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Big Man: Real Life & Tall Tales Hardcover – October 21, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
As the saxophonist for the E Street Band, the famed backup band for Bruce Springsteen, Clemons has lived a kind of pop music celebrity that's rare these days, a life spent rising and staying at the top of the album charts and performing before stadiums packed with tens of thousands of people. Along the way, he's mastered the art of telling yarns that are entertaining, whether plausible or dubious. It's a skill acquired during long hours waiting for gigs, traveling to gigs and recovering from gigs (Clemons now suffers from knee, hip and other joint ailments). His storytelling prowess is on display in this memoir, written with friend and producer Reo (My Wife and Kids; 'Til Death). The book is part episodic memoir (printed on white pages) and part bull session (legends printed on gray pages). The authors trade chapters about how the E Street Band got its name, how Spring-steen and Clemons met and why Big Man decided not to cut his hair, among other things. The intent is to give readers, especially fans, an idea of life behind the music by sharing the stories bandmates told each other. It's a novel approach to memoir that unfortunately skimps on serious insight and Springsteen's music and too often settles on nostalgia and celebrity name-dropping. Fans of Springsteen (who contributes a foreword to the book) will no doubt be more tolerant and eager to savor every page. (Oct. 21)
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"Legends have a way of growing every time they're told. This time, the tales of rock and roll history are brought to life by a legend himself, Clarence Clemons. Big Man relives Clemons's story in a unique personal narrative that's bound in both history and folklore. This is an essential read for any music lover."
--President Bill Clinton
"Big Man takes you on an outrageous journey with one of the most charismatic, gracious, kind and talented men of our time. This peek into the world of Clarence is full of fun and laughter, which is exactly what this guy is all about. He's a genuine soul worth his weight in gold. That's why he's been an inspiration to me for years and years, and his incredible music brings great joy to my heart. His role in the E Street Band helped place him and the band in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame...right where he belongs."
--Pat Riley, NBA Hall Of Fame coach
"Big Man is one of the greatest books about a big black man ever written. If you want to get really close to a big black man without getting punched in the face, this book's for you!"
"The feeling I get watching Clarence walk to center stage to play his sax must be similar to the feeling a Yankee fan had watching Babe Ruth walk to home plate: you're sure a big man is about to do something that's gonna make you cheer louder than you ever have before. This great book makes that feeling even stronger. Now excuse me while I drive my sleek machine over the Jersey state line."
--Artie Lange, New Jersey native, E-Street fanatic, and New York Times bestselling author of Too Fat To Fish
"Big Man is too funny, soulful, outrageous and wise to have been written by two people. I suspect Don Reo is an invented character. A mystical book, an oddly beautiful book, a wonderful book."
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Top customer reviews
It's tough for a couple to stay together. But some have done it. Mick Jaggar and Keith Richards, of course. And then there Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons. Or, if you prefer, and you probably do, the Boss and the Big Man.
Clemons wrote a book about his life appropriately called "Big Man," and it's unique as memoirs go. The literary effort is a bit all over the place, but still manages to be entertaining.
When Springsteen made it big in music around 1977, Clemons quickly became something of a folk hero in the band. He was indeed a big man, having tried to play some semi-pro football in his younger days. His saxophone was often featured in Springsteen's work, helping to give the music a somewhat distinctive sound. His personality also came through nicely in concert, as "The Big Man" became something of an alter ego during shows.
The book is co-written by Don Reo, a man who has done plenty of work in television (writing, producing, etc.) and is a good friend of Clemons. The two trade off in writing anecdotes here. Clemons does most of the writing, and Reo's sections are mostly -- but not exclusively -- about Clemons and the times they had together. There are dozens of chapters here, and they are in no particular order. For those of you who like your stories told in a linear manner, this may not work too well. But overall, it comes off like listening in on an interesting conversation with two old friends -- bouncing from here to there.
Supposedly members of the E Street Band have signed some confidentiality agreements, but Clemons is relatively open when it comes to his own life. Most of the "revelations" are about himself -- multiple wives, drug use, taking advantage of the, um, opportunities that being a rock star can present, etc.
There are a few insights into Clemons musically, as well. He writes about how he was with Ringo Starr in Japan when he got the call in the late 1980's from Springsteen that he was breaking up the band for a while. He discusses how the E Street Band got its name, a great story concerning a former member of the band.
Clemons' health supplies something of a topical ending to the book. During the 2008 "Magic" tour, the Big Man didn't look so good and wasn't his usual active self on stage. Turns out a rock and roll lifestyle took a toll, and he eventually needed operations on his hips and knees. He recovered to tour with the band one more time, but died after that.
There are a couple of drawbacks to the book, and the first is an odd editorial decision. The text is broken up by tales that didn't really happen -- conversations with Robert DeNiro, Norman Mailer, and Kinky Friedman. The book is 364 pages long, and it's a little tough to know what the point was. The true-life adventures are quite enough without added legends.
There's also a little too much of the "Clarence is a really great guy" and "I can't believe I'm traveling with the E Street Band" from Reo. A couple of references would have been plenty.
Nevertheless, Clemons' story is still a brisk one, fun to read with plenty of tales of adventures from the road -- even if you aren't a huge fan of the band. As Springsteen has said about Clemons, "You want to be like him but you can't." "Big Man" is a good way to see what Mr. Clemons was like when he wasn't playing at an arena near you.
I love Springsteen and the E Street Band and I downloaded this book after finishing a Springsteen biography. Frankly, I needed a quick read to tide me over until the final "Wheel of Time" book arrived and I thought this might be interesting since the subject matter might fit well with the Springsteen topic. On the whole I think I was disappointed. I knew going into it that portions of the book would be fiction, and the introduction explained that chapters containing the word "Legend" in the title might not be entirely true. (Bear in mind that on a Kindle you don't have different-color pages like you do in a hardcover book.) So the inclusion of fictional material in a book that at first blush appears to be an autobiography didn't bother me in the least in terms of being an annoying surprise. But with that said, as I read the fictional parts I began to wonder what the point of including them was. I simply didn't feel they added all that much, although some of them were funny.
I think what disappoints me is that I was hoping to read more about the Big Man's life with the E Street Band, life on the road, and so on. By that I don't mean stuff like "I slept with x,000 chicks, did all this blow, etc." I suppose I was hoping for an insider's story on some of the tours and the recording of the albums. That wasn't really present. I really hoped to hear more about Springsteen breaking up the E Street Band in 1989 and the band members' reactions to it, how they spent the next ten years, and so on. That isn't there, though I suppose when you read the whole book you learn that the band members tend to go their own ways when they're not on tour, so that explains a lot. I just found the omission odd because I recall Clemons being one of the more vocal members about the breakup and implying that Patti Scialfa was a reason for it. I guess when this book was written the band was back together, so I suppose I understand Clemons not wanting to annoy Springsteen too much by writing a "tell-all" type book.
The other thing that I found strange, and frankly disruptive to reading, was the way the writing shifted between Clarence Clemons and Don Reo yet remained in the first person the whole time. It turned it into, essentially, kind of a dual memoir: Clarence Clemons's memories of portions of his life and Don Reo's stories about Clarence Clemons's life. I found that to be strange, and I found the use of two narrators to be distracting.
With all that said, the last few chapters were bittersweet and downright eerie. The copyright date on this is 2009 and the Big Man died in 2011. In retrospect, that makes all the ruminations on the approach of death and growing old seem extremely prescient and it's a bit difficult, as a fan, to read those comments knowing how soon the end came.
Finally, a comment on the Kindle edition: It's deficient because about halfway through the book, the chapter divisions disappear. That is, with a Kindle usually there are little hashmarks on the progress bar at the bottom of the screen. They denote the chapters and they allow you to skip forward and back between chapters quite easily, so if you want to skip the "Legend" chapters it would be easy to do so....IF the publisher had formatted it correctly. It's unclear what happened, but I think it appears to be a case where for some unknown reason the Kindle treated a bunch of chapters as though they were somehow subchapters of two "Legend" stories. If you read a book front to back and don't skip around (as I do), this won't be a major issue for you, but I mention it because it WOULD become a problem if you want to skip ahead or if you find you don't like the "Legend" sections and want to bypass them. When a Kindle book has a table of contents with links to all the chapters, there's no reason why all the chapter hashmarks shouldn't appear correctly.
I did not take off points for the Kindle bug mentioned above because it didn't affect my reading, but I thought it was worthy of mention.
Also, there are stories in the book from Don Reo, such as his encounter with Jackie Gleason, that didn't even relate to Clarence Clemons. Those felt a bit out of place and irrelevant.
I'd say 70% of the book was good and the other 30% a total waste. However, if there are fans who want to read about C's dreams or stories (aka BS) he told others, then they might like it more than I did.