December 2009

Barbara J. King

features

A Big Man, a Mule, and a Saxophone: Clarence Clemons's Story

Clarence Clemons’s work ethic is legendary; he never misses a show with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Daily, pain courses through his not-so-gently aging body, sourced from a bad back, replaced hips and replaced knees. In 2008, he lay in a hospital bed and commented, “I feel like I’m made of pain,” but quickly followed it with, “I’ve never missed a show in my life.” And he didn’t miss the next one: the Superbowl halftime show, viewed by a billion people.

It takes a regimen of injections, braces, massages, and prayer to get him up on stage now. But whatever pain he’s feeling, Clemons blows it out through his saxophone, transforming it into something so pure and so sweet as to alter the very air that envelops the band and its fans.

In Big Man, co-written with his friend the TV producer Don Reo, Clemons tells us the source of his furious drive. Was it some famed sax-playing idol of his youth? Or Bruce himself? No, it was Big Red, Clarence’s grandfather’s stump-pulling mule: “I used to watch him work. It was an incredible sight. He would pull and strain so hard, with such intensity I thought he would explode... He was unbelievable! And I said to myself, ‘I’m going to be like that. I’m going to have that kind of purpose and that kind of focus.’”

Clemons grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, in a black family surrounded by whites, at one point the sole black kid in his school. In 1950, when Clarence was 8 years old, his parents gave him not the train set he wanted for Christmas but a saxophone instead. By his twenties, he was playing clubs on the Jersey shore and then, in a now-famous moment, walked into a club called The Student Prince and into Bruce’s life.

Playing with Bruce transforms Clarence. As Reo once reflected after one night’s show, “He moved differently when he was the Big Man [on stage]. His face changed, and he appeared to get taller and younger. He walked into the spotlight with a swagger… and he leaned into the horn and spoke to every person in the audience about faith and love and passion. It was something to see.”

There’s a swagger to the book too, and it takes some getting used to. Clarence’s sections crash into Reo’s with no discernible chronology or coherence, and these first-person reminiscences are pocked by sections that mix reality and fantasy. In some, Clarence writes about things that never happened, like pulling off an incredibly dangerous surfing feat in Hawaii or grooving together with Kinky Friedman and Bob Dylan in Texas. In others, he rearranges a basic reality, as when he streams made-up consciousness based on real conversations with Bruce or with Redd Foxx.

In finding these quirks to be lovable, is this reader, who thought for years (in a true echo of the Big Man’s view) that Asbury Park was the center of the universe, simply blinded by the light of Jersey Fan-Girl band passion? Judging from reviews posted at Amazon.com, some readers get annoyed by the book. Too much crowing about fame, they say, too many names dropped, and why bother with the strange fantasy sequences, anyway?

Where these complainers see ego-boasting, I see wonder. Clarence is explicitly and repeatedly grateful to Springsteen and to the universe as a whole for the way his life turned out. “To receive all this for something I would do for nothing,” he writes, “was a blessing that fell on very few people in the world, and I tried to appreciate all of it every day.” When passages are seeded with famed names, it’s almost always in service of a good story. Clarence paints the landscape of his emotions at the moment, for example, when Bruce told him he was breaking up the band. The phone call reached him in Japan, where he was sitting around with Ringo Starr. (The Bruce- induced band hiatus ended in 1999.)

And where some see beside-the-point fiction, I see a man in thrall to storytelling, as he has been since the early days when he hung with Bruce beneath the Asbury Park boardwalk and listened to Bruce’s verbal riffs. I see too a man willing to play with surface truths in order to seek deeper ones.

Irritating, to be sure, is the steady drumbeat of what a charitable reviewer might call throwaway lines about women. Lots of sex objects, indeed, lots of wives, populate this book in less than graceful terms. “Women jokes” veer from tasteless to the occasionally repulsive. The joke that starts out “What’s the difference between a girls’ track team and a group of clever pygmies” is a good one to forget. It’s a relief to read the parts about Clarence’s wife Victoria, whom he clearly adores.

In a bittersweet way, Clarence and Don can be very funny about race. In a tall-tale section focused on Castro in Havana, a character vows to steal “the Big Negro’s money" -- Clarence’s, that is. It’s dryly noted that Clarence “had heard the words big Negro in many different languages, some of them nonverbal.” In the Friedman-Dylan fantasy, someone asks Clarence if he has a gun. Clarence replies that he should have six guns, because “I’m a black guy in rural Texas.”

Numerous sections of the book are written with grace and power: there’s that mule image, of course, and also the descriptions of making meaning through music. As one or two writers may have noted before me, it’s hard to put into words the experience of making or appreciating beautiful music. Big Man offers some real insight here.

Thinking back on early pre-Bruce days in New York, Clarence writes: “From the outside I looked like a big black guy who was probably an athlete and probably dumb. That’s the way most white people saw me. Most black people, too. But there was a world of colors and ideas and music inside my head that seemed limitless. My imagination was racing constantly with fragments of songs and pictures and a torrent of words. The horn was an instant window into my interior life. It was like a magic door in the wall that you could look through into the most beautiful garden in the world.”

The magic door opened especially wide two weeks ago in Baltimore, during the penultimate show of a long E Street tour. When one of Clarence’s solos approached, anticipation floated up from the crowd and hovered in the arena sky, just beyond the visible light spectrum. Nothing beats Clarence’s "Jungleland" sax solo, a solo that to Clarence “sounds like love” and that, paradoxically, is not about aloneness, but about being entwined in soulful connection with another person -- in Clarence’s case, Bruce. The solo that night was perfection (listen and watch at YouTube).

And that night, Clarence himself seemed a little freer, a little more mobile, a little less shackled by his body. Near the show’s end, he initiated a long, long embrace with Bruce, a full-body clasp that for this observer brought together past, present, and future concert nights. It echoed a passage of Don’s in the book, where he says that Bruce and Clarence “are the complete contradiction and the complete explanation all in one moment, and the moment itself floats away, breaks away from time like an iceberg and floats into our collective memories of yesterday and our plans for tomorrow.”

Memories live in the music, but all tomorrows are uncertain. Will the band tour again? It’s hard to know. E Street’s organist and Clarence’s very close friend, Danny Federici, is gone now, lost to cancer in 2008. In Big Man Clarence says he thinks of Danny every day, and he thinks of death too. Death reflections weight the book, but in a way that’s somehow comfortable, almost as much about longing (Clarence says he will see Danny again) as fear.

For now, the Big Man endures, like Big Red endured all those years ago, like the saxophone joy endures for his listeners. May it long be so.

Barbara J. King is at bjking09@gmail.com. She understands, a little anyway, about Clarence and Danny, because she thinks of Jim every day, and remembers acting out the song "Born to Run" with him on a memorable New Jersey evening in 1975.