Monday, June 20, 2011

Here’s to you, Big Man

RIP Clarence Clemons. (AP Photo) Former Bruce Springsteen And The E Street Band member, Rock Sax legend, Clarence Clemons, seen here performing last November, died June 18, 2011 from stroke complications (AP/Rhona Wise).

A WILLful Assist
This wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been inspired by something that Will Stegemann wrote. You may know him as @BeTheBoy on Twitter, who, coupled with his equally brilliant and lovely spouse, TeeVee industry writer Nina Bargiel (@slackmistress), comprise a one-two punch of avant garde creative goodness that’s sometimes hard to describe, but always a party for the imagination.

And while I really dig both Nina’s edgy hipness and faster-than-your-own-neurons-can-fire wit, Will’s stories just have a way of ‘getting to me,’ particularly when he writes about his late father, who passed away in 2009.

Will seems to use his blog as a vehicle similar in style and purpose to my own; he doesn’t appear to seek engagement with an audience so much as with himself, particularly on subjects of family and his childhood memories. And whether or not that’s actually the case, it is how his posts speak to me.

Yesterday was of course, Father’s Day, and I was hit with a double-dose of BethePoignancy. Will posted a wonderfully-woven tribute to both his late father and the renowned Rock Saxman, Clarence Clemons, who died Saturday from complications of a stroke suffered last week. Clemons’ was a that loss I felt deeply but initially struggled to find a way to accurately express when I first heard the news late Saturday morning. He was 69 years old, a fact that alone was staggering to me. It didn’t seem possible that he could have even been in his sixties, let alone pushing seventy — which in and of itself is a testimony to the passion with which he lived and played music.

All in the Family
A number of aspects to Will’s story touched me profoundly, not the least of which was his experience of first encountering Springsteen’s music as a child in the 1980s, when he internalized his Pop’s everyday-affinity for the Boss’s sound to the extent of play-imagining the E Street Band as stand-ins for his own flesh and blood.

I was particularly tickled by Will’s reference to a live version of Springsteen’s Rosalita that was a particular favorite on his Dad’s car stereo cassette deck. It just so happens that the song was recorded at a club show in 1978 that I myself had desperately tried to attend, but was unable to get my hands on what few actual publicly-accessible tickets were available. I ended up having to settle for listening to the show being broadcast live on the radio, on now-defunct Los Angeles FM Rock station, KMET (I’ll relate the sad story of my own ‘Sunset Boulevard Freeze-Out’ at another time).

However, I mostly wanted to give a tip of the cap to Mister Stegemann for so accurately highlighting the concept of Springsteen’s band as a family, and as such, a pseudo-extended family that of all of the Boss’s fans can relate to — even through the eyes of a kid. It’s a most fitting metaphor and something that has escaped my ability to properly process over the years, as I’ve sought to find a meaningful framework on which to hang the feelings I’ve always had for Springsteen and Clemons in particular. To me, the two have always been a family; a nearly inseparable entity. And while Bruce’s solo work has always been great, I’ve never felt it matched the impact of that achieved together with he and his musical siblings: Clemons and the E Street Band.

Will’s post caused me to ponder just how much that connective vibe of Bruce Springsteen’s persona and early music resonated with me as a 19 year-old in the mid-70s, a point in time when Will’s life was just beginning.

I became cognizant of Springsteen’s music, late one August evening in 1975, hearing Born To Run on the radio for the first time, and as such, being immediately introduced to the soprano sax of Clemons (a.k.a., The Big Man), busting through the airwaves as a part of the E Street Band’s signature sound. For me it was a wonderful new discovery. However, compared to Will’s father, I was merely an AJ-come-lately.

Having grown up on Long Island, NY, Will’s dad (who was just two years older than me) had the unique perspective of being in the same geographic area as the Asbury Park, NJ phenomenon, perhaps knowing of him or actually being a fan before Springsteen hit the big time. Stegmann’s Pop had been a well-seasoned fan for years and went on to raise his kids with an appreciation for The Boss as well. Will’s blog post, Riding With The Big Man is required reading, whether you were an avid fan of Clemons or were only marginally acquainted with his contribution to the sound of the artist who quite frankly was The Beatles of his generation.

As part of my previously mentioned aborted blog post on Springsteen several months ago, I began to write about my initial encounter with The Boss’s music, of which Clarence Clemons’ dynamic presence played a huge part. I’d like to relate that anecdote right now, in The Big Man’s honor.

My World: Rocked
Like so many others, I was blown away by the sound of Born To Run, Springsteen’s third album — but the one that truly made him a household name when it hit the airwaves in the summer of ’75. For me it was one of the truly seminal musical moments of my lifetime; the kind of deal that makes it impossible to forget the first time you experienced something so different, so powerful, that you simply had to stop and say, “Wow! WHO. WAS. THAT?!”

And that’s quite literally what happened, late one night in August 1975, within a few days of when the album was first released. At the time I was three months into my first experience of living away from my parents’ house; sharing a two-bedroom apartment with a pair of roommates in a highly-questionable neighborhood in North Long Beach, California.

On the night in question, I was lying in bed, trying to fall asleep, but the chronic insomnia that was my constant companion during my teen and early-adult years wouldn’t allow me to. As usual, my clock radio was tuned to 95.5 KLOS in Los Angeles, and as also was my habit, I was listening to music while waiting for the Sandman to show up. Since it usually took more than an hour for me to fall asleep each night, I always figured that I might as well spend the time enjoying one of my favorite pastimes: listening to music. It never occurred to me that perhaps my indulging that fave pastime also had plenty to do with why I’d always had trouble falling asleep in the first place…but I digress.

Anyway, I remember just lying there, like so many other nights; staring at the ceiling. I had to get up at 3:00am to go to work at the grocery store the next morning; I remember feeling particularly anxious that I might sleep through my alarm if I didn’t grab some shuteye soon.

Then it happened. My little clock radio nearly jumped off the nightstand — or so it seemed.

The introductory signature blast of Max Weinberg’s booming drum beat, along with The Big Man’s foundational sax note, and Springsteen’s guttural, biting lead guitar riff sent a chill down my spine. Born To Run was rocking my world.

“Who IS that?” I thought.

Initially, I turned my head and stared at the radio, reaching in to turn the volume up and continuing to lean closer and closer until, by Clemons’ bruising mid-song staccato sax bridge, I was completely perpendicular, with my feet on the floor, seated at the side of my bed, fully engaged in a sound like none I’d ever before heard.

There was NO way I was getting to sleep now.

I’m not sure if the DeeJay ever gave the artist’s name after the song was finished, because I remember having made it a point to listen extra hard to the radio the next day, in hopes that I might hear it again and learn the identity of that awesome new band that played it.

I also remember that the part I liked best of all was the sax.

It was without a doubt, the most memorable moment from the five months I spent in that dingy old apartment on 56th and Orange, in an area bordering North Long Beach and South Central Los Angeles. We were located just a couple of blocks north of the gang-infested Carmelitos Projects and a few blocks south of the Compton city limits. It wasn’t a real fun place to be, but it served its purpose for the brief time that I was there. I roomed with a buddy I’d known since junior high school and another acquaintance from my church group, but at that point I probably would have shacked up with Freddy Krueger for the chance to get away from the Nightmare on Lave Avenue that was my existence at the time living at home with step mom Maxine.

I am most happy to say that my love affair with Springsteen and Clemons has lasted considerably longer.

A Window into the Soul
It’s abundantly easy to canonize the departed, especially artists, the output of whose professional lives have touched you in a manner such as that of something as accessible as popular music. It’s like falling in love with a painter, based entirely upon his body of work; never mind that in real life he was a pretentious jerk, who kicked his dog, beat his wife, and ignored his children in private — or even in public. All we know is how awesome his works of art made us feel.

By all accounts, Clemons was a genuinely good guy, and while I could be wrong, I rather doubt we’ll see any ‘Daddy Dearest’-type tell-all accounts from either his four sons or five ex-wives. Does that mean his closets were completely skeleton-free? No, but then, whose is?

Clemons/Springsteen in the iconic Born To Run album cover image
One thing is certain; the bond between Clemons and Springsteen defined their music; which in turn defined my love for it from the moment I heard that first note. Even without having heard a note, you could see it in the cover photograph from Born To Run (above).

In a Huffington Post article, posted soon after Clemons’ death, entitled, Why Clarence Clemons Matters to Race Relations, Ben Mankiewicz offers a poignant rendering of the classic image, featuring Clemons & Springsteen:
“Iconic is a wildly overused word, but the cover photo of Born to Run — Bruce Springsteen grinning and leaning on Clarence Clemons' broad shoulder — is a powerful and memorable picture, one that meets the standard for iconic rock n’ roll images. And its status is rooted in the beautiful story that picture tells.

You’ve got this enormously talented, giant black man -- literally “The Big Man” -- saxophone between pursed lips, essentially supporting Springsteen. The look on Bruce’s face is honest and authentic, a genuine moment captured in a photo shoot. There's a giddiness in Bruce's smile: “I'm working with my friend,” he seems to be saying, “and our music has never been better.”

The photo made an instant impact on me, long before their music did.”
Actually, for me the events were reversed. It wasn’t until weeks after I first heard BTR that I actually saw the album cover, but I too was mesmerized by the volumes that photographer Eric Meola’s image spoke in just a glance.

The combination of how the music and the imagery made me feel was nearly indescribable; the feelings of joy, inclusion, friendship; a shared passion for life; an unbridled excitement about the future’s unlimited potential.

Thirty-six years later, my feeling of loss is nearly as indescribable, as no doubt is Springsteen’s. In eulogizing his friend via a statement posted to his website yesterday, Springsteen confirmed with insightful eloquence what I already knew, yet couldn’t express:
“He carried within him a love of people that made them want to love him.

“He created a wondrous and extended family.”
Here’s to you, Big Man, our big brother. Thank you, so very, very much. Rest well.

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