Reprint Special – Reflecting on (five) years without the Big Man

I wrote this four years ago today, which feels like a lifetime ago. Today marks five years since the death of Clarence Clemons, one of the most iconic pieces of Bruce Springsteen’s 1970s and 80s output, the cornerstone of the E Street Band. Raise a glass and give Jungleland a spin before it hits midnight.

So, as of today, June 18, 2011, the E Street Band has been without Clarence Clemons for one entire year.

Now, I’ve only been a serious fan of Bruce for about a year and a half now.  But the one thing I learned upon immersing myself in his music and everything that surrounds it was that there are only two people that are immortal in the eyes of the E Street Nation: Clarence, and Bruce himself.  Sure, Steve’s probably hovering right below there, and the rest of the core band a bit below him, but when it comes right down to it, Bruce and Clarence are the only two who are untouchable.

And when someone who’s supposedly untouchable ends up dying, it has an enormous effect across the entire spectrum of music.  When the news that Clarence was gone hit the community, several huge musical figures made tributes in any way they could; Bono read several lines from Jungleland during the closing song of U2’s two concerts the day of and the day after Clarence’s death in tribute, while Eddie Vedder dedicated a performance of Better Man to Clarence (initially dedicating to his health, only to be told by a tech who came on stage that Clarence had passed).  The subsequent days were a whirlwind of news and tributes from fans of Springsteen, prominent Jersey Shore musicians that had worked with either Bruce or Clarence in the early days, and artists that had worked with Clarence in the most recent years leading up to his death.

But there was just one person that most of us were waiting for to comment on Clarence’s death; Bruce himself.  Bruce had stayed fairly quiet, beyond a single statement released by his camp the day of Clarence’s death.  And Bruce delivered; delivered a beautiful eulogy at Clarence’s private funeral that went over every aspect of their friendship, every aspect of Clarence’s life in itself.  I don’t believe that the full eulogy was released, if my memory serves me right; however, the arts that we did get were heartfelt, powerful, and beautiful, fitting for a man as transcendent and influential as Clarence.

I remember how I felt that day when I found out.  I’d only been a fan, a serious fan, for maybe four or five months by that point, but I’d already decided that Clarence was the best and my favorite member of the E Street Band.  I remember doing some early morning reading about The Edge of Glory, the last song that Clarence performed on that was released prior to his death, and the Wikipedia article mentioned “the late Clarence Clemons” and I completely freaked out.  “THE LATE CLARENCE CLEMONS?  WHAT?”  I googled his name real quick, and, sure enough, there were two or three news stories about it.  And damn, did that ruin my day.  I might’ve cried a bit, I don’t know.  What I do know is that I was a zombie the entire day, running entirely on Bruce-fueled autopilot.  That night I listened to as much Bruce as I could squeeze in before bed, as well as the two Gaga tracks Clarence had played on, and finished it all out with Thunder Road.

Thunder Road.  The opening track (and, at one point, the closing track) of Born to Run, Bruce’s breakthrough album.  That album is definitely the album with the highest concentration of saxophone out of Bruce’s entire catalogue, with the possible exception of The River (I’m still not sure how many songs have sax on that album, I haven’t counted).  Clarence’s saxophone was a sound that distinguished Bruce from the rest of the 70s musicians that were thrown into the poisonous “New Dylan” category.  The saxophone, along with a piano and organ, was what made Bruce’s music a different kind of rock, one infused with several other genres to create something unique, something great.  Bruce himself stated during the Wrecking Ball press conference that he wrote (in the 70s and early 80s, at least) around that saxophone sound, around the one man that helped give Bruce his big break.

Because, honestly, could you imagine 70s Scooter without the Big Man by his side?  Because I sure as hell couldn’t.

Even though Clarence’s role in Bruce’s studio work was highly diminished in the 2000s (particularly on Magic and Working on a Dream, perhaps due to Clarence’s failing health in his later years), his stage presence was still larger than life, as he pounded out the legendary solos that helped make Bruce’s career, and the newer songs where Clarence’s saxophone still had a prominent place.  He played those songs like it was still 1975, like Bruce was still 26 and he was still 34.  Even when he couldn’t play a run of notes in one breath, even when he missed notes with a higher frequency than usual, Clarence stood tall and played every single show like it was his last, right up through the intimate 2010 Carousel performance in Asbury Park, his last with the E Street Band.

And, of course, we cannot forget his involvement with Lady Gaga, the pop superstar of the late 2000s who’s still selling out shows across the world in minutes.  Clarence was, perhaps, an odd choice for an artist like Gaga, whose music is usually synthesized, but gaga cited Bruce Springsteen himself as an influence for her second album, and who better to help articulate that influence than the Big Man who stood tall next to Bruce for nearly 40 years?  Clarence himself had professed a great admiration for Gaga prior to his recording with her, and mentioned that when he got the call, he flew out that same day.  These recordings ended up being his last, with the subsequent music video and live performance of The Edge of Glory being his last in both respects as well.  Clarence’s involvement with Gaga helped to build further interest in Bruce’s music with a younger generation, as thousands of Gaga faithful no doubt said “Who’s that guy playing sax?  Where can I find more of that?” or something similar.  Gaga’s love of Clarence was perhaps most obvious the days after his (eventually) fatal stroke, where she called for her fans to send in get-well videos for Clarence, compiling them all into one long video for him.

All in all, today is a rough day for the E Street Nation, for the Ministry of Rock n Roll, marking one full year without the Big Man, the Minister of Soul, Secretary of the Brotherhood, the biggest man you ever seen, do I have to type his name?  But we all just have to remember Bruce’s own words, his mantra for the Wrecking Ball Tour:

“If you’re here, and we’re here, then they’re here.”

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