It took me all night last night and all of this morning to even begin to come to terms with last nights news. I considered changing the title to this post because this is, in many ways, a departure from the fun, warm, stories of growing up I have been sharing. But it occurred to me that in the most profound way of all...yesterday punctuated what it means to be a part of the Last Innocent Age in a way that crystallizes the aspect of innocence lost and innocence never again to return.
Last night, at 7PM, The "King of the Universe" the Great Clarence Clemons died. Clarence was the sax player for Bruce Springsteen's beloved E-Street band since it's inception. The temptation here is to write about the musician and the music. But others are already doing that and doing it remarkably well. My thoughts went in another direction this morning after digesting this news all night. Clarence's passing is, for me, another marker on the highway of life that means time is passing and another age has ended.
The first time I ever heard Clarence's incredible sax was walking to school in 1975 with my friend Tommy Riccio, listening to his transistor radio. "Born to Run" came on and from the opening drum roll, I was captivated. There are about a thousand brilliant moments within "The Greatest Rock and Roll Song Ever" (IMO) and many of them came from that incredible sound that Clarence forced from his sax like a hurricane.
By the time that song reached it's amazing crescendo, I was hooked. I was a Bruce fan and I was never going back.
The music speaks for itself. It's the moments I want to talk about. The magical, wonderful, incredible, indelible moments that this amazing music was providing the soundtrack for. I've been asked by my friends, "If you ever met Bruce, what would you tell him?". I joke about saying; "Please stop the stupid politics and write like you used to..." But I know that I would look him in the eye, and blink back tears as I said, simply..."Thank you for all the times you said the things I was holding in my soul, but could not find the words to say." Beyond that, I think I would thank him for all the friends I have made because of the music and all the wonderful memories that I associate with every album he has made.
Clarence was the one integral part of all of that. The lone irreplaceable piece. My pastor used to say "If you think you can't be replaced, go down to the river and put your hand in the water. Pull it back out. If you leave a hole...you can't be replaced."
Clarence Clemons leaves a hole.
He leaves an obvious hole on stage because of his size, his charm, his immense talent and self awareness. Clarence always knew exactly how to play to the crowd and to Bruce. He was larger than life and he could render his voice so amazingly soft that you wondered at how it came from such a giant.
Clarence was part of the greatest moments I have ever had involving music. Moments that go beyond the notes on the sheet and the sound coming from the speakers. Moments that link friends and time and space and eternity.
I was a freshman at Liberty University in 1982, in the days when possessing a rock record at LU was grounds for weekend detentions. I was one of four people jammed into in a dorm room built for two people. We each shared a closet and a desk with another person and we each brought a footlocker with us for extra storage. You kept your valuables in this and for some of us...your contraband. One of my room mates that year was Jim Freeman. Jim is a couple of years older than me and I came to see him as a big brother and one of the best friends I have ever had. Our friendship began with an interesting exchange that still makes me smile.
I was having a discussion about the "evils" of rock and roll with another of our roomies and I happened to quote from Dave Marsh's brilliant book "Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story" Jim was laying in his bunk, studying, but apparently he was at least listening casually to his two freshman room mates debate. Upon hearing my quotation of Marsh's book, Jim sat up, looked at me analytically, and in his inimitable, deep, thoughtful tone said "You're a Springsteen fan?" I perked right up...Jim was imposing to me and I was hoping for that whole first week of school that we would become friends. He was quiet and thoughtful and trying to get to know him can be a bit daunting. When he spoke those words to me...the "S" word...I was elated. Jim got up from his bunk...locked our door...pulled out his key...unlocked his footlocker and produced a copy of the book I had been quoting to our room mate. Then we began what became at least a three hour discussion about Bruce, music in general, life, great rock and roll, God, love, parents, churches, politics and about a thousand other vital matters.
Jim and I would go on to become dear friends as we are to this day. And I was with him when he saw Bruce for the first time. We caravaned to Greensboro to see Bruce at the Coliseum. We missed Bruce walking unnoticed through the crowd in the lobby during soundcheck and we stayed up to the wee hours after the show talking about what we had just witnessed.
Just a few weeks ago the thought occurred to me that they won't be touring forever, and I had been thinking how Jim and I really need to see them together one more time. My daughter just turned 13 and has become a huge fan of the band as well and I wanted her to come with us and experience the greatest show on earth for herself. She is an aspiring musician with a truly remarkable voice and I want her to feel the inspiration and spirit of a Springsteen show. I wanted her to feel the bond that built a friendship like I share with Jim.
Back in the day...Jim and I were sure to be on the phone as soon as we heard even a scant rumor of a new album. In the days before the Internet took off, real Bruce fanatics stayed in touch with each other and shared bits and pieces from mags like "Backstreets" and traded bootleg records. This band...this family of great music makers...was everything to us.
Now there is a palpable hole where the magic used to be. Clarence is gone. Maybe too, the magic is gone as well. Bruce's sound has changed over the years and to be really honest I haven't loved it. His new albums don't inspire me like everything up to and including Tunnel of Love did. But the live shows are still the best concerts you will ever see, Bruce knew instinctively what his fans came to hear and more importantly...what they came hoping to feel. In 2000, Jim and I saw Bruce together twice in a 6 week period. Once in Nashville and once, through a connection I had at Sony, stage right, about four rows back, in Atlanta. I was one year removed from a heartbreaking divorce. I was hurting. I was living in a town where I knew precious few people and I was trying to succeed at a whole new career I had never planned on. I was in many ways, a lost man and yet for four hours on both of those nights, I was sitting with the closest thing I will ever have to a big brother, watching the greatest Rock performer who ever lived, singing songs that each had special, vital, life changing meaning to us both. I needed them then and I think I never stopped needing them.
I can be in the midst of turmoil or heartache and when I hear the opening lines to "Thunder Road" I am instantly thrust back to 1981, cruising Newark DE in my '69 Chevelle with that wonderful record blasting from the tape deck. The same holds true for Born to Run, or Backstreets, or Hungry Hearts, or Jungleland, or Rosalita etc.
The E street band held me captive. I miss the way that feels. I miss going to a record store and buying Bruce's new record, or Southside Johnny's, or that amazing first Little Steven record...on real vinyl. I really, really wish my daughter could have seen this band together, whole, intact and as magical and powerful as I have over the years.
That can never be now, because Clarence is gone. The Big Man has fallen silent and the echo of his soulful sax is still reverberating in my heart. I never met him but he was my friend. He elicits such powerful memories. He is the "Ho Ho Ho" at the start of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" that officially starts the Christmas season for me. He is the beautiful flowing solo that begins "Spare Parts" when played live. His ripping sound on BTR means only one thing...the crescendo is coming. His cry on Jungleland can reduce a man to tears at it's beauty. He is Bruce's foil, his friend, and his anchor.
Now he is gone.
The E Street band gave me the chance...whenever I saw them...to return to that blessed Last Innocent Age, if only for a few hours every few years. But the return was wonderful, complete, and restorative. I miss The Big man already. My soul misses him.
If there was ever a group of people I need to live forever it would be this band of brothers who make the greatest music in the world. That cannot be, and this morning...day one of a world without Clarence Clemons dawned to find millions of broken hearts, all along the path that runs from today, back to the Last Innocent Age.
R.I.P. Clarence Clemons 1942-2011