I just read the news that Clarence Clemons, 69, died yesterday as a result of complications from the stroke that he suffered last week. For those of you who don’t know, Clemons was The Big Man, the epic (at 6’5″, in the truest sense of the word) saxophone player in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band.
You might wonder why I would choose to write a post about this, but if you really knew me, you wouldn’t wonder at all.
Bruce Springsteen came into my life my senior year of high school. His song “Born to Run” spoke to us, the ones who were the outsiders, the ones who were not exactly in, the rebels—the tramps like us. I know that I played that tape at least a hundred times, probably two, in my orange VW bug, as Sarah and I rolled down the road, going wherever, on the way to school, on the way to football games, anywhere and everywhere. I beat out rhythms on my steering wheel and shouted out the 1-2-3-4 before the refrain. The album Born to Run was the backdrop to those heady days so full of drama and angst, love and loathing.
Springsteen, with his raspy voice and his motley crew of musicians, appealed to us exactly because they were scruffy, because they were tramps, because they sang and played with all of their heart. But most of all, they appealed to us because the lyrics to their songs were raw and hard and full of pent-up emotion. Even the seeming ballads, like “Jungleland,” had an edge to them—Rat and the unnamed girl:
And the poets down here
Don’t write nothing at all
They just stand back and let it all be
And in the quick of the night
They reach for their moment
And try to make an honest stand
But they wind up wounded
Not even dead
Tonight in Jungleland
I know that I’m not alone in my love for this band, for these musicians, for this music. I know that Springsteen’s songs would not have had the impact they had if not for the sax solos of the Norfolk native. Clemons added the heart and soul, and he took each song to a deeper place. I also know that The Big Man’s solo in “Jungleland” touches a chord in the hungry and the hunted, the visionaries, the lonely-hearted lovers, and the kids like shadows. I know that it still gets to me—every. single. time.
I saw Bruce and the Band twice in concert: Springsteen’s tight blue jeans and his torn off shirt sleeves and leather jacket, Clemons with his hat and his sax, Nils Lofgren and Steven Van Zandt and their head covers and electric guitars. It was perfect, and it went straight to my heart.
Even when Springsteen tried to go solo, he kept using his musicians when he cut albums, and eventually, thankfully, they all got back together to make the songs, to make sweet, sweet music. Springsteen may be The Boss, but he was always better with the boys, especially Clemons.
So when Clemons died yesterday, a piece of my past died with him. The E Street Band simply does not exist for me without The Big Man.
It’s hard when we lose family, and it’s hard when we lose friends. But like it or not, it’s also hard when we lose pieces of our past because they can never be regained. No matter how old Bruce and the boys got, they were still young to me. Unlike The Rolling Stones, or The Who, rockers who I have watched age gracelessly, lines drawn from too much booze and too many drugs, I have never seen Springsteen and the E Street Band as aging or aged. Sure the voice has gotten raspier, but the magic is still there.
Or at least it was, until yesterday.
Clarence lived a wonderful life. He carried within him a love of people that made them love him. He created a wondrous and extended family. He loved the saxophone, loved our fans and gave everything he had every night he stepped on stage. His loss is immeasurable and we are honored and thankful to have known him and had the opportunity to stand beside him for nearly forty years. He was my great friend, my partner and with Clarence at my side, my band and I were able to tell a story far deeper than those simply contained in our music. His life, his memory, and his love will live on in that story and in our band.
~ Bruce Springsteen
Rest in Peace Big Man.
And now, the best sax solo in history: “Jungleland” filmed at Hard Rock Calling, Hyde Park, London 2009
For a wonderful tribute to the iconic legend, read “The Big Man’s Impact,” by Jere Hester.
Born to Run
In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream
At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines
Sprung from cages out on highway 9,
Chrome wheeled, fuel injected
and steppin’ out over the line
Baby this town rips the bones from your back
It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap
We gotta get out while we’re young
‘Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run
Wendy let me in I wanna be your friend
I want to guard your dreams and visions
Just wrap your legs ’round these velvet rims
and strap your hands across my engines
Together we could break this trap
We’ll run till we drop, baby we’ll never go back
Will you walk with me out on the wire
‘Cause baby I’m just a scared and lonely rider
But I gotta find out how it feels
I want to know if love is wild
girl I want to know if love is real
Beyond the Palace hemi-powered drones scream down the boulevard
The girls comb their hair in rearview mirrors
And the boys try to look so hard
The amusement park rises bold and stark
Kids are huddled on the beach in a mist
I wanna die with you Wendy on the streets tonight
In an everlasting kiss
The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive
Everybody’s out on the run tonight
but there’s no place left to hide
Together Wendy we’ll live with the sadness
I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul
Someday girl I don’t know when
we’re gonna get to that place
Where we really want to go
and we’ll walk in the sun
But till then tramps like us
baby we were born to run