RIP to the King of the World, Master of the Universe–the Big Man, Clarence Clemons

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.

Story starts at about 2:12
“The E Street Shuffle” from the Bottom Line, 8/15/75

Story starts about about 4:45 
“Growin’ Up” at the Agora 8/9/78

Story starts at about 2:40
“Growin’ Up” from the Capital Centre 8/26/84

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.

“Jungleland”


“Born to Run”


“Rosalita”


“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.

"If God is a DJ, life is a dance floor, love is the rhythm, you are the music"

Saturday night was about as perfect as they come.

Why?

Because for only the third time in my concert-going life, I got to see Bruce play in Asbury Park. And in my world, that is truly as good as it gets.

If you’re not one of my fellow Bruce fanatics, I know that you don’t understand the significance of this. And you’re probably rolling your eyes and saying, “Here she goes, talking about Bruce again.” But hear me out, I’m going to try and explain it.

Wikipedia defines religion as “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of life and the universe, especially…human beings’ relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, spiritual, or divine.”

Keeping in mind the one infallible tenet of the universe that Wikipedia is NEVER wrong, I think that music can fall into the category of a religion.

Go with me on this. Picture music as a religion. I mean one of the big religions, not some little weirdo one like that church of body modification (it’s real… bizarre, but real) or a cult like Scientology or Jews for Jesus, but as a real, legitimate religion.

(Note: if you’re easily offended by people mocking religion, you probably don’t want to read the rest of this post… And if you ARE easily offended and DO read the rest of this post despite my warning, please don’t post your comments about how I’m a heathen because I’m just going to delete them. Yes, I have that power. Which I suppose makes me the god of this blog. Insert evil laughter here.)

Obviously Bruce is at the center of the particular denomination of musical religion that I practice, but just as Islam teaches that Jesus was a prophet, I can see the inherent value of other musical messiahs.

So okay, if Bruce is the deity-figure (I’m going to refrain from calling him Jesus—partially because I think that’s going to offend everyone but the Jews (I’m not as worried about offending Muslims because I’m an American Jewish chick… they’re not reading this anyway and if they are, my very existence is already insanely offensive to them) and partially because I’m Jewish and calling him Jesus just gets too confusing), that would make the members of the E Street Band his disciples. If I had better Photoshop skills, I’d do a version of the Last Supper to illustrate this. But my Photoshop skills are, unfortunately, somewhat limited and I don’t feel like wasting that much time. You get the idea.

Then there are the prophets. These are the other musicians who are heavily influenced by Bruce. (And you could probably make an argument that since Bruce was heavily influenced by Elvis, Bob Dylan, and Chuck Berry, among others, they could figure into some Father/Holy Ghost type analogy, but I don’t know enough about Christian theology to really flesh that out.) So in that group would be the Gaslight Anthem, Jesse Malin, Tom Morello, Eddie Vedder, Social Distortion etc. All of them are ABSOLUTELY worth going to see in their own right, but their music/styles contain some elements of the Bruce gospel.

We also have the scholars, who, like biblical scholars, interpret the word of our deity and pass these interpretations on to the masses. Some, like Chris Phillips and Dave Marsh, are established as being the authorities (love them or hate them, the Bruce camp has cemented their position by giving them super exclusive interviews), whereas others learn from these teachings and put their own spin on what they’ve taken from Bruce. You can find these scholars in many places, from BTX to Greasy Lake and everywhere in between. Some are strict and believe that only their interpretation is legitimate, whereas others are more welcoming of new points of view. (Think of the difference between ultra-orthodox Jews and reform Jews—you find the same kind of argument about what makes someone a “real” fan on BTX pretty often.)

I, as someone who has written a book in which the characters meet following Bruce and as someone who blogs about his importance in my life fairly often, fit into the scholar group, although I’m still a novice by most standards. My father was the one who introduced me to Bruce and he was the one who started taking me to shows, and it is a pretty male-dominated scene among the heavy-duty Bruce fans. And in my debut work, Beyond the Palace, I told the story from the point of view of a guy.

Which, of course, makes me Yentl.

(No one but my mother laughed at that, but it amused me. Papa, can you hear me?)

But the best part about travelling to our Jerusalem (Asbury Park) to worship at the holiest of holy sites, isn’t even that Bruce showed up. (Don’t get me wrong, that was absolutely unreal.) No, the best part is the feeling of community among the true Bruce fans at a show. Because I don’t care what people on BTX say makes you a real fan versus a fair-weather fan; when you’re at a show in Asbury Park and the lights have dimmed and there’s even the slightest whisper in the air that Bruce could be there that night, you’re with your family.

That feeling struck me several times Saturday night, well before Bruce took the stage. I had conversations with a whole bunch of different people who had been at the same shows I’d been at, who had the same bootlegs, who loved the same other musicians, and who felt the same things that I felt being there that night. And that sense of community and belonging is the reason so many people go to synagogue or church week after week. It’s to feel a part of something bigger and to be with people who believe in the same things you believe in and have faith in the same things you put your faith in.

No, I don’t literally worship Bruce. I’m actually a fairly observant Jew, and I understand that comparing music to religion is a stretch for those who don’t feel the way that I do. But the reason that I think it’s an apt comparison is that it has given so much to my life and to who I am as a person. And Saturday night at the Paramount Theatre was where I truly felt that I was home. And I can only hope that all of you who read this have a place where you can feel that same sense of acceptance and belonging.

And I REALLY hope that 2011 brings a new tour. Because I’m already eagerly anticipating my next religious experience.