Vegas and Jungleland

Paul Shaffer and the Big Man tell all
By JOYCE MILLMAN  |  November 24, 2009

0911_shaffer_main
SINCERELY INSINCERE: Shaffer was raised an Orthodox Jew in Ontario, but Vegas became his Holy Land.

We’ll Be Here for the Rest of Our Lives | By Paul Shaffer with David Ritz | Doubleday/Flying Dolphin | 322 pages| $26

Big Man: Real Life & Tall Tales | By Clarence Clemons and Don Reo | Grand Central | 384 pages | $26.99

Paul Shaffer is a happenin’ cat. Pick an It Moment from pop culture over the past 30 years and Shaffer was there. He was an original band member on Saturday Night Live. He played hapless promo guy Artie Fufkin in This Is Spinal Tap (“Kick my ass — please!”). Disco? He co-wrote “It’s Raining Men.” And he helped break late-night-TV ground as David Letterman’s glittery, ironic bandleader/sidekick.

Shaffer’s autobiography, We’ll Be Here for the Rest of Our Lives, is as engagingly swingin’ as the man himself. Shaffer was the only child of Orthodox Jewish, jazz-loving sophisticates in suburban Thunder Bay, Ontario. He was a classical-piano prodigy until the Rascals, the Ronettes, and the Four Seasons set his adolescent soul afire. But the defining moment of his life comes when his parents take him show-hopping in Las Vegas and his future late-night stage persona is born. Vegas becomes his Holy Land, “the later the hipper” his prayer; Sinatra, Sammy, and Jerry Lewis are his rabbis. He devotes a funny, astute chapter to his obsession with Lewis’s Labor Day telethon, and he later writes of Lewis and that generation of entertainers, “I sincerely adored their insincerity. . . . Their need to sound educated was my education in jive talk.”

Shaffer offers vivid, often hilarious stories about the many celestial beings he has orbited. (Oh, to have been a guest at the SNL-cast Passover seders he conducted.) But though the star-studded memories keep you turning the page, you’ll want to linger over his warm homages to the music, and the city, of his dreams. Of Barry White’s “Love’s Theme,” he writes, “It starts with soaring violins. They sail around the isle of Manhattan; they chase the stars over the Bronx and Brooklyn. . . . For me, the Barry White instrumental ushered in the era of my New York, where I would finally find everything I was looking for — music, glamour, and comedy, all squeezed into this overcrowded crime-ridden city. . . . And I loved it.”

Shaffer’s co-writer, the estimable David Ritz, distinguishes himself by being invisible. Not so Don Reo, TV producer (Everybody Hates Chris) and co-author of E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons’s autobiography, Big Man: Real Life & Tall Tales. Reo, Clemons’s friend, contributes 242 of the 384 pages — I’m assuming that, in addition to his bylined chapters, Reo writes the “Legends” that pad out this strange book. These florid fantasies place the mythologized Big Man of E Street lore in the company of other legendary figures (shooting pool with Fidel Castro, fishing with Norman Mailer), the idea being that the truth only gets in the way of a good myth, so let’s just dispense with it and make shit up.

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