Eric Clapton and the song he said he'd never play live again

 JANUARY 01: ROYAL ALBERT HALL Photo of Eric CLAPTON, performing live onstage, playing Martin acoustic guitar.
JANUARY 01: ROYAL ALBERT HALL Photo of Eric CLAPTON, performing live onstage, playing Martin acoustic guitar.

If there’s one song Eric Clapton probably wished he’d never written, it’s Tears In Heaven. A lament to his deceased son Conor, and also full of Clapton’s own self-loathing, it garnered Grammy Awards, empathy and a good deal of admiration for his guitar-playing skills. All that given, who would really cherish accolades for writing about their dead son?

The story of Tears In Heaven is equally tragic and bizarre. On 20 March 1991, four-year-old Conor Clapton climbed through an open window from a Manhattan hotel apartment and fell 53 floors to his death. The boy was staying with his mother, Clapton’s previous partner, Italian model Lory Del Santo. Clapton and Del Santo were separated, and Clapton was still an alcoholic.

“I was a baby trying to look after a baby, so I just let Lory raise him, which she did brilliantly,” he admitted in his 2007 autobiography. Clapton tried to be as good a father as he could manage, and had taken Conor to the circus the previous day (see Circus from EC’s Pilgrim album).

Tears In Heaven was first recorded as part of Clapton’s soundtrack for the movie Rush (1991). Why such a grief-laden song was submitted for a drug/ police thriller soundtrack, only Clapton knows. His co-lyricist on the Rush project was Will Jennings, who later won an Oscar for penning the lyrics to My Heart Will Go On, the Celine Dion-sung theme for the ’97 movie Titanic.

This is a song so personal and so sad... it is unique in my experience of writing songs

As Jennings explained to Songfacts: “We wrote a song called Help Me Up for the end of the movie... then Eric saw another place in the movie for a song and he said to me, ‘I want to write a song about my boy’. Eric had the first verse of the song written, which, to me, is all the song, but he wanted me to write the rest of the verse lines and the release [‘Time can bring you down/time can bend your knees...’], even though I told him that it was so personal he should write everything himself.

“He told me that he had admired the work I did with Steve Winwood,” Jennings continued, “and finally there was nothing else but to do as he requested, despite the sensitivity of the subject. This is a song so personal and so sad... it is unique in my experience of writing songs.”

Clapton himself, in 1993, recalled being bullish about the task: “The timing was perfect because they needed a song about loss and I had plenty of them. Tears In Heaven was actually in a very embryonic stage when I was approached, and I completed it for Rush.”

In many ways, Conor Clapton’s tragic death marked the rebirth of Eric Clapton. The singer not only had to deal with a traumatic funeral – Conor’s maternal grandmother tried to throw herself into the grave as Conor’s coffin was lowered – he was also edging into sobriety via the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program.

Despite his numbed grief, Clapton remained sober and found a new focus. In his autobiography, he wrote: “I was suddenly aware of the fact that there was a way to turn this dreadful tragedy into something positive. I really was in the position of being able to say, ‘Well, if I can go through this and stay sober, then anyone can’. At that moment I realised that there was no better way of honouring the memory of my son.”

The best-known version of Tears In Heaven later appeared on Clapton’s 1992 Unplugged album, recorded at Bray Film Studios near Windsor in Berkshire, with a band including Andy Fairweather-Low also on guitar and Nathan East on bass.

Creatively, Unplugged also proved a turning point for Clapton. It reunited him with an organic style of acoustic blues – leading to the outstanding From The Cradle album of 1994 – and was a considerable commercial and critical success. Tears In Heaven, released as a single, was itself a huge hit, reaching No 2 on the Billboard Top 100.

A lot of people don’t know how to deal with death. It’s not something that we’re taught in school.

Cynics may argue there was a degree of sympathy vote or grief tourism in Tears In Heaven’s success, but you’d have to be a harsh critic indeed to argue that other Clapton hits, such as his reggae-lite version of I Shot The Sheriff, were actually better. The song certainly hit a chord with people who had possibly never listened to Eric Clapton before.

“My mail for the next year was phenomenal,” he recalled. “I got at least 150 letters a day directly from people who were dealing with their own grief... and not really having the tools to deal with it. A lot of people don’t know how to deal with death. It’s not something that we’re taught in school.”

To record Tears In Heaven, Clapton played a José Ramírez III nylon string guitar, newly built in ’91. In a video for the song, he played a Juan Alvarez classical, built in 1977. When Clapton auctioned the second batch of his guitar When Clapton auctioned the second batch of his guitar collection in 2004 – to benefit his Crossroads Centre in Antigua for recovering addicts – the two sold for just over $280,000.

Despite the song’s desolate subject matter, Tears In Heaven is not of a blues structure. It’s best described as a ballad, with familiar chords around the key of A. The toughest task, guitar-wise, is handling the fingerpicking and fretting the bass notes (probably with your thumb over the neck as Clapton played it).

Have a go at playing it, because Eric Clapton will not play Tears In Heaven ever again: “I can’t play that anymore," he told Esquire in 2008. "It would be inappropriate to use the memory of my son or what I felt at that time to gain any kind of influence with the audience."

This remained the case until 2015, when Clapton began to revisit Tears In Heaven with a more upbeat, reggae-inflected rhythmic treatment for his Slowhand At 70 show at the Royal Albert Hall.  It's appeared in the setlists frequently since, most recently for his show at RD Studios in London on 8 December 2003, recorded for the To Save A Child live album with proceeds donated in aid of children in Gaza.

"The key thing that I learned about life from the death of my son was that we only have this moment," Clapton reflected in a 60 Minutes interview. "That we don’t have tomorrow. Tomorrow doesn’t exist. Anything can happen even before the sun sets.”