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.”

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