“Derek,” “Layla,” & “George”
“Layla, you’ve got me on my knees,
Layla, I’m begging, darling, please,
Layla, darling, won’t you ease my worried mind.”
(from “Layla” by Clapton/Gordon)
No amount of comfort could release the anxieties built up in Derek. Even when Layla finally relented, gave in to his cries of adoration and devotion, the romantic axman could never entrust his troubles to drift away in her secure embrace. For Eric Clapton, whose alias Derek and his Dominos belted out the tortured, searing ode to obsession in 1970, real love has eluded his grasp throughout the duration of his life. “Love,” in the Clapton vernacular, seems to translate simply to desire and envy. Desire to have the most drugs, the most alcohol, to have children, and to be envious of what he cannot fully obtain. That’s where a beautiful blonde named Patti Boyd came into the picture. She was married to a Beatle, George Harrison. To Eric, Patti was the way out, she embodied everything that could be perfect in his life. Winning her hand would turn things around for him. But the pedestal he built for her, and subsequently climbed to stand atop with her, was based primarily on obsession. True, unconditional, unwavering love, alas, never took root to ease his worried mind.
If genes were proven to be the only influence shaping the entire course of a human being’s life, the ones passed along to young Eric fit him to the “T.” Clapton’s mom, Patricia, was 16, during World War II, when she had a brief fling with a Canadian soldier, Edward Fryer. The 24-year old serviceman was married, and went back to his wife a few weeks after his affair with the impressionable teenager. Patricia gave birth to Eric in 1945 and left him with her parents to raise. For the first nine years of his life, growing up in Ridley, Surrey, Clapton was told that his mom was actually his sister. Patricia married and settled down to a life of her own in Germany. As the young Eric became a man, he would gradually mirror the character traits of his unknown father. Playing piano at hotels and small functions throughout North America, Edward Fryer married many times, and reportedly had countless affairs. He fathered three more children after Eric’s birth, before his death in 1985. Clapton never had the opportunity to meet his father in all those years. For the better part of his life, Fryer was a musical nomad, unable to commit his life with any one woman, subsisting liberally on a generous supply of alcohol. Like father…soon to be like son.
On the other hand, Patricia Anne Boyd grew up with loving parents in the quaint town of Somerset, England. She acquired a sense of culture and care for others when her family lived in Kenya, Africa for a spell in the 1950s. By the time she was 17, her parents had moved back to Britain, and Patti was ensconced in a modeling career, along with her younger sister Jenny. An American director shooting a commercial for Smith’s Crisps, a potato chip company, tapped her to be the spokesmodel for the advertisement. His name was Richard Lester, and he would inadvertently set in motion a series of interactions that would lead to one of rock’s most enduring love stories.
In March 1964, The Beatles had just conquered America. Their fame and fortune was escalating literally by the day. To exploit the mania which had burst forth from teenage fans the world over, it was decided a motion picture featuring the Fab Four was in order. “A Hard Day’s Night” was cranked out by writer Alun Owen in a very short period of time, and Richard Lester was brought aboard to direct The Beatles in their first acting foray. Bit parts went to several teenagers. Lester hadn’t forgotten the cute potato chip model he’d worked with two years earlier. 19-year old Patti Boyd was cast as an admiring schoolgirl who fawned over the lovable moptops as they sang “I Should’ve Known Better” in a train luggage compartment.
“When we started filming, I could feel George looking at me, and I was a bit embarrassed,” Patti later related to biographer Hunter Davies. While always considered the ‘shy’ Beatle, young George Harrison was just as much of a playboy as his other bandmates. “After that first day’s shooting,” Patti continued, “I asked them all for their autograph…When I was asking George for his, I said could he sign it for my two sisters as well. He signed his name and put two kisses each for them, but under mine he put seven kisses. I thought he must like me a little. He came into our carriage (train car) later and talked to Pru and me. She was the other schoolgirl in the film. Then he called me out into the corridor on my own. He said would I go out with him that night. I said, sorry, no.” Patti had been steadily dating another boy for two years and didn’t feel it was appropriate to go out with the worldly Beatle.
It took another phone call and a brief moment of reflection to reconsider before Patti decided to go out on a date with George the following week. The old boyfriend was soon forgotten, and Patti became inseparable from George. Once filming ended in early April, Harrison persuaded John Lennon and his wife Cynthia to go with he and Patti on an Easter weekend excursion to Ireland. He hoped to get to know Patti a lot better. The media somehow learned of their whereabouts, and the holiday turned into a getaway, as Cynthia and Patti dressed as chambermaids and hid in a dirty laundry bin to elude the press. But the incident cemented her bond with Harrison. Beatles, however, were not supposed to have steady girlfriends, let alone wives, so Patti was constantly screened from exposure alongside her man. She and Cynthia became commiserating pals over this period of Beatlemania.
From December 24, 1964 to January 16, 1965, The Beatles organized and played in an annual Christmas show held at the Hammersmith Odeon theatre in London. Sharing the bill were local favorites Freddie and The Dreamers, Jimmy Saville, and Sounds Incorporated. At the bottom of the line-up was a relatively new outfit known as The Yardbirds. Firmly rooted outside the English music hall and pop tunes, this blues outfit was a bit of an anomaly in the showcase. Its lead guitarist, however, was scintillating in his technique, even at such an early stage of his career.
Eric Clapton had joined the Yardbirds after a brief stint in a blues group called the Roosters. Having educated and absorbed himself in the history of American blues, Eric idolized artists like Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry, who had all been able to translate their blues-rock to the mainstream. When legendary blues harpist Sonny Boy Williamson landed on British turf in 1963, he enlisted the aid of The Yardbirds as his backup band, which led to the group’s first album, “Sonny Boy Williamson and The Yardbirds,” being released in early 1964. The Beatles were intrigued by these relative newcomers and added them to their show.
George Harrison and Eric Clapton first took note of each other during these performances. “He was checking me out, and I was checking him out to see if he was a real guitar player,” Eric told Rolling Stone magazine. “And I realized that he was. But we come from different sides of the tracks. I grew up loving black music, and he grew up with the Chet Atkins-Carl Perkins-side of things – blues versus rockabilly. That rockabilly style always attracted me, but I never wanted to take it up. And I think it’s the same for him. The blues scene attracts him, but it evades him somehow. He’s much more comfortable with the finger-picking style of guitar.”
Patti Boyd may have been aware of Eric onstage, but she was more concerned at the time with being discovered by jealous female fans of George Harrison. “I scraped my hair back so that I would look completely different and no one would recognize me,” she recalled to Hunter Davies. “I don’t know how anyone did, but a few did, and started punching me.”
Swept up into the hysteria of the Beatles craze, Patti was solely devoted to George Harrison. In 1965, she moved into his home in Esher, Surrey and attended to his every whim. “Patti handled George very well considering their different social backgrounds,” Cynthia Lennon wrote in her autobiography. “George’s northern bluntness and lack of tact must have been hard to come to terms with in comparison with the smooth southern sophistication of the escorts she would have previously experienced.” His personality and modest charm were winsome enough to elicit her responding in the affirmative to his proposal of marriage over the 1965 Christmas holiday. On January 21, 1966, under a veil of secrecy, Patti and George wed at the Epsom Registry Office in Surrey. John and Ringo were on a vacation in Trinidad, but Paul McCartney attended the short ceremony in support of his fellow bandmate.
Meanwhile, having recorded another album with the Yardbirds, and contributing a few licks to their first hit, “For Your Love,” Eric departed the band in search of a more bluesier outlet. He performed with John Mayell’s Bluesbreakers for a while, but soon felt the need to start his own group. Together with bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker, Clapton formed a band in May 1966 with the boastful name Cream, as in ‘cream of the crop.’ Bruce took the duty of lead vocals, and the group set about becoming one of the world’s best-loved ‘jam’ bands. Patti and George Harrison, on the other hand, were immersing themselves in the music of India. Having strummed a sitar during the production of the Beatles’ film “Help,” George was keen on learning all he could about the instrument. In September 1966, he and Patti flew to Bombay to sit with sitar master Ravi Shankar for five weeks of intensive lessons.
Upon their return to England, the Harrisons hit the club and music scene once again. Patti recalled becoming very aware of Eric’s presence when she attended a Cream concert with George during this period. After the show, the couple attended a post-celebration shindig at Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein’s home. Patti told author Ray Coleman, “I was surprised by how alone Eric looked at that party. He was terribly reticent, didn’t talk to anybody or socialize.” A short time later, on New Years’ Eve, George and Patti’s entourage, which included manager Brian Epstein and Eric Clapton, were excused from Annabel’s, a London nightclub, because George refused to wear a tie. Unfazed, the happy party-goers simply trotted to nearby Lyon’s Corner House Restaurant to ring in the New Year. Clapton was becoming more of a friend to the Harrisons. But the seeds of love were only gestating between he and Patti, and their connection at this time was one of friendship.
As 1967 tumbled in with its good vibes and Summer of Love, Patti and George were turning on to a new drug, LSD. Clapton had been casually using drink and drugs for some time. “I started experimenting with drugs, I think, at a much earlier age,” he claimed to Larry King, “when I was about 15. I took a form of speed, and I started drinking back in those days, too. It was – it kind of grew out of the supposition that, in order to be a man, you had to drink or you had to do something. A lot of peer pressure. And it kind of went on quite harmlessly for a long time like that.”
The mind-expanding narcotics stimulated a spiritual quest in Patti and George. In February, Patti accompanied a friend to hear about a new type of teaching called Transcendental Meditation. “I went along with her to a lecture given at the Caxton Hall. Maharishi himself wasn’t there,” Patti related to Hunter Davies. “But I got all the movement’s literature from them so I knew all about their summer conference at Bangor and what it was going to be about. I said yes, long before George and the others heard about it. I’d booked up weeks before.” That summer, on August 26, 1967, the four Beatles, having been guided by Patti, boarded a train for Bangor in the north of Wales, to attend teachings by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Their wives and girlfriends were in tow, all except Cynthia Lennon, who missed the train, both figuratively and literally. John would soon meet Yoko Ono and fall out of favor with his wife.
A follow-up trip to India left the Fab Four disenchanted with the holy leader, but George continued on an alternate path to spiritual enlightenment. Throughout 1968, he became increasingly distant from Patti, not sharing in his faith, and keeping her out of much of his life with the Beatles. George did foster an ever-increasing kinship with Eric Clapton though. Early in the year, he’d contacted the famed guitarist to help him with the score to a psychedelic movie called “Wonderwall.” On September 6, 1968, Eric entered the hallowed environs of a Beatles recording session at Abbey Road Studios to lay down the heart-rending strains heard in George’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” “I think George was struggling with the two big boys in the group. And he needed some backup on one of his songs,” Clapton modestly recalled to Larry King.
Later that month, Patti, Yoko, and Maureen Starr were invited in to lay down backing vocals for “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill.” As the four Beatles were slowly disintegrating, George spent more time in the company of his new pal. He would oftentimes hang out at Eric’s massive 20-room Italianate mansion, called Hurtwood Edge, in Ewehurst, England. The sweet Harrison favorite, “Here Comes The Sun,” was written in Eric’s back garden one morning. The perennial Cream anthem, “Badge,” was scripted at George’s home by the two legends. Ringo Starr, in attendance as well, chimed in with a few of the song’s strange lyrics. As Harrison transcribed the tune, Eric read the sheet music upside down and mistook the word “bridge” for “Badge.” Thus, the name stuck.
Many people assume George Harrison wrote his most noteworthy Beatles’ track, “Something,” with Patti foremost in his thoughts. In fact, as George later noted in his autobiography, “actually, when I wrote it, I was thinking of Ray Charles. In my mind, I heard Ray Charles singing it.” The person who would fashion many a ballad about her extraordinary presence would turn out to be Mr. Clapton. However, the loving odes would not materialize under his Cream banner. By 1968, after the release of four albums, clash of egos and increasing drug abuse forced the power trio apart. Eric immediately set about forming another band, this one built around extremely capable and established musicians. Recruiting drummer Ginger Baker again, he brought aboard reliable blues bassist Rick Grech and the talented keyboardist Steve Winwood, creating the supergroup Blind Faith. Heralded by the press as a powerhouse quartet, the group would only record one album before fizzling away in 1969.
A 16-year old girl named Alice Ormsby-Gore had been introduced to Clapton through a mutual friend. Her father was Lord Harlech, British ambassador to the United States. The 23-year old Clapton was captivated by her spontaneous wit and candor. Alice subsequently moved into his house in March 1969. By this time, however, Eric was smitten with another. “All the time I was with Alice, I was mentally with Patti,” he revealed to author Ray Coleman. “My love for Patti began almost the first day I saw her, and grew in leaps and bounds.”
During the past year, before Alice moved in, Clapton had been a constant chum of the Harrisons. His friendship with Patti, consequently, was becoming more of an attraction. “There had been amorous beginnings to it all,” Eric told Coleman. “I went to their home, or she came to parties here, and we made eyes at each other, had a few cuddles and whispered sweet nothings. What I couldn’t accept was that she was out of reach. Okay, she was married to George and he was a mate, but I had fallen in love and nothing else mattered.” Eric would sometimes escort Patti to public functions when George was unavailable. One evening, when they were walking out of a theater, Patti recalled to Coleman, “Eric suddenly said to me: ‘Do you like me, then, or are you seeing me because I’m famous?’ I answered, ‘Oh, I thought you were seeing me because I’m famous.” The lighthearted quip quashed whatever approach he was intending to lay on her that night.
“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.”
(from “Layla” by Clapton/Gordon)
In the late summer of 1969, Clapton hooked up with the husband and wife team of Delaney & Bonnie Bramlett. Eric felt adrift and despondent. His grandfather had just passed away, as did his close friend Jimi Hendrix. Cream and Blind Faith were no more. And he was desperately in love with Patti Harrison. He no longer wanted to lead a band, but instead, just melt into the background of one. Touring through different countries in the autumn, Clapton coaxed George Harrison into joining the tour when they returned for a series of British appearances. He literally had the tour bus pull up outside of Harrison’s sprawling mansion at Henley-on-Thames and practically yanked the Beatle aboard. George was increasingly intent on splintering off on his own, away from the Beatle yoke, and this opportunity gave him a stronger sense of independence.
By early 1970, Alice had left Clapton’s home in a huff, not to return until months later. The reason for her disgust lay in Eric’s dating Paula Boyd, a younger sister of Patti’s. Clapton figured if he couldn’t sway the real object of his obsession, he’d settle for her sibling. It was time for him to assemble yet another band, as well. This time he corralled bassist Carl Radle, keyboardist Bobby Whitlock, and drummer Jim Gordon into a group they anonymously titled Derek and the Dominos. Hoping to keep the identities of the band members a secret from the press, the quartet played a series of small gigs in British clubs. But the word soon got out, and Eric, once again, felt he needed to commit to some sort of project with his new bandmates.
In April 1970, Paul McCartney announced he was leaving The Beatles, and in a flash, the world’s biggest rock band was no more. George Harrison was eager to lay down new tracks he’d been fiddling with for a huge debut solo album. He enlisted Derek and the Dominos to play as his backup band, and throughout May and June, the landmark album, “All Things Must Pass,” was recorded. Patti would spot Clapton on occasion during these sessions, and their friendship became stronger. She felt an isolation from George because of his constant work. It was also alluded that he’d been having a few liaisons with the groupies known as ‘Apple scruffs’ that would hang around outside of the famed studio. George included a song by that title on his latest album. Eric, meanwhile, spent his off-hours writing material for his own band and trying not to let thoughts of Patti engulf him. But visions of her enveloped his mind daily. And the tracks he fashioned were songs of love to the woman he could not have.
A friend had given Eric a book by the ancient Persian poet Nizami. It was entitled “Layla and Manjun” and concerned a story of the unrequited love Manjun had for a beautiful but unobtainable woman named Layla. Clapton saw the obvious parallels to his own life, and set about writing the heart-wrenching classic that has defined his work as no other. In addition, he concocted other love songs for her, such as “Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad.” This collection of tender tunes would soon wind up on his next record with the Dominos, entitled “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.”
In August 1970, with Alice back in the house, Paula Boyd still in the picture and sister Patti quite unavailable, Eric needed to break away from England to record his album. He and the Dominos flew to Miami and set up house in Criteria Studios for a month. By day, the bandmates would take in the beaches, sun and surf, and at night, they would perform long-winded jam sessions, trying to discover the heart of each song. Producer Tom Dowd felt they needed more direction. He’d been producing the Allman Brothers’ latest album, “Idlewild South,” and was adamant about Clapton seeing the band perform at a nearby concert. Eric was immediately taken with Duane Allman’s masterful abilities on slide guitar. The Allman brother was invited to attend a Dominos’ session. “I went down there to listen to them cut (‘Layla’), that’s what I went for,” Duane later described to Guitar Player magazine. “And well, like he’d heard my playing and stuff, and he just greeted me like an old partner or something. He says, ‘Yeah, man, get out your guitar. We got to play.’ So, I was just going to play on one or two, and then as we kept on going, it kept developing.”
Not only did Duane Allman’s soaring guitar work on “Layla” help shape and solidify that song’s most endearing qualities, the southern rocker was able to bring numerous ideas and solutions to the sessions that enabled the double-album to become a tight, rip-roaring classic. “Incidentally,” he continued, “on sides 1, 2, 3, and 4, all the songs are right in the order they were cut, from the first day through to ‘Layla’ and then ‘Thorn Tree.’ I’m as proud of that as any albums that I’ve ever been on. I’m as satisfied with my work on that as I could possibly be.” Sadly, Duane Allman would not live to work on another Clapton collaboration. The next year, on October 29, 1971, Duane died in a motorcycle accident.
All the music, sand and sunshine, however, could not deter Eric’s obsessive thoughts about Patti. What once was a recreational activity, namely, drugs and alcohol, became the anesthetic to blunt his ever-increasing depression. The studio in Miami turned into a veritable powder and booze den. “We were dabbling and f***ing around with everything,” Clapton told author Michael Schumacher. “It was like a snort of coke in one nostril, a snort of smack in the other, a pint of cheap wine in one ear, a bottle of Scotch in the other – it was just full out.” After the group arrived back in London in September 1970, the party simply rumbled on as the guys wound up living together under one roof. The album was just about completed except for a vocal polish on “Layla.” “We’d finished all the other tracks, so I invited Patti’s sister Paula to come and hear me sing ‘Layla’ for the first time,” Eric recalled to Ray Coleman. “When she heard that vocal, she packed her bags and left my home in great distress. Because she realized it was about Patti and that I’d been using her, I suppose.”
The scene at Eric’s Hurtwood Edge mansion was becoming more insular with the all-day, all-night drug activities throughout the home. “We were taking all kinds of mild drugs: marijuana and acid and uppers and downers, and cocaine,” Clapton told Coleman. “And that’s where the heroin came in, because the dealer we were usually getting the coke from was insisting that we buy a little bit of heroin with it, because that was his stock-in-trade as well, and he couldn’t off-load it.” After sampling a bit of the hard drug, Clapton soon climbed aboard the horse at full tilt. Alice, who had been loyal to him throughout his affair with Paula and his continued obsession with Patti, became the household connection, scoring Eric and the band heroin wherever they traveled.
Soon thereafter, Clapton attended the opening performance of “Oh! Calcutta!,” a controversial, erotic new play that premiered at London’s Roundhouse Theatre. He noticed Patti Harrison sitting alone in the audience and asked her neighboring patron for their seat. He finally had the woman of his dreams alone to himself, by his side, and this time he wasn’t going to let her go. That night, the two of them went back to an apartment Eric leased in the city and spent an evening consummating their hidden affections for each other. A short time later, Clapton brought her to his house for another brief liaison. “He played ‘Layla’ to me two or three times,” she recalled to Ray Coleman. “His intensity was both frightening and fascinating, really. I was taken aback. It was a very powerful record…I was puzzled, flattered, shocked, amazed. I knew his feelings were strong for me, but I had no idea it would run to him writing a song for me.” Clapton affirmed his intentions in concocting the classic tune. “…I wrote ‘Layla’ specifically about Patti and me. It was my open-heart message that I was in love with her, and she knew it couldn’t be about anyone else. I just couldn’t visualize a life without her…”
In hindsight, Clapton has obviously enjoyed the success of “Layla” but does not quite view it as the rock masterpiece many have come to associate it with. “As a song just in itself, I don’t think it’s got much going for it to be honest with you,” he confessed to the BBC. “I mean there’s a structure and there is a melody, but historically, is where it’s at in the scheme of things, at the end of the ‘60s with the kind of bands that were coming into being, with the way that music was changing, and with the historic little bit of life history, you know, with me and George and Patti, that it’s got a life of its own.”
Over the next few months, Patti and Eric met several times for clandestine lovemaking. Eric was ecstatic about finally obtaining that which seemed unobtainable. For Patti, the affair presented her with a mixed bag of emotions. “I was a very shy person and, I suppose, easily manipulated,” she later related to the London Daily Telegraph. “Of course, it’s flattering to feel someone desperately wants you, but looking back, it’s quite uncomfortable to realize that you were the object of desire. That’s quite a passive thing to be.” Trapped in the throes of excessive heroin use, Clapton was becoming more agitated and commanding by the day. “He kept insisting I should leave George and go and live with him,” Patti related to Ray Coleman. “I said I couldn’t. I got cold feet. I couldn’t bear it.” She soon distanced herself from the talented and tormented guitarist.
The members of the Dominos were still lingering around Hurtwood Edge, indulging in the massive quantities of drugs Alice would regularly bring in. The weekly bill for the heroin alone ran in the neighborhood of $1,500. Clapton had a deep aversion to needles and required high quality horse in order to inhale the drug. The majority of Eric’s friends and associates were not welcome at the house during the ensuing years. Who frontman, Pete Townshend, was one of the few visitors Clapton would allow on the premises. Having sworn off narcotics in 1967, Pete was put in the uneasy role of trying to rehabilitate Eric and Alice without irritating them. Of the daily routine at the mansion, Townshend told Ray Coleman, “It was a typical junkie scene. It was despicable. But even through all that, you know, I got to like and love them both very much. It was the first encounter I’d had with heroin addicts. I wasn’t prepared for the lies, I wasn’t prepared for the duplicity…but even through all that, I decided they definitely seemed to me to be worth the effort.”
An attempt at recording a second Derek and the Dominos album proved futile. “…We peaked so quickly and made so much money,” Eric observed to Rolling Stone magazine. “And these guys, who were basically from the South – like Bobby Whitlock and Jim Gordon – were suddenly thrust into all this money and drugs and women, and it just cart-wheeled, took off and blew up. It was like a massive car crash, and scary, scary, scary. We couldn’t even talk to one another, we were so wound up and drugged out and paranoid. It was doomed, really…One of the reasons we broke up was the rapport between me and Jim, which had always been so good, had broken down. And in the middle of a session, when we were trying to do a second studio album, I said something about the rhythm being wrong for the song, and Jim said something like, ‘Well, the Dixie Flyers are in town. You can get their drummer.’ I put my guitar down and walked out of the studio, and I didn’t speak to him again.” Jim Gordon would subsequently go mad. In the early 1980s, with voices and visions escalating in his schizophrenic mind, Gordon brutally murdered his mother and was sent to prison.
In August 1971, Eric still helped his friend George Harrison out, even while he was in contact with Patti behind his back. Joining a line-up that included Leon Russell, Bob Dylan, Ravi Shankar, Billy Preston, and the members of Badfinger, Clapton participated in George’s massive charity performance, The Concert for Bangladesh, at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The torn rejection he was feeling from Patti, however, was too much for Eric to handle, and he finally issued an ultimatum. One day, Clapton drove over to the Harrison house, while George was away, and confronted Patti. “Eric showed me this packet of heroin and said, ‘Either you come away with me or I will take this,” Patti recalled to the London Daily Telegraph. “I was appalled. I grabbed at it and tried to throw it away, but he snatched it back. I turned him down – and for four years, he became a drug addict.” The dejected musical legend shuffled back to his giant abode, shut the door, and virtually became a reclusive junkie overnight. “At first, I felt guilt,” Patti continued. “Then I felt anger because it was totally irrational of him to blame me for something he was probably going to do anyway; it was very selfish and destructive.”
Life at the Harrison household was no bed of roses as well during the early ‘70s. George had caught wind of Eric’s deep obsession with his wife, and as a result, he grew more distant from Patti. During a party at Ringo’s house one night, George drunkenly blurted out his infatuation for Starr’s wife, Maureen, and suggested to Ringo that they simply swap wives. Patti broke down crying, locking herself into the bathroom. George and Maureen later allegedly consummated a brief affair. The perception of George having a mellow spirit ran counterpoint to his behavior when he got behind the wheel of a car. In February 1971, after numerous ticketed offenses and the bad-mouthing of an officer, Harrison lost his license for a year. As soon as he retrieved the privilege to drive in February 1972, he promptly ran his vehicle off the M4 motorway, severely injuring Patti in the passenger seat. As she spent time recuperating from a concussion and broken ribs for a few weeks in the hospital, Patti began to realize her union with George was definitely on the downslope.
While the respected Lord Harlech disapproved of his daughter Alice living with a drugged-out rock star, the kindly ambassador knew that deep down, Clapton was a soul worth saving. With his financial backing and influential connections, he set in motion a charity concert that would serve as an event to resurrect the broken guitar god. With Pete Townshend’s urging, Eric was enticed to emerge from Hurtwood Edge on January 13, 1973, after nearly two years of self-imposed exile, to play with Pete, Ron Wood, Steve Winwood, and other talented musicians onstage at London’s Rainbow Theatre. The performance helped boost Clapton’s spirits and opened the door for a chance of recovery.
A full year later, he seemed ready to dispense with his heroin addiction once and for all. Again, with the aid of Lord Harlech, Clapton underwent a new program to detour the cravings for the insidious narcotic. Dr. Meg Patterson had conceived of a form of acupuncture in which electric currents would be used to zap one’s ear lobes. In early 1974, she regularly visited Clapton and Alice at their home and administered the treatment. The cure was successful. Eric felt rejuvenated. Yet, one thing was missing. Patti Harrison.
During a party at producer Robert Stigwood’s home, Clapton walked straight up to George Harrison and blurted out, “I’m in love with your wife. What are you going to do about it?” George barely registered surprise. “…Well, at the time, he didn’t put up too much of a fight,” Eric later recalled to Australia’s “60 Minutes.” “I mean when I first announced that I was in love with her, he said, ‘Well, fine,’ you know. ‘You go ahead and do it.’ Which wasn’t, I believe now, what he truly felt, but there was a certain, you know – he didn’t want to appear to be, I guess, upset. The fact was he was very upset, I’m sure.” After the almost four year hiatus from Eric’s presence, Patti was understandably confused and dismayed. She and George left the party without any further discussion with Eric that night.
Clapton needed a project to keep his attention diverted from slipping back to his old habits. Producer Tom Dowd, who had engineered three Cream albums and had helmed the Derek and the Dominos sessions, invited him back to Miami’s Criteria Studios in May 1974. With a new band and a fresh take on songwriting, they worked on numbers like “Get Ready” and “Let It Grow.” Clapton covered a hit song by reggae wunderkind Bob Marley entitled “I Shot the Sheriff.” When the album “461 Ocean Boulevard,” named after their residence while staying in Florida, was released in August, it rose to number one on the Billboard chart for 4 weeks.
Eric was back in his element. He returned to England with Patti still very much on his mind. Alice saw the writing on the wall and left Hurtwood Edge thereafter. Sadly, Alice reportedly died of a drug overdose in April 1995. As for Eric, his heroin addiction became supplanted by one of alcohol that year of 1974. Part of his post-treatment with Dr. Patterson had been to spend a month on a farm, helping workers with chores and fashioning a clean constitution in his system. The farmhands unfortunately liked to end their day by dragging Clapton to village bars. Now, back at his home, Clapton turned to his one-time savior, Pete Townshend, who was gradually working his way up to two bottles of brandy a day himself, and the two became pub-crawl drinking pals. This new extracurricular activity did nothing however to diminish Eric’s determination to seek out the elusive girl of his dreams.
“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.”
(from “Layla” by Clapton/Gordon)
While filming the part of a rock preacher for Townshend’s Who motion picture “Tommy,” Clapton coaxed his bar buddy to visit the Harrison household one evening. Upon arrival, Pete, Eric, and George had a polite conversation in the living room for a while. Then Eric indicated to Pete that he should keep George occupied. Eric slipped away and found Patti in another room. For a full hour, he talked to her, proclaiming his love for her, letting her know he’d kicked his heroin habit, and promising to take care of her if she ever chose to leave George. With his peace finally spoken, Clapton left Patti behind to reflect once more, as she did in 1964, about severing a long-term love in order to pursue a rock star.
It took her three weeks to come to a decision. Patti packed her bags and flew to Los Angeles to stay with her sister Jenny and her husband, musician Mick Fleetwood. Eric was on tour throughout America, performing material from the “461” album, and he phoned her from the road. They finally connected when Patti flew to Buffalo, New York to join Eric on tour. After the series of performances, the happy couple celebrated their new relationship in Jamaica for a few weeks.
George Harrison seemed to not show any animosity towards the departure of his wife of eight years. While promoting his new album, “Dark Horse,” at a Los Angeles press conference in October 1974, he was asked by reporters if he was getting divorced. Typically dry-witted and evasive, George muttered, “No, I mean that’s as silly as marriage.” In answer to another question inquiring whether he had included a rebuttal song to Eric’s “Layla” on his new album, George replied, “What do you mean, musical rebuttal? That sounds nasty, doesn’t it? I’d like to sort that one out. I love Eric Clapton. He’s been a close friend for years. I’m very happy about it. I’m very friendly with them.” Asked why he was so happy, George cheerfully answered, “Because he’s great. I’d rather she was with him than some dope.” The ex-Beatle wasn’t exactly moping around, pining for his lost love. Having just formed his Dark Horse label with A&M Records, Harrison had become enamored of an assistant in the company’s merchandising department named Olivia Arias. The two would subsequently marry on September 2, 1978. Olivia is still George’s wife to this day.
Back at Hurtwood Edge, Patti began to realize the storybook image of a wonderful love Eric had painted for them was going to be tainted. “In my naivete, I believed everything was all right,” she recalled to the London Daily Telegraph. “He wasn’t taking heroin, which I thought was the main addiction for him. But, as it turned out, his drug of choice turned out to be alcohol…Eric would just completely pass out wherever he was sitting, whether it was on the sofa or the floor, because he was saturated with drink. The realization hit me: ‘This isn’t fun. He’s not having fun.” Clapton confirmed his inebriated state of fixation in hindsight to interviewer David Frost in 1994. “In my case, alcohol was very hard because I was so – I love drinking. I mean, being an Englishman, I think drinking’s so much a part of our heritage, especially the country pub…Today, I mean you see people sitting outside pubs with lager, you know. Pints of lager. And it looks so attractive to me, you know. And I don’t – really, I’d love to do that – but unfortunately, I wouldn’t be able to stop, you see. I’d just go on and on and on.”
Patti hit the bottle herself during this period. But she also tried to bring restraint to the sodden proceedings. “Some of the time, I was an accomplice,” she acknowledged to Ray Coleman, “then I backed out. I thought one of us should be sober some of the time, so I was. I found him very hard to live with. He expected me not to care about his drunken friends lying all over the house. Sometimes he’d even bring drunken strangers back from the pub – tramps, who he insisted should not stay out in the street but should stay the night with us!” While Eric had initially accepted Patti with him on tour in 1974, he decided not to invite her on subsequent road trips with his band throughout the rest of the 1970s. As the pattern had been before with George, Patti was to stay at home and not to interfere with Clapton’s good-time revelry on the tour bus.
George Harrison continued to be civil to his estranged wife and Clapton. “George, Patti, and I actually sat in the hall of my house and I remember him saying, ‘Well, I suppose I’d better divorce her,” Clapton recalled to Coleman. “And I said, ‘Well, if you divorce her, that means I’ve got to marry her.’ In black and white, it sounds and looks horrible. But it was like a Woody Allen situation…It really was like one of those movies where you see wife-swapping – ‘Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.’ And everyone was saying, ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter. We can write our own story on this.’ Because those were the times.” On June 9, 1977, the Harrison’s divorce was finalized. Clapton continued to feel that despite George’s cheery exterior, he retained a lingering animosity about the situation, even though they remained friends throughout. “We always talked,” Eric related to Rolling Stone Magazine. “Some of it was very LSD-type conversation and very esoteric, sort of cosmo-speak, especially from George. And he would show up from time to time, when Patti and I were living together. He came around once, and it was all very trippy. It got quite hostile at times, but we always cared for one another.” George gave his own take on this observation in 1977 to Crawdaddy magazine. “I didn’t have any problems about it; Eric had the problem. Every time I’d go and see him, he’d really be hung up about it, and I’d be saying, ‘F*** it, man, don’t be apologizing,’ and he didn’t believe me. I was saying, ‘I don’t care.”
In 1976, Eric wrote another famous love song inspired by Patti one evening after they had gotten back from an afternoon luncheon. They were set to attend another event at a club that night. “Wonderful Tonight’ has a little bit of irony in it,” Clapton shared with Rolling Stone magazine. “I didn’t write it in a particular good mood. I wrote it because my wife was late getting ready to go out. I was in a foul temper about it.” He wrote the beautiful-sounding ditty in ten minutes flat. Sweet romantic songs, however, could not disguise the fact that Eric’s drinking and constant bickering with Patti was becoming more pronounced. One afternoon in 1979, Patti returned home to discover Clapton in bed with her good friend Jenny McLean. With tears flowing, Patti raced to her sister Paula’s doorstep for commiseration, then, flew to Los Angeles to spend time with record producer Rob Fraboni and his wife. Clapton continued his liaison with Jenny for a week or so, until his manager, Rob Forrester made a bar bet with Eric that he could instantly have Clapton’s name in newspapers the next day. Eric took the challenge. Forrester simply phoned a gossip columnist with the Daily Mail, and the next day, the paper trumpeted the headline, “Rock star Eric Clapton will marry Patti Boyd in Tucson, Arizona next Tuesday.”
The famed guitarist nearly punched off his manager’s head. Forrester had merely wanted to force Eric to consider the depth of his relationship with Patti and make a decision about their future. Clapton let Jenny go and phoned Patti, leaving a marriage proposal on the Fraboni’s answering machine for her. As ‘cheap’ as Patti felt this approach was, she agreed to be his wife. Clapton was set to tour the United States that week, and while on a break in Tucson, he and Patti were married at the Apostolic Assembly of Faith in Christ Jesus on March 27, 1979. The ceremony was conducted in Spanish by the Reverend Daniel Sanchez. The next night, while performing a concert in the Arizona city, Clapton called Patti out onstage and sang “Wonderful Tonight” to her. She remained on tour with them until April 14th in Louisiana, at which point she was flown back to England. On May 19th, a reception was held in the garden behind Hurtwood Edge. George Harrison and his new bride Olivia attended, as did Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Elton John, David Bowie, members of Cream, and many other musicians. George, Paul and Ringo jammed together on a makeshift stage, the last time three of the four Beatles ever performed together in public.
“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.”
(from “Layla” by Clapton/Gordon)
Clapton had finally wooed, courted, and won his musical muse. But years of obsession and addiction had worn down any semblance of lasting love. Once the honeymoon was over, it literally appeared to be over. It would take the better part of the next decade for their union to dissolve. In the meantime, Patti went back to watering down Eric’s drinks as best she could and staying out of harm’s way. Clapton became dangerously unbalanced. “Everyone used to walk around me on eggshells,” he recalled to the Sunday Times. “They didn’t know if I was going to be angry or whatever. When I’d come back from the pub, I could come back happy or I could come back and smash the place up…There were times when I just took sex with my wife by force and thought that was my entitlement.”
After passing out on a basement woodpile during the 1982 Christmas holidays, Eric was finally coaxed into going to rehab. Spending weeks at Minnesota’s prestigious Hazelden clinic, Clapton checked out only to check back in to the bottle. “It was becoming very difficult,” Patti observed to the London Daily Telegraph. “You’d look for the part of the person you know and love, but it was hard to find. I think Eric was worried about his talent totally disappearing if he stopped drinking, which is a common idea among creative people.” Clapton’s penchant for having affairs with other women had not diminished as well. While recording his “Behind The Sun” album in 1984 in the Caribbean, he took up with 28-year old Yvonne Kelly, a married Montserrat native who provided housekeeping services for the AIR recording studios on the island. On January 11, 1985, Yvonne gave birth to a by-product of one of their couplings. At first, Clapton did not openly acknowledge his baby daughter, Ruth Kelly Clapton, was his own, but subsequently he provided financial support for her and her mother. In the 1990s, Ruth and her mom moved to Doncaster, England, and in 1998, Ruth gave a spoken word performance on Eric’s song “Inside of Me.”
Patti learned of the pregnancy in the autumn of 1984 and moved out of Hurtwood Edge. She was doubly wounded by the incident because of the fact that she was unable to bear children. Two attempts at in-vitro fertilization had proven unsuccessful. But by bringing Patti along on a holiday to Israel, Eric was able to woo her back to his house in February 1985. He had recorded the song “Never Make You Cry” as his resolve to not hurt her again. The sentiment was short-lived. Later that year, in December, Eric had taken up with another woman, an Italian model-actress named Lori Del Santo. She became pregnant with Clapton’s second child, Conor. This time the rocker seemed proud to be a new dad, when the boy was born on August 21, 1986. He titled his latest album, “August,” in commemoration of the birthdate, and even suggested Lori and his son live under the same roof at Hurtwood with Patti and himself. To the crushed and deflated Patti, this suggestion was finally the last straw.
Patti moved out for good in the winter of 1987, leaving Eric behind with his new family. “It was the most difficult thing I ever did in my life,” she later reflected to the London Daily Telegraph. “I loved him deeply, but knowing he was still seeing Conor’s mother, I felt there was no role for me. Because he loved me, he believed I would be pleased and happy for him that he had a baby. It was as if I was his best friend, that he could tell me everything without realizing how deeply painful this was for me…It probably took me six years to get over it, with four years of psychotherapy. My self-esteem was unbelievably low, and I found it really hard to build up relationships because I had been used to difficult people. Anybody who was sweet and nice to me was no challenge.” Patti cited Lori in her divorce papers and was granted the final separation in 1989. Climbing back from decades of being subservient to egotistical rock stars, she founded a drug and alcohol addiction charity named SHARP in 1991 with Bryan Ferry’s wife, Lucy, Ringo Starr’s spouse, Barbara Bach, and Squeeze musician Jools Holland’s companion Christabel Durham.
Like his father, Clapton was never able to accept the comfort and security afforded by a monogamous relationship. He soon grew tired of being a dad and put Lori and his son into a separate residence. In March 1991, he tried to reconcile with his 4½ -year old boy by visiting with him in New York. He took Conor to a circus in Long Island on March 19th and said to Lori how pleased he was that he had connected so well with his child. The next morning, Conor played ‘hide and seek’ with his nanny in Lori’s 57th street Manhattan apartment, while a janitor fixed a lock on a window. The janitor opened the huge 4’ x 6’ pane of glass to allow a fresh breeze in while he worked. Before any one could have possibly responded, Conor playfully leapt up onto the foot-high window ledge, probably unaware that the great open yawning lay before him, and lost his balance. He fell 53 floors. Clapton arrived to see the paramedics take his beloved boy away. Both Patti and George Harrison attended Conor’s funeral in Surrey, England to lend Eric their support. The shattered singer composed the bittersweet tributes “Tears in Heaven” and “The Circus Left Town” for the son he never truly got to know.
By the time of the tragedy, Eric had gotten ahold of his drinking problem. Having attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings since the late ‘80s, he had finally found the strength to put the disease in its place. When asked by Rolling Stone magazine if he was tempted to tumble into the brandy glass after the devastating loss of his son, he responded, “Never once, no. I’ve been in a program of recovery for nearly four years, and that helped me tremendously. It was somewhere for me to go and talk about it. I may well have gone back to something or other if it hadn’t been for that.” Taking recovery one step further, he helped found an alcohol and drug abuse clinic on the island of Antigua. The $9,000-a-month Crossroads Centre opened in October 1998 with 36 beds and intensive treatment for local natives as well as visiting addicts.
While he’s been linked with famous personalities such as Michelle Pfeiffer and Sheryl Crow, Clapton has never settled down again in a solid relationship. As of this writing, however, he is set to become a dad again in June 2001. An American graphics artist, 25-year old Melia McEnery, is pregnant with 56-year old Clapton’s child and is scheduled to give birth in Ohio. How much of a role Eric will play in their lives remains to be seen. His track record with the opposite sex has been unstable at best. “I’ve often used women for very, very ulterior motives,” he confessed to Australia’s “60 Minutes.” “As a crutch, as a means of securing my identity, as a way of elevating my status, as a way of making me feel good about myself. Or, just to be mothered, you know. Or for sex. There’s a lot of different motives.” But hindsight, according to the solitary rock legend, has always been kind in its recollections. “I don’t think I’ve had a relationship that has ended with any sour effects,” he confided to Rolling Stone magazine. “I’m very lucky in that the people I’ve loved still love me and I still love them. I think most people will find that even if they’ve broken up under the worst circumstances, the things that draw you to another person will always remain, and the bad stuff just seems to dissipate.”
As for rock’s most notorious triangle of love, George, Patti, and Eric will always keep their legendary bond. Eric is still as fond of his ex-Beatle friend as they were of each other in the 1960s. “We get on fine,” Clapton told Mojo magazine in 1998. “We both put quite a lot of work into our relationship. We go out of our way to touch base and see one another, and I love him dearly. Someone like George has a very deep meaning for me in my life.” As for his all-consuming quest to wrench Patti away from Harrison, Clapton said to interviewer Larry King, “It’s something I regret…I admired him and I fell in love with her…I became addicted to drugs seriously during that period because I couldn’t cope. And I sought that as a way out of the situation because I didn’t know how to deal with it.” He offered more soul-searching to interviewer Ed Bradley: “I don’t know if I was capable of knowing what love was then. I was obsessed with this woman. That’s why I say I don’t know if I loved her. Because, as a practicing drunk, which I was then, I just wanted something very badly.”
For Patti Clapton, her place in rock history will forever be associated with the Shakespearean focal point she represented in this tale of love conquered and lost. She seems satisfied and relieved enough knowing it all appears to be behind her now. “Maybe it had more to do with them,” she related to the London Daily Telegraph. “Perhaps Eric just wanted what George had. I don’t know – I just think it’s amazing we’ve come through it and we’re all still alive.” For Eric and George, their “Layla” will always represent a lover whose song carries a life of its own. “We’re still very much the same in the way we think about and feel about each other,” Clapton observed to Rolling Stone. “Patti is still there in the picture for all of us.”
© 2001 Ned Truslow