'Big Man' Aches, But Still Rocks

Despite Aching Knees, Clemons Continues To Rock

November 19, 2009|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

They've got to be one of the oddest-looking couples in rock: this big, hulking black man who looks as if he just stepped off a football field, and this wiry, streetwise white guy, with his scruffy beard that, even when they met in the early 1970s, screamed beatnik chic.

But Clarence Clemons and Bruce Springsteen have made for far more than some odd visuals in their 35-plus years together. They've made some great music, with Springsteen writing the songs and Clemons, immortalized as "The Big Man" on 1976's "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," blasting out some of the rock era's most powerful sax solos.

The connection between the two men is just as powerful as ever, says Clemons, who spent the last part of 2008 recovering from knee-replacement surgery and working on his first book, "Big Man: Real Life & Tall Tales," released last month by Grand Central Publishing. It's Clemons and Springsteen who are pictured together on the cover of the landmark "Born to Run" album ("Big Man" includes an alternate cover shot for the album that Clemons allows is "much sexier"), it's Clemons whose introduction at every concert earns the biggest roars of approval.

"It's still as exciting as the first day," Clemons, 67, says of their working relationship, which even weathered a decade-long breakup of the E Street Band that officially ended in 1999. "When I stop and think of it, it's like, 'Wow!' But normally, it just seems like a normal thing. ... Writing this book made me really aware of the rarity of a relationship between two men like that. It was always such a natural thing. It was like, 'How could the world have existed without us?' "

For Clemons, who was born in Norfolk, Va., playing Baltimore's sold-out show at 1st Mariner Arena on Friday night marks something of a homecoming. While playing football at Maryland State College in Princess Anne (now the University of Maryland Eastern Shore), Clemons would always look forward to coming to the city and playing Morgan State. Except, that is, for the part where the Bears would routinely trounce the visiting Hawks.

"I hung out in the Baltimore area a lot," he says. "My biggest memory was playing football against Morgan. That was like, 'Forget about it,' that was a really big thing. They used to kick our butts all the time."

Clemons's Baltimore chops don't end there. In 2004, he appeared on two episodes of HBO's "The Wire," playing a youth sports organizer. And, speaking just like a native, he adds, "I love the crab cakes."

The story of how Springsteen and Clemons first hooked up is recounted at every concert, every time the joyously autobiographical "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" is performed. It's also recounted in the book, in which Clemons swears the too-good-it-must-be-made-up legend is true, that one day in 1972, he really did appear in the doorway of the Asbury Park, N.J., club where Springsteen and his band were playing. It was, he swears, a dark and stormy night - so stormy, in fact, that the door to the club ripped off its hinges and went flying down the street as he opened it.

Some entrance.

"I always had this vision of what I wanted to do in life," says Clemons, who acknowledges that some of the tales in "Big Man" are stretched more than a bit, but not this one. Linking up with the man who would become "The Boss" was, he says, a matter of destiny.

"I visualized this whole thing," he says, "the day I tore that door off the Student Prince and saw Bruce for the first time. I saw all these things happening. I knew, and I had faith. I let go of everything else, and I followed him."

That faith never wavered, not when the band broke up - "I knew something that's great would not go away forever," he says - and not when the pain in bum knees made it seem like his days onstage with the band might be numbered. Just three months after his surgery, Clemons joined the E Streeters for their performance at January's Super Bowl XLIII, standing tall (he's 6 foot 4, so standing anything but tall is hardly an option) and proud, blaring away.

"It's a big job right now," hauling those reconstructed knees up on stage, Clemons says. Having a golf cart drive him to the stage helps, as does the regenerative power of rock 'n' roll - feeding off the energy of the crowd and the force of the songs, it's hard to notice anything wrong.

But mostly, Clemons insists, it's his faith in his own destiny and a determination to remain upbeat, no matter what, that keeps him going. That, and being part of one of the greatest rock bands ever put together.

"Going through all of this physical stuff, it's been a tough job," Clemons says, sounding about as downbeat as he allows himself. "But I've loved every second of my life. Through all the hardships and all the operations and all the hospitals, all that stuff ... each part of my life, there's been some goodness, some greatness that comes in here and helps me to be strong, to continue what I'm doing.

"My spiritual teacher told me that my purpose in life was to bring joy and life to the world," Clemons adds, refusing to end the interview on anything resembling a down note. "I like to think that's what I'm doing, with my music and my attitude and my outlook on life."

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