June 2011

In memory of the Big Man, Clarence Clemons

CHICAGO — I’m sitting in my hotel room listening to the soulful sax solo in “Jungleland” and I’m not ashamed to say that I’m openly weeping. I’ve heard it hundreds of times in recording and live and it  never seems more fresh than it does tonight. The Big Man blows those notes as if they came from his gut, not just his lips. And perhaps they did, but will do so no more. Clarence Clemons is dead and another piece of our shared experiences went with him.

Of all the Bruce Springsteen songs he’s written over the course of 40 years, “Jungleland” is my favorite. It is part rock opera, part poem about the struggles of the Magic Rat and the Barefoot Girl trying to survive in the seedy underbelly of New Jersey. There’s a sweet piano opening, a guitar solo, the Big Man’s sax solo followed by another soft, pretty piano riff. Bruce tells the story in his raspy, unforgettable voice. It ends with the Rat being shot, but even that he can’t  seem to get right.

“In the quick of the of the night they reach out to find their moment and take an honest stand,” says Bruce, speaking the story now. “But they wind up wounded and not even dead. To-night — in — Jungle — land.”

I saw Bruce and the E Street band for the first time in 1985 in the midst of his “Born in the USA” tour. I was on the Padres beat back then and as fate it would have it, the concert was at a place then called “The Horizon” in the Chicago suburbs near O’Hare. I met up with Ken Gurnick and Gordon Edes and a group of other writers who were then covering the Dodgers for their local papers. The concert blew me away and I’ve been a Bruceophile ever since.

The last time I saw the Band was on Nov. 8, 2009, in New York at Madison Square Garden. I was accompanied by my daughter, Joanna, who was five years old in ’85, but a full-grown woman of nearly 29 that night. She never could get my Springsteen thing, but she got it at the Garden. It was one of the last concerts of their  last two-year tour and they were playing whole signature albums by then. On that night, it was “The River,” the only time they’d ever done that one in concert. It is a mega two-album affair that predates “Born in the USA,” the album that put the group on the map. It was a singular show.

The 20 numbers on “The River” include some of Springsteen’s long-time classics. And when he was done with that, he still had another 11 songs in him. During his much more recent “Waiting on a Sunny Day,” a little boy joined the group on the stage and haltingly sang some of the lyrics. When it came time for the Clemons sax solo, the kid exuberantly yelled: “Take it Big Man.” The crowd uproariously cheered.

As it had become his habit in those last concerts, the then 60-year-old Bruce kept telling his fans that he wasn’t saying goodbye, only so-long “for just a little while.” Somehow, though, I had the feeling that it would be the last time I’d ever see the Band in that makeup. Clarence, after all, was nearing 70 and not in the greatest of health. If they stayed off the road for another two years it was doubtful that the Big Man would ever be out there again. They haven’t played together since and tonight those thoughts turned out to be prescient.

The band in its reconstituted form will undoubtedly tour again, but it will never be the same. As Bruce said today about Clemons: “He was my great friend, my partner and with Clarence at my side, my band and I were able to tell a story far deeper than those simply contained in our music. His life, his memory, and his love will live on in that story and in our band.”

Certainly, the Big Man’s memory will live on in those soulful notes he perpetually plays in “Jungleland.”