Clarence and Bruce, Friendship and Race
Clarence Clemons, said both my daughter and Bruce Springsteen this week, passed through his life doing exactly what he wanted to do. Bruce said the rest, which amounted to admitting that you can’t really do that, and the result of trying to is confusion and turbulence and discomfort and illusion. Except when it works. Then the result is clarity and joy, peace and truth miraculously revealed.
There are all sorts of meanings for what I watched Bruce and the Big Man do up there on those hundreds of stages for the past four decades, but the one that always struck closest to my heart drew them into the soul of the American drama and dilemma. Like Huckleberry Finn, the guilty boy, and Nigger Jim, the escaped slave, they traveled against the current even as they flowed with it, innocents abroad on a mission to redeem themselves of “sins” they hadn’t even committed in their quest for something closer to free.
Bruce and Clarence acted out their drama, which is our drama, in the exact same spirit, and with the exact same ambiguous result. At the end of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain was stuck because he had no ending. The ending he used is preposterous, obviously. But not because it’s over-reliant on the hand of God. The real problem is that it’s predicated on a false idea: Freeing one slave. You cannot free one slave, and since the slave owner is in the same prison as the slave, just like any other jailer, you can’t free two either. It’s all of us or none of us.
But the road to freedom, as a great song tells us, is a constant struggle, and whatever anybody else thinks, I know–I have witnessed it as fact–nobody in the history of that great race-mixing tempest we call rock and soul music, struggled longer, harder or more continuously to reach that promised land. A Bruce Springsteen show could not in fact slide on its knees all the way across Jordan, but it was determined to take every inch that had ever been given and then push further, if only a millimeter or even if rebuffed.
You could argue that Bruce and Clarence failed because they had no black audience to speak of (the idea that they had no black audience at all is a lie). But what need did the great majority of black people have to hear their story? (And why, for that matter, were most black listeners supposed to tolerate it being told in what, for their community, is an antique and discarded beat?). White Americans have the very strange habit of believing that racism and white supremacy and all that come with them are somehow problems for the black community to solve. This is absurd. Black people didn’t enslave white people and force them to come to America, and whip them and sell them, rape them and suck the life from them for profit. How could black people, then, end the consequences of those crimes? Black people did not portray whites as stupid, sinister, conniving, debased and debauched, thieving and rapacious, even though they’d have been able to marshal far more facts with far less fudging than whites have needed to spread such calumnies about them.
What I am saying is, America’s race problem has never been solved because white people refuse to recognize that it is only action on their part to solve it. And Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons did not find a blacker audience because on the one hand, the anomaly of their enactment of the dilemma and its consequences, if not solutions, did not need to be impressed upon the black community. On the other hand, white people desperately require that story, even though when most witnessed that Pentecost on Thunder Road, which concludes with Scooter and the Big Man slipping each other a kiss right on the lips, they did not take away from it anything at all of what it was meant to mean.
Bruce and Clarence persevered, continually sending out their message over Radio Nowhere in case somebody, somewhere even might be listening. The real miracle is not that Bruce Springsteen was capable of finding so many variants of this theme, from the stage show itself to anthems like “Land of Hope and Dreams” and “American Skin (41 Shots),” and allusions peppered through his other songs. (How dumb would you have to be not to understand that this is one implication of, to choose the most obvious for instance, “Darkness on the Edge of Town”?) No miracle there—Springsteen set out to write about the heart of the country, and race was central to what he found there. In order to do an honest job as honest as he could, he had no choice but to tell the truth about who shackled whom, who has the key and what that key consists of.
The miracle was that Clarence Clemons, for all his affectations and clowning, playing for the most part accents and fills, found a way to portray a character not of massive physical bulk only but as massively stalwart, courageous, and dignified as the black part of this nation has always been. (If you doubt this, ask yourself how long you would be able to hold your community together if it were nightly vilified on television, erased from history where its story could not be falsified altogether, and beaten down by the cops and the other authorities as a matter of principle, while not even being granted its own name, instead referred to by a batch of code words as puerile as they are vicious.) Like Bert Williams and Louis Armstrong and a handful of others who crossed over not Jordan but simply the color line, Clarence held himself together at a cost that no white American, not even someone who studied him for decades and saw what the game was from the first encounter, can pretend to fairly estimate.
There were, of course, several versions of Clarence Clemons but if we stick simply to the artist, the musician-thespian, the most obvious other is the Clarence Clemons of his solo records, with the Red Bank Rockers and Temple of Soul. This music, readily available even now, though it never sold much, harkens back to a version of the soul music Springsteen so often draws upon, but also to the honking R&B music of the Big Man’s own youth. In that music, the guitar stayed in the rhythm section and the sax took instrumental center stage. Clarence was almost ten years older than the rest of the E Street Band and here, he let it show.
There is other, less well-known, harder to find Clarence Clemons music on which he portrays another version altogether, a seeker, a world traveler, influenced by the new age music of Narada Michael Walden (who produced and wrote Clarence’s one hit single, “You’re a Friend of Mine,” a duet with Jackson Browne), and by the time he spent in China wooing his fourth wife.
I mention this not only to emphasize that Clarence Clemons was a man, not a mythic figure—or rather, not only a mythic figure—but also to point out what sacrifices he made, what impulses he did not indulge, what roads this man so committed to doing exactly what he wanted to do chose not to travel. I am not crazy enough to make him out a martyr—he was too hedonist for martyrdom. But it cannot have been much fun to travel through America in the mid-’70s, the wounds of the civil rights movement yet so raw and its mission even now unaccomplished in so many places, as the only black man traveling with a group of white hippies—and he, quite often, dressed to the nines, as if he were the impresario running the whole show. As Bruce said in his eulogy, there were times when not even Clarence was big enough to shoulder past all the confusion and contradiction of race bigotry, and, once David Sancious left, which was not very long into the story, do it alone.
The other side of that is, being treated as the safe, harmless, “why can’t they all be like this” black man. I loved Clarence, he paid me any number of small kindnesses over they years, mainly just always being glad to see me, but the idea that he was harmless is an absurdity, an insult and a symptom. Like any large orbiting object, Clarence had a powerful gravitational pull and while nobody who got caught up in it was endangered the way the ones who got pulled into the Keith Richards circle were, it was easy to see from whatever safe distance one could manage that the games inside Clarence’s circle were played on his terms, or not played at all. I mean, this is a guy who produced an autobiography that was admittedly half-fiction and lied so much of the rest of the time that even his bandmates weren’t sure where the truth lay in some of it. (Big Man: Real Life & Tall Tales also happens to be one of the greatest rock’n’roll books ever written and possibly the funniest.) They can’t all be like that because you don’t know what even that one guy is altogether like. Which doesn’t mean that the role he played on stage was just an act, either. Is complicated safe and harmless? I don’t think so either.
So…there they are, Scooter and the Big Man, the Boss and the King of the World, little Bruce and towering Clarence, and for all those years, through all those shows, through all that time, they did one thing, as static and yet as ever-evolving as Krazy Kat albeit with a larger cast. Bruce tried a couple of other foils—Crystal Taliferro on the Human Touch / Luckytown tour, the huge Art Baron and the small Larry Eagle with the Seeger Sessions band. But in the end, if there was one thing that made the E Street Band the most essential tool of the greatest live entertainer white America has ever produced it was the gravitational pull between him and Clarence Clemons.
Curtis Mayfield, one of Bruce’s greatest unacknowledged influences wrote a prophecy in one of his songs that applied to the Scooter and the Big Man tableau: ‘Mighty, Mighty Spade And Whitey / Your black and white power / Is gonna be a crumbling tower.” That was not a prophecy of them but of what they fought against.
Bruce and Clarence could not pull down the tower in which America is shackled, no two humans could do that, but they inflicted their share of damage and from the places I’ve sat and stood and watched them do it, their effort, properly understood, had something of grandeur about it. They were these two guys who imagined that if they acted free, then other people would understand better that it was possible to be free. How close they came is harder to see than how far the rest of us are from that goal. But there are hearts and minds a few steps closer to liberation out there because of them, people who had fun until it stopped being just fun and grew inside them.
One of the other roles Clarence Clemons played for Bruce Springsteen is also not much remarked upon but it was crucial. When Bruce ran out of words—or more precisely, when the words could no longer tell the story—often as not it was the Big Man and that shining brass horn that took center stage and blew out the rest of the truth for us to hear. If you want to measure Clarence Clemons as a musician, consider what it must have been like to have to find a solo that could stand up after lines like “And the poets down here don’t write nothin’ at all / They just stand back and let it all be.” Then consider that, even if it took 16 hours in the studio, he found it.
During a concert, during one of Clarence’s solos, if you happened to look away from the horn and the giant blowing it for a minute, you’d see Bruce standing at center stage, chest thrust out, mic dangling from his hand, jaw jutting, in command and serene in the confidence that his story was being told, and told again anew, sending light not just into the darkness but out against it, too.
I am sure he will find other vehicles—he always has had a few, including his own fingers speaking through his guitar. But it will never be quite the same, cannot be. Because on that dark and stormy night on the boardwalk, when the door blew open in that little barroom where the band was playing and the Biggest Man in the World stepped through it, the force behind it was not merely the wind but also fate. And not their fate alone but also ours.
In this respect, it is not only Bruce Springsteen’s job to find a way to replace what Clarence Clemons meant, it is also yours and mine. It’s all of us or none of us and the cost is high. At the end of his eulogy on Tuesday, Bruce said that he and Clarence enacted a beautiful anomaly of two people who loved each other so much that race absolutely didn’t matter. He also said he thought they might need to be together in another lifetime to finish the job of making sure that their relationship was not an anomaly. But really, those lifetimes ought to be right here, right now—they ought to be our lives
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Farewell, Big Man, see you in the land of hope and dreams. Thanks for helping drag us there.