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Hear Clarence Clemons in His Final Rolling Stone Interview

The newest Rolling Stone Music Now podcast revisits our 2011 conversation with The Big Man – four months before his death at age 69

clarence clemons big man e street 2011

Clarence Clemons performs the National Anthem before a MLB opening day game between the New York Mets and the Florida Marlins at Sun Life Stadium on April 1, 2011 in Miami , Florida.

Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images

In February of 2011, Lady Gaga went onto Ryan Seacrest’s radio show to talk about her upcoming album Born This Way for the very first time. She was at the height of her fame, and her army of Little Monsters were eager for any scrap of information they could get their paws on. But the name of one collaborator she threw out must have puzzled some of her young fans: Clarence Clemons. Gaga is a big Bruce Springsteen fan, but the E Street Band saxophonist wasn’t exactly a big part of the 2000s pop landscape.

As soon as the news hit, we put in an interview request to talk to the Big Man himself about how this all went down. Much to our surprise, he happily called us up the next day and was delighted to talk about Gaga and anything else we felt like exploring with him. The E Street Band hadn’t played in well over a year at the time, and Clarence’s health problems were well known, but he was in great spirits – which made his death from a stroke just four months later all the more stunning. We released parts of the interview back in 2011, but in honor of his 76th birthday this month we ran much of the interview on the Rolling Stone Music Now podcast, and have included the full transcript here. To hear the conversation, see below or download and subscribe to the show on iTunes or Spotify

How did this collaboration with Lady Gaga happen?
It was her idea. Someone over at her camp called me up and said, “Lady Gaga wants you to play on her album if that’s possible.” This was on a Friday afternoon. I said, “Yeah, okay, I’d be glad to do it. When do you want me to do it? Monday or Tuesday?” They said, “No, she needs you now.” [Laughs] It was kind of funny. I had to fly into New York that same day.

You drove right to the airport?
Yep. I think I almost got a ticket.

Wow.
This whole thing was so wild. I was so excited. Man, she is it. And all the things I thought about her, I was right. She’s a genius.

You went right to the studio and she was there?
Yeah. I got there close to midnight. I walked into the studio and she came running down the hall, “Yeah! Big Man!” [Laughs] Shit. I was like, “Holy shit, man. Damn.” She’s a great person and I had so much fun. Just so much fun.

What did she tell you about the song “Hair” that you played on?
It’s a story about growing up. Her parents didn’t want her to grow her hair or whatever it was, but it just made so much sense when she told me the story. I’m still really excited about it. The fact that I was asked to play on her album was one of the greatest things that ever happened in my life. I am a real fan of her approach to what she’s saying. All the things that some people see as crazy, it makes so much sense. She’s just a great, great person. When I left the studio, it took me a few days to come down. Just being witness to what she’s saying and actually getting there is amazing.

What instructions did she give you before you played your part?
She just told me the story of the song and said, “Just play. Put the tape on and where you feel it, play it.” And I did and she loved it. I played on three songs. I mean, I could have stayed for three weeks and just done that. It was so chill and so real. It came from a place inside me that was inspired by her. She didn’t tell me what to do. She said, “Just play. Play from your heart. Play what you feel.”

What’s she like in person? Is it similar to her public persona?
She’s the real deal. I mean, all the craziness and stuff, it’s purposeful. I had no idea. You see people sometimes and you draw conclusions, but the conclusion is wrong because there’s no boundaries in the thing she does She’s just…she’s it.

So, how is your health these days, Clarence?
Good. You know, something like this makes me feel a lot better, you know. [Laughs] Something like this is inspiring, plus the possibility of going on tour with her. Wouldn’t that be great?

Are they talking about that?
No, we didn’t talk about anything like that. We were so involved and engrossed in the place that we were in right then.

Might you play with her at some point?
I don’t know. I have no anticipation, but I would love it. I’d love to do it if she asked me. [Note: Clarence’s final public performance was with Lady Gaga on American Idol in May of 2011.] 

Did you have back surgery recently?
Yeah, spinal surgery. I had both my knees replaced. I had spinal fusion and some L2s, L5s. I had a lot of things.

The spinal surgery is the most recent one?
The spinal surgery and the knee replacement both happened within the last year. I’ve had hips replaced. I’ve had all kinds of replacements. It hasn’t held me back. Everything happens at the right time and the timing was perfect. It didn’t interfere with a lot of stuff that was going on in my life. When I had the last surgery, I knew I had to do it, because the last tour [in 2009 supporting Working on a Dream] was hell. It was pure hell. At the same time, it was wonderful. It was beautiful to me. Isn’t that something?

I have played with two of the greatest people, the greatest musicians, the greatest artists, probably alive. It’s a beautiful thing. Although I had all these problems, it didn’t hold me back. This made me stronger and made me work harder. I’ve been in physical therapy for the past year, few days a week, working my ass off to get back [in shape.] And the music I’m involved with has really helped me hold it together. It has helped me be stronger because of my love for what I do.

Are there any more surgeries planned?
I don’t know what else they could do. [Laughs] What else is left to replace? I got everything just about covered now. But whatever it takes to do what I gotta do, I’ll do it.

Are you walking better now?
Yeah, I’m walking better. I still use a cane and now I’m having some hip problems again. I don’t know why. But it hasn’t stopped me from playing music. As long as my mouth and my hands and my brain still work, I’ll be out there doing it, man.

I’ve heard some talk of a 2012 E Street Band tour. Is that something you know about?
No, but I do believe that could be true. It may be true. There’s always rumors about stuff around Bruce and it’s always pretty true. When it comes to music and what the band is doing, yes, we are going to do it again. I always say that I think we’ll do it again. But after that, is Gaga going gonna decide to go out? I don’t know. If both of them came to pass in the same year, the same two years or whatever, it would just be…I can’t even think like that. It’s so crazy. [Laughs] The one thing I would love to do is have the chance to go out with both of them.

You turn 70 next year. Do you see any moment where you would stop touring?
I’m gonna keep going until I’m not there anymore. That is what’s keeping me alive and feeling young and inspired. My spiritual teacher, Sri Chinmoy, told me that my purpose in life is to bring joy and light to the world. And I don’t know any better way to do that than what I’m doing right now.

I’ve got some random fan questions if you don’t mind.
Okay. I’ll try my best.

The fans are fascinated by the Nebraska album and whether or not the full band tried to record some of those songs.
I think when Bruce brings in the band in on the music, he knows what he wants and he knows what he hears. He places it where it wants to be. So it’s not a matter of “try it and make it fit,” it fits naturally or it does not.

So the band didn’t try to record those songs as a full band?
No. As a full band, I don’t think so.

Did you buy Human Touch and Lucky Town when they came out? What were your thoughts on those albums at the time?
At that point in his life, that is what he wanted to say. I’m a Bruce fan and whatever he does is fine with me.

You love “Sad Eyes,” right?
I love it. Musically, it’s one of his greatest vocal tracks.

So you record the song “Born To Run,” and then Ernest “Boom” Carter and David Sancious quit the band. Did you think they were crazy?
Yeah, I did. The way it went down is that we were playing in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. At the start of the show, Bruce told me they were leaving. I thought he meant they were going home or something. And Ernest was living with me at the time and he never told me they were going to leave. They never told me anything about it. I had no idea. I was just taken aback. We had gotten pretty close and I thought that he would have said something to me. It came as a big shock, a very big disappointment.

I have a 2002 tour rider here and it says you get a whole roast chicken in the middle of the show. Is that something they did back then?
No. But I did have dinner after the show.

But not in the middle?
No, no! Jeez, there wasn’t time to get of and eat. That’s a funny think to think about. [Laughs]

What are your memories of shooting Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure?
We shot it somewhere out west. I can’t remember where. Anyways, I was like, “Wow! This is very surprising.” It came along all of a sudden and it wasn’t one of those things I had wished for or even thought about. They called me and I was like, “Wow!” We didn’t shoot a lot of rehearsal. That happened pretty naturally for me, that part I played in the movie.

Why do you think Bruce recorded so many albums that he shelved back in the day?
Well, he had these expressions he wanted to make and we were at a point where we couldn’t play in the studio, but he was still writing. I think he just says, “A song ain’t a song until somebody hears it.” He’s just a prolific writer. People who know about this kind of thing, that’s why he writes so much. Put it down and make sure you can always come back and get it if you need. There are parts of a song you might need for something else coming down the road or something so crazy that you don’t want to forget it or lose it. So, a song ain’t a song until someone hears it. It’s a thought. If you write it, put it on tape, it’s a song.

You almost played for the Cleveland Browns, right?
Almost! I was going in as a free agent, trying out for the team. My best friend who I was in college with, he’s two years ahead of me, Charlie Holmes, he’s one of the greatest running backs I’ve ever met, even up to this day. He said, “Oh, come down and try out for this team I’m playing with, the Jersey Generals.” And I went down and tried out for the team. Then there was a car accident that knocked me out of football. I guess I never really tried out for the team, but I knew I could have made it. But the doctors thought it wouldn’t be a good idea. It was at the top of the season and I was in peak physical condition. 

Charlie and I used to work out together and we became even closer friends. He asked me if I wanted to try this job out first. He was a supervisor at this Jersey reform school for boys. My minor was sociology. So I had this job, which came after football.

Do you ever think about how different your life would have turned out if you hadn’t been in that car accident?
Well yeah, it would have been a lot different. That’s why some things happen in your past. You can’t understand why it happened, but it happened for a reason. Things happen in your life for a reason. If you’re wise enough and understand it, it makes your life easier instead of complaining about shit all the time. You’ve got to play the hand you’re dealt. At the end, you’ll see that what you decided was probably the right thing. I never thought I’d be a quote “rock and roll star.” I just loved to play. And then I met Bruce right after the car accident.

One last question: In the mid-1980s, who could have bench-pressed more, you or Bruce?
Me, definitely. Without a doubt. [Laughs] I don’t know about now. 

Download and subscribe to Rolling Stone Music Now on iTunes or Spotify, and tune in Fridays at 1 p.m. ET to hear the show broadcast live on Sirius XM’s Volume, channel 106.

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