Au Revoir, Big Man

Originally written on June 18th, 2011, and posted here by request.

I’m a pathetic Bruce Springsteen fan. Been one since, pretty much, day-minus-one.  I can’t count the number of Springsteen concerts I’ve attended.  In the low hundreds is my guess.

Springsteen’s saxophone player’s name is Clarence Clemons, a very large and muscular former football player who could knock over Stonehenge with a single solo.  His  presence and personality are integral to Springsteen’s shows.  His powerful, soulful sax solos take some great songs and make them extraordinary.

Clemons and Springsteen are a sight to see on stage.  Every night Bruce introduces Clarence as The Big Man. They freely share the fun, energy, music, excitement and love between them with their audience.  Especially, love.  A very real, fraternal love.  One average-sized Italian-American and one enormous African-American.  Devoted blood brothers who, together, bring the very bright light of their friendship to their entire audience.  The Big Man and the Boss.  There are, of course, plenty of bosses in the world.  But, only one Big Man.

Clarence Clemons died today.

He’d suffered a major stroke a few days ago.  Appropriately, he didn’t linger in a significantly compromised state.  Legend has it Clarence decided to introduce himself to Springsteen by going to the bar where Springsteen was performing and, when he entered the bar, the doors flew off their hinges.  Guys like that don’t fade away.  He kicked the door open to show up and he kicked the door open when it was time to go.

I have quite a few concert recollections of Clarence but there is one indelible memory I  have of him from a 2009 Bruce Springsteen concert in Baltimore, MD.  At that point in his life, he was rundown and in poor health.  A shell of himself, he was arthritic and could hardly stand for more than a few minutes at a time.  For most of the concert, he sat on a bar-stool stage right but still managed to cast quite a presence. A smile from Clarence Clemons could light up a small country.  He did his best to look happy and engaged but it was clear to see he was running on empty.  At first, his musical contribution for this particular concert was, at best, pedestrian.  He was tired.  And, due to the pain, probably a little distracted.

Clarence’s saxophone can be heard often embellishing Bruce’s recordings but there is a particular song  where his saxophone solo is elemental.  Without it, there’d be no song.  It’s quite a long and very challenging solo requiring equal parts power, determination, delicacy, focus, precision and endurance.

It was close to ninety minutes into the set when that song started.  Clemons was sitting at stage right in darkness for the first part of the song before gingerly moving to front and center for his solo.  He looked exhausted but when his time came, he stood and, with what he had left to give, he delivered.

He delivered with majestic power and emotional force.  The solo was just a few minutes in a show that lasted over three and a half hours but those few minutes took that concert to an exceptional level. The sound of his saxophone filled the arena and provided ample evidence that one person’s spirit can throw a very large shadow.

Near the end of the sax solo, my wife whispered, “Look around.” What I saw was thousands of people standing and giving Clemons their complete attention.  There was no dancing or talking or milling around or walking towards the restrooms. People just stood still and focused their attention on Clarence Clemons. Almost no one said a word.  Now, there were around 14,000 people in this arena about half of whom were drunk.  Included in the 14,000 were plenty of kids who, until this moment, appeared to be poster-children for attention deficit disorder.  And, they all stopped talking in order to just watch and listen. I had never seen anything like that at a rock concert before and haven’t seen it since.

After I stopped scanning the crowd, I looked back at my wife who is, also, a Springsteen fan. She looked at me and said, “He earned that silence.”

He did. He really did. His body of work with Bruce Springsteen earned it.  His performance that night earned it, as well.

Once Clarence’s solo was finished, Springsteen helped walk him back to his position on stage, they had a very long embrace, had a brief conversation and Clarence, clearly exhausted, sat down on his stool.  It was the last time he ever performed that solo on tour.

There was something about that solo with the audience’s full attention and respectful silence that was almost overwhelming.  It was a brute-force, mind-over-matter effort by Clarence and it’s a memory I hope I don’t lose anytime soon.

I don’t doubt Springsteen will carry on although I’m not sure how.  What I am sure of is if you’re looking for the ultimate challenge in your professional life then be the person who replaces  Clarence Clemons.  Good luck with that. Because no one can. I don’t know what Bruce’s band will look like.  It’ll certainly be different.  It may even be better.

But it will never be the same.

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