On June 18, the world lost an incredible leader and icon - a truly awesome dude. Clarence Clemons, saxophonist for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, died of complications from a stroke at the age of 69.
As a kid growing up in Philadelphia (I know, it's not Jersey!), I was fortunate enough to see Bruce and his band many times. In fact, my first concert was on The River tour in 1980 when I was in 7th grade, with a couple of buddies who had their own band. As an adult, with more resources, I was able to see Bruce whenever he was around and on his last tour, got to see him 5 or 6 times.
Clarence was Bruce's bandmate and friend for over 40 years and a fan favorite. Whenever he launched into one of his trademark solos (think Jungleland), the crowd went wild. It is indescribable and quite an experience to be in an audience going absolutely crazy with admiration for a performer. This is the effect Clarence had on people. His stage presence and connection to the audience were awesome! He was larger than life - literally and figuratively.
Throughout his career, he crossed many boundaries. In addition to playing with the E Street Band, he had a successful solo career, playing with such bands as the Grateful Dead and Wings, and with performers such as Jackson Browne and very recently, Lady Gaga. Now, that's diversity! His skill on the saxophone was universally lauded, and as news of his death circulated, bands, large and small, paid tribute to him. This week alone, U-2, Bon Jovi, Phish and Eddie Vedder all took time out of live performances to recognize Clemons and perform one of his songs.
When I learned of his death, I was saddened, because I know, in my heart, that the chances of Bruce touring again are slim. Clarence was that important to Bruce and the band. He was like the glue that held the band together. In concerts, when Bruce introduced the band, he always saved Clarence for last, and you could tell, from the way he talked about Clarence, that he was more than a bandmate - he was a true friend. Bruce's words - "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 passion and commitment to his music were admirable. In the last few years, Clarence suffered a few major medical setbacks. He had spinal surgery and both knees replaced. These physical limitations slowed him down, but didn't stop him. He kept on playing the music that brought joy to so many people. Sometimes he even had to have deep tissue massages before concerts just to be able to get on stage - and when he was on stage, in between playing, he rested on a thronelike chair. We all knew that his time performing was limited, but we were so thankful for every performance he blessed us with. And I know I admired his resolve, appreciating what it took for him to perform night after night, at the age of 69, when he had to be in pain. Bringing joy to people through his music and being there for Bruce and the band were that important to him.
As a Bruce fan, you get to know others in your world who suffer the same affliction! But I was shocked this week to see all of the Clarence fans come out of the woodwork - people from all walks of life, people I never would have suspected - secret fans. That would make Clarence really happy - to see how many boundaries he and his music crossed - how many peoples' lives he touched.
Bruce's music has always been very focused on social issues. It was no secret that he was opposed to the war in Iraq and has always been a voice for the blue collar worker. For a band to be united in their cause for over 40 years, and still stand by what they believe, have a passion for their craft, and a commitment to social justice is pretty impressive, isn't it?
I will miss Clarence, but every time I hear the immortalized words "when the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band, from the coastline to the city all the little pretties raise their hands", I will smile and remember all of the great times we had together - how we grew up together, and how I introduced my kids to Clarence at their first Bruce concert. Thanks, Big Man. Rest in peace.