Jake Clemons on Clarence: 'He's On That Stage Every Night'

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I remember being at the first show at the Apollo Theater and watching you walk down for the "Badlands" solo. It was a really big moment.
[Laughs] That was a very intense moment. It was more intense than most people realize. I mean, people realize it was an intense moment, but they don't know it was an emergency situation. It went from a moment that could've been flooded with a lot of thought to being an emergency where I could just act, fortunately. I was preparing for it in my head and thinking, "OK, make sure these notes are right. This is the first thing that people are going to hear. This introduction has to be strong." 

I did a little test note with the horn to make sure everything was OK. It was like being introduced to baseball fans at the World Series and you're up to bat. To get my head straight, I did a test note, and my horn wasn't working. I'm sure there's a video out there where you can see me running back to change mouthpieces and microphones in order to get that solo. 

It's funny. There were moments leading up to that where I kind of felt Clarence's nudge along the way. His presence was there. We had two horns that were ready to go. There was the silver and gold one that he played a lot on his tours, and there was a silver and black that he played on occasion, but not very much. It was his number two horn. Almost out of respect, I was playing the number two horn. This was my first introduction and I'm playing the horn, and I can't get the note out, so I had to pick up Clarence's main horn to play the first solo. I could feel Clarence being like, "What the hell do you think you're doing? This is still my show. This is my stage. You're playing my horn."

Talk about pressure. There were no rehearsal shows. You're on one of the most iconic stages in the world in front of an audience of VIPs. Elvis Costello was right near me in the audience. On top of that, it's being broadcast live on the radio.
There's nothing like being introduced to a very dedicated fan base by a live concert being streamed to the entire known universe. My name was trending on Twitter globally. It was crazy. It was a crazy, crazy moment.

How did you feel after that show? Just extreme relief?
You know, I was thinking about the hundred shows that were coming after that. We hadn't played one yet that was on the actual roster. 

By this point did you know all the songs? If he called for, say, "Paradise By the 'C,'" would you have known that?

No. No. Absolutely not. I was able to reference a lot along the way, but again, Bruce was being very, very gracious with me. Eddie Manion, too. That guy had been playing that music for a long time. He's a fantastic player, and he was really supportive. 

Let's move ahead to when you first did "Jungleland" in Europe. Did you think that maybe Bruce would never call for that song, since it was so iconically Clarence's?
Well, my first thoughts were on Clarence asking me to play it a few years ago, especially as it was getting harder and harder for him to hold notes for so long. My first thought was Clarence saying he'd like me to play that song, but my next thought was how Clarence embodied that song. That song was his. If you said "Clarence Clemons" to most people, they'd think of "Jungleland." 

I wasn't afraid of that song being retired, for that jersey to be hung up. But again, it became a huge part of the healing process. When we first played that song it went from . . . what it meant to me was that leading up to that point, Clarence was missing. The tragedy in my heart the first time we played it was that I knew he wasn't coming back. It's almost like when you take the plate off the table or when somebody else is sitting at their seat. That became that moment for me, and it was really, really, really heavy . . . The moment was so significant that we couldn't soundcheck it. That moment was the first time that the band heard me play that song. 

I've heard Branford Marsalis say that he didn't understand how difficult Clarence's job was until he sat in with the band once, and his lungs were aching by the end. It's not as easy as it looks, right?
Yeah, I would say so. It's funny. I think that people who don't play saxophone get it better than people who do play saxophone.

Right. Some players are probably snobs and think that playing with a rock band is easy, unlike jazz.
Yeah, it's a different gig. I'm a surfer, and to put it in a similar perspective, when I surf on the East Coast, we don't have massively huge wages. When you go to Hawaii, they're big and beautiful and smooth, but if you took a Hawaiian surfer here they'd have a horrible time. They'd have to put in a lot of work on these tiny waves. It might not be a real long wave, but in order to do something great on this wave, it's almost a different sport.

Let's move onto your upcoming solo tour. It's gonna be a big change from soccer stadiums, but I imagine you're looking forward to that.
Yeah, it's great for perspective. It's a gift to have my own band and my own entity, and I get all this encouragement along the way.

It's very ambitious to dive into a solo tour right after wrapping up a real long world tour.
I'm still young. For me, as a songwriter, I don't have time to relax. I'm trying to build my own legacy. It's a really beautiful gift to be aware of what it's like to play with greatness. I love being onstage with those guys. It's like being in Greece 2000 years ago when these statues of gods are being built. I'm onstage with these guys from rock & roll mythology. It's insane for me, as a mere mortal, to be able to walk among them.

What I want to do with my own group is apply all the lessons that I learned. If people are coming to see me from the Bruce family, they've just seen me with the greatest band on earth. So I want to apply all the lessons I learned as far as communicating with the audience, creating a set list with a theme and a voice. Before 2012, to be honest with you, my set list was pretty depressing. My music was self-serving. That's why this experience has been so important. I want to use it for greatness.

So the Springsteen tour heads to South Africa and Australia in a couple months. Do you know what's happening after that?
[Laughs] I have no clue. I have no clue.

It's gotta be strange to have no idea what's happening in your life next year, though I guess it's not up to you.
I kind of feel that way in life anyway. That's not necessarily new for me. I've made plans before that meant nothing in the end, and I've made plans that turn out great. That part isn't new to me. But I know we're going to Australia and I've got five weeks that we're putting together with my band pretty much right after that. We're doing a full U.S. tour, taking this record all over the country.

Every night when they show the Clarence montage during "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," I see you turn your head up and look at it.
I'm not watching it. I'm looking up out of respect. I'm looking out of connection. It's like I'm having a mental conversation with the Big Man. I'm like, "Do you hear this?"

I imagine what's happened is pretty much his dream scenario – you taking over after he passed away.
Yeah, I would say so. He's definitely invested in it. My saying these days is "trust providence." If you're watching carefully enough, you can see the pathway, and that this is here for a reason.

Some people in your position might have a hard time with it. You've been given this amazing opportunity, but it only happened because of an unspeakable tragedy. That sounds horrible, but you know what I mean.
I'm so gentle with that. I know there's a zero percent chance that Clarence can be replaced. That is not a reality. And you know why? It's because he's still here. This is still his stage. He can't go anywhere. As much as I love playing these songs, I don't look at this as a fortuitous opportunity. I thank God that he provided a way for this message to continue. I thank God that he put Clarence in the world in the first place. 

I suppose it's a blessing that the end of his life was relatively quick. There wasn't a prolonged period of hospitalization, just a week or so.
Yeah, and it was an important week. I was in Ireland finishing up my own tour when the stroke happened. I went straight to the airport and flew to Florida to be with him. I spent that last week with him. I knew he could hear my voice and he was gripping my hand. I honestly don't know what I would've done had I not had that time. 

He went out after an incredible long tour with Bruce, and then he played with Lady Gaga. I talked to him on the phone a few months before he died. He was so happy about that opportunity.
Absolutely. I mean, he happened to be doing the biggest thing in the universe at the time, which was playing with Lady Gaga on American Idol. It just so happens there was nothing bigger at the time. That was his last chapter. 

Just one last thing. How can you book a tour for next year when you don't know Bruce's plans?

Well, I said to them, "Do you have any plans?" They said they didn't, so I booked some shows and they said, "All right, cool." Then I have to cross my fingers and pray that I don't have to cancel any dates. 

I'm hearing lots of rumors about a new Bruce album.
Yeah, we will see what happens. We'll see what happens. Ummm . . . I mean, I think it's public knowledge that there were some recording sessions, but who knows? I have no clue. 

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