Clarence Clemons: the Big Man

If the Big Man can die, so can I.

Bruce Springsteen hasn’t written a hit in years. But we go to the show to remember. Who we once were. When we had hope, when we believed, when we still had hair, when we were skinny.

Danny Federici was bad enough. Then again, there’s been some change in the group. David Sancious used to play in the E Street Band. And Max wasn’t the original drummer. And Nils Lofgren broke through with Neil Young. And Miami Steve left and then came back.

But there’s no Springsteen without Bruce.

And there’s really no E Street Band without Clarence Clemons.

Not only was the Big Man on the cover of “Born To Run”, the breakthrough album, he signified that Bruce was something different, not a me-too act. Springsteen might have been labeled a Dylan wannabe, but when they finally turned up the band on the second record, and Landau enriched the sound on the third, the music was as far away from Dylan as Asbury Park is from Hibbing.

I bought that first album. And as good as “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City” was, “Spirit In The Night” was the keeper. Because of the sax.

And “Rosalita” was the keeper on the follow-up album. For the same reason. The explosion of pure joy. When Bruce sings about the record company giving him a big advance you feel like it happened to a member of your family, you’re not envious in a twenty first century way, wondering how come you haven’t gotten yours, but thrilled that someone you know has made it.

And then came “Born To Run”. If you’d been following at this point, the sax was not a surprise. It was an integral part of the group.

Then there was the end of “Jungleland”. That lonely sax spoke of nothing so much as despair. That’s the flip side of rock and roll. The exuberance and then the solitary feeling that you’re Wall-E, alone in a city without heart, without hope.

And what do you do when you feel this way? Put on a record! It’s the only thing that gets you through!

Springsteen changed with “Born In The U.S.A.” He tried to become what we didn’t want him to be. Everybody else’s.

But he redeemed himself with “Tunnel Of Love”. Listen to the title track. That’s love, a ride on a roller coaster in the dark.

“Lucky Town” was the better album, but the title track of “Human Touch” was pure Bruce. Anthemic without being meaningless. Bruce was not Gene Simmons, he wasn’t asking for your attention.

Ironically, that was Clarence’s gig. He could be everything the Boss was not. Flamboyant. A cheerleader. Clarence could enjoy the success when Bruce could not.

But no longer.

Like Ian Hunter, we were shocked to find out how old Clarence Clemons was. We think all our stars start out in garages and are on their way by twenty one.

But it takes others time to find their way. Their life experiences enrich their music. They’re one step ahead of us.

Then they’re gone.

It was bad enough he had a stroke. Dick Clark had one of those, he may not speak well, but he’s alive. Same with Kirk Douglas, hell, he was on the Oscars.

As long as Clarence Clemons was alive so were our hopes and dreams. On some level I’d just graduated from college, the E Street Band was on the stage at the Bottom Line, it was still a year away from “Born To Run”, never mind law school, marriage and decay.

But then he died.

I found out the way you do now. On my BlackBerry.

And the e-mail got me frantically searching.

There was a link to TMZ. But I wouldn’t believe it until a Twitter search confirmed it.

The Big Man had finally left the band.

Like Bill Murray said in “Stripes”, one day Tito Puente’s gonna die and you’re gonna say you’ve been listening to him for years!

One day Clarence Clemons is gonna die and he won’t be a secret. We’ll all say we’ve been listening to him for years.

It’s sad. For him.

And for us.

So put on a smile, let your freak flag fly, get behind the wheel of that convertible and floor it!

It’s fucking great to be alive. Seize the moment.

Clarence may die, but the music survives.

Crank it!


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