I can’t get used to the idea of the “late” Clarence Clemons. It just doesn’t scan. For anyone who has ever been to a Bruce Springsteen and the E. Street Band show (and I have been to a lot of them for more years that I like to count!), Clarence was always a presence on the stage. First, of course, he towered over everyone, and especially Bruce. He was built like the footballer he was in college, headed for the NFL’s Cleveland Browns until an accident clobbered his knee and ended his football career. He was the flashiest dresser (and what style!). He would be the first to tell you he was the prettiest and the sexiest, too. And he was — there was just something about him that exuded sensuality. Maybe the sax helped.
Bruce wrote the songs; Clarence added the soul (and not just in the obvious way). Bruce admits it. Jon Parales, in his analysis in The New York Times, noted that Clarence provided the vital link to all the R&B that informed and infused rock and roll. Thanks in part to his presence, the E. Street band could lay claim to honoring, not plundering, the cultural heritage. Any number of rock bands include horns (Bruce included, now as in the early days), but few feature a saxaphone so prominently in the music. And Clarence’s style was all his own. You hear him on a record (Bruce, Aretha, Lady Gaga) and you know immediately that it’s him.
You can see everything there is to know about the relationship between Clarence and Bruce on the Born To Run album cover (when you fold it out — hard to do in this era of digital downloads where album art is rapidly becoming a lost art). Bruce writes about it in his introduction to Clarence’s Book, Big Man: Real Life and Tall Tales. But back to the show. Anyone who’s been knows that Clarence was a fan favorite. When he would step forward for one of those sax solos, or when Bruce would introduce him, or those times when Bruce would slide across the stage, landing on his knees at the Big Man’s feet, the audience would go wild. Whoops and Cheer and shouts and waves of applause. Other frontmen might feel a tad insecure. But if you could take your eyes off Clarence and look at Bruce, you would see the biggest grin in the world on the Boss’ face.
In earlier days, when both Bruce and Clarence were younger (and Bruce was lighter), Bruce used to do these runs across stage and leap into Clarence’s arms. No one ever doubted that the Big Man would make the catch. And that pretty much says it all. Clarence was the kind of friend we all wanted. One who was always there; who could always be counted on to catch us and keep us from falling. Someone to laugh with at the jokes; to cry with when in pain. Someone who would be a friend in the truest senses of the word, forever and always and without a doubt.
I finally figured it out this weekend, as the shock of Clarence’s passing monopolized the time. Bruce just loved knowing that all of us in the audience, all 50- or 90-thousand, loved Clarence as much as he did. He couldn’t be happier, and if Clarence was more popular, so much the better.
The E. Street Band has always had an nearly-unique ability to functon as a unit; to read each others minds; to charge off after The Boss, no matter what musical avenues he tears off down. They are all immensely talented musicians in their own right, but together they really do make magic. It’s hard to imagine how — or if — they will go on without Clarence. Others may be able to fill the saxaphone parts in songs, but no one will ever be able to fill that Big hole in the stage, nor the big hold in our hearts.