Over the weekend, we lost the Big Man. I spent Father’s Day mourning Clarence Clemons.
What a rarity he was. How many things in life produce only joy? Bruce Springsteen’s saxophonist was the heart and soul—mostly the soul—of the E Street Band. And when a song got around to the saxophone solo, and the Big Man in his dreadlocks went to work, your heart leapt. It leapt back in the early 1970s, when you first saw and heard him. And it did these days as well, when a concert by the E Street Band—usually in the company of one or more of your kids—feels like the first night that the family’s come home at Christmas.
In New York a few years ago, I saw Max Weinberg—the band’s drummer—dining out with his mom in a restaurant near Broadway. I waited till Max’s mom got up to visit the ladies room, then I plunked myself down and I said, “I’m sorry, Max. I’m 12 years old and you’re Mickey Mantle.” He was as gracious as could be. Soon we were talking about the first death in the family: Danny Federici, the E Street Band’s long-time keyboardist, had recently passed away.
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When I’d heard the news about Danny on television, I sobbed like a kid. I called my eldest daughter, Caroline, and apologized for the tears, but it was just too much. Part of it was that he was the first to go; part of it was that he was my age. But most of it was just loss.
Max talked about how Bruce and the other members of the band had faced up to Danny’s extended illness and then his passing. I realized, sitting there with Max, how much I cherished this man I was talking to, a man I’d never actually met before. How much—how much!—music opens your heart.
My three daughters and I have never had to say “Danny Federici.” We’d say Danny. We’ve never had to say Max Weinberg. There’s only one Max. We’ve never had to say the name Clarence Clemons. He was the Big Man. How many times we have air-saxophoned his beloved riffs in the kitchen, I cannot say.
I can report that I didn’t collapse in a heap at the news of Clarence’s death. I think it’s because Danny’s death broke the ice: they’re mortal, these guys. They created—it’s a cliché, but it’s a valid one—the soundtrack of our family life. We raised our children on the E Street Band, and glad to say, it took. But these guys are mortal. So are we.
I’m thinking now of how the core of the band has been together 40 years, how we Americans got lucky again, as we sometimes do, and produced a Whitmanesque national artist/hero in the Boss, and how doubly fortunate that he fell in with indispensable sidekicks whose talents helped him fulfill his own, and that have given us delight and consolation as only artists can. You can keep your politicians and captains of industry; I’ll take the artists any day.
I wanted to see all of these guys–and red-haired Patty, too–grow old. Old enough, at least, so you’d laugh at them for still performing rock ‘n’ roll. Two are gone now. Nothing marks the passage of time like those hash marks on the blackboard. Let’s wait awhile before anymore, okay?
The New York Times ran this commentary today by John Pareles.