E Street Band saxophone player Clarence Clemons, known the world over as the “Big Man,” has written a new book with his friend Don Reo. As the subtitle, “Real Life & Tall Tales,” suggests, the book is a wildly entertaining blend of autobiography and a substantial amount of myth. You can read Pete Chianca’s review for Popdose here. The mythmaking comes via tall tales that Clarence calls “Legends.” Whether he’s riding big waves with Oprah, playing pool in Havana with Fidel Castro, or hanging out with Bruce Springsteen in a remote area of Hawaii, it’s clear that Clarence Clemons has led an extraordinary life. I had a chance to speak with him on the telephone last week.
Hi, Clarence. Are you there?
I’m here. I didn’t do it. I’m innocent. (laughs)
Are you on the road today?
I’m in Philadelphia. We have two more shows here, then I’ll go back to New York.
Let me first ask you about your health. You had both knees replaced about a year ago, and there were some other issues as well. There was even some question about whether you would make it for the Super Bowl show. How are you?
Everything is fine. It’s amazing what the stage can do for you. It heals me, that time up on stage. I’m doing great.
In your book there’s a full page list of things that are required in the Temple of Soul (Clarence’s dressing room) to get you up and running. Tell me about that.
It takes about half of that now. There’s not so much involved anymore since I got the knees done, and I’ve got a pretty good handle on my back. Everything is going pretty well, thank God. For an old man I’m doing pretty good.
I’m happy to hear it. Your book opens with a great story, told to you by your mom, about how you started playing the saxophone.
I didn’t want a saxophone. I wanted electric trains. But my father decided to get the saxophone. He heard this saxophone player, and he decided that that was what he wanted his son to do. Thank God.
The book closes with a “legend” about you and Bruce meeting in a bar in the southwest. It’s a moving story about your relationship with Bruce. At one point you say to him, “as long as I’m breathing, you’ll never be alone.” I found that incredibly moving.
It is a spectacular relationship. I do love him. There’s a story in the book about when my girlfriend first met him. She accused us of being gay. We hung out together so much. My love for him began on the first day I met him, and it’s only grown more since then.
Your book is certainly not a typical autobiography. It includes these “legends” that contain some modicum of truth, along with a bit of myth mixed in. You’ve hung out with some amazing people.
I’ve had an amazing life. It all comes from my relationship with Bruce. If Bruce and I had never met, I would never have met these people or lived the kind of life that I live right now.
There’s a story about you playing pool in Havana with Fidel Castro, while hanging out with Hunter S. Thompson. It might not have happened exactly the way you described it, but you did play pool with Castro, and you obviously did know Hunter Thompson.
I live 90 miles from Cuba. That’s how things like that happen. It’s right in my backyard, we are kind of neighbors. But a lot of the stories are legends because I added to them to give you a little more vision. I think a book should be entertaining. It’s for the entertainment value. It makes it exciting. Some of the legends are metaphors for what really happened. If it didn’t really happen, it kind of happened that way, or that’s what came out of it.
But what about the story about riding big waves with Oprah? I don’t know, Clarence.
(laughs) But it’s a great story, isn’t it?
They’re all great stories. Groucho Marx, Robert De Niro, Sinatra, all these amazing people that you’ve known.
When I first met De Niro, it was at a concert before I did the movie. I got a call to come out to Hollywood saying we want you to try out for this film. The film was New York, New York. When I met him there, I had already met him backstage. I didn’t know him as an actor then. I knew him as a great guy. So when we did the movie, it was pretty natural. We hung out together for a couple of months doing the movie. We played some music … I played some music, and he made noise on the saxophone. There were some funny things that happened. You read in the book about (De Niro’s famous speech from the film Taxi Driver) “you talkin’ to me?” That’s great stuff.
Did you actually give De Niro saxophone lessons?
The man who actually played the saxophone on his part was Georgie Auld. But we did talk about sax. I showed him some of the moves that a saxophone player has, the actual things that we do, and you saw them in the movie. The way you stand when you’re not playing, what you do when you’re grooving along to the music, the way you hold the horn, and stuff like that. The natural things that happen.
Another thing that makes your book unusual is that your co-writer, Don Reo, isn’t just a ghostwriter. He injects his own experiences into the book, and he sees things from a different vantage point. In some ways he represents us, the fans. How did that come about?
It was a natural thing. Don and I became really good friends. My hobby is fishing. I love to fish. So I’d be out on the flats in Florida, and a couple of times Don and I just hung out. Everywhere around the world we’ve hung out together, and just had some drinks and talked. Then just being out on the boat kind of summed it all up. He said, “we should write this stuff down. We should write a book.” He jokingly said it, but then when I thought about it, I said, yeah, this would make an interesting book. So we took off with it.
The band was blessed with good luck for many years in terms of everyone’s health, then recently you’ve lost not only Danny Federici, but also Terry McGovern, who was Bruce’s assistant. Terry was your assistant before he worked for Bruce, right?
Yeah, he was my assistant. He ran my club for awhile, Big Man’s West (which was located in Red Bank, N.J.).
I spent many nights there.
There are many stories about Terry. Some of them will be in my next book, which I’m in the process of putting together.
So there will be another book?
There will be another one. It will have a lot more Terry, and a lot more Danny. My mom used to say to me that the older you get, the more friends you lose. That’s the way life is. You keep doing it until your time comes. I’m trying to enjoy my life, and keep doing what I love to do until my time comes. Hopefully I will inspire somebody along the way to keep it going.
You certainly seem to be leading a wonderful life. You have 12 or 13 shows left on this part of the tour. Do you know at this point what happens next?
Rest. Rest and recuperation. That’s next in line for me. I haven’t had a chance to go on my honeymoon, so I’m looking forward to that. That’s an important part of my life, too. Then the next book, and then we’ll follow through on the next tour.
I’m sure all the fans will be looking forward to another tour.
Every time we go out it’s different. You wonder about the change. What’s it going to be like the next time? So I’m pretty excited to see that happen too.
You’re in Philadelphia today. That’s one of the first places outside of New Jersey that the band broke big.
Exactly. Bryn Mawr. The Main Point. So many memories. So many funny stories about the Main Point. (sadly, the Main Point is no more. Its successor, the Point, which was located a few doors down from the original location, lost its lease and had to close in 2005).
Some places are not as easy to explain. Philadelphia is in close proximity to New Jersey, but Arizona is another place where the band was big early on, and obviously that’s nowhere close to Jersey.
Yeah, it’s not close to New Jersey, but I think N.J.’s chief export is people. We’re all over the world. I don’t think I’ve been anywhere where there wasn’t someone from New Jersey.
That’s all I have for today. Thanks for your time. I really enjoyed the book.
Thank you so much. All right my friend. Where are you now?
I’m in New Jersey. I live in north Jersey, but I spend a lot of time in Asbury Park working. So I’m part of that whole thing.
All right, homeboy. I’ll see you down the road, man.
Take care of yourself, Clarence.