Steven Van Zandt: ‘We will continue to make music and perform’

Sunday, June 26, 2011,

Jay Lustig/The Star-Ledger

clemons-van.jpgJohn Sleezer
From left, Nils Lofgren, Max Weinberg, Clarence Clemons, Bruce Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt,

For those wondering if the death of Clarence Clemons will mean the end of the E Street Band: Steven Van Zandt doesn’t seem to think so. In a moving and eloquent tribute to Clemons on his syndicated radio show, Underground Garage, Van Zandt, after talking about the bond that the musicians of any great band have with each other, said: “We will continue to make music and perform. Let’s face it, that’s all we really know how to do. But it will be very different without him.”

Here is some of what he said:

“Rock ‘n’ roll has lost an irreplaceable performer. The E Street Band has lost its second member. And, personally, I have lost a lifelong friend and brother. Rock ‘n’ roll historians will discuss in great detail and lengthy discourse the profound racial implications and effect of a white rock band in the early ’70s having a black man with such a strong featured presence as well as the unmistakeable and dangerously unfashionable … more than just a nod, but marriage to tradition, by the inclusion of, to many, the embarrassingly and hopelessly anachronistic saxophone. It was a time of reaching for the future. Glam had started. And yet Bruce Springsteen decided to keep a firm grasp of the past, as he looked ahead. Commercial suicide for anyone less talented than he.
“Band members have a special bond. A great band is more than just some people working together. It’s like a highly specialized army unit, or a winning sports team. A unique combination of elements that becomes stronger together than apart. We become a part of each other and experience marvelous, miraculous moments in life that only we truly share. We will continue to make music and perform. Let’s face it, that’s all we really know how to do. But it will be very different without him. Just as it’s been different without Danny (Federici), our first lost comrade.

“The quality of our lives is diminished every time we lose a great artist. It’s a different world without Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Curtis Mayfield, Brian Jones and the rest. But like all of them, Clarence leaves us his work, which will continue to inspire us and motivate us, and future generations, forever. Rock ‘n’ roll is our religion, and we will continue to lose disciples as we go, but we pick up the fallen flag and keep moving forward, bringing forth the good news that our heroes have helped create, their bodies lost, but their spirits and their good work everlasting.

“And for the E Street Band, the heart of us, Clarence and Danny, will always be there, stage right. So thank you, Clarence. I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. But I’ll see you again, soon enough. Thank you for blowing life-changing energy and hope into this miserable world with your big, beautiful lungs. And thank you for sharing a piece of that big heart nightly with the world. It needs it. You and that magnificent saxophone, celebrating, confessing, seeking redemption and providing salvation all at once. Speaking wordlessly, but so eloquently, with that pure sound you made. The sound of life itself.”

Link to this post | Leave a comment

In the Land of Hope and Dreams

Clarence and Bruce, Friendship and Race

Dave Marsh

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.

Farewell, Big Man, see you in the land of hope and dreams. Thanks for helping drag us there.

Link to this post | Leave a comment

The Big Man

Joe Posnanski

I only saw Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band perform Rosalita one time in all the years. I love Rosalita, love the song because it sounds like 17 years old, you know? It is bold and messy and irresponsible and full of life. The words, let’s not kid anybody, are ridiculous. We’re going to play some pool, skip some school, act real cool, stay out all night, it’s gonna feel all right. The instruments seem to me to be attacking each other in a playful way — like a musical water-balloon fight. Rock and roll can mean so many things. One of those things it can mean is youth. But youth fades. Layla grows old. Amanda grows old, Beth grows old, Melissa, Michelle, my bell, Miss Molly, Good Golly, Billie Jean, not my lover, Judy Blue Eyes, Brown Eyed Girl, sha la la la, Lola, L-O-L-A, Lola, Roxanne, heck, even Mary and Wendy grow old.

But, to my ears anyway, Rosalita stays young forever.

I’m like this with music, ask too much of it, maybe. I do not expect real magic when going to a magic show. But I do when seeing Springsteen and the E-Street Band. I expect something to ignite, something that doesn’t quite add up, something that leaps beyond the songs, beyond the instruments, beyond Bruce’s voice, beyond … I expect it because they delivered it every time I saw them play. Sometimes it happened only for a minute. Sometimes, it lasted for 20. Sometimes that something beyond overpowered the whole night.

That was the Big Man, to me. He was the force behind that something beyond.

You probably heard how they met — Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons. Springsteen told the story many times. It was on the night of the great lightning storm in Asbury Park. The wind was howling, man. Springsteen — Bad Scooter — was in a bar with a band, and he was playing for the crowd, but, no, it wasn’t happening, he was searching for something, searching (if you will) for his groove, but he couldn’t find it. And then it happened. Lightning sizzled. Thunder cracked. The wind howled. The front door of the bar blew off its hinges. And in walked Clemons. He walked on stage. He pulled out a saxophone he happened to be carrying with him. The Big Man joined the band.

The story always went something like that, impossibly large, because rock and roll is impossibly large, or it can be if you love it enough. And Bruce, Clarence, yes, they loved it enough. The Big Man was the grandson of a Baptist preacher. He was the son of a longshoreman and restaurant owner. He was a football player — good enough, the story goes, to get a tryout with the Cleveland Browns. When he was 9 he got an alto saxophone as a present. When he was 16, he heard King Curtis of The Coasters play baritone sax on Yakety Yak. When he was 29, he walked through the busted door in a bar in Asbury Park and he saw Bruce Springsteen, and in his own words: “We fell in love.”

They were right for each other and wrong for each other, and maybe that’s where the magic came from. Rock and roll bands weren’t black and white in those days — or even too much these days, to be blunt about it. Hard-charging guitarists didn’t have soulful saxophone players driving their songs. Clemons was already 29 years old when he and Springsteen joined together, and he already had lived a lot of life, had already faced triumph and disappointment and tested the edge. Springsteen was 21 and not entirely sure what he wanted except that he wanted it to be great.

Rosalita, the song, comes from that time. They first performed it in 1973. Rosalita keeps no secrets. Rosalita hides no feelings. Everything in the song is on the surface, above the surface, the longing — for fame, for love, for heat, for something to do. It is a young man trying desperately, so desperately, to reach beyond himself and write the most joyous song ever written. Windows are for cheaters. Chimneys for the poor. Oh, closets are for hangers. Winners use the door. For years, Springsteen and the band would close out every one of their concerts with Rosalita. Bruce would cry out. Clarence would blow. They would chase each other around the stage. The band crashed sounds together. It was everything that they were about. Springsteen would shout that it was the greatest love song he ever wrote.

Then, one day, they stopped playing it. This was in the mid-’80s. They said the song had grown tepid after so many plays. That’s probably true. But I think the song was no longer what they were about. By then, Bad Scooter was in his mid-30s, the Big Man was in his 40s, and Rosalita was too young for either of them. No matter how they howled, she was not coming out.

In the late 1980s, the band broke up. Springsteen tried to find his groove again and it wasn’t easy; he seemed out of ideas. He recorded a song about how on his television there were 57 channels and nothing on. Clemons went down to Florida, bounced around, backed up a few bands, did a few solo things, played in some movies. There were no hard feelings, or anyway, no hard feelings that diminished the love. The band did a few things together. And then, they got back together, recorded some more music, some of it inspired, and more than anything they hit the road.

I saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band call out Rosalita on Aug. 24, 2008 — the date stands out because it was the Sunday of the Beijing Olympics. I had flown home that day from China. I felt that deep exhaustion that comes from flying halfway around the world, but I went to the show anyway, and it’s a lucky thing because it was the best Springsteen show I ever saw. It was the last night of the tour, and Bruce was hyped, and the band was into it, and everything felt charged.

And before the night ended, they played Rosalita. Throughout the song, I watched Clarence Clemons. He was, by then, 66 years old, and he was an old 66. The Big Man lived uphill. He partied hard. He married five times. He hopelessly chased his own youth. He pushed against the wind. They had put a chair for him on stage, and he needed it most of the night. He could barely stand. He could hardly move.

In any case, they played Rosalita and I watched the Big Man, and I would love to tell you that he grew young before my eyes. I would love to tell you that because it would make for a wonderful tribute. But it isn’t so. The music was young. Even the music he played was young. The man behind the saxophone was old. He tried to dance, and in some vague way he did. When he finished, he was breathing heavy. Here’s the thing: It wasn’t sad. Well, maybe it was a little sad, because the years go by too fast. But seeing him step out of his chair, walk slowly toward Bruce, play the familiar riffs for Rosalita, seeing him and the band sing that line, “Your papa says he knows that I don’t (have any money),” it was beautiful. Because he loved it. He still loved it. He couldn’t be young again. But he could remember being young. And that was the something beyond.

My favorite Bruce Springsteen tale is one he used to tell before singing Growing Up. It was about going to see God. His father had told him to become a lawyer. His mother had told him to write books. And they had both told him to get rid of that “god-damned guitar” — that, of course, was what they always called his guitar — not Fender or Gibson. Bruce went to see the priest. He asked what he should do. The priest said the question was too big. He needed to go ask God.

And this is my favorite part of the story: Bruce went to Clarence Clemons. Why? Because Clarence knew everybody. Clarence would know where to find God. Bruce showed up, and Clarence asked him if he really intended to go see God in a Nash Rambler — God, after all, had people coming to him in Cadillacs. Bruce said that the Nash was all he had. Clemons shrugged and took Bruce along a dark road, through the woods, to a little house to see God.

The story ends with God telling Springsteen that there was an 11th Commandment left off: “Let it rock.” But I don’t care much for the ending. I care only for the drive. Clarence Clemons died on Saturday. He was 69 years old. And I think of Rosalita and being young. More, though, I think of Bruce and Clarence, Bad Scooter and the Big Man, in that Nash Rambler driving through the dark to find God.

Link to this post | Leave a comment

He was a Big Man. It is a Big Loss. He left a Big Gap

What can be said about the Big Man that hasn’t already been said, almost one week after he died and two days after he was laid to rest by his extended family and friends?

He was a Big Man. It is a Big Loss. He left a Big Gap, a river of teardrops on the city, many, many fond memories and even more music.

Like so many fans, I was lucky enough to have met him once while he and the band were on the road. Bruce and band were leaving the Amstel Hotel in Amsterdam after their Dutch show on the 2002 The Rising tour. There were about eight or ten fans waiting outside and while Bruce and the rest of the gang waved and then got into their cars, Clarence made his way over to us. To me personally it was a moment I’ll never forget, but to you good people in E Street Nation it’s not a compelling story that adds anything to what we already know and love about Clarence. He smiled. He joked to a guy that offered his solo album “A Night with Mr C.” for him to sign “Oh wow. So you’re the one who bought that record!”  He shook hands, signed some autographs, let fans take photos. And all the while he smiled. The small group of fans didn’t ‘go crazy’, everybody was calm and relaxed and enjoying themselves and it wasn’t until after he left that the realization that ‘something’ had happened here, just now, began to sink in.

Sure, the man’s sheer size would have left an impression even if he hadn’t been the heart and soul of the greatest rock ‘n roll band of all time. And given the fact that he was the heart and soul of the greatest rock ‘n roll band of all time, yes, I will admit that I was a little star struck, despite being a quite down-to-earth kinda person. But there was something else. “He spread so much warmth wherever he went” is a phrase I often read the last few days. He did. But the thing is, he didn’t take it with him when he left. He actually left some of the warmth behind, he installed it, by lack of a better word, in whomever he met instead of just radiating it.

Even after such a brief and, to him, insignificant encounter that he probably forgot about the minute his SUV door slammed shut, he managed to do just that.

Forgive me for sounding so ridiculously religious about the mere mortal that was Clarence Clemons, I mean, he was a damn fine musician and all but please… I know. It sounds silly. But I’m pretty sure that those who met him, even as briefly as I did, will know what I mean by that. He generously left those pieces of his warmth not with, but in the many people he encountered, big ol’ chunks for some, precious little pieces for others, until he had no more left to give.

So, my small contribution to the huge wave of sadness, love, memories and celebration that now engulfs E Street may not be a fantastic story. It’s no heroic tale from the road, it offers no new insights on the man or the phenomenon that was Clarence Clemons. And very probably, everything has indeed been said by now anyway. But that’s okay because you know what? Now it’s time for us to be generous. The Big Man is no longer here to install pieces of his warmth in people, so all of us that feel like they got some of it while he was still around now have the opportunity to share it. Sharing seems an appropriate way to honor so generous a man and, hopefully, to support those who are saddened by his passing.

Annabel Nanninga

The Netherlands

Link to this post | Leave a comment

Clarence Clemons’ Greatest Moments

Richard E. Aaron

Link to this post | Leave a comment