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Published: Sunday, 11/15/2009

Clarence Clemons rocks on with raw willpower

ASSOCIATED PRESS

It's a touching moment, increasingly familiar to fans watching the E Street Band make its entrance: As the audience howls in anticipation and the rest of the band stands at the ready, Bruce Springsteen gently and lovingly helps Clarence Clemons walk to his saxophone at the front of the stage.

“Take your time,” Scooter says reassuringly as they inch forward. “Don't rush. You've got time.”

Time is on the minds of many as E Street nears the finale of back-to-back tours that have kept the band globe-trotting for the better part of two years.

Death has touched a band that had remained unchanged for decades. And Clemons — the Big Man — is showing his 67 years. Rife with painful ailments, he moves gingerly, a huge contrast to Springsteen's explosive and unflagging energy. Both knees have been replaced; he spent a long time in a wheelchair.

Then, in February, the band appeared at the Super Bowl, before a U.S. television audience estimated at almost 100 million. And Clemons stood.

Since then, he's logged thousands of miles with E Street. Amid doctors and physical therapy, he's wedged in book-signings for Big Man: Real Life & Tall Tales, released in October. And he's started a second book with friend and Hollywood producer Don Reo.

If sheer willpower is all it takes, the Big Man will never be down for the count.

“I always said in my life that when it doesn't feel joyous any more, then it will be time to quit,” he said in a recent interview. “But the joy is getting better and better.”

Clemons got his first horn at age 9. He was awed by the sax sounds of King Curtis, Junior Walker, Sil Austin, and Boots Randolph — and by the voice of Aretha Franklin, with whom he later recorded.

In his youth, he sloughed off racism. He had trouble forming attachments in his segregated black high school, because it was outside the white community where his family lived.

For years, he seemed destined for football. After a car wreck ruined his Cleveland Browns tryout, he decided “God wanted me to do something else.”

He refuses to dwell on the negative. Ask about the glory days, though — the band's gritty, camaraderie-fueled beginnings in the 1970s — and his eyes light up.

His book details the rags-to-riches adventures. As legend has it, a gale blew the door off an Asbury Park, N.J., club as Clemons — horn always at the ready — entered and asked to sit in with the Boss-to-be.

It was, he says, “beyond male bonding.”

He shared a house with keyboardist Danny Federici, drummer Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez — and three boa constrictors.

The old ties still bind E Street. But Springsteen has remained his No. 1 bro-mance.

“When I first met him, I didn't want to let go, and he didn't want to let go,” said Clemons. “It's like you finally found out what you were looking for all your life artistically, creatively.”

They were “inseparable. ... We just talked about ourselves, about what we wanted in life.”

When Springsteen delivers Clemons to his sax stand, he plants a kiss on the Big Man's lips.

“It's the most passion that you have without sex,” says Clemons. “Two androgynous beings becoming one.”

“It's love. It's two men — two strong, very virile men — finding that space in life where they can let go enough of their masculinity to feel the passion of love and respect and trust. Friendships are based on those things, and you seal it with a kiss.”

Still, Clemons concedes that he doesn't always get Springsteen's lyrics. Take “Blinded by the Light” — “Madman drummers bummers and Indians in the summer with a teenage diplomat ...”

“I had no ... idea what it meant.”

“I still don't,” he says, laughing.

Nor does he understand how the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame could have inducted Springsteen without E Street. “We have been together as a band for 33, 34 years. And we contributed so much,” he says. “It's a bunch of suits who make these decisions.”

And to be honest, he's had problems far greater than any Hall of Fame concerns: the knees; three hip replacements; two eye surgeries; a pacemaker; sleep apnea. He's avoiding back surgery because “the down time is so long.”

Powerful narcotics after the knee replacements muddled his thinking, triggering depression and self-doubt — so he swapped them for a diet-and-fitness regime.

He likes the new feeling of playing with a clear head.

“The stage is a healing floor — no matter how bad you hurt.”

“I told Bruce, when this all started, ‘One day we'll dance together again.' And he says, ‘I'll be waiting.' ”

Last weekend, Clemons, still walking with difficulty, did dance. It wasn't the old antics — leaping onto a speaker or lying on the stage, legs waving wildly. At Madison Square Garden, the joy erupted from the Big Man's upper body as he swayed, with rhythm and grace.

But how long will the dance go on?

On Nov. 22 in Buffalo, the band has one last blowout. Then they'll go their separate ways for who-knows how long.

“We'll be seein' you further up the road,” Springsteen reassured the New York City crowd.

But retirement is “something I think about,” says Clemons. “I'll be 70 years old in a couple of years. I don't know how much energy I'll have left. That energy, I want to spend with my family.”

Let's be clear: His definition of retirement is different from most people's.

“I really believe that this is something that is going to go on forever. When I say ‘retiring,' I don't mean ‘stop playing music.' ”

But he's mindful of the ticking clock. “I know that one day I'm going to die,” he says. “I want to accomplish as much as I can before I do.”



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