So we closed our eyes and said goodbye

Posted by · 9:19 am · June 19th, 2011

I remember the first time I saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band vividly. I was late to the party. Springsteen’s music — still one of my earliest childhood memories — had been thrilling fans for decades before I finally saddled up to what is probably the greatest live show in the business (for my money — money I’ve spent six times since, once in London). But I actually took something pretty specific away from that night.

The lights dimmed and then it hit: a long, slow, nuanced saxophone build-up to “The River.” It was beautiful. It was haunting. It was emotional, tender and, above all, spiritual. The very same show solidified for me what is still my favorite Springsteen track — “Spirit in the Night,” from his debut album, “Greetings from Asbury Park” — and that can be attributed in a big way to to the frolicking saxophone that dances through the story of that song. And now, the voice, the breath, the man behind that instrument has been taken from us.

I saw the breaking news report on Clarence Clemons’s death on TV at an Anaheim sports bar while some friends and I were pre-gaming last night’s U2 show. Even though he had been in bad health the last few years and even though last week’s stroke indicated his days were likely numbered, the news was just gutting.

Whatever your thoughts on Springsteen’s music, you can’t deny the presence and personality Clemons brought to the table. The music carried his identifiable signature more than Stevie Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren’s guitars, more than Max Weinberg’s drums, more than Gary Tallent’s bass, more than Roy Bittan and Danny Federici’s keys, more than Patti Scialfa’s guitar and vocals and, indeed, sometimes more than The Boss himself. The sax was the pulse of whatever soul the E Street Band has conjured these last 40 years, ever since “a change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band.” And there will be a huge hole, literally and figuratively, left in the wake of his passing.

Clemons’s addition was a freight train. It drove the narrative of Springsteen’s work. It gave an accent the was at once lifting and immersive. When I think of Springsteen, I think of Clemons’s solo on “Jungleland.” I think of his rowdy addition to “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” I think of what he gave to “Badlands,” “I’m Goin’ Down” and, most certainly, “Thunder Road.” When I think of Bruce Springsteen, I think of Clarence Clemons.

Until U2’s finale last night, there had been no mention of Clemons’s death. I felt a bit miffed, but then I figured the news was so fresh, maybe the band didn’t know. Then, as the lights dimmed and the arrangement on “Moment of Surrender” came to life on stage, Bono said to the audience, “I want you to think about a beautiful, symphonic sound that came out of one man’s saxophone. Think about Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Think of Clarence Clemons. This man just carried music, and music carried him…until this day.” The boys bid farewell to the Big Man with their last song of the evening, and then, as the final notes rang out, in a profoundly touching display, Bono recited a lyric from “Jungleland” like it was poetry. It was the perfect close.

Springsteen had this to say on Clemons’s passing:

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.

And indeed, Clemons is a man immortalized. His story is there in the lyrics to “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” He’s there staring back at us on the cover of “Born to Run.” He, like the music, will live forever.

My thoughts go out to Clemons’s family, both on stage and off. It’s a crushing loss, but one that reminds us why we love a life of work as much as we do.

Good luck. Goodbye.

[Photo: Billboard]

→ 9 Comments Tags: , , , | Filed in: Et Cetera

9 responses so far

  • 1 6-19-2011 at 10:02 am

    Drew said...

    I had a friend of mine who worked on balm in gilead (a Lanford Wilson play) back in the eighties and he told me that the live band on stage use to play Jungleland at the very end of every show. I always wished I’d been alive at the time just to see that version lol.

    Been listening to that song on and off today. While I’m not a part of the generation theat grew up off of Springsteen, that is one of the most epic songs I think I’ve ever heard. RIP Clarence Clemons.

  • 2 6-19-2011 at 10:30 am

    DylanS said...

    Even as a Jerseyan myself, I must admit that I’m not the worlds biggest Bruce fan. I typically like his acoustic solo stuff more than the E Street Band stuff. But his E Street bandmates, (Nils Lofgren and Clemons especially) are all such individual telents. Clemons certainly added something unique to the sound, and I’ve been impressed by his ability to incorperate his sax into Bruce’s otherwise standard rock and make it sound so natural, which isn’t easy by any measure. His solo in “Born to Run” really livens up that song and comes in at just the perfect time. R.I.P. Clarence, you will be missed.

  • 3 6-19-2011 at 12:22 pm

    Edward L. said...

    Yes, this is very sad news.

    I’ve seen Bruce and the E Street Band several times over the past 18 years and Clarence was an essential part of the sound and the line-up. He always inspired enormous affection in the crowd, just by being there, even before he broke into those wonderful saxophonic flights of fancy. I’ll miss him – as, I’m sure, will countless numbers of fans.

  • 4 6-19-2011 at 1:51 pm

    Andrej said...

    I’m not the biggest Bruce Springsteen fan out there, since I only own the ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ album, but knowing that the saxman at ‘Dancing in the Dark’ passed away obviously makes me sad. The man surely had more involving solos in other songs, but his bit in this song’s end is a terrific way to close a very energetic and lively performance from the Boss, as if he were regaining his breath through his friend’s saxophone after all that singing and dancing while the melody fades away. Needless to say, it’s my favorite song of the album.

    It’s nice to see U2 giving their proper dues in such a moving fashion ☺ When they were in Chile earlier this year, they dedicated ‘Moment of Surrender’ to the victims of Japan’s earthquake.

  • 5 6-19-2011 at 2:10 pm

    Goodvibe61 said...

    I hadn’t heard the news last night. The show was incredible, and then Bono talked about Bruce and Clarence, and I didn’t want to believe it. My wife and I looked at each other and it just shook us. Bonob’s reading of Moment of Surrender was so emotional. It was unforgettable.

    That U2 show last night was something else, it was on an extremely high level. To think of the dozens of times I’ve watched Bruce pull this kind of emotional heart wringing in concert, and to think that E Street won’t ever be the same again, it’s all too much to bear today.

  • 6 6-20-2011 at 1:26 am

    VAL said...

    will truly me your true taltent ,my sprit will suppergreatly as will my soul.

  • 7 6-20-2011 at 1:55 pm

    the other mike said...

    beautiful write up Kris.

  • 8 6-21-2011 at 8:33 am

    John H. Foote said...

    I love Springsteen and the E Street Band — truly all I listen too — the band without the big man seems…empty and I cannot imagine their grief — Springsteen is a rock and roll God, no question, but his angels were his band and without them…well, enough said that seeing Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band was always better than seeing Bruce weithout them. RIP Clarence, and blow that sax wherever you are man…we will miss that sound.

  • 9 6-29-2011 at 11:38 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    FYI, Springsteen has written up his send-off for Clemons, and naturally, it’s beautiful. Here it is in full:


    I’ve been sitting here listening to everyone talk about Clarence and staring at that photo of the two of us right there. It’s a picture of Scooter and The Big Man, people who we were sometimes. As you can see in this particular photo, Clarence is admiring his muscles and I’m pretending to be nonchalant while leaning upon him. I leaned on Clarence a lot; I made a career out of it in some ways.

    Those of us who shared Clarence’s life, shared with him his love and his confusion. Though “C” mellowed with age, he was always a wild and unpredictable ride. Today I see his sons Nicky, Chuck, Christopher and Jarod sitting here and I see in them the reflection of a lot of C’s qualities. I see his light, his darkness, his sweetness, his roughness, his gentleness, his anger, his brilliance, his handsomeness, and his goodness. But, as you boys know your pop was a not a day at the beach. “C” lived a life where he did what he wanted to do and he let the chips, human and otherwise, fall where they may. Like a lot of us your pop was capable of great magic and also of making quite an amazing mess. This was just the nature of your daddy and my beautiful friend. Clarence’s unconditional love, which was very real, came with a lot of conditions. Your pop was a major project and always a work in progress. “C” never approached anything linearly, life never proceeded in a straight line. He never went A… B…. C…. D. It was always A… J…. C…. Z… Q… I….! That was the way Clarence lived and made his way through the world. I know that can lead to a lot of confusion and hurt, but your father also carried a lot of love with him, and I know he loved each of you very very dearly.

    It took a village to take care of Clarence Clemons. Tina, I’m so glad you’re here. Thank you for taking care of my friend, for loving him. Victoria, you’ve been a loving, kind and caring wife to Clarence and you made a huge difference in his life at a time when the going was not always easy. To all of “C’s” vast support network, names too numerous to mention, you know who you are and we thank you. Your rewards await you at the pearly gates. My pal was a tough act but he brought things into your life that were unique and when he turned on that love light, it illuminated your world. I was lucky enough to stand in that light for almost 40 years, near Clarence’s heart, in the Temple of Soul.

    So a little bit of history: from the early days when Clarence and I traveled together, we’d pull up to the evening’s lodgings and within minutes “C” would transform his room into a world of his own. Out came the colored scarves to be draped over the lamps, the scented candles, the incense, the patchouli oil, the herbs, the music, the day would be banished, entertainment would come and go, and Clarence the Shaman would reign and work his magic, night after night. Clarence’s ability to enjoy Clarence was incredible. By 69, he’d had a good run, because he’d already lived about 10 lives, 690 years in the life of an average man. Every night, in every place, the magic came flying out of C’s suitcase. As soon as success allowed, his dressing room would take on the same trappings as his hotel room until a visit there was like a trip to a sovereign nation that had just struck huge oil reserves. “C” always knew how to live. Long before Prince was out of his diapers, an air of raunchy mysticism ruled in the Big Man’s world. I’d wander in from my dressing room, which contained several fine couches and some athletic lockers, and wonder what I was doing wrong! Somewhere along the way all of this was christened the Temple of Soul; and “C” presided smilingly over its secrets, and its pleasures. Being allowed admittance to the Temple’s wonders was a lovely thing.

    As a young child my son Sam became enchanted with the Big Man… no surprise. To a child Clarence was a towering fairy tale figure, out of some very exotic storybook. He was a dreadlocked giant, with great hands and a deep mellifluous voice sugared with kindness and regard. And… to Sammy, who was just a little white boy, he was deeply and mysteriously black. In Sammy’s eyes, “C” must have appeared as all of the African continent, shot through with American cool, rolled into one welcoming and loving figure. So… Sammy decided to pass on my work shirts and became fascinated by Clarence’s suits and his royal robes. He declined a seat in dad’s van and opted for “C’s” stretch limousine, sitting by his side on the slow cruise to the show. He decided dinner in front of the hometown locker just wouldn’t do, and he’d saunter up the hall and disappear into the Temple of Soul.

    Of course, also enchanted was Sam’s dad, from the first time I saw my pal striding out of the shadows of a half empty bar in Asbury Park, a path opening up before him; here comes my brother, here comes my sax man, my inspiration, my partner, my lifelong friend. Standing next to Clarence was like standing next to the baddest ass on the planet. You were proud, you were strong, you were excited and laughing with what might happen, with what together, you might be able to do. You felt like no matter what the day or the night brought, nothing was going to touch you. Clarence could be fragile but he also emanated power and safety, and in some funny way we became each other’s protectors; I think perhaps I protected “C” from a world where it still wasn’t so easy to be big and black. Racism was ever present and over the years together, we saw it. Clarence’s celebrity and size did not make him immune. I think perhaps “C” protected me from a world where it wasn’t always so easy to be an insecure, weird and skinny white boy either. But, standing together we were badass, on any given night, on our turf, some of the baddest asses on the planet. We were united, we were strong, we were righteous, we were unmovable, we were funny, we were corny as hell and as serious as death itself. And we were coming to your town to shake you and to wake you up. Together, we told an older, richer story about the possibilities of friendship that transcended those I’d written in my songs and in my music. Clarence carried it in his heart. It was a story where the Scooter and the Big Man not only busted the city in half, but we kicked ass and remade the city, shaping it into the kind of place where our friendship would not be such an anomaly. And that… that’s what I’m gonna miss. The chance to renew that vow and double down on that story on a nightly basis, because that is something, that is the thing that we did together… the two of us. Clarence was big, and he made me feel, and think, and love, and dream big. How big was the Big Man? Too fucking big to die. And that’s just the facts. You can put it on his grave stone, you can tattoo it over your heart. Accept it… it’s the New World.

    Clarence doesn’t leave the E Street Band when he dies. He leaves when we die.

    So, I’ll miss my friend, his sax, the force of nature his sound was, his glory, his foolishness, his accomplishments, his face, his hands, his humor, his skin, his noise, his confusion, his power, his peace. But his love and his story, the story that he gave me, that he whispered in my ear, that he allowed me to tell… and that he gave to you… is gonna carry on. I’m no mystic, but the undertow, the mystery and power of Clarence and my friendship leads me to believe we must have stood together in other, older times, along other rivers, in other cities, in other fields, doing our modest version of god’s work… work that’s still unfinished. So I won’t say goodbye to my brother, I’ll simply say, see you in the next life, further on up the road, where we will once again pick up that work, and get it done.

    Big Man, thank you for your kindness, your strength, your dedication, your work, your story. Thanks for the miracle… and for letting a little white boy slip through the side door of the Temple of Soul.


    I’m gonna leave you today with a quote from the Big Man himself, which he shared on the plane ride home from Buffalo, the last show of the last tour. As we celebrated in the front cabin congratulating one another and telling tales of the many epic shows, rocking nights and good times we’d shared, “C” sat quietly, taking it all in, then he raised his glass, smiled and said to all gathered, “This could be the start of something big.”

    Love you, “C”.