Clarence Spoke; They Listened
To many, the Big Man's role in the E Street Band was as big as Bruce's
"Who's that back there?" Clarence Clemons bellowed, acting with thinly veiled surprise.
Clarence backed up a little to get a "look" behind the curtain. From there emerged the other "big man," the guy with the guitar and the legendary songbook.
Like, hey, the crowd didn't know.
Clarence Clemons and the Red Bank Rockers at Tradewinds in Sea Bright, June 28, 1993. A packed crowd, all shouting for the man they really came for: "Bruuuuuuuce."
I stood in the back with my friend, Tom, feeling a little weird. Why would they do that to Clarence? I felt a little sad for him. Couldn't they shout Clarence's name, too?
We had been to a bunch of these shows starring friends-of-Bruce. Yeah, we hoped Springsteen would pop on stage, too. Back in the 1970s, and all the way until the mid-1990s, that was part of the deal. If you were Southside Johnny, Clarence Clemons, Max Weinberg or Joe Grushecky, you could play your solo songs to packed houses and feel adored, at least for a little while.
But there would be that jarring moment, somewhere near the end of the show, when the frustrated clubbers and bargoers would do the "Bruuuuce" call. If he didn't show, the calls would get louder. The guys wearing the bandannas from Bruce's mid-1980s "Born-in-the-U.S.A." popularity explosion would pump their arms, calling for the singer, not the saxophonist.
Then Clarence, Joe, Max and Johnny would remember why many of those people were there to see them in the first place. They'd have to make the announcement they'd always have to make, the one that made them sound not just humble, but embarrassed.
"No, he's not here tonight," they'd say.
Half the time, they were kidding. Half the time, they were just trying to quiet everybody, and speak to their core fans, the ones who stuck with them even before Bruce was big. They wanted the Bruce fans to hear the Clarence songs, too.
But if they weren't kidding, and they were right that Bruce wasn't going to show, Tom and I wouldn't care. We liked the friends-of-Bruce bands, too. We liked the Red Bank Rockers. We knew Clarence was the "Big Man," and to many, he was as big as Bruce.
Yes, as many would argue, Clarence needed Bruce, especially to get anybody to come to his infrequent solo performances, the ones that gave him some sense of identity outside of being the large man in Springsteen's global shadow.
But, to the legions of fans who followed the E Street Band, Bruce needed Clarence, too. And, at that 1993 show, at Tradewinds, Bruce seemed to confirm it.
When he popped out, Springsteen had a look on his face that was a lot different than the sunny, smiley bandanna look of the 1980s. It was a far cry from the guy who set a fashion trend a few years before, with the American flag in his backdrop.
He had a look of determination. He had a sense of purpose.
With Clarence at his side, he launched into a set of songs that were so good and so much better than any live set I've ever seen in my life.
I remember hearing "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu" and then how it didn't leave my head for a month, because it was so good. Bruce was at his bluesy best, and he seemed to roar with delight at the fact that he was giving his buddy's show a lift.
It was good timing, and not just for Clarence's show. For Clarence and, especially, for Bruce, it seemed to happen at the right point in their careers, and in their lives.
That week, Bruce played shows at the Meadowlands, Madison Square Garden and he played at the last episode of "Late Night with David Letterman." It had been the end of a long tour to support two of Bruce's weakest-selling albums - two albums he did without Clarence and the E Street Band.
I grew up in Point Pleasant, and I idolized Bruce just like the next Jersey Shore guy. But I had never actually seen him at one of his marathon, legendary concerts until that week.
At first, I wasn't as impressed as I thought I'd be. I saw the videos, the concert shorts. I thought I'd see the guy who jumped on pianos and fell into crowds as he played the songbook of my youth.
At the Meadowlands, he played with a new band after putting Clarence and the E Street Band on hiatus. To many, this group was rather ordinary, and Bruce seemed to lack the electricity and energy that I'd only heard about.
Bruce even showed a little distance, playing a set that he played numerous times on the same tour and, for the most part, showing little interaction with the crowd. I talked to fans afterward who told me that Springsteen was losing his spontaneity. That was the case later in the week, at MSG, because he played virtually the same exact Meadowlands show the same way.
All he would do, with the crowds, was smile.
But, at the Meadowlands, there was one big, bright moment, a moment that seemed to carry over to Tradewinds that week. Only it took the so-called "Master of Disaster" to make it happen. It required the man with the saxophone, the horn that put soul into Bruce's lyrics and voice.
When it happened, it brought the cheers back - the kind of cheers you heard at a Southside Johnny or Clarence show when Bruce joined them on stage.
Only this was the reverse: The E Street Band reunited. They played "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out," and the crowd grew louder and wilder.
Then came the line "...and the big man joined the band...." A very large man wearing a hat only the "Big Man" could wear, piping on a saxophone, emerged.
"Clarence!" my friend, Tom, yelled.
To say the noise was deafening would be obvious and cliche. It was so loud that I couldn't hear the rest of the song or the concert.
It reminded me of those Beatles concerts I'd heard about, when the crowds were so loud that John, Paul, George and Ringo couldn't hear themselves play.
I bet this was louder.