She is perhaps rock’s most famous muse: Pattie Boyd Harrison Clapton. This lithe, leggy, blonde fashion model directly inspired a troika of classic rock’s most enduring songs: “Something,” by the Beatles, and “Layla” and “Wonderful Tonight,” by Eric Clapton. Her famous marriages have long held a soap-opera like fascination, considering Slowhand basically stole her from the Quiet Beatle, despite the two guitarists’ close friendship.
In Wonderful Tonight, Boyd breaks a 40-year silence about her life with the two performers and the wild roller coaster ride she’s taken, albeit on different tracks. With Harrison, she found “a great, deep love,” with Clapton an “intoxicating, overpowering passion.”
She met Harrison as a teenage extra on the set of A Hard Day’s Night, and he mock-proposed to her on the first day. They did get hitched – after Beatles manager Brian Epstein gave his approval – and Boyd lived through the madcap days of Beatlemania, which seems like enough excitement for one lifetime, even when she had to endure physical attacks from jealous fans.
But then, when Clapton’s incessant, passionate wooing drew her away from a seemingly accepting and unmoved Harrison, it seems like Boyd were simply a prize the two musicians handed off to one another. Soon, her world became one of ‘70s rock star touring excess, enough to make Almost Famous look like a Disney movie.
Ultimately, according to Boyd, both marriages began to fail when her husbands began to ignore her or find other passions - cocaine and obsessive spirituality for Harrison, heroin and booze for Clapton. Both also engaged in serial one-nighters and affairs. Clapton even floated the idea that Conor, his son out of wedlock (the one who fell to his death from a hi-rise window, inspiring “Tears in Heaven”), be co-raised by Boyd. Clapton’s substance abuse and bad behavior – legendary even among his peers – certainly didn’t help matters any.
But what’s both odd and frustrating about Boyd’s take on her life is that she seems more observer than participant. Passive, accepting and at times naïve, she disdains being seen as a “rock star’s wife” or appendage. Yet she seems all too happy to enjoy the fine homes and endless partying without forging her own identity beyond “ex-model,” though she has found some success recently as a photographer.
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As an author, Boyd constantly writes about passion. Yet as a storyteller, it doesn’t always come through in her words and remembrances, many of which only scratch the surface.
Those looking for much about either the Beatles’ or Clapton’s music won’t find it here. That’s perfectly fine; scores of books already exist on these topics. And readers wanting bombshell revelations will find little, save for Boyd’s admission that she should have stayed and fought for her marriage with Harrison.
“I regret allowing myself to have been seduced by Eric,” she notes. “But if I [hadn’t], I would have never known that incredible passion – and such intensity is rare.” With Clapton’s own long-awaited autobiography due next month, it will be interesting to read his take on their marriage – or at least what he can recall of it. – Bob Ruggiero
Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Me by Pattie Boyd with Penny Juror, 336 pp., $25.95, Harmony Books