The Big Man, Clarence Clemons of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band died over the weekend due to complications from a recent stroke – he was 69. He is the biggest of my musical heroes to pass away since Michael Jackson nearly two years ago and right now as I type, the iPod is set to nothing but Springsteen.
For 40 years, Clemons and his saxophone were at Springsteen’s side, whether on record or on-stage and away from it all, he was possibly Springsteen’s closest friend. Indeed, it is the strength of friendship for all to see that for an E Street Band devotee as myself holds almost as much appeal as the music.
It was there on the cover of the breakout Born To Run album in 1975 where a 24 year old Springsteen leans on Clemons’ shoulder. It was an unguarded moment in a photo-shoot filled with rock-star poses, but it captured the record (and Springsteen as a person) better than any of the other shots. You knew these two men, one lean and white and with a guitar, one big and black and with a sax, were best friends. It also told you something of the mix of musical styles that has always been in the Springsteen cannon and remains today. And as Springsteen alludes to in a tribute to Clarence on his website, the countless images of the the two men together tells “a story far deeper than those simply contained in our music.”
Springsteen has called the loss of his friend “immeasurable.” As for Clemons’ feelings toward Bruce, he said in an interview in 2009 that “It’s the most passion that you have without sex.” He also described the friendship as “love,” saying it’s “two men – two strong, very virile men – finding that space in life where they can let go enough of their masculinity to feel the passion of love and respect and trust.” If you’ve had the good fortune of seeing Springsteen and the E Street Band live, as I did in Auckland during The Rising tour of 2004, you’ll know exactly what he’s talking about.
When all’s said in done, if we’ve gone through life with a handful of great friends, we’ve been lucky. What separates the E Street Band from so many of their contemporaries is that they didn’t hate each other. They weren’t known for their coke-fuelled parties with dwarves. They didn’t go on-stage so blind-drunk as to make their concerts a lottery. They exhibited in so many ways the best of what long-time friends can be to each other, through joys and sorrows, through marriage, divorce, kids, arguments, politics, separations, reunions and in the case of Danny Federici, the E Street organ player who died in 2009 from melanoma, and now Clemons, death.
Springsteen would sometimes introduce Clemons on-stage as “the biggest man you’ve ever seen.” Just how big? Over 120 kgs and 6ft 5. Which would have been intimidating if not for the smile and the charisma coming from someone who said one of the greatest accolades was that he made people smile. And let’s not forget his ability on the saxophone and for all you might want to say about Lady Gaga, it was she who gave Clemons his final moment in the sun with his iconic playing stamped on her latest hit Edge Of Glory. She was said to be devastated by the Big Man’s death and being that she had the honour of working with him, I don’t doubt it.
But as much as it would be fitting to have Clemons’ last hit as the Song of the Week, I have chosen one of several Springsteen songs that deal with losing a friend. It is a testament to what a phenomenal album Born In The USA is when seven of the 12 songs were released as singles (all of which went US top 10) but the other five are just as strong. One of those non-released five was Bobby Jean and of course, it features a blistering Clemons’ solo. It is a sad and sombre song which still rocks and has soul.
Returning to the image of Springsteen and Clemons on the cover of Born To Run, Springsteen said in Clemons’ memoir: “Who are these guys? Where did they come from? What is the joke they are sharing? A friendship and a narrative steeped in the complicated history of America begins to work and there is music already in the air.”