June 21, 2011

Rest in peace, Clarence Clemons.

My mother once danced with Bruce Springsteen.

The location? A fraternity at Lafayette College. My mom was a student, and the E Street Band had just finished up a show when the brothers invited them back to the house to drink and carouse. Being as they weren't yet revered millionaire musicians, just a young bar band from New Jersey, they were happy to accept.

To the best of her recollection, it was after The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. She insists that Steven van Zandt was in attendance, but he didn't join officially until Born to Run and I'm not sure that Bruce was still playing colleges in 1975.

Either way, the story goes that Bruce, possibly altered by one substance or another, came over to chat with her. He asked her to dance, and they grooved to some 70s tune. Afterwards, instead of going on to father me (like he should have), he walked away, never to be heard from again.

Cool story, right? "Bruce fan's mother dances with The Boss." But probably not enough for a full blog post.

The reason I'm writing about it is because I found out last night that Clarence Clemons was also there that night. While my mom and Bruce danced, Clarence stood next to them, definitely stoned out of his mind, playing air saxophone along with the music. She says it was a ballad, not exactly something that you can air sax to, but Clarence didn't seem to mind. Everyone apparently loved him; as anyone that has read Big Man can attest to, it sounds like Clarence Clemons was always the life of the party.

And now he's gone. I was in shock after hearing the news late Saturday night on Twitter; I knew Clarence was struggling post-stroke, but I didn't expect him to be gone so soon. I instantly fired off texts to my Bruce-loving friends, all of whom presumably felt their hearts immediately shatter.

One of them fell asleep with "Jungleland" on repeat; the other one cried while listening to "Backstreets" in the car with a female Bruce fiend. And myself? I was enjoying a beach weekend with some college chums; they put on "Thunder Road" and demanded that I sing along. I might have the worst voice in the world, but I belted out that song like my life depended on it. I had to express myself somehow; a celebrity death hasn't affected me this much since Phil Hartman died in 1998.

Every Bruce fan felt a connection to Clarence Clemons. If you saw him on the street, he'd probably be just another giant black dude that you'd never dream of messing with. But up on that stage with Bruce and the band, belting out his passionate solos, it was instantly clear that we were all in this together.

For whatever reason, Clarence Clemons wanted to play rock music. In a band full of white people. To an audience full of white people. For almost 40 years. And for that, he's a hero to countless Caucasians with beer bellies and bald heads. Thousands of guys and girls that never associate with black people probably wept like babies on Saturday night when they found out that maybe the most famous rock saxophonist of all time had passed away.

Clarence Clemons transcended race, blah blah, all that good stuff. But what he really did was make people happy. Sometimes Bruce's lyrics are meant to make you think; behind a catchy melody or chorus, there's a message that isn't always instantly apparent. But when the Big Man stepped up to the microphone, you knew what was coming. In the case of "Jungleland," it lifted you up. In "Badlands," it made you rock even harder. And in "Born to Run," it was a sign that the end was near, that you better get on your feet because the band was about to blow the roof off the joint.

It was never ambiguous what Clarence Clemons was about to do with that saxophone of his, and it was never a question as to how his fans would respond. Every time, we were in the palm of his hand; he knew it, and we knew it, and both sides ate it up. He was born to lead, and we were all born to follow.

In "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," the "story" of when Clarence Clemons joined the E Street Band, Bruce laments how alone he is, how he can't go on...until the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band. Maybe the most depressing thought is that Bruce will once again be alone, unspeakably alone, without the Big Man. We're all sad to have lost a musical and cultural legend that we loved to hear play; he's losing his best friend and his staunchest musical ally.

I think the E Street Band is all but kaput, and maybe it should be. I don't know if I'd accept anyone by Bruce Springsteen's side that wasn't Clarence Clemons. If I've seen the band for the last time, so be it. Their music, in countless forms, will last forever, and so will Clarence's influence on the world.

I imagine Clarence Clemons lived more in his 69 years than most people would do in a thousand. Although the amount he consumed in that time sounds nothing short of legendary, he seems like the rare individual who left behind a hell of a lot more than he took.

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