This past March Round Records released GarciaLive Volume 13. The Grateful Dead’s output over the prior twelve months had already been prolific so it was surprising to see another Jerry Garcia-related record hit the market. What was even more surprising was that this particular concert featured Clarence Clemons, longtime E Street Band member and Bruce Springsteen’s favorite onstage comic foil. I had never known Clarence to have shared the stage with almost anyone other than Bruce. So it really caught me off guard to learn that there was an entire concert that he had performed with Jerry Garcia. As I went down this rabbit hole I quickly learned there was more than this one show and that I and some famous others had missed an important part of musical history.
In 1989 Bruce Springsteen informed the E Street Band (and very soon thereafter the public) that he would no longer be in need of their services. He had already recorded a solo record in Nebraska and his most recent release, Tunnel of Love, was very much the same kind of singular affair. Here and there he deployed keyboardist Roy Bittan and he wove in the backup vocals of his wife Patti Scialfa. But it was pretty much Bruce doing everything from playing almost all of the instruments to producing each track. It worked. Bruce had tested the waters and he had proven to himself that he could create music outside of the E Street realm and have success.
The decision to go it alone began with suggestions made to him repeatedly over the prior two years by friends Sting and Billy Joel. Both expressed how much freedom they felt by separating themselves from the musicians that they had been with for so long. By bringing in new talent for support, their music had grown in ways that it never could have if they had stayed committed to their original lineups.
It’s hard to say whether that was true. Both Sting and Billy Joel did create music after parting with their bands (the Police in Sting’s case) that differed largely from their best-known sounds. (Billy Joel’s River of Dreams was quite different from his previous work.) But I do believe that Sting could have explored much of what interested him with fellow Police bandmates Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland. In the case of Bruce, he didn’t have to make the decision seem so infinite in scope – especially since the studio music that followed with 1992’s Lucky Town and Human Touch albums didn’t stray very much from his “working man” sound and persona. In the end it really doesn’t matter. The decision Bruce made was definitive enough that it convinced drummer Max Weinberg go to law school and find another way to make a living. For other E Streeters it meant trying to lock down the next gig.
Clarence Clemons did his own testing of the waters by joining Ringo Starr’s All Star Band. There he discovered what it was like to separate himself from such a longtime musical collaboration. That freedom gave Clarence room to operate outside of the carefully-crafted margins that his playing was confined to at any given Bruce show. Bruce was known to meticulously draft the sax solos and fills that populate his studio work and insist that Clarence use those borders as checkpoints when performing live. Conversely, Ringo Starr is famously known for encouraging members of his All Starr Band to go with what they’re feeling at that moment. This experience with a different mentor had to open Clarence up to almost any possibility. I now know that one of them involved Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead.
So I bought the new Jerry Garcia Band record and quickly fell in love with all of the Clarence Clemons contributions. There are certainly many Garcia band records out there with many of these same tunes performed and recorded masterfully. But Clemons added this King Curtis early 1960s soulfulness to songs I already associated so closely to Jerry – even if almost all of them were covers. The music had more of a clubhouse feel and moved along with a bit of jump in its step. What also became clear was that Clemons soloed very much in the way that Jerry himself did. The solos were melodic and sailed along with the song instead of piercing and pulling it forward. In every way they seemed made for each other and the music they created together twisted together tightly like the perfect sailing knot.
So you would have thought that these performances would have made a little bit of noise. If they did and I missed it I wasn’t alone. This summer I interviewed Steve Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren a week apart. At the end of both chats I mentioned that I was spinning this new Garcia release and raved about how great Clarence sounded on every track. Not only didn’t Steve or Nils know anything about the record, they had no idea he had ever played with Jerry Garcia. The mystery suddenly deepened and would soon take its ultimate turn.
I recently learned this was only one of many such performances during the year and a half between 1988 and 1989. They all were heading to a place where the idea that Clarence Clemons might actually join The Grateful Dead and become a full-fledged member of the band was becoming very real.
I had the opportunity to speak with official Grateful Dead archivist David Lemieux about this rare moment in rock. Here’s what he had to say about this perfect musical pairing and the rumors that followed:
“I was at the first show where Clarence Clemons joined the band. It was New Year’s Eve 1988 in Oakland, and The Dead opened the show with “Let the Good Times Roll” [and] ‘Franklin’s Tower.’ They followed that up with ‘Wang Dang Doodle’ and out comes this sax player. We all immediate realized that, ‘oh my God, that’s Clarence Clemons!’ You have to remember that this is 1988 and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are still pretty huge so everyone knew who this was. Later in May of 1989 he sat in at the Oakland stadium AIDS benefit. Then came the big news with the September tour of the Jerry Garcia Band through the East Coast (which was really the band’s first big tour where he played big venues). Clarence sat in for all the shows on the second half of that tour.
I saw him again the first night of the New Year’s run going into 1989. He sat in for ‘Iko Iko’ and as it goes, the story I heard, was that Jerry and Bob enjoyed playing with him so much that there was loose talk of him joining the band. It didn’t go anywhere, and I’m not sure if the other four guys [in the Grateful Dead] were into it. I also don’t know if Clarence’s schedule would permit it. You know The Dead did have some experience a year later when Bruce Hornsby was kind of an occasional member. He was mostly full-time but he missed quite a few shows because of his own schedule.
Jerry and Bob and Clarence loved hanging out together but it didn’t last long. It was about a year to a year and a half, late 1988 through 1989. I think that Clarence added something that The Dead really enjoyed having on that stage. It was a big powerful horn sound and a big presence. He was also a soloist. The Dead, as much as Jerry certainly soloed, they weren’t a band of soloists. I only saw Bruce and the E Street Band once and I remember that it was three hours of intensity and there were a lot of solos from a lot of different people. The Dead didn’t quite do that and Clarence certainly added that element.
I don’t know how the friendship started but I do know that for that brief period the guys, particularly Bob and Jerry, loved playing with him. It’s funny because around 2010, 2011 when Bob and Phil had the band Furthur, they were touring and they played a show in Boca Raton, Florida where my mother spends her winters. So I sent her to the show and they set her up with passes, tickets and stuff and Clarence Clemons sat in. Not long after that performance, maybe a month or so, he passed away. So it turns out that his last public appearance was with these guys. Period.”
While there’s arguably no “fitting end” to a career as dynamic as that of Clarence Clemons it was indeed fitting that if not with E Street that he would make his last public appearance on stage with guys from the Dead. It begs the question of what the Grateful Dead’s output might have been like in the five years between that first appearance in Oakland and Jerry’s death in 1995 and whether Clarence might have helped get the band back in the studio for one last cut. Like the addition of the Godchauxs, and the various keyboardists who held down duties with the Dead over their remarkable run, each helped shape and shift the Grateful Dead’s sound. As you listen to the recently-released Jerry Garcia Band tracks with Clarence Clemons you can only imagine how Jerry and The Big Man might have “bust this city in half.” Somewhere right now they might be doing just that.