HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — The Big Man is back.


E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons, who arose from a wheelchair to perform at the 2009 Super Bowl with Bruce Springsteen after a double knee replacement, is taking the stage again amid a new struggle to recover from major spinal surgery.


The stage “always feels like home. It’s where I belong,” Clemons, a former youth counselor, said after performing Saturday night at a Hard Rock Cafe benefit for Home Safe, a children’s charity.


Clemons, who had surgery Jan. 13, said in a recent interview he’s winning his battles – including severe, chronic pain and post-surgical depression. His impish humor helps.
“I am the bunny, baby!” he said gleefully, evoking the drum-pounding rabbit from the battery commercial.


“I’m huge!” he hollered with a grin as he was delivered by wheelchair, sax cradled on his lap, to the foot of the stage at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. He stood, switched to his cane, and struggled up three stairs. At home, he occasionally tries to walk without the cane, until his wife catches him.


Rockers Steve Smith and the Nakeds heralded his arrival by cranking up Tenth Avenue Freezeout, which relates how “The Big Man joined the band” and the “little pretties raised their hands.”


E Street blood brothers Steven Van Zandt and Max Weinberg sat in as Clemons sang and wailed his sax through a raucous rock ‘n’ roll party. Clemons flashed his million-watt, seen-it-all smile as guys in sports jackets and women in cocktail dresses climbed out of the frenzied crowd and gyrated onstage.


“The main attraction for all of us is Clarence Clemons,” Weinberg said earlier on the red carpet.


His Max Weinberg Big Band is starting a national tour next month in New Jersey. But Weinberg remained coy about any career reincarnation in television, which he smilingly called “a tough business.”


“As they say in television, you’ll have to stay tuned,” said the former bandleader for Conan O’Brien’s late-night shows.


Throughout his performance, Clemons sat on a tall chair. His right foot tapped out a steady beat. His left remained motionless; he’s getting treatment for that.


“God will give you no more than you can handle,” he said in the interview. “This is all a test to see if you are really ready for the good things that are going to come in your life. All this pain is going to come back and make me stronger.


“Of all the surgeries I’ve had, there’s not much left to operate on. I am totally bionic.”
He scheduled his latest surgery during E Street downtime. The band is taking a breather after globe-trotting for the better part of two years.


“I’m always preparing myself for Bruce’s next tour. I never get too far … away from that,” said Clemons.

If it happens, as he hopes, in 2011, “I’ll be ready.”


In the meantime, he savors the small joys – fishing for tarpon, working on behalf of community causes. Clemons and his wife, Victoria, both avid cooks, are having a “great gourmet kitchen” installed.


Life’s background music comes courtesy of E Street Radio, as well as “a lot of Latin stuff.”
And Michael Jackson, too.


“I didn’t think I’d ever be a Michael Jackson fan. But … watching him move, watching him dance, is so encouraging for me. Because, in my mind, I can do all that stuff.”


“I want to be able to dance again,” says Clemons. “I keep that vision in my mind.”