Sunday, June 19, 2011

Goodbye, Big Man, goodbye

Clarence Clemons, the Big Man, a wonderful saxophonist who was best known for playing with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, died yesterday. When I heard the news first from Sarah, who had heard it via music community connections, I couldn't find any mentions online and hoped it wasn't true. When I read that it was indeed true, that he had died of complications from a stroke, sadness gripped me hard.

I didn't know this man. I never met him. I never even saw him play a solo show, though several times I had the chance and was too busy to take it. I have no real right to this sadness. I'm just another fan who will mourn his passing--but mourn it I will.

I first saw him play during the Born in the U.S.A. tour in 1984, on the band's last show before Christmas. As was his habit on that tour, at some point Springsteen would start running toward Clemons from the side opposite the Big Man, tuck into a knee slide, and stop when the Big Man caught him. On that tour, Clemons would always then kiss him, a sideways slap at homophobes. The chemistry and brotherhood between the two of them was amazing, as it always was.

When Clemons broke into one of his famous saxophone solos, I was enchanted. When he hit the one in the middle of "Born to Run," I had one of those peak moments you get in a live concert when you know it can't get any better than that.

In the following years, I had the privilege of seeing Springsteen, Clemons, and the band several more times. A little over two years ago, in April, 2008, I got to attend their show in Greensboro. Clemons was clearly in some difficulty, and he moved very little, spending most of the show perched on a stool. When it came time to play, however, it was as if the power of the music filled him and came rolling out through his instrument.

It was always like that, come to think of it: When the Big Man played, he became an even bigger man, as the power of music burst out of him and elevated and transformed all around him. I'll always be grateful to him for sharing those moments with so many of us.

Goodbye, Clarence Clemons. I never knew you, but I will miss you.

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