Classic Rock Review

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Bobby Whitlock A Rock ‘n’ Roll Autobiography (2010)


First: An autobiography by Bobby Whitlock would seem to deserve four stars right off the bat, in and of itself. How could it not? Here is the only true songwriting partner Eric Clapton has ever had, a man who wrote some of the most beloved songs on the Layla album, who was part of the “House Band” on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass record . . . there’s already so much of an “if these walls could talk” feel to Whitlock’s story from that era alone. That said, earning an extra star would require something powerful in the execution, and I can say there are things in this book that will never leave me.

First, there’s the style: I suggest you read this book with the idea that perhaps Whitlock is telling it to you–maybe over a nice big bowl of tea. It unfolds just that way. As to the story itself…there are scenes from his youth that are riveting and disturbing. In fact, I have to applaud Whitlock loudly for breaking a cycle of paternal abuse in his family. The descriptions of his childhood, including the ways his father treated him, pained me a lot, and made it kinda clear why it took him a stretch of time to reach a certain kind of triumphant understanding of his place in the world.

And that place, of course, was staked out through music: Memphis, Stax, Delaney & Bonnie, the generous spirit of incomparable players like Duck Dunn…and Bobby Whitlock in the center. Or, no, not really in the center: Sitting at first behind everyone, watching, learning, absorbing, and bringing us along to see and hear the wonders of it all.

Of course, this is a book about a rock star, and beyond any gossipy stories of drink and drug and very fast cars, we are given an extraordinary travelogue of places Whitlock has lived, unbelievable houses and castles; and I was drawn in most, frankly, but the way he appreciates the beauty of a night sky in Ireland, or even–going back to a childhood that brought on thoughts of escape–the jealously-guarded comforts of a high-ceilinged room he can call home.

And there are fellow rockers, too: Clapton and Harrison and Keith Moon and later on, a gorgeous scene with Willie Nelson. But we see a much more intimate side of these people: most chiefly, their generosity toward Whitlock. Clapton is, of course, especially singled out. Whitlock seems at times like the energetic little brother Clapton never had, the one who knew how to get the best out of him during the most emotional time in his life.

Through much of the book, I couldn’t get a particular Whitlock lyric out of my head: “I was a young man and sure to go astray…” There is an innocence to Whitlock throughout that finds him being taken advantage of too many times, and yet almost always forgiving. There are some epic twists and turns, a crazy mix of Whitlock’s bad relationships and the beautiful studios and rooms he creates, way too many drugs and just enough gentle moments with his kids. And I’ll say this: If you know what it’s like to really love your cat or your dog, you’ll see a lot of yourself in Whitlock.

One more thing worth noting: While he is able to find some beauty and play plenty of great music, Whitlock’s life gets very jagged and very jangly in the middle, and it clearly pains him at times to describe it. Entire marriages get summary coverage because they almost seem to be wrong moves from the very first, with so little communication to speak of. Tinnitus–a constant ringing in the ears–nearly robs him of his sanity, and whatever sanity remains is almost undone at one point by poorly prescribed drugs. There is a particular hallucination Whitlock suffers toward the end of the book due to these drugs that will take me a long time to get past.

And there is action in the midst of it all, too, believe me: A threat of being committed to an institution, a road block, a car chase, all featuring a guy who loses everything again and again before gaining yet another last opportunity to make things better with a song. It sure doesn’t look too easy being a rock star.

But we know from the dedication in the beginning that Whitlock’s story will have a happy ending, and after reading all that darkness, I was mighty relieved when Whitlock came to see the light. All the jagged jangle disappears when Whitlock describes the woman he’d clearly waited his life for, his wife CoCo Carmel. His descriptions of her read like the verses delivered to God in prayer books, except without the fear, jealousy and commotion. It’s all love, respect and wonder: Finally, here’s a wife who would actually sit with Whitlock if he went to the hospital, instead of just dropping him off at the curb. And that is the very least of their bond. It’s funny: there’s even a subtle echo of the yearnings his friend Clapton suffered leading up to Layla. Here’s Whitlock desiring a woman he can’t have; and Coco Carmel, a woman who, before being able to settle down with Whitlock, was both mistreated and unavailable. Whitlock and Carmel’s tale, however, works out quite a bit better in the end, and it’s something like a revelation.

This book is, in other words, quite a ride, and of course I’d recommend it. If you’re lucky, you get to read all kinds of different books in your life for different reasons; this is one you read and find at the end that it has changed you, and made you appreciate a few more things in your life. It’s well worth the trip.

May 16, 2013 Posted by | Book Bobby Whitlock A Rock 'n' Roll Autobiography | , | Leave a comment