Posted by: mdegeorge | June 19, 2011

In memory of Clarence Clemons

I know I usually reserve this space for my thoughts on sports. But sports and art are important for the same reasons. It’s not for statistics like runs batted in, records sold or auction prices that we can use to classify and organize our worlds. It’s because at its heart, sports and art alike reflect something about us. They represent a shared reality. They involve a set of guidelines and definitions that – through the virtuosos that adhere or at times even disregard to those rules – show us what we are capable of yet cannot as average people readily attain. That’s why tonight it’s time to remember the Big Man, Clarence Clemons.

Courtesy of Creative Commons.

Driving home from work, the CD in my car turned to Track 8. As I heard the finishing notes of Track 7, the final notes of a trumpet fading away as if its player was walking down a dark street, slowly turning the corner, I knew what was coming. Before the sonorous tones of Clarence Clemons’ solo three minutes into Jungleland filled the space of my car, seeming emptier than an empty car ever has, tears began to well up in my eyes.

These tears were for the death of a person I had never met, a person who try as I might on Ticketmaster, I probably was never within a thousand feet of.

And I thought why. Why was it that I drove home without consciously seeing a road sign? Why did I feel suspended in time, more like I was standing still and the scenery was rushing by at roughly the speed limit, give or take?

The solo in Jungleland is enough to give anyone chills on a regular night. Hearing it tonight, in all its remastered glory, was surreal.

Here was this man whose music felt alive, felt tangible, whose absence left a void, whose death felt like that of a family member. He provided a soundtrack to the most transcendent things we can have as people: to struggle, to our own meaninglessness, to love. It was such an inelegant situation, these two vagabonds society had no use for, striving to find what we all seek. Yet this elegant sound, this refined and beautiful melody, emerges from a crowd of noise, washing over the listener like waves on a beach, transferring the struggles of the song’s protagonists for a brief moment of understanding onto you.

That’s what Clarence was. No matter how much Bruce was the working man, the hero outcast in the tattered jeans and ripped shirt, Clarence could never be. Bruce is everything that the characters in his song ran from – the difficult home life, the classrooms, the conformist crowd. Bruce set the stage in every song; he represented the struggle.

Clarence was what Bruce’s characters ran to. He was why they raced in the streets. He was playing on the three-minute record that taught them more than they ever learned in school. He was the reward for spitting in the face of the badlands. He was the promised land. He was why, however ill-fated it seemed, they took a stab at romance.

Clarence took an instrument that was workman enough to fit in a band like Springsteen’s and made it do things that delivered the characters Bruce created from their worldly places, for however brief a moment.

Clarence represented that for Bruce in his music and in life. To say he was the minister of heart wasn’t an empty claim. He brought a passion and a presence that was the living personification of Bruce’s own creativity and zeal for his craft. He was a friend and ever a counterpoint. While Springsteen wore old t-shirts and jeans, Clarence was outfitted in fine silk. While Bruce slid all over the stage, Clarence stood rock steady at the far end, ready to receive a singing Bruce onto his shoulder. While Bruce poured out conflict and hardship and pain with his words, Clarence’s saxophone resounded beauty and harmony.

Through thousands of songs and hours spent listening to them together, their partnership is quite clear. There is no Bruce with Clarence, and there is no Clarence without Bruce. They formed a genuine duo. Clarence was devastated when Bruce announced he’d put the band on hiatus. There’s no one who has ever witnessed the religious experience that is a live E Street Band concert who doesn’t believe that their reunion for the last decade brought anything but pure unadulterated joy to them both.

There’s plenty to miss tonight. There’s the personality that makes Clarence’s gargantuan stature seem small. There’s the devotion to a craft that transcends any judgment of what that medium is. There’s the suspended disbelief of the human condition that makes us not want to acknowledge that so much life and happiness that resided in one place can so quickly leave us.

But there’s this: In Bruce and Clarence, the world was given the remarkable good fortune to see two people so devoted, so perfectly able to help the other achieve greatness. Whether you consider yourself a fan or not, there are artisans in this world who can manufacture such a perfect synthesis, a total dominance of their medium, that it becomes transcendent. For these two to be able to do so with such a genuine friendship and a love that escapes our simplistic and cookie-cutter definitions of the word, is nothing short of amazing. It was quite literally magic, in the most truthful and sincere definition of the word.

Perhaps that’s why the tears tonight. It’s not just because the dulcet tones, however alive they seemed, are gone. It’s because the tones felt alive because the man behind it was able to imbue some of his full rich life into them. What he gave to that music and to the other great people with whom he made music was a generous portion of the unadulterated zeal he had for life. A piece of that life is transferred to anyone who’s ever heard the Big Man’s work.

That piece of life and passion will stay forever, even though the Big Man is gone.

Rest in Peace, Clarence Clemons.

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