They were some of the biggest boots to fill in rock. But Jake Clemons, nephew of legendary Springsteen sax-player Clarence Clemons, proved more than up to the task after his uncle tragically passed away. He talks about stepping into the breach, life inside the Bruce camp and his close friendship with Frames man Glen Hansard...
Never before has there been such a flagrant case of bullying in the workplace. A new employee crippled with pain being mocked in front of others by his boss who just happens to be The Boss.
I’m referring to the aggravated piss-taking Jake Clemons was subjected to last year as he arrived on stage for the second of Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band’s RDS shows in a wheelchair.
“We’ve a little bit of a situation... Jake sneezed last night and his back went,” a giggling Bruce said of his sax man’s predicament. “He won’t be chasing me round the stage tonight. He’s in constant pain, but don’t worry about that!”
Abusive or what? It’s taken eleven months but with the help of his real friends and family, Jake has somehow managed to put the hurtful episode behind him.
“Yeah, I made E Street Band history that night for all the wrong reasons,” he rues. “I’m not going to lie; it was embarrassing! What Bruce did was actually perfect – the joking around made me relax and, painful though it was in parts, I really enjoyed the gig.”
What was the cause of the gargantuan gesundheit?
“My hay fever was really bad that day and as we got to the end of ‘American Land’ I could feel this monster sneeze welling up. I didn’t want to subject 40,000 people to the site of snot spraying out of my nose – possibly on the big screen! – so I turned my head around. As I did the sneeze erupted and this bolt of pain shot through my back. I thought I’d pulled a muscle but actually it was an annular disc tear. I went to see a phenomenal Irish doctor who did a scan and showed me what the problem was.”
It wasn’t the first time a semi-autonomous, convulsive expulsion of air from the lungs through the nose and mouth had got Jake into trouble.
“It didn’t require a trip to the emergency room, but one time in grade school I literally sneezed myself out of my chair!”
Jake is enjoying a rare day off in Glasgow following The E Street Band’s slaying of Hampden Park – a 3hr 45min affair, which included an extra poignant ‘10th Avenue Freeze Out’ tribute to his Uncle Clarence who died exactly two years ago following a stroke.
“The E Street family – which is both band and fans – were so loving and supportive yesterday,” he smiles. “I’d have found it really difficult if I’d been on my own, but up there on stage it felt like a celebration of The Big Man. There were high-fives all round afterwards because we knew we’d done him proud.”
Like Clarence, Jake grew up in North Virginia where his dad was a Marine Corps band director.
“I’ve just moved back there actually,” he divulges. “I’d been in New York for a while and just wanted to be somewhere a little more chilled. My dad conducted these guys who were all amazing musicians and great showmen because the Marine Corp band is all about spectacle and working the crowd. I went to the Virginia Governor’s School for the Arts where I learned a bit
of pretty much everything – saxophone, piano, flute, clarinet, bass, drums, guitar... My first love was jazz; then I discovered Run-DMC, KRS-One, N*E*R*D, The Neptunes, Arrested Development, Public Enemy and all that other old school rap stuff. My birth canal into rock was Nirvana’s Nevermind. Everything literally changed for me the day I heard that.”
When did he cop that his Uncle Clarence’s job wasn’t your routine 9 to 5 affair?
“This is going to sound silly, but not until I saw my first E Street Band show in 1998. I knew he was away travelling a lot, but why exactly didn’t register until I saw him there blowing up a storm on the saxophone. I was like, ‘Wow, I want to do that when I grow up!’
“Even though he was insanely busy recording and touring, he always made time for us. Birthdays were remembered, advice and encouragement given... he was an all-round great uncle who as I got older would take me out on tour with him.”
Not a bad way to learn the rock ‘n’ roll ropes.
“The best!” Jake nods. “To watch those guys was such an education. I still feel like I’m learning from them every time I go on stage.”
It was while hanging with the E Street Band that Jake got to meet Glen Hansard who’s since become one of his closest friends and musical allies.
“Yeah, I met him on the stage at the RDS. I’d seen Once and thought it was phenomenal. It had a deep impact on my perception of music. The story is timeless – you don’t know the characters’ names, it’s just Boy meets Girl. So anyway, I recognised Glen straight away and felt as starstruck meeting him as he probably was being on Bruce Springsteen’s stage!”
Wanting to further explore the city where Once was made, Jake flew over in June 2011 for two shows in Whelan’s.
“It seems like everyone in there is either in a band or planning to start one. I always try to hunt out the cool rock ‘n’ roll places when I go somewhere new and, I’m telling you, Whelan’s is one of the best club venues in the world. I opened for Lisa Hannigan, who’s another beautiful person, in the main room one night and did upstairs with Glen the other. John Smith was passing through town at the same time, so he also played before Lisa and ensured that we didn’t get to bed until it was light out! I did a few shows around Ireland with The Frames too, so I got to see different parts of the country, all of which I loved.”
Jake got to hook up with Glen recently at a gig of his in Melbourne, which ended in an ensemble version of Bruce’s ‘Drive All Night’.
“We’d done it before with Eddie Vedder a couple of weeks after Clarence passed and another time with Marketa,” he recalls. “Glen and I were looking to hang out and it just so happened that we were both in Australia at the same time. I love that guy. I love him like a brother!”
Did Jake have to go through a formal audition or an informal jam session before being added to the E Street Band payroll?
“No, but we spent a lot of time together that fall, Bruce and I,” he explains. “We had a lot of conversations about it. We handled it very sensitively. He wanted to make sure I was mentally prepared for what was ahead. It was as much about protecting me as it was protecting the E Street Band from somebody new coming in and messing things up!”
I imagine that Bruce is second only to Bob Dylan in terms of the number of songs he requires his henchmen to know.
“It was 40 before even getting into rehearsals, and now... I honestly couldn’t say. I do know that whenever we get on that stage it’s a moment of deep respect and a quick prayer!”
When do they get handed the set-list?
“As you’re going on sometimes – and even that doesn’t help much. Last night, for instance, the first six or seven songs we played weren’t on it. Most of the time when you catch me looking at Steve or Nils it’s in an enquiring, ‘Do you know what the hell’s going on because I sure don’t!?’ sort of a way.
“Sometimes you get an idea of what the show’s going to be like from Bruce’s actions during the day. You just get a sense of, ‘Oh, he’s in the mood to rock’ or ‘It’s going to be more intimate and acoustic-y.’ One thing the show never is is scripted. Sometimes you don’t hear him introducing the song and have to try and work it out from the first couple of notes. It can be stressful some nights!”
What have been his biggest “pinch me, am I dreaming?” moments on the road this past year with Mr. S?
“One of them has to be playing with Sir Paul McCartney in Hyde Park – even if they did pull the plug on us! Despite wanting to be different growing up and telling people The Kinks were the better band, I’ve huge appreciation for The Beatles. To perform ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and ‘Twist & Shout’ – well, half of ‘Twist & Shout’! – with him was a massive honour. The only thing that matches it was playing alongside my Uncle Clarence at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in 1992. That was certainly one of those, ‘Wow, what happened moments?’”
The European leg of the Wrecking Ball trek done and dusted, Jake will turn his attentions to the September release of his sophomore solo album.
“I’ll be touring it – not as expansively as I might have done in the past, but the band and I are going to jump in the van and do as many shows as we can fit in,” he concludes. “I’ll get to sing and play guitar, so it’ll be a totally different vibe. I’m blessed that I’ve two different musical worlds to flit between. I can be, ‘Jake Clemons, the sax-payer’ and ‘Jake Clemons, the solo artist who’s writing his own songs.’ They’re different spaces, but both brilliant to be in.”