Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Yellow Umbrella: Losing my past in the endings of "How I Met Your Mother" and The Dangerous Summer

“In exactly forty-five days from now, you and I are gonna meet. And we're gonna fall in love. And we're gonna get married, and...we're gonna have two kids. And we're gonna love them and each other so much. All of that is forty-five days away. But I'm here now, I guess, because I want those extra forty-five days. With you, I want each one of them. And if I can't have them, I'll take the forty-five seconds it takes before your boyfriend shows up and punches me in my face. Because... I love you. I'm always gonna love you. Until the end of my days, and beyond.”

-Ted Mosby, How I Met Your Mother (from "The Time Travelers," Season 8, Episode 20)

This week hasn’t been an easy one for me from a pop cultural standpoint. In fact, it’s probably been the toughest one I’ve ever faced on that front, if only because the fates seemed to be conspiring against me with the singular goal of taking a hatchet to the memories that surrounded the last three months of my senior year of high school.

Five years ago this week, I started watching How I Met Your Mother. I wasn’t one of the people who loved and believed in the show from the get-go, partially because I just didn’t watch TV much when it started airing, and partially because I have this tendency to jump into sitcoms late anyway. But I had enjoyed the few episodes I’d seen leading up to late March 2009, and with my spring break coming around and nothing much to do to fill the time (I was never one of those people who jetted off to exotic locates), I downloaded the first season on a whim and began to watch.

I immediately fell in love with the show, attracted to the magnetic charms of the talented ensemble (which kept two of the funniest men in show business, Neil Patrick Harris and Jason Segel, steadily employed for nine years) and drawn to the unorthodox premise of the plot’s structure. Mostly though, I loved How I Met Your Mother because I saw myself in Ted Mosby. As the central protagonist of the tale, Ted seemed to go through one false start after another, missing romantic connections, sacrificing or compromising his own dreams for the happiness of others, and yearning for some shard of hope and happiness that always seemed to allude him at the last minute. There was something intensely relatable there, and there still is.

Where other people thought Ted was an uninteresting lead or a character that didn’t belong in a show with so many more colorful personalities, I saw Ted as the honest, lovable core of the show. In a group full of larger-than-life characters, Ted was real; Ted was vulnerable. Ted was funny when he needed to be, but his jokes never betrayed the deep romantic sadness that was always lurking just beneath the surface. Played by Josh Radnor in one of the most underrated television performances of the past decade, Ted became – for me at least – the reason to watch How I Met Your Mother. I enjoyed the gags of course: the slap bets and misadventures and the ridiculous womanizing tactics employed by Barney. But I, for one, never lost sight of Ted in the midst of all of that; I never stopped thinking that this story, this tale of Ted’s many failures and flaws, would ultimately be perfect because he would find the love of his life and get the happy ending he deserved.

All of this led me to watch the first three and a half seasons of How I Met Your Mother in the space of a week and a half. I started the show the Thursday before my spring break and I wrapped up the most recent episode the next week on Sunday, a day before it would be back on the air and I could start watching for real. It was and is the most insane bit of television binge watching I have ever participated in, and it got me more excited to follow this show through to its conclusion than I had probably ever been about any television event.

I watched How I Met Your Mother through each of my college years, even as I grew and changed and found the love of my life while Ted was still out there searching for the love of his. But despite the fact that How I Met Your Mother was a consistent part of my week for five years, when I hear the simple melody in the show’s introduction, it still takes me back to my senior year of high school. The same is true for The Dangerous Summer’s Reach for the Sun, an album that came into my life probably a month after How I Met Your Mother did, by a band who called it quits two days before How I Met Your Mother did. And that cruel but poetic bit of irony has been tough for me to take this week, to say the least.

Much like How I Met Your Mother, my love for The Dangerous Summer came on fast and strong. I downloaded the album after reading a rapturous review of it by Blake Solomon at Absolutepunk (who I now have the privilege of calling a colleague), and it hit me like a ton of bricks because it came along at the perfect time. To this day, Reach for the Sun is one of the most emotionally naked albums I have ever heard, an album so honest, cathartic, and unapologetically vulnerable that I probably would have fallen in love with it no matter when it first reached my ears. But the day I first heard that album just happened to be the day after my sister’s college graduation, and as a result, it sort of became my “end of youth” album.

Everything was changing at that time. My siblings were moving onto bigger and brighter things, and frankly, so was I. I had a month left in high school and I’d just gotten the college acceptance I had been waiting for all year. I was excited to see what the future would bring, but I was also scared: scared of leaving my friends and my home behind, scared of failing to achieve my dreams, wondering alway whether there was success and love and happiness waiting out there for me in the future. All of that was encompassed by Reach for the Sun, in AJ Perdomo’s caustically emotive vocals and the confessional words of his songs, but it was also staring back at me from weekly episodes of How I Met Your Mother and from Ted’s wearying journey to find his happily ever after. I guess it makes sense, then, that these two pieces of art, this album and this TV show, ended up sort of grounding me and inspiring me throughout those last few weeks of high school. There was sadness and fear in both, but there was also immense hope, and those messages gelled perfectly with what I was feeling at the time.

I suppose that’s why I stuck with How I Met Your Mother and The Dangerous Summer right until the end. Both projects followed a law of diminishing returns for most people. Each passing season of How I Met Your Mother caused many to throw up their hands, decry something about the show taking too long or losing its way, and give up. Similarly, each Dangerous Summer album had fewer fans than the one that had come before it, culminating in the largely lukewarm reception that greeted Golden Record, last summer. I held on though, because letting go or giving up felt like it would be a betrayal of what this show and this band had meant to me at a very key moment in my life. I couldn’t forsake Ted’s story because it felt tied to my own, and I couldn’t forsake The Dangerous Summer’s music because it had served as refuge for me in a tumultuous time.

And frankly, I still saw myself in these two disparate pieces of art. There was a time when I would have called the sixth season of How I Met Your Mother the best in the show’s history, largely because of how moved I was by the duel storylines featuring Marshall and Barney’s fathers. As someone who has never had much of a relationship with his real father, but who has truly found a paternal figure in his step dad, those plots struck an emotional chord with me, and I was proud of HIMYM for being willing to transcend its comedic roots and tackle such serious, poignant issues. As for The Dangerous Summer, I would have – until very recently – ranked 2011’s War Paint as their best. The album collided with me when I was at yet another crossroads in my life, and it became my soundtrack for another summer and another year. Lately, I’ve come back around to Reach For The Sun as the band’s definitive statement, whether because of nostalgia or simply due to a love for the album’s best songs, but War Paint held me together when I needed it to as well, and that’s something that you can’t buy or force because it just has to happen on its own.

Suffice to say that I have never been able to divorce my emotions or personal experiences from either How I Met Your Mother or the music of The Dangerous Summer, and that’s why I never lost faith (or perhaps couldn't lose faith) that both would find their way. I wasn’t the biggest fan of HIMYM’s seasons 7 and 8, but I firmly believed that the show’s creators would orchestrate a final season and a grand finale that would tie everything together and establish the show as one of the greats. And I also thought The Dangerous Summer would get past their endless band drama and line-up changes to create something transcendent again, even after Golden Record landed and was admittedly hit or miss.

I held onto my faith for so long, in fact, that it outlived the things in which I was supposed to be putting that faith in. Last Saturday, The Dangerous Summer broke up with little more than a letter to fans from frontman AJ Perdomo, the band ultimately torn apart by the very inner conflicts I had hoped they would move past. And How I Met Your Mother, this show I had been watching for five years all in the hopes of seeing Ted’s big, well-earned happy ending, betrayed me in its final episode by relegating the titular mother to supporting role status before killing her off and reversing years of character development for virtually every member of the cast. True to my investment in the show, I refused to believe that it was going in the direction it did until every shred of evidence was against me, until we learned beyond a shadow of a doubt that the mother wasn’t going to walk into the room and kiss Ted on the cheek as he finished his long and winding story. Then, I finally let the faith go and let the anger in instead.

Losing The Dangerous Summer wasn’t easy, but it was something I could deal with. Even if the band was breaking up, even if I wouldn’t have new albums from them in the future, I’d still have the memories I’d formed with Reach for the Sun and War Paint. Losing How I Met Your Mother was harder, not because the story was ending and I wouldn’t be spending Monday nights with these characters anymore (though I had a pang of sadness over that fact on the morning of the finale), but because the writers tore the rug out from under me with the ending in such a way that I’m not sure I will ever be able to look at the series in the same way again.

When I fell in love with this show, the connection came because I knew that Ted’s sadness had an end, that he was going to meet the perfect woman and she was going to take all of his failures and rejections and losses and make them okay, because they all led to her in the end. Thomas and Bays made good on one half of that promise, because they somehow managed to find the perfect person to play the girl of Ted’s dreams. Cristin Milioti, who came onboard with the show in the eighth season finale and appeared sporadically throughout this final season, never hit a false note in her performance. She was sweet, quirky, and thoughtful, but she also had the same deep sadness and sense of loss in her past that Ted did, and those qualities combined to make the two characters a perfect match. Unsurprisingly, fans fell in love with Milioti and the chemistry she had with every member of the cast (including, in their brief moments together, Radnor), and it seemed for a moment that Bays and Thomas had accomplished the most difficult challenge they had laid out for themselves in the premise of their show: writing a character and finding an actress who could bear the weight of all the stories and expectations the show had created over the years. The mother was, in a word, perfect, and with the right ending, that fact could have made up for every misstep this show ever made.

But then Bays and Thomas threw it all away. In one of the most shockingly inept moves in the history of television, the How I Met Your Mother finale somehow manages to ruin the episode, the season, and arguably the entire series in the space of five minutes. The fault is laid upon a scene that was filmed eight years ago: the scene where Ted’s kids finally get to react to the tale their father has spent so very long telling them (“I kept this story short and to the point!” Ted says once he’s finished, giving Radnor the chance to deliver one last goofily golden line). Rather than remark on the beautiful tale of their parents’ first encounter (a perfect scene, set on a rainy train platform and soundtracked by a downbeat cover of Tom Waits’ “Downtown Train”), Ted’s kids roll their eyes and say the story wasn’t about the mother at all, but about Robin. It’s bad enough that the show doesn’t even confirm the mother’s death until after these statements are made – she passed away six years previous, of some undisclosed illness – but the decision to send Ted back to Robin rather than giving him the ending he deserves with his perfect wife feels like a betrayal of his story and his character. It breaks his happy ending, it recolors the entire narrative of the show, and in connection, it pick ups the memories I had of watching this show and rooting for Ted and shuffles them around until they are unrecognizable. It may seem silly, but I legitimately feel like I’ve lost part of my past because of this ending.

And that may actually be silly. Because all of this is trivial and inconsequential, right? The ending of a sitcom, the break-up of an emo/pop-punk band, does any of it really matter in the grand scheme of things? Others will shrug their shoulders and say that was just a TV show, or that The Dangerous Summer was just a band, and for some people, that’s true. For some people, pop culture and entertainment and art is never more than a minor diversion to fill up space in life when nothing more interesting is happening. But those people just don’t get it. And I say that in a way that is completely not meant to be disrespectful or elitist or bitter, but rather, in a way that is meant as a simple statement of fact. Because sure, there will be other TV shows and other bands, but not this TV show or this band. These pieces of pop culture that I saw myself in, that I cataloged pieces of my life around, that played a huge role in helping me grow up and become the person I am today and realize what I want out of life, they aren’t so easily replaced. Some people never form that kind of connection with a TV show or a band or an album or a song, and that’s fine. For them, it really is just a show, just a band, just entertainment.

But that’s not what art is for people who really love it, for people who invest themselves in these things to the point of insanity or stupidity or both. For me, for us, music and film and TV and stories and art are as vital as oxygen. They are the devices that we use to make sense of our lives and the things that happen to us, reminders of the places we’ve been and the people we’ve met along the way, signals that we can use to explain or express things when we can’t find the words to do it ourselves. And that’s why losing How I Met Your Mother and The Dangerous Summer in the same week has blindsided me like a bus, because now these two mile markers from a very important time of my life are gone, and it’s left me feeling like a fucking computer program that can’t find its files.

In the case of The Dangerous Summer, things will be fine. I’ll always wonder if the band could have accomplished even greater things than they had already, but if the magic was fading away anyway, at least I get to hold onto the albums that were so important to me. Time will tell whether I can watch the earlier seasons of How I Met Your Mother again without seeing the whole thing as a long con. But suffice to say that when Ted lost his happy ending on Monday night, only to have it supplanted with one that was infinitely less happy and less fitting and less well-earned, I lost a part of myself. I lost the part I had invested in Ted Mosby’s ongoing struggle to find “the one” all the way back during spring break of 2009. And maybe that’s what I get for being the idiot who pours so much of himself into art and pop culture, for being someone batshit crazy enough to write 3,000 words chronicling all of this. Right now though, it feels like the ultimate betrayal. 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Gonna Walk Around and Drink Some More: The Legacy of The Hold Steady and the Stirring Rock and Roll Momentum of "Teeth Dreams"

“Before she figures out what’s wrong, they put another record on,” Craig Finn sings in “Spinners,” a poignant mid-tempo rocker from the latest Hold Steady LP, Teeth Dreams. It also more or less functions as a one-line approximation of exactly how Teeth Dreams is going to be perceived by the Hold Steady fanbase and by the critical music community as a whole, but in order to understand why that is, we have to venture back to 2010’s Heaven is Whenever, the most poorly received album in the band’s storied catalog, and the only one that most cred-obsessed hipsters wouldn’t want in their record collections. Prior to Heaven, this band was on the hottest of streaks. The middle two albums in the band’s initial four-disc run, 2005’s Separation Sunday and 2006’s Boys & Girls in America, arrived to rapturous reviews and Pitchfork “Best New Music” notices, their boozy swirls of anthemic E Street keys, blazing guitar riffs, and Finn’s barfly narratives simultaneously positing the Hold Steady as the drunkest and most literate rock band on the scene. Naturally, that fact made them a musical outfit rife for cult appreciation.

And cult appreciation is precisely what they’ve earned. I’ve never been to a Hold Steady show, but I can imagine the whole thing – from the sweaty hole-in-the-wall venues they play to the comfortable, intoxicated atmosphere of the enterprise – and it’s fucking majestic. These guys, the way they make music and the way they present it to their audience, it’s like they’re your brothers or the guys you went to college with. They make this loud, roof-raising rock ‘n’ roll, but when a show ends or an album stops spinning, you still feel like you could just sit down and have a beer with them (or better yet, help them pack up the gear and then head out to an all-night rager). And maybe that’s why the Hold Steady’s records have always appealed to me (though I was, admittedly, a little late to the party).

My first connection with this band came in late 2009, when I was a freshman in college and crashing my buddy’s radio show to raid the station’s extensive CD library. One of the spoils of that evening was Boys & Girls in America, partly because the colorful cover caught my eye and partly because another friend of mine had always recommended the Hold Steady based on my love for the Counting Crows. A cursory listen told me that the comparison to the Crows wasn’t on point enough to make me fall instantly in love, but not off-base enough to have me grimacing and shaking my head either. The same root elements were there: the Springsteenian songwriting styles, the classic rock arrangements, the emphasis on roaring guitar solos. But the moods were where things differed. Where August & Everything After – Counting Crows’ most seminal LP – opened in desolation on “Round Here,” Boys & Girls in America exploded out of the gate with “Stuck Between Stations,” this raucous, barnstorming rock song that was meant to be played in late-night bars. Yes, these two bands may have shared similar roots, but their ideologies could hardly have been more different. The Hold Steady wrote music for the party, while the Crows wrote music for the guy who didn’t get invited to the party. And as someone who has in turns been on both sides of that interchange, the dichotomy between those two ideas has never stopped fascinating me.

Of course, the Hold Steady had some catching up to do with the Crows if they were ever going to be one of my favorite bands. By the time I first pushed play on Boys & Girls in America, I’d been a fan of Counting Crows for as long as I could remember – so long, in fact, that “Mr. Jones” may be the first rock song I remember hearing. But as I went forward in college, I became more and more drawn to the music of Craig Finn and company. Though I discovered it in the fall, Boys & Girls didn’t get much play, predictably, until Michigan’s interminable winter broke. But man, do I remember when that happened, and I do I remember when the Hold Steady finally clicked. There’s something magical about spring on a college campus. Walking to class suddenly becomes a pleasure instead of a chore; students decide to let out all of the restlessness they’ve been building for months by staying out later, getting drunker, and making more noise and bad decisions than they have all year; and everyone throws their dorm/apartment/car windows open and blares the loudest music they can find to mark the occasion. For me, in my freshman year of college – and in every year after it – the loudest music I could find was always Boys & Girls in America.

That became the legacy of that record for me, and of the band as a whole. Even though the Hold Steady were never getting as much year-round play as a lot of my other favorite bands, when spring rolled around, there was nothing I wanted to hear more. The sound of this band became synonymous with the infectious feel of springtime on a college campus. Its absence was another negative factor surrounding my dreadful sophomore year, when it stayed snowy and fucking cold until the day I drove home at the end of April – obviously offering no space for a record like Boys & Girls to shine. It became the sound of my reward the next year, though, when temperatures soared into the 70s in March, convincing me to skip studying for a test one Thursday night to drink beer with my roommates on the porch. (Spoiler alert: this did not turn out well for me.) And the band also served as soundtrack for my surprisingly bittersweet senior year, when songs like “The Sweet Part of the City” and “Southtown Girls” rang through my car on warm, dusky drives home from campus during the last weeks of college, or when “Stuck Between Stations” became my “Let’s hit the Beer Exchange* and drink until 2 a.m.” anthem.

To put it simply, this band and their records – probably more than any other musical entity – encompassed the experience of my college years. That might explain why I have more attachment to Heaven is Whenever than just about anyone else, since that album pretty much became symbolic of the limitless possibilities I was feeling when I went home for the summer between my freshman and sophomore years. To me, that record and the way it shed the meticulous characterizations and lyrical depth of the Hold Steady’s earlier music, felt like the band’s take on Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. Musically, it was more streamlined and conventional than anything the band had ever written, a fact helped along by the way Finn spoke in briefer and more generalized statements. The band’s decision to move away from detail was meant to facilitate greater relatability and to focus more on melody, and on pile-driving rockers like “The Weekenders” and “Hurricane J,” they certainly succeeded. To this day, Heaven is probably my second or third favorite Hold Steady record.

By the time Heaven is Whenever was out, though, it seemed like people were ready to stop showering the Hold Steady in critical accolades. The band had had a run of four great albums that just about everyone appreciated, and now, with album number five, it was time to start ascribing them the “past their prime” narrative. They were getting older; they were becoming fathers; they were toning down the partying and writing songs in a more conventional manner. For many people, those things meant that the Hold Steady were also done making transcendent music, which frankly, wasn’t the case at all. But once critics have locked into a narrative, it’s incredibly difficult to shake them from it. With Heaven, many wrote this band off, whether because Craig was losing touch with characters like Holly and Charlemagne or because keyboardist Franz Nicolay, a key player for most of the band's career, had decided to depart. And four years later, those same people are still writing the Hold Steady off, even though Teeth Dreams is every bit the stellar record that these guys have built a career out of making.

Part of the problem, of course, is the time gap, which brings me (at last) back to the line I used to start this essay. “Before she figures out what’s wrong, they put another record on.” That line from “Spinners” could have been the band’s mantra if it had truly wanted to reverse the less-than-flattering critical narrative given to Heaven is Whenever. The band could have immediately piled back into the studio, hired a keyboardist to replace Franz (which frankly, they should do anyway, preferably with Rami Jaffee of Wallflowers fame), and banged out a quick, rough, raw, and spontaneous record to restore the faith that the critical community once had in them. Instead, the band broke for four years, sending different members off on solo project exports, and giving fans and critics plenty of time to pick apart everything they thought was wrong with Heaven is Whenever.

The release gap between Heaven and Teeth Dreams, which stretched from May 3, 2010 to March 25, 2014, was by far the longest wait between Hold Steady records, and for a band that had started its career with three consecutive shots in 2004, 2005, or 2006, the extended delay made all the difference. Suddenly, Teeth Dreams was expected not only to shoulder the burden of following up the band’s least beloved album, but it also had to bear the weight of four years of expectations and doubts. I myself wondered if the album could possibly be able to handle the near-mythical legacy the band’s music now has in my life. But then I pressed play on Teeth Dreams for the first time, and instead of shaking my head and writing missives about how things just ain't like they used to be, my biggest complaint was that this record didn't drop a year ago to soundtrack one last college campus springtime for me.

Indeed, Teeth Dreams fits squarely in the band’s wheelhouse, generating the same sundrenched feel as their past records while simultaneously cultivating a sound and direction that is new for the band. The first half of the record is positively bulletproof, raging from the echoing, effect-laden first single (“I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You”) to the cryptic teeth dream musings of album highlight “The Only Thing.” Finn’s lyrics, while they still haven’t returned to the specificity of the first four records, are as good as ever,  dreaming up philosophical poetry about “the American sadness” (the rousing “On with the Business”) or drawing up relatable characters whose stories are as worth hearing as ever (the divorcee in “Spinners,” who heads to the big city hoping to find a new life, the weatherworn road warriors of the dusky “Ambassador,” or the idiosyncratic love interest in “The Only Thing,” who lives in her storage space out by the airport and only talks about TV). Collectively, the first five tracks on Teeth Dreams might actually make up the strongest song-by-song run on any Hold Steady record, which is clearly no small feat.

The second half of the album isn’t nearly as strong. Of the three consecutive classic rock throwbacks that kick off side two (“Big Cig,” “Wait A While,” and “Runner’s High”), only the first makes something of its high-wattage Rolling Stones esque riffage. “Runner’s High” is innocuous, a decent enough album track that probably could have been a b-side, but works well enough here. “Wait A While,” on the other hand, is a jaunty but rather dull rocker that suffers from being a thematic retread of the far superior “You Can Make Him Like You” from Boys & Girls in America. Teeth Dreams still goes out on a high note, though, with the spooky acoustics of “Almost Everything” striking a different chord than the double-lead-guitar bombast of the rest of the record, and the canyon-sized “Oaks” stretching on for nine minutes of gorgeous, slow-burn majesty.

Is Teeth Dreams as good as Boys & Girls in America or Separation Sunday? No, not quite. The slick radio rock production (courtesy of Foo Fighters veteran Nick Raskulinecz) will turn a lot of people off, with ample vocal effects and excessive sonic compression that don’t do a lot to display the band’s live bar-band roots. The decision to add another lead guitarist will also earn mixed reception, not because Lucero veteran Steve Selvidge lacks chops (he's great), but because his presence turns Teeth Dreams into such a guitar rock record that it ends up being more repetitive than any of the Hold Steady’s previous work. It goes without saying at this point that Nicolay’s keyboard flourishes are missed. But the more adventurous elements the band explored on Heaven is Whenever to replace the keys, from the slide guitar of “The Sweet Part of the City” to the rollicking clarinet solo of “Barely Breathing,” are absent here as well, and as a result, Teeth Dreams feels considerably safer and more stagnant than its predecessor. The songs are still aces though, and with the weather finally heating up for the spring, I anticipate that this record will only continue to open up. After all, I haven’t even gotten to take it for a windows-down drive yet, and that's the essential rite of passage for any Hold Steady record.

*The Kalamazoo Beer Exchange is the best college bar in the country. 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Blood Brothers Against the Wind: A Tribute to Clarence Clemons

Yesterday, January 11, 2014, was Clarence Clemons' birthday. Were the legendary saxophone player still alive, he would have been 72 years old. Sadly though, Clemons passed away over two and a half years ago, leaving behind the band he had helped build - Bruce Springsteen's iconic E Street Band - in a loss that still feels as heartbreaking now as it did then. Appropriately, Bruce will release his 18th studio album, titled High Hopes, on Tuesday, a belated birthday gift for the gone-but-never-forgotten Big Man. 

I wrote the following piece during my last semester of college, in a class called "Writings in Creative Nonfiction." I had no idea what the hell creative nonfiction even was prior to that class, but I got an A and my professor - and my fellow students - were always complimentary of my work, so I'd say I did alright. The class gave me a chance to discuss things in writing in a way that I haven't really gotten a chance to do anywhere else, either in my other music criticism work or in my English classes. It was illuminating, one of my favorite classes I took in all of college, and the follow piece is something of which I am very proud. In honor of Clarence's 72nd birthday and of Bruce's latest album, I figured it was time to put it out there for the world to see. Thanks for reading.

Blood Brothers Against the Wind

When the sun rose over the teeming streets of New York City on June 19, 2011, there was no indication in the atmosphere that it was anything other than a mundane Sunday morning. Families poured into the streets, making their way to the churches and synagogues where they would share in their weekly worship. Cafes and restaurants filled with patrons, plates of cinnamon rolls, eggs, sausage, bacon, and other mouthwatering brunch foods flying off their menus like they never did on any other day of the week. Teenagers lay in their beds, many of them enjoying the final bastion of their weekends before they were forced back into the hollowed halls of NYC’s public schools for the week-and-a-half long slog that still separated them from their coveted summer vacations. For all intents and purposes, the scene in Manhattan that day was a normal one, a portrait of normal people going about their lives in completely normal fashion. There was no sign that, for many people across the country and around the world, the landscape of pop culture, of rock ‘n’ roll music history, had just been immeasurably changed.

Beneath the city, though, the darkness had a different tale to tell. Where Manhattan’s above-ground residents were busy making their way toward a series of spiritual cathedrals and bursts of communal song, the subway tunnels were already ringing with a different kind of religious experience. The sound was a soaring force of nature, a spider-web of brassy bombast; it was one swift, triumphant burst of musical nirvana after another, each ricocheting from wall to wall, echoing off the gilded caverns of concrete, tile, steel, stone, and historical ingenuity that collectively make up New York City’s connectivity; it was the sounds of Motown, Nashville, Liverpool, and both American coasts, all rolled up in one; it was operatic in scope, baroque in emotion, and dripping with every vestige of rock ‘n’ roll salvation that had converted so many skeptics into believers over the past five decades; it was the perfect collision of virtuosic skill and visceral emotion; and for the people bearing witness to its melodic splendor and musical invulnerability that morning, it was the sound of life, death, and everything in between.

The music belonged to “Jungleland,” a nine-and-a-half-minute behemoth of a song that, in 1975, had served as the grand finale for Bruce Springsteen’s magnum-opus, Born to Run. Just under four minutes into its runtime, following a scenic violin intro, a pair of poetic verses, a searing guitar solo, and a shimmering piano backdrop, the song bursts apart into an exhilarating, soul-raising saxophone solo, and it was precisely that solo that was making such a sonic scene throughout Manhattan’s subway system on that Sunday morning in mid-June. The real question, of course, was why?

Later, when the disciples of that tunnel-bound church service tried to explain what they had seen and heard, they found themselves hard pressed to relate the sheer emotion of the thing to anyone who hadn’t been there to experience it firsthand. After all, how could a single three-minute burst of music convey so much? How could something that was, essentially, a glorified saxophone interlude encompass nearly every corner and expanse of the human condition? For the witnesses, describing how it felt to hear those notes brought something akin to the speechless disbelief that accompanies a religious epiphany: it was, quite simply, as if a Godly presence had descended upon those dark and decrepit old halls and graced them with a glorious gift. But even if those who had heard the music, bouncing along the railway lines and colluding with the howl of the subway trains or the buzz of human interaction, couldn’t quite explain its power, the newspapers and web communities could at least offer the key.


They called him the “Big Man,” and for anyone who met him or saw him stalking the stages of the Jersey shore (or later, of nearly every major venue on the planet), it wasn’t hard to figure out why. He spent his life playing rock ‘n’ roll beside some of the biggest giants in pop music history, beside Bruce Springsteen and his legendary E Street Band, but if there was a legitimate “giant” anywhere in sight, it was him. Standing at six feet, five inches and built like a linebacker, it seemed like destiny that he would carry the moniker of “Big Man” throughout his entire adult life. If his parents had different plans when he was born—and it would appear they did, naming him Clarence Anicholas Clemons, Jr., a designation more grounded in regal eloquence and Southern Baptist gospel than on the football field—Clarence was having none of it. Showing athletic talent early on, the prodigious African American seemed poised for a life in the NFL, a career that would doubtlessly bring both the spoils of wealth and the plagues of endless injury. As fate would have it though, the injury came early, putting an end to his sports dreams within the blink of an eye. But that setback wasn’t the end of Clemons’ promise. Instead, it was a serendipitous miracle, an occurrence that would set Clarence upon a new path and turn him into an icon; a defeat that would, eventually, leave his spirit wandering the corridors of the Manhattan underground on that June morning in 2011.


Bruce Springsteen had told the tale hundreds, maybe thousands of times before. It was a story as old as his music, as old as his band, as old as all of the questions, themes, and ideals that had defined his rock ‘n’ roll persona ever since he made his first album back in 1973. In many ways, it was the story that held the key to everything, to all he had achieved and everything he had become over the course of his career. It was the stuff of legends, the narrative that had given so many of his songs their heartbeat, the piece of history that had carried him through innumerable tours and concert after concert—even as they stretched well into the night and well past the three-hour mark that generally signified the last encore exit for even the most dedicated music professionals. But Bruce was different: at 60 years old, he still had the vigor of a man half his age, a man as eager to give his fans their money’s worth as he had been in the early days. James Brown may have already earned the title of “the Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” but as Springsteen would jokingly quip later in his career, he was “the hardest working white man in show business.” And that statement, as much as it was meant to incite laughter and cheers from his fans at the start of a show, probably held an awful lot of truth.

Tonight’s concert was a special one, though. As Bruce gazed out from the stage, over the mass of expectant audience members gathered on the arena floor or rising in the bleachers around him, everything felt like it was coming full circle. The date was November 22, 2009; the venue, the HSBC Arena in Buffalo, NY. And the occasion was one of closure: the final stop on a marathon world tour that had stretched on, with few breaks, since the fall of 2007. Over the past couple of months, Bruce and his familial E Street Band had marked the dwindling string of concert dates as a celebration, playing their most beloved albums front-to-back for audiences in America’s biggest cities. Tonight, for the first and only time, they were going all the way back. Back to the beginning, to 1973 and Greetings From Asbury Park, the album that had kick-started Bruce’s career and brought the band’s inaugural members together for the first time. And for a night that was going to function, ultimately, as one big career retrospective, Bruce felt moved to tell his most legendary story at least one more time.

“There I was,” Bruce muttered into his microphone, the nostalgic piano riff of “Growin’ Up” shimmering beneath his rich and weather-beaten baritone. “It was a stormy, stormy night in Asbury Park, New Jersey...”

As the crowd exploded in euphoric cheers and long, drawn-out cries of “BROOOOOCE,” Bruce spun a tale rich in detail and mythic in proportion. He spoke of hurricane gales and buckets of rain, of rattling boardwalks along the Jersey shore and trees bending at the force of the tempest. He spoke of the small, dimly-lit club where he and a few of his band members were weathering the storm and making some noise in the name of rock ‘n’ roll. He spoke of the door that tore open, lifted off its hinges, and went barreling down the street. And he spoke of the massive silhouette now framed in that doorway instead, of a man who seemed to stroll out of his very dreams and into that noisy room, of the big, booming voice that cut through the din and changed his life forever.

“I wanna play witchoo,” it said.

That was all he needed to say. Everything else was conveyed the moment the man placed a tenor saxophone to his lips and began to play. In a romance, they call this kind of connection love at first sight; here, it was brotherhood at first note, an instantly unconditional bond that would carry both musicians—frontman and sideman—to the heights of rock music royalty. In the post-Beatles world of the 1970s, a world where Bob Dylan’s best days were behind him and where legends like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Elvis Presley had or would soon depart forever, listeners were searching for new rock ‘n’ roll heroes. And these two men, this street-rat Jersey poet and this towering sax man, were about to apply for the job and make music history in the process.

Back in Buffalo, back in 2009, where all of that history had already played out, where time had whipped through and taken too much, Clarence Clemons stepped up to the microphone to recreate that fateful stormy evening in Asbury Park. For a moment, it felt as if no time had passed at all. As the crowd watched these two men glance back at their legacy, their bond was as palpable as it had ever been. So much love, so much mutual respect, so much reverence for the power of rock ‘n’ roll and its ability to “save your soul,” it was all flashing across the stage that night. And not just between Clarence Clemons and Bruce Springsteen, but between every member of that fabled E Street Band. From the 40-year veterans to the more recent additions, from Bruce’s beloved wife all the way to the spirit of fallen brother Danny Federici, the organist who had given his life to the band until his life quit giving in 2007, the stage was like a reunion of heroes, all of them finally reaching their promised land.

As the band played on for nearly three-and-a-half hours, making their way through greatest hits, deep cuts, covers, and fan favorites, the audience collectively felt as if they were witnessing something straight out of the rock ‘n’ roll history books, something as poetic as it was mythological. And through it all, Bruce stood at the epicenter, hoisting his guitar to the sky like a talisman to former glories and a challenge to whatever the future might bring. He was a rebellious hero, an elder statesman raging on, a parallel Ulysses rallying his aging ranks for one last charge into the breach. One could almost hear the words of Tennyson echoing through the escapist gospel of songs like “Born to Run” and “Thunder Road,” or through the rousing build of “Rockin’ All Over The World,” the John Fogerty cover that served as the tour’s prophetic bookend:

Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

The E Street Band always strove. They always found. They never gave up. And even though the future that night in Buffalo looked an uncertain one, even as speculation shot from one end of the arena to the other—that this could be the end, the grand finale, the last hurrah for the world’s biggest rock ‘n’ roll family—no one onstage even acknowledged the assumption. Cowards yield before their time has come, and no one could call anyone in this band a coward. Not Max Weinberg, who furiously drums himself into a stupor of arthritic pain each night, only to get up and do it again the next day; not Nils Lofgren, who walks around on two artificial hips and still plays the guitar with incendiary vigor. And certainly not Clarence Clemons who, throughout this seemingly endless tour, took to using a golf cart to get from his dressing room to the stage and a mechanical lift to hoist him up into the spotlight.

On that last night in Buffalo, the Big Man almost looked humbled and weak, huddled resolutely on a stool at the far left-hand side of the stage. Every few moments, his yearning eyes would glance toward the spot next to Bruce where he used to stand tall and proud in his younger days, wishing only to be there again. But his youth was fled and his body was breaking. Years of living hard, Hollywood partying, and self-abuse had taken their toll, and Clemons, the victim of both a knee replacement surgery and a mild heart attack, could feel the weight of all the late nights and the road-bound life tearing away whatever health remained. But when the moment came for Clarence to pull himself to his feet, set his shoulders back, and blow into his saxophone, all vestiges of weakness were removed. The sound was as forceful and poignant as ever, a testament to a man who would never stop giving to or living in the music. Right to his last moments with the E Street Band, Clarence remained loyal to the first words he had ever spoken to Bruce: “I wanna play witchoo.”


Clarence certainly never yielded, not while he still had strength left in him. Even as he passed his 69th birthday, the “Big Man” couldn’t be troubled to slow down. It was 2011: Bruce was writing new material. Clarence had a prime guest spot on Lady Gaga’s newest album and was even on-hand to perform with her on the season finale of American Idol. On May 25, Clarence blasted into the saxophone solo from Gaga’s newest hit, “The Edge of Glory,” and the sheer media glitz and glam of the event faded away. Everyone fell silent to watch him, this pilgrim of rock ‘n’ roll history, as he left yet another mark on the tapestry. He had given so much of himself to music over the years, and yet, somehow, he still had just a little bit more left in him.

It was the last time the Big Man would ever perform in public.


“The record was pretty much done, except that I wanted to get Clarence on it,” Bruce said later, referring to the set of songs that would eventually form the backbone of his fantastic 2012 release, Wrecking Ball. “The week before he died I called him to come in and record on his way back from Los Angeles, where he'd worked with Lady Gaga. He was having problems with the feeling in his hand. He was worried and asked if he could go home to Florida first and have it checked out. It was the only time Clarence passed on a recording session, so I said sure, we'd catch it later down the road.”

But then the road ran out. Clarence’s body betrayed him on June 12, just a week after his retreat to Florida. A stroke wafted through the cracks that had spread in his physique, cutting him down and silencing his grand saxophone forever. Six days later, after a laborious stay in a hospital where he never fully regained consciousness, after a myriad of goodbyes from his blood brothers and sisters, after squeezing Bruce’s hand one last time, their bond still alive even as the bodily vessel carrying half of it sputtered to its final resting point, the complications from the stroke overcame him. On June 18, Clarence’s family turned off the machines, took the Big Man off life support, and let his soul float off into the ether.

“Let your mind rest easy, sleep well my friend. It’s only our bodies that betray us in the end.”


It broke Bruce’s heart to lose Clarence, just as it shattered the hearts of everyone hanging out on E Street and all those who had ever been moved by his unparalleled musical ability. The death left Jersey reeling; it radiated through the music community, silencing compatriots at some turns and inspiring them to pay tribute at others; and it shook the very foundations of New York City, where street musicians retreated to the subway tunnels and exploded into their saxophones with the same furor and force that had so defined Clarence. Other passionate fans offered an assist, grabbing their boom-boxes, cranking them up to maximum volume, and keeping “Jungleland” and its master-of-the-universe sax solo ringing on repeat. From all corners and sources, Springsteen devotees were there beneath the city on that June morning in 2011, making sure the strains of Clarence Clemons would never stop echoing—even if his heartbeat already had.

Online fans dealt with things differently, heading to the message boards to pay their respects. “The Sax Solo in Jungleland,” a Facebook page classifying itself as a “Local Business,” got a boost of likes and R.I.P. posts from listeners, many of them weaving anecdotes of how those sublime three minutes of music had changed their lives, or in some cases, saved them. Of how it was still impossible to listen to that song without feeling shivers down your spine or tears stinging in your eyes. There are songs that are considered greater than “Jungleland,” songs that more people claim to love or that more people have heard. But on that Saturday evening or throughout the following day, as friends, family, and fans heard the news and worked through their own spells of grief in their own unique ways, it was difficult to recall any song that had ever inspired such fervent and passionate adoration. Clarence was gone, yes. But within the confines of recorded media and memory, he would forever stand immortal. He even made it onto the new record, which repurposed some old E Street Band songs, previously only heard live, into a lively and resilient high fidelity setting.

“After the funeral, I returned to the studio to finish the record,” Bruce told Jon Stewart in 2012, in an interview the two were sharing for Rolling Stone. “[Wrecking Ball producer] Ron Aniello greeted me, and as we sat at the control board he said, ‘I'm so sorry about Clarence. I didn't know what to do when I heard, so I went home to Los Angeles and put this together from one of the live takes of the song.’ He played me ‘Land of Hope and Dreams,’ and when the solo section hit, Clarence's sax filled the room. I cried. So he's there...through a little technical magic. But he's there.”


“And of course, we're here to tell you a story, as always. And tonight's story is a story about hellos and goodbyes, and things that leave us, and things that remain with us forever. So let's get started.”

Bruce Springsteen was back.

Standing on the stage of Michigan’s Palace of Auburn Hills and once again gazing out over the ranks of thousands of fans, the Boss was in top form. His new record had landed at number one on the charts, reviews had been generally rapturous, and reception for this new world tour was as stratospheric as ever. But that didn’t mean Bruce wasn’t feeling the weight of all the things that had left him over the years. It was April 12, 2012, ten months to the day since the stroke that had torn his greatest blood brother to the ground, and that wound still felt fresh.

A few minutes later, Bruce cascaded into his customary E Street roll call, introducing each member of his band to the appreciative roars of the crowd. For this tour, he had chosen to structure the signature moment within “My City of Ruins,” a song that had, at different times, addressed both the downfall of his beloved hometown—Asbury Park, NJ—and the crushing tragedy of September 11th. On both disparate occasions though, the music and lyrics had functioned in the same way, creating a hymn to the power of human resilience, evoking and inspiring the ability to “rise up,” rebuild, and “begin again,” and all of those themes were going to be prevalent tonight as well.

“Are we missing anybody?” Bruce bellowed into the crowd, a mournful lilt evident in his voice. “Are we missing anybody, Detroit?!”

The explosion of noise from the audience was almost deafening, a roar so potent it could have turned stone to dust. “Clarence!” most of them shouted, though intermittent cries of “Danny” proved that E Street’s long-time organist had not been forgotten. Bruce nodded along sadly.

“That’s right. Do I have to say the names?!” he continued, the reaction immediately informing him that he didn’t. “The only thing I can guarantee is, if you’re here, and we’re here, then they’re here with us tonight! So...raise your voices!”

The crowd complied, screaming, shouting, and singing along with as much passion as Bruce had ever seen at a concert. The explanation was simple: tonight was a communion, a catharsis, a funeral, and a farewell; this concert was a chance for these fans to say goodbye to Clarence in a very public and emotional venue, just as the rest of the concerts on this tour would be. Jake Clemons, Clarence’s nephew, had taken over sax duties, channeling his uncle like a true spiritual successor. Every time he took a solo, the audience erupted in enormous raves of approval, all of them grasping for some connection, however fleeting, to the enormous presence they had lost. And Jake was the corporeal realization of that ghostly presence, nailing his uncle’s works with passion and note-perfect accuracy. Throughout the night, Jake’s solos brought extra emotion to Springsteen favorites like “Badlands,” “Thunder Road,” “Born to Run,” and “Dancing in the Dark,” though “Jungleland,” the Holy Grail of Clarence’s legacy, remained retired for the time being.

Later, as the set finally segued into its final number, the tribute to Clarence hit a new height. The song was “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” a semi-autobiographical favorite from the Born to Run days whose lyrics recall the forming of the E Street Band. When Bruce reached the beginning of the second verse, he shouted out for his followers to pay attention.

“THIS IS THE IMPORTANT PART!” he bellowed into the stands. He had made his way from the stage to a small walkway in the middle of the general admission section, crowd-surfing across the pool of adoring fans to get there. Now, he stood tall and powerful, surrounded by a sea of followers, and crooned the lines that would likely define tonight’s show for everyone in attendance.

“They made that change up town and the Big Man joined the band,” he sang, his backing musicians dropping out as his voice was joined by a chorus of the venue’s 16,507-person capacity crowd. The venue’s media screens flickered to life, burning with images of Clarence, and the song stopped in its tracks as the massive basketball arena became a cacophonous, cathartic cave of mourning and euphoria. In the earlier days, that line would have been followed by a potent blast from Clarence’s sax, but not tonight.

The band sat back, letting their instruments hang at their sides or lay dormant in front of them, and Bruce raised his microphone to the sky, smiling as he looked around at all of the people paying tribute to his old friend. The pause stretched on for two or three minutes, acting as Bruce’s version of a “moment of silence” for his fallen comrade, even if it was significant specifically for its absence of silence. The crowd rallied with higher decibels than they had exuded all night, but then again, it was only appropriate that a man who had spent his life “bringing the noise” be honored by a profusion of it. The grin spread even wider across Bruce’s face, tears sparkling in his eyes as he looked around remembering the old days.

“We swore blood brothers against the wind, now I’m ready to grow young again.”

The pause was a bizarre meeting of time and timelessness. In the moment, it seemed to stretch on for days, but in retrospect, it was all too fleeting. Eventually, Bruce gave his horn section the cue and they erupted back into the texture, carrying Clarence’s melodic line with boisterous reverence. But as the concert finally dwindled and dissolved into memory, as the E Street Band lined up at the front of the stage to take their bows, and as Bruce gave a cursory “Thank you Detroit!” to conclude his rock ‘n’ roll sermon, one thought was left hanging in the air, something that Bruce had written in the liner notes of Wrecking Ball that had never felt more true than it did right in that moment.

“Clarence doesn’t leave the E Street Band when he dies,” Bruce had mused.

“He leaves when we die.”