Born to Run (2016)

BOOK TWO

BORN TO RUN

THIRTY-FOUR

CLARENCE CLEMONS

And the change was made uptown . . .

Clarence was a figure out of a rock ’n’ roll storybook, one perhaps I’ve partially authored, but you can’t be the Big Man unless you are the Big Man. If I was some embodiment of Jon’s rock ’n’ roll dream, Clarence was an embodiment of mine. I’d searched high and low for years for a true rock ’n’ roll saxophonist. Not a jazzer who’d slum with us, but somebody who felt the music and the style we played in their bones.

Previous to Born to Run, Clarence was just the very large, gifted black saxophonist in my band. There were only five of us and we had a nice little R & B–flavored outfit. After the cover of Born to Run, he was the Big Man in the E Street Band. We used that cover, designed by in-house Columbia art director John Berg, to invent ourselves, our friendship, our partnership on an epic scale. Our adventure began with that double-wide photo, taken by Eric Meola, in the window of every record store in America. That double spread on the front and back of the cover was John Berg’s idea. When the cover is closed, the album front is a very charming photo of a young, white, punk rock ’n’ roller. But when it opens, a band is born and a tall tale begins. I brought Clarence to the Eric Meola session because I wanted to be photographed with him. Instinctively, I knew there was something about the two of us standing side by side that I wanted to say. It was dramatic, exciting and a little bit more. It captured what I’d felt the first night Clarence stepped on the stage to jam at the Student Prince. That night a real story, one you can’t contrive, only discover, was born. It’s a story that can be nurtured and brought forth, but first, it has to be there in the dirt, the beer, the bands and the bars that give it birth. When you saw that cover, it was filled with the resonance, the mythology, of rock’s past, and a freshness calling toward its future. Eric Meola’s image of C and me, like a hit record, was familiar, yet you’d never seen anything exactly like it before. We were unique. There were only two of us.

The cover was filled with the subtle mystery of race and a mischievous sense of fun and power promising to be unleashed. It’s a photo that makes you wonder, “Who are these guys, what’s the joke they’re sharing, what’s their story?” That image grew naturally out of the strength and deep feeling between the two of us.

After Born to Run, our stage show changed also. Previous to 1975, Clarence often hung at his microphone, playing the gig like a club saxophonist, cool and low. One night I walked up to him and said that would no longer be enough. We could use our musical and visual presence to spin a tale, tell a story only hinted at in my songs. We could live it. I think my actual words were something like, “Tomorrow night, let’s get off the mikes and get busy,” but Clarence instinctively knew what to do. The next night “the Big Man” showed and the crowd lit up when we simply walked toward each other and planted ourselves center stage. The crowd was right. They were big steps then and they continued to be, because we felt they were, carried ourselves as if they were, and then we backed it up.

The Emperor of E Street

It’s hard to imagine that Clarence was once a normal person, a college student, football player and bespectacled counselor at the Jamesburg State Home for Boys. He had a face that would look at home at any point in history. It was the face of an exotic emperor, an island king, a heavyweight boxer, a shaman, a chain-gang convict, a fifties bluesman and a deep soul survivor. It held one million secrets and none at all. C was a creature of a dark-humored cynicism stemming, I suppose, from growing up a big black man in the American South. He also mysteriously contained a near-hopeless optimism and eerie innocence, I guess coming from being a mama’s boy like myself. Those two elements when mixed are as potent a combination as raw dynamite, and though C’s trigger point softened over the years, you did not want to set those two poles arcing. You would be destined for an unhappy ending, for the middle ground of those two points was a psychic, no-answer no-man’s-land.

I watched Clarence barrel through life with a spirited recklessness and humor both admirable and concerning. C’s story, like the story of a survivor of a vicious ocean crossing, was best experienced by the warmth of your fireplace, rather than alongside him in the boat. He was married many times, his wives suffering outrageous behavior as he suffered romantic and financial confusion. One thing the layman needs to remember about Clarence is Clarence was very important to Clarence. In this he was not so different from most of us, except by fabulous degree. To take care of C, it took a village. He was rich and broke and rich again. Heartbreak and disappointment were often just around the corner, though he would be guaranteed to rise again the next morning, back at it in search of love, love, love, peace and satisfaction, until he got it right with his beautiful wife, Victoria.

Clarence’s racial identity was somewhat clouded by his sheer fantasticalness. He struggled living in the predominantly white world of our band. At that point, the E Street Band was half black and half white; the loss of Davey Sancious and Boom Carter deeply affected him. For a long time he was alone, and no matter how close we were, I was white. We had as deep a relationship as I can imagine, but we lived in the real world, where we’d experienced that nothing, not all the love in God’s heaven, obliterates race. It was a part of the given of our relationship. I believe it was also a part of its primal compellingness for the both of us. We were incongruent, missing pieces to an old and unresolved puzzle, two longing halves of an eccentric and potent whole.

If you travel for years in an integrated band, you see racism in action. In the early seventies it was a few schools that didn’t want us to bring our black singers. Then on the road with E Street it would—not often, but occasionally—come up out of the murk. Luckily nothing damagingly physical happened, and approaching C in this manner at all showed reckless disregard for self (in our youth I’d watched Clarence stack every weight on each Nautilus machine in the gym to its maximum, make one casual circuit and go home), but still, there were times when it came close.

Heat of the Night

I’ve lived around the biggest guys in Central New Jersey. Black-belt bar bouncers who literally drank their beer, then ate the glass to liven up the evening. Every big man uses his size differently: to impress, to control, to intimidate, to protect, to calm. C usually used his to project a quiet, kind, powerful presence that naturally dominated the space around him. It was rarely questioned, but that degree of physical authority always carried with it a warning: “Use only in case of emergency.”

It was a summer evening. Clarence and I took a cruise north up Route 9 to check out a club his buddy had opened and maybe do a little jamming to help the place along. As we pulled into the parking lot, it was like entering a dead zone, empty. Inside was the familiar grave of a deserted rock club. A small band was tuning up, getting ready to play to an audience of four walls and a bartender. Depressing, but I’ve done it plenty of times. You go on because of an old Shore rule . . . “If there ain’t music playin’, nobody’s stayin’.”

Suddenly there was noise at the front entrance. Clarence went to check it out, then I heard a bigger rumble. I hustled over to see Clarence tying down two big men in the foyer while the owner grappled with another. Somehow an argument over getting into this black hole had broken out and C had assisted his pal in keeping the peace. Everybody broke apart, some nasty words were exchanged and then as these guys backed off across the parking lot, someone whispered not quite quietly enough, “Nigger.” Clarence stood there seething. A few moments passed. I looked around and couldn’t find my friend. I nervously scanned the parking lot, fearing the worst. I took a walk.

It was a humid night, the stars above obscured by a veil of slight haze. There was no movement in the air, just an impossible stillness, time hovering to a stop. I’ve wandered the Shore on many nights like this and they always carry with them a whiff of the end of the world. I found C leaning against the hood of a car at the far end of the parking lot. “I know those guys,” he said. “I play football with them every Sunday. Why would they say that?” I should’ve answered “Because they’re subhuman assholes” but I was caught blank, embarrassed by the moment myself, and all I offered up to my friend was a shrug and a mumbled, “I dunno” . . . silence. We didn’t play that night, we just drove home, in the quiet of the car with the events of the evening rattling uncomfortably around our heads. A white man and a black man driving on a lifelong trip together on an otherwise meaningless night.