As many of you heard, Clarence Clemons died Saturday evening, leaving many of us East Street Band devotees with the stark reality that it’ll never be Scooter and the Big Man on stage again, mugging as they lean into each other, Springsteen with his electric guitar and Clemons with his saxophone. Their collaboration was one for the ages, based on a kind of love rooted in respect and rock and roll. It also broken racial barriers at a time when bands were almost always segregated.
Both Clemons and Springsteen tell the story of how they met: Bruce was playing a club in Asbury Park when Clemons came to check out this band he’d been hearing so much about. There was a huge thunderstorm, and when Clemons opened the door to the club only to have the wind grab the door off its hinges and fling it down the street, bouncers from the club running out after it. Bruce looked out to see a 6’4″ Black man standing in the doorway with lightning all around. At that moment, according to each of them in many interviews, they fell in love.
I fell in love with the band after I left New Jersey, too determined not to fall into Bruuuuuuce-mania while living in the same county (same school district even) where Bruce and some of the band grew up. Liking Springsteen was like believing in a high power, and so, as a teen, I was determined to buck that system. But sometime in my first year in Missouri, a flood of feeling overtook me when I heard “Meeting Across the River,” and I realized that “Born to Run” as well as other albums were seared into my soul. I was Bruce-branded, and so I crossed over.
I remember meeting Clemons — like many people in NJ who can tell you stories about meeting some member of the band at some point — in a diner in Red Bank, NJ well after midnight. I was attending nearby Brookdale Community College, and the Big Man walked in and sat down to order some food. “There’s Clarence Clemons!” my friends nudged me. “Go say hello.” But we were too shy. Paying for our check on the way out, I looked toward him, he caught my eyes and nodded. I nodded back.
Mostly, though, I loved watching him and Bruce perform together, and lately in the “Live in London” DVD, I can watch them up close. This is where I discover what I always suspected: they were still in love 40 years after they began, leaning into each other, nodding knowingly at one another, and giving one another kisses at the ends of some songs. In one interview, Clemons said, “It’s two strong, very viral men finding that space in life where they could let go of their masculinity to feel the passion of love and respect…Friendships are based on that, and you seal it with a kiss.”
To commemorate Clemons, I had my own private memorial service, watching the dvd as well as many youtube clips, and seeing — from a 1978 performance to a more recent one — a love that could never grow old, and now, with the passing of Clemons, that will never die. Meanwhile to everyone who loves this band and this man, remember these lyrics from “The Ties That Bind”: “You’re walkin’ tough baby, but you’re walkin’ blind to the ties that bind” Long may these ties bind.