By Karsten S. Andersen
The fan world was really excited when the first autobiography by an E Street Band member was announced. Finally we would get to hear all the inside stories and gossip by someone who was there. Finally we would get answers to all our questions.
But no, Big Man – Real Life & Tall Tales is not that kind of book. You don’t get to hear juicy details from life on the road. You don’t hear about the reunion sessions in 1995, you don’t hear about Clarence’s opinion of the band that replaced the E Street Band in 1992, you don’t hear about what he thought of being replaced as Bruce’s primary onstage foil by Patti in 1988. You don’t hear about groupies in Bruce’s dressing room or bitter arguments in the recording studio. Altogether, Clarence probably didn’t get loaded with court summons after he published his book.
So what do you hear about in the book? First and foremost, this is a book about Clarence. Not Bruce. Not the E Street Band. Although, of course, both play big parts, it’s not their story we hear. It’s Clarence’s. And as such, the book is definitely worthwhile. Because what did we really know about Clarence before this book? We knew his onstage character, his saxophone playing, his facial expressions, his goofing with Bruce. We knew he’d been married a bunch of times. He released a few solo albums. That’s about all. But now we get excellent insight into Clarence Clemons, the person behind the character, and who he is when he’s not the Big Man, member of the E Street Band.
So what do we learn? Who is he? Well, for one thing, he is in pain. Or has been. A lot. Probably more than we ever imagined. His knees, his hips, his back. If you think Clarence’s playing has been slightly off on the last few tours, after reading this book, you’ll be wondering how he was able to play at all. Apparently, the Magic Tour in particular was a difficult experience, and the fact that he was able to perform at the Superbowl in the beginning of 2009 was nothing short of a miracle.
Other than that, one of the main impressions you get is that Clarence is a man who is completely committed to music and who was born to please. He has trouble saying no to anything. Over the years that hasn’t always worked to his advantage. Too much booze, food and smoke have been contributing factors to later health problems.
A large part of the book consists of stories from Clarence’s life that are only partly true, or not true at all. Or several true stories merged into a made-up one. You can distinguish those stories from the rest of the book because they are printed on gray paper, and Clarence makes no secret of the fact that you should take them with a large grain of salt. Sometimes truth is better understood when explained with a lie, seems to be the philosophy behind these tall tales. Often, these stories involve other celebrities. We meet Norman Mailer, Bob Dylan, Bruce of course, and several others. The stories may not be true, but there’s no doubt Clarence has crossed paths with an enormous amount of people over the years. Quite often, this has apparently resulted in interesting, quite intellectual exchanges that show an unknown, to me at least, side of Clarence. The well-read and cultured Clarence.
One of the people we meet is his friend and co-writer of the book, Don Reo. Several of the regular chapters and the “tall tales”, too, are written by Reo. It is actually he who offers some of the most interesting insight into Bruce and the E Street Band. A declared fan of the band and with all the backstage access he wants, his observations are the kind of stuff that fans were probably hoping to get more of from Clarence himself.
In the end, a lot of readers will be disappointed in the lack of focus on Bruce and the band, although the book certainly isn’t completely devoid of it. But if you start reading with the right expectations and an interest in Clarence Clemons, human being, you are rewarded with plenty of entertaining snapshots of and interesting insight into a man whom most of us perhaps take a little bit for granted up there on the stage next to Bruce, but whose personal life has probably been at least as complex and eventful as his boss’.