Trying To Get To You

Monday, June 20, 2011

Notes On The Big Man, Clarence Clemons: 1942-2011

I first experienced the healing power of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band on August 14, 1985. I was fourteen, had just gotten home from sleep away camp a few days earlier, and had a couple of weeks of summer vacation left before school started.  And instead of being by the pool, I was in bed, really sick. I knew what it was—I was asplenetic, the result of being in a car accident when I was six, and not having a spleen left my immune system compromised, so I had the same infection that I came down with four or five times each year as a child--swollen tonsils so bad I could barely swallow and a temperature of 104. Given its frequency, I wasn’t worried, but I knew that I had at least three days of being hellaciously sick in front of me.

Then my older brother Robert called.

Robert was almost seventeen years older than me. Technically, he was my half-brother (same father) but he never occurred to me like that—he was my big bro. When I was a little boy I worshiped him and he was about as incredible a big brother as anyone could have. When I was in the car accident that had me lose my spleen (and my mother) and was in the hospital for a week recovering from my injuries, Robert, who was serving in the Army in Germany, immediately came home on emergency leave, and except to go to my mother’s funeral, didn’t leave my side for that week, sleeping in a chair next to me every night.

As I got older, our relationship inevitably became more complicated and occasionally stormy. But the love was still there, and in terms of my musical development, he was critical. It was from Robert that at the age of nine or so, I first held Born To Run in my hands. Robert turned me on to the Ramones and the Talking Heads and a zillion other bands that most pre-teens just didn’t listen to, and when I got into the Who, he insisted on playing Quadrophenia to the exclusion of all other Who records. It was from him that I got a cassette that he had picked up while stationed in Germany. The label copy was all in German except for six words: The Rolling Stones – Let It Bleed.

Robert’s call came in and someone yelled up to me to pick up. I wearily brought the phone to my ear, and the first words I heard were, “You want to go see Springsteen in Philly tomorrow night?”

I shot straight out of bed.

“Really???” I asked. Yep. And he told me that he had paid $125 for each ticket that had a face value of $17.50. I told him I was sick and he just said, “Well get better quick, kid. We’re going.” I told him I would and hung up.

I ran downstairs to tell my dad. I was now something beyond manic. My dad loathed rock and never pretended to understand my devotion to the music, but his response was typically great. “Well, if your temperature is normal by tomorrow morning, you can go.” I gobbled some more aspirin and took a couple extra anti-biotics. There was no way in the world I was missing this. By 8am the next morning, Thursday, August 15, my temperature was 98.6. My dad gave me the green light to go to the show.

My brother picked me up in the afternoon, and we drove down to Philadelphia. I’m not sure I had ever been more excited. It was not only my first Springsteen show—it was my first rock concert. It was the height of Born In The U.S.A. mania and that mania was palpable. Bruce was the biggest rock star on the planet, and Veterans Stadium felt like the center of the earth on that immensely hot and humid night.

Bruce opened, as he did practically all his shows on that tour, with a booming version of “Born In The U.S.A.” I pumped my fist in the air like everyone else. But the loudest applause in the early part of the show, even louder than when the band came out from the wings, was during the night’s second song, “Badlands,” when Clarence played his first solo of the night. The sax signified something larger than the guitars or drums; after all, every rock band had guitars and drums, and most had keyboards. No, the sax meant that we were at a Bruce Springsteen concert for real, and that fact being drilled home through Clarence’s tenor filled 65,000 people with an incredible amount of joy.

The four hours (including the intermission) went by in a blur, and Clarence felt almost as important to the night’s proceedings as Bruce himself. He was the foil, visually and musically, and his solos on “Trapped,” “I’m Goin’ Down,” “The Promised Land,” and “Hungry Heart” lit the whole of the stadium. When Bruce closed “Thunder Road” by sliding across the stage sixty feet across his knees to kiss Clarence right on the mouth, it felt both shocking to my 14 year old self and completely right. In a lot of ways, Clarence felt like the most popular person in the stadium that night.

That night, August 15, 1985, was the first night I shared with the band, the first of dozens to come. The huge majority of those shows came after Bruce reunited the band in 1999, and by then, Clarence was not nearly as mobile as he once had been. But he was still the Big Man, still playing well and his sax served as the ultimate signifier that the band was indeed back together; perhaps that’s why he was treasured more than ever. The centerpiece of the tour, a 20-minute version of “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” climaxed every night with Bruce’s introduction of Clarence and those first two lines of the third verse of the song: “Well they made that change uptown/And the Big Man joined the band.” That was it. That was what, in a lot of ways, it was always all about.

The absence of the band for 10 years had made hardcore fans like myself very conscious to enjoy each moment we experienced with the band. The experience was no longer to be taken for granted, if it had ever been. And of all the many rituals at a Bruce and E Street show, my favorite was always the first notes of Clarence’s first solo every night. I anticipated it every night, and sometimes would look at the crowd instead of Clarence, so I could watch the faces transform into beams of joy as his sax washed over the crowd. It was a clarion call of sorts, living testament to a lot of what Bruce wanted his music to be about—friendship, joy, the search for connection, meaning and soul. Life right here, right now.

And it was about love. To experience Clarence Clemons was to experience love; the love that he put out every night to the crowd, his obvious and immense love affair with Bruce, his love of earthly pleasures, his love of soul and spirit, and his love of providing people with joy. And that love he gave was returned to him from the crowd every single night in most beautiful of ways. While there are a lot of hardcore fans that have complicated feelings about Bruce over a variety of matters (his politics, his newer material, etc.), about Clarence there was no such ambivalence. We all agreed on Clarence. And therefore, the love reflected back at him from the crowd was pure love, about a pure a thing as I’ve ever seen. Thankfully, he knew it, loved it, and reveled in it.

As a player, Clarence was both unaccomplished technically and completely perfect. He was a honker in the King Curtis tradition extending back to Los Angeles jump blues bands from the 40’s and Atlantic R&B of the 50’s. But he was always the band’s link to soul, in both music and attitude. Like the best of Springsteen’s music, where the songs simultaneously contain joy and sorrow, Clarence’s best solos in “Trapped,” “Jungleland,” “Drive All Night,” “The Promised Land,” and others, felt to me like a burst of freedom with a large heaping of knowing sadness. They may have been triumphant, but the triumph always came with a price.

I saw that price up close in April of 2009, back in Philadelphia, where I had first seen the band almost 25 years previously. The lights went down, and the band went to their spots onstage. I was about 15 rows up on the side, Clarence’s side, and even in the dark, I could see Bruce helping Clarence, who had just undergone knee and hip replacement surgery, to his spot onstage, much the way a son helps one of their infirm parents. It was clear that Clarence could barely walk. When Clarence got to his spot and Bruce knew he was properly situated, they embraced and kissed, and before the lights went on and a single note was played, I was crying.

Hearing the news of his death on Saturday night was both totally expected and a complete shock. But what surprised me was the intensity of my reaction. I got home, poured myself a scotch, scoured the Internet, made a “Clarence” playlist on iTunes—and cried off and on all night into Sunday morning. I drove out to Jersey to be with my dad on Father’s Day and the second I heard that ethereal organ intro to “Independence Day,” I lost it in the car. I cried not because there won’t be any more Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band shows with Clarence Clemons. I cried simply because I really loved living on the same planet as him, and knowing that he won’t be around anymore in the flesh really, really hurts. And it hurts today. It seems ridiculous in a way to me that losing Clarence feels like losing a member of the family, but it does. It’s a death in the family.

No matter. His body may no longer breathe, but his being--who he was for Bruce, the E Street Band, and the people he played for--lives on through thousands of hours of music and will continue to inspire and bring joy to multitudes. Perhaps it will even heal another sick fourteen-year-old boy, but it most likely won’t be because he needs to get better because the E Street Band are playing in Philadelphia the following night.

Rest in peace, Big Man. Thank you so much for everything.