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Remembering Clarence Clemons

Clarence Clemons spotted People 
In Nov. 1998, as a pop music critic for The Miami Herald, I had occassion to interview Clarence Clemons about some local gigs he was performing in town. This was one year before the E Street Band reunited but The Big Man and The Boss were still tight. Bruce Springsteen was snoozing on the couch in the other room at Clarence's Singer Island home as Clarence and I chatted about how the two met and his life post- E Street Band.

Clemons died at age 69 on Saturday of complications from a stroke he suffered a week earlier. I remember he was a pleasure to speak and he sure made a lot of people happy with the sound of his saxophone.

Here's the column:

SURPRISE JAM PAIRS BIG MAN, BOSS AT PALM BEACH CLUB
Publication:  THE MIAMI HERALD
Page:  E1
Reporter:  HOWARD COHEN Herald Staff Writer
 
 
Day:  Monday
   
Date:  11/9/1998
Text:  Clarence Clemons, the football-player-sized tenor saxophonist for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band from 1972 to 1989, recalls how the two met.

"We met in Asbury Park. He had a girl in his band, Karen Cassidy, and she said [to me], 'You know, I got this friend of mine, he's got a band. You gotta meet this guy. You guys would be so great together.'

"Finally, we were playing in the same town. I was playing a place called the Wonder Bar. He was playing a couple bars away, and it was a dark, rainy night. So I walk down to the place, and there he was. I walked in and tore the door off the place -- seriously, the door did come off when I walked in. A gust of wind blew the door right down the street -- and I'm standing there, lightning in the back of me, kind of an awesome sight. I asked if I can come and sit in, and he goes, 'You do anything you want.' "

Clemons, now 56 and living in Palm Beach County, laughs.

More than a quarter-century later, it's another wind-whipped day as the remnants of Tropical Storm Mitch churn the waters outside Clemons' Singer Island home. Springsteen is asleep in the next room, a guest here. The night before, he had joined his former bandmate on stage before about 180 very happily surprised fans at Palm Beach's 251 Sunrise, the club where Clemons performs solo every Wednesday.

The reunion was unadvertised, and they ran through about four songs, including Pink Cadillac , a B-side from the new Springsteen box set Tracks .

"It was a riot, it was a great night, " Clemons says.

Simple as that, Clemons stifles a rumor that has dogged him: that there was a fallout, something that led Springsteen to abruptly disband the E Streeters in 1989.

"I still love him very much and he still loves me very much and we're good friends, " The Big Man says.

He was angry, he allows -- at first. "And then the reality came. And the other reality is you have the freedom to go about the country now. I could explore my life and fulfill some of the dreams I had doing music and my own albums with a sense of freedom."

One Top 40 hit resulted, in late 1985: You're a Friend of Mine , a bouncy duet with Jackson Browne. "I was looking for quite a few more, but one's better than none, " Clemons says of his only solo hit.

Club jobs

"I looked around for another place to take 'my church, ' " he says, and landed regular work performing Tuesdays at Christine's (in Burt Reynold's old Jupiter theater) and Wednesdays at 251 Sunrise.

Playing clubs sounds a world away from being a core member of a band that played two packed nights at Miami's 72,000-seat Orange Bowl during 1985's Born in the U.S.A. tour, but, Clemons says, "You're right there with the people and you can touch them and see the reactions on their faces. It's more personal. That's what I like about playing in small clubs. In big places, you can just see the first two rows. With all the lights, you can't see the whole crowd. But when I'm on stage playing, I don't care if it's me and just the American flag there. I remember playing with Bruce in Pennsylvania once, and there were 17 people there, but we still played the same show. That's what we do."

Getting on first album

In an interview published in the Nov. 7 issue of Billboard magazine, Springsteen talks about how Clemons ended up playing on his first album, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. : "Initially, Clarence was hard to find; that's why he's only on a couple things on the first record. The way that he ended up on the record at all is I handed it in to Columbia and Clive Davis sent it back and said, 'There are no singles on this record. I want you to write two more songs.' And I said, 'Well, OK, ' and I went home and wrote Blinded by the Light and Spirit in the Night , and we took two not very good songs off. I was able to find Clarence at that time, so he ended up coming in and playing on those [added cuts]."

Clemons says: "Some things are meant to be."

Always, things pointed to music. Once, when Clemons, who grew up in Norfolk, Va., was 9, his father bought him a saxophone for Christmas rather than the electric train he really wanted. "When I went to Europe with Bruce once, I called my father up and said, 'Dad, that saxophone you bought me bought you and Mom a trip to Europe, ' and he said, 'I'm all packed up. I've been waiting.' "

Pre-E Street Band, a car accident sidelined Clemons' budding football career with the Cleveland Browns.

"I couldn't play professional football, " he says. "God moves in mysterious ways: 'This ain't the way you're going to go son. Lay in the hospital and think about it for awhile.' I took the saxophone more seriously. I always had it with me. If there was a band playing, I stopped and played, in search of what I was looking for -- what made my life whole. And then I met Bruce, and that was it."

Anyone seeking insight into the musical relationship of Clemons and Springsteen can trace the evolution of their sound on Tracks . These were songs originally rejected when Springsteen decided they wouldn't fit a particular album's theme. For example, the bar band-ish So Young and in Love would have sounded awkward on the serious Darkness on the Edge of Town LP in 1978.

"There's not one jive song on there, " Clemons says. "It's all pure Bruce. The man's prolific. What can I say?"

Of the 66 songs on the new album, he says his favorite is Sad Eyes , a recent cut, one he didn't play on. Only keyboardist Roy Bittan remained from the E Street Band when that was recorded in the '90s.

What about a reunion?

Of course, fans want to know if there will be a full-fledged E Street Band reunion tour centered around Tracks and Springsteen's sure-bet inauguration into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame come January.

Springsteen, in his Billboard interview, talks about that possibility: "I know we have young fans who have never seen us, so it's always a subtext of our conversations, and it's always there in the air somewhere. But, at the moment, we don't have any particular plans."

And Clemons' plans?

"I'm going to be working on an album with my band. I've got something I want to say. Hopefully, if the Bruce thing happens, we'll go out with that.

"The next couple years of my life are going to be real busy."

Herald staff writer Howard Cohen can be reached by e-mail at hcohen@miamiherald.com and on Twitter @HowardCohen

Comments

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Lawrence Halter

At first I couldn't believe the news, I thought this couldn't be true. But then I saw it on the nightly news and I cried my heart out. I was so devastated by his passing. Never will I hear the sound of his golden saxophone live again. But his memory and his music will stay on my heart.

Philadelphia House

Clarence is a wonderful musician, he inspires me

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