Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Big Man Was a Friend of Mine

Clarence Clemons was known as the Big Man, largely because at 6 feet, 5 inches tall and 270-plus pounds, he was literally a big man. But the nickname was appropriate because on stage, Clarence had a presence that was bigger than life. He wasn't showy or over the top like some other rock stars — including his bandleader and friend, Bruce Springsteen. But he was always cool, always just to Bruce's right, waiting to pick up his sax and do his thing. And when Clarence got up to play ... Wow. This man of few words, this gentle giant, let his instrument do all the talking. When Clarence took center stage for one of his solos, it was a transcendent experience. Every time you heard "Jungleland" live, it was awe-inspiring. Stunning. Powerful. An out-of-body experience. One of my favorite parts of any Springsteen show.

So it goes without saying that the loss of Clarence Clemons Saturday night, due to complications from a stroke one week earlier, was a huge loss — for the music world and for me personally.

I'll never forget the first time I saw Springsteen and the E Street Band live. It was the 1999 reunion tour, in Boston, at what was then known as the FleetCenter. Somehow, my friend Holly and I were able to score third-row center seats. (I'm still not sure how we did it.) Even though I was not as huge a Springsteen fan then as I am now, the show was incredible. Of course, any show would be incredible from those seats, but a Springsteen show? You have no idea.

At the end of the concert, as everyone was applauding and cheering wildly, I stood there directing my applause in Clarence's direction, and mouthing the words "thank you." Clarence looked right back at me, put his hands together, and gave me a sort-of swami salute, slightly bowing in my direction. It was his way of saying "you're welcome." And sure, he was doing this a lot, and in different directions, to acknowledge everyone in the arena. But it didn't feel that way to me. At that moment, Clarence was connecting with me, and me alone. There was no one else in the FleetCenter. It felt special, even if it was hardly unique. How cool is it that Clarence made me feel this way in a room full of thousands of other people. I was a changed man after that concert.

No wonder fans feel such a deep connection to Springsteen, the E Street Band, and Clarence himself. The Big Man wasn't just a musician, or a performer. He was a friend. There's a reason that when Bruce was introducing the band in concert, Clarence was always last — even after Patti Scialfa, Bruce's wife. There's a reason that when Bruce played "Tenth Avenue Freeze-out" with the Band at his Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction, he said, "This is the important part" before he sang the "Big Man joined the band" section. Clarence was someone we rooted for, cheered louder for, felt loyal to. He gave as much to us in his performances as we gave to him. Clarence was not just the Big Man, he was the man. The foundation. A rock. He was irreplaceable.

When I remember the Big Man that was Clarence Clemons, I'll remember his soulful contributions to songs like "Jungleland," "Tenth Avenue Freeze-out," "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)," and others. But I'll remember that hot August night more, and how that one concert experience turned me into an E Street fan for life.

Thank you, Clarence. I'll miss you.

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