Friday, June 21, 2013

Book Review - Big Man by Clarence Clemons and Don Reo

Clarence Clemons' autobiography "Big Man" is easily one of the most creative, funny, depressing, and frustrating books I have ever read.  Let's just tackle these subjects one by one:

Creativity - I have read many biographies of musicians, and the format is very cookie cutter.  They begin by describing the artist's parents (or even grandparents), and flow from their.  An inordinate amount of time is spent in the early years, and the later years usually feel rushed through.  However, in Big Man, this is completely thrown out the window.  After roughly 2 pages on his childhood, he's rocking on E Street.  Clarence's story jumps all over time as well, going from pre-Born to Run touring, to his hospital bed in 2009, and then back to a relationship with a woman he met in the 80s.  The pacing keeps you on your toes as a reader, and the transitions are smooth enough to prevent this from feeling too jarring.

Clemons & Reo take another big risk by including several "legends" throughout the book.  While these legends are clearly meant to be taken with a grain of salt (and some ones with a blatant pound of salt), they are very humorous and skillfully told stories.  There are conversations that Clarence has with Bruce which, while they may not be historically accurate, give you a great insight into their friendship.  His tale of meeting Robert DeNiro may be worth the price of admission alone (which is currently $0.01 plus shipping on Amazon).  This is a risky story-telling method that I was unfamiliar with, and while it did have its pitfalls (which I'll discuss later), I appreciated the effort involved.

Comedy - Clarence has a fantastic sense of humor, and it shines through in this book.  The "legends" in the book were filled with unbelievable twists and turns (the Hunter Thompson story comes to mind) that actually made me laugh out loud (something I rarely do when reading).  There is a positive energy present throughout the book, and it is clear to the reader that, no matter what they think, Clarence and Don had a blast writing this memoir.

Ominous Foreboding - That being said, it is a bizarre book to read two years after Clarence's death.  Despite the playfulness of the book, there are many hints and allusions to Clarence's forthcoming death.  Perhaps it is because this book was being written on the heels of Danny Federici's death, but it does come across that both men feel they are writing an obituary.  Clarence is very open about the physical pain he was currently in at the time, and the immense strength it took to stand through the Super Bowl concert in 2009.  You get the feeling that, as the time they were writing this, they weren't sure if Clarence would live to see the book published.  A lot of times, when performer you enjoy dies, it is usually after their career has wound down, which makes the loss easier to take.  However, this book really made me miss Clarence's presence in the E Street Band even more than I thought it would.

Frustration - Despite all this, there were many times I just wanted throw this book across the room and scream, "THIS IS SUCH BULLSHIT!"  First and foremost, we have to start with Don Reo.  Don is a good friend of Clarence, and he makes this abundantly clear.  Whenever I see a co-author on an auto-biography, I assume that person is just putting all the ramblings of the subject into cohesive sentences.  However, Don Reo is all over this book.  There are chapters where Don takes over, with Clarence's connection being that he is in the room as Don is telling a story about his career.  When he talks about Clarence, it seems like the relationship is more of a crush than a friendship.  Don seems to write more later on in the book, and it made the final pages difficult to get through.

Furthermore, the novelty of the "legends" begins to wear off after a while.  They become increasingly absurd and pointless.  The frustrating thing about this is that as I neared the end of the book, I began to realize that I'll never scratch that deep into Clarence's personal life.  Very little is written about his wives or his children, so when I reached a 10-page story about a fake conversation with Norman Mailer, I let out a sigh and just plowed ahead.

Ultimately, this book is an enigma.  It a wonderful way to spend time with a dear departed member of E Street, and yet its happy-go-lucky writing style will ultimately leave unfulfilled.  Overall, I'd give it 3 out of 5 stars - it is probably better to read as a bathroom book, digesting one or two stories at a time, rather than as a complete autobiography.

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