ST. PAUL, Minn. – In his 40-year-plus career, Eric Clapton has rolled up plenty of honors: He's had numerous hits, 18 Grammys and is the first musician inducted three times into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
He still sells out arenas across the globe as fans make the pilgrimage to hear one of the greats in action.
Yet when asked to give an assessment of his own play, Clapton offers a blunt review that might seem unkind coming from someone else's mouth.
"I think I'm definitely on the decline," the 61-year-old said a few hours before kicking off the North American leg of his world tour. He recently watched video of his 1997 blues tour and says he was "shocked by how much more proficient I was then than I am now."
"It was a good thing, in a way, because I get the reality of what my life is like," Clapton said. "I can't do what I used to be able to do, with my hands or my voice or anything."
Still, the guitarist dubbed "Slowhand" isn't conceding much to age.
Five weeks after touring Europe, Clapton kicked off his U.S. and Canadian tour on Sept. 16 in St. Paul, Minn. It wraps up Oct. 23 in Miami. Clapton will then tour the Far East, Australia and New Zealand before returning to the United States in March.
Wearing a workshirt, blue jeans and tan shoes — similar to his concert outfit — and with his gray hair cropped close, Clapton spoke with The Associated Press before his St. Paul show. Though performing to thousands is a routine for Clapton, he confessed to some nerves.
"Most people would probably say, `Oh, he sounds OK,' but we know, you know, that it will be a little bit lumpy," Clapton said, before he and his band blazed through a two-hour set heavy on such hits as "I Shot the Sheriff," "Wonderful Tonight" and "Layla.
Between sips of mineral water he spoke openly of everything from his recovery from drugs and alcohol to coming to grips with the 1991 death of his 4 1/2-year-old son, Conor (Doubleday plans to release Clapton's memoirs — still untitled — in 2007).
He also spoke about his glorified status in rock — which Clapton says he takes "with a pinch of salt."
"At the end of the day, it doesn't add up to much. It's just media backslapping. But if I can be friends and get admiration from the people that I admire — musicians and artists alike — that's how I kind of gauge my well-being, in that arena," Clapton says.
Clapton has plenty of admirers. One is songwriter J.J. Cale, whose "After Midnight" and "Cocaine" were hits for Clapton. The two recently collaborated for the joint album "The Road to Escondido," due Nov. 7.
"I'd probably be selling shoes today if it wasn't for Eric," Cale, 67, told the AP in a telephone interview.
Cale said Clapton is generous to other musicians, and that was evident in his St. Paul show, when he let the young guitarists in his band, Doyle Bramhall II and Derek Trucks, take center stage.
"When they're playing freestyle, it sounds to me like they're actually composing when they play," Clapton said.
It was Clapton's work with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers as a young guitarist that made him an underground hero in his native England in the '60s, in reaction to the burgeoning pop scene. It was then the famous "Clapton is God" graffiti slogans were plastered around London. He says he enjoyed the notoriety, but later, the reputation became a burden.
"It kind of followed me a little while, and then, you know, when I started to get into the dope and the drink ... I stopped playing lead. I was just really getting lazy. I think I deliberately, at some point, tried to undermine, get rid of it, you know. Because the guitar legend thing was big, in the early '70s. And it became a shackle, you know."
Besides substance abuse, Clapton's life has been touched by the deaths of fellow musicians and friends such as Jimi Hendrix, George Harrison and Stevie Ray Vaughan. But it was the death of Conor — his son by Italian TV actress Lori Del Santo — that was the hardest for him to get over. The boy fell to his death from a New York apartment building. Clapton poured his grief into the ethereal "Tears in Heaven," a Grammy winner for record and song of the year of 1992.
"For a good deal of the time I was in just shock and not able to really look at what took place or even look at how I felt about it," Clapton says of his son's death. "I didn't consciously go into denial about the loss of my son, but I wasn't able to really assimilate it for a long time. And now I'm a fairly good place to be able to understand all of that."
(Clapton is now married to Melia McEnery, 30, and they have three daughters — Julie, 5; Ella, 3; and Sophie, 1. Clapton also has a 21-year-old daughter, Ruth, from a previous relationship.)
Clapton, who overcame heroin addiction in the 1970s, then battled alcoholism, underwrote the Crossroads Centre, an addiction recovery center on the Caribbean island of Antigua that opened in 1998. He says he's sold most of his guitar collection at auctions to raise money for the center and estimates he has 15 to 20 guitars now.
He said he's found he can enjoy life without the need to take a drink or a drug.
"I mean, there was a time when the first thing I'd look for in a hotel room was the minibar. And I'd empty it within half an hour. And then, `What am I gonna do now?'," Clapton says.
"When I compare that kind of thinking to what I have today, I'll probably go into the minibar and get the nuts, you know. And then I'll eat all the nuts and think, `What am I gonna do now?' "