Goodbye to the Big Man

When you talk about Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, it does not take long to talk about seeing them live. And it does not take long after that to talk about how much fun it is, just how much joy there is to be had and shared.

And it’s true – every little bit of it. I’ve seen Bruce and the band more than a few times. I saw them play “Rosalita” in Giants Stadium. I got in line at 6 a.m. once to wait for a show 14 hours later, and was rewarded with second-row seats. It was a blast.

But the moment that always stood out to me was when the lights on the stage centered around two microphones, and the members of the band huddled around them. They would start singing “If I Should Fall Behind” – one at a time, one verse at a time – and you saw it. How they affected each other’s lives, how much they meant to each other. How it didn’t matter how many times Bruce gave in to his artistic license and broke away for a few months or a decade or two, to sing old folk songs or how nothing was ever on TV. These people were linked, and always would be. How the producers of “Lost” failed to insert Springsteen into the series finale remains an unanswered mystery.

But it’ll never be the same. The Big Man, Clarence Clemons, left us Saturday. He was 69. It was not unexpected – his health has been failing for some time (he had taken to sitting on a chair during the most recent tour). He had a stroke a week ago, and two brain surgeries immediately after.

It was sad just the same, though. It was the Big Man, after all. He was the muscle to Bruce’s style, the coolness to Bruce’s bravado.

I did not see the band live until 1999, the reunion tour. By then, these men who built their reputation on four-hour shows in bars up and down the Eastern seaboard had aged. They put on a great show, but it was shorter and tighter. As a teenager, it was easy to look at the band and decide most of them were straining to appear young.

But not the Big Man. Maybe he hid it better – he was, after all, the oldest member of the band – but he just had an aura about him. As long as he was on the sax, and Bruce could still slide across that stage once or twice, maybe it did not matter just what year it was. They were, in those moments, frozen in time.

Those second-row seats I mentioned earlier? Well, they weren’t seats. It was the pit. And when they opened the gate, we gravitated towards the Big Man’s side of the stage. For those 2.5 hours, we clapped and danced and sang along. I’ll never forget it. It was late November, and that night they played “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” for the first time on that tour. After it was over, I asked a roadie for Bruce’s Santa hat. Every Christmas, I pull it out and it is displayed near the Christmas Tree.

My son will never have that experience. He’s 15 months old now, and by the grace of God he digs Bruce and the band. If I put on a concert, he runs to the TV and dances. It’s a sight to see.

One day, I am sure, I’ll take him to see the Ministry of Rock and Roll live. He’ll love it, because he won’t know the difference. I’ll love it, because it’s still Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. But at some point I’ll look to my left, for the Big Man, and remember he’s not there.

So long Big Man. Thanks for the memories.

12 comments

  1. Lights out tonight, trouble in the heartland. Got a head on collision smashing in my guts man.

  2. What a refreshing article. Glad to see that the Scoop can still occasionally branch out into the not-so-sports world to talk about current events (mind you, you could refer to The Boss’s “Glory Days” video as an argument that Springsteen and sports are always related somewhat).

    Nice work, Hugh.

  3. Great job Hugh!Had no idea you were a fellow “tramp” till your avatar change tweet.Now it sounds like we might have been at a few shows together-I was at #10 Giants Stadium show during the ’03 run.And I spent 14hrs in the Pit line for Bonnaroo in ’09.

    I became a Bruce fan in ’75,the same year the Hoosiers reached immortality.Hopefully we’ll have more ESB tours and more Hoosier NCAA triumphs to look forward to.

  4. Thanks for that Hugh, as a Hoosier now living in Chicago, but born and bred in the Garden State, it’s a sad day without the Big Men blowing on the sax anymore.

  5. I love the sax and no one was better than the Big Man. I always wanted to see the E Street Band in concert and may one day but it won’t be the same without clarence blowing his horn. Rest in Peace and thanks for the memories.

  6. Good article.

    I wasn’t a huge Bruce fan but saw his Born in the USA show in Indy.

    Good times.

  7. What is it with Bloomington and Springsteen? I hear tons of claims about walking fossils that can’t let go of the glory days of Knight. How about letting go the glory days of “Glory Days”?

  8. Keep up the good work with your son, Hugh. At 15 months, he’s still a few months short of realizing that anything that Mom and Dad like is sooo uncool. Put that love of IU sports and music in his head now and he’s as good as brainwashed for life – speaking from experience.

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