I wasn’t always a Bruce Springsteen fan. When The River was released in 1979, I well remember the hype CHUM FM gave the album, and not having a clue what the fuss was about. Where’s the hot guitar solos? Springsteen himself wears a suit vest onstage for gosh sake. All hype, seemed a reasonable response.
It’s not that I disliked, you understand, not really. Born to Run, I would have to admit was a great song. And the other songs I knew, Tenth Avenue Freeze Out, Candy’s Room, Prove it All Night and later Hungry Heart, were all good songs. And if I had sat and put it together in that way, thought about his songs, I probably would have been a convert much earlier than I was.
There really was no excuse. Darkness on the Edge of Town is a great album, a work of art as much as any album of the rock era can be called that. I was 15 when Darkness was released in 1978, so I had no excuse. Except, I knew nobody who had it, liked it, talked about it. An album that good, by an artist that good, an artist we all knew just never listened too, and it seems nobody in my high school bought it.
I regret that I didn’t get Springsteen then. I was doing the concert scene by then, and had I seen Springsteen in ‘78, I would have been catching an astounding performer at his absolute peak. Even a few years later, when I had less excuses, I would have been seeing him perform at a level that few others ever do.
The conversion would take a few more years. It began in the middle of the night in 1983. I was working midnights at the local Food City, and had the night off. I stayed up, and when the TV was done for the night, turned on the radio. At 4:30 the DJ said he had tickets to Springsteen’s legendary sidekick and saxophonist, Clarence Clemons, and his band, the Red Bank Rockers at the El Mocambo. I called, got through immediately and had my name put on the list for the show – apparently virtually nobody else was listening at that time. On one days notice, and knowing nobody who was a Springsteen fan, I couldn’t find any takers for the second ticket, so I went by myself.
Upstairs at the El Mocambo was a small place, wider than it is deep with a low ceiling. It holds maybe a hundred people, who sit four each at a table. Rows of table run only 2 or 3 deep, thus about ten across. It is, it must be said, an intimate setting. I took a seat about ten feet from the stage and settled in to see I had no idea what. All I really knew was he played saxophone for Springsteen, and was on that album cover, the one where he’s leaning on Bruce. Hey, I was going to be ten feet away from a man on an album cover, and that was pretty cool. However, I was only ten feet away should it prove to be not very good and I wanted to leave halfway through.
I needn’t have worried. I remember sprinklings of the night. He started and ended with a couple of instrumentals. He brought out a little guy who sang great R&B, and had an on fire band behind him. He played for what must have been close to an hour and a half, but it seemed like ten minutes. And by the last song, Fire, I was dancing on my table, as was everybody else in the place.
I had often heard it said that music has energy, that it could be electric. I had no real idea what that really meant until that night when, like Ben Franklin standing in the storm with his kite, I learnt exactly what that electricity felt like. It was magical. I have said before that I learnt the meaning of the phrase raised the roof that night. The energy was so palpable in that little tiny room it felt like the roof must have moved upward so that the walls wouldn’t blow down.
How sad to hear the Big Man, he was 6’5” and 270 pounds, with the ever present big smile died yesterday, one week after suffering a stroke. He was 69, too young, too talented. I’ve seen Springsteen six times now, seen Clemons absolutely nail that astounding Jungleland solo. Seen him hanging out beside the speakers, like hoods at the drug store, while playing Rosalita. Seen him standing on one edge of the stage, while Bruce was on top of the piano, yet Clemons is the guy who was hard not to look at. I’ve even seen him kiss Springsteen, the singer on his knees after sliding across the stage to where Clarence was playing. But what I’ll always remember is that night 28 years ago when he seemed to come within’ an inch of literally blowing the roof off the El Mocambo. The night I learnt Rock ‘n’ Roll didn’t have to come wrapped in loud guitar solos and wailing singers.
No, Rock ‘n’ Roll is good time music, and nobody did good time better than Clarence, the Big Man, Clemons.