Hopefully, this decades-old recollection of my fleeting but never forgotten moment with Clarence Clemons offers a smidge of the breeziness and joie de vivre of a Bruce Springsteen concert fable. And I tell it with as much joy as Bruce always did in those early years.
Bruce, with the Big Man at his side, was always the master of telling tall tales in front of a captive audience. Whether it was about coming face to face with Peter Pan on a deserted rooftop or encountering a Little Melvin and the Invaders alien space ship, the man knew how to tell a story.
This story has the innocence of most Bruce yarns, but is actually true.
My brother and I were bopping around Manhattan in the winter of 1982. Just hanging out, walking up and down Fifth Avenue and debating whether to purchase Rangers and Knicks memorabilia at Gerry Cosby’s next to the Garden, all the while searching for the biggest pretzel at any number of umbrella stands around town.
It was about 5 p.m. and we were headed to an early dinner in midtown, and then maybe a movie. However, before any of that we decided we needed to head to 51 W. 52nd St.
That was the home of CBS Records, the place where much of Springsteen’s brain trust was housed. We were enormous Springsteen fans and felt that, outside his recording studio and a trip down the Jersey Shore to Asbury Park — a journey we were about to make soon after — this was another Bruce landmark that needed to be seen in person.
Just as we arrived, we found ourselves in one of those moments that can never be planned, but was a perfect convergence of good luck and impeccable timing. Literally, as we turned the corner to reach the building, Clarence Clemons walked from the street through the building’s revolving front door, disappearing into the concrete abyss.
We looked at each other as if we’d seen a ghost. But Clarence, with his hulking presence, was clearly no paranormal activity.
So what to do now? We couldn’t follow him inside. The security guard wasn’t going to buy a “We just want to say hi to the Big Man” explanation and let us follow him in an elevator. So despite our nighttime plans, we camped outside the building, waiting for him to come out.
And we waited. And then waited more. For all we knew, he could’ve camped out up there for days, but how many chances do you get to bump into one of your heroes on a busy Gotham street? We weren’t going anywhere.
Finally, a few hours later — and with dinner and movie plans now long passed by — he walked out of the building. Though I was always shy, unlike my brother who had no trepidation about chatting with complete strangers, we sprinted toward him, saying how much we were fans of his and the band’s. There was probably some blabbering about what Springsteen’s music meant to our lives and then finally we got around to asking if we could take a picture to record the moment. (Incredibly, we had a camera with us at the time.)
Wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers jacket, he put his giant paws around us. He couldn’t have been nicer, listening with intent and giving us one of those smiles that felt more genuine that obligatory, even though he had done it hundreds of times before with other fans. We were in the presence of greatness, but he made us feel special.
For 29 years I’ve carried that photo around with me. It reminds me of one of the happiest days of my life. As a lifelong Springsteen fan, his music has long brought me joy — whether it’s been from the 120-plus shows I’ve seen in concert, to singing in the shower, to listening to live shows in my car, or engaging with a group of like-minded fans — some of whom have become my closest friends.
I can’t say the news of his death was a surprise, considering the massive stroke he suffered only six days previously. But, somehow, you thought the Big Man would pull through. Sort of like the same way he came through on stage, night after night.
Clarence went through severe physical pain in the last few years of his life. He had bad hips, spinal surgeries and needed a chair on stage because standing for three hours was far too painful. But, actually, that chair felt more like a throne.
He was the soul of the E Street Band, the guy who never ceased having fun. Whether it was in those early days of “Rosalita,” when Bruce would chase him around the stage, or “Thunder Road,” when he and Bruce shared a soul kiss. Oh, and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” during those winter concerts. That was a always a blast too.
And then there were his saxophone solos in such staples as “The Promised Land,” “Badlands” and, of course, “Jungleland,” the latter being his signature moment. His sound just filled a room — whether it was the intimate Roxy Theater or massive Giants Stadium.
He’s gone now and following the death of Danny Federici a few years ago, another piece of E Street is gone. It’s a devastating loss and a sad realization that nothing lasts forever.
On Twitter that Saturday night, when his death was being spread quickly through social media, somebody tweeted that he was shocked that Clarence’s death was the top of the news on CNN. Was it really that big a deal, he asked?
Only the biggest.