The Little Town Where It All Started Says Good Bye To The Big Man: Clarence Clemons

Clarence Clemons was indeed The Big Man. I had the distinct privilege of standing just a few feet away from Mr. Clemons as he shined up his saxophone last December at the Historic Carousel Building right here in Asbury Park, only a quarter mile down the boardwalk from where I’m writing this now. His towering frame was dressed from head to toe in black, and his presence was somehow even bigger than his impressive stature.

That performance, now known as Clemons’ last, was nothing short of surreal. Here I was, some little punk rocker who by the grace of God was milling around members of The E-Street Band (I almost hit Max Weinberg in the face while gesticulating wildly in conversation to a friend), standing a few feet from some of the planet’s most revered talent.

When a vinyl single, recorded from that performance, was released on Record Store Day this past year, of course I got my copy. It’s sitting on my desk next to me right now. Listed on the credits in modest type: “Clarence Clemons: saxophone, percussion, vocals.” I guess none of us knew quite how lucky we were to be there.

Recorded LIVE December 7th, 2010 At The Historic Carousel Building Here In AP

The thing that I remember most about that performance, that struck me the hardest, was the absolutely pure chemistry that group of musicians had. They played off of each other like they were harmonious components in one great machine, operating as a complete body with grace as natural and mysterious as the ebb and flow of the tide.

What also floored me was how completely down to earth everyone was. And to me the stars that shine eternally, like Mr. Clemons who was at one time a counselor for troubled youth, are the ones hold onto their humbleness and gratitude. Futhermore, legends like Clemons are sent to the highest of echelons of culture for that reason.

While I was out on the boardwalk this past Saturday night, area DIY Chief Operations Officer Tim Donnelly led me over to an area reporter for News 12. If you kids don’t know already, my day job is working for the company that operates the AP Boardwalk, so a few High Life’s in, I was asked to go on camera and give a statement about the feeling on the boards that night, just hours after Mr. Clemons’ untimely passing.

The Big Man Doing What He Did Best At The Stone Pony

I managed to answer coherently, somehow, and I decided to talk about the power of this universally captivating musician’s life, and how the power of that life and the legacy he left was undoubtedly Herculean enough to trump the gaping void his sudden death left behind.

Clarence’s story seems one of fate, a life carved out by the force of destiny. Of course his parents gave him a saxophone at the age of 6, instead of the toy train set he wanted. Of course his would be pro-football career was sidelined by a car accident the day before tryouts. Of course he ended up hanging in the same circle as Mr. Springsteen in the late 70’s in Asbury Park.

And of course, on a dark and rainy night, Clemons’ stopped in on a show that young Bruce was playing, the door of the venue literally blown off by the storm that evening as Clarence opened it to enter. His hulking figure and dark visage, framed by the freshly stripped doorway immediately drew the band’s attention. The rest, as they say, is history.

Fate takes care of getting legends to the scene. The legends take care of the rest.

The Iconic Cover Of Born To Run

When I saw those two, Springsteen and Clemons, over 2 decades after that fateful night, their easy chemistry was so strong that it was a palatable feeling in the air. Both are on record as saying that they “knew” the first time they jammed. The kind of knowing that comes from the gut, that musicians like myself have experienced, that almost psychic, completely cosmic knowing—few things in this life are surer than knowledge like that.

If there are any skeptics who need proof, take a look at Bruce’s discography. Clemons and his saxophone shine like a beacon throughout.Additionally I’d like to mention here that Clarence is the only E-Street member to appear on the cover of a Springsteen album with Bruce, his presence in the scene as an African American performer in rock and roll as important then as it is now.

Fans Leave Messages For Clarence At The Stone Pony On Sunday

Now, Clemons has of course had a large body of work outside of his and Bruce’s friendship, with a myriad of performers from Aretha Franklin to Lady Gaga. (He even had an acting career, complete with a role in Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure.)

But I’m here to speak to what I personally know, and what I’ve seen in Asbury Park. And in addition to that utterly perfect performance only 6 short months ago, I also saw the reaction to The Big Man’s passing as the community gathered on Sunday to mourn, to remember, and most importantly to celebrate his storied life.

Fans of every generation came to The Stone Pony on Sunday, to have somewhere to go with their shock and grief, and The Pony in a gesture of reciprocation and empathy, opened its doors to all, inviting people to come and stay all day long, late into the evening.

Area Musician, Keith McCarthy Of The Sunday Blues Leaves A Fitting Tribute At The Stone Pony

Unable to bring themselves to turn anyone away, the owners of the venue let the crowd stay into the night, deciding to waive the cost of admission for the already planned show from San Francisco rockers, Tea Leaf Green, so that fans could come and stay as long as they needed.

And stay they did. When I went into The Pony that evening, thousands of people had already passed through, and their gifts of flowers and remembrances for Clarence piled up outside the venues entrance. People were exchanging their E-Street stories, singing along to the Springsteen records that filled the house, laughing, crying, some staring ahead in quiet and private memorial.

I stopped area rocker Keith McCarthy as he came to leave a framed photograph of Bruce and Clarence at the fan-made alter outside The Pony. Of Clemons, Keith said “He’s a legendary man of a legendary time. All of us younger people are lucky to have experienced his gift”.

Lucky, indeed.


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