When a musician is as talented and successful as Eric Clapton, it’s easy to see them as a larger-than-life figure that is essentially indestructible. We idolize and worship rock stars and relish the idea of them living the stereotypical touring lifestyle on the road. In a profession where booze, drugs and anonymous women are commonplace, it’s exceeding easy for rock stars to fall victim to these vices. For Clapton, alcohol was one such vice that took control of him.
Millions of people battle addiction and millions of people lose that battle. It’s extremely difficult for someone who is not an addict to put themselves in an addict’s shoes, which is why there is often a communication breakdown between someone abusing drugs or alcohol and someone who is not. For the addict, there needs to be a wakeup call of some kind or they’ll probably lose the battle. That wakeup call can come in an endless amount of different forms, but is essential to paving the road to recovery.
One would think that the death of a colleague, friend and music luminary like Jimi Hendrix would serve as the perfect wakeup call for someone like Slowhand. Unfortunately, it was not. “I’d bought Jimi Hendrix a guitar – this white left-handed Stratocaster,” Clapton once said in an interview. “The following day, I learned that Jimi was dead, that he’d passed out after getting stoned on a mixture of booze and drugs, and choked on his own vomit.” Again, this seemed like an incident that would open Clapton’s eyes and help him stop his abuse of alcohol, but it did not. “Why didn’t that stop me?” he rhetorically asked in the same interview. “Well, I can only say that it was arrogance. Arrogance in that I believed that I was going to be all right. I guess I was behaving like some sort of pseudoartist, you know, exploring the dark side.”
Clapton acknowledged that people in his life tried to talk some sense into him, but were unsuccessful due to that communication barrier as mentioned earlier. “It must have been risky business for the people who tried to stop me,” he said. “Upon reflection, I can see all the care and love that it took to come talk to me during the period when I was underground. I can see how fucking careless and callous I was to slap them all in the face by not listening.” It’s the mentality of the addict that is a major barrier in the attempt to get them help, as it will only work if they themselves truly want that help. Clapton described his thought process as an addict questioning his life as “Everyone says I’m in a fix. Am I in a fix? I don’t know, am I? I don’t feel like I’m in a fix. How do I get out of the fix I’m in?” It must be a helpless feeling not know whether to believe what people you love are telling you about yourself. That’s how clouded your own sense of self can be when mired in the depth of addiction.
While an event like Hendrix’s death didn’t hit home enough, it took an interesting series of events for Clapton to finally wake up to his problem. “It was the fishing rod that told me I had hit rock bottom,” Clapton explained. “I had always thought of myself as a good fisherman. I drove to the River Wey and found a spot. I had just managed to get my gear set up when I lost my balance, fell over onto one of my rods, and broke it. I could no longer even fish. Bang, I was at rock bottom. You are not a fisherman, mister. Wake up.”
It was that event that evoked the willingness to seek help for Clapton, who eventually came to terms with his addiction and has since bested his greatest foe. Just think, if he’d never decided to go fishing that day, the world may have lost out on so much of his great work since and there may be no Eric Clapton tickets to see him perform today.