This month, music lovers will be treated to the 50th-anniversary edition of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass triple album. Originally released in November 1970, the Quiet Beatle’s blockbuster solo LP has enjoyed increasing critical renown as the premier Beatles solo album.
All Things Must Pass pointedly shares its anniversary year with Derek and the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Also released in November 1970, the Eric Clapton–led Dominos’ LP was a signpost for what is arguably rock ’n’ roll’s most vaunted love triangle.
For Clapton, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs was the musical culmination of his runaway obsession with Harrison’s wife, Pattie Boyd, the British model who famously inspired the Beatles’ chart-topping hit “Something.” Driven increasingly mad by his desire for Pattie, Clapton turned to 12th-century Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi’s The Story of Layla and Majnun, a heartrending tale of unrequited love, as a means of articulating his attraction.
Over the years, Clapton and Boyd’s story of infatuation and betrayal has taken on the proportions of an epic pop-cultural romance. But in the research for our book All Things Must Pass Away: Harrison, Clapton, and Other Assorted Love Songs, it became increasingly clear that Clapton and Boyd’s unbridled attraction was not the only thing that they shared.
Clapton endured a childhood marked by familial stress and a lingering, understandable fear of desertion. During his earliest years, he remembered feeling as if everyone were talking about him behind his back, or—worse yet—speaking about him in a kind of familial code, often right in front of him.
Clapton lived in “a house full of secrets,” he recalled in his autobiography, but eventually the reality of his personal situation became clear: “One day I heard one of my aunties ask, ‘Have you heard from his mum?’ and the truth dawned on me,” he wrote, “that when Uncle Adrian jokingly called me a little bastard, he was telling the truth.”
Soon thereafter, Clapton discovered that he was being raised by his maternal grandmother, Rose Clapp, whom he had believed to be his mother. As long as Clapton could remember, she had reared him as her own with her husband, Jack Clapp, his grandfather. In truth, Rose and Jack had taken the boy into their home after their daughter, 16-year-old Patricia Clapton, had given birth to him.
For Clapton, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs was the musical culmination of his runaway obsession with Harrison’s wife, Pattie Boyd.
Boyd’s childhood was similar in terms of her own sense of displacement. Her life had been upended when she was eight years old, when her family moved to Nairobi after the discharge of her father, Colin Boyd, from the Royal Air Force. At the behest of her mother, Diana, Boyd was sent away to boarding school. Not long afterwards, her mother drove up to her boarding school with a strange man in the passenger seat. Diana introduced Bobbie Gaymer-Jones to Boyd as “your new father.”
Boyd’s despair increased when Gaymer-Jones turned out to be a menacing stepparent. As Boyd later recalled, “My stepfather was a frightening character, and we were all scared of him, including, I think, my mother, although she would never have said so. I thought he was a bully.” Gaymer-Jones’s verbal barrages eventually transitioned into terrible beatings that traumatized the three young Boyd children.
Years later, Clapton would come to understand that his attraction to Boyd was rooted in his fractured childhood, an era when abandonment and neglect seemed to be around every corner. “I also coveted Pattie because she belonged to a powerful man who seemed to have everything I wanted—amazing cars, an incredible career, and a beautiful wife,” Clapton wrote.
“This emotion was not new to me. I remember that when my mum came home with her new family, I wanted my half-brother’s toys because they seemed more expensive and better than mine. It was a feeling that had never gone away, and it was definitely part of the way I felt toward Pattie.”
“I also coveted Pattie because she belonged to a powerful man who seemed to have everything I wanted.”
Although it runs counter to the romantic narrative that has long surrounded the Clapton-Boyd affair, once we began to perceive their relationship as the product of trauma-bonding—“relationships where there are cycles of emotional neglect, abuse, abandonment … or punishment dynamics,” as summed up by psychologist Nicole LePera—their intense, destructive attraction began to make more sense.
While Clapton and Boyd’s relationship may have been rooted in a complex psychological stew, for a time, at least, it seemed to work. After the demise of the Harrisons’ marriage, the couple began living together in 1974, eventually marrying in 1979.
But by their own admission, Clapton and Boyd rarely enjoyed a truly happy union. Their efforts to have children ended in a series of miscarriages and failed in-vitro fertilization treatments. Meanwhile, Clapton had proven to be an inveterate womanizer, and by 1987, Boyd simply couldn’t take it anymore.
Boyd came to realize the difference between what she felt for Harrison and the reality of her life with Clapton: “Eric and I were playmates,” she wrote in her autobiography, “but George and I were soulmates, and I had let something special go without analyzing what was happening between us.”
Boyd also realized that Clapton’s infatuation had been born out of envy, concluding that the famed guitarist hadn’t really wanted her, but instead Harrison’s life and all that it entailed.
Given their backgrounds, perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised. As LePera reminds us, on a psychological and emotional level, these types of relationships are “re-enactments of the past.” Indeed, “trauma-bonds feel very emotionally intense because they activate our original attachment wounding” as children.
In this light, Clapton and Boyd may very well have been doomed from the start—since childhood, even.
Kenneth Womack is the author of numerous books about the Beatles, including Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles and John Lennon 1980: The Last Days in the Life. He is a professor of English and popular music at Monmouth University
Jason Kruppa is a music historian and creator of the acclaimed Producing the Beatles podcast
Womack and Kruppa’s All Things Must Pass Away: Harrison, Clapton, and Other Assorted Love Songs is out now from Chicago Review Press