Review: “Big Man” by Clarence Clemons

(Above: Clarence Clemons, the Big Man, recalls the phone call that put the E Street Band on hiatus for 10 years.)

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.)

Keep reading:

Review: Boss is Bigger than Big 12 Tourney (2008)

Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello – “The Ghost of Tom Joad”

Review: Springsteen’s “Dream” Needs More Work

Springsteen in the Waiting Room: Drop the Needle and Pray

Springsteen Rocks the Hall (part 1)

Springsteen Rocks the Hall (part 2)

More Bruce Springsteen on The Daily Record

“Willie Nelson: An Epic Life” by Joe Nick Patoski

willie2By Joel Francis

“Epic” is the key word in the title of Joe Nick Patoski’s 567-page biography on Willie Nelson. Drawn from dozens of interviews and scores of oral histories, books and articles, Patoski paints a comprehensive picture of his fellow Texan.

If Patoski skimps on Nelson’s childhood – less than 50 pages are devoted to his years as a minor – he makes up for it by piling chapter on top of chapter about Nelson’s early family life, struggles as a disc jockey and songwriter for hire and, finally, as a nascent country performer. Patoski also devotes an entire chapter on IRS struggles and puts in strong perspective how such horrible accounting could have transpired.

But while Patoski’s journalism skills and research is impeccable, he spends too much of his time telling and not enough showing. For example, there piles of anecdotes about Nelson’s generosity and his inability to say no. He sticks around for hours after concerts to sign autographs, and lavishly gifts his friends and family. When a credit card company asked him to put his face on their card, he said yes without thinking of the consequences. Manager Mark Rothbaum has to explain the implications.

“Well think about it: A third of all credit cards go into receivership, so a third of your fans will go bankrupt, and they will have to look at your picture on that card,” Rothbaum tells Nelson. “Every time they see your picture they will think, That prick is making money off of me.”

Nelson asked Rothbaum to get him out of the deal, but the reader is never given understanding of what compels Nelson to be so affable.

The person who shines best is Nelson’s longtime drummer Paul English. English doesn’t appear until a third of the way through, where he initially surfaces as a pimp who drills and robs pinball machines and operates backroom card games. When Nelson’s drummer failed to show up for a radio session, English is recruited. Even though he had never played drums before, but the experience went well enough English accepted Nelson’s invitation to walk away from the lucrative prostitution business and join the band on the road.

English’s skills with a gun and knife were handing in prying a reticent promoter away from the band’s money and bailing Nelson’s smart mouth out of fight. English was never shy about displaying the pistol he always carried, which was usually all it took to calm any disagreements. English’s black market background also came in handy procuring marijuana for the band.

Patoski’s meticulous exploration sheds light on Nelson’s long walk to fame, where record labels and producers try in vain to pigeonhole the artist, and Nelson’s inability to fit into their boxes, even when he gamely goes along. Later, as Nelson’s fame and wealth grows, he builds a studio on his Texas estate. Patoski conveys a laid-back atmosphere where music flows as freely as beer and songs are recorded as effortlessly as lighting a roach. That Nelson practically lived in his studio explains the prolificacy of his catalog (he released two albums in 2008), and the easygoing environment explains how his financial problems reached the boiling point.

The vision of Nelson unearthed in the book refuses to be worried about anything except his music, even when doing so compromised his family and friends. His nature reminds me of a line from the film “Walk the Line.” When Johnny Cash tells June Carter on the back of the tour bus that everything will work itself out, she replies “No, John. People work them out for you, and you think they work themselves out.”

That Nelson’s music has attracted rednecks and hipsters alike is less mystifying after this thorough examination of the man. The songs are merely an extension of the personality: Nelson is willing to meet anyone anywhere for a good time. The access Nelson provided for this thick tome can rest proudly alongside his albums as a testament to the man’s generosity.

Warren Zevon far from forgotten

Above: The Excitable Boy performs “Excitable Boy.”

By Joel Francis

 

Warren Zevon fans can be forgiven if the seem a bit excitable recently. Two out-of-print albums have been remastered and debuted on CD with bonus tracks, a two-disc set of demos and early recordings dating before 1976, a no-holds-barred biography and the remaster of Zevon’s best-selling album, “Excitable Boy,” complete with a trio of unheard tracks, have all been dropped on consumers in the past several months.

 

“Excitable Boy” is the best album in Zevon’s catalog. It contains his biggest hit “Werewolves of London,” along with several other biggies, like “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” Most fans already have this album, but the bonus cuts and improved sound may be a temptation to pony up again. Producer Jackson Browne was wise in dropping “Tule’s Blues” and “Frozen Notes” from “Excitable Boy”’s running order – they would have killed the album’s momentum. But separated as bonus tracks they are beautiful numbers that deserved to have airing.

 

“Stand in the Fire” is a live album made during one of Zevon’s brief mid-life bouts of sobriety that swaps booze for pumps an extra dose of adrenaline. Zevon’s energy is infectious and its hard not to wish you were at the club the night this was recorded. But for all the zest he pumps into rocking numbers like “Jeannie Needs A Shooter” and a closing Bo Diddley medley, Zevon is just as affecting in ballad mode on the bonus tracks of  “Frank and Jesse James” and “Hasten Down the Wind.”

 

Released just a year after “Stand in the Fire,” “The Envoy” finds Zevon back on the wagon. While there are some gems – author Thomas McGuane co-wrote “The Overdraft,” – the album also contains an ode to Zevon’s drug dealer, which should always be a red flag to the uninitiated to drive around the block and come back later. The bonus tracks aren’t any more inspired – an alternate take, an outtake, a plodding instrumental and a tossed-off cover of “Wild Thing” – but it’s still nice to have this one back in print.

Zevon’s ex-wife Crystal Zevon and draws on interviews with dozens of musicians, producers, former girlfriends and family members to paint a personal portrait of Zevon in the biography “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”. Memoirs penned by ex-wives should be approached with caution, but this project got Zevon’s blessing and is admirable in its objectivity. In the first half of the book, Zevon mixes a dangerous cocktail of vodka, cocaine and firearms in his quest for the exposure he knows he deserves. Zevon got his shot, but the same addictions that drove him cost him his wife and daughter.

 

When he loses his record contract Zevon plunges further into excess, but is eventually rescued and rehabilitated. Finally serious about his sobriety, Zevon found a new addiction in sex. The diary entries reproduced in the book are peppered with stories about neighbors he slept with, daliances with groupies (he duped one into having an abortion) and his hobby in videotaping his adventures. The book’s concurrent themes of addiction and music paint Zevon as a volatile person probably best appreciated from the stage or album. Readers looking for the enlightenment behind their favorite song or album are likely to be disappointed, but they will have a better understanding what Zevon was going through personally while writing, touring and recording.

 

 

“Preludes” is the greatest treasure for long-time fans. This two-disc set contains an interview from 2000 and an intimate look at Zevon in his pre-fame days crafting demos of “Accidentally Like A Martyr,” “Desperados Under the Eaves” and “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” and six unreleased tracks including “Studebaker,” which Zevon’s son Jordan performed on a 2004 tribute album. Jordan Zevon found these recordings, along with hundreds more, when he was cleaning out one of his dad’s storage spaces.

Zevon always hovered in that zone between critical acclaim and mainstream success. Its nice to see, four years after his death, that he continues to get the respect and exposure he deserved. These releases, and hopefully future ones in the same vein, will ensure that Zevon is kept in our hearts a while longer.