‘When my parents divorced, my father was a struggling musician and my mother was working at Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital,” says guitarist and songwriter Nick Clemons, the son of the late legendary E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons.
Speaking from his home in Neptune, next to Asbury Park where Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band took root, Clemons, 48, is talking about his famous father, family, his own path to music, and his Saturday, June 24, appearance at the Man Cave in Bordentown.
“My parents met at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, and I went to the same school,” Clemons says. “My father played football and my mother was a piano player.”
Music was also in his father’s soul when he joined a band, and in 1974 and 1975, as Springsteen and E-Street Band started to break nationally, the elder Clemons was at a crossroads. He held a full-time job as a corrections officer at the New Jersey Training School for Boys in Monroe Township — where the family lived in on-site at the facility for two or three years.
Eventually the elder Clemons gave up his day job for the risks and rigors of a life on the road with Springsteen — years before the band rocked the charts with the 1984 hit “Born in the USA.”
“(My father) found he couldn’t make it to work on time anymore and he had to give it up; the same thing happened with his marriage. Sometimes to make it in this business, you make sacrifices,” Clemons says.
Despite his parents’ separation when he was just seven, Clemons says his father was around and remained a presence in his life — before the elder Clemons’ eventual move to Florida.
“My parents remained tight and friendly, and they were civil with each other. My father bought my mother’s house for us. They made a deal back in 1976, (when) my mother could not get a loan to buy a house in Marlboro. My mother was making great money, yet my father had to co-sign on the mortgage. Things were just so different back then,” Clemons says.
After he got out of the University of Maryland, where he majored in pre-law and history, Clemons says, “My mom got me into social work (at Marlboro), too, so when I got out of college I worked there until I got laid off under then-Governor Florio’s cuts. Thanks to Governor Florio, I got my career in music started.”
Reflecting on his late mother’s career in social work, Clemons says, “She was the first female director of a state hospital in the country, and she was the first black female director for rehabilitation for any state in the country in 1976. She went back to school and got her master’s degree, and she was a pioneering woman and a role model for so many women that they are still coming up to me today and talking about her. She was a role model for me, too.”
Clemons, who describes himself as mostly a self-taught guitarist, was shown a few basic chords and riffs by E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren. Then he spent years in the basement, carefully honing his craft while beginning to write songs when he was 16 and 17.
“I’m not a theory guy by any means, and I can’t read much music,” he says, “Nils showed me some things when he first joined the band, and I always loved his guitar playing when he was with Neil Young and Crazy Horse. When I was teaching myself, I’d run over Grateful Dead tunes, and I would try writing my own songs. I was very influenced by Neil Young. I tried to write songs like Neil.”
Clemons says he started seriously playing music in 1991 after moving to California. “I really began learning my craft out there.”
For a time when Nick was in his early 20s, the elder Clemons had no idea that his son had been honing his guitar playing, songwriting, and singing skills in the basement of his ex-wife’s home.
“We were out in California, and I just sprang it on him one day in front of 500 people at the Hard Rock Cafe in San Francisco. It was a complete surprise for him,” he says. Soon after the elder Clemons recorded on one of his son’s three albums and did a short tour together.
These days, Nick Clemons, a divorced father of an eight-year-old son, is working with his brother in a marketing company they formed, Big Man’s West Ltd., and working on projects that both keep his father’s name alive and provide some help to the community.
One is his book, “Little Big Man: My Life with my Father Clarence Clemons,” a play on saxophonist Clemons’ nickname “Big Man.”
Another is an annual “Big Man’s Bash,” a day of remembrance near his father’s birthday on January 11. It is held at the Bar A (aka Bar Anonymous) in Lake Como, New Jersey, and based, in part, on a benefit held two years ago to support area food banks where Clemons — along with Nick Clemons Band —established himself as a powerful stage presence.
The guitarist who accompanies himself on harmonica and sings, assesses himself with, “I also play a little piano, but I think I’m a better songwriter than I am a singer.”
Audiences can decide for themselves at the Man Cave in Bordentown on June 24, when Clemons will be accompanied by his usual bandmates: Joe Barker on lead guitar, Eric Gonzales on drums, and Jose Rodriguez on bass.
“At live shows,” he says, “you have to take direction for the band and try to see what mood your audience is in. Roots rock ’n’ roll is a good way to describe what we do; we’re not a jam band, but we do have fun and everyone gets plenty of chances to take solos.”
Nick Clemons Band, Randy Now’s Man Cave, 134 Farnsworth Avenue, Bordentown. Saturday, June 24, 8 p.m. $10. www.mancavenj.com or 609-424-3766.
Upcoming Man Cave events:
Thursday, July 6, Zydeco Music Night with C.J. Chenier & The Red Hot Louisiana Band.
Saturday, July 8, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee Terry Sylvester of the Hollies.
Saturday, July 15, Rich Scanella Drum Clinic.
Saturday, July 29, Brute Force with Daughter of Force, and special guest Ben Charter from the New TV Gong Show.