Out of tune

October 28, 2007


As many rock fans know, Pattie Boyd is the former model turned travel photographer who wed one of the greatest musical talents of the '60s, George Harrison, inspiring him to write one of his most enduring Beatles songs, "Something," before becoming entwined in a love triangle with her husband and his friend and fellow guitar god, Eric Clapton, who in turn wrote the immortal "Layla" about the intensity of his love.

It's a heck of a story -- mythic in proportions, really -- and any music enthusiast intrigued enough to tackle 342 pages of the newly published and much-hyped Clapton: The Autobiography or 336 pages of Boyd's Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Me (written with Penny Junor) is rightly going to expect some profound insights into the nature of love -- real or imagined, refreshingly straightforward or hopelessly complex.

Unfortunately, while Clapton and Boyd offer plenty of minor glimpses into fascinating lives that took them from humble beginnings to worldwide fame, the most telling example of why both books are ultimately unsatisfying can be seen in the way each first-time author relates the climactic moment in their relationship, when Clapton confessed his love for Boyd to Harrison after the former mop-top arrived at a party to find the adulterous couple intimately chatting in the garden.

"To my complete horror, Eric said, 'I have to tell you, man, that I'm in love with your wife,' " Boyd writes. "I wanted to die. George was furious. He turned to me and said, 'Well, are you going with him or coming with me?' And I said, 'George, I'm coming home.' I followed him to his car, we got into it, and he sped off. When we got home I went to bed and he disappeared into his recording studio."

Whoa, Nelly! (That happens to be Clapton's nickname for Boyd, by the way.) One of pop culture's biggest loves since Romeo and Juliet explodes like an atomic bomb on a misty English morning, and no one says a word afterward? We must be missing something! But Clapton's account of the same scene is even sketchier and more elliptical -- and he doesn't even mention Boyd's presence.

After he saw Harrison at the party, Clapton writes that he "blurted the whole thing out to him: 'I'm in love with your wife.' The ensuing conversation bordered on the absurd. Although I think he was deeply hurt -- I could see it in his eyes -- he preferred to make light of it, almost turning it all into a Monty Python situation. I think he was relieved in some way, though, because I'm sure all the time he knew what had been going on, and now I was finally owning up to it."

Boyd eventually married Clapton and then divorced him because of his drug addiction, alcoholism and many infidelities; Clapton and Harrison somehow repaired their friendship and remained close until the latter's death in 2001. Boyd and Clapton both justify the casual, almost haphazard way they tackle their fabled romance and the ruined marriages left in its wake by noting that they only realized, more than three decades later, that the emotional turmoil was exacerbated and possibly created by immature and otherwise unhealthy young people living in a surreal bubble of wealth, fame and cultural upheaval. She goes on at some length about finally finding self-esteem through therapy, while Clapton slowly and inexorably marches toward rehab shortly before the tragic death of his young son Conor.

To their credit, Clapton and Boyd both favor direct and generally self-deprecating first-person prose mercifully short on the annoying self-aggrandizement prevalent in so many celebiographies: lots of short sentences; not much mythologizing. This actually serves Boyd better than Clapton, since she was more of an observer, and she refrains from romanticizing the huge talents in her life. In contrast, Ol' Slowhand's just-the-facts accounts of some of the more amazing moments in his storied career wind up making these events seem banal, if not downright boring.

Now clean and sober, Clapton is further plagued by bursts of recovery-speak. "Addiction doesn't negotiate, and it gradually crept up on me, like a fog," he writes. Yet for all of his 12-step re-examinations, the deepest insight he ultimately offers is that addiction is "a mysterious phenomenon."

An even bigger mystery -- and the most serious hole in the center of the guitarist's autobiography -- is the source of his creativity and the nature of his relationship with music. The former leader of the Yardbirds, Cream and Blind Faith turned fabulously successful solo artist writes very little about songwriting and recording, or even about his musical fandom. The passion inherent in the tortured vocal and gorgeous guitar solos of "Layla" are ultimately more honest, inspiring and eloquent than Clapton's account of it.

In the end, the worst that can be said of Wonderful Tonight is that Boyd would have been better served by a lengthy and well-balanced magazine profile. But the biggest knock on Clapton: The Autobiography, for which the author was reportedly paid almost $7 million, is that it just doesn't resonate with the reader as effectively as his music moves the listener.




By Pattie Boyd

Harmony Books, 336 pages, $25.95



Broadway Books, 342 pages, $26