The past few days have been strange, beautiful, sad, and full of joy. I flew to my home state this weekend for a family reunion and I caught up with relatives I had not seen in 10, 20 and even 30 years. We had a wonderful time, and as I drove back to the charming little antebellum Bed and Breakfast where we stayed, I listened to Born to Run on CD in the car so that I could relive the full flavor of my youth. I once drove those same tired old streets, listening to the same Springsteen songs and hoping that one day I would go somewhere big and wonderful, somewhere that matched the life imagined in the vibrancy of the music that mattered to me most.
On Saturday night, after a wonderful evening with my family, a friend from LA called and asked if I’d heard the news. I had not. Clarence “Big Man” Clemons, The King of the Universe, the Big Kahuna, the Prince of the City, the Duke of Paducah, and the biggest f’ing man you’ll ever see, had died.
He didn’t write the words to Springsteen’s songs, but as one journalist, of the many who have written about Clarence’s death, said, he understood how to play the lyrics. It’s a careful choice of words. He gave the lyrics soul, and his notes blew right through the core of mine.
I know a lot of people who love music, but I know few people who have been truly touched by music the way Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band have touched their hard core fans—the E Street Nation—of which I am a proud member. It may be the music that matters most to me, but the soul driver of that music has left this world.
There is a brief moment at all Springsteen shows, just before the stage lights go up, where the excitement of what is to come over the next two to three hours builds to a mountain so high, you need the help of a big man to pull you to the top. In fact, you need the Big Man. The band will go on, and Clarence will be remembered as a vital part of their history and legend. The E Street Band will remain the same earth-quaking, booty shaking, love-making, Viagra-taking, best little garage band you ever saw, but it will not quite be the same.
I think of future “Jungleland” performances. Clarence, with his sax, built the song to an operatic pitch; his music didn’t just punctuate the lyrics or the mood of the song. They embodied the emotion of the damaged world Springsteen had created, where wounded poets “just stand back and let it all be.”
It’s hard for me to write about Clarence without making this about me. I’ve said many times that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were my first Life mentors. Their music reached through the airwaves of the 70s and grabbed this small-town Mississippi girl by the center of her soul and yanked her into a vibrant world of discontented characters with large hopes and a penchant for redemption. It was fitting, on a personal level, that Clemons passed away when I was in the land of my roots, the place where I became a faithful and loyal member of E Street Nation. I’m back in LA, but in my heart, I’m still in my hometown, driving through the streets at night, 17 again, with Jungleland playing, and I hear that mournful blue sax solo. Everything else fades away, except for the unforgettable sound of his notes.