I know. Long time no blog. I'm sorry.
Tonight I'm here for reasons both sad and celebratory. You've probably heard by now that Clarence Clemons, who played saxophone in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, died Saturday evening a few days after suffering a massive stroke. ...Backtrack. "Played saxophone" doesn't even come close to describing what Clarence, the "Big Man," brought to the band. He was the heart and soul of all that was E Street. When he stepped onto the stage it was like a glorious sunrise. He had a smile that could light up an entire sold-out stadium all by itself, and a saxophone that followed that light with pure fire. And despite the fact that in his last years he was in near-constant pain, having had two hip replacements, two knee replacements, spinal surgery, and goodness knows what else, he still gave that beautiful smile and that music to the world.
I remember the show in St. Louis in 2009 - the next to last show I saw on that last tour - I was in the pit, about three people back from the stage, in front of Clarence. I could tell that he was physically tired, you could see the strain in his face and the pain he clearly felt anytime he moved. But he still gave his all when he played and he still beamed out at the fans, made eye contact with us, appreciated us, flirted with the women up front. And when he played his solo in "Jungleland" I knew I was in church.
Church is exactly what those shows were for me, especially in 2008-09 when I spent money I had no business spending and traveled around to shows in Indianapolis, Nashville (twice), St. Louis (twice), Kansas City, Denver, St. Paul, Chicago (twice), and Mansfield Mass (a two-night stand). Those shows meant the world to me and were the light that I held onto very tightly for a while as I went through (and am still going through) some difficult stuff.
I'll never forget a night in May 2009 when, for the first time, I was lucky enough to be in the very front row of the pit. Steven Van Zandt gave me his guitar pick at the end of the night, and yes, this perfectly rational middle-aged woman turned into a giddy fangirl over a shared smile and a little bit of plastic. Then I found out the next morning that while I'd been waiting in line for the show, my mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer. A very minor form of it (and after treatment she is completely cancer-free now as far as we know) but still, it was my MOM, and CANCER, so it shook me pretty hard. I literally held on to that guitar pick, took it out and held it tightly in my hand some days to remind me of the joy and the love and the strength of spirit that I find, without fail, in the E Street Band and the E Street Nation.
On so many dark nights over the past 35-plus years when I forgot how to believe in love, so many times it was the E Street Band that reminded me. Clarence Clemons, and his relationship (both the lifelong friendship & the musical partnership) with Bruce Springsteen, is in so many ways at the heart of what I love about E Street. There has been so much written about him, especially tonight - I won't try to replicate it; the obituary at the New Jersey Star-Ledger and the tribute at backstreets.com are the best I've read so far. (We'll also be posting links over at Blogness on the Edge of Town.) I am told that Bruce was at Clarence's side all week as he fought for his life in the hospital; I know he must be exhausted and bereft, but I hope that in his own inevitable dark nights to come, he is also able to hold on to that reminder of what is real and true.
I said earlier that when Clarence played his "Jungleland" solo I knew I was in church. That may seem hyperbolic to some, but at those concerts I was part of a congregation of souls reaching for something higher and truer than our everyday lives, something to believe in, something to help us understand how to live up to our own ideals. And isn't that church?
On that theme, I'm going to post a poem here. I don't usually post unpublished poems, but this seems like the time and place for this one. It's not specifically about Clarence, but it's about the band, about the "Darkness on the Edge of Town" and "Magic" tours and the two greatest rock & roll shows I have ever seen, thirty years apart. It's about the pact between performer and audience, a pact that I experience as nothing less than love. It is the essence of what is good in this world. It is what I hold on to during hard times. It is love. And I send this out with love to Bruce and the band and the entire E Street family, and to the E Street Nation. May we hold on to our memories of the Big Man, his beautiful music and his beautiful smile and his great big heart, and may we know that this is holy, and may we always keep on singing.
Seventeen/Forty-Seven: Darkness and Magic
I. Seventeen, The Show
(Notre Dame, 9/9/1978)
There is that moment just before
the lights go down, when the crowd
is murmuring feverishly, stamping and sweating
and I am twitching in my shitty seat
and the guy next to me lights up a doobie,
grins and offers me a toke, and I pass
it on to the friend I’m with
and I’m barely in my seat now, barely
in the real world of high
school and lousy cars and girls
who don’t understand a thing,
and I am so ready. I want this.
I count the guitars shining in their stands
on the far-off stage, watch some roadie run
over there to pluck the strings
one last time, Check Check into the microphone
and I rub my thumb across the callused
fingertips of my left hand,
all those hours of burning
up and down the neck of my only
instrument, and I am so,
so ready. I nudge my friend
and grin, I catch the eye
of my neighbor with the doobie
and I grin. I gaze down at the stage
and at the girls in the very front
row in their tight jeans and their
brand-new tour t-shirts, and the crowd
is loud and eager, the stage is set
and ready, and I don’t know
how I can bear to wait even one
minute more: the whole arena feels
like it’s going to rise up
like some great spaceship, just rise
away from the ordinary earth and fly.
II. Communion, After All
(St. Louis, 8/23/2008)
Bruce (to the audience): “Don’t you gotta be in church tomorrow?”
Steve: “We’re in church.”
Steve: “We’re in church now.”
The number is drawn and I’ve missed the pit.
The toe I bashed two nights ago in Nashville
throbs inside my boot. I’m among strangers—
angels, yes, with shining faces, tramps who hold
to the same hymns I do, but on this gray
and dirty street, in this disconsolate line,
strangers still – and I am waiting. I’m losing
faith, a little bit, and then it rains.
I am small and middle-aged. Seventeen
was thirty years ago, and far away.
I close my eyes, pretend to believe the rain
is a blessing, is something sweet – and my tired feet
remember that night, remember holding tightly
to the hand of a friend and rushing the stage,
remember the light that spilled over me
when I leaped atop folding chairs and danced
as you played "Twist and Shout" and the arena
was practically airborne, your kind hands
lifting your guitar, the band all blaze and thunder.
I was seventeen and believed in everything.
Now I straighten my back as the rain lets up,
take a long breath, steady my heart.
Hours yet till showtime.
And then there is waiting. And then
there is chaos and pushing and into the building
and I swear a pair of angels place tender hands
against my back, guide me into the arena. There is kindness
in the eyes of strangers, and a place against the rail.
There is the altar set with microphones
and the sweet choreography of lighting techs
ascending flimsy ladders. There is no place
on Earth or heaven I would rather be
than here, one last guitar check and chords
ring out across the room like waves
against the Jersey shore. I want to kneel.
I give myself to this.
Then sudden darkness and that moment like no other.
Then all rock and roll breaks loose.
Hours later, gratitude ringing in my ears,
you’re about to leave the stage. Then,
no: "We gotta do one for Sophie!" And you lift
your guitar into "Twist and Shout"
and all I can say is a silent "Holy…"
as the light spills over me, over all
of us. I am seventeen and forty-seven. I am an angel
dancing in the flames. There is nothing
but this night, this gift. You close your eyes
and sing, and I close mine and sing:
if there are angels they are in
this pact between us, the promises
we are keeping at this moment.
It’s only music and it’s only the night
but we are alive here, loss and laughter
crowding the lines on our faces, and I know now
that this is holy: that we are here,
blaze and thunder, still singing.
- Anne Haines