At the 14th Street Y's symposium on Bob Dylan and the Band in December 2010, Matt Friedberger of the Fiery Furnaces said that he draws a direct line between Otis Redding and Steve Cropper plotting "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay" in a Memphis hotel room and Barack Obama and David Axelrad plotting a presidency in Chicago. Tonight let's add Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons, the Big Man of Blessed Memory, to this list.
Part of the allure of rock and roll bands has always been the community that the band represents as it rolls across the country, town to town, coming to your town soon.
Much of this is a branding schtick, of course, because in the end it's only rock and roll and rock and roll is only show business. The Boss and the Big Man must have known this to last in the public eye together as long as they did.
But still, for most of the past forty years, as Springsteen played the part of the hard-fighting, openhearted contender for something glorious and fleeting, Clemons played the part of his best friend and sidekick -- the one who could clear the floor with an explosion of melody at the moment when the odds had grown the most daunting and the danger most fierce.
This is the sound of triumph in "Rosalita", but it's also the howl of the only person who still remembers your name or knows where you are in "Bobby Jean."
It is also how Bruce Springsteen, like Sly Stone but for so much longer, dared to present America in the 1970s and beyond through the faces of a band that actually looked like America: people of color, ethnic, rough around the edges, and always ready to bust the chops of self-righteousness with a great sense of humor.
Kissing the Boss on the lips or embracing him in a giant bear hug at a peak moment in almost every show, Clemons was, in Springsteen's words, "King of the World, Master of the Universe, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall refineries in a single bound; it's a bird, it's a plane, it's the Big Man."
Part of the reason that Bruce Springsteen has meant so much to America for so long is that the passion and truth of his band at work was as diverse, playful, successful, and natural as we wish our communities could be. The Big Man was an anchor for this community, and we mourn his passing.
(For Springsteen's shaggy dog tale of the mythic first meeting of he, Miami Steve, and Clarence, click here. Thanks to David Biliotti for that...)