I often write about music as a form of therapy for the soul. It comforts us during times of tribulations and can shelter us from the all too harsh realities of the world. Listening to music can be therapeutic and anytime I saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in the decade between 1999 and 2009, I walked away not just feeling better but with a stronger sense of myself. Starting in 1994 and for the remainder of the decade, I don't think there was a single day that passed where the music of Bruce Springsteen wasn't played. I was surrounded by quite a bit of darkness at that time in my life and those Springsteen albums, bootlegs and eventually the tours helped save me. Now as much as music moves me I've always felt that if you don't adapt the lessons you learn to your life, then those moments inside the arena and heard on the turntable are in vain.
Last night I was waiting to go into a Shakespeare play and I see a Twitter post from Southside Johnny piano player Jeff Kazee that Clarence Clemons had passed. To be honest, ever since the E Street Band had reunited in 1999 I knew that any show I saw could have potentially been the last. Despite a rigorous workout routine while on tour, the years were hard on Clarence. I won't lie; some nights were tough to watch as he struggled to make his way through certain songs. The flipside to it is that on other nights, you closed your eyes and could have sworn it was 1975. During the course of the decade long reunion I saw the E Street Band 37-times and for that I feel blessed. No two shows I ever saw were the same even if a show never found its groove one guarantee was the rapturous applause from the crowd whenever Clarence Clemons blew into his saxophone. When I asked a friend after a show what his favorite part was he responded "whenever Clarence played a saxophone solo because the crowd just lost it". He was right, when those classic solos came up the crowd would burst to life.
Towards the end of the tour in support of Magic the band added a handful of dates through the Midwest and South and St. Louis happened to be on a Saturday evening, as a result fans came in from all over the country for this show and the combination of a sweltering summer night, a passionate fan base in the crowd and a band ready to not just rock but roll led to one of the utmost live experiences these eyes have ever laid witness to. I remember Clarence specifically on this night as my side stage seats were right next to him. The show started late due to a doctor checking him out before the show, but when it started the band and crowd found a groove few crowds and acts ever find in conjunction with one another. The band played extensions of our own fears and dreams out on the stage that night. Even when the band reached back to the past, it didn't feel like a nostalgia trip but an extension of our hearts in the here and now. This was never more evident than when Springsteen pulled a sign from the crowd that read "Drive All Night". The song always felt overwrought for my tastes and despite superb use of it in the 1997 film Cop Land, I never treasured until this evening. Springsteen sung the song with his eye lids shut as if he was decorating the lyrics with real life emotions from the pit of his stomach and then nearly 4-minutes in, Clarence Clemons burst to life in the most superb and soulful saxophone solo I ever saw him perform. Lasting just under a minute, it's the most affecting solo in the E Street cannon (cue up the song to 3:42 on The River). Sure, "Jungleland" is more epic, "Dancing in the Dark" more mischievous, "The Promised Land" and "Badlands" more conquering but "Drive All Night", it evokes soul. I don't think anyone could mimic those notes and simultaneously equal the lyrics. It was a performance that wouldn't have reached the heights it did without Clemons.
Sitting next to me during the entire St. Louis show was my wife, who was a month into a pregnancy that would lead to the birth of our daughter the following March. I couldn't help but feel that in the 1990's I was destined to be alone for my life. Everywhere I searched I sought recognition and love but was shunned. What no one tells you in life are that even with great parents and all the right tools, it's no guarantee the world will love you back. It's easy to fall prey to the negativity of the world and shelter yourself from it so as to not be hurt. I would do this from time to time, but music and film pushed me to be true to myself for better or worse. The music evoked such a potent rejoinder from within; I wanted that occurrence not just for a few moments every day, but every moment of every day. I look back on that dark time in my life and all I can say is that I feel blessed to have had music that made me feel so much and want so much for myself. I never wanted to settle. Eventually my wife, Jenny, came into my life and gives me that feeling of the rush when the lights go down when the band comes on stage or when the house lights come on for "Born to Run" or when all of the E Street Band stand on the tip of the stage taking their bows as a family, I have that feeling now every day because she is my band, my family, my soul.
As healing as music can be, if it doesn't inspire you to find a way through your predicament, then it hasn't fully lived up to its potential. I was broken, beaten and scarred but I would listen to the sax solo in "The Promised Land" and pick myself up to be beaten down again, but that was OK because I was ready for the fight. I'd hear the pure glee of the whole E Street Band on "Out in the Street" and know that better days were ahead of me and I'd long for lost loves and friendships when that final note on "Bobby Jean" would be held for what seemed like an eternity. What Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band did for me was more than merely console, it transformed my existence. I fought harder, loved harder and always strove to be more than I thought I could be. The music Springsteen recorded with the E Street Band through 1984's Born in the USA was meant to be heard and celebrated amidst friends. Just like the band on stage, the crowd came to not just see themselves in these songs, but in the band members onstage. The first E Street Band reunion gig I saw, there were six friends of mine together dancing the night away and singing at the top of our lungs. We were in nosebleeds but none of that mattered because we shared the experience…together.
Bruce Springsteen may have been the songwriter of those songs, but their impact wouldn't have been the same without the E Street Band. Without his blood brothers backing him, I have no doubt he would have attained success but not at the level he did. They took his music to new stratospheres and to a wider audience whose lives are better because of it. Springsteen's most iconic image is the Born to Run album cover with Clemons next to him; a status of friendship and it was a precursor for the songs inside. The death Clarence Clemons is the end of an era. It saddens me my daughter will never get to see him in concert and witness not just the music prowess of the band but their camaraderie as well. With Danny Federici and now Clemons gone, the E Street Band we grew up loving may go on, but it will never be the same. Regardless, we still have the records, the DVD's and above all else, the memories. A few weeks ago on VH-1 Classic the live "Born to Run" video (filmed in 1985) was on and my daughter watched intensely and waved her hands in the air. I wish for her to experience music as grand as the E Street Band, see friendships as mighty as this band and above all else I want her to love something in this world as much as I love her. One day I will sit her down and show her that clip along with a few others and try to explain how this band and this music changed my life for the better. I was once lost but was then found and it's partly because I live in a world where Clarence Clemons and the E Street Band music not just existed but reminded me that there is beauty all around and that yes, indeed, love is real.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
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Remembering Clarence Clemons