I was shaken to the core Saturday night June 18th, 2011 receiving the news that Clarence Anicholas Clemons passed away due to complications from a stroke he suffered a week earlier. He was 69 years old. Anyone that knows anything regarding the lore within the realm of Bruce Springsteen and the legendary E Street Band knows that more than anyone else, Clarence was the heart and soul at its epicenter. Upon hearing of his death, Bruce Springsteen said it best, with gut-check sorrow, “His loss is immeasurable”. I couldn’t agree more. It’s impossible to completely state in words the feelings I had that night or still have to this day. It’s impossible to truly state how important he was to the E Street Band. He embodied a certain vitality, an urban cool that swung with surging might breathing life into songs with his famous saxophone. He had the greatest sax solos in rock & roll history that sent an urgency, an energy, a spirit coursing through some of Springsteen’s greatest songs including: Born to Run, Thunder Road, Badlands, Kitty’s Back, Rosalita (Come Out Tonight), The E Street Shuffle, Spirit in the Night, She’s The One, Meeting Across the River, The Promised Land, Prove it All Night, The Ties That Bind, Ramrod, Bobby Jean, The Fever, Blood Brothers, Murder Incorporated, Waitin’ on a Sunny Day, Radio Nowhere, My Lucky Day, and even had a song centered around him in Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out (When the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band). Without Clarence supplying the enduring blast of sax to these songs and giving them the life-blood they needed, they would have lacked some of the visceral emotions necessary and may not have existed at all. But there is one moment, in my opinion that Clarence still shines above all other moments, and that is in the epic Born to Run album finale, “Jungleland”. “Jungleland” is something to behold. I’ve said it before and I’ll stand by it to this day that “Jungleland” is not only the best epic album closer, but it’s the best closer of any album ever. Everything that’s great about rock & roll is encapsulated in this song. The innocence, the romance, the rebellion, the angst, the beauty, the ferocity, the intensity, the ebullience, it’s all here. At 9 minutes and 33 seconds, it’s staggering in length but it’s also the fastest 9:33 song you’ll ever hear. So incredible in cinematic scope, it’s James Dean, it’s Brando, it’s “Rebel Without a Cause”, it’s “Street Car Named Desire”, it’s Elvis, it’s the Jersey turnpike in the midnight hour, it’s the quintessential Springsteen song. If there was ever was one song where I believed transcendence was absolutely possible through the power of music, it’s this one. But at its zenith, its pinnacle is Clarence and his legendary “Jungleland” sax solo. It’s a sheer night-journey of indescribable power. So celestial, so ethereal. I love turning this song on and driving at night. I never cease to get goosebumps every time I hear it. I can’t imagine it without that sax solo, or maybe I just don’t want to. A lot of my musical heroes are getting up there in age these days, and Clarence was the first major hit on my radar. I’m still devastated and I can only hope that after 12 years of Catholic schooling I can truly believe that Clarence is up there, somewhere better playing that saxophone giving Heaven vibrant explosions and a soulful cool that it hadn’t seen before. Rest in Peace Clarence, I’ll see you again some day brother.
Below is a link to a fantastic Clarence Clemons tribute by Nick Mead. Watch it and enjoy.
I figured in closing I’ll leave you with the eulogy by Bruce Springsteen given at Clarence’s funeral:
I’ve been sitting here listening to everyone talk about Clarence and staring at that photo of the two of us right there. It’s a picture of Scooter and The Big Man, people who we were sometimes. As you can see in this particular photo, Clarence is admiring his muscles and I’m pretending to be nonchalant while leaning upon him. I leaned on Clarence a lot; I made a career out of it in some ways.
Those of us who shared Clarence’s life, shared with him his love and his confusion. Though “C” mellowed with age, he was always a wild and unpredictable ride. Today I see his sons Nicky, Chuck, Christopher and Jarod sitting here and I see in them the reflection of a lot of C’s qualities. I see his light, his darkness, his sweetness, his roughness, his gentleness, his anger, his brilliance, his handsomeness, and his goodness. But, as you boys know your pop was a not a day at the beach. “C” lived a life where he did what he wanted to do and he let the chips, human and otherwise, fall where they may. Like a lot of us your pop was capable of great magic and also of making quite an amazing mess. This was just the nature of your daddy and my beautiful friend. Clarence’s unconditional love, which was very real, came with a lot of conditions. Your pop was a major project and always a work in progress. “C” never approached anything linearly, life never proceeded in a straight line. He never went A… B…. C…. D. It was always A… J…. C…. Z… Q… I….! That was the way Clarence lived and made his way through the world. I know that can lead to a lot of confusion and hurt, but your father also carried a lot of love with him, and I know he loved each of you very very dearly.
It took a village to take care of Clarence Clemons. Tina, I’m so glad you’re here. Thank you for taking care of my friend, for loving him. Victoria, you’ve been a loving, kind and caring wife to Clarence and you made a huge difference in his life at a time when the going was not always easy. To all of “C’s” vast support network, names too numerous to mention, you know who you are and we thank you. Your rewards await you at the pearly gates. My pal was a tough act but he brought things into your life that were unique and when he turned on that love light, it illuminated your world. I was lucky enough to stand in that light for almost 40 years, near Clarence’s heart, in the Temple of Soul.
So a little bit of history: from the early days when Clarence and I traveled together, we’d pull up to the evening’s lodgings and within minutes “C” would transform his room into a world of his own. Out came the colored scarves to be draped over the lamps, the scented candles, the incense, the patchouli oil, the herbs, the music, the day would be banished, entertainment would come and go, and Clarence the Shaman would reign and work his magic, night after night. Clarence’s ability to enjoy Clarence was incredible. By 69, he’d had a good run, because he’d already lived about 10 lives, 690 years in the life of an average man. Every night, in every place, the magic came flying out of C’s suitcase. As soon as success allowed, his dressing room would take on the same trappings as his hotel room until a visit there was like a trip to a sovereign nation that had just struck huge oil reserves. “C” always knew how to live. Long before Prince was out of his diapers, an air of raunchy mysticism ruled in the Big Man’s world. I’d wander in from my dressing room, which contained several fine couches and some athletic lockers, and wonder what I was doing wrong! Somewhere along the way all of this was christened the Temple of Soul; and “C” presided smilingly over its secrets, and its pleasures. Being allowed admittance to the Temple’s wonders was a lovely thing.
As a young child my son Sam became enchanted with the Big Man… no surprise. To a child Clarence was a towering fairy tale figure, out of some very exotic storybook. He was a dreadlocked giant, with great hands and a deep mellifluous voice sugared with kindness and regard. And… to Sammy, who was just a little white boy, he was deeply and mysteriously black. In Sammy’s eyes, “C” must have appeared as all of the African continent, shot through with American cool, rolled into one welcoming and loving figure. So… Sammy decided to pass on my work shirts and became fascinated by Clarence’s suits and his royal robes. He declined a seat in dad’s van and opted for “C’s” stretch limousine, sitting by his side on the slow cruise to the show. He decided dinner in front of the hometown locker just wouldn’t do, and he’d saunter up the hall and disappear into the Temple of Soul.
Of course, also enchanted was Sam’s dad, from the first time I saw my pal striding out of the shadows of a half empty bar in Asbury Park, a path opening up before him; here comes my brother, here comes my sax man, my inspiration, my partner, my lifelong friend. Standing next to Clarence was like standing next to the baddest ass on the planet. You were proud, you were strong, you were excited and laughing with what might happen, with what together, you might be able to do. You felt like no matter what the day or the night brought, nothing was going to touch you. Clarence could be fragile but he also emanated power and safety, and in some funny way we became each other’s protectors; I think perhaps I protected “C” from a world where it still wasn’t so easy to be big and black. Racism was ever present and over the years together, we saw it. Clarence’s celebrity and size did not make him immune. I think perhaps “C” protected me from a world where it wasn’t always so easy to be an insecure, weird and skinny white boy either. But, standing together we were badass, on any given night, on our turf, some of the baddest asses on the planet. We were united, we were strong, we were righteous, we were unmovable, we were funny, we were corny as hell and as serious as death itself. And we were coming to your town to shake you and to wake you up. Together, we told an older, richer story about the possibilities of friendship that transcended those I’d written in my songs and in my music. Clarence carried it in his heart. It was a story where the Scooter and the Big Man not only busted the city in half, but we kicked ass and remade the city, shaping it into the kind of place where our friendship would not be such an anomaly. And that… that’s what I’m gonna miss. The chance to renew that vow and double down on that story on a nightly basis, because that is something, that is the thing that we did together… the two of us. Clarence was big, and he made me feel, and think, and love, and dream big. How big was the Big Man? Too fucking big to die. And that’s just the facts. You can put it on his grave stone, you can tattoo it over your heart. Accept it… it’s the New World.
Clarence doesn’t leave the E Street Band when he dies. He leaves when we die.
So, I’ll miss my friend, his sax, the force of nature his sound was, his glory, his foolishness, his accomplishments, his face, his hands, his humor, his skin, his noise, his confusion, his power, his peace. But his love and his story, the story that he gave me, that he whispered in my ear, that he allowed me to tell… and that he gave to you… is gonna carry on. I’m no mystic, but the undertow, the mystery and power of Clarence and my friendship leads me to believe we must have stood together in other, older times, along other rivers, in other cities, in other fields, doing our modest version of god’s work… work that’s still unfinished. So I won’t say goodbye to my brother, I’ll simply say, see you in the next life, further on up the road, where we will once again pick up that work, and get it done.
Big Man, thank you for your kindness, your strength, your dedication, your work, your story. Thanks for the miracle… and for letting a little white boy slip through the side door of the Temple of Soul.
SO LADIES AND GENTLEMAN… ALWAYS LAST, BUT NEVER LEAST. LET’S HEAR IT FOR THE MASTER OF DISASTER, the BIG KAHUNA, the MAN WITH A PHD IN SAXUAL HEALING, the DUKE OF PADUCAH, the KING OF THE WORLD, LOOK OUT OBAMA! THE NEXT BLACK PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES EVEN THOUGH HE’S DEAD… YOU WISH YOU COULD BE LIKE HIM BUT YOU CAN’T! LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE BIGGEST MAN YOU’VE EVER SEEN!… GIVE ME A C-L-A-R-E-N-C-E. WHAT’S THAT SPELL? CLARENCE! WHAT’S THAT SPELL? CLARENCE! WHAT’S THAT SPELL? CLARENCE! … amen.
I’m gonna leave you today with a quote from the Big Man himself, which he shared on the plane ride home from Buffalo, the last show of the last tour. As we celebrated in the front cabin congratulating one another and telling tales of the many epic shows, rocking nights and good times we’d shared, “C” sat quietly, taking it all in, then he raised his glass, smiled and said to all gathered, “This could be the start of something big.”
Love you, “C”.