Friday, June 24, 2011

The Big Man

Now, for my one up-close-and-personal, second-hand story about the late, great Clarence Clemons.

It was 1978, and I was attending a wedding reception in New Jersey. Sitting on my table was the stereotypical beautiful blond. I think her boyfriend was there as well, come to think of it.

When the band started playing music, I said brightly, "This is New Jersey. We should hear some Bruce Springsteen." She replied, "Oh, are you a fan?" I said yes. She answered, "It's really nice to see such nice guys make it."

I paused for a moment, and mumbled something about wanting more information. She told me that almost all of the E Street Band, except for Springsteen, used to come over to her house once a week. Most of the guys would play poker, but Clemons was sit and talk to the woman's father, and eat large quantities of chili. Apparently her dad was something of a hippy, and he and Clarence just got along great.

I was mighty impressed.

Like most fans, I can remember the first time I saw Clemons in person, and the last. The first was in February of 1977. The boys (all boys back then) were playing in Utica, having played the night before in Buffalo the day the driving ban was lifted from the Blizzard of '77. I suppose Clemons was wearing a white suit, as he often did back then, and served as Springsteen's on-stage foil. The man could play a saxophone, obviously.

The band only played for about 90 minutes for some reason -- the three-hour stuff was down the road, or something -- and the group left the stage after the last encore. The house lights came up, and practically no one moved. The crowd just stood and cheered some more. Finally, one of the roadies working on the equipment looked off stage and noticed that the band was still around. So he turned to the audience and made a "make noise" gesture that electrified the place. The band came back and played one more song, much to the delight of everyone. When Clemons left the stage, he gave everyone he could reach an enthusiastic high five.

Fast forward to 2009. The E Street Band was wrapping up years of touring with a show in Buffalo. Clarence and Bruce and the boys and a couple of girls were back. This show went for more than three hours. Clemons frankly didn't look too good at that point, and needed something of an elevator to get to and from his position in the stage. But when he stood up from his seat to play, it was still an dynamic feeling in the building.

There were rumors around the end of that tour that this might be it for the E Street Band. Springsteen did a couple of interviews in which he essentially said, "Give up, when we're playing so well? Are you nuts?" But, as we know now, that show will be remembered as the last of that particular lineup.

Clemons and Springsteen were always an interesting combination. The iconic "Born to Run" cover showed the two of them together in a now-classic post -- Springsteen, out front because he was "the Boss," but leaning on Clemons for support and friendship. It was a rock-and-roll relationship that stood the test of time.

And how many of those classic friendships crossed racial lines? Springsteen has always been color-blind when it comes to his music, inviting all sorts of musicians to play with him over the years. The core of the E Street Band, though, was all white except for Clemons, and so was the fan base. At that last concert I asked a friend, "Where are all the minority faces?" She replied, "They are working at the concession stands."

But the relationship between Springsteen and Clemons send a powerful message that, indeed, it wasn't a party unless everyone was invited. Clemons was one of the those larger-than-life personalities who was quickly loved by everyone he touched, even from a distance. Springsteen biographer Dave Marsh remarked after Clemons' death that the two of them were like Huck and Jim ever since Springsteen and Clemons came together in the early 1970's, a time when such a relationship was less common. They were going to be friends as they rolled down the Mississippi, or the equivalent Interstates, to the next gig, and what the rest of the world thought didn't matter.

It's easier to wonder what will become of the E Street Band without Clemons. Springsteen has played with other bands, although Clarence can't be replaced with this particular group. But that will sort itself out over time. As for now, I hope the Big Man is pain-free and in a place where the chili is tasty and the music goes on all night.

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