The Big Man, illuminated by the glow of a tiny white candle, sits wrapped in a hooded terry-cloth robe. The flickering light reveals baskets of fruits and vegetables, bottles of mineral water, a stick of smoldering incense. Right now the Big Man, sax player Clarence Clemons, is oblivious to them all. For 45 minutes he’s been in this backstage room at the Oakland Coliseum, eyes closed, meditating before tonight’s gig with Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band. This nightly ritual is not to be interrupted. “When I go out before a crowd, I ask God to give me inspiration to be the light,” he explains later. “See, this isn’t just to make money. Money is a hazard. I want to keep myself strong, to keep helping Bruce, to keep true to his purpose.”
That, of course, is just what Clemons has done for 14 years since quitting his job and leaving his wife and two baby boys to follow the Springsteen siren. Tonight, dressed to blind in a dazzling white three-piece suit and white sunglasses, he will once again play onstage foil to the Boss’ blue-collar hero, honking his tenor sax and huffing his way through four hours of the mightiest rock this side of Rushmore. The marathon performance, as always, will be part music, part theater and physically “worse than football,” according to Clemons, a onetime college defensive end. And afterward the 6’3″, 240-pound saxman will need a rubdown before he can comfortably settle into a hot tub and the soft sounds of a Chopin tape.
Since they hit St. Paul on June 29, 1984, Bruce and the boys had been living like this, churning through a worldwide tour of 150 cities. The tour ended in L.A. on October 2, but Clemons, 43, won’t be off the road for long. A solo album, Hero, will reach the stores this month, followed by a tour of the Big Man’s about-to-be-formed band. Soon he’ll be filling the home screen as well with a guest turn on Diff’rent Strokes (there’s been talk of appearances on Miami Vice and Hill Street Blues as well). “I’ve made a great mark with Bruce, but that’s Bruce,” he says. “Now I want something that is all Clarence.”
Clemons recorded his new LP in his “spare” time, during breaks from Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. tour. He hired producers, people he trusts, to do the bulk of the studio work, a method in sharp contrast to Springsteen’s often fanatical attention to detail. (“I’m not the perfectionist that Bruce is,” concedes Clemons. “I’m easier to satisfy.”) Still, if the Big Man—Springsteen’s pet name for him—and the Boss have different styles, their souls seem to be one.
Their first meeting back in 1971 “was magic, like fate suddenly waking me up,” says Clemons reverently. Both were playing in Asbury Park, N.J. at the time, Clemons at the Wonder Bar, Springsteen down the street at the Student Prince. A girl singer had been urging him to check out “this guy Bruce,” so one night between sets he did. “I was in a white suit, and it was a dark, rainy night,” remembers Clemons. “The wind was blowing like crazy. I had my saxophone with me, and when I walked in this club—no lie—a gust of wind just blew the door down the street. Boof! I say, ‘I want to play. Can I sit in?’ Bruce says, ‘Hey, you can do anything you want. Take a couple of background singers, anything.’
“I sat in with him that night. It was phenomenal. We’d never even laid eyes on each other, but after that first song, he looked at me, I looked at him, and we said, ‘This is it.’ After that I was stoked. ‘Cause you start to lose hope after a few years.”
Thelma Clemons, Clarence’s mother, recalls her son “telling me he found a brilliant young man he was working with. He said the man had it together.” Thelma, a devout Baptist like her husband, Clarence Sr., had other hopes; she was urging her son to become a teacher. “I didn’t want him to starve,” she says. “I used to say to him about playing in these bars, ‘Well, Clarence, why would you want to be in a rock band?’ ” The son would reply: “Well, Mom, who else is going to take the gospel into the rock world?”
Clemons was the oldest of three children, all born in Norfolk, Va. His brother, Bill, is now a minister in Hawaii and a captain in charge of a Marine Corps band. His sister, Gerrie, is a special education teacher in New Jersey. When Clarence was 9, he asked his father for an electric train for Christmas. His father bought him a saxophone. “He came home one day and said, ‘I heard this saxophone, and this guy made that thing talk. I want my son to play.’ ” Clemons took private lessons, did his practicing in the fish store where he worked and eventually made his sax all but bilingual. It even spoke money, earning him a partial music scholarship to Maryland State in Princess Anne, Md.
There, however, he “majored in football,” Clemons now jokes. He quit just shy of graduation and took a day job counseling emotionally disturbed boys. At night he sat in with bar bands and rock groups, whoever would have him. By the time he met Springsteen, seven years after leaving college, he had a wife and two sons (Clarence III, now 17, and Charles, 15). Sadly, rockin’ and responsibilities were not a winning combination. Springsteen invited him to California for some band dates, but “I just couldn’t leave.”
Then the Boss returned and asked Clemons to perform on his debut LP, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. “We started to practice,” says Clemons, whose marriage by then was in trouble. “I knew Bruce was what I was searching for, so I went out on the road with him, left my family and wife. I had a good job, good money, but I quit everything. I was making like $15 a week with Bruce then. Had no place to stay. But I had faith. It was like following Jesus.”
Fourteen years later the disciple-ship continues, and neither solo projects nor upcoming TV stints will change that, Clemons insists. Still, there have been some adjustments. Married again four years ago, he and wife Christina, 32, have settled into a three-bedroom riverside condo in Sea Bright, N.J. and are eyeing a second home in Northern California as well. Once known as the Great Kahuna, a hard-drinking fun lover who kept a permanent welcome mat out for his hard-partying pals (“I’d just lie back and watch the house jump up and down the block”), he has sworn off alcohol and sticks close to home at night when not on the road. When he does travel, it is sometimes in the company of his teenage sons.
Last year Narada Michael Walden, who wrote and produced six of the songs on demons’ LP, introduced the saxman to guru Sri Chinmoy. Offstage Clemons has adopted the spiritual name Mokshagun (Sanskrit for Lord’s All-Illuminating Liberation Fire) and rarely goes 24 hours without meditating. “Yesterday I walked in and Mokshagun was meditating with such intensity that tears were coming out of his eyes,” reports Walden.
Clemons’ schedule leaves less personal time than ever, and when he and Christina decided to start a family last year, they hoped to schedule the baby during a break in the Springsteen tour. When he informed his manager, the manager asked, “When’s she due?” Replied Clemons, “She’s not—yet. We’re aiming for the middle of February.” Later, as the tour rolled on, Clemons packed a Betamax throughout Europe, spending much of his day practicing videotaped Lamaze lessons. When he returned home early this year, he went to the classes in person and found he was better prepared than the regular attendees—in more ways than one. Christopher arrived February 23, right on schedule.
“I was fantastic during the pregnancy,” says Clemons. “I used to talk to Christina’s stomach: ‘I love you. I love you.’ And then when the kid came out, I said, ‘I love you,’ and he looked right into my eyes. He recognized my voice. There’s a bond between me and this kid that’s unbelievable.”
Perhaps. But here in Oakland, back on the road again, Clemons’ joy of fatherhood seems submerged in concern for his first pride and joy—the horn he’s been playing since Springsteen was an infant. The night before, during a typical rock-the-walls-down rendition of Hungry Heart, the instrument had fallen from a broken neck strap and crunched to the floor. “It was ugly,” says Clemons with a frown. “When it dropped, my heart went with it. I’d rather somebody punch me in the face than drop my sax.”
Now a roadie has brought the big tenor in from a repair shop for Clemons’ inspection. The G sharp is sticking, says Clemons. The roadie tends to it, hands the sax back and the Big Man looks relieved. Though he rarely practices any of the E Street Band’s songs—a repertoire of nearly 100—he handles the instrument lovingly. “I don’t have to make a lot of preparations; I pick it up, and it’s like me,” he explains. As if to demonstrate, he rips off several licks, filling the cramped dressing room with a dense set of riffs from Dancing in the Dark. The sound is warm, friendly, full of promise of the songs to come. It is, indeed, like the Big Man himself.