the book pile: big man;
…and he thought about the endless rush of time and color and sound as he moved down some corridor like at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, where that guy is in that room where you’re young and you’re old and you’re young and you’re old again; and he thought about his mother and his father and his children and his concept of God and about Heaven and who would be there and would there be awkward moments like when Jackie O runs into Marilyn, and he wondered why ghosts are always wearing clothes and did that mean that shirts and pants existed after death, too…
The Book Pile is the increasingly mountainous heap that lives underneath – and increasingly alongside – my bedroom mirror. It is more likely to be supplemented with new purchases and loaners from friends than conquered in my lifetime.
Big Man: Real Life & Tall Tales by Clarence Clemons & Don Reo
978-1847443540, Hachette (2009)
There’s probably a better time to read the autobiography of a public figure you really admired than in the aftermath of his death, particularly an autobiography that pitches the mortality of its subject so centrally. While Big Man: Real Life & Tall Tales is a hilarious and lively read, there is no arguing with its timing. The book was finished while Clarence Clemons recovered from double-knee replacement surgery, came to terms with the death of his longtime friend and bandmate Danny Federici and wondered if, for the first time in his career, he might be forced to miss a show.
Its real tragedy though is that there is more life in this book than anything I have ever read. So if you’re still tearing up despite yourself at your E-Street Band concert DVDs, then maybe you’re not ready.
As befits a man whose legend almost equated his physical size – whose exploits Bruce Springsteen wove into mythology on stage every night – Big Man is part autobiography, part flight of fancy. As Springsteen himself writes in the foreword, “[m]ere facts will never plumb the mysteries of the Big Man”. That being said those dream sequences and fictional conversations with Bob Dylan and Kinky Friedman and Norman Mailer have enough of a ring of truth that you question where the grey begins.
That the book is cowritten with a longtime friend, the writer and television producer Don Reo, only adds to its effectiveness. Autobiographies are by their very nature subjective accounts of the life of a particular individual, but Reo’s observations add to the whole and fill in some of the gaps. One of the bits that made me laugh the most was Reo bastardising that famous Jon Landau quote, claiming that some day somebody will write I saw rock n roll’s past and its name was Bruce Springsteen. “I believe the E-Street Band will continue as long as Bruce and Clarence are able to stand on a stage together,” he says, unaware of the poignancy of his words. But it’s true that as the world – as music – becomes more fractured and secular no one band will even be an Elvis or a Beatles with that level of respect and adoration that true legends command again (my brother saw the E-Street Band at Hampden with us, but his voice drops in reverence when he talks about seeing McCartney in the same stadium the next year). Who’s left – the Rolling Stones? U2? REM? Mick Jagger’s a skinny, wrinkled cartoon character – no matter how much I love his music nothing I have seen of his stadium shows has ever captured the sheer joy the E-Street Band brought to the stage. There are bands who come close, for me, but I can’t get my head around the idea of them in twenty years.
Despite Amazon listing Springsteen as a co- – in fact, as the lead author – for his couple of paragraphs, I think few of us saw Clemons as a supporting character in somebody else’s band. If you did, then you should really read this and marvel about how the threads of lives intertwine and become part of a much bigger story. If you didn’t, then you should read this anyway – not least because after doing so there is no way you could see the Big Man propping up a stage while Lady Gaga gyrates in her underwear as in any way incongruous.