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Monday, Dec. 14, 2009

‘Real Life & Tall Tales’ in the E Street Band

Clarence Clemons: Born to be fun?

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Big Man: Real Life & Tall Tales (Grand Central) is the first autobiography written by an E Street Band member. Remarkably, it’s by Clarence Clemons, not Little Steven or even Bruce Springsteen himself. Big Man has a foreword by the Boss, who says in bemused reference to the cover photo for his 1975 Born To Run album—the one with Springsteen and Clemons occupying equal space as icons of all things rock music—“What is the joke they are sharing?”

What a fond way to describe the image of Springsteen and Clemons, pictured on an album that brought literate rock music to every corner jukebox. Springsteen rightfully says that everybody wanted to be hip to the in-joke once they saw him and Clemons on that cover. With the recent success of the E Street Band’s concert tour, playing Born to Run in its entirety with dedication and joy, and with this book, apparently the punch line is still relevant.

It’s a good book, Big Man, a rock ’n’ roll fable at its most joyous, and without any primary emphasis on the detailed drug and sex adventures so beloved by rock scribes. And the book is hilarious. From anecdotes about playing pool with Fidel Castro to spaced-out musings on Hunter S. Thompson, Big Man is a real joy. Co-author Don Reo is identified as Clemons’ best friend (and the producer of “M*A*S*H,” among other television shows). From the textual flow it feels as though they are helping one another recall such things as the secret Robert De Niro told Clemons and Springsteen that had to be kept for 25 years, what happened when, in a hotel room with Ringo Starr, Clemons got the call from Springsteen that the E Street Band was put on hold, and—most interestingly and as much fun, too—how the final hours of the Born to Run album went down once and for all on tape. The book is a mixture of startling gossip and hilarious interlude. It has absolutely no insight into anything, but is honest, endearing, completely crazy and always in the storyteller mode. Every chapter has its combined moment of smart aleck and wise resolution.

One thinks of many recent, overwrought rock autobiographies. Unlike them, this is what living rock ’n’ roll is about, with no pretense toward literary flair and intent. For Springsteen fans, Big Man will be endearing for its sincere picture of the Boss as a kind and dedicated person. The big man in the book is obviously Bruce Springsteen, for without him, and Clarence Clemons makes this clear, there would be no autobiography from the sax player in the band.

In the end, this is a book for Springsteen fans, but at the beginning there is Clemons, whose life story is uniquely important to the culture of rock ’n’ roll from the ’70s through the present because he is—you will know—one of us and not an indulgent hero. Clemons and Reo have crafted an exciting narrative where truth and fiction blend so seamlessly that the story becomes one that is born to be fun.