“All I know’s I woke up this morning
and something big was gone
Gone in to that dark ether
Where you’re still young n’ hard and cold
Just like when they built you brother
and broke the mold”
~ Bruce Springsteen, “Terry’s Song”
There is an emptiness I feel knowing that Clarence Clemons has passed away.
Somewhere, in my mind, I knew this was inevitable. But I was still shocked when I found out he died Saturday night from complications of a stroke he suffered a week ago.
Clarence Clemons, the legendary E Street Band saxophonist and Bruce Springsteen sidekick, was the epitome of cool.
I was a kid, 7 or 8 years old, when Born In the U.S.A propelled Springsteen and Co. into becoming a global phenomenon. My parents were divorced and when I visited my dad I got to watch cable TV. MTV was still new to me and of course I wasn’t allowed to watch “that rock ‘n’ roll music” if my grandparents, whom my dad lived with, were in the same room.
But sometimes I would sneak in some MTV and punch down the button on the clunky remote that had a wire connecting it to the TV. With that move music videos showed up on the screen. It was the “Rosalita” video where I first remember Clemons.
A young, skinny Bruce was giving a high-energy performance, dancing and bouncing around the stage with occasional interruptions from girls coming up with their open mouths clamoring for a kiss.
There was another striking figure on the stage. It was this mountain of soul dressed in a white shirt, white tie, white shoes and red three-piece suit. The towering black man had a neatly trimmed goatee on his face and a silver saxophone in his hands.
His cheeks puffed and the sax roared. With his hips swaying and his body occasionally spinning, he was clearly having fun. Bruce fed off him on stage. I was sold. This guy was cool.
In my junior year of high school we read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for Mr. Seymour’s English’s class.
Admittedly, I cruised through the Cliffs Notes version of Huck Finn. But when Mr. Seymour taught us – a class of all boys at a New Jersey Catholic high school – about archetypes and the relationship of Huck Finn and Sam, I shot my hand in the air with a contribution. Even though it was 1994 and the middle of a decade-long E Street Band hiatus, I offered up The Boss and The Big Man as an archetype relationship.
There was something ideal about it, something that showed how America could fulfill its potential; two different people with two different backgrounds offering two different talents and having a blast bringing it all together and finding success.
But maybe U2 frontman Bono said it better when he inducted Bruce into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “He is an Irish-Italian, with a Jewish-sounding name. What more do you want? Add one big African sax player, and no one in this room is gonna f#^* with you!”
During the last few tours by Springsteen and the E Street Band the conversation would always come up in the parking lots before shows and even on the telephone before logging on to Ticketmaster to buy seats.
“How much longer do you think Clarence can go?”
“I don’t know, did you see him in Hartford? I think he took one of those Jazzy Scooters to get on to the stage.”
“This might be the last time we see him in concert.”
Nobody in E Street Nation wanted to believe it, but it was in the back of our minds.
It doesn’t take much for me to plunk down more money than I should to see Springsteen in concert. But the idea of an E Street Band without The Big Man offered further motivation to attend full concert stands for the Magic Tour and the closing of Giants Stadium.
Two years ago, I even took my oldest son – who was 3 at the time – to one of the Giants Stadium shows. Springsteen played the entire Darkness on the Edge of Town album. My son made it through 21 songs before falling asleep. Through protective kid head phones he got to hear some of his favorites: “Badlands,” “Candy’s Room,” “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.”
This past week, before he went to sleep he did what a good little Catholic boy does, he prayed for Clarence to get better.
This morning I told him Clarence had gone to heaven. He stood there for a moment and then asked a question.
“Dad, how are they going to play ‘Born to Run’ without him?”
I know the music won’t stop and thankfully we’ll have E Street Radio and other tribute shows. I know I can always press play on the nearly 1,300 Springsteen songs I have amassed on my computer.
But right now, I have no answer for an E Street Band without Clarence Clemons.