Ultimately one must trust the art, not the artist... and here Norman disappoints. His analysis of Clapton’s music is cursory and cliched (there is no discography to even mention those London Howlin’ Wolf sessions), and no analysis to justify Clapton’s inclusion in that bogus “topmost echelon – names that provoke instant, excited reaction in every country and culture”, a category for which, say, Bob Marley makes a better fit. Slowhand fails to drive one back to reassess either the highs or lows of Clapton’s career... That’s another book entirely.
Norman is a noted biographer of figures who belong to rock music’s “tiny topmost echelon”: Buddy Holly, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, John Lennon. Clapton’s ability to “conjure magic from a slab of electrified wood”, he says, easily puts him in that rare class. The guitarist was like a gunslinger who outdrew nearly all his rivals, including the blues masters from whom he learnt to take his first steps. Only one, Jimi Hendrix, remained untouchable. The two men’s mastery over their instruments helped cement rock music’s claims to be taken as seriously as any other musical form. Clapton’s longevity and greater popularity — 129m records sold — puts him in a category all of its own.
...there are times in this account when the reader feels that the examples of debauchery are being held up for inspection between the thumb and forefinger of a white-gloved hand...No such close examination is applied to the music, which is described in the most cursory terms, sometimes inaccurately... and with little attempt to place it in a wider context. This is a pity, since the true value of Clapton’s music remains a subject worthy of debate, but there is a sense that the author can’t wait to get back to the themes that enable him to end a chapter with a sentence such as: “Pattie could hold out no longer.”
...in the end, you’re left with the feeling that the star’s defining quality is an unattractive self-centredness. As usual, the masterful biographer Philip Norman has unearthed countless fascinating details. I knew a lot about Eric Clapton, but I didn’t know that when he sought anonymity at the Connaught Hotel in London, the West Brom fan checked in as ‘Mr W. B. Albion’. Or that during a vodka-soaked stay in Los Angeles, where cars’ front registration plates can say whatever you choose, he drove around as ‘Captain Smirnoff’. Nor did I know that he once took possession of a parrot called Maurice, previously owned by his doting grandmother. ‘Echoing her life’s preoccupation,’ writes Norman, the bird ‘had only ever been taught to say: “Where’s Eric?”
Dramatic though this story is, it only just scrapes into the top 10 of depressing anecdotes from Slowhand... Yet the brisk reportage of Slowhand doesn’t offer too much analysis of Clapton’s work, or of his reputation as Britain’s pre-eminent blues-rock guitarist, a man who, if the graffiti was to be believed, was as close to “God” as a rock musician could get. There’s also little sense of a man plugged into the wider culture, even if he spent a year at Kingston Art School before his talent propelled him from the Yardbirds to John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers to Cream... Instead, Slowhand reads like a textbook account of all the pathologies of the rock-star life: promiscuity, infidelity, heroin addiction, alcoholism... Boyd’s close-up testimony is vital to Slowhand: other key incidents suffer from a lack of detail, or willingness to dig deeper... Slowhand, though, is not a book to send you back to the music, or the man, with any new enthusiasm.
It has taken a biographer as perceptive and clear-sighted as Philip Norman to do Clapton justice, revealing him to be a complex, troubled man whose drive to be the best guitarist of all time — and to sleep with as many women as possible — came from a deep-rooted insecurity and sense of abandonment... Norman, who has written biographies of John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger, has captured Clapton’s contradictions in style. He brings alive a man whose lack of interest in money is such that he was happy to live off £200 a week in cash from his manager for much of his career, yet had an insatiable desire for expensive cars and designer clothes; who was prone to suicidal bouts of despair, yet blessed with supernatural luck; who was driven to be the best guitarist in the world, yet was oddly unambitious... Despite everything, you end up liking Clapton, and feeling as if you know and understand him. It is proof that Norman’s biography has done its work.