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Clarence

I was born with an addictive personality. It happens. It leads you down some interesting roads, not all of which are bad by the way. Some are of course, but then that’s half the fun.

Music was always there. It still is. I fall asleep to it and I wake up to it. If I’m not listening to somebody else’s, I’m trying to create my own. I bang away at guitars and pianos and blow into harmonicas. My right leg started bouncing up and down the first time I heard John Lennon shredding his vocal chords on “Twist and Shout” and it hasn’t stopped moving since. It’s not “restless leg syndrome”. It’s rock and roll.

I wanted to be a rock and roll star, but I play air-guitar left-handed and real guitar right-handed so I knew it was never gonna work. Way too self-conscious when it’s more than the mirror looking back at me. Still, I’ll grab my acoustic guitar and play shows in smallish places. Stripped-down affairs that need as much silence as Townshend needs screeching feedback. But I’m a prisoner to the beat still, banging on the stage with my Doc Martens as I end my nights, inevitably, with Buddy Holly’s stomp “Not Fade Away”. It makes me feel young even though I’m not. It lifts me up when I’m feeling down. I’ve tried other stimulants. Nothing else comes close.

It started with vinyl. My 3 sister’s shared a bedroom and when they were out I’d sneak in there and start going through the stacks in the corner. I’d sneak “Darkness on the Edge of Town” into my room and play it on my little turn-table that I stored under the bed. The needle was so worn and frayed I taped a penny on the arm to try to grind through the scratches and skips. For 10 years an entire line of “Racing in the Streets” passed me by because of a skip I could not negotiate no matter how hard I pressed the needle down. “Born to Run” was the record with Springteen leaning on some huge black guy with a saxophone. I think I was 12 when I first heard the record. Even then I thought it odd. A black guy and a white guy. Together on the cover. In the same band. Playing rock and roll. I heard “Jungleland” and got completely freaked out. It was like a 9 minute Scorcese movie. And that sax solo sounded like somebody small time deciding he wasn’t gonna be small time anymore…..somebody intent on obliterating every awkward stereotype drilled into small minds. Like mine.

Whatever this was, I liked it.

I’ve never listened to music the same way again.

I’d like to think my mind isn’t so small anymore. Music has expanded it….no music more so than the sounds made by Springsteen and the E Street Band. And this was the mid-70s. You hear “Born and Run” or “Badlands” on the radio today and they still sound volcanic.  Imagine what that sound could do to a pre-teen who owned Styx and Kansas records?

It took a few days for it to sink in when I heard that Clarence Clemons had died. That cover of “Born to Run” may be etched in our memories. Surely it’s iconic, and maybe it’s the main reason we don’t really think of Bruce without Clarence. And we certainly don’t think of Clarence without Bruce. Springsteen is the boss after all, but it’s pretty clear that Clemons more than any other helped get him the promotion. But for me it’s the music they made together. I listen to “The River” today and I hear a master’s class in American music. Without Clarence, it falls short.

Clarence Clemons is front and center on Springsteen’s greatest songs. “Spirit in the Night”. “Thundercrack”. “Rosalita”. “Kitty’s Back”. “Born to Run”. “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out”. “She’s the One”. “Thunder Road”. “Jungleland”. “Badlands”. “Promised Land”. “Prove it all Night”. “Independence Day”. “Ramrod”. “The Ties That Bind”. “Lonesome Day”. The resume is astounding. Rock and roll horn players should bow.

What about race? Well, what about it? Perhaps more strange than a large black man being out front with the biggest white rock and roll star of our generation is that nobody really noticed. I’m sure it mattered to Clarence….criss-crossing a nation in the 70s that in large part was still scarred by segregation. But somehow, to us in the seats, it’s didn’t matter worth a damn. For those 3 and 4 hours on-stage, the community was colorblind. Ultimately, this proved to be the exception rather than the rule. Rock and Roll to this day, despite being largely created by a black man (Chuck Berry) and a white man (Elvis Presley) everybody assumed was black…and derived almost entirely from black music (the blues, bits of gospel)….makes barely a ripple in the black community. A rock and roll concert audience is still as white as a Tea Party. I make no judgements….nor do I lose sleep over it. That’s for the sociologists. It’s simply a fact.

But it finally has sunk in the Clarence Clemons is gone. I wonder what’s next for Springsteen. He’s lost not only his good friend but his musical soul-mate, the one man “big” enough not to be dwarfed by Bruce’s talent and charisma. It’s gotta be lonely at the top. I imagine the room is even more empty now.

In a bit..

–tf

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