Bruce Springsteen always introduced Clarence Clemons last.
Who in Springsteen’s incomparable E Street Band wanted to follow that?
Everyone knew the Big Man was No. 1.
With a sweaty, out-of-breath, revival-meeting buildup, Springsteen would conjure fantastical, mythological, fire-and-brimstone tales to embellish on their original (some say alleged) 1971 connection, which was only slightly more mundane.
Asbury Park, N.J. Violent thunderstorm. Bar door gets ripped off and flies away. Big dude enters and eagerly improvises on his saxophone with a stranger’s band. “Spirit in the Night.” Seriously.
Springsteen’s Elmer Gantry soliloquies weren’t mere showmanship – though they definitely qualified as that back in the day when the band played four-hour-plus marathons. They were an ongoing homage. A living testament to the unmatched power and passion provided by a saxophone player in a big rock ‘n’ roll band.
Clemons, Springsteen’s blood brother, on-stage wingman and rock ‘n’ roll soulmate for 40 years, passed away Saturday in Palm Beach, Fla., after suffering a stroke on June 12. He was 69. Springsteen eulogized him during a funeral service Tuesday in Palm Beach.
He’d struggled mightily in recent years: three hip replacements, two knee replacements and accompanying depression, following an earlier retinal detachment and persistent back pain.
No matter. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound Clemons – with his equally huge smile, warm persona, giant spirit and enormous appetite for joy – represented eternal youth to Springsteen’s career-long followers.
“The biggest man you ever seen,” Springsteen would growl and shout like a carnival barker.
Rarely in modern musical history has a band member been so inextricably entwined with the image and art of the main man: Johnnie Johnson (Chuck Berry), Maceo Parker (James Brown), James Burton (Elvis Presley), Mickey Raphael (Willie Nelson) among them.
None were – almost literally – larger than life, though.
Before any E Street Band show, fans would hope for a major ration of dynamic Big Man interludes: alternately soulful, soaring, staccato tenor sax epiphanies that lifted everything.
Even the proverbial roof.
Even when there was no roof.
Everyone knew the run-up and the cues. Clemons, never a showboater or scene-stealer, would stand and deliver. People would go nuts.
His onstage relationship with Springsteen was a reassuring and familial blend of affection, mutual respect and boys-will-be-boys playfulness.
Like the professional defensive lineman he might have become – an auto crash ended his football aspirations in 1968 – Clemons didn’t have to sack the figurative quarterback on every play. He contentedly provided percussion (tambourine, maracas) and some backing vocals until his number was called. Then he was gone.
Every E Street Band recording was quickly assessed for its Clemons Quotient. During the years when Springsteen wandered down different musical paths – no matter how brilliant or rewarding – something was missing.
Clemons recorded solo albums, acted and collaborated with other musicians during the gaps. His presence acted as a kind of regal reassurance.
After Clemons’ loss – following organ player Dan Federici’s death at 58 from melanoma in 2008 – the E Street Band’s road now leads in an uncertain direction. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame would be nice.
Clemons, a native of Norfolk County (now Chesapeake), Va., who was seven years older than Springsteen, isn’t merely the random repository of fuddy-duddy nostalgia or sentimentality.
His last gig was with Lady Gaga.
New Jersey-born Jon Stewart closed “The Daily Show” with a gentle video elegy for Clemons on Monday. The most popular Springsteen selections on Rhapsody this week? All Clemons-powered setpieces: “Jungleland,” “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and “Thunder Road” (1975) and “Dancing in the Dark” (1984).
The first three are from “Born to Run,” Springsteen’s breakthrough masterpiece. The 1975 album is known almost as widely for its iconic black-and-white cover photo of a grinning Springsteen leaning on Clemons’ symbolically supportive shoulder.
The implication was very clear and happily hopeful in the post-Nixon era.
It might seem quaint – actually totally bizarre – now. In the early ’70s, though, mixed-race bands (playing original material, too) had hard times getting booked in New Jersey.
As Clemons – calling himself “C” – wrote in his 2009 memoir (“Big Man, Real Life & Tall Tales,” with Don Reo) that was a consideration (quickly dismissed) when he joined Springsteen’s band (lovingly and soulfully chronicled in “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”).
In the charming, slightly mystifying, book’s preface, Springsteen wrote that the photo lets the album begin “to work its magic. Who are these guys? Where did they come from? What is the joke they are sharing? A friendship and a narrative steeped in the complicated history of America begins to form and there is music already in the air.
“Forty years later, I read this book with the same questions still running through my mind.”
Just like all those precious memories.
On May 3, 1988, Springsteen and the E Street Band were preparing to play their second sold-out show at Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View.
Early arrivals mistakenly were allowed in before the sound check had ended. Springsteen – grubby shirt-tail dangling, big grin in place, strumming an acoustic guitar – was singing Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Then Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” Totally crazy.
To his right stood Clemons, holding his 3-year-old son up to the microphone. Springsteen, who had become a father himself by then, was guiding the Little Man as he sang along with Bruce and dad during “Crying.”
There have been a lot of tears shed since June 12.
It remains – always will – a timeless father-son tableau. A 10-year-old never has forgotten. Nor has a teenager-at-heart.