As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, Clarence Clemons died Saturday night.
Which is a sentence that I hoped never to have to write. And to be honest, if there was anyone out there who could defeat death, I’d argue that Clarence would have been that guy.
My younger readers are scratching their heads trying to figure that out right now.
Well kids, gather ‘round. It’s story time.
Yes, Clarence Clemons was that guy who played on the new Lady Gaga album.
But if that’s all you know him for, Gaga herself would be ashamed of you. Because she didn’t pick him randomly to play on her album. She picked him because he was the best of the best. The Big Man. The King of the World. Master of the Universe.
And when the Boss himself introduces you that way, it means it’s true.
I spent Saturday night in a state of shock, listening to old Bruce albums on vinyl and trying (unsuccessfully for the most part) not to cry at the sax solos.
And there are a lot of really great eulogies out there online already, most of which made me cry as well. But I’m not here to make you cry today. That wasn’t Clarence’s goal on stage. He wanted to make us smile, as he said in numerous interviews. So in that vein, I’d like to talk about why Clarence was just so awesome.
I’ve blogged before about how I got into listening to Springsteen and how I started kind of late. But I think I always had a vague awareness even before I chose to listen to the music that Bruce’s saxophone player was called “the Big Man,” both because my father called him that and because that was how Bruce referenced him in so many of the live versions of songs that provided the background soundtrack of my childhood.
My first real recognition of Clarence’s importance to the music however, came when I had just started listening to Bruce in college. My boyfriend at the time had told me that he’d heard a Bruce song on the radio and thought of me. I was skeptical. While I liked the guy (the boyfriend, I mean—I already LOVED Bruce), his musical awareness was…um…lacking. Which I learned when we were in the car one day and a song came on the radio and my boyfriend exclaimed, “Change the channel! I REALLY hate the Eagles!”
The song was “Sultans of Swing,” by Dire Straits.
So when he told me that he’d heard a Bruce song, I wasn’t sure he was right, and I asked which song it was. He didn’t remember. I asked how he knew it was Bruce then. And he told me that he would “know that saxophone anywhere.”
I later figured out that the song he’d heard was the Detroit Medley, which Bruce didn’t write. But he was right. Clarence’s sax on that was unmistakable.
Clarence didn’t become the stuff of legends to me, however, until I raided my father’s and uncle’s bootleg collections about a year later. I absolutely devoured those old cassette tapes, playing them in the car, one after another, and I would often drive extra laps around the block once I’d reached my destination just to finish whatever song or story was playing.
But while the music was what hooked me, what I loved most about those tapes were the stories. And the very best of the stories always involved Clarence. So rather than me butchering them, I’m going to let Bruce tell them himself here. It was hard to narrow down, but these are my three very favorite Bruce/Clarence stories.
Yet to truly appreciate the magnificence that was Clarence Clemons, I think you had to see the band live. Granted, I didn’t start going to shows until 2003, but I feel blessed that I got to see Clarence perform in a full twenty E Street Band shows. And while I honestly don’t think there is a way to explain the magic that was a Clarence solo if you didn’t get to experience it live, one of my most special concert memories is of one of those solos.
At the end of the Magic tour, I went to two shows back-to-back nights, Richmond and then Hershey Park. I skipped the first day back at school for teachers to do so, claiming that I was *cough cough* sick (which, as anyone who knows me well knows, means that Bruce is playing somewhere on the east coast). My dad went with me to the second of the two shows and on the drive up, we asked each other, as we always did before a show, what song we most wanted to hear that night. We’d had some pretty awesome luck with that game before, as my dad had said “For You” the night of our first show, which we heard, I’d said “Santa Ana”—with the caveat that I knew it would NEVER happen—the night that he DID first play it in Philadelphia on the Devils and Dust tour, along with a few other winners.
But that night, my dad said “Jungleland.” It was my twentieth Bruce show overall and my fourteenth E Street Band show, yet somehow I had never heard “Jungleland” live. And I remember nodding when my dad suggested that particular song and saying, “Me too.”
So I remember the overwhelming emotion I felt when I heard the opening notes to “Jungleland” that night. That year, 2008, had been incredibly rough for my entire family and finally hearing that song, that one song that my dad and I had hoped to hear for the five years that we had been going to shows together, provided this incredible catharsis. I cried through most of the song and my dad just put his arm around me. And I remember thinking, as Clarence began his solo, that things really were going to be okay. It was the first time all year that I actually believed that was true.
I know I said I wasn’t going to get all sad there (sorry… I failed), so to close out, here are some videos of how I’d like to remember Clarence.
“Born to Run”
“10th Avenue Freeze Out”
Thank you, Clarence, for all that you’ve given me and the world.
We’ll miss you. But none of us who have seen you play or who have really heard your music will ever forget you or the influence you’ve had on music ever since that change was made up town and the Big Man joined the band.