By In Stuff

The Big Man

I only saw Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band perform Rosalita one time in all the years. I love Rosalita, love the song because it sounds like 17 years old, you know? It is bold and messy and irresponsible and full of life. The words, let’s not kid anybody, are ridiculous. We’re going to play some pool, skip some school, act real cool, stay out all night, it’s gonna feel all right. The instruments seem to me to be attacking each other in a playful way — like a musical water-balloon fight. Rock and roll can mean so many things. One of those things it can mean is youth. But youth fades. Layla grows old. Amanda grows old, Beth grows old, Melissa, Michelle, my bell, Miss Molly, Good Golly, Billie Jean, not my lover, Judy Blue Eyes, Brown Eyed Girl, sha la la la, Lola, L-O-L-A, Lola, Roxanne, heck, even Mary and Wendy grow old.

But, to my ears anyway, Rosalita stays young forever.

I’m like this with music, ask too much of it, maybe. I do not expect real magic when going to a magic show. But I do when seeing Springsteen and the E-Street Band. I expect something to ignite, something that doesn’t quite add up, something that leaps beyond the songs, beyond the instruments, beyond Bruce’s voice, beyond … I expect it because they delivered it every time I saw them play. Sometimes it happened only for a minute. Sometimes, it lasted for 20. Sometimes that something beyond overpowered the whole night.

That was the Big Man, to me. He was the force behind that something beyond.

You probably heard how they met — Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons. Springsteen told the story many times. It was on the night of the great lightning storm in Asbury Park. The wind was howling, man. Springsteen — Bad Scooter — was in a bar with a band, and he was playing for the crowd, but, no, it wasn’t happening, he was searching for something, searching (if you will) for his groove, but he couldn’t find it. And then it happened. Lightning sizzled. Thunder cracked. The wind howled. The front door of the bar blew off its hinges. And in walked Clemons. He walked on stage. He pulled out a saxophone he happened to be carrying with him. The Big Man joined the band.

The story always went something like that, impossibly large, because rock and roll is impossibly large, or it can be if you love it enough. And Bruce, Clarence, yes, they loved it enough. The Big Man was the grandson of a Baptist preacher. He was the son of a longshoreman and restaurant owner. He was a football player — good enough, the story goes, to get a tryout with the Cleveland Browns. When he was 9 he got an alto saxophone as a present. When he was 16, he heard King Curtis of The Coasters play baritone sax on Yakety Yak. When he was 29, he walked through the busted door in a bar in Asbury Park and he saw Bruce Springsteen, and in his own words: “We fell in love.”

They were right for each other and wrong for each other, and maybe that’s where the magic came from. Rock and roll bands weren’t black and white in those days — or even too much these days, to be blunt about it. Hard-charging guitarists didn’t have soulful saxophone players driving their songs. Clemons was already 29 years old when he and Springsteen joined together, and he already had lived a lot of life, had already faced triumph and disappointment and tested the edge. Springsteen was 21 and not entirely sure what he wanted except that he wanted it to be great.

Rosalita, the song, comes from that time. They first performed it in 1973. Rosalita keeps no secrets. Rosalita hides no feelings. Everything in the song is on the surface, above the surface, the longing — for fame, for love, for heat, for something to do. It is a young man trying desperately, so desperately, to reach beyond himself and write the most joyous song ever written. Windows are for cheaters. Chimneys for the poor. Oh, closets are for hangers. WInners use the door. For years, Springsteen and the band would close out every one of their concerts with Rosalita. Bruce would cry out. Clarence would blow. They would chase each other around the stage. The band crashed sounds together. It was everything that they were about. Springsteen would shout that it was the greatest love song he ever wrote.

Then, one day, they stopped playing it. This was in the mid-80s. They said the song had grown tepid after so many plays. That’s probably true. But I think the song was no longer what they were about. By then, Bad Scooter was in his mid-30s, the Big Man was in his 40s, and Rosalita was too young for either of them. No matter how they howled, she was not coming out.

In the late 1980s, the band broke up. Springsteen tried to find his groove again and it wasn’t easy; he seemed out of ideas. He recorded a song about how on his television there were 57 channels and nothing on. Clemons went down to Florida, bounced around, backed up up a few bands, did a few solo things, played in some movies. There were no hard feelings, or anyway, no hard feelings that diminished the love. The band did a few things together. And then, they got back together, recorded some more music, some of it inspired, and more than anything they hit the road.

I saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band call out Rosalita on August 24, 2008 — the date stands out because it was the Sunday of the Beijing Olympics. I had flown home that day from China. I felt that deep exhaustion that comes from flying halfway around the world, but I went to the show anyway, and it’s a lucky thing because it was the best Springsteen show I ever saw. It was the last night of the tour, and Bruce was hyped, and the band was into it, and everything felt charged.

And before the night ended, they played Rosalita. Throughout the song, I watched Clarence Clemons. He was, by then, 66 years old, and he was an old 66. The Big Man lived uphill. He partied hard. He married five times. He hopelessly chased his own youth. He pushed against the wind. They had put a chair for him on stage, and he needed it most of the night. He could barely stand. He could hardly move.

In any case, they played Rosalita and I watched the Big Man, and I would love to tell you that he grew young before my eyes. I would love to tell you that because it would make for a wonderful tribute. But it isn’t so. The music was young. Even the music he played was young. The man behind the saxophone was old. He tried to dance, and in some vague way he did. When he finished, he was breathing heavy. Here’s the thing: It wasn’t sad. Well, maybe it was a little sad because the years go by too fast. But seeing him step out of his chair, walk slowly toward Bruce, play the familiar riffs for Rosalita, seeing him and the band sing that line, “Your papa says he knows he knows that I don’t (have any money),” it was beautiful. Because he loved it. He still loved it. He couldn’t be young again. But he could remember being young. And that was the something beyond.

My favorite Bruce Springsteen tale is one he used to tell before singing “Growing Up.” It was about going to see God. His father had told him to become a lawyer. His mother had told him to write books. And they had both told him to get rid of that “god-damned guitar” — that, of course, was what they always called his guitar — not Fender or Gibson. Bruce went to see the priest. He asked what he should do. The priest said the question was too big. He needed to go ask God.

And this is my favorite part of the story: Bruce went to Clarence Clemons. Why? Because Clarence knew everybody. Clarence would know where to find God. Bruce showed up, and Clarence asked him if he really intended to go see God in a Nash Rambler — God, after all, had people coming to him in Cadillacs. Bruce said that the Nash was all he had. Clemons shrugged and took Bruce along a dark road, through the woods, to a little house to see God.

The story ends with God telling Springsteen that there was an 11th Commandment left off: “Let it rock.” But I don’t care much for the ending. I care only for the drive. Clarence Clemons died on Saturday. He was 69 years old. And I think of Rosalita and being young. More, though, I think of Bruce and Clarence, Bad Scooter and the Big Man, in that Nash Rambler driving through the dark to find God.

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37 Responses to The Big Man

  1. Your says:

    I’m not a huge Springsteen fan but I love that song. Thanks for making me cry again, Joe.

    Oh and circle me Bert.

  2. dianagram says:

    Thanks Joe … and Happy Father’s Day by the way.

  3. TRiles says:

    Damn, that was well done Joe. And you’re not even from Jersey.

  4. dear gosh, Joe… thanks for giving us that… and God – thanks for Clarence…

  5. el Jeffe says:

    Great post Joe! What memories he gave me over the years! I grew up with The Boss and The Big Man. He will certainly be missed.

  6. Tracy says:

    Beautiful stuff, Joe.

    I’ll always remember seeing Bruce back in the 1980s, when Clarence would break out the castanets at the line “there’s a little cafe where they play guitars all night and day.”

    We’ll miss you, Big Man.

  7. Michael says:

    Nice job Joe. I had to go back and re-read another Springsteen post by Joe. A great read for Father’s Day.

  8. Anne says:

    Thank you for this. I think this is the best thing I’ve read this week. Godspeed, Clarence Clemons. Godspeed.

  9. Athenae says:

    I would cut off my left arm to write like you do. God damn.


  10. Well said. thanks.

    On another note, your choices for best rock band are mostly crap, jesus….Or I am getting very old.

  11. aadb12 says:

    You have encapsulated what so many of us are feeling in the wake of Clarence’s passing. Brilliant read. Brilliant writer.

  12. banacek says:

    Another fine post by Joe P.—which at this point is, of course, roughly the least surprising thing in the world.

    One quibble: Bruce has, god knows, written some genuinely ridiculous lyrics (see, e.g., practically everything on Born to Run), but the “play some pool/skip some school” sequence certainly isn’t among them: it’s sweet, loose, and totally unpretentious (not something Bruce was always able to manage in those early days)—the tone of a bright, funny guy who doesn’t think he needs to prove anything by trying to sound like a street poet.

  13. Brilliant. I can’t add anything except to say thank you.

  14. surfmonkey89 says:

    I was going on a trip to Croatia in ’09, and I decided to tack on a few days in Rome and Paris, since who knows when you’ll be back in that part of the world, you know?

    At any rate, on a lark, I googled for concerts in Rome and Paris during my stay (which was only about a week combined), and Bruce was playing in Rome while I was there! I got a ticket online, and paid a ton of it considering the exchange rate, but like I said it was one of those once in a lifetime experiences, so you just do it.

    They were playing at Stadio Olympico, a 100yr old building, and an outdoor arena. I don’t speak Italian, and had a heck of a time figuring out how to get there, but eventually I saw the stadium come up on the right, and jumped off the bus with everything else I assumed was going to the concert.

    The show was supposed to start at 8pm, but it got moved to 9:00 because Rome was hosting the world swimming championships. Nine rolls around and still no band. They finally took the stage around 9:30, with no opening act, and played until 1:30 in the morning.

    I can’t tell you how incredible it was to be standing on the turf in shirt sleeves – it was probably well over 70 even when they finished – with people I would normally be unable to communicate, singing Thunder Road, Born to Run, and all the rest. For 3-4 minutes at a time, we all spoke the same language.

    Clarence Clemons was propped up on a chair most of the night, but was an incredibly imposing presence just the same. He was so much bigger than everyone else, and he was decked out in all black, with a hat that looked like the one Clint Eastwood wore in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. The only feature of his you could see was his teeth when he would smile.

    It was an incredible show, and I left hoping to be able to get my friends to experience it the next time they were here on tour. Now of course that won’t happen, and I’ll just have to settle with the experience I had by myself that night in Rome. I consider myself one of the lucky ones.

    RIP Big Man.

  15. Joe,

    A tweet from @Krazy_Kris lead me to this post, and I am so glad it did. I posted a video today, as a tribute to the Big Man, of the boys performing Rosalita overseas precisely because they had stopped playing it in the states. I’m heading back to edit, and I am adding a link to your telling of their story. Job well done!

  16. Mikey says:

    Thanks. Been having a hard time finding the right words to talk about what Clarence’s passing means to me. I was hoping you’d take a shot at it.

    As a kid I had never really seen black and white musicians play together until I discovered the E Street Band. That was a valuable thing to see. In a way Clarence was also my entry I to jazz, just in that I never cared about horns until I heard Clarence and Bruce play together. Seeing Clarence and Bruce play live has provided me some vivid, cherished memories. I’m just glad I saw them together as many times as I did.

    Everyone talks about the live shows but more important to me were the records and the countless days and nights I listened to Clarence’s music on the bus or on the walk to school or in my room and identified with the people in the songs and tried to imagine something better for myself. Thank you friend, and rest easy.

  17. Joe,

    I meant to say that they were having great fun playing the song in front of a huge crowd in Hyde Park, circa 2009. It’s nice to see!

  18. Lucy says:

    I was in college when I went to a Springsteen concert in the fall of 1979? 80? A guy I was dating camped out for 2nd row seats and “Rosalita” was playing when a bunch of us got up to the neck-high stage, begging The Boss to just touch our hands. Somebody — maybe the guy I was dating — boosted me up and onto the stage and I did a beeline to Springsteen and bear-hugged him. As a security guard walked me off the stage and out the building, Clarence Clemmons wagged his finger at me for my no-no. The Big Man wagged his finger at me. I should have bear-hugged him too…

  19. brucewd3 says:

    I wrote this the morning after the 2008 concert at the Sprint Center in KC, but never sent it.

    Having been a fan since Born to Run came out in 1975, I have been reading the concert reviews on since early spring in anticipation of this concert. Being a cancer survivor I could understand how the band responded to Danny’s death and the realization that things would never be the same — by expanding the playlist, cranking it up, going for broke every night, having fun in the celebration of doing what they had always wanted to do—playing rock and roll! I have had the same feeling that last night’s concert was wrapping up more than a tour. For a number of reasons, I was pretty sure this was the last time I would see them (it was my third time). On the way to the concert I told my son, also Bruce, that I was afraid my expectations were too high. But of course they weren’t. And as Rosalita started I told him I was really glad to get to hear that song live. In 2003, about 6 weeks before she died, my 83 year old aunt who had lived in Chicago for all but the last few years of her life, sat in our family room when the Cubs won their first post-season series since 1908 and said, “If that’s all there is, it’s enough.” The same is true for the show we saw last night—if that’s the last time I see Bruce & the E Street Band I can’t ask for more than what they gave us last night!
    And by the way Joe, I was so glad to know you went and got up early enough to write about it. You brought tears to my eyes more than once.

  20. jedwardmac says:

    Joe – in your spare time if you can ever fit in a book called “The Meaning of Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band” I promise I will buy it… I will even spring for the hardcover.

  21. Bill Woodard says:

    Thanks, Joe. I’m happily shedding a few more tears for the Big Man after that read.

  22. Your says:

    What is it? 10th Avenue Freeze Out where the big man joins the band?

  23. brucewd3 says:

    re: your
    that’s correct. I don’t know how they could ever play that song again without him.

  24. Sally says:

    found your blog by accident; and i’m so glad i did. i’ve been a springsteen fan for over 30 years (i was born in ’73), and have seen the E street band in concert more times than i can count. i had 4th row center seats to a concert in ’03 (in east rutherford) and i was able to see the sweat on the faces or Bruce, Clarence, and Stevie……and i was able to see the magic in their eyes, and the smiles on their faces… i just don’t know who could possibly stand stage right of Bruce…. thanks for the touching post; i’m posting it to my FB page now.

  25. I saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in 2003 at Gillette Stadium. Sat in nosebleed heaven and still felt all the energy and excitement of The Boss and The Big Man all the way up in Section 338. Something definitely ignited that night Joe. RIP The Big Man, you’re already sorely missed.

  26. I saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in 2003 at Gillette Stadium. Sat in nosebleed heaven and still felt all the energy and excitement of The Boss and The Big Man all the way up in Section 338. Something definitely ignited that night Joe. RIP The Big Man, you’re already sorely missed.

  27. Your says:

    If you found this blog by accident, do yourself a favor and read “The Soul of Baseball” by Joe.

  28. Great post Joey boy.

    Great writing.

  29. rodgerscolin says:

    I went to school in the town next to Asbury. There’s a mystery to it like its best days are behind it. Story from the old days happen. The boardwalk was empty. Perhaps, its improving. You capture the mystery of it just right.

  30. My first Springsteen concert was in June 1978 at Hancher Auditorium on the University of Iowa campus. Tickets, according to a poster I found online the other night, were a whopping $7.50 for students like myself at the time. I was lucky, and had tickets in the fourth row on the aisle.

    I can’t remember what song it was – they played from 8:00 pm to 1:30 am with only a half-hour break between main sets and the breaks between encores – but at one point Bruce went up the other aisle and Clarence came up mine. He played for a bit, then sat on my armrest, looked at me, and said ‘How’s it going, kid?’

    I stammered out something unrecognizable as words, he smiled a Clarence grin at me, then stood, resumed playing, and worked his way back to the stage. Thanks Big Man, and thanks Joe for another wonderful post.

  31. That Girl says:

    As the person above said “thanks for making me cry again.”

    I’ve felt a little crazy crying since he passed. I’ve cried my eyes out. And listened incessantly to the music and watched YouTube videos, making me cry more. My friends and family don’t get it. I’m a little surprised by it. But these guys have always been so special in so many ways.

    The pure JOY in holding a ticket for a few weeks, the anticipation, remembering previous shows, reading the reviews leading up to your show, then the show -3-4 –yes even 5 hours once – those were some of the most special, joyful times of my life. Truly. And knowing it will never happen again … I almost want to say they shouldn’t try to go on. I mean, who can replace The Big Man? How can they replace him? I know Bruce will continue to write and perform … but E Street? How can it be E Street without C?

    The only consolation for me has been the fans like me who have posted on Clarence’s FB page, Bruce’s FB page, here, everywhere. Seeing people crying at The Stone Pony. At least I know I’m not the only one shedding real tears.

    Life will be missing something for me.

  32. Blotz says:

    Joe, we’re of an age (i’m 42) but I never was a Springsteen fan. I didn’t listen to much music when I was 17. But reading about how much you love them has helped turn me into a fan. Lucky for us there will always be records…

  33. nalung says:

    I’ve been frustrated all week. Looking for a fitting tribute to Clarence. Someone who got the big picture. The essence of what his spirit meant to the world of rock and the people who loved his music. No one can write like Joe Posnanski and no one seems to “get it” like Joe. Thanks Joe. I’ve never felt older. You’re the best.

  34. Jamie Rose says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  35. roseystyle says:

    As a recovering Jersey Girl myself your post brought me back to my days back on the Jersey Shore hoping for an impromptu E Street band Jam session…I may be in San Francisco, but this post reminded me why I will always be proud to be a jersey girl.

  36. Mary says:

    I, too, am a lifelong Springsteen fan and saw them many times, including 2-3 times in 2008, and finally, finally, FINALLY, after years and years of neglect, they played Rosalita in concert, and it MADE MY NIGHT. That was an awesome show, it was, even though my seats were in the nosebleeds. I saw them again a few months later, in MUCH better seats, but in a venue with a horrific sound system which all but destroyed any musical enjoyment. But I did get some great photos, and one in particular that has stuck in my brain as well as in digital pixels, is of the band leaving the stage after a fantastic 8-song encore, with Clarence taking up the rear, and it was so very obvious how much pain he was in. I was (and still am) just grateful that he was willing to push past the pain night after night to play for us. I can’t imagine, (can anyone?), what a Springsteen concert will be like now, without him.

  37. lorenzo calestani says:

    sometimes i get back here to read your words again. and again. and again.
    i’m italian and european, i was in london 2009 (and in many other places before and after) and that night the big man was soooo old too. he missed some notes, others played out of tune… they played rosie and they try to look young. there were old but happy and still having fun.
    when they came in Jungleland it was all perfect again. all the right place that it must should have been.

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