Eric Meola recalls the session
Around 10 or 11am on June 20th, 1975, Bruce and Clarence walked into my studio on the fourth floor at 134 Fifth Avenue, carrying their instruments and a few changes of clothing. I had the Rolling Stones album December’s Children playing. The strobe lights were set up. It was just us – no stylist, no ‘hair and makeup’, no assistant. There was a six to seven inch difference in their height, and Clarence wore a tall black fedora during much of the shoot.
I kept several wooden boxes around the studio to adjust for height discrepancies, though for much of the shooting I did not use them. As Clarence riffed on several sequences of notes, I began shooting. We made quick changes of clothing and in the space of an hour and a half I shot almost 600 images. Then, we went outside, and I shot another few rolls underneath the fire escape. As we walked back to the studio, I glanced at my watch. It had been just two hours.
I processed the film immediately after the shoot, and the sequence in which the rolls were shot has been lost. However, the sequence within each roll still remains, and from that it is obvious that the interaction between Bruce and Clarence which resulted in the cover image lasted for about half a roll, or 18 frames. Of these, there are only two where his face is turned to Clarence, and he is grinning in only one of them. Clearly, it was an instinctual moment, and one which was brought on as much by practicality, as intent. Standing on a box, he was suddenly several inches taller; Clarence’s crouch hides this and makes the height difference disappear.
After I shot a number of images in which they stood back to back, and a few in which Bruce leaned on Clarence’s shoulder while looking out at the camera, he turned to the side and looked beatifically straight at Clarence for three or four seconds as I shot two frames. Other than his standing on the box, there was no ‘setup’ for this, no premeditation – and, his guitar was not plugged in. We were shooting fast, and if Bruce was after a particular image, he placed a lot of faith in me that in those few brief seconds I had captured the one that became famous. It happened as much because of the moment, as whatever chord progression Clarence was playing that caught Bruce’s attention.
Springsteen biographers and hagiographers as diverse as Dave Marsh and Louis P. Masur have made much of that moment and proclaimed that the cover signals an epic journey, even comparing it to Huck and Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones.
The mysteries of the Born to Run cover have assumed a mythical status that did not, of course, exist at the moment the album first appeared. The initial misspelling of Jon Landau’s name, the alternate cover with its sepia blacks and jagged type, the mystery of where Bruce obtained a membership-only Elvis button, and the herculean effort on Bruce’s part in the recording studio have long since magnified a sense that every last aspect of the album and its design were planned from the very beginning. Add to that the details that are revealed in this book of enlargements, such as the leather pick guard on Bruce’s guitar, which shows a man in silhouette standing against a lamp post at night while another person watches him from a window. My photograph of Bruce on the album jacket, leaning on Clarence Clemons’ shoulder, would forever become part of the vernacular of American pop culture. Over the years the pose was imitated by many other recording artists, including Sesame Street’s ‘Muppets’ and NPR’s ‘Car Talk’ hosts Tom and Ray Magliozzi.
When I delivered a large stack of prints and contacts to John Berg, I did not envision what he saw instantly – in Berg’s eyes, the most important part of the image was the space between their two faces, because it provided the perfect place to split the image. Folded open so that both the front and back show, Clarence becomes the center of a riveting line of body movement along with the line-of-sight of Bruce’s magnetic gaze. Yes, Clarence was right, when he said in his quasi-biography Big Man, that he is on the back; but for Berg he provided the link to the album’s front. Berg then extended the white space to the left to accommodate the long list of credits. In its original incarnation, as 288 square inches of area, it is as much a greeting card as an announcement, as much a billboard as an album cover.
Is it, as so many writers have stated, a declaration of the friendship and camaraderie between the two men? Yes. Was it a deliberate, premeditated statement by Bruce about race relations? Probably not. Yet it became that, and by including Clarence from the beginning, Bruce chose not only the one remaining band member he most identified with, but the one who happened to be black. In an album of saxophone solos, from ‘Thunder Road’ to ‘Jungleland,’ it seems an obvious choice. And, a brilliant one which came to symbolize far more than any of us could have envisioned.