When I first heard the news on Saturday night, June 18 at about 7 p.m. that Clarence Clemons had died as a result of complications from a massive stroke he suffered the previous weekend, my immediate reaction was a myriad of emotions that came rushing through me all at once: Sadness. Surprise. Shock. Resignation. Man, this sucks.
Although there was a general consensus that Clemons’ stroke had been quite serious — early reports indicated there might be at least prolonged partial paralysis, if he even survived — there had also been reason for hope of a miraculous recovery as recently as just a few days ago. In light of this, and despite concerns for Clemons’ health among fans going back for several years now, in many ways the news that he didn’t make it still came as a shock. As I write this, I honestly feel like I’ve been punched in the gut.
You see, I always thought Clarence Clemons was one of those mythical guys who’d live forever.
Part of this is pure selfishness, of course. Although I have seen Clemons perform with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band numerous times dating back to the Born To Run tour in 1975 — that’s nearly forty years ago now — the fan in me really wanted to see him do it just one more time. Even if it meant him taking to the stage in crutches.
Clemons himself did nothing to discourage such selfish optimism among his fans. Although he described the pain he felt touring with Springsteen in support of 2009’s Working On A Dream album as “pure hell” — this following replacement surgery on both his knees and hips — in a recent interview, he’d indicated he was far from ready for the rock and roll retirement home.
“As long as my mouth, hands and brain still work I’ll be out there doing it,” he told Rolling Stone. “I’m going to keep going ’til I’m not there anymore. This is what’s keeping me alive and feeling young and inspired.”
Clemons had also kept reasonably busy in the recent months during one of the periodical E Street Band sabbaticals he’d no doubt become accustomed to over his many years with the Boss. Most recently, he was heard playing sax with pop sensation Lady Gaga on her single “The Edge of Glory.”
Springsteen fans the world over have known Clemons by a variety of names, reflecting his larger-than-life persona in the E Street Band for some four decades. Many of these, such as “King of the World” and “Master of the Universe,” became part of the universal language of E Street by way of Springsteen’s lengthy, played-for-maximum-dramatic-effect introduction of his longtime sax player and all-around crowd favorite onstage. Ever aware of what (or in this case, who) moves an audience, Springsteen always saved Clemons for last when introducing the members of the E Street Band.
“Do I have to say his name?” Springsteen has been known to testify on stage with all the fire and brimstone of an old-time gospel preacher. “Do I Have To Say His Name?” Of course, E Street Band fans best knew Clemons simply as “The Big Man.”
In addition to providing the unforgettable saxophone that proved such an integral part of the E Street Band’s signature sound — including such standout sax breaks as those heard on “Badlands,” “Born To Run” and especially “Jungleland” — the Big Man was the ideal onstage foil for Springsteen. Dating back to their earliest concerts in the ’70s, Clemons cut a towering presence next to the comparatively smaller and wiry Springsteen, making for a unique onstage chemistry unmatched in all of live rock and roll.
Yet it was their onstage camaraderie, particularly as manifested in humorous stories Springsteen told with Clemons by his side, that became the stuff of legend. When Springsteen replaced the E Street Band with a group of studio musicians — including another sax player — for his 1992 tour behind the albums Human Touch and Lucky Town, fans never bought into the Boss’ attempt to recreate this unique combination.
“He was my great friend, my partner,” Springsteen said of Clemons in a statement Saturday night, “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.”
That last promise could prove a bit tough for the Boss to keep. As much as carrying on the E Street Band might be the ultimate tribute to the memory of Clarence Clemons (as well as to keyboardist Danny Federici, who succumbed to melanoma in 2008), it neither could nor ever would be the same without the Big Man.
And so the change was made Upstairs and… well, you probably know the rest.