Dark Melody: The River Comes to Clarence Clemons

Stuart Mitchner

I’ve always been aware of the song playing in the minor keys, the dark melody that runs counterpoint to life’s sweeter song. The one that says time is short. — Clarence Clemons (1942-2011)

The quote is from Big Man: Real Life & Tall Tales (Grand Central 2009), a quirky, crazyquilt of a memoir in which roughly half the chapters are by Clarence Clemons, who died June 18, and half by his friend and quasi biographer Don Reo. Given the bond between the Big Man and the Boss, the book also has a lot of Bruce Springsteen in it, as Clemons points out in a prefatory note: “It’s impossible to tell my story without telling at least part of Bruce’s,” for without Bruce, “there is no Big Man.” Springsteen’s brief foreward touches on the “Tall Tales” aspect of the book by suggesting that it gets as close to the “truth” as he can imagine: “Mere facts will never plumb the mysteries of the Big Man.”

One fact you can count on is the bigness. At 6’5, 270 pounds in his prime, Clemons was a presence to be reckoned with onstage, a massive absolute disguised as a barn-burning roadhouse tenor man. As Springsteen put it at last week’s memorial service, “When you were in his presence, it was like being in a sovereign nation.” Clemons thinks big as well. The river Springsteen “goes down to” with his girl in the song of the same name is dry when the song ends because “dreams are lies when they don’t come true.” For the Big Man, the river is music, it’s never dry, and he doesn’t need to go down to it because he’s never away from it: “It follows me; it changes its path to be with me and to stay with me and to define me. It is my purpose and it flows through my soul and it always will, and nothing in this world, including death, can stop that.”

Clarence Climbs Aboard

After reflecting on the year 1985, when “the band was big everywhere … in a way that was hard to imagine,” Clemons adds, “Except I did imagine it. I saw it all that first night at the Student Prince [the Asbury Park club where Springsteen was playing in September 1971]. I saw the success and the stardom and the stadiums, and I knew without a doubt it was going to happen.” While Bruce was “a very reluctant star who eventually had to find a way to deal with it” when “the power of the songs made the pull of giant stardom irresistible,” Clemons “climbed aboard and swore to ride it until the wheels fell off and burned.”

Springsteen celebrates the moment Clemons came into his life in “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” which he sang a softer, toned-down version of at the memorial service. While it may seem to be a song about the birth of the band, it’s more personal than that; the singer, Scooter [Bruce before he was the Boss], had been “searching for his groove,” “back to the wall,” “stranded in the jungle,” “all alone” and “on [his] own” when “the Big Man joined the band.” Together, they ride “from the coastline to the city” and “All the little pretties raise their hands” as “Scooter and the Big Man bust this city in half.”

Busting London

If you’ve seen the November 1975 Hammersmith Odeon concert included on the 30th anniversary Born to Run CD/2 DVD set (Sony 2005), you may wonder what Robert Hilburn was thinking of when he called that show “ill-fated” and Bruce’s performance “subdued” in Springsteen (Rolling Stone 1985). It’s true that the Boss was still feeling the aftershock of unthinkable fame, having scored the covers of both Time and Newsweek the previous month while his landmark album Born to Run was rocking America. As the Big Man suggests in his reference to Bruce’s problem dealing with stardom, Springsteen wanted fame on his own terms, which was one reason he was outraged by the excess of publicity that accompanied the band’s first overseas appearance.

Outraged maybe, but also furiously energized, since that concert has to be one of the most exhilarating live events ever recorded and Springsteen is subdued only by comparison to the arena extravaganzas to come where he does everything but ascend to rock and roll heaven after having group sex with 100,000 fans. As for Clarence Clemons, he’s in his element here, decked out in a white suit with a red flower in the lapel and the audience in his pocket. He’s not only mastering the scene, he’s giving power transfusions to the band and, most of all, to his soulmate. If you doubt that “soulmate” is the right word, check out what happens when Clemons picks up the marimbas after his searing tenor solo in “She’s the One” and he and Bruce ease into a joyous dance, shimmying around one another Motown style.

In Black Magic: White Hollywood and African American Culture (Rutgers 2004), Krin Gabbard illustrates how the spiritual, emotional, and musical aspects of the black life force have been absorbed, appropriated, or exploited by white culture. As the DVD of the London concert shows, Bruce, the Big Man and the E Street Band are on another level. Contrary to the responses to his death that verge on typecasting him as a token attraction, a glorified variation on the resident black, there’s nothing token about the way Clarence Clemons commands the Hammersmith Odeon stage while the scraggly, scruffy, half-starved-looking leader scurries around in his floppy knit hat shouting, “Play it, Big Man!” as Clemons rides to glory on “Spirit in the Night,” “She’s the One,” and then puts a prayer to music in “Jungleland.” During that stately solo Springsteen closes his eyes and drinks it in, the music flowing between them, poet to poet. As you learn from the documentary (Wings for Wheels: The Making of Born to Run) that comes with the 30th anniversary package, Clemons spent 15 hours in the studio perfecting that solo, every note of which was mused over, finessed, and edited into final form by Springsteen.

“Born to Run”

Legendary rock songs are usually marked by breakthrough moments. In “Born to Run” the breakthrough begins instantly with a wall-of-sound juggernaut moving full speed ahead “on the streets of a runaway American dream” where the breakthrough breaks through and Clarence Clemons cuts loose, a classic chorus, R&B nirvana, after which the song surpasses itself with the sublime transitional down-shift from sheer soaring to the slower, darkly building thrill-ride movement from “Beyond the Palace hemipowered drones scream down the boulevard” to “I wanna die with you Wendy on the streets tonight in an everlasting kiss.” And just when you think it can’t get any better there’s another breakthrough, the musical equivalent of five orgasms, grand opera, shoot out the lights, before Bruce shifts back into drive for the ride to the end.

The Meeting

The Springsteen-Clemons meeting is described in a YouTube interview as Clemons recalls the nor’easter that swept the Atlantic coast on the night he walked into the Student Prince “and the wind actually tore the door out of my hand and blew it down the street.” As “the bouncers go running after the door, I’m standing there with lightning and thunder behind me, a black guy walking into a white club. I walked over to Bruce and said I want to sit in. “ In another version, Clemons pictures the band onstage “staring at me framed in the doorway.”

This is a big man, remember, who can’t close the door because it’s blowing down the street. For such a moment you need Sergio Leone directing with chimes and trumpets by Ennio Morricone. “Bruce and I looked at each other and didn’t say anything, we just knew. We knew we were the missing links in each other’s lives. He was what I’d been searching for. In one way he was just a scrawny little kid. But he was a visionary. He wanted to follow his dream. So from then on I was part of history.”

As for Princeton history: When celebrating the 40th anniversary of Jadwin Gym’s opening, TigerBlog came up with the 40 greatest moments in Jadwin history. Of the events, 25 were intercollegiate; the remaining 15 included concerts, political events, and various others. TB’s number one event? The November 1, 1978 appearance of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

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