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Clarence Clemons.

Still digesting this.

This past weekend marked the sad anniversary of a friends untimely and horrific death and while weighing that alone in a cheap motel room – I was away attending a grad party – came the news that Clarence Clemons is gone, due to the effects of a stroke.

There’s a scene in the film “Donnie Brasco” where one of the mobsters is reading the news headlines – the film is set in the seventies – and upon seeing that John Wayne had died exclaims loudly “How the f#@* can John Wayne die?!”.

That sums up how I’m feeling now: how the f#@* can The Big Man die?!

I grew up in a small town in another dimension in time: the world was much larger then. No cell phones, no Internet. You saw the world through television and newspapers.

And unlike today, kids were not the center of the universe. I didn’t go along when mom and dad went off to Florida or Vegas.

Thus, in the mid-eighties, Bruce Springsteen - and his concerts – were epic myths to me. I’d read articles in magazines. I’d see snippets of the Born in the USA tour on network news. I’d see giant stadiums filled with giant roaring crowds and wonder who those people were, how did they get tickets, how did they get there?

I’d re-read Dave Marsh’s Glory Days (an Xmas gift from my grandmother) and read about the legendary 5 or 6 hour concert marathons. About New Jersey. About the on-stage banter with the crowd and the stories of growing up, friends and loves lost.

Again, someone younger, say 25 or under, may not comprehend where I’m coming from, here. And I can completely understand why: just yesterday, I dialed up youtube and watched – from start to finish – Bruce and E Street’s Paris performance in 1985 on the USA tour.

In my day, that wasn’t possible.

Then came the release of Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band Live: 1975-85. A monster seller that in retrospect Springsteen fanatics, me included, would come to realize was sub-par considering what was ultimately left on the cutting room floor.

Regardless, it gave me my first real taste of Springsteen’s onstage persona, the mythos he applied to his backing band.

Miami Steve Van Zandt!

Professor Roy Bittan!

Now you see him, now you don’t: Phantom Danny Federici!

On drums, The Mighty Max!

And it was during this particular performance, on the collections first part, in the middle of a rousing Rosalita, that he’d save his most passionate introduction for last.

And last but not least.

Crowd gets louder: they know what’s coming and they love it.

Over again, more loud and intense every time, he’d repeat the question.

Do I have to say the name?!

On cue, the audience, also louder and more intensely each time, would answer back with “NO!”.

This would of course culminate with on saxophone THE BIG MAN CLARENCE CLEMONS.

It would be going on two decades before I would experience this in person.

Fargo, North Dakota. November 6, 1999.

Nearly twenty years of dreaming of it, wondering if would be anywhere near the mythicism I had over time layered over this experience.

Bottom line: if you had told me that night I’d never see another live performance, I’d have shrugged and said “Oh well. No point now anyway”.

Midway through the set, the band launched into what would be an extended twenty minute version of “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out“. It would feature other songs inserted throughout for an audience sing-a-long and it would also include a feverish, passionate, preacher-like Bruce telling the story of his band came together.

Springsteen would tell of how he was once lost and lonely, how one night he came across a gypsy in the woods and she told his fortune. She told him in effort to reach the promised land, he would need help.

Bruce: “You can’t do it on your own Mr. IN-DEE-PENN-DENT!”

“You need a band!”

He then left the gypsy and walked down to “the riverside”, where magically, one by one, The E Street band would appear.

He then gave each member a stirring, genuine, heartfelt tribute.

He then stopped at one.

“The legendary E Street Band ladies and gentleman!”

“And there we were at the riverside.

But still (and here he would turn, walk slowly and scratch his chin quizzically) something was missing”.

Crowd begins to roar.

“Something very, very important!”

Crowd gets louder.

“Something essential, that we could not live without!”

On command, well get louder still (the man is a genius in crowd manipulation).

“Something very, very big!”

We’re now in a fever pitch as Springsteen walks to his sax player and falls to his knees.

Pointing at him, Bruce begins to yell over and over “Say who!?”.

“Clarence!”, all 17,000 of us answered back each time.

Bruce would yell “say who?” faster and faster while simultaneously leaning backwards, until the back of his head literally touched the stage.

And at that point, Springsteen – like a gymnast – sprang up, spread his legs and belted out the lyric.

Well the maid got change uptown, when The Big Man joined the band!!!

And The Big Man answered back with a mighty blast of the sax.

And once again, we the audience found it in ourselves to become even louder again.

There’d be a few more shows for me after that: Fargo again. Miller Park in Milwaukee.

The final one would come at The Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul in 2009, the year that the group’s Superbowl appearance would begin with an iconic, silhouetted shot of Bruce and Clarence standing back to back.

As always, the best show out there. Springsteen sounded as good as he ever had and was as electrifying as ever.

But I remember noting in a piece I wrote for the Star Tribune that the rest of the band appeared to be slowing down. Particularly it’s saxophone player.

He had recently undergone knee surgery, only standing up from a stool when a solo called for it. He also appeared unusually thin.

I’ve wondered aloud the past couple days what Bruce will do down the road: will there be a permanent replacement? Will a certain song be permanently retired? Will some event be held celebrating Clarence’s life?

I’ll plop down money for a Springsteen show anytime.

I just hate it that things will never be the same.

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