather King puts it, sin isn’t interesting but conversion is.

Clapton fans won’t be disappointed either at how seriously he takes his art. Throughout his whole career, however fuzzy his head may have been about other things, he was always clear and single- minded about his art, the blues, willingly sacrificing popularity and money for the sake of his craft. For him, art is pure, something near to God, and is meant always to remain pure. His words: “For me, the most trustworthy vehicle for spirituality had always proven to be music. It cannot be manipulated, or politicized, and when it is, that becomes immediately obvious.”

Those are the words of a good artist, but his real struggle wasnever with art but with his obsessions, addictions, ego, and sobriety.

Success came to him early and the world of rock-and-roll bathed him in a culture of alcohol, drugs, and irresponsibility. He was soon an addict, with everything in his life other than his music spinning out of control. Eventually grace intervened and, during a second trip to an alcoholic clinic, he found grace and sobriety. Here are his own words:

“Nevertheless, I stumbled through my month in treatment much as I had done the first time, just ticking off the days, hoping that something would change in me without me having to do much about it. Then one day, as my visit was drawing to an end, a panic hit me, and I realized that in fact nothing had changed in me, and that I was going back out into the world again completely unprotected. The noise in my head was deafening, and drinking was in my thoughts all the time. It shocked me to realize that here I was in a treatment center, a supposedly safe environment, and I was in serious danger. I was absolutely terrified, in complete despair.

At that moment, almost of their own accord, my legs gave way and I fell to my knees. In the privacy of my room, I begged for help. I had no idea who I thought I was talking to, I just knew that I had come to the end of my tether, I had nothing left to fight with. Then I remembered what I had heard about surrender, something I thought I could never do, my pride just wouldn’t allow it, but I knew that on my own I wasn’t going to make it, so I asked for help, and getting down on my knees, I surrendered.

Within a few days I realized that something had happened for me. An atheist would probably say it was just a change of attitude, and to a certain extent that’s true, but there was much more to it than that. I had found a place to turn to, a place I’d always known was there but never really wanted, or needed, to believe in. From that day until this, I have never failed to pray in the morning, on my knees, asking for help, and at night to express my gratitude for my life and, most of all, for my sobriety. I choose to kneel because I feel I need to humble myself when I pray and with my ego, this is the most I can do.

If you are asking me why I do all of this, I will tell you ... because it works, as simple as that. In all this time that I have been sober, I have never once seriously thought of taking a drink or a drug. .... In some way, in some form, my God was always there, but now I have learned to talk to him.”

“You are never more of a mature adult than when you get down on your knees and bend humbly before something greater than yourself.”

I read those words in a catechism book when I was a little boy and knew, already then, that they contained a truth that perennially needs to be asserted in the face of human pride. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin says something similar. At a certain time in your life, he says, you realize that you have only two choices: Genuflect before something greater than yourself or begin to self-destruct.

Eric Clapton, I think, would agree.