In Memoriam: The Big Man

On Saturday, at the age of 69, Clarence Clemons, aka the Big Man, passed away in Palm Beach, Florida.   Known best for his role as the unbelievably talented saxophonist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, Clemons’ passing has brought sadness to so many.

L: Clarence & Bruce play together in the 2000's on The Rising tour; R: Clarence & Bruce on the cover of "Born to Run"

If I had to pick a soundtrack to capture my upbringing on the Jersey Shore it would undoubtedly be a mix of Bruce Springsteen songs.  Every summer walking from my house up to the beach, “Born in the USA” could be heard blaring from each beach-house party.  Once I got my license, I would drive the ten miles north to Asbury Park and be engulfed in the land of the Boss.  I’d pass by the Stone Pony, considered one of the greatest rock venues of all time, where Bruce got his start and still visits today to play a show here and there.  I’d catch a glimpse of the Wonder Bar, where it is said that Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons first met.  I now live and work in the Village and am proud to say that my new home, too, played a vital role in shaping Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

L: The Wonder Bar; R: Yesterday outside of the Stone Pony

At the age of 17, Springsteen was a member of a central-Jersey-based band called the Castiles.  During December and January of 1967, this band took up a residency playing 29 afternoon shows at Cafe Wha, the famous club located on the corner of MacDougal Street and Minetta Lane that is also attributed to giving Bob Dylan his start.   By 1972, Bruce had signed 0n with Columbia Records with the group of musicians, including Clarence Clemons, who would come to be known as the E Street Band.  The group’s official New York City debut took place in early 1973 at Kenny’s Castaways.  This Bleecker Street bar and music venue also hosted the likes of Phish and Patti Smith.  Shortly after their stint at Kenny’s, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band would release their first album, Greetings From Asbury Park.  Clemons’ tenor saxophone can be heard on the tracks “Spirit in the Night” and “Blinded by the Light.”

L: the Castiles outside of Cafe Wha (Springsteen is on the far right); R: Kenny's Castaways as it looks today on Bleecker Street between Sullivan and Thompson Streets

In August of 1975, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band took up a 5-night, 10-show stand at the Bottom Line, located on the corner of West 4th and Mercer Streets.  Rolling Stone would come to call this stint “one of the 50 moments that changed rock and roll.”  These live performances made up their epic third album, Born to Run, the one that finally put the Boss at the top of the music scene.

L: the poster for Springsteen's shows at the Bottom Line; R: Clemons and Springsteen play at the Bottom Line

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band may have stopped playing at small Village haunts after they found international fame, but I think it is safe to say that their folksy-Village beginnings stayed with them.  They were activists and not afraid to stand up for what they believed in.  “Born in the USA,” was a testament to the effects of the Vietnam War on America.  His song, “Streets of Philadelphia,” the title song for the movie Philadelphia, was a touching portrayal of a gay man dying of AIDS.  Released in 1994, this song was much ahead of its time and earned Springsteen an Academy Award.  In the early part of the 2000′s, he would become a spokesman for the revitalization of Asbury Park, the seaside town that had nurtured Springsteen in his early days, but had fallen into disrepair and become ridden with crime.  A place covered with historic architecture (the Convention Hall building, where Springsteen played numerous times, was built by famed architects Warren & Whetmore who designed Grand Central Station),  he advocated for the growth of its small businesses economy and played several shows to raise money for this cause.  In 2002, in the aftermath of 9/11, Bruce released his first album with the E Street Band in 18 years (the group had taken a hiatus) titled The Rising, a reflection on the attacks of September, 11.  The song “My City of Ruins” was originally written about Asbury Park, but became a hopeful association with 9/11.

L: Convention Hall; R: Yesterday outside of the Stone Pony

In true Village fashion, something that I thought was only associated with my Jersey Shore childhood is actually significantly rooted in the South Village (click here to see how you can help GVSHP save this neighborhood).  Now, when I walk by the Cafe Wha or Kenny’s Castaways, I hear Clarence Clemons’ solo in “Thunder Road” and know that his legacy will live on in the Village and beyond.

Clarence Clemons and Bruce Springsteen were never afraid to express their loving friendship


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