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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

BLOCK: Eric Clapton looks back, sober now, and wonders how he survived his decades of drug and alcohol addiction.

(Soundbite of song "Cocaine")

Mr. ERIC CLAPTON (Musician): (Singing) If you wanna hang out, you've got to take her out, cocaine.

BLOCK: That's Eric Clapton's version of the J.J. Cale song, "Cocaine" released in 1977. And at the time, Clapton was consuming copious amounts of cocaine and alcohol, and had only recently beaten a daily heroin habit. Clapton has been sober for 20 years now. He's 62 and the father of three young daughters ages 6, 4 and 2. Yesterday on the program, I talked with Eric Clapton about the blues. Today, we'll hear about his many years of addiction. He writes in detail about those lost years in his new autobiography. He calculates that at one point he was spending the current equivalent of 8,000 pounds a week on heroin or about $16,000.

Mr. ERIC CLAPTON (Musician): Financially, it was ridiculous. And, you know, it was - it was what it was, you know? I mean, I - the thing about that kind of addiction that's pretty funny on reflection, is that I always thought, I mean, I'm handling this. I can handle it. You know, I can stop any time I like. I just don't want to stop right now.

BLOCK: During those years, those decades of addiction, how did the music survive? I mean, how were you able to function on stage?

Mr. CLAPTON: I didn't do much stage work. Actually, I - from the time I first got deeply involved with heroin, it went on for about three years. And in most of that time, I stayed at home. I kind of played, but I didn't perform live very often. I think what really kept me going was listening to music. The presence of music in my life has always been the salvation element of it, not necessarily the playing. As much as just being conscious of it, listening to it has kept me moving, you know?

BLOCK: And that was still there?

Mr. CLAPTON: Yeah.

BLOCK: You describe at one point that you were playing an entire show, this is when you're battling alcohol addiction, lying down on the stage with the microphone stand lying beside you, and nobody batted an eyelid. How's that possible?

Mr. CLAPTON: Well, I think everyone else was lying down, as well, I think.

BLOCK: Oh, there you go.

Mr. CLAPTON: And I mean, you joked(ph) about an entire show. The entire show may have lasted all of 25 minutes. I mean those days were extremely casual and crazy. And we're talking about the mid '70s, '75, '76, when anything was possible, it seemed like.

And I think, in the book, I did refer to the fact that there were people who were moving through that period with respect and dignity. And I just didn't run into them that often. So it didn't seem that outlandish to me and, in fact, probably all I was capable of. It was either that or just, you know, lying down somewhere else. The fact that I was lying down on stage means at least I showed up, you know? I mean, better than nothing or maybe better than nothing.

BLOCK: Were there points when you thought, my music is suffering because of this. I have this problem and the music is bad. It's not what I want it to be.

Mr. CLAPTON: I don't think so. I think - in all honesty, I think that would have brought me into recovery earlier. But I think there was something else that I, you know, that needed to learn from the whole experience. I mean, I don't know that I can honestly regret any of it safely because it's brought me to where I am. I mean, I would - my life would not be the same, and I would not have what I have today weren't it for the fact that I went through all this stuff. But I suppose if I do have any regrets, it is that, you know, musically, I lost something there.

BLOCK: You think you might have?

Mr. CLAPTON: I think I might have, yeah. But who's to know?

BLOCK: What was it like, once you were sober, what was it like making music without the influences that have been there for so long?

Mc. CLAPTON: Initially, it was very difficult. As, you know, sexual stuff was difficult too. It was funny because both those things are things that I took for granted. And yet, you know, without alcohol, both of them became very quite difficult and unmanageable.

BLOCK: Sexual stuff was more difficult when you were sober?

Mr. CLAPTON: Yeah.

BLOCK: How's that?

Mr. CLAPTON: Well, my earliest experiences of any kind of relationship with the opposite sex was always fueled by alcohol. And so, when you took it away, I just didn't know what to do. And actually, I was, for quite a while, physically impotent, you know? I just didn't - I was terrified. And that would just - I would be paralyzed with kind of, with fear, you know? And I think musically, it was the same.

BLOCK: Did the music sound different to you when you were sober?

Mr. CLAPTON: Yes, yes.

BLOCK: How so?

Mr. CLAPTON: It sounded loud.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Loud and rough. And just, I mean, and I think it's almost like - well, you know, when people stop smoking, food tastes different. I mean, it doesn't - not everyone would agree that it tastes better, it's just stronger. Well, the tastes are there whereas then they're sort of veiled when you smoke. And alcohol has the same effect on all over those other sensory things, too.

BLOCK: You - you're 62 now and you write very poignantly, I think, about the experience of touring for you as a 62-year-old.

Mr. CLAPTON: Yeah.

BLOCK: You say you're virtually deaf.

Mr. CLAPTON: Hmm.

BLOCK: You don't much like to go out of your hotel rooms, you have physical problems, and that you're going to places that you realize you may be seeing for the last time.

Mr. CLAPTON: Yeah. And I can't be gleefully write about that because a lot of those places were very horrible to me.

BLOCK: Thank God I can check this one off my list.

Mr. CLAPTON: Yeah. And it could be based on anything, you know, the hotel, or the gig, or the audience. And, you know, it's a tough life. There's not many people that - I don't, I can count on one hand the amount of people of my generation that have done it as much as me and still go out there and get kicked in the teeth again and again. And I will still want to do it. I will definitely try to narrow it down to a way that it's comfortable and manageable, but that's what I do. It's really where I believe I shine. You know, if I can use that expression to, about what I do. But that's how it feels to me.

BLOCK: So it doesn't feel like the end of a chapter? That these days are behind you?

Mr. CLAPTON: It's the end of a certain kind of chapter. I don't think those big world tours are possible for me anymore nor are they desirable because there's somewhere else I'd rather be, with my kids and my wife. You know, the home life has a lot of power for me now. And it's where I get most of my satisfaction. Playing on the road is another kind of satisfaction to do with musicality and the fellowship of musicians that I'll always need. And so that's going to still be a part of my life.

(Soundbite of song "Back Home")

Mr. CLAPTON: (Singing) 'Cause I've been on this road too long…

BLOCK: Eric Clapton, thanks so much for coming in.

Mr. CLAPTON: Thank you so much for having me. Thanks.

(Soundbite of song "Back Home")

Mr. CLAPTON: (Singing) Going in the wrong direction. And I don't where I've come from.

BLOCK: Eric Clapton's memoir is "Clapton: The Autobiography." The first part of our conservation is at npr.org.

(Soundbite of song "Back Home")

Mr. CLAPTON: (Singing) All I know is I will die if I don't get back home.

BLOCK: One final note. Yesterday on the program, Eric Clapton told me he heard his first blues song on the radio on a Saturday morning children's show in the 1950s. He recalled the song was "Whoopin' the Blues" by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Well, we've received an e-mail from listener Simon Perry(ph), now, of San Diego. He says the song that Eric Clapton heard as a young boy was actually "Hootin' Blues" from the Sonny Terry trio. How did Simon Perry know? He says he's the one who wrote in requesting the song on that children's radio program.

Mr. SIMON PERRY (Listener): I was astonished when I heard that this appeared to be the very tune, which encouraged him to learn and play the blues. And I just thought, wow, there's an amazing connection there.

BLOCK: Simon Perry tells us, if you don't like the work of Eric Clapton, you could blame me.

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