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.

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