Born to Run (2016)





Clarence once mentioned to me during a negotiation that he should be paid not only for playing but for being Clarence. I said no and it was funny, but he had a point. Was there another one? Nope. There was only that one. In truth he was paid for being Clarence, as he’d been the most highly remunerated member of the E Street Band since close to its inception. So what did we do now? That was all that was on my mind as our tour approached.

Ed Manion, our longtime Jukes/E Street/Seeger saxophonist, was a great player and an all-around good guy and would get the job done. But “the job” was tricky. It was less of a “job” than a position of faith that had some distinctly shamanistic requirements. There was a fellow out in Freehold whom I’d played successfully with, who had C’s tone down, was great onstage, but …

I received a small collection of DVDs from guys who could play rings around the moon, but we didn’t need John Coltrane. We needed a to-the-bone rock ’n’ roll saxophonist. I sat in bed going through them one morning as Patti sat at my side going, “Nope, nope, nope, nope.” Out of curiosity I even went on the Internet and checked out the top “tribute” bands to see how they were handling it … No.


Though he traveled with the band for the better part of the Magic/Dream tour, I’d never really heard Jake play ’til Clarence’s funeral. There, he did a lovely version of “Amazing Grace.” He was physically big like C. He and his brothers, to the unknowing eye, could appear to be a misplaced tribe of Maori warriors. Jake was bespectacled, sweet and soft too. Somewhere along the way, a mama had been good to him, and he carried with him the limitless sunshine that was C’s specialty on a good day. He was talented, a good songwriter and singer. He loved music, was young and hungry, and I could perceive inside of him the beginning of a star.

After C’s death, many months went by. Jake and I stayed casually in touch and though we both knew what we were thinking, it was appropriately never mentioned. On the street I was confronted regularly with the same question from friends and fans. “Whaddyagonnado?” That’s how it always came out. One thought, one word, one critical, life-defining, all-important, existential “I gotta know NOW ’cause it’s driving me CRAZY that this thing I loved might no longer be there!!!” question. “Whaddyagonnado?” My answer was always “We’re gonna think of something.”

Steve on Jake: “He’s black. He plays the saxophone. His name is Clemons. He’s the guy! He’s the only guy!” Steve dismissed my other candidates as … white.

I knew what he meant. He was saying that “thing,” that world, that possibility that Clarence symbolized going back to the early days of race-divided Asbury Park was tied to his overwhelming blackness. It was. And that “thing” was a critical piece of the living philosophy of the E Street Band.

I agreed that Steve was right but by definition, there being only one true Big Man, one true Big Man whom neither chops, nor size, nor the blackness of night could replicate, it didn’t really matter … maybe. I knew the band had changed the minute C breathed his last. That version of the E Street Band would be Never No More! There would be no replacing Clarence Clemons. So the real question was, “So what’s next?” Next … now.

Jake’s very existence gave him the first shot. Besides, I had already played with the other guys I was thinking about and Jake was the only real question mark. I needed to find out who he was. So, many months after we’d sat in that little room at St. Mary’s passing the guitar around, I made the call he must’ve been expecting. I laid out the situation. It was an audition. It’d be just him and me. We’d meet and see if there was reason to take it further.

On tour, some had expressed reservations about Jake’s maturity. In my experience with him I could feel some swagger but after speaking with him during Clarence’s illness, I felt there was a lot more there. It was time to see.

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Jake came to his first professional meeting with me an inauspicious hour late. I was ready and steaming. When he walked in I said, “Did you have something more important to do?” He said, no he did not, but he had gotten lost. I said, “Let’s go to work.”

Over the phone I’d given Jake four or five songs to familiarize himself with: “Promised Land,” “Badlands” and a few other ringers. I wanted to hear his tone, his phrasing, and find out his learning ability. When he arrived, he “sort of” knew them. Lesson number one: in the E Street Band we don’t “sort of” do … ANYTHING. James Brown was my father, god and hero as bandleader. Sam Moore was also a great inspiration. At their best, these were men whose lives forbade them to fuck around with the thing that was lifting them up. On the bandstand, with their bands, they gave NO QUARTER!

People always asked me how the band played like it did night after night, almost murderously consistent, NEVER stagnant and always full balls to the wall. There are two answers. One is they loved and respected their jobs, one another, their leader and the audience. The other is … because I MADE them! Do not underestimate the second answer. I needed Jake to deeply understand them both, so I said, “Let me get this straight. You are coming in to audition for Clarence ‘Big Man’ Clemons’s seat in the E Street Band, which is not a job, by the way, but a sacred fucking position, and you are going to play Clarence’s most famous solos for Bruce Springsteen [referring to myself in the third person], the man who stood beside him for forty years, who created those solos with him, and you’re gonna ‘sort of’ know them? Where … do … you … think … you … are? If you don’t know, let me tell you. You are in a CITADEL OF ROCK ’N’ ROLL. You don’t DARE come in here and play this music for Bruce Springsteen without having your SHIT DOWN COLD! You embarrass yourself and waste my precious time.”

I don’t usually talk like this and I was exaggerating for his and my benefit, but not much. I needed to know who Jake was. Because even if he could play in the E Street Band, who you ARE, what you’ve got inside, your degree of emotional understanding of the stakes we’re playing for, FUCKING MATTERS! It’s not intellectual. Dan Federici was all instinct but he understood the brotherhood. Did Jake?

After a few times around, I instructed him to go to the hotel room from whence he came and not to return until he had these solos down. I said before I’d take him to sit in with the band, he’d have to play this material perfectly with just him and me. Then we would play and record to a live tape of the band in full flight. Then, and only then, would I bring him before the group. He called me a day or two later and said he was ready. When he came in this time, he was.

Over the next few days I found Jake to be a soulful, hardworking young sax player whom I had a deep feeling for. I was rooting for him, for us. C was in the room, big-time. He drew us closer. He’d been Jake’s uncle, had mentioned Jake to me when he wasn’t well, and I knew he’d have smiled over Jake’s being here. This felt like it had his blessing. That would’ve meant nothing if Jake hadn’t had “it.” There could have been an army of sax players with C’s looks, his playing ability and the Clemons name, but if they didn’t have that deep connection to why we were in all this, we would’ve come up zero. Jake had E Street soul in his blood and bones. He was a big, good-looking, talented kid. That’s cool. You want stars, and Jake had that kind of confidence. Before the day was over, he’d need it. I also knew that Jake was ready to put his talents, body and soul, at the service of my band and our ideas, and we, in turn … would change his life.

Some of the band members who’d played with Jake before found him undisciplined and were skeptical. Jake and I had to be ready to wash that away in one fell swoop. We drove to the abandoned military base of Fort Monmouth, where the band had a rented theater in which we rehearsed. Jake and I walked in and greeted the band, and I called the tunes as Jake killed them, one by one. For Steve and several others it was a done deal. A guy or two wanted to hear possible other options. Jon Landau was initially made anxious by Jake’s physical similarity to C. “He looks like a young Clarence,” he said, face wrinkled in consternation. I looked but that’s not what I saw. I saw that somebody up there liked me and had sent us this very lovely kid with all the right ingredients to take what was potentially the most damaging injury to our family and help us move past it and down the road. This was not a job for a hired gun or mercenary, no matter how well intended, at least not on this tour or at this moment.

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The Apollo Theater … holy house of soul. The most sacred stage in a rock ’n’ souler’s world. This is where the next-generation E Street Band will fittingly, frighteningly, have its debut. As we arrive for sound check, the stagehands greet us, thank us for coming and show us the tree stump sitting stage right that every Apollo wannabe rubs for good luck before their moment of truth. I suggested Jake give it a rub. This is the stage where James Brown “took it to the bridge,” where Smokey didn’t leave a dry seat in the house, where Joe Tex dug the women, “skinny legs and all,” then sagely counseled his followers, “Hold on to what you’ve got.” Tonight, after forty years of road work, we’re wannabes like the rest. You just want to live up to the place and deserve your short moment onstage in one of the great shrines of music.

From this stage, Sam and Dave schooled the crowd on what it took to be a “soul man.” Soul man, soul man, soul man … that’s the term. As an R & B singer, I will never be more than “pretty close,” but “soul man” is a much broader term. It encompasses your life, your work and the way you approach both. Joe Strummer, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Mick and Keith, Joey Ramone, John and Paul—all white boys who could rest comfortably with that sobriquet. It’s all-inclusive, and I’d be perfectly happy with just those two words on my gravestone.

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At sound check I walk back to Jake’s station within the horn section. I don’t want to do anything obvious that would place Jake in the position of having to stand in Clarence’s stead. C’s spot won’t be reinhabited by another sax player and the Big Man will be something our band and audience will have to get used to missing. That’s why Jake plays out of the horn section or out of his own position. It’s his. It’s open ground waiting to be claimed. But he will play those solos. I’ve instructed Jake that those solos are compositions, collaborations between Clarence and me that are engraved on our fans’ hearts. You don’t need to do anything fancy, just play them. Reach back for your best sound, breathe where C breathed and play them as they were written and recorded. The work Jake has to do comes from the inside. Knowing the notes is easy. Any reasonable sax player can blow those notes, but understanding them—knowing what they mean, their power within the song—is what’s transformative.

As time passed and our music bored its way into our fans’ souls, Clarence’s entrance within one of our classic songs was almost always greeted with thunderous applause. Why? He wasn’t playing something hard, but he was doing something hard and singular. He was meaning it. As Branford Marsalis said in a beautiful essay he wrote upon Clarence’s death, C was blessed with “the power of musical intent.”

The solos themselves are beautiful. They’re simple, elegant I suppose, but they’re not going to win us any blue ribbons at Berklee College of Music unless you understand how difficult it is to create within a framework of limits something slightly new under the sun. Clarence reinvented and reinvigorated the rock ’n’ roll saxophone for the seventies and eighties. Yes, there were King Curtis, Junior Walker, Lee Allen and many other of Clarence’s mentors, but for me, Clarence goes right up there with the greatest (and he is a big part of what carries me up there in whatever slot I may fill).

Jake’s job, his service, is to understand those notes, to mean them. Then he will become a part of that collaboration, and that’s something you can’t fake. You either do it or you don’t.

Technically, Jake is a fine saxophonist, and when he does his work he restores those solos to their shining brightness. C himself struggled to play them in the later years due to his physical degeneration, so Jake gets to fill them with the power of youth one more time. It’s good to hear.

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I walk up to Jake at the end of sound check and stand alongside him. I can’t resist. Smiling, I take six paces forward to a small landing. This is where Jake will perform his pieces. I look at him and say, “Two hours from now, these are the steps that are going to change your life for better or for worse,” and I slap him on the shoulder. He smiles that thousand-watt smile that is one of Jake’s most potent weapons and nods.

Showtime. Jake appears backstage moments before we go on without his glasses. I say, “Where are your glasses?” He says, “I’m wearing contacts.” I say, “Put your glasses back on. You’re the student.” “We Take Care of Our Own,” no solo. “Badlands.” The air sucks out of the room, a beat, then the two dozen notes or so of the “Badlands” solo roar out of Jake’s sax and roll across the interior of the Apollo. The briefest of moments, then an explosion of applause and screams storms back from the audience and we’re on the other side. He’s never late again.

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Before the Apollo I explained to Jake that at this moment we were in a great dance with our audience. They would tell us what we, as a duo, could and could not do. All we had to do was watch and listen. At first I never put Jake in any staged position Clarence and I had been known for. That meant no opposite risers, no shoulder to shoulder or any of the variety of other iconic poses C and I casually knocked off. We were careful to tread respectfully, but Jake proved to be himself right from the start. He performed the difficult task of allowing C’s spirit to inhabit him without giving up his own identity. Slowly, most of our rules fell away and we began, with our audience’s approval, to simply do whatever felt right. The tour was going to be not only the hello to this new version of the band but an international good-bye and a sad and joyous wake for the Big Man. That’s the way it was at every stop. Clarence’s presence hovered over us without ever stopping our forward march toward our new direction. That was Clarence’s parting gift to us.