Time is already moving at a racing pace, speeding us away from the scene of the crime. That crime is that Clarence “Big Man” Clemons has died. This isn’t just about the passing of an era or a band member or a famous musician.
We lost the Big Man and we just don’t understand. How can you grasp when someone that stood this tall in the reality and the myth of such a band falls to time and eternity? It is now the eighth day without Clarence Clemons.
We keep telling ourselves he’s not a relative. We didn’t really know him. He’s mortal. So why did so many of us cry? So why did this hurt so badly that he fully seemed like a relative, like we knew him, like he was immortal? Why were flags flying at half mast in the State of New Jersey on June 23rd?
Because Clarence Clemons deeply moved us on levels we can’t even grasp and now that he’s gone, his mark on us is clear and deep and true. It was so much more than music – it was who were and who we are.
Because when Clarence played at his best – which was often – we knew ourselves better in a way – from that intimacy, that aspiration, that emotion, that joy and the truth of this sound – all of which are familial. He was that good.
I don’t get Death. I never have. I’ve seen my parents both die right before my eyes – for years on end and then in that final moment. I don’t get it. I do, however, hate it.
I hate what Death does to life – it unmasks it and tells you in no uncertain terms that life’s short, it’s fast and it’ll be gone. And it won’t mean much unless you make it mean much. And you won’t matter much when you’re gone if you didn’t love.
Clarence Clemons loved on a level most of us can only hope to experience and we should aspire to. I’d like to have the nerve and the innocence to ask all my x-girlfriends spread my ashes somewhere but I’m thinking they’d argue over the urn. Paradise by the Sea it won’t be.
Clarence (it was always just one name – we knew who it was) made life mean much and I think it’s tied into his talent for playing and talent for expressing love. The years – sheer years – of playing all over the world – all of the Band committed to us and themselves and each night with a bone-rattling honesty that built the finest rock and roll band the world has known. But Clarence made his life mean more in the expansive way he loved, in the sound he made and in the torture he gutted through to play for us this last tour.
But he was the King of the Universe. Even more importantly than his just happening to be the King of the Universe, he reigned supreme over that mythical landscape, sonically and symbolically, that Bruce and the E Street Band forged by touring like dogs in town after town, night after night, for years on end with us right there. We danced all night to a soul fairy band.
“I wanna know if love is wild, I wanna know if love is real” Bruce called out to the universe and yet, standing right there on the right hand of the Rock and Roll Father was the Big Answer to that night after night – the wild and real love of Clarence Clemons: that’s how the Love of Clarence’s Horn raised all of us up on some of the best nights of our lives. He believed love alive and that’s how love gets born, that’s how people get born and only with love can we be born to run – without it, we’re just born to die.
This is not the passing of an era – its not just the last carnival – this is it.
It comes home when you realize you will never stand in the same room, the same space with Clarence and hear him play Jungleland, Spirits in the Night, Twist and Shout, Long Walk Home, and Drive All Night and so many more. You will never have a chance to hear him play Secret Garden live and there will be no more E Street Band Albums in the future that feature the playing of this man.
“All I know is I woke up this morning and something Big was gone/Gone into that dark ether where you’re still young and hard and cold….”
No matter how many songs were ever played or ever recorded by the E Street Band without Clarence playing, the songs that mattered most, that moved us most invariably involved Clarence. His playing is ethereal. He’s not Sonny Coltrane; he’s not a flashy Hendrix of the Saxophone – yet he touches us. Touched us. Touches us.
This was not all just a dream and yet, it ended in a blink of an eye. The story ending in the pose where Bruce spoke of waking up in Buffalo perfectly captured the quicksilver passage of over thirty years.
One Saturday night we heard of the stroke and the next Saturday night we lost him. He died like he lived, one Saturday night to the next.
We lost Clarence Clemons. We. He had us in the palm of that big black beautiful horn since the early 1970’s.
We can agree Bruce Springsteen is one of the most talented people ever to write a song or set foot on a stage. But that Sun around which the E Street planets revolved made it hard if not impossible for them to distinguish themselves or be much more than sidemen.
Clarence was so much more than a sideman. He was the Big Man – he was Bruce’s Main Man – not a Side Man. We know now in sad reflection that nearly no song ever written and played by Bruce Springsteen that reached its highest heights of emotion ever got there without the horn of Clarence Clemons. It was almost as if the flashes of saxophone worked to add an entirely new dimension to the song that was never there before and was never in any band before. “Sherry Darling” alone could have earned him his Throne on the E Street Stage – an honor no one else had – not even Bruce. But that was because this was the Soul Center of the E Street Sound and Ethos.
Last night, I saw three saxophonists, as they’re called, introduced in Red Bank, New Jersey last night and each took a bow after holding his horn aloft and polite clapping followed. Then Jimmy Vivino said Clarence’s name. He just paid a brief moment of respect but when he said that name – the waves of forlorn adoration and glorious gleeful applause washed over us one more time. Clarence wasn’t just appreciated. He was loved and I think – I really think – he was loved because he loved. He loved life, MUSIC, eating, partying, laughing, wine, women and song and so much more and in loving, he attracted the love that was the testament to his life.
I also realized in these many days of mourning that what another thing that was different about Clarence is he made music with his spirit. “Spiritus”. Can anyone deny he was the spirit in the E Street Band nights?
To play sax, his great huge lungs pushed his very essence of his breath out into the metal instrument and into the air and we breathed in that sound with our ears, minds and souls. Ever notice how long his notes lasted? Come to think of it, they’ll last even longer, echoing down those hallways of our Collective Night for years to come.
It was just a wind instrument but it was the wind that blew through your hair as you rolled down the window, it was the wind that powered our summer nights and fueled out most rocking moments.
He was just as sweet as a spirit in the night and we all stood there and let him shoot right through us.
This life’s a beauty. We’re bound to fall — it’s true. For many of us, we’ve suffered through moments and trials that would startle many to hear. Still we press on, past those we’ve lost, past the lost parts of our selves. Most reach a point they just don’t get up. We survive or we live but many live out their lives on their knees after getting knocked down one time too many.
Spinal surgeries, knee surgeries, hip surgeries and likely more pulverized this man and yet, with the spirit of a lion that could have moved mountains, he moved himself to get up and to rise time after time to bring us music – sweet soul music. Our sweet soul music.
Clarence got up time after time. Trapped in a runaway car, he reached under the accelerator and couldn’t free it before he smacked into a tree and lost his knee to the degree his football dreams were over. He got up.
Playing dead-end local bands for the love of music, he kept at it until that door blew off the Student Prince. He came to sit in but that night stood the test of time.
Riding a tidal wave of Rock and Roll Success like few have ever known with Bruce as his trusted Captain at the helm, he got fired. Dumped. Dismissed. Kicked to the curb. Did he hit the bottle and sit around and give up? No. He got the fuck up.
He kept playing. He played with the Dead. He did his own thing and he kept bringing it. When the E Street Band came back in 1999, he was a lot older and a lot less physically able to do the gig. But he did – he got up. And that last tour stood as the single most amazing testament to any musician in the history of rock and roll when he kept showing up, standing up and playing his heart out for us, for the music, and for the love of the E Street Band Experience.
So now he’s at rest somewhere depending on your beliefs. But the freewheeling rock and roll saxophone of a lifetime has been silenced. Only Gideon’s trumpet will have a sweeter, truer tone. I may be romanticizing Clarence “Big Man” Clemons but that’s just because he romanticized rock and roll, community and love for others and in so doing, made it real. We will never stop missing Clarence and not just because many experienced him in our collective youth. We miss him because there are none that gave us what he gave us. Glad we didn’t miss him his first time around.
A dear long-time Indian friend of me told me when my Mom passed – within hours of the event – that in the Jain religion I believe, the belief is that as the last breath passes from the lips of the deceased, somewhere in the world that life finds a new place and a newborn baby cries. I can only hope I live long enough to hear Clarence’s new soul-house rock this world again.