- 25 Aug 21
46 years ago today, Bruce Springsteen released his third studio album, Born To Run. To celebrate, we're revisiting our interview with E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons – who recalls the momentous creation of the classic album.
This interview was originally published in Hot Press in 2005. Clarence Clemons died on June 18, 2011, aged 69.
Christmas came early for Bruce Springsteen fans this year with the release last month of the long-awaited 30th anniversary edition of his Born To Run album.
The lavishly packaged box-set includes a re-mastered version of the 1975 classic, a DVD documentary on the making of the album and a full-length concert DVD of the legendary Hammersmith Odeon show from November 1975. The film was compiled from long-lost multi-camera footage which was shot by the BBC and subsequently shelved. Brief clips of the show had been aired in the past, but the existence of the complete concert on film has long been rumoured, making it something of a Holy Grail for Springsteen fanatics.
The London show marked Springsteen’s first ever visit to the UK and was widely regarded at the time as being excessively hyped, with the now infamous posters, “London Is Finally Ready For Bruce Springsteen,” plastered around the city in the run up to the gig. The UK music press was highly sceptical about this relatively unknown American being presented to them on a plate as a fully formed star-in-waiting. The man himself, meanwhile, was reportedly less than happy with this overkill and he recalls his feelings in the liner notes of the box set: “With the shadow of the crown and the noose upon my neck I stood in the middle of it. This Week’s Next Big Thing. All I remember thinking was…this is a little more than I bargained for.”
On the night however, Springsteen and the band more than rose to the challenge and ultimately triumphed, as Clarence Clemons, Springsteen’s sidekick and long time E-Street Band saxophone player, remembers.
“The film brought it all back to me in a big way when I saw it,” he says. “But the truth is, I never really forgot a lot of it anyway. It was a very important part of my life, that whole period. It was our first time in England, it was cold and wet and people were driving on the wrong side of the street. What I really remembered and loved about that show was that Bruce and me and the guys walked out on stage before a crowd of disbelievers, and two hours later, we walked off in front of a crowd of believers. Apart from that, there was a lot of beards, a lot of hair and a lot of hats onstage that night (laughs). We were all in our fedora stage at the time. And then there was my white suit, ha ha. It took a lot of mirrors in the dressing room to keep it clean.”
Clemons joined Springsteen and his band just before his 1972 debut, Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ. The two had met while gigging on the boardwalk in Asbury Park – Clemons was then playing with his own outfit, the Joyful Noyze. Legend has it that the larger-than-life ex-football player burst open the door of the venue Springsteen was playing, walked up onstage and started jamming. “That’s pretty much how it happened,” says Clemons. “Bruce was the most unique and original person I’d met playing on the Jersey shore and he brought me into the band and into his life for what the saxophone brought to his music. It became a big part of his history. It changed his music and it changed my life too.”
In the years immediately prior to the release of Born To Run, Springsteen and the E-Street Band had built up a huge live following, particularly in the US north-eastern states. One show in Boston in 1974 led to the critic Jon Landau (later Springsteen’s producer and manager) to proclaim. “I have seen rock and roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” However, his growing live prowess wasn’t yet matched by his recorded output. While his debut and the follow up, The Wild The Innocent And The E-Street Shuffle were well-received and contained future classics, he hadn’t yet found a comfortable production style.
With the Spector-ish wall-of-sound production, and superb songs like the anthemic title track, ‘Thunder Road’ and ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out', Born To Run was the one that finally popped him loose, landing him on the covers of Time and Newsweek. But it came with a price; the recording sessions for BTR were said to be long and arduous with dozens of abandoned takes. At one point Springsteen told the record company he didn’t want to release it – threatening to take the band to New York’s Bottom Line club to make a live album. Was there a feeling among Clemons and the rest of the band that the stakes were high, and that this had to be the big one?
“At the time, I didn’t feel the pressure the others might have felt,” he recalls. “My job was to play the saxophone and that’s what I did. Not playing live was difficult for me – I love playing for people. But it was a great bonding for us, being in the studio together. We became a band making Born To Run. We became brothers.”
Is it true that Clemons spent something like 16 hours with Springsteen working on his part on ‘Jungleland’, the epic closing track on the album which features an extended sax solo?
“Yeah, 16 hours sitting in front of a microphone working it all out note for note. It was hard work and it was painful at times but it was all worth it in the end. It’s my favourite song on the album, artistically, but I like ‘Night’ and ‘She’s The One’ – stuff like that just reminds me of the old days when we were a lot younger. There are a couple of other songs we recorded at the time that I thought would make it, but of course I’m happy with what ended up on the album.”
Clemons is also featured prominently on the iconic Born To Run cover, where he is seen jostling playfully with Springsteen. Was there any resentment on the part of the other E Streeters that he was the only member featured?
“No, I don’t think so. It was Bruce’s decision but we’ve always been pretty solid as a unit. I’m older than the rest of the band chronologically, although spiritually I’m not. Actually, my face is on the back of the album cover and not on the front of it.”
Springsteen broke up the E Street band in 1989, before reforming it a decade later for a successful reunion tour. It was followed by the even more successful The Rising album and tour. However, his most recent album Devils & Dust saw him back on a solo track again, and he has recently wrapped up a well received solo world tour. Rumours about a new E Street Band album and tour in the New Year – possibly the last ever – have been circulating widely. Does the big man have any light to shed on this tantalising possibility?
“You always hear rumours,” he laughs. “I hear the same rumours as you do. But I don’t always keep up with what’s going on with the band. We’re always in separate places, but every now and then we bump into each other and have a drink or two. Bruce’s decisions are Bruce’s decisions. He tends to make the right ones anyway. We did the Vote For Change shows this time last year with the band and that was a lot of fun. But I’m spending a lot of my time in China right now. I met a Chinese lady, in Dublin actually, and found out she could sing American rock 'n' roll with Chinese lyrics. We’re going to see what happens with that.
“But everybody else seems to be pretty busy. And we stay busy until Bruce calls, then we drop everything. It’s like going into recess again – you know when the bell goes off in school and you get to go out and meet your friends and have a good time. That’s what it’s like playing with the E Street Band.”