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Best Years Of His Life

Sun Herald

Sunday January 4, 2009

By RACHEL BROWNE

Richard Clapton shrugs off veteran status and talks about making albums and living life his own way.

Richard Clapton has just flown back to Sydney, having spent the weekend playing to a packed audience of admiring fans at a winery in Victoria's Yarra Valley. He admits the weekend has taken its toll.

"My Melbourne band are very young and, er, yes ... I'm finding it hard to keep up with them," he says with a hoarse laugh.

Could the rock'n'roll lifestyle finally be catching up with Clapton, who, at 57, is almost automatically tagged with descriptors such as "venerable" and "enduring"?

No, not at all. He gently brushes off suggestions of veteran status and almost bristles at the term survivor. And yet, the singer-songwriter has been making music for almost four decades, he's released 19 albums, recorded 135 songs and written hundreds more. And he has no intention of hanging up his microphone any time soon.

"I started doing this 35 years ago just because I love music," he says.

"If you get into this business - for want of a better word - for the right reasons and for pretty organic and pure reasons, you're always going to sustain your passion for what you do."

Passion will only get you so far, though. While many of Clapton's contemporaries have faded into obscurity, he continues to write songs, record and perform in pubs, clubs and the current baby boomer venue of choice, wineries.

"I'm busier than I have ever been," he says. "I think that my audience are now parents whose children have left home. There is a great number of Australian baby boomers who are relishing this new freedom. They want to get out there and rock out. I'm sure then they scurry back to their homes in the suburbs. But, have no doubt, there are 40-, 50-, 60-year-olds still out there rocking."

Himself included. He's just released a live recording of his show at the State Theatre and will kick off a national tour with Jackson Browne in February. He might find it hard to keep up with his more youthful band members but he is resisting any inclination to slow down.

Writing songs, however, gets more challenging as the years go by.

"One tends to set a benchmark and then tries to keep improving on it," he explains. "I am a lot more fastidious about what I'm doing. Nowadays, if I am writing a lyric I'll probably write several drafts of that lyric before I am happy with it."

He's always written songs from personal experience. His first single, Last Train To Marseilles, released in 1972, was inspired by his travels through Europe. His most famous song, Girls On The Avenue, sprang from an alcohol-soaked night at a Sydney bar checking out the passing female talent.

These days, he's writing more and more about social issues.

"I probably write a bit more socio-politically now than I used to," he says. "I always loved the fact that Dylan wrote songs about things his generation could relate to. I know it had such an impact on me as a young man and 40 years later I'm trying to do the same thing."

He does most of his work in what he describes as "an English pub-recording studio" underneath his house in the North Shore suburb of Wahroonga but he has been known to tinker with songs on his laptop during long flights around Australia.

He manages himself and runs his career like a cottage industry after becoming disenchanted with managers and record companies.

"The home studio has been liberating for me and many others," he says. "You don't have to get bogged down in even having a record deal, really, let alone how you are going to rack up the money to make an album in a studio.

"Going into a recording studio and doing things the old-fashioned way is a very, very expensive process."

His 17th album, Diamond Mine, was recorded entirely at his home.

"Prior to that they were all done in $5000-a-day studios with a group of people breathing down my neck, pressuring me to get the record finished because it was costing so much money," he says.

"I worked on Diamond Mine for about four years, simply because I could. I wasn't limited by time. It was so much fun."

Clapton shares his home with his wife, Susie, and 18-year-old twin daughters, Saskia and Montana, the three of whom he credits with saving him from the music industry's worst excesses.

In his official biography, he openly admits that his "legendary love of hard-core partying" was threatening to bring his career to an early halt.

"I'd been living a really crazy existence for years," he admits, "and it was really taking its toll on my health and my family - and, quite rightly, Susie was putting forth the point of view that perhaps it was time I changed tack. So I guess I found myself at a fork in the road, where I was thinking about getting out of Sydney and taking the family somewhere safer."

The family sought sanctity in rural living for several years before returning to Sydney.

Today, Clapton says he still keeps work and family separate, sparing them his infamous alter ego, Ralph, the wild man of rock.

"Throughout my daughters' lives I have always managed to separate church and state very distinctly. I have two very different personas. Ralph is the one who gets on stage and jumps off amplifiers and Richard is the one who goes home to lead a quiet life as the doting dad."

It's at opposite poles from Clapton's own upbringing, pock-marked with loneliness and tragedy. His mother was a night nurse at Sydney Hospital and his Australian-Chinese father was a doctor. His parents' relationship was volatile and they had divorced by the time he was two. He lived with his mother, who struggled with mental illness, periodically placing her son in homes when she was unable to care for him.

She committed suicide when he was 10 and, a few days later, the father he didn't remember came for him and placed him in boarding school at Trinity Grammar in Summer Hill.

Clapton would see out his adolescence at Trinity, listening to the Rolling Stones and playing air guitar until his best friend's father bought him a real one. His father, who wanted his son to follow him into medicine, was outraged.

Although his father died five years ago, Clapton is uncomfortable discussing his early life but believes it forged his path as a songwriter.

"They say - and I know this is going to sound pompous but I'll spit it out - that songwriters born into broken families turn out to be the best," he says. "That rings true with me. What happened to me when I was young, I think it made my whole life a bit unsettling.

"I think that's where a lot of my inspiration comes from. I think there is a desire to, I don't know, connect with people."

As soon as he finished his final exams, he scrounged enough money together to get on a ship bound for Britain. The year was 1967 and London was in full swing.

"I was just busting to get out of boarding school and get out of Australia," he says. "To put it in a crass sort of way, I wanted to leave all my troubles behind. I was escaping. In retrospect, I would say it was one of the best moves that I made and I am so glad I did that at a formative stage of my life.

"I doubt that I would be doing what I am doing now if I had been born into a comfort zone, had an easy early life.

"I had a lot of major upheavals in my early life. Without that I don't know that I would have been able to write a lot of the songs I have written."

He changed his name to Richard Clapton, after his two favourite guitarists, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton, attended art school at London's St Martins in the Field and worked in an art studio .

After three years he was deported for overstaying his visa and arrived in Europe where he hitchhiked to Berlin. Having run out of money, he slept in a train station.

"Now I really value that time," he says. "Talk about being shaken out of your comfort zone."

As the years passed, he started writing songs and playing in bands. Like many Australians overseas, he started to hear word of the winds of change in Canberra, where Labor's Gough Whitlam had just been elected prime minister.

"I came back at one of the greatest periods in Australian history," he says. "When I left Australia I always felt it was a bit of a cultural backwater. When I came back it was as if there had been an explosion of artistic talent."

He secured a record deal with Festival and made his first album, Prussian Blue, which sank without a trace - an inauspicious debut for a career that would span 35 years.

"But I was never discouraged because I had made my mind up by then," he says. "I was a songwriter. I write songs. That was the only thing I wanted to do."

Perhaps he is a survivor after all.

© 2009 Sun Herald

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