By Joel Francis
Legions of dedicated Bruce Springsteen fans have no doubt haunted hotel bars after concerts in hopes of being able to buy their heroes a drink and soak in their stories. In his new autobiography “Big Man,” E Street saxophone player Clarence Clemons offers fans the next best thing with 360 pages of his favorite stories from the road and adventures with friends like Robert DeNiro, Kinky Friedman and, of course, the Boss.
The warning is right there in the subtitle: “Real Life and Tall Tales.” This is not a chronological telling of Clemons’ life. Rather, it’s a series of episodes and anecdotes. In the first 50 pages, the story races from Clemmons’ childhood in rural Virginia to meeting Springsteen, his first job with a band and ultimately joining the Bruce Springsteen Band.
Early vignettes like the portrait of Clemons and Springsteen hanging out underneath the Jersey pier are vivid snapshots of uninhibited creativity, innocence and ambition. The book is best when it operates along these lines, lifting the veil of history and putting the reader in the moment.
Clemmons’ telling of receiving a phone call from Springsteen while on tour with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band is especially poignant. Also entertaining is the tale of shooting pool with Fidel Castro in Cuba as Hunter S. Thompson offers commentary from the bar.
But moments like this are divorced from context, and raise many unanswered questions. Clemons never discusses how he spent decade away from the E Street Band or how he became friends with the Good Doctor. Too frequently the story is bogged down by diversions of pay phone conversations with Groucho Marx and competitive exchanges with Norman Mailer.
There is no doubt that Clemons is an intelligent man, filled with wit who knows how to tell a story. He is happy to take the reader into the Temple of Soul, the backstage sanctuary Clemons creates before each show, but unwilling to reveal everything that happens away from the music.
Clemons recognizes omitting the juicy bits undermines his purpose. At one point he jokes about writing another book that contains all the sex and drug stories from the early days and publishing it after everyone in the band has died, but realizes everyone has children and grandchildren and quickly recants. The decision is understandable, but the kid gloves weaken the saga and experience.
For example, we learn that Springsteen has two rules: don’t take drugs and be on time. Clemons reports that since he breaks one rule regularly, he is always punctual. Drugs, particularly marijuana, show up several times, but Clemons never explains his introduction to these experiences or their perpetual attraction.
Clemons is more transparent about his health problems. He had both knees and hips replaced prior to the “Working on a Dream” tour and underwent a tough rehab regimen before being able to perform at the Super Bowl. These issues, coupled with ruminations on the deaths of E Street veterans Danny Federici and Terry Magovern give the last third of the book a morbid preoccupation. What should be a celebration, feels like a premature wake.
The biggest problem with “Big Man,” however, is co-writer Don Reo. While most “as told to” authors stay in the background, Reo has no difficulty inserting himself into the story, bragging about his past as a television writer for “The Cher Show” and bringing “Blossom” to the small screen. Reo sometimes serves as an uber-fan insider, providing a third-party perspective on the inner workings of a Springsteen tour or an alternate angle on some of Clemons’ tales. Unfortunately, he’s too preoccupied with dropping names and gushing about how cool it is to be part of Clemmons’ entourage to be completely effective.
Reo’s interruptions also cause an inconsistent narrative voice. Clemmons’ story distractingly jumps between first and third person, depending on which author is helming the chapter.
Despite these shortcomings, “Big Man” is a breezy, entertaining read. Although it may have worked better as a series of blog entries or podcasts, hardcore fans will revel in hearing the man who defined “Jungleland” spin yarns.
(Below: Clemons reflects on the death of longtime E Street band member Danny Federici.)