A Modern Jewish Review of Clapton: The Autobiography
A SECULAR READ
As a musician and someone who loves to read non-fiction, I have a strong affinity for books like these. Though I've read a number of biographies of musicians, Eric Clapton's is the first musician's autobiography I've read, and I liked it a lot!
Written from a very honest and introspective viewpoint, Clapton very easily admits to a life full of vices. He tells us of the difficult but important lessons he had to learn in order to change his life for the better.
Eric Clapton was born out of wedlock in 1945 and was raised by his grandparents. Though he was bright in his youth, he admits now that he did not apply himself in his schooling and focused instead on the blues scene around him. Picking up the guitar and playing in bands when he was young, he also began drinking excessively while still a teen. All this was not long before he was declared a sensational young guitarist, and not long before he had also begun developing habits of excessive drug use. As his fame and fortune grew ever more prominent in his life, so did his substance abuse and his lust life. After several attempts at treatment and rehabilitation to cure his various forms of substance abuse, Clapton successfully became--and has since remained--sober since the late 1980s, several years after he had already become a father. During his life of juggling the imbalances of dysfunctional family lifestyles, drugs and drinking, he recorded hit albums in all sorts of uniforms: as the solo artist, as the pseudonymous bandleader, and playing in all sorts of bands where he always--sometimes against his wishes--shone through as the brilliant star lead guitarist.
Writing that he is seeking retirement now, Clapton, in his days of sobriety, has remained one of the most influential and high-selling musicians still performing and recording these days. But the book is not the story of how he came to be a rockstar. This autobiography is about how Clapton came to find the values that made him the family man he is today.
THE JEWISH READER
Like nearly any other life-story, Clapton is a tale of second (and third and fourth...) chances. It's a record of the wrong turns made and what eventually corrected these ways. This idea of turning or returning to proper paths in life, Teshuvah (literally, "returning"), is a key theme in Jewish living.
In this book, Clapton maps out his evolution from living a selfish and indulgent life to his finding a purpose in helping others: healing friends, family, music fans or substance abusers--each in different ways. In this review, I could do no justice in discussing from a Jewish perspective all of the ways in which Clapton bettered his life and helped those around him, but one particular change in his life really stood out to me as a Jewish reader: the acceptance of God.
KEEPING THE FAITH?
Based on the number of children Clapton bore outside of marriage, it is clear that Eric Clapton is not, by any means, a traditional conservative Christian.
On account of Clapton's non-dogmatic religious life, and on account of Clapton's moderate, sentimental nature, I find his relationship with a real God both fascinating and extremely inspiring. After the death of Eric's son Conor, Clapton writes:
I cannot deny that there was a moment when I did lose faith, and what saved my life was the unconditional love and understanding that I received from my friends and my fellows in the twelve-step program. I would go to a meeting and people would just quietly gather round and keep me company, buy me coffee, and let me talk about what happened. I was asked to chair some meetings, and at one of these sessions, when I was doing a chair on the third step, which is about handing your will over to the care of God, I recounted the story of how, during my last stay in [the rehabilitation center of] Hazelden, I had fallen upon my knees and asked for help to stay sober. I told the meeting that the compulsion was taken away at that moment, and as far as I was concerned, this was physical evidence that my prayers had been answered. Having had that experience, I said, I knew I could get through this.
A woman came up to me after the meeting and said, "You've just taken away my last excuse to have a drink." I asked her what she meant. She said, "I've always had this little corner of my mind which held the excuse that, if anything were to happen to my kids, then I'd be justified in getting drunk. You've shown me that's not true." I was suddenly aware that maybe I had found a way to turn this dreadful tragedy into something positive. I really was in the position to say, "Well, if I can go through this and stay sober, then anyone can." At that moment I realized that there was no better way of honoring the memory of my son. (pp. 245-246)
Eric Clapton's twelve-step program may call for a relationship with God, but what kind of relationship with God does Clapton develop?
Recalling his second stint in a rehabilitation facility (before the death of his son Conor), Clapton writes of his first serious experience of speaking to God:
My second visit to [the rehabilitation center of] Hazelden was, on the face of it, much like the first, but on a deeper level it was very different. This time I had no reservations about why I was there--I had tried to control my drinking and failed... Also, my life had become very complicated and completely unmanageable during my relapse. I now had two children, neither of whom I was really administering to, a broken marriage, assorted bewildered girlfriends, and a career that, although it was still ticking over, had lost its direction. I was a mess.
...I kept coming back to the thought of Conor, the reality of his life and what it required of me, and the horrible possibility that if I didn't get it right this time, history would probably repeat itself. The thought of him going through all that was what finally made the difference. I had to break the chain and give him what I had never really had--a father.
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 notion 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 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 why I do all this, I will tell you... because it works, as simple as that. In all this time that I've been sober, I have never once seriously thought of taking a drink or a drug. I have no problem with religion, and I grew up with a strong curiosity about spiritual matters, but my searching took me away from church and community worship to the internal journal. Before my recovery began, I found my God in music and the arts, with writers like Hermann Hesse, and musicians like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Little Walter. In some way, in some form, my God was always there, but now I have learned to talk to him. (pp. 234-236)
WE ARE THE KNIGHTS WHO SAY KNEE!
Clapton may not have known to whom he was speaking at first, but he still directed whatever he was saying to Whoever would listen. Without a prior firm belief in a God, Clapton still had prayers to say, so he said them. Without a previous history of kneeling in classic Christian prayer, Clapton--born as a Christian--kneeled in his prayer.
In some ways, kneeling is very Christian-sounding, and in some ways, it is very Jewish-sounding. Of course though, much of Christianity is naturally very Jewish-sounding. The very idea of kneeling in prayer has become associated with Christian worship. However, the Hebrew words Birkayim ברכים ("knees") and Barukh ברוך ("blessed") come from the same root that, in Semitic languages, have become associated with both blessings and the movements of our knees. Although the exact choreography differs in the prayer services of each religion, Judaism, Christianity and Islam each have liturgical movements associated with the knees: whether we are bending the knees and bowing, kneeling, or lying flat on our arms and knees.
When Eric Clapton says that his "legs gave away," in some sense his legs also gave a way: a way for Eric Clapton to access God. Familiar with Christianity, Clapton's legs "choose to kneel".
For Clapton, to kneel is to be humbled. And of course, becoming physically humbled is key to prayer in the three Major Abrahamic religions: whether we are covering our heads, covering up our bodies, uncovering our heads, kneeling, lying flat on the ground, or expressing our humility through other phrases in our traditional body language.
HELLO? IS THIS THING WORKING?
The prayers worked. Eric Clapton says, "it works, as simple as that." Eric Clapton isn't speaking of a God who talks directly back to him or a God who is spreading seas and saving peoples. In fact, Clapton does not tell us exactly what God does do in the world. This God is not necessarily active in affecting our free will, but this God is real and so are the results of Clapton's prayers!
Clapton says that this relationship with God is more than "a change of attitude," for he found a special "place to turn to." God is hard to define, and, in Judaism, God goes by many monickers1, among them Makom (מקום), the Hebrew word for "Place." A place does not literally speak, but the presence of a place may speak to one's heart. A place can become a sacred space for reflection, for connection, or for whatever activities with which we fill the void.
Where Clapton finds voids, Clapton prays to the God who listens and understands (but does not necessarily act!). After Clapton has poured out his heart, it is then up to Clapton himself to take responsibility for his actions: to put down the bottle, to quit smoking, to settle into a family and to learn daily lessons in life. But without his daily humbled prayers to God, Clapton's ego will destroy him.
Clapton's God may not directly solve Clapton's problems for him, but Clapton prays to God because "it works" for one to place faith in a power greater than one's self and then to act on one's own behalf daily: to admit and to submit to the humility of humanity2.
DAY AND NIGHT
In the morning, Clapton seeks a goal in "asking [God] for help" and, at night, recalls what he's achieved by "express[ing] gratitude for... life and... sobriety." Checking in with God twice a day may suffice.
In the Rabbinic memory of the early Israelite religion, Korbanot (קרבנות) ("sacrifices," literally "approaches," the standard way of reaching out to God through burnt offerings) were required in the morning and afternoon: twice a day. Remnants of the Korbanot would be sacrificed at night. When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed for the last time in 70 CE and prayer was instituted, prayer was assumed to be obligatory in the morning and afternoon, and, whatever energy people had left for prayer would be left for nighttime prayer. But, the Rabbis assumed that people would be engaged in Jewish liturgy at nighttime, for the Rabbis believed it was necessary to recite the biblical passages of the Shema in the morning and night3.
Clapton isn't trying to keep up with Judaism per se, but Clapton is in good hands when it comes to creating a lifestyle that is resonant with Judaism. He is praying twice a day, which is very Jewish on multiple levels.
DON'T FORGET TO HIT SAVE
Clapton prays and, though he's not a traditional guy, he follows some nice traditions. Clapton says it works. But, why does he have to pray to God specifically? Why doesn't he just think hard and carefully and act properly under his own volition?
It's tough for most people who pray to articulate the benefits of prayer, but Clapton himself sees gifts from God in the end. Most clearly, Clapton speaks of finding salvation or God in the music he hears or the music he makes. To hear God in music after praying to God must be to engage in a truly divine dialogue: to speak to God in prayer and to hear God respond in song.
Further, who knows what else God does or does not do in our lives? Clapton, the ego, must humble himself and know that there is much that he will never know. When he delved most deeply into his vices, Clapton could not control himself. He remembers a time in his life when he would
"jam and jam and jam and night would become day and day would become night... and [I] kept [myself] going with fryups and a cocktail of drink and drugs, mostly cocaine and... quite strong sleeping pills, but instead of letting them put [me] to sleep, [I] would ride the effect, staying awake by snorting some coke or drinking some brandy or vodka, and that would create a unique kind of high... God knows how [my] bod[y] stood it." (123)
Clapton claims not to be much of a talker or a writer, so it cannot be Eric Clapton's job to tell us exactly what it is that God did do for Clapton personally. But it is clear that Clapton realized that there may have been a force outside of his own body trying to keep him alive. Only after the realization of an external force though did Clapton learn to talk to God and to believe in and to appreciate God's favor: to become the benefactor of miracles.
Though his substance abuse could have killed him, something beyond his body kept Clapton going. Clapton, a former member of Blind Faith, began his "internal journey" as a practitioner of blind faith and, only then, gained the ability to open his eyes and see God.
A FEW LAST WORDS
Again, Clapton: The Autobiography, like any successful life-story is the story of Teshuvah, but what I found most fascinating in this book was this subplot of how God came into Eric Clapton's life. To hear of an impoverished child who grows into a philanthropist is certainly incredible. To read of the maladjusted schoolboy who finally finds his way to success in the world is almost inconceivable. To see an inconsolable, introverted drug addict kick the habit and become a family man is almost unbelievable. But I find most shocking here the miracle that, in a world where God is proclaimed dead and a world where religions are blamed for wars, a man named Eric, who had lost control and had succumbed to despair and near-suicide, found salvation and stability in an imperfect world just because he began to believe.
1. God having multiple names reflects the different understandings of God. This does not imply that there are multiple Gods necessarily. Similarly, some theologians argue that Hinduism, which preaches of many Gods, is preaching of multiple identities of one Deity. I personally do believe that God comes in many forms, in different forms, to different peoples and to different people.
2. One of my favorite Jewish adages, which I learned from Rabbi Dr. Stuart Grant, goes something like, "When I pray to God, I pray as if everything depends on God. When I act, I act as if everything depends on me." This Orthodox frame of mind realizes that nothing can be left to solely human or solely divine devices. In the big picture, both God and humanity must bring about the changes we need in life. Reconstructionist Judaism has often preached of God as--not a supernatural and divine being--but the collective goodwill or altruistic impulse of ourselves and our communities. I do believe that, like all streams of Judaism, Eric Clapton treads that fine line that distinguishes between human willpower and divine will. Yet, neither Clapton nor Judaism deny that our prayers are some of the most important steps we make on our quests to reach our goals.
3. "The passages of the Shema" broadly refers to Devarim (דברים) (Deutereonomy) 6:4-9 and 11:13-21 and Bemidbar (במדבר) (Numbers) 15:37-41. Mishnah Berakhot's rationales (1:3, 1:5) for the daily and nightly recitation are the recurrence of the phrase ובשכבך ובקומך ("when you lie down and when you get up") in the first two selections and the biblical command in Devarim 16:3 for Israelites to recall the exodus from Egypt (as mentioned in the third selection) during כל ימי חייך "the entirety of your days."