Monday, June 20, 2011

"When The Change Was Made Uptown And The Big Man Joined The Band"

Clarence Clemons (with Jackson Browne)--"You're A Friend Of Mine" (mp3)

The second time I saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band was in the summer of 1978. I was attending summer school for the hell of it at William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA. Because I was living a spartan life in a dorm room that summer, I didn't have a stereo with me, just a small cassette player and a bunch of tapes that had accompanied me on the drive down and that now provided music for my dorm room.

Luckily, I made friends quickly, and primarily, with a couple of boys named Doug. Both were from Virginia and were at summer school because they had to be, trying to get back in William and Mary's good graces for the upcoming year. One of the Dougs had a car and in that car an 8-track player and in that tape player a copy of Darkness On The Edge Of Town. Without a stereo, I had been missing Darkness, an early summer release that my brother and I liked to play over and over down in our basement while playing ping-pong.

So getting to ride around in Doug's car with Doug and Doug listening to Bruce was one of the highlights of that summer.

If you've never had to deal with an 8-track player, then you don't know that the 8-track only plays in one direction--forward. You couldn't fast forward or rewind; you had to listen in order. Your only hoping of finding the song you wanted was to to flip the 8-track over and hope it was playing on the other side. The other issue was that if the two sides weren't equal timewise, you would have long gaps of nothing but hiss, so the music companies would put whatever song was closest to the length of the potential hiss gap on the 8-track twice. In the case of Darkness On The Edge Of Town, that song was "Candy's Room." If you played the 8-track straight through, you had to listen to "Candy's Room" twice as often as any other song.

There are worse things, but it was still annoying.

The good news was that, while at W+M, Bruce's summer tour got underway, including a stop at Hampton Roads, Virginia. And either Doug or Doug, I forget which, got us tickets.

That show of shows kicked off what was, for me, the greatest year of rock music, for two simple reasons--Bruce Springsteen's Darkness On The Edge Of Town and Neil Young's Rust Never Sleeps and the tours that supported (or in Neil's case, introduced) them.

But in the immediate moment in the Hampton Roads Coliseum, there were other matters, specifically a stunning, marathon concert from a band who hadn't yet achieved national fame, so you felt like you were in on something special, exclusive, even intimate, despite the thousands of others in the audience.

And there was Clarence. Hampton was a bit of a homecoming for him. His family was from Norfolk and they were all in attendance, a cheering section the likes of which I'd not seen at a concert. It was kind of like when you were young and you ran into your teacher in the supermarket and realized that, wait a second, she exists outside of school. She has a life. Seeing Clarence's family that night cemented for me the fraternal nature of that band, how even the superstardom on the horizon would not change their essential brotherhood all that much. It's hard to imagine Keith Richards' extended clan getting a shoutout from Mick at a Stones' concert.

Although when we hear the shows now, we think of that Darkness tour as featuring Bruce because he unleashed a guitar sound and style that no one had heard before, the shows belonged just as much to Clarence, that rock and roll anomaly. Not only the only black guy in an all-white band, but a sax player. And Bruce's onstage foil (sorry, Stevie). And very much the hero of the crowd. At that time, David Bowie was about the only other rock musician using, occasionally, minimally playing, sax. But here was Clarence, front and center, featured prominently at the top of his powers.

Though Darkness started to downplay Clarence's sax role, limiting him to short, punctuated solos or no solos at all, the setlist in 1978 still drew heavily from the past, and Clarence's solos on "Spirits In The Night," "Jungleland," "Kitty's Back," "Rosalita" and others took the crowd to new heights. When there wasn't sax, he was still vital. His strong percussion and vocals at the start of "Not Fade Away/She's The One" made me sit up and notice a song I hadn't really paid attention to. At the climax of the show, Bruce stood atop one speaker tower and Clarence atop the other.

And now Clarence Clemons is gone. It must feel to Bruce, as it does to me, as if his guts have been ripped out. Even older, ailing, having to sit down, with fewer sax parts to play, Clarence struck me as the one member of the band who could not be replaced. His sound was so distinctive, so integral to the best of Springsteen's music that to move on from here and either to replace it or to omit it seems like a mistake.

I mourn for Clarence. I mourn for the E Street Band. For when the Big Man died this weekend, for me, the band died with him. I have no doubt that there is still great music to come from Springsteen with or without some or all of his longtime bandmates, but, sadly, it will not be the E Street Band. Not without Clarence.


Billy said...

Very educational for me to read this. I wasn't well-enough versed on The Big Man's role in the band. You illuminate it very nicely.

Sorry for your and troutking's loss. I know it's felt more deeply than someone in my shoes could quite grasp.

troutking said...

As much as we've talked Bruce, I haven't heard the story of that show, and you paint the picture of that scene wonderfully.

I knew you would say the E Street Band can't exist without Clarence. I'm not saying it because I don't want it to be true. But you are right. As a musician and as a persona, he is crucial and irreplaceable. The Big Man is part of what made a Springsteen show bigger than life. He also ensured it was not just a bunch of white kids playing R&B/soul inspired rock and roll. Bruce will certainly keep recording and I'm pretty sure he'll keep performing, probably with the same group of musicians. Bruce being Bruce, he'll find a way to celebrate Clarence's role going forward, but it may only be in our hearts and minds that we hear the Jungleland solo or "the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band." For now, Clarence, "you'll know I'm thinking of you and all the miles in between. And I'm just calling one last time not to change your mind, but just to say I miss you baby, good luck goodbye, Bobby Jean."

stowstepp said...

Amen, brother.