On the Death of Clarence Clemons

As I write this, it is the afternoon of my 45th birthday. But I’m not feeling old — it’s also Father’s Day, and I have my wonderful family right here by my side. We’re all happy and healthy and looking forward to many decades of love and joy and memories to come.

But there’s a melancholy feeling in the air. A rock star I’ve never met before — a band-member, a sideman — has died, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that things have changed. The Wheels of Time have turned, and there ain’t no going back. Ever.

We all know Clarence Clemons was the legendary sax player for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. He was charismatic, well beloved, larger than life, blah blah blah. Truth be told, he wasn’t a virtuoso. He didn’t invent a style. He wasn’t really that innovative. He took from here, borrowed from there, expanded on this and that. His work had more than once been called cliched — and that was 25 years ago, before he became the star in the firmament into which he grew later on.

What made Clarence special was also what made his boss, Bruce Springsteen, special: the sense of love and belonging, the sense of community, of hard times shared and adversity overcome by intelligence, by grace of spirit and sheer force of will. He had a sound — big and brassy and ballsy, a celebratory sound. It was often compared to being in church, and it held within it that anticipatory feeling of that thing that you really want to experience, that thing you hope is coming — and then it comes. Like an orgasm, it happens and it enfolds you and it’s everything you wanted it to be.

I found Springsteen as a lost and unhappy 17-year old in suburban Alabama. Bruce never toured the South much, and so aside from basic classic rock radio play, no one around me knew much about him — Styx and Van Halen and Led Zeppelin were more my generations’ rock heroes of choice. Bruce was quoted in Stephen King books, of course, and praised by Rolling Stone Magazine, but he was simultaneously too complicated and too normal to really reach the high school parking lots of my youth.

But I had heard about Nebraska, and in 1983 I went to a local Kmart and bought the cassette of that seminal work. (I still prefer Nebraska played on a simple cassette tape in moving car. At night.) Clemons, of course, was nowhere to be found on that album. Only Bruce, sounding as if he were singing from 50 years ago — like Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams and Leadbelly plunking guitars on a porch somewhere off in the woods.

The next year, of course, brought Born in the USA. It hit me so hard I remember laughing the first time I heard it — laughing in joy that what I had been looking for, I now had found. Amid the big drums and the synthesizers, there was Clarence — banging cowbells, clicking castanets, blaring that goose-honk of a saxophone. It was weird — but it worked. There were hillbilly songs on BITUSA — Darlington County, Working on the Highway were straight up redneck rockers — so what the hell was a black man and his sax doing on that? But it worked. As the political writer David Corn has noted, Clarence was the X Factor that pushed it all over the top. He was the inexplicable element that gave it a sense of surprise and daring.

I dove into learning about these guys as much as possible. Even as the world fell in love with the band in the mid-eighties, they still seemed oddly personal. The songs really did sound like they spoke to you as an individual. As a lonely and somewhat unhappy teen, I can remember lying in bed listening to a live bootleg on my walkman late into the night, listening to songs that spoke to outsiders and their inherent worth, and their search for community. It was startlingly intimate and soul-filling.

Springsteen’s primary gift, I think, is his ability to transform individual misfits — or tramps — into a vast community that feels like a true brotherhood. A way to make real those suspicions that we don’t belong — but its okay, because if we all don’t belong, then we’ll go somewhere else and create our own unique community of non-belongers. But we needed a legitimizing factor — something that told us we were on the right track, that we had our own sense of beauty and our own way of looking at the world, and that it was valuable.

Clarence was that legitimizing factor. A huge black man from working class Virginia, he’d soaked up gospel and soul and jazz and R&B (and burlesque and polka and … ) his whole life and embodied the true meaning of Cool. And if he liked you, that meant you were also Cool. It rubbed off on you like cologne. Clarence was cool, and so Bruce was cool, and by proxy, so were we. We belonged because Clarence told us we could. It was an antidote to all the suburban screamings of hair metal and white boy techno and tinny dance music that surrounded me in the increasingly plastic environs of mid-eighties Alabama.

Clarence was unswayable — as a musical embodiment of early sixties soul, R&B, girl groups and frat rock, he outlasted and outblasted 60’s psychedelia, 70’s soft rock singer-songwriter pabulum, album rock, punk, disco, new wave, college rock, MTV crap, hair metal, grunge, boy bands, jam bands, emo, nu-metal, and so on. His final performances with Lady Gaga brought him fully into a meta-loop where the man who references the greats is now referencing himself — and pulls it off. His final performance bestowed legitimacy on yet another legion of outcasts as Gaga’s adolescent monster-misfits went ‘paws up’ with affection and respect for the big black man who couldn’t get around so good.

Onstage with Bruce, he was the perfect foil — tall and dark to Bruce’s small and pale, waiting for his moments to bring the glory into those songs of hardship and earthly, unromantic toil. The music dug deep into the tough soil of the earth, and that’s why it soared so high — when Clarence’s sound roared out it felt earned, like a heavy airplane fighting against the gravity of the planet — and succeeding.

Oddly enough, it was gravity that he fought against at the end of his days. A truly big man who hopped around onstage for forty years, his joints were tired, his back hurt, his knees killed him. But that never got in his way. There was no retirement. There was little time off — as Springsteen (that most ageless of aging rockers) got busier and busier, Clemons did too. Sometimes he needed a chair (okay, a throne) onstage to make him more comfortable, but he was there, giving it his all. Often there were tears onstage as that shared community boiled over into something undeniable. This was more than mere rock music — this was a brotherhood ten thousand strong every night, one that stood four decades of tribulation. This was family.

Victor Frankl’s landmark book Man and His Search for Meaning posits that there really is no meaning in the universe other than what we create for ourselves. The meaning of life, in other words, is something we form in our years and our decades of hard work and our dreams and fears and instinctual love for each other. If that’s true (and I believe it is) then few other public figures have created more meaning for themselves and their community — the misfit tramps — than Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

As the band’s resident X Factor, Clarence was perhaps most instrumental in that creation of meaning, second only to Bruce Springsteen himself. Bruce was the Boss, but even he needed that validation, that sense that he was doing the right thing — that he was cool. Clarence’s presence every night made sure we knew we all were cool. In this way a decades-long brotherhood of truth and love and hard work was formed.

And in this way a world was transformed.