I remember how the story sometimes continued: "... so I figured I gotta go see God and all I have to go see Him in was my mother's Rambler, was all beat up, all smashed up, paint scraped off the side... He says, Well, you can't go in that car! 'So what do you mean I can't go in this, it's the only car I got.' He says, 'That thing is, thing's ugly as hell, it's like, you think He's gonna see you in that car?!? There's gonna be guys up there with Monte Carlos, Lincolns, Continentals, you think He's gonna notice you?"
Clarence Clemons passed away two days ago. Writing about Clarence in death I feel a bit like going to see God in that Rambler: small. But here's the thing: As the story played out, Bruce got the car painted, and Clarence got in to drive with him to see God. Only then did God deliver the word: LET IT ROCK!!!
That was Clarence in my vision of Bruce's world: The faithful friend who had the answer, who came along for the ride, and who made sure the mission was accomplished in style.
I was introduced to Clarence's sound in 1977. My summer camp bunkmate, Andy Bienstock, was a Springsteen fanatic, and I had a tape deck. It was a package deal. The listening was a package deal: I couldn't listen to "Jungleland" unless I heard out every last note of that solo. (Andy is now Program Director at WYPR in Baltimore, and I thank him for allowing me to be among the first teenage beneficiaries of his music expertise)
Clarence was not the best technical player around; the "Born to Run" solo, in particular, was a nightly adventure. But no one else had that sound. The raspy bellow that just announced, "The Big Man is in your ears." Whether on a solo for Bruce, or Aretha Franklin, or even Lady Gaga, he had a tone that was all his; and the emotion and feeling for his parts more than compensated for any technical flaws. My favorite solo is tucked away on the 4th side of The River, and turns the nearly mawkish song "Drive All Night" into an emotional masterpiece.
During the last 24 hours before Clarence's death, I looked through youtube, watching dozens of video highlights from his career. There he was, at the height of the Born in the U.S.A. frenzy, making an appearance on Late Show With David Letterman, first playing a version of Springsteen's From Small Things... and then sitting down for an interview. And then there's the majestic video promo for If I Should Fall Behind, in which Clarence sang a verse after playing a defining solo. A 1978 video of Paradise by the 'C', an instrumental named for Clarence. A 1984 version of Rosalita with Bruce and Clarence doing multiple sight and sound gags, culminating in the "Clarence" cheer and chant, and the announcement that he was, in fact, the king of the entire known universe (including Hoboken, New Jersey) and master of all things. But my favorite, from Landover in 1980, was a rendition of the "Detroit Medley." Clarence wasn't even in most of the video, but we can see that he was playing a baritone saxophone. Having played sax myself, I have an idea for the weight of that instrument, and how difficult it can be to get any sound out of it. Clarence was playing and strutting. And, then, just after 8 and a half minutes in, my jaw dropped: A mere mortal should have passed out from honking the bari while dancing that long. But there was Clarence, not only playing, but swinging the bari sax!! All the way, in rhythm, like a giant pendulum. Bruce was singing of hearing a train, and Clarence was operating the hand car. Both sides!!
In recent years, Clarence's health failed him badly. Though he was still an astonishing presence on the stage, he could barely move. The sight of Bruce assisting him to get on the stage was one of both love and pain. Yet, if anything his playing seemed to improve in the last years. On those occasions when I got to see a show from "the pit," there was no better place to be than 2 deep from Clarence; close enough to see the manufacturer's mark on his horns, close enough to feel the emotion and power of the show, and close enough to catch his eye when he wasn't playing.
I saw the E Street Band for the last time on November 22, 2009, in Buffalo. My friend Karen talked me in to going at the last minute, and a traffic jam made us almost an hour late for the show. But it was the last show of the tour, and who knew if there'd ever be another chance? Had to be there. We got there just in time for me to pick up a copy of Clarence's book, and to race to our seats as the band launched in to a song-by-song replay of the Greetings From Asbury Park NJ album. When it got to the break in "Growin' Up," Bruce came to the mic and said, "There I was..." I just smiled. The Rambler had reached its destination.
Clarence, at the time of his death, was in a position rarely attained in recent years by Bruce: In the Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart (Lady Gaga's The Edge Of Glory, featuring Clarence, currently sits at #6). With a bullet.
(photos by Lois Bernstein)