Blogs > HNN > Jim Cullen: Review of Clarence Clemons's and Don Reo's Big Man: Real Life and Tall Tales (Grand Central Publishing, 2009)

Jan 3, 2010 9:30 pm


Jim Cullen: Review of Clarence Clemons's and Don Reo's Big Man: Real Life and Tall Tales (Grand Central Publishing, 2009)



[Jim Cullen teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York. His most recent book is Essaying the Past: How to Read, Write and Think about History. He blogs at American History Now.]

At one point in Clarence Clemons's often amusing new memoir Big Man -- if a book laced with fictional anecdotes that shares space with a co-writer can be called a memoir -- the legendary E Street Band saxophonist imagines himself at Fenway Park in Boston at the 2004 World Series with the great pop singer Annie Lennox."I loved you guys on the Born to Run cover," Lennox tells Clemons.

"I'm on the back," he says.

"What?"

"I'm not on the front cover. I'm on the back. I'm talking about the album as it came out. You've got to turn it over to see me. That's how they printed it."

"Really?"

"Really."

Really. While we do get a piece of him on the front, we don't see a recognizable Clemons except on the on the back cover. So he's speaking an uncomfortable fictive truth. With the exceptions of the security and concession staff, and the seemingly inevitable black back-up singers, Clemons was the only non-white person I saw at my last Springsteen show at Giants Stadium last month. (Clemons's co-author, Don Reo, relates running into a self-described black female fan in 2008 who says her favorite Springsteen song is"Jessie's Girl" -- a 1981 gem by Rick Springfield.) In his ever-self aware way, Springsteen refers to the racial question that lingers over the Born to Run album cover in his one-page foreword to this book, in which he cites"a friendship and a narrative steeped in the complicated history of America." Huck, meet Jim.

I feel uncomfortable bringing all this up at the start of a review of Clemons's book, not because the racial tension implicit in Springsteen's career isn't real, but because, to use his word, it's complicated. Clemons is now the only featured black member of the E Street Band. But it wasn't always so; indeed, in the early days the band was truly interracial, and one of its members, David Sancious, went on to have a distinguished jazz career. Moreover, a number of important African American performers, among them Donna Summer and Aretha Franklin, have recorded Springsteen's songs.

More to the point, Clemons himself doesn't seem to regard his anomalous presence in Springsteen's career as especially problematic. A native of Norfolk Virginia, he's spent his entire life living mostly among white people. His co-writer, Reo, a television writer and producer, is white, and they're seem quite comfortable talking about matters of race in ways that range from comic to serious. But always in passing.

Actually, the Clemons who emerges in this book is a notably easygoing man whose big appetites -- in every sense of that word -- enlarge the spirit of those around him. He does not appear to be a particularly introspective figure -- one can base this assertion simply on the fact that he's been married five times -- and he exhibits a casual sexism one sometimes sees in his generation. But it's not hard to imagine how he might invite the confidence of a Robert DeNiro, for example, who once told Clemons that his legendary"Are you talking to me?" monologue from Taxi Driver came from listening to Springsteen on stage (as such it's a testament to the transformative power of De Niro's artistry that the the actor could turn joyous patter into an ominous threat). Actually, Big Man is a kind of touring travelogue in which we meet a great many celebrities, including some unlikely ones such as Damon Wayans and Kinky Friedman. We get the idea that Clemons and Co. have lived a rarified life for a very long time. And there's some interest in that, even if the book goes on a little longer than it probably should.

That said, there is a swiss cheese quality to Big Man, which grazed the bottom reaches of the New York Times bestseller list recently. We get a fairly straight stretch of narrative about Clemons's early life, and a great deal about the Magic tour of 2007-08, for the understandable reason that the star-struck Reo was with the band for much of it. We also come to understand that Clemons has been in a great deal of pain with bad knees that have made performing an ordeal in recent years, which the authors manage to convey in such a way that makes his unaffected persistence and good cheer all the more impressive, even as they are couched in intimations of mortality.

There's surprisingly little on Clemons's role in the making of Springsteen records. To some extent, that's because making studio albums is a much more painstaking and fragmented process than live performance; much of Clemons's work on Born to Run, for example, was daubed in by producers and engineers. Still, it would have been nice to hear more about the process, and how Clemons interpreted Springsteen's musical instructions in signature performances like"Rosalita" or"The Promised Land." On those rare occasions we do get such glimpses, they're fascinating, as in Clemons's offhand explanation of how Springsteen wrote"Hungry Heart" in the space of ten minutes.

Glimpses of Springsteen's relationship with Clemons are also few and far between. There's a lovely little set piece of the two on the boardwalk in Asbury Park in the early years. There are also allusions to some hard feelings when Springsteen broke up the band in 1989 -- ironically, Clemons was in Japan with the victim of another breakup, Ringo Starr, when he got the phone call -- and the depiction of the aftermath of an argument between Clemons and Springsteen. To a great degree, this is surely because Clemons is temperamentally not inclined to dwell on such events. But I'd also bet my last dollar that it's because Springsteen was closely monitoring what Clemons would be permitted to say. (That foreword has the feel of a stamp of approval.)

Which, in turn, brings us back to the defining core of their relationship. Clemons may be the Big Man, but Springsteen is, well, the Man. Clemons tells a story from the early seventies about how he and drummer Max Weinberg got marooned on the Garden State Parkway when their car broke down and they were in panic trying to inform what was certain to be an impatient Springsteen."He was the Boss even back then," Clemons observes. He's probably more like the CEO now. There's very little evidence here that Springsteen treats Clemons as an intellectual equal, or a part of his everyday life offstage. But there's a lot of evidence that he has taken very good care of Clemons, financially and with real affection. After all, Huck really did love Jim.

Actually, there's been some buzz in the blogosphere lately that Springsteen himself may be shopping a memoir around in the publishing business, a development which, if and when it happens, would be a blockbuster event. I'd be sure to get my copy of that autobiography pronto, just like I do every new Springsteen album -- and just like I did this cheerful, diverting book. I'd do so even though we fans know a great deal of the story already, and that much of what we do know has been expertly sculpted by a man who has played the media with almost as much skill as he's played the guitar. But that's what makes true artists great: They always leave you wanting more.



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More Comments:


Jim Cullen - 2/27/2010

No, I meant "daubed," like painted in, the way a artist might place color on a canvas. "Born to Run" was intricately constructed that way.


John M Shaw - 1/7/2010

What does "daubed in by producers and engineers" mean? Do you mean dubbed?


John M Shaw - 1/7/2010

What does "daubed in by producers and engineers" mean? Do you mean dubbed?


William McWilliams - 1/4/2010


Clarence Clemons recorded an album back in '85-'86 that contains his cover of the classic "Sun Ain't Gonna Shine
Anymore". IMO his version rivals those of Keane and Frankie Valle. The Walker Brothers version is still the best, so far, but the sax of C.C. makes his version a very fine piece of music, indeed.