Among those who saw the unhappy years of Eric from close quarters was Gary Brooker. The ex-leader of Procol Harum, the group that ran for ten years from 1966 and recorded the international psychedelic anthem ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, bought a pub, the Parrot Inn, two miles from Clapton’s house. The year was 1976, bang in the middle of Eric’s drinking years.
Clapton and Brooker had first met in the Sixties. Cream were playing ‘Strange Brew’ and Procol Harum ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ on television’s ‘Top of the Pops’. Later, Brooker’s band toured America in the footsteps of Cream, and he says they were ‘staggered’ at the breakthrough Cream had achieved. ‘Before them, bands like the Animals and Herman’s Hermits had played the big cities, but now Cream were breaking records in places like Akron, Ohio! They were everywhere.’
After Eric had wandered into Gary Brooker’s pub one night to find him behind the bar, the two became friendly. Two years later, when Procol had ended, Gary had gone solo as a singer-songwriter-keyboardist. Eric asked him if he wanted to join his band, complementing the rocky piano work of Chris Stainton.
‘The day he asked me to join, I saw that he had a problem,’ says Gary Brooker. ‘He said he wanted someone strong in the band.’ Brooker’s role was to be twofold: as an experienced bandleader; he was expected to help knock the band into shape and take some of the leadership responsibilities from Eric; and he was also to help Clapton emerge from the shroud of bleary boozing.
‘Eric’s condition was very worrying,’ says Gary Brooker. ‘Often we’d get drunk together, but I was surprised that he’d flake out, or be drunk many times in addition to the ones when we had a drink together. And he’d crack up, in tears. I tried to get to the bottom of what it was ... and Eric would say things like: "Oh, I just want to play the blues." This wasn’t just the drink talking, it was something very deep that troubling him. It was distressing.’ Brooker tried to convince Clapton that part of the problem was that his musicians at that time – Chris Stainton, Dave Markee (bass guitar), Albert Lee (guitar), and Henry Spinetti (drums)—didn’t behave like a band. ‘We should all get together more often, get to know each other,’ said Brooker. A stiff attempt to do so, a formally arranged jam-session in the barn of Brooker’s home, did not ignite; the others failed to understand why Gary had been brought into the band in the first place. ‘I think the others revered him and didn’t mix, whereas he’d enjoy coming round to my hotel room, or me to his, at eleven in the morning for a chat. He seemed removed from the band and I don’t think that helped.’
In a vivid recollection of the days he saw Eric behaving emotionally, Gary Brooker says: 'There were tears in his eyes on some occasions. He’d say to me: "I'm cracking up." He didn't like what he was doing to himself but he couldn't get out of it. He said it was such a slow process, winning himself round to saying; I don't want to be this person any more. It definitely seemed to hurt him to realize he was ruining himself. The worst periods, predictably, were when there was no concert tour on the road, no album to prepare, and consequently no responsibilities to work. Clapton always performs best, as a person, when he faces the prospect of putting himself through the hoop. ‘ The other time I saw Eric cry was when we all went to see the film ET in America. There wasn’t a dry eye among the whole band,’ says Brooker.
On 20 February 1979 the inner man surfaced in a particularly
emotional entry in his diary: ‘I realized today that I am a
very nervous and bitter man. I‘ve been reviewing some of my
records to help Nell [Pattie] put together a programme for the
tour and I felt it come through the music ...God bless all, I’m
scared stiff and I don’t know how to deal with it yet. I
know I’m good, but good enough for you? I drink too much and
I lie mostly to myself, I write this to you because I need your
help. All I know is your gift and you can have it back any time
you like. You see, I lie. Dear Lord, please give me strength to
stop drinking all the time and please grace my hands with the
beauty that we all know. I am yours, EC’ Two days later came
a short entry summarizing the whole day, and what was to be a
continuing problem surrounding his forth coming tour: ‘A lot
of trouble today,’ wrote Eric, ‘concerning the
itinerary clause about no women on the road. Still not much done.’
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