There was a moment that came every night during a Bruce Springsteen concert that was sure to get an ecstatic roar from the crowd. Following sometimes short, sometimes long, but always amusing introductions of the rest of the members of the E Street Band, Springsteen would pause and take a breath. Everyone knew what was coming next and the cheering would begin before a word was spoken.
All manner of superlatives would flow as The Boss described saxophonist/band mascot Clarence Clemons, but it often ended this way: “You wanna be like him, but you can’t.”
The thought that Springsteen will never say those words again feels, as I write this the morning after Clemons’ death, incomprehensibly sad. Six days after suffering a stroke, Clemons, 69, died on Saturday, June 18.
I’ve seen Springsteen around 35 times over the last three decades, and aside from the odd Bruce solo show here and there, Clemons was always by his side... his right side, to be exact. There are plenty of other folks who are very capably writing about what Clemons brought to the band musically —which was, of course, extraordinary; in many ways he, more than any other member, framed the band’s sound— but he provided so much more.
He was the Big Man and the room, whether it was a club, an arena or a stadium, felt better for his being in it. The party really didn’t begin until Clemons blew the first note. Springsteen knew it too and reveled in it. Bruce was a wise enough bandleader to know that he brought the music, the vision, the soul, the passion, and the intensity, but Clarence brought the joy.
Over the years, it was clear that Clemons’ health was deteriorating. What I couldn’t have known as I saw the band at the start of the “Magic” tour in October 2007 with my pal Geoff (his first Springsteen show) at Los Angeles’ Sports Arena was that our lives were about to go on a parallel journey.
A week after my first show of that tour, my mother fell and broke her hip. Seven weeks later, on Christmas Eve, 2007, she died. Like many people, I’d often wondered how I would deal with a parent’s death. Would I go off the deep end in some way? Would I want to pull the covers over my head and stay in bed? Would I drink a little too much tequila a lot too often?
Yes to all of the above, but something else happened: A few months after my mother’s death, Bruce came back to Southern California. This time to Anaheim’s Honda Center. Instead of getting seats from his record label or publicist, like I had so many times in the past, my friend Chris and I bought general admission tickets from Craig’s List for the April 7 show. We drove down early and got wrist bands for the drawing to be in the pit—the first section on the floor. In the random lottery drawing, we ended up being the 15th and 16th numbers called, which meant we had the ultimate Bruce experience--- for the entire 3-hour show, we had our elbows on the stage. We stood right in front of Clarence and guitarist Nils Lofgren. At one point, Bruce crouched between my arms playing as drops of sweat fell from his head.
Even though I’d already seen the E Street Band more than 20 times before, that night altered my DNA. There was an energy exchange that happened. Everything the band was pouring out over me— wave after wave — I was giving right back. I felt fully and totally alive, with every sense working overtime. It was an extraordinarily intense, spiritual, trusting communion that excluded any room for non-believers or cynics. Watching Bruce interact with the band that close up was like watching a benevolent general lead his troops. He’d look over at Clarence and give him a huge, warm grin and nod that it was time for The Big Man to go to work, whether it was during “She’s the One‘“ or “Last To Die” or, of course, “Born To Run.” That night, Clarence wore gold nail polish to match his saxophone.
That very night, I began healing from my mom’s passing and I knew that was how I would get through it. I decided I would go to every Springsteen show that I could on the tour. I tried to apply a little reason—for example, I was flying back from Tenerife the summer of 2009 and at the Madrid airport, I almost caught a flight to Bilbao because I knew the E Street Band was playing there the next night—I stopped myself from doing that, but other trips got routed to fit in with the band’s schedule. I saw them 10 times over the next 18 months in five cities. I know those shows saved my soul. They were my salvation. Nothing could hurt me when 15,000 of my friends and I were inside the Bruce bubble with The Big Man towering over us, protecting us.
A few days after the April 7 “elbows on” experience (as E Street fanatics call it), something else horrible happened. On April 17, 2008, E Street keyboardist Danny Federici died. We all knew it was coming– Charlie Giordano had taken over for him a few months earlier on tour other than for a brief shining moment when Danny rallied to play with the band one last time on March 20 in Indianapolis– but that didn't make it any less painful.
He was the first member of the band to die. Federici’s death manifested a truth that every fan knew, but was loathe to acknowledge----that the music may be immortal but the musicians themselves were not. Their grief when they took the stage for the first time after Danny’s funeral was palpable and I felt our sorrow —mine for my mother, theirs for their bandmate and friend of 40 years—was co-mingled and what was saving us both, pulling us all out of the darkness and into the light— was the music and the performance.
Clarence’s health continued to decline as the “Magic” tour ended and the “Working on a Dream” tour began. In a way that no other musician in the world could have pulled off, when Clemons’ arthritis was so bad that walking was painful, he sat during the shows on a throne, rising only occasionally to still give resonant, poignant, spirited solos. Bruce had an elevator built up to the stage, so Clarence didn’t have to navigate steps at all, but even walking was too tough. In the break between the main show and the encore, Clarence would stay on stage, seated tall and proud like royalty, waiting for the band to return back to him. Bruce was The Boss, but Clarence was The King.
Flash forward to November 2009. Though I’d been in the pit for a few more shows since the April 2008 one, I’d lingered in the back. This time, on Nov. 2, 2009, at the Washington, D.C.’s Verizon Center, my friend and fellow Springsteen obsessive Cathy and I decided to submerge into the pack. Leaving her husband in the back of the pit, we snaked our way up until we were six or seven people from the front of the stage. The E Street band performed “Born To Run” from start to finish and we danced, sang, shouted, clapped, sweated, held on to each other and immersed ourselves in every moment of the show, completely unselfconsciously surrendering to the experience. Total abandon. There was nothing but music and love and friendship. It was one of the happiest evenings of my life and always will be. A night of pure, unalloyed jubilation. Witnessing Clemons power through his masterpiece—the solo in “Jungleland” —up close was breathtaking.
Three weeks later, I went to my last concert in Nashville on Nov. 18, 2009. This time, my friend Phyllis and I were in seats instead of the pit. As the tour wound down, on BTX, the E Street message boards, there was a general feeling of sadness that this could be the end. We all felt it. Danny was gone, Clarence was in bad health, Nils Lofgren was scheduled to have hip replacement surgery at tour’s end. We didn’t even know yet about drummer Max Weinberg’s heart issues. Of course, no one could have predicted what was going to occur June 18, but there was a palpable feeling that this was the end of something incredible that we had all shared.
During that concert something happened for only the second time in my 10-show run. The band played “Trapped,” its well-known cover of the Jimmy Cliff song and my all-time favorite remake. The only other time I’d heard it on this tour was on April 7, 2008, when I had my elbows on the stage. As Clarence began to play the saxophone solo in the middle, I started to shake and then to cry. To keep from embarrassing myself, I bit my lip and dug my nails into my hands to stop from full-out sobbing because it felt like the band’s own personal benediction to me.
In some ways, the show signaled the close of my official grieving period for my mom, but it also marked the end of a safe place I knew I could go to find solace from her death. I’ve been a writer almost all my life and I have yet to be able to put into words what those 10 shows (plus snippets of all the other ones I caught on youtube that I couldn’t attend and following the set lists on BTX in real time) meant to me in terms of the music pouring in through the broken places in my spirit and helping make it whole again. It was sacred and profound and I don't know if I'll ever find anything else that delivers that kind of sanctuary.
To know I’ll never get to experience the band in the same way again feels a little too overwhelming to comprehend at this point. It feels like my mom is dying all over again.
Four days later, at the last show of the tour in Buffalo, Nov. 23, 2009, a fan held up a sign that Springsteen brought up on stage. A photo of Bruce holding it made the rounds on BTX and it sums up everything Clarence meant to so many of us. It’s a sentiment that Clarence himself couldn’t have said better:
“It’s rock and roll, but it feels like love.”
I should have gone to Bilbao.