In 1991, Eric Clapton’s life was torn to shreds in a moment when he lost his son, Conor, to tragic circumstances when he was only four years old. Understandably, the musician was inconsolable, and he dealt with his grief the only way he knew how — by writing new songs.
Every parent’s worst nightmare occurred in New York City, where Clapton was living with the mother of his child, Lory Del Santo. She lived in a high-rise, and under law at the time, condos were exempt from state law for all apartments to have guarded windows, and it was up to the owners of the property to install their own safety measures.
A freak accident took place during a visit from Del Santo’s housekeeper, who opened the six-by-four window while Conor was out of the room. Tragically, the New York Times later revealed that she was unable to stop him from “[darting] past”, falling out of the window from the 53rd floor of a Manhattan apartment, tragically falling to his death.
Following his death, Clapton dived headfirst into his work, which was the only thing he could do to occupy his mind. Famously, his song ‘Tears In Heaven’ showed the inner-workings of his grief, and he returned to the topic in 1998 on his track, ‘Circus’, where he relived his final night in the company of his son.
“The last night I spent with Conor, we went to the circus,” Clapton explained to the BBC in 1998. “After the show, we were driving back to New York City and all he could remember, all he could talk about was this clown. He’d seen a clown with a knife, which was something quite frightening but he liked it – I mean it excited him.
“And so that is in the lyrics, I was paying tribute to this night with him and also seeing him as being the circus of my life. You know – that particular part of my life has now left town.”
Before Conor came into his life, Clapton was a man on the brink following his divorce from Pattie Boyd, and his son’s arrival was the ultimate blessing. “When he was born, I was drinking, and he was really the chief reason that I went back to treatment, because I really did love this boy,” Clapton later reflected. “I thought, ‘I know he’s a little baby, but he can see what I’m doing, and I’m tired of this.'”
After Conor helped him find himself again, his death made Clapton once again veer down the wrong path, and the pain would cause the guitarist to fall into destructive habits, making a string of relationships break down in the years that followed. “The same could be said about the death of my son in 1991 and me getting into the weirdest relationships for the rest of the ’90s before I met my present wife,” Clapton later reflected. “I never saw a connection until recently. I was lost again. Looking for something. Probably for mothering. Now I can see, ‘Yeah, you really didn’t do very well coming out of that’ – although I was able to express it musically.”
As Clapton explained, in day to day normal life, he finds it difficult to express his emotions. Still, when he sits down with a guitar in his hand, somehow he can convey the thoughts that fill his mind, such as that sacred evening he spent at the circus in the company of Conor for the final time.