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The Big Man

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Monday, June 20, 2011

The Big Man

For years I denied my love of Springsteen.  When I got to SF, I wanted to  So I pretended I didn't like the Yankees, that my favorite book wasn't Catcher in the Rye, and that I didn't listen to the Boss.  These days I have no problem admitting I'm an American cliche.  I wear blue jeans and white T-shirts. My favorite movie is Rocky.  Jack Kerouac is the writer who has most shaped my life.  And no matter how many times I mock it, I believe wholeheartedly in the American Dream... When it comes down to it, there are only a handful of things in this life that truly get me jazzed.  So why deny myself the few that do?

I love Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

This isn't such a radical statement these days, I know.  In addition to the grizzled dinosaur set, Bruce has achieved a level of indie cred, with new, up-and-coming bands like the Killers and Gaslight Anthem, Mumford and Sons, all kneeling at the E Street altar, and Bruce's place in the pantheon of rock 'n' roll greats is undisputed.  There was a time, however, not so long ago--probably right after Born in the USA--where backlash against the Boss was fevered (and the "Dancing in the Dark" video probably didn't help.  Though I will say that, though overproduced, the song itself is among Bruce's finest), and admitting to being a fan of Springsteen was tantamount to admitting Titanic is your favoring movie (and who does that, Sarah Weston?).

Anyway, there are a lot of eulogies that are floating around the I-net after E Street saxophonist Clarence Clemons, AKA the Big Man, passed away this past Saturday from complications of a stroke.  And I don't want this to be one of those.  Because it'd be disingenuous.  I didn't know the guy personally; he's a saxophone on a record, a distant voice bleeding between the lanes and the miles.  Furthermore he only resonates because of his attachment to Springsteen and the E Street Band.  "Attachment"?  Actually, more like he was the E Street Band.

Now I love Bruce, but two of his weakest albums are Human Touch and Lucky Town, which were both recorded without Clarence and Co., and while many of the songs themselves are terrific (still love both title tracks), without E Street behind him, something is missing.  Yeah, Bruce gave E Street their name, and he probably would've been great without them.  Just not sure he'd be the legend he is today.

I am a musician, but the truth is, I don't know jack about what makes someone good, in terms of chops; I don't have the nuanced ear.  Every drummer I know goes nuts over Terry Bozzio--I mean nuts--but all I know about the guy was he was in a band called Missing Persons (don't worry, Big Tom, I am not dissing them!), and they were cool enough, I guess.  I mean, in the early days of MTV, "Do You Hear Me" was a video I always liked.  But I didn't notice anything particularly special about the drumming. And I remember a time when Neil Peart made every pimply kid jizz in his jeans, but he always bugged me (especially his lyrics, which I once heard described as sounding as if they were written by--and I fucking love this--"a deeply affected 14-year-old boy heavily into Rod McKuen."  Ouch).  Jimi is a guitar virtuoso, and Flea is among the best bassists; and, again, I am not saying this isn't true (and, again, BT, I like Dale B.!)--I only bring this up, my lack of musical acumen, as a long, roundabout way of saying that I don't know if the E Street Band is even any good.  I just know that they move me, like no other band, before, since, or ever will again.

There's a scene in a terrible movie called...Just Friends.  If you haven't seen it, don't go looking for it; it's a piece of shit.  It's got Ryan Reynolds (who I actually like.  OK.  I don't like him so much as think he's got terrific abs and consider him a personal hero for banging Scarlett Johansson) and Amy Smart, and it's about... Oh, really, who gives a shit?  But there's this scene where Reynolds in a fat suit stands in front of all the kids who are mocking him, and says, "It's a town full of losers, and I'm pulling out of here to win."  And it's played for a laugh, and the line, on it's own maybe, might be a goofy line, but not the way Bruce sings it, at the end of "Thunder Road," when he pleads with Mary (who "ain't a beauty, but hey [she's] alright") to climb into his car, hit the highway, and kiss these small town fools goodbye; man, that line is fucking poetry.  Maybe not Theodore Roethke.  But to me it was better than any crappy poem about trees.  It spoke to me, because I hated that town, and I wanted something more.  Everything I read, everything I listened to promised me something more.  That song was a personal anthem after fist fights on the baseball bus, after whatever girl didn't notice me, after all those lonely, unnoticed days "with the ugly kids in the art room."  It isn't melodramatic, or overly sentimental to say that music kept me alive (I was a very mopey kid).  So when "Thunder Road" ends, and the Big Man kicks in with his sax, I don't know if that solo is any good, but, fuck, it hits me hard; it takes me to that better place.  Back then, I could see I was going to make it out if I just...held...on.  Clemons's sax is hopeful and full of promise but it never abandons the heartbreak festering beneath the surface, what made the declaration (that you are better than this) necessary in the first place, the years wasted killing time among the "skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets," knowing you're no hero, but, fuck it, man, you've got to have something special inside you.  Something special to offer to someone who'll just take a chance on you.

And now the guy's dead.  And I can't say my life will really be personally affected.  Probably not, at least not like a friend's dying or something.  But there is one less beautiful thing in the world now.  And that is never a good thing.

You wonder what you might've said to these people (heroes) if you had the chance to meet them.  My friend in Miami, Scott C., tells this terrific story about meeting Johnny Cash.  Cash was, like, an ex-girlfriend's godfather or something.  Anyway, this girl calls Scott because Johnny is over her house, and this wasn't long ago, so Cash is pretty sick and old at this point, but Scott can't miss this chance (really, who doesn't love Johnny Cash?).  So Scott rushes over, and he's catching Johnny just as he's leaving, and of course Scott has a million things he wants to say, like how much Cash's music has meant to him and how it helped him through tough times, and all the things any of us would want to say to Johnny Cash.  But Scott can't get any of it out, because he's too overwhelmed; he doesn't know where to start.  So he's just staring at Cash, with the look of a guy who's got a million things he wants to say but who is too panicked and pressured and tongue tied.  And Johnny sees this, and he just nods, one cool, knowing nod, as if to say, "Don't worry, I get it, kid.  You're welcome."

Yeah, it's something like that...


At June 20, 2011 at 7:07 AM , Blogger Ian Ayris said...

Fantastic article, mate.

At June 20, 2011 at 7:08 AM , Blogger Joe Clifford said...

Thanks, Ian!

At June 20, 2011 at 8:50 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

This really moved me, Joe. Nice accelerating energy.

At June 20, 2011 at 12:27 PM , Blogger P. Scott Cunningham said...

You told that Cash story much better than I've ever told it.


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