Born to Run (2016)





I was in the studio at my farm on a rainy, wind-soaked day between tours when I received a phone call from Clarence. I’d been trying to get hold of him for a sax session on the new version of “Land of Hope and Dreams” we’d cut for the upcoming Wrecking Ball. He was calling from Los Angeles, where he’d just performed with Lady Gaga on American Idol. He’d played a great solo on her “Edge of Glory” single as well as appearing in the video. I asked how he was and he said he had some numbness in his hand that was inhibiting his sax playing and was making him very nervous. I asked him what he wanted to do and for the first time in our history he begged off a session and asked if he could return home to Florida to see a neurologist and have his hand checked out. I assured him he could catch the session later and told him I’d call him in a week or so and see how he was doing.

Patti’s and my anniversary came up and we left to spend five or so days in Paris. About three days in, Gil Gamboa, our security person, knocked on our hotel door in the afternoon. When I opened the door, all I saw was his eyes glazed with tears. He choked out that Clarence had had a very serious stroke and was in the hospital. I left for Florida.

Clarence’s stroke was massive, shutting the lights out on an entire side of his brain. It had happened in moments as he fell out of bed onto the floor. I visited St. Mary’s Medical Center in West Palm Beach, where I was greeted by Clarence’s brother, Bill; Jake, his nephew; and Victoria, his wife, and I was ushered in to see the Big Man. He lay in bed breathing heavily in a dimly lit room with tubes and cords emanating from underneath his gown. Clarence’s eyelids, which were always like soft steel doors, languorously opening and closing, were heavily shut. Victoria spoke to him and told him I was there. I took his hand, spoke gently to him and could feel a light grip form around my fingers. Some part of him somewhere was responding. Clarence’s hands were always like heavy stones but when he placed them upon your shoulders, the most comforting, secure feeling swept through your body and heart. Very, very strong and exceedingly gentle—that was C with me.

The folks at St. Mary’s were kind enough to provide us with a small room where Clarence’s brother, nephews, children and friends could gather, play some music and talk about C. It was far enough away not to disturb the other patients and before long, we had the saxophone, guitars and our voices singing during the days and nights we waited to see how Clarence would respond to the efforts of his doctors. There were procedures, medical decisions to be made by the family, doctor’s consultations, but one afternoon, I was taken aside by Clarence’s main physician and was told it would be near miraculous if he ever regained consciousness. If he did, he would most certainly be wheelchair bound, an entire half of his body paralyzed. His speech, his face, his hands dysfunctional. He would certainly never play the saxophone again. I don’t know how Clarence would’ve handled this. He was a strong man with a staggering life force but I know not playing, and not playing in the band, would’ve hurt big. It really wasn’t meant to be. Clarence had been a natural creature of excess, lived hard, never really taken great care of himself and never looked back.

A week passed; C’s condition continued to worsen and all that could be done had been done.

The morning sun laid a pinkish veil over the St. Mary’s parking lot as we entered through the rear door and gathered bedside in Clarence’s small room. His wife, his sons, his brother, his nephews, myself, Max and Garry prepared to say our good-byes. I strummed my guitar gently to “Land of Hope and Dreams” and then something inexplicable happened. Something great and timeless and beautiful and confounding just disappeared. Something was gone … gone for good.

There is no evidence of the soul except in its sudden absence. A nothingness enters, taking the place where something was before. A night without stars falls and for a moment covers everything in the room. Clarence’s great body became still. His name was called. A lot of tears fell. We took some time, said our prayers and were ushered gently out by the nun who’d been C’s nurse. Clarence’s brother, Bill, took it very hard for the rest of us. The stillness was broken. In the hallway we comforted one another, talked for a while, kissed and hugged one another, then just went home.

Back in the world, it had turned into a beautiful sunny Florida day, just the kind C loved for his fishing expeditions. I went back to my hotel and took a swim deep into the sea until the noise of the shore drifted from my ears. I tried to imagine my world without Clarence. Then, turning over on my back, I felt the sun take my face and I swam back to land, went inside and fell asleep soaking on my bed.

✵ ✵ ✵

The thick Florida air filled my lungs with cotton as we entered the Royal Poinciana Chapel. All of E Street, Jackson Browne, and Clarence’s wives and children, along with Eric Meola, who took the iconic picture of Clarence and me on the cover of Born to Run, were there. Victoria spoke lovingly of Clarence and read his last wishes, which were basically that C wanted his ashes scattered in Hawaii in the presence of his wife and all of the other “special” women in his life. Only Clarence, alive or dead, could pull this one off.

The first time I’d seen C’s massive form striding out of the shadows of a half-empty bar in Asbury Park, I’d thought, “Here comes my brother.” Yet as solid as the Big Man was, he was also very fragile. And in some funny way we became each other’s protectors; I think perhaps I protected C from a world where it still wasn’t so easy to be big and black. Racism was still there and over our years together, occasionally we saw it. Clarence’s celebrity and size did not always make him immune. I think perhaps C protected me from a world where it wasn’t always so easy to be an insecure, weird and skinny white boy either. Standing together, we were badass, on any given night, some of the baddest asses on the planet. And we were coming to your town to shake you and to wake you up.

Together, we told a story that transcended those I’d written in my songs and in my music. It was a story about the possibilities of friendship, a story that Clarence carried in his heart. We both did. It was a story where the Scooter and the Big Man busted the city in half. A story where we kicked ass and remade the city, reshaping it into the kind of place where our friendship would not be such an anomaly. I knew that that was what I was going to miss: the chance to stand alongside Clarence and renew that vow on a nightly basis. That was the thing that we did together.

Clarence was one of the most authentic people I’d ever come across. He had no postmodern bullshit about him. Other than my old man, a true Bukowski character come to ass-on-a-bar-stool life, I never met anyone else as real as Clarence Clemons. His life was often a mess. He could spout the most inane bullshit you’ve ever heard and believe it, but there was something inside of his skin that screamed life was ON and he was the master of ceremonies! He made himself extremely happy and horribly miserable, he dogged me and blessed me, was side-splittingly hilarious and always treading near pathos. He collected a cast of characters around him that often had to be seen to be believed. He was sexually mysterious and voracious but he was also incredibly lovely and my friend. We didn’t hang out. We couldn’t. It would’ve ruined my life. There was always too much. But the time I spent with him was filled with thrills and big laughs. We were physically comfortable with each other, often hugging and embracing. Clarence’s body was a vast world in and of itself. He was a mountainous, moving, kind citadel of flesh in a storm.

I miss my friend. But I still have the story that he gave me, that he whispered in my ear, that we told together, the one we whispered into your ear, and that is going to carry on. If I were a mystic, Clarence’s and my friendship would lead me to believe that we must have stood together in other, older times, along other rivers, in other cities, in other fields, doing our modest version of God’s work.

Clarence was elemental in my life and losing him was like losing the rain. In his last days, he moved slowly to the stage but when he got there, there was a big man in the house.

On returning to New Jersey and work, I reentered the studio. My producer Ron Aniello was there working on Wrecking Ball. He gave me his condolences and said after he heard about Clarence’s death, he didn’t know what to do. So while he was in LA, he had carefully pieced together Clarence’s solo from a live take to fit our new version of “Land of Hope and Dreams.” I sat there as C’s sax filled the room.

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