Hiding on the backstreets
Where we swore forever friends
On the backstreets until the end
-Bruce Springsteen, “Backstreets” (1975)
As I write this, I’m on my seventh hour of watching old Springsteen concert DVDs—an evening spent on the couch, with a 6-pack of beer, and precious time spent with remembered friends. The E Street band has been keeping me company virtually every minute since the news hit… The Big Man had passed away due to complications from the stroke he suffered last week.
People always debate things like who the greatest rock guitarist is (Hendrix? Clapton? Chuck berry?), or who the greatest rock singer is (Lennon? Daltry? Jagger?). Even greatest rock drummer debates have been known to cause serious throw-downs between Keith Moon backers and John Bonham backers (For the record, it’s Moon). But Greatest Rock And Roll Saxophonist? No one argues that one. At first it may seem like a minor achievement, but think about it. How many people can die saying they were the greatest EVER at what they did? Clarence may be gone, but his legacy looms just as large as he always did on stage.
The great critic Greil Marcus once wrote that rock and roll had become “too big for any center. It is so big in fact that no single event can be much more than peripheral.” But continuing, Marcus wrote that Bruce Springsteen “performs as if none of the above were true. The implicit promise of a Bruce Springsteen concert is that This Is What It’s All About.” (Note: the above is actually taken from Dave Marsh’s quoting of Marcus; I have never encountered the original source.)
But where Marcus uses the term “center,” I prefer to say community. Rock music started as “The Counter-Culture,” but counter or not, it was still a culture. It was a community of people who felt they had a common set of values and shared experience. As rock (and popular music in general) expanded, this sensation evaporated.
But a concert by Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band was different. It was about re-establishing the community feel that rock music had so long ago abandoned. It was about uniting under the cause of rock and roll ecstacy that seemed to have disappeared. As Bruce himself said in the recent documentary The Promise, rock was about capturing that “never-ending now.” On stage, the E Street Band was there to give it to us.
No one personified this more than Clarence Clemons. In most bands, the frontman exists apart from the rest of the band; the frontman captivates the audience, the band plays the music. But from the cover of Born to Run 36 years ago all the way through the last time they shared a stage, Clarence proved that you don’t need to sing in order to work the crowd.
The first time I saw the E Street Band as an adult was October 2007, towards the beginning of the Magic tour. I went with my girlfriend at the time, Megan, and we showed up early so we could try to get in the pit. The lottery shined in our favor and we ended up about 15 feet in front of stage left, right where Clarence stands. When the band came out, they broke into “Radio Nowhere,” and Clarence started out unassumingly, banging the tambourine. All eyes were on Bruce, and Clarence knew it. After a minute or two, Clarence grabbed his sax and walked up towards the front of the stage. There was a low murmur of excitement from the crowd in anticipation of our first sax solo, but it wasn’t enough for the Big Man—he wanted more. He came right up to the edge of the stage, getting the attention of everyone on his side of the pit, and then started motioning his right hand in a come hither motion with all five fingers. As he amped up the enthusiasm, so did we. “Give it to me,” he was saying. We gave it to him. Everyone in our area stopped paying any attention to Bruce and just went ape-shit crazy cheering for the Big Man. Finally, once we had reached the decibel he demanded, he nodded to us in approval and then went into his solo.
It was one of my favorite random moments from any concert I’ve ever been to. Clarence Clemons had that true sense of the moment that only the best performers ever really understand. When all eyes were focused on Bruce, he brought some attention to himself with just a few flicks of his fingers and a knowing smile. Anytime I hear Clarence referred to as a sideman, I think of that moment, and know that no other sideman in the world could have pulled it off. Clarence Clemons loomed so much larger than life that life just couldn’t contain him any longer.
Rest easy Big Man, and do so knowing that you really were “King of the World, Master of the Universe,” just like Bruce always called you on stage.