Drop the Needle and Pray: Mourning Clarence Clemons, 1942 - 2011

The mystery and sensuality of Clarence’s sax on “Spirit in the Night", the triumphant conclusion to “Thunder Road", and the epic solo in “Jungleland", are a few of the prodigies among Clarence and Springsteen’s many children -- children conceived by the spiritual love affair that they had for nearly 40 years.

It is difficult to define the “work of mourning", as Jacques Derrida called it, in relation to a public figure with whom the mourner shares no “personal connection".

The large number of Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band fans, and therefore Clarence Clemons fans, who are mourning the loss of the band’s legendary saxophone player had no personal connection with him. I had never even met the Big Man, yet when my mother called to inform me of the news that she heard from CNN, I almost broke into tears.

It felt odd having such a strong emotional reaction to the death of a stranger, especially considering that as time went on it did not weaken. With each song I played, it grew stronger.

Musically, artistically, and creatively, the loss is enormous. The loss of Clemons leaves a void that is as large as the rock ‘n’ roll giant who earned his nickname with the imposing physical stature of a linebacker and a devastating sound from his horn that could blow out the windows of a bar and shake the foundation of a sports arena.

In his memoir, he talks about how the first time he met Bruce Springsteen, they “fell in love” and after playing one song together, they knew that “this is it". Whether or not Clarence Clemons was the best saxophone player in rock music is not for me to judge. There is no doubt, however, that Clarence Clemons was the best saxophone player for Bruce Springsteen.

On the rare occasion that Springsteen played with a different saxophone player, the songs just did not sound right. The mystery and sensuality of Clarence’s sax on “Spirit in the Night", the rollicking riff of “Cadillac Ranch", the triumphant conclusion to “Thunder Road", and of course, the epic solo in “Jungleland", are a few of the prodigies among Clarence and Springsteen’s many children -- children conceived by the spiritual love affair that they had for nearly 40 years.

The moments of musical mastery that appear on almost every Springsteen album when the wall of sound is blasted apart by a sonic boom are not only products of talent, craftsmanship, and artistic vision from the songwriter and the player, but products of love. They are evidence of the indefinable, unexplainable, and irreplaceable magic that is willed into the universe by people whose chemistry, creativity, and humanity interlock right in time with something larger than themselves. Springsteen acknowledged the greater mystery at work in their musicality in his written statement following the death of his friend, bandmate, and brother: “With Clarence at my side, my band and I were able to tell a story far deeper than those simply contained in our music.”

Springsteen and the E-Street Band did not only lose a rock legend, but they lost a friend. Their loss is far more profound and powerful than anything that any fan, no matter how enthusiastic or devoted, could imagine feeling.

* * *

It's not entirely true though that the fans shared no personal connection or experience with the Big Man. One of the moments I looked most forward to when I bought tickets for my first Springsteen concert in 1999 was when Clarence would play his first solo of the night. I knew he would stand center stage underneath a spotlight. I knew his horn would shake the rafters and raise the energy of the room, and I knew that 20,000 people would scream in such loud unity that many of his notes would become inaudible. It happened exactly like that during the opening song, “Ties That Bind", and I felt a surge of electricity move through my body that not only let me know I was at a rock show, but also affirmed everything that is precious about life -- passion, vitality, communal solidarity, and love.

I stood next to my former junior high school principal who I asked to accompany me to the show as a thank you gesture for introducing me to the music of Springsteen when I was one of his students. He had not seen Springsteen play with the E-Street Band since the early 1980s, and he spent a great deal of the drive to the arena talking about how much he hoped they would play his favorite song, “Jungleland".

The band powered through the song with perfection, playing the epic Born to Run closer with note-for-note intensity and ferocity. Roy Bittan played the piano introduction beautifully, Steven Van Zandt played the guitar solo with fire shooting out of his fingertips, and Springsteen sang with nearly all the hunger he had in 1975. He shouted the last words of the bridge: "Lonely-hearted lovers struggle in dark corners / Desperate as the night moves on / Just a look and a whisper, and they're gone."

The crowd began to cheer in anticipation of the best part of an amazing song. The Big Man took the center stage spotlight, and began to blow into his horn, amplifying the sound of struggle and releasing the sweet notes of redemption. Clemons said that the “Jungleland” solo is the sound of someone “coming out of something", and he said that he always tried to play in the key of “transcendence".

I looked over and up at my former principal, also a large and strong man, and saw tears filling his eyes and falling down his cheeks. The concert became more than entertainment for him. It was meaningful, spiritual, and personal. We put our arms around each other when the song ended, and then we were smiling when Clemons played a swinging solo during “Working on the Highway".

When asked why he continued to play music on grueling tours after having both knees replaced Clemons said, “My spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy told me that my purpose in life is to bring joy and light to the world, and I don't know any better way to do that then what I'm doing now.”

The Big Man Clarence Clemons brought joy and light to me when I first put on Springsteen’s music as an eighth grader looking for a ticket to the wider world. He brought joy and light to the world of my former principal who first heard “Jungleland” in his college dorm room, and was moved to tears by its saxophone solo decades later. He brought light and joy into the lives of millions of people whose hearts were softened, eyes were opened, and imaginations enlarged by his playing.

That is deeply personal.

A true artist is often able to personalize the universal and break down the social divisions of distance, unfamiliarity, and static categorizations of race, class, and age. Clarence Clemons did exactly that and he made the connection between him and his fans feel personal. The Big Man was not a friend to the fans, but he was someone who used his talent, spirit, and labor to give joy to his fans, which is akin to an act of friendship. It is certainly an act of love.

The fans that mourn him mourn the loss of a generous artist, and like with any loss—personal or otherwise—the fans grieve for themselves.

Clarence Clemons, with his musical mightiness, his endearing smile, and his larger than life persona, may no longer be with us. He is accessible to the fans, however, in many of the ways he was before his death.

The best way to mourn him is to take the advice of his friend, Bruce Springsteen, who in “Mary’s Place", a song about recovering from a personal loss, says that he will grab the favorite record of the deceased, put it on the turntable, and faithfully, “drop the needle and pray".

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