“They say you can’t take it with you
But I think that they’re wrong
Cause all I now is I woke up this morning
And something big was gone “ - Bruce Springsteen
It’s the morning of June 18th, 2011, and after a fitful night’s sleep I awake to a world without Clarence Clemons. No, sleep and dark dreams did not erase the sad and awful truth that I took to bed with me last night. It’s the cool gray light of morning and the Big Man is still gone. The tears keep coming. They seemingly come from everywhere and from out of nowhere at the same time. I am trying not to think about the future, immediate or long range. The creeping shadow of uncertainty is present. It’s in the air though it need not be addressed as yet. Still, it’s waiting, and will have to be addressed soon enough.
Today, I feel the distance between my California home and the great majority of my closest friends family still back in NYC. I feel as though a great hole has been excavated that will now need to be breached to regain some sense of wholeness in my little world. I think of Clarence, his bigger than life persona, and the sweet man that lurked underneath that persona. I think of the many conversations we shared, especially a few years later when I was with the Del-Lords, and he was out promoting his then hit record with his own band. We ended up on the same bill three or four times, and it was always great to see him, and he always seemed genuinely glad to see me. I think he was actually a little nervous fronting his band, and although he was thrilled to be doing it, he was always happy to see an old familiar face out there on the road. The E Street Band hadn’t been disbanded by Bruce yet at that point, and despite the success he was having with his first solo record he seemed anxious to get back to his day job.
I was with the Dictators when I first met Clarence, and our two bands got on famously, and big pieces of that relationship still endure thirty years later. We were all big fans of each other’s band, something that still amazes me to this day when I think about it. There was a shared sense of humor, love of late night TV, both bands not being from Manhattan, and of course, a deep and endless love of Rock’n’Roll and it’s attendant related genres. Clarence would eventually record with the Dictators on a song that has never been released called TOO MUCH FUN, and he also played on WHAT IT IS, one of the first songs I ever had a hand in writing, at The Bottom Line in NYC. Both instances are career and personal highlights for me, as I am sure they are for the rest of The Dictators.
I can’t help thinking about the changes Clarence’s passing will mean for the E Street Band. Too soon to tell exactly but it will never be the same again. That much is certain. I think of the dozens of songs that they will not be able to play anymore, from BORN TO RUN, ROSALITA, BADLANDS, SHE’S THE ONE, and on and on, and especially JUNGLELAND, with its long sax solo that Clarence and Bruce worked out each and every note of over a sixteen hour period. This list is also a list of a great many of the songs the band can’t NOT play every night.
JUNGLELAND is also the song that was on the radio yesterday when Sharon and I were driving home. We always go back and forth between Underground Garage and E Street Radio when we’re in the car. Yesterday, as we pulled off the highway we turned on E Street Radio and it was JUNGLELAND from some fairly recent live show. Something grabbed me from inside and tugged at me and I think I knew at that moment that Clarence was gone. It was just too timely given the events of the past week, the lack of fresh info the past few days, and just a feeling of dread too sharp to ignore. We got back to the house and Sharon went right for the computer, and said in a startled tone of voice that something was up with Clarence. I didn’t have to look myself but I did anyway. I went to the New York Times website and it was front page news. I just broke down in tears, and that feeling of unreality that this is wrong, that it couldn’t be, that we could still just turn the clock back an hour or two, and everything would be rectified, came over me. It was a litany of all the tricks your heart and soul play on your mind when they have been wounded and broken and need to a way out of this moment. I still feel that way. There has been an irreparable rupture in the band that has meant more to my adult life than any other, that I’ve listened to far more than any other, and that have given me the kind of strength that only Rock’n’Roll has ever supplied me with. Selfishly, I wonder what the hell I’m gonna do without them.
All of this hits home even further for me. I remember talking with Steven a buncha years ago, and he was sort of joking and talking about how Aerosmith, The Dictators, and The E Street Band were the longest running, intact bands in America. I had never thought about it, but at that moment he was right. Now, al three bands are gone. Steven has always preached the importance of “the band”, as an idea, as a lifestyle, as a gang, as a family, as an idealized community, and as something so precious that it must be maintained no matter how hard the fight, no matter how dire the surrounding circumstances, and well, no matter what. That is how rare a good band is, and why it is so precious that everything else is secondary. Steven had a great hand in keeping the Dictators together at a time when it could have faded into memory, too. For that I am eternally grateful to him.
You see, that’s the greater and deeper story here. It’s the band that is the thing, too. Not just the story the music tells. It’s that sense of all-for-one and one-for-all that informs the music, that makes its live so vividly, on an emotional level, and in the real world, too. The cover of BORN TO RUN, as Bruce has said, takes that story in the music out of the garage and gets it out on the road. There’s Bruce on the front, looking a bit weary, leaning on a shoulder, and when you open the cover up, there’s Clarence that he’s leaning on. It tells us that it takes more than just the weary singer-songwriter to make this stuff live. It takes help. It takes friends, and it takes a brotherhood. It takes the band. That album cover always made me smile, but today it makes me cry. It makes me cry tears of joy and tears of grief and sadness.
But, it’s all gone now. The Dictators no longer exist, and I don’t know what will become of the E Street Band. I am pulling for them, of course, for they are my friends, and my favorite band in the world by a country mile. They are musicians so I expect them to keep playing music. But now, after surviving the death of Danny Federici, one of the original E Streeters, it seems that this might be the wound they cannot survive. I dunno, it’s obviously way too soon to know, but I can’t help but think about it. Maybe it’s just another way to try and alleviate some of the pain of this moment. I do know that I miss The Dictators today, too. I’ve been ok with its demise, or at least I had found some place to keep it and not dwell on it, but today I find that veil has been lifted, too, and all I wanna do is be there with Richard, Ross, Andy, and JP, and lose myself in the energy and the noise we alone can make.
I’m starting to ramble now and I hope you’ll forgive me, as focusing is hard to do, but I feel like every word I write keeps me one step ahead of the next teardrop, and that is just some survival instinct at work. This is so very hard. I just wanna say to the E Street Band: stay strong, remain emotionally open, stand together, and know that your millions of fans love you, and will always be grateful for what you’ve given us, whatever the future holds. I love you.