Sunday, June 19, 2011

RIP Clarence Clemons

In 1984, I was twelve years old.  The original Karate Kid movies were in the theatres and my best friend and I were both in love with Ralph Macchio.  We spent all of our money on Teen Beat and Tiger Beat and 16 and Bop magazines.  We plastered our bedroom doors with posters of Ralph Macchio and memorized the answers to his interview questions.

Ralph Macchio loved Bruce Springsteen, therefore, by default so did I.

My cousin's neighbor was a teenager and she slept outside in line for tickets to see Bruce Springsteen at Giants Stadium for his Born in the USA tour in August of 1984.  She had two extra tickets and my aunt asked my mom if she and I wanted to go.  And I went to my very first rock concert!  I sat with my cousin and her friend, we stood on our chairs and clapped til our hands were raw and screamed til our throats were sore.

If you have ever seen Bruce live, you know it sets the bar high.  Many people will say they were not fans until they saw Bruce and the band live.  I guess, although I was only twelve, that was my case.

The day after that first concert, I took all of my savings (I have always been a saver) and begged my mom to bring me to the record store, where I bought every cassette.  I ceremoniously opened each one and spent weeks listening to it, reading the lyrics and taking the time to understand them.  I didn't open the next cassette until I had stripped every emotion inside myself with the first.

That is what the music of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band is for me.  It's soul stripping.  It may sound crazy unless you have experienced it, but I hear this music so deep inside.  It's like a part of me, it's in my blood and my soul.  The lyrics and the melodies are a part of my life.  The songs are about people like me, like my family.  The characters in the songs struggle to always do the right thing, even if it is hard, even if it isn't what they want to be doing, they still do it because it is what is right.  Those are the values I was raised with.  It's about being Catholic, and blue collar and half-Italian.  It's about driving the Jersey Turnpike late at night.  It's about the promise and the power and the prospects of being at the shore as a teenager.  It's about integrity and humanity and humility and the human condition.  It's about being broken and humbled and heart broken.  It's about the American dream and never giving up on your dreams and all the pain that comes with unrealized or unfulfilled dreams.  It's about so many things.

I've seen Bruce without the band and I've seen Bruce with the band.  When I saw him for the Seeger Sessions tour, it was amazing.  But when it was the whole catalog of music, without the band (they broke up for a few years in the early nineties) it was not the same.  Something big was missing.  The band is flawlessly tight, they anticipate each other's every breath.  If Bruce is the boss, the lyricist, the front man and singer; The E Street Band is the music, they breathe life into that music that no one else can.  The band is part of that journey of transcendence that keeps us coming back to the shows.

I honestly stopped counting years ago how many concerts I have been to.  I have waited in line with strangers.  I have jumped in cars with strangers to get better seats at better places.  I didn't miss the Reunion concert, even though I was 8 months pregnant.  I have been to concerts alone, with friends, with Jason, and with my mom.  I have been to concerts in three different states.  I've been to symposiums and audited college lectures on Bruce (yes, here in Jersey there is a college that offers a class on Bruce's America).  The Stone Pony is a little like a Holy Grail to me.  I was at the very last concert ever at Giants Stadium.

And it's pretty much always the same.  I get turned inside out at the concerts.  The music just reaches in and pulls out all of the pain and strife and heartache and vulnerability, it pulls everything to the surface and for three hours I share what it means to be human with several thousand other people and Bruce and the band.  We are transported and transcended by the church of rock n roll.

I remember when, here in New Jersey, it was not are you going?  It was what night are you going and how many nights are you going?  If Bruce was in town, you could pull up to any streetlight and inevitably another car would be blasting Bruce.

It's not quite like that anymore.  I've been in situations where I have to defend my love of Bruce and the band.  But I do believe that if Bruce wanted to play 60 concerts in New Jersey, they would all be sold out.  If they wanted to play 160 concerts here in NJ, they would all sell out.  Because there are some diehards, some fanatics.  I fall into that category.  There are two camps of fanatics: The Thunder Road camp (dreamers) and the Badlands camp (life is hard, but we are all in it together).  I am of the latter camp.

I sometimes find it kind of bizarre that people all over the world love Bruce.  And indeed, I've met people from all over the world who fly in for his shows.  To me, Bruce is just one of us.  New Jersey is a small state.  There is way less than 6 degrees of separation.  Everyone knows someone that knows Bruce.  Bon Jovi's cousins went to our rival Catholic school and are still friends with some of my friends.  Likewise, one of my friends dated Bruce's nephew.  My neighbor works with Bruce's cousin.  My brother lives less than a mile from Bruce's sister.  A friend of mine knows Patty's family fairly well.  My 8th grade teacher went to school with Bruce and I have friends that went to school with the children of the E Street band members.  Jason has met Steven Van Zandt several times.  I've always said - and I still feel this way - that I would never want to meet any of those guys because I would probably pass out or something embarrassing.  I hope that if I ever see them, I will just nod, because honestly I believe that would be the best thing I can do to show my respect.

I follow several other diehard fans on Twitter, and I saw the Tweets on Sunday morning, but I thought it was just commemorating Danny or Terry.  I didn't hear that Clarence Clemons died until tonight.  It's selfish when someone dies to think of how you will never hear them play that sax again.  That saxophone will never again get into your bloodstream and just bring all of that emotion to the surface in a live venue again.  Those were my first thoughts and I wept.  Then I thought of the pain Bruce must be in.  Clarence is the Big Man for a reason.  Bruce has said that when Clarence wraps his arms around Bruce at the end of the night, Bruce knows the show was good and they did what they had come to do and transported people beyond their own lives with the healing power of rock n roll.

Just as I've lost track of how many concerts I have attended, I have lost track of how many more times I have gotten on my knees and thanked God for letting me live in a time when Bruce is making music.  I've thanked God for Bruce's music, for his gift and for letting me see him live and experience that gift so many times.  And today, especially, I thank God for Clarence and that soulful saxophone, that larger than life beautiful personality, that exuberant laugh, that genuine smile, that certain something that put everyone at ease.

Rest In Peace
Clarence Clemons
Thank You
for many amazing nights of rock n roll!
You will be greatly missed.
You left a void too big to fill.
You set the bar high.
And for that, we are grateful!