Monday, June 20, 2011

Remembering the Big Man

The media and the people who care about demographics would tell you that I belong to the tail end of the Baby Boomer generation, the folks who brought you Woodstock and Vietnam War protests, free love and costly debt accumulation. I would tell you that I belong to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. It’s woefully inadequate as a tagline for an identity. But as a handy encapsulation of the forces that shaped my life, it will do. By the time I became old enough to care about cultural tags, the hippies had faded, the Vietnam War was winding down, Nixon had resigned, and Ford and Carter were presiding over a nationwide malaise. I was part of the generation that didn’t have a name. We weren’t Baby Boomers. We weren’t anything, really. We were just young, idealistic kids. In my case, I was trying to follow Jesus and trying to figure out how He would help me find a job once I graduated.

Bruce Springsteen played a concert in Athens, Ohio at that time, at a little auditorium on the campus of Ohio University. I was maybe 50 feet from the stage. And Bruce Springsteen did what he always did. He played for three and a half hours, and nobody, and I mean nobody, was complaining about the length of the show. I emerged a full-fledged, sweat-soaked, exhausted believer. Bruce got it. He understood in ways that the hippies totally missed. He understood the passions and the frustrations of my nameless generation, and he captured it all in mythic metaphors and poetry that could sing and sting. He also happened to play epic, glorious rock ‘n roll. “Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts,” Paul Simon would sing a decade later. Bruce Springsteen was mine. I just happened to share him with a few million other people.

The big black man who played saxophone at that concert died this weekend. His name was Clarence Clemons, although to millions of Springsteen fans he was simply The Big Man. Clarence Clemons wasn’t a great sax player. There are dozens of jazzmen who could school him. And he only really played two great solos in his life. The rest of the time he was content to churn out standard R&B riffs. Don’t let that fool you. He was the heart and soul of the E Street Band, and the E Street Band was the rock ‘n roll band of that nameless generation. Nobody else even came close.

Those two solos are both on the album Born to Run, the album that defined Bruce Springsteen. The first one is on the title track, a mad, soaring slab of soulful exuberance that perfectly matched the grit and passion of the lyrics. “We gotta get out while we’re young,” Bruce Springsteen sang, and that’s what Clarence Clemons played. It was a sax solo for the open road, for busting out and breaking shackles. The second and greater solo occurs at the end of the album, on a song called “Jungleland.” The open road has somehow inexplicably wandered into a thicket of blind alleys. The narrator who set out so confidently on the journey is back on the dead-end streets. Midway through the song Clarence Clemons plays a two-minute solo that captures the sound of America circa 1975, of the nameless generation of kids who thought they might have a defining moment, but didn’t, who busted out only to find a roadblock, a wall, an asphalt jungle without signs or markers. It is a solo that starts with a sustained wail and ends with a whimper. It may be the greatest rock ‘n roll elegy ever captured on recorded media.

That’s the guy who died this weekend. Maybe you had to be there, in Athens, Ohio, on that April night in the mid-1970s. Maybe you simply need to listen to the music. But that’s what we lost. And so it was a strange, rollercoaster day yesterday – Father’s Day, a day where I had wonderful conversations with my wife, and my kids, and numerous friends, and where I found myself emotionally raw, the tears welling up at the strangest times and the most inconvenient moments. The day was great. And so is the loss.


Friar said...

Nice thoughts.

I'm thinking that one thing about that "Last Trump" that Harold Camping seems to think will sound this year: With the Big Man now in the heavenly realms, it's going to sound awesome.

helena_dagmar said...

Thanks for posting this. 1000memories created a tribute site for Clarence today - - thought you'd appreciate it.

Gar said...

When me and my wife saw Springsteen and the E street band in Nashville some years back she said the Big Man was the highlight of the show. She had more fun watching him than she did Bruce.

roadkills-r-us said...

I've never seen Bruce live but Clarence stole my ears on BTR, which stole my heart. I knew before you got there those would be the solos. They just ARE.