When I learned on Saturday of the passing of Clarence “Big Man” Clemons, the great saxophonist with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, I was filled with deep sadness.
You can’t grow up in New Jersey, like I did, when I did, and not have a strong connection to Bruce Springsteen. Oh, you might not be the biggest fan, you might even hate the guy and his music, but he’s a New Jersey icon, the airwaves were saturated with him, and in the summer before I entered high school, Carol Miller, a DJ at WPLJ in New York City, waged a campaign to make Springsteen’s Born To Run the official state song of New Jersey.
Born To Run was one of the very first albums I ever owned, and I can, without doubt or second guessing, credit that record for having inspired in me a visceral passion for music, to the point where music became as important to me as food, water, even air. Springsteen’s songs were my window on the real world outside my fake suburban wasteland of a hometown; a world full of terrible and beautiful things, scary things, adventurous things, romantic things, tragic things.
And Clarence, well, his tenor sax was like the icing on the cake of one of the greatest bands in Rock & Roll history. Guitar-centric groups were a dime a dozen, but the E Street Band had its own direct connection to John Coltrane and Dexter Gordon and Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins; Clarence evoked the deep New York City Jazz and Rhythm & Blues traditions.
And you know, the warmth of the friendship between Bruce and The Big Man — a friendship made mythic by the wonderfully embellished stories of their meeting, stories that Bruce would tell with drama and humor during concerts — modeled for me interracial harmony without ever framing it as such, as it should be, as if it is the most natural thing in the world for a white man and a black man to be close.
When another longtime E Street Band member, keyboardist Danny Federici, died three years ago, it was sad, and it took a while to accept that Springsteen had to replace him and carry on.
And yet it is nearly impossible to imagine an E Street Band without Clarence.
Whether Bruce will keep the band together, reinvent it, or form an all-new band remains to be seen. In the meantime, it feels like the only fitting way to end this post is with Springsteen’s touching public statement on the loss of his friend, and a video of a song that contains Clarence’s most notable solo, a nearly 3-minute, achingly beautiful melody in the operatic closer to Born To Run: Jungleland.
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.