Clarence Clemons: Who Do I Think I Am?

Gareth Thompson By

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Clarence Clemons
Who Do I Think I Am?
MVD/Virgil Films

Everyone probably has their favourite Clarence Clemons saxophone solo. Take that fiery blast at the close of Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road," for example, where Clemons blows a divine howl like some avenging angel. Clemons's life is documented in this film by director Nick Mead, who neatly uses black and white footage to highlight the musician's striking demeanour. Despite various hip and knee replacements and an increasingly heavyset figure, Clemons maintained the charismatic aura of a black icon. Indeed, his very presence in Springsteen's line-up arguably broke down some of the alleged segregation that existed on U.S. white rock radio.

The film's first section looks at Clemons's upbringing in Virginia, where a car accident put paid to his sporting prospects and pushed him further into music studies. After joining a band in New Jersey he was spotted by members of the E Street Band, including drummer Vini Lopez. The rest is genuine music history, wherein Clemons forged his deep relationship with Springsteen, his sax solos adding passion and meaning to the singer's epic narratives of blue-collar life. Their onstage connection also provided great entertainment, even stretching to full-blown kisses among the jokey interplay. The two were described as "blood brothers." Clemons also took full advantage of the rock star lifestyle, enjoying booze and cigars aplenty. His riders included such items as 'One whole fresh roasted chicken to be delivered at 9.45pm: One small tin Beluga cavier.' Yet for all the masseurs, limousines and fishing boats, his friends insist that Clemons embraced both the material and spiritual sides of his nature. "He represented power and peace in the same breath," says musician Dale Powers.

Clemons probably took it hardest of the E Streeters when Springsteen severed his ties with them. 'The Boss' encouraged each one to follow their own new pursuits and Clemons needed no second invite. He performed in a spangled suit with Ringo Starr's All Star Band alongside Dr John and Levon Helm among others; he appeared in films such as New York New York, Porky's Revenge and Blues Brothers 2000. In the movie Swing, he played a saxophonist who inspires his prison cell-mate, but Clemons also added his talents to the soundtrack arrangements. Later he put together an eight-piece band named Temple Of Soul, who took their joyous organic funk to all manner of venues, including restaurants where unsuspecting diners soon got wise to the greatness in their presence. Temple Of Soul was also the name Clemons gave to his pre-gig dressing room, his private sanctum.

Then in 2003, after the E Street Band had reconvened with Springsteen, Clemons went soul searching to China following a grinding tour. "Sometimes you get so lost," Clemons said. "It's good to be alone. It's good to find yourself." Mead was there with his camera to shoot the visits to various temples and shrines, as Clemons enjoyed his anonymity in a nation where Springsteen was virtually unheard of, but also revelled in the stir his presence caused as a hulking black man. Yet there's an unsettling moment where Clemons plays sax to the camera somewhere along the Great Wall. Whilst trying to clear a space for the filming, a gobby tourist brushes past him asking, "Who do you think you are?"

This obviously hurtful moment inspired the film's title, but Clemons would return refreshed from his trip and compose some great music. Check out "Ode To China" from his Temple Of Soul album Brothers In Arms, with its ecstatic fervour and Eastern elements. Mead captures the studio playback of this majestic piece, after which a smiling Clemons declares, "I'm free, I'm free at last!" Perhaps he meant it in a spiritual sense, or maybe he finally felt open to compose the melody of his own soul, and not just be an eternal link to Springsteen. Described by various interviewees as "volcanic," "like a matador" and "like meeting King Solomon," the gentle giant Clemons died in 2011 at the age of sixty nine.

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