Grateful Dead

Blair’s Golden Road Blog — The Big Man’s Jerry Days

I was surprised at how deeply I was affected by the news a few weeks ago that Clarence Clemons had died unexpectedly of a stroke at 69. I knew he’d had health issues for a number of years, but those were mostly related to knees and hips; stuff that happens to plenty of us as we grow older. And the initial reports following his stroke on June 12 were encouraging. So hearing a few days later that he’d slipped away was almost as much a shock as the first stroke news.

I was already a rabid Bruce Springsteen fan by the time I first saw him and the E Street Band play live, Halloween night 1975 at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, on their first tour following the release of Born to Run. I must have listened to Side Two of The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle (with “Incident on 57th Street” and “Rosalita”) 500 times in 1974 and the first half of ’75. I remember blasting “Rosalita” at top volume off the balcony of my rooming house on Frat Row in Berkeley day after day, eager to share my excitement about my new “find” with the preppy peons below. The summer of ’75, the song “Born to Run” was the unofficial theme song of a cross-country car odyssey a friend and I took—it was the one cool song that popped up on the radio in every city along the way. I thought it was the most exciting rock ’n’ roll song I’d ever heard. When the Born to Run album came out a few months later, it barely left my turntable for the next year. Even so, when I finally saw Springsteen and Clarence Clemons—the Big Man—that night on Oakland, it completely exceeded my sky-high expectations. I recall telling a Dead Head friend: “You know how amazing it is when the Dead play ‘Sugar Magnolia’ or ‘One More Saturday Night’ at the end of a show? Well, every song at the Springsteen show had that kind of intensity!” It was only a slight exaggeration.

This was the real deal, a serious adrenaline rush. And you had to love the Big Man. His onstage rapport with skinny little Bruce was so affectionate and often comical, yet when he’d stand there, throwing every ounce of his large frame into blowing hard on those monumental sax passages in “Jungleland” and “Thunder Road” or the honking buildups in “Spirit in the Night,” “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out,” “Born to Run” and “Rosalita,” it was like seeing the best of rock’s past and present coming together in an inexplicably triumphant alchemy. I saw Springsteen and the E Street Band a dozen or more times between ’75 and the Born in the USA tour in ’84-’85, and every show was pretty much off-the-charts amazing. They remain some of my most cherished concert memories. I get goosebumps even writing about it. After that commercial peak, Bruce went in other directions (Tunnel of Love) that de-emphasized Clarence’s role, and by 1989 the E Street Band had formally been dissolved. Bummer.

J.G. and the Big Man, 1989,
from a YouTube video

So imagine my surprise and delight when the Big Man shows up onstage at a JGB show at the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco on March 3, 1989! I wasn’t even aware Jerry and Clarence knew each other! And what a good match that was. Jerry had already played extensively with jazzy reeds player Martin Fierro in Saunders-Garcia and The Legion of Mary (’74-’75), and with Ron Stallings in Reconstruction (’79), but Clarence was cut from a different cloth—more R&B than jazz—which suited the latter-day JGB approach and repertoire very well. Garcia seemed to have a great rapport with Clarence, always encouraging him to step out and solo, and smiling broadly when he did. Not that Clarence needed much prodding. He seemed right at home with the JGB, and because of the band’s loose format, he got plenty of chances to blow. It really was like dropping in a dollop of E Street Band magic.

Then, at the star-studded “In Concert Against Aids” benefit at Oakland Stadium on May 27, 1989, C.C. stepped onstage during the Grateful Dead’s headlining portion of the show and blasted through “Iko-Iko” in the middle of the first set and soared on a very spacey “Bird Song” (described at the time by Dead scribe Gary Lambert as “Junior Walker meets John Coltrane.”) He also joined them for the first half of the second set, which included a particularly sizzling “Fire on the Mountain,” and for a few songs at the end, including “Lovelight” and a sweet “Brokedown Palace.” I was sufficiently moved by the experience that I wrote an article about it for Charles Cross’ excellent Bruce Springsteen fanzine Backstreets.

To be candid, I was considerably less enthused by Clarence’s next appearance with the Dead, during their nationally televised Summer Solstice concert at Shoreline Amphitheatre (Mountain View, Calif.) 6/21/89. I see that in the Summer ’89 issue of The Golden Road, “Cranky Pants” Jackson wrote: “Clarence Clemons dropped by to add his sax to the Dead sound, and in a few spots—most notably on ‘Estimated,’ ‘Eyes’ (which received a big, stomping dancefloor treatment) and ‘Lovelight’—it gave the songs a fresh R&B feeling. That said, I didn’t like his sax cluttering up ‘Ship of Fools,’ ‘Morning Dew’ and a couple of others, and I’m afraid on a very basic level, he doesn’t understand how to jam with the Dead; it’s just alien to him. He sounds much more at home with the Garcia Band.” Whoa, harsh, BJ!

Later that summer, Clarence played seven shows with the JGB and once again the Big Man fit in beautifully. Since he died, I’ve been listening to those shows a lot, especially the three consecutive nights in Massachusetts—two at Great Woods in Mansfield (9/9-10/89) and one at the Centrum in Worcester (9/11/89). You expect a guy with such strong roots in Old School R&B and soul to excel on JGB staples such as “How Sweet It Is,” “Second That Emotion,” “Get Out of My Life Woman,” “Think” and “That’s What Love Will Make You Do.” But what blew me away hearing these shows again with fresh ears, is how nicely C.C. added to some of the ballads the band played—“Mississippi Moon,” “Like a Road,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” He also shined on a pair of reggae tunes—“The Harder They Come” and “Stop That Train”—and on some of the Hunter-Garcia numbers: “Cats Under the Stars,” “Run for the Roses,” “Mission in the Rain” and “Deal,” among them. Four of the shows Clarence played on during that tour ended with the potent combination of “Don’t Let Go” (really noisy, between Clarence’s squonkin’ and squealin’ and Jerry’s guitar cacophony on the jam) and an abbreviated “Lonesome and a Long Way From Home,” nicely arranged to highlight singers Jackie LaBranch and Gloria Jones.

Throughout the shows, Garcia, Melvin Seals and Clarence traded solos, and on a few songs you can hear instances when Jerry “answers” a hot sax solo with an even hotter guitar break. You can tell that these guys were egging each other on and diggin’ it! (If you listen closely between songs on the soundboard recordings, too, you can often hear Jerry and Clarence joking and laughing uproariously.)

Clarence played with the JGB for a couple of nights at the Warfield Theater at the beginning of December ’89 (12/2-3) and one night in 1990 (6/13, also at the Warfield), and then that was it for this fascinating union. (C.C. also played with the Dead on 12/6 and 12/27/89, and for a few songs with Bob Weir and Rob Wasserman at the Warfield on 5/12/90.)

Springsteen re-formed the E Street Band in 1999 — they were still awesome — and they toured on and off until Clarence’s death. It’s hard to imagine that group without him; those songs without him. (Now where I have heard that sentiment before?) It’s interesting to note that one of the Big Man’s final appearances was with Furthur this past spring—he sat in with them on “Little Red Rooster” and “Lovelight” during their April 6 show at Mizner Park in Boca Raton, Fla. (he lived in nearby Singer Island). Forever friends!

I suppose in the grand scheme of Clarence Clemons’ career, his JGB shows (and Grateful Dead appearances) are just a very minor blip, but some cool music came out of that brief period, and as we often say in the Dead world, “at least we have the tapes.”

Rest in peace, Big Man, and thanks for the memories!

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Joined: Jul 9 2008
Big Man Appearances

Blair, I'm surprised that you didn't mention Clarence's appearance onstage 12/31/88, first set during Wang Dang Doodle and West LA Fadeaway, and for the 3 song encore of Wharf Rat, GDTRFB, and One More Saturday Night. I recall my friends and I being pretty surprised when he came out onstage. Also assuming that you were at that show in terms of my coment. By the way, I love your blog section!

Mr.TheEleven's picture
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Joined: Nov 28 2010
On some nights, the Dead could have used Bruce's energy

Bruce is a showman in the tradition of early rock ' rollers like Little Richard, etc. I love the energy, passion and personality he brings to his shows.
Jerry was most definitely not that type of entertainer - he and most of the rest of the GD preferred to let the music do the talkin' and that's just fine with me.
I say "most" because Pig was most definitely a showman and Bobby also at points to a lesser degree.

Nice piece on CC Blair. I hadn't fully realized the Big Man/Dead family nexus before.

Once in a while you get shown the light
In the strangest of places if you look at it right.

marye's picture
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Joined: May 26 2007
also

gone

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Joined: Sep 19 2007
SPAMMER

yucky

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Joined: Jul 3 2007
Bruce with Juggling Suns

Nice article Blair. And you are too hard on yourself for the honest criticism you gave of CC at Shoreline.

Marye, I also liked your comment. I'm with you.

Some commented about Bruce not appreciating the Dead. Well this vid of him with a very good Jersey jamband, Solar Circus (Relix recording artists now called Juggling Suns), shows he likes to jam. In this case with Mark Diomedes at Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cq5tE0a3m-M

Starts out with a Solar Circus original, "Better Things" and then the Wilson Picket R & B classic "Mustang Sally".....

SaintSteveg's picture
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Joined: Nov 19 2008
All good

I (now) have very wide ranging tastes in music, and the reason I went to concerts was always to have fun. Bruce and the Dead were just two very different styles of fun. I could see where someone who is a fan of one might not be into the other. They have some important things in common, though - deep respect for their fans and for getting everybody off good, and being sincere and true to their roots. Those are traits that set them both apart from many top performing "acts" throughout their careers.

Broadminded though I am, I was actually never a huge fan of sax, especially with the Dead. But with Clarence Clemons, that instrument was a tool of such power and passion that he was almost in a class by himself. In the E Street Band, Clarence was usually held in reserve, then at a moment when a song's momentum was building strong and they needed a big jolt to really kick it into high gear, you'd see him step forward, put that golden horn in his mouth, and you'd think "oh boy here it comes," and did it ever. I will miss his music a lot. Peace out, Big Man.

~ I'll meet you some morning in the sweet by and by

marye's picture
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Joined: May 26 2007
no, it's a different style for sure

and speaking personally, one of the things I liked best about Jer was the absence of showboating.

But this is a different art form, and Bruce is good at it.

Dancingbear.dk's picture
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Joined: Jun 6 2007
Last time I saw Springsteen...

... I found myself feeling slightly embarrased by his stage antics and incessant sucking up to the audience. Not fair of course - the man has every right to do things his way, but some of us were weaned on a different kind of "stage show", if you can call it that.

I mean, can you imagine Garcia hanging upside down from his microphone stand? The mind boggles.

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Joined: Jun 5 2007
What a show

I was at the Alpine '89 JGB show - Clarence played the whole show. Everyone had a blast, onstage & off. Farewell Big Man.

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Joined: Aug 21 2007
to Marye

Once again, I concur wholeheartedly. Not having heard the song you mention, I still don't stand with dissing Bruce. I have a lot of respect for him and his music. Although I have never seen him perform and have not dug deep into his catalog, whenever his music wafts into my ears I enjoy it and appreciate the pictures he paints. Also, a friend of mine was showing me a concert video of him from '78 and lo and behold he can play a mean guitar solo! Never knew.

I was fortunate enough to see Clarence with Jerry at the Orpheum and the AIDS benefit (and didn't he play with the Dead at New Year's 88?). I remember thinking he fit in well with the JGB at the Orpheum.

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