and sax-wielding musical soul mate passes away at the age of 69 after
experiencing a devastating stroke a week ago.
By Fred Mills
Clarence Clemons – the Big Man, the King of the Universe,
and so much more – passed away last night, June 18, due to complications following
the massive stroke of June 12 that left him hospitalized and partially
paralyzed. The E Street Band saxman has experienced a series of health
emergencies in the recent past, including knee, spinal and brain surgeries. He
Beyond reporting the basic details, words very nearly fail
me, although the news this week out of Florida, where Clemons lived, had not
been encouraging, and I’m certain that Bruce Springsteen/E Street fans across
the globe experienced the same sense of foreboding that I did. For those of a
certain rock ‘n’ roll generation, it’s almost a cliché to admit that we often
expected our heroes to die in flamboyant flame-outs – drugs, suicide, high-speed
auto wrecks and the like – and thus take on a frequently unmerited aura of martyrdom,
where The Who’s “My Generation” line of hope
I die before I get old gets stripped of its ironic/sarcastic context and
becomes a maxim-like manifesto. But as time has crept onward, we’ve had to
adjust our fantasies and make room for Real Life: people get old; people get
sick; people die; rock stars turn out to be “people” just like you, me, our
parents and our friends.
If anyone in the pantheon seemed larger than life at times,
however, Clarence Clemons was part of that pantheon. Or maybe you never
wondered why Springsteen and his fellow band members called him the Big Man in
the first place. It wasn’t simply because he was a physically towering presence
up there on the stage.
His sax was, quite literally, part of my personal soundtrack
for nearly as far back as I can remember. Was there – is there – a more
inspiring moment than at that point in the middle of Springsteen’s “Badlands,” when Clemons’ sax enters? From the Darkness on the Edge of Town tour all
the way to the present, when the E Streeters played that song, when Clemons
stepped forward for his “Badlands” solo, a bolt of electricity would go through
the crowd – as moving, as visceral and as propulsive as a battle cry.
Every time I saw Clemons it was a revelation – decades ago,
on the Born To Run tour; a 3-night
run on the tour for The River, the
1999 reunion tour and numerous others – and the thought now of an E Street Band
performance without Clemons up there at Springsteen’s side is something I
honestly can’t process.
Bruce Springsteen.net posted this notice yesterday:
It is with overwhelming sadness that we inform our friends
and fans that at 7:00 tonight, Saturday, June 18, our beloved friend and
bandmate, Clarence Clemons passed away. The cause was complications from his
stroke of last Sunday, June 12th.
Bruce Springsteen said of Clarence: Clarence lived a
wonderful life. He carried within him a love of people that made them love him.
He created a wondrous and extended family. He loved the saxophone, loved our
fans and gave everything he had every night he stepped on stage. His loss is
immeasurable and we are honored and thankful to have known him and had the
opportunity to stand beside him for nearly forty years. He was my great friend,
my partner, and with Clarence at my side, my band and I were able to tell a
story far deeper than those simply contained in our music. His life, his
memory, and his love will live on in that story and in our band.
Springsteen and Clemons’ connection was clearly one of rock’s most enduring,
and personal. In a Clemons obituary, the New
York Times reported of the duo’s initial, possibly apocryphal (but, for
rock ‘n’ roll, perfect) encounter, a story that has become E Street Band lore. “In
most tellings, a lightning storm was rolling through Asbury Park one night in 1971 while Mr.
Springsteen was playing a gig there. As Mr. Clemons entered the bar, the wind
blew the door off its hinges, and Mr. Springsteen was startled by the towering
shadow at the door. Then Mr. Clemons invited himself onstage to play along, and
they clicked. ‘I swear I will never forget that moment,’ Mr. Clemons later
recalled in an interview. ‘I felt like I was supposed to be there. It was a
magical moment. He looked at me, and I looked at him, and we fell in love. And
that’s still there.'”
Our friends at Backstreets have
penned a wonderful remembrance of Clemons that’s posted at Backstreets.com.
(Full disclosure: I am also a Backstreets contributor.) Liberally decorated with choice photos, the essay recounts
Clemons’ back story and places his importance to the E Street Band in precise
context. Like me, they can’t seem to imagine a musical world without Clemons,
but they also conclude on a perfect note: “As long as we tell the stories, as long as we play the
songs, as long as we remember, the Big Man will always be with us.”
Amen. God bless ya,