E Street Nation Remembers Beloved Big Man Clemons
First Published: June 19, 2011 12:52 PM EDT Credit: WireImage
LOS ANGELES, Calif. -- A grateful Nation thanks him for his service.
The E Street Nation — a world-wide community wrapped around the nucleus of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band — has lost its beloved Big Man, Clarence Clemons.
“The whole E Street Nation is in mourning. This is an awful moment,” grief-stricken Springsteen author Dave Marsh said Saturday night on E Street Radio after the news of the saxophonist’s death.
Besides Bruce, the band, the Nation and of course his family, the sadness enveloped Lady Gaga; she grew up in a Springsteen household, recorded with Clemons and appeared with him on American Idol. After his stroke last Sunday, Gaga spoke about how dearly she loved Clemons and summoned her Little Monsters to say how much they loved him, too, in a compilation of touching, heartfelt videos.
The Big Man just had that effect on people. Sure, there was the music; who hasn’t shed a tear from the exquisite sax strains of “Jungleland”? But the music and the man were a double draw.
“He carried within him a love of people that made them love him. He created a wondrous and extended family,” said Springsteen.
For a week, Clemons’ devastating stroke had ignited a wildfire of tweets and texts, tears and tributes. Taking their cue from Springsteen, who had urged a climate of hope, fans posted songs with titles like “Tougher Than The Rest” and “Countin’ on a Miracle.”
Clemons, who embraced all of the world’s religions and called the stage his “healing floor,” had beaten the odds many times before. He battled chronic pain after back and knee surgeries.
The former football player willed himself out of a wheelchair just days before playing his sax at the Super Bowl.
He arrived, again, in a wheelchair for his May 2010 children’s benefit appearance, but insisted on walking across the red carpet with his much-adored wife, Victoria, and dragging himself up the stage stairs.
More recently, he appeared at New Jersey’s Garden State Film Festival. His remarks were spiritual, in keeping with the theme of his movie about his journey through China; but he also relished exchanging playful remarks with his audience.
On stage and off, he was a joy to behold — flashing that million-watt smile as he gleefully pumped up his own larger-than-life persona, mugging for the camera, laughing large in that deep, velvety voice. On Twitter, he billed himself thusly: “Saxophonist, sexual adventurer, poet and author! And the Biggest Man you’ve ever seen!” (Egotistical? Nah. Consider the context: The man was once introduced by Springsteen, among other things, as the future king of England.)
Despite the hyperbole, he touched lives in a deeply personal way.
“There would be no journey without you,” he told fans in one tweet. “Much love, Big Man.”
He once told me he could sense when someone standing near the stage was hurting; he’d intentionally latched his gaze on them as his horn sent forth a healing salve, then sealed the covenant by pressing his hands together in the prayer position.
It happened to Brenda VanHorn. After her son, a drummer, died, she sought solace and fellowship at Springsteen concerts. In Charlotte, N.C., in 2002, she and another son stood, awash in grief, during the song “You’re Missing.”
“As the last few notes of the song were playing, I looked up to see tears streaming down Clarence Clemons’ face as well,” she recounted in “For You,” a book of fan recollections by Lawrence Kirsch. “…My first reaction was that this must be a really sad song if he hears it all the time and it still made him cry.”
“Then I realized it wasn’t the song, it was us — a boy grieving for his brother, a mother grieving for her son — that caused those tears. … The Big Man, someone we have cheered and applauded for years, not only felt our pain but in some small way did his part to ease it.”
After learning of Clemons’ passing, VanHorn again reflected on that night.
“Tears were streaming down my face when Clarence looked at me and shook his head no. Then he gave me his famous blessing and more famous smile,” VanHorn said, responding to a question sent through Facebook private message. “It was as if he was telling me — enough! No more sorrow, be happy for the joy (her son) brought to us.”
“I feel like that tonight,” said VanHorn. “I am sad and I shed tears but I feel so blessed to have been able to enjoy his music all these years. He truly was the biggest man you ever saw.”
Fans always knew, of course, that Clemons would one day be with them only in spirit. But they’re still reeling from the hard, cold reality that the Big Man had run out of miracles. He just seemed so damned invincible.
As the music lives on, so will the indelible images: Scooter and the Big Man dancing with abandon on top of the stage speakers, and sealing their lifelong bromance with a kiss; Clemons tearing up as band members stood side-by-side, holding hands, during a Madison Square Garden performance of “Blood Brothers” that included the late keyboardist Danny Federici.
After Clemons was stricken, his family and Springsteen set up an email address where people could send get-well wishes.
“Dear Clarence,” went mine. “I once said you reminded me of that bunny on the TV commercial — pounding his drum while he just keeps going, and going, and going. You laughed heartily and replied, ‘I AM the bunny, baby!’ Yes, you are — and thank God for it.
” I hope you’re aware of the deluge of prayers, music, fond reminiscences and messages of hope being posted on the Internet by your fans all over the world — forming one giant wave of love.
“Along with my husband, Mike (you once pointed to him from the stage and said, ‘I like this guy!’), I wish you and your family health, strength and joy as you continue to reach mightily for the top of yet another new mountain.
“We can’t wait to see the Big Man back in action, lighting up the world with his music and his smile.”
Maybe his reply can be found in remarks he made onstage in New York in August 2010.
“You know, sometimes in this life, sometimes there are situations that make you sad. Things happen that you don’t understand that make you sad, make you very unhappy and uneasy,” said Clemons.
“But I want you to know that the universe loves you. I love you. Be happy.”
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