All the little pretties waved goodbye…

By Anthony Castrovince

My dad and I were walking through the Strip District in Pittsburgh one time when we happened upon a bar advertising an upcoming appearance by Clarence Clemons. I don’t recall why he was coming there or what he was promoting. All I remember was that black-and-white sign with his Xeroxed image staring back at us and the bold-faced print urging the reader to “Come see the Big Guy!”

The Big Guy.

Clearly, not everybody had a full understanding or appreciation for the light and love that Clemons, known affectionately as the Big Man, brought to the world. When he suffered a stroke last weekend, the MTV.com headline blaring the news described him as a saxophonist “for Lady Gaga, Bruce Springsteen.” Just as Bruce once wrote, “everywhere you look, life ain’t got no soul.”

Those of us who view the E Street Band not just as the standard by which all other rock bands are judged but also as the greatest representation of music’s ability to heal what ails, inspire what’s absent and celebrate what’s alive know a man as big as the Big Man cannot be summed up with such a headline. Nor can his death at the age of 69 to us be properly labeled as the celebrity death du jour and trending Twitter topic of the moment.

Something even bigger than the Big Man died Saturday. Because while the E Street Band carried on after the loss of organist Danny Federici in 2008 and will, I’m sure, carry on in some capacity without Clemons, the absence of the man who stood to Springsteen’s right and represented so much about faith and friendship and even race relations is a hole that simply cannot be plugged by any ordinary sideman.

The story of how Clarence and Bruce first joined forces has been told many times over the years and ad nauseam in the past 24 hours, so I won’t bother to retell it here. All I’ll say is that when those two stood side by side night after night after night — most prominently following their respective solos in the middle of “Badlands” or at the apex of the band introductions in “Tenth Avenue Freezeout” — it was an image that felt so natural, so real, so right.

That image lives only in memory now, and, so, too, sadly, does the heart of the E Street Band. Steve Van Zandt is the band’s funky soul, Roy Bittan its intricate intellect, Max Weinberg its driving momentum, Garry Tallent its steady hand, Nils Lofgren its artistic flair, Patti Scialfa its romantic grace and Springsteen, of course, its unstoppable, unquenchable passion. But Clemons, who emanated a magnetic mystique that made him look to those of us in the audience like some sort of superhero who jumped off the comic book pages, was the beating thump in the chest.

The E Street Band provided the kind of aura, the kind of chemistry, the kind of attention to detail and respect for history (and, for that matter, for their own legacy) that, frankly, is all too absent in the modern day. And perhaps in saying that, I am overly romanticizing an ending era. But those who saw this band at the peak of its powers (which is to say… every time they took the stage) know the feeling. You come for the music and stay for the magic. Three hours with the E Street Band could inspire emotions you didn’t know you had… or perhaps forgot you had.

It almost seems silly to cry for a man I never met, but Clemons’ death struck me in a deep and profound way, because I saw first-hand how much pure joy he got from making that music and those memories with his blood brothers in the E Street Band. His death is the end of something special, for while those of us who flock to see Springsteen’s every endeavor will continue to support whatever the next chapter happens to be for him and/or his band, we all know it will never be quite the same without “the Big Guy.”

~AC

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