Clarence Clemons never walked out in a contract dispute. He never complained to anyone (that I ever heard) about that Bruce guy’s attitude. He never told an interviewer that he didn’t need those other guys in the band. He always seemed to be enjoying the joke, enjoying that he was part of one of the great rock n’ roll bands, enjoying that he got to play.
And Bruce played it right. He always played it like he was lucky to be playing in Clarence’s band.
Losing Clarence is a shock, bigger than I expected, when I thought about the possibility in the week since his stroke. I’ve written about the Beatles before—the Beatles were everything anyone ever said they were; they keep growing and growing as time goes on. But even when they started, they were more than a group – they were like the air. So John and George left us and it never felt personal because I could never relate to them as people; they were Beatles. Clarence is the first really crucial member of a band I love to pass.
(Yes, E Street fans, Danny Federici died a few years ago and I felt sad but it didn’t shake the whole identity of the group. This does. It’s hard to see how they can be the same. Bruce is smaller without the Big Man.)
Okay, now I’m separating myself from the fanatics: I love Bruce Springsteen – think he’s one of the absolute Gods of rock n’ roll – up through ‘Jungleland.’ That’s the dividing line – the songs before and the songs after.
The songs before are a kind of myth-making I’ve never heard from anyone before or since.
‘(Hard to be) A Saint in the City’ ‘Growin’ Up’ ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out’ ‘Kitty’s Back’ ‘Rosalita’ ‘Sandy (4th of July, Asbury Park)’ ‘Thunder Road’ ‘Spirit in the Night’ and ‘Jungleland.’ Those songs are absolutely unique and exhausting. They have fifteen time changes and choruses that come out of nowhere and bits of business where the band just vamps for five minutes while Bruce pretends to chat with Miami Steve or Clarence and then comes back to business just in time to make you gasp. ‘Here she comes’ becomes a song in itself after seventeen minutes of lead-in that includes everything from the Shondells to the Ventures to the Rascals and Duke Ellington (care of Roy Bittan).
And the Rascals. The thing about the early Springsteen is, he was a combination of Dylan and the Band, Van Morrison (the stops and starts, the theatricality in the songs) and the Rascals. The Rascals were the white Motown, the Broadway show tunes (Bittan and Max Weinberg were of that tradition too) and the one-hit wonders that Bruce loves. It was a crucial element, the crucial third element in his music then.
That ended with ‘Badlands.’ Bruce went another direction and Clarence spent a whole lot of the concerts shaking a tambourine or singing and that was a shame, not just for Clarence but for the band and the songs and the music, because what Clarence was in Bruce’s music was the most liberating, most thrilling part of it, the part that just let loose and let go and to hell with the consequences. It says something – and nothing good – about Springsteen’s music that Clarence had fewer parts to play while Bruce added Nils to Steve, added Patti and the violin player. Going from a tenor sax to a violin is the wrong direction, sorry.
When I got home last night and saw the headline, I heard Jungleland in my head, just Clarence’s solo, where that whole huge operatic song, that huge band sound, suddenly stops and Clarence just lets loose with that incredible solo, a Martin Scorsese movie coming out of his horn, five minutes with a building backup but all of it hanging on that horn. I’m still hearing it now in my head over the Muzak at work.
The last time I saw E Street was at a benefit concert for John Kerry in 2004. Eddie Vedder, John Fogerty, Bruce and E Street. If I ever wondered how much the love between the two men was real and how much was show biz, I got my answer that night. I was seated behind the stage – I decided to go at the last minute and those were the available seats. When the lights were all out at the end and the band was coming back up onto the stage for the encores, I see Bruce come to the top of the stairs with just that little stage light to guide him, stop, turn around and hold his hand out – to help Clarence up the steps. Nobody else. Bruce and Clarence.
We’ve lost a lot. All of us. RIP, Big Man.