The Public Anguish of Eric Clapton

By Maxim W. Furek, MA, CADC, ICADC

eric clapton playing guitar

Drugs were a part of the 70’s scene, symbolic of rebellion, individualism, and the culture of the times. While legendary guitarist Eric Clapton is recognized for his role in influencing the era’s music, he is also regrettably known for his addiction and public anguish.

Clapton was a shy kid from Surrey, England who found strength in playing guitar, and especially the blues. At the age of 18, he played with the Yardbirds. That stint only lasted two years but soon “Clapton is God” was seen spray painted on walls throughout the UK. He then formed Cream with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker and released psychedelic hits, such as “Sunshine of Your Love,” “White Room” and “Crossroads.” 

Clapton was the proverbial rolling stone. After Cream he formed Blind Faith, then played with Delaney, Bonnie and Friends, and, after that, formed Derek and the Dominos, with former members of Delaney’s band. It didn’t take long for Clapton to get lured into the drug-fueled industry. In Clapton, The Autobiography he recalled:

All we did was jam and jam and jam and night would become day and day would become night, and it just felt good to me to stay that way. I had never felt so musically free before. We kept ourselves going with fryups and a cocktail of drink and drugs, mostly cocaine and Mandrax. 

The band members would take “Mandies,” strong sleeping pills along with cocaine and alcohol. Mandrax, known as  “mandrakes” or “mandies” in the UK, was a combination drug that contained 250mg methaqualone and 25mg diphenhydramine, an antihistamine. The sedative Methaqualone was sold as Quaalude or  Sopor, and used in the early 1970’s for treating insomnia, and as a muscle relaxant, but Clapton’s group took it for the euphoria: 

This became the chemistry of our lives, mixing all these things together. God knows how our bodies stood it.

Called “ludes,” “disco biskets” or “sopers,” Methaqualone became popular as a recreational  club drug in the late 1960’s and 1970’s. Sales of the drug were terminated due to widespread abuse and addictiveness, and in 1984 the drug was moved to the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Schedule I, making it illegal in the United States.

By 1971, Eric Clapton was addicted and severely incapacitated. Writer Jake Wyatt observed that after Cream broke up in 1968, Clapton suffered in his public anguish:

He was an alcoholic and addicted to heroin by the time he began playing solo in 1970. It wasn’t long for his addictions to affect his career. Clapton passed out onstage during George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh in 1972. 

Clapton wrote that he spent over two decades in a drug induced stupor, preyed upon by parasitic drug dealers swarming around wealthy rock stars:

A lot of drugs were also around, and I think this was when heroin began to come into my life. A particular dealer used to come around whose deal was that you could buy as much coke as you wanted on the condition that you took a certain amount of smack at the same time. I would snort the coke and store all the smack in a drawer of an antique desk.

Clapton was afraid of injecting heroin and began to snort it. He became addicted to the semi-synthetic opiate, a habit that lasted a little over three years. There were reasons for his addiction, some obvious, others not. Clapton was fixated on the mythology surrounding jazz musicians like Charlie Parker and Ray Charles, and bluesmen like Robert Johnson and wanted to live a similar lifestyle. Another was the irrational thought that he was on a journey into the darkness and had to “see it through to find out what was on the other side.” He snorted heroin infrequently, maybe every two weeks, then once, twice or three times a week, and then once a day. Clapton wrote, “It was so insidious, it took over my life without my really noticing. The heroin that he became addicted to was raw and pure, yet Clapton thought he could use it without any harm:

I just assumed that I was in some way immune to it and that I wouldn’t get hooked. But addiction doesn’t negotiate, and it gradually crept up on me, like a fog. 

In his autobiography Clapton, the guitar god stated that he spent roughly $16,000 a week on heroin. Rather than seeking drug addiction treatment, he was often confined to his home. In 1974, three years before she and George Harrison divorced, former model Patti Boyd helped Clapton kick his addiction. 

Even when he was strong enough to conquer his heroin addiction, Clapton still had his battles with cocaine and alcohol. He once had to perform a concert lying on his back, as he was too drunk to stand up and play. He said to NRP Music in 2007:

It didn’t seem that outlandish to me, and in fact, probably was all I was capable of. It was either that or just laying down somewhere else. The fact that I was laying down on stage means at least I showed up.

He entered treatment at Hazelden for alcoholism in 1982, and wrote candidly about his public anguish in his autobiography:

In the lowest moments of my life, the only reason I didn’t commit suicide was that I knew I wouldn’t be able to drink any more if I was dead. It was the only thing I thought was worth living for, and the idea that people were about to try and remove me from alcohol was so terrible that I drank and drank and drank, and they had to practically carry me into the clinic.

He lived the blues, his life a much-publicized struggle of public anguish. He wrote “Layla” begging girlfriend Patty Boyd to return his love and, after his four-year-old son Conor died in a tragic accident, wrote “Tears from Heaven.” Clean and sober for decades, Clapton’s current mission is to help others with their struggles. The Crossroads Centre for drug and alcohol addiction was founded by Clapton in 1998 and is located on the Caribbean Island of Antigua. He named his rehab center “Crossroads,” after a song by Robert Johnson, his lifelong idol.

Maxim W. Furek has a rich background that includes aspects of psychology, addictions, mental health and music journalism. His book The Death Proclamation of Generation X: A Self-Fulfilling Prophesy of Goth, Grunge and Heroin explores the dark marriage between grunge music and the beginning of the opioid crisis.