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Geezer Rock for the Summer

Clarence Clemons died on Saturday June 18."Springsteen's Soulful Sideman" the New York Times obituary called him. He had a stroke the previous week and I remember hearing Bruce on the radio reassuring us that The Big Man would be all right. My wife and I traveled over the week end.Monday morning I re-loaded and drove to the Outer Banks to see my son and daughter and their kids at the beach. No news that week end. I never heard that Clarence had died. Wednesday morning my son had to leave for home. That night we were sitting around the house in Point Harbor when he called. "Dad," he said, "I have really bad news."That's how I learned that the E Street Band's larger than life saxophone player had died. Clemons was best known for his massive onstage magnetism, in synergy with Springsteen, and for the haunting energy of his sax solos and tantalizing, allusive hooks on such standards as "Born to Run," "Jungleland," "Spirits in the Night," "Rosalita," and "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out."I've never seen Bruce and the Band live in concert. But I've driven thousands of miles with them keeping me awake and juiced to make it home. In the fall of 1984, every Friday night, I would pop "Born in the USA" into the cassette player of my black Ford Escort and drive the length of the New Jersey Turnpike, past the Shore exits, from Maryland to my hometown of Tenafly, where my Dad was dying of cancer. One of the last tracks on "Born in the USA" is called "Bobby Jean." It's a song of deep sorrow. Springsteen bids good bye to Bobby Jean and to much more. It ends with a searing saxophone lamentation that gives sound to all the pain of loss. I never listen to "Bobby Jean" unless I'm alone or with someone who knows me very well. Such was the power of The Big Man's gift.

The day after my son called, my daughter and I went to one of the last great bookstores on the East Coast, Manteo Booksellers on Sir Walter Raleigh Street in Manteo on Roanoke Island. There in the music section, straight from the angels of rock 'n roll, was Big Man, Real Life and Tall Tales (2009), Clarence's "partly truth and partly fiction" memoir. He wrote it with someone called Don Reo who turns out to have produced both Cher's 1970s television show and M*A*S*H. Reo can write. Both Clarence and Reo are seriously funny. This is a rollicking book that reads fast and well, perfect for the beach.From his father giving him his first horn at age 9, to meeting Springsteen at the Student Prince in Asbury Park in 1970, to how the E Street Band got its name, to a Montreal Gazette music critic confusing Clarence Clemons with Clarence Thomas in 2008, to half time at the 2009 Super Bowl, everything a geezer rocker could want for beach reading is here. Even Ersel Hickey! In addition to the main character and Bruce and the band members, the supporting cast includes, in no particular order, Groucho Marx and Robert DiNiro, Muhammad Ali, Kinky Friedman and Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra and Hidecki Matsui, Ringo Starr and the All-Starr Band, Redd Foxx and Chris Rock, Annie Lennox, Jimmy Buffett, Damon Wayans, along with possibly legendary appearances by Norman Mailer, Hunter Thompson, and Fidel Castro. People will walk up to you on the beach and ask what you are laughing about.The Big Man learned to play his physical stature like a horn and it was central to his appeal. In the early 1960s, he was a 6' 4" 250 lbs. offensive lineman at Maryland State College (now University of Maryland Eastern Shore) where he opened holes for running back Emerson Boozer, later of the New York Jets. Chris Rock's dustjacket blurb for Big Man says, "If you want to get really close to a big black man without getting punched in the face, this book's for you." Race is never far below the surface of these stories and Clemons talks honestly and humorously about it. The friendship between the big black guy from Norfolk and the skinny white guy from the Jersey Shore was the real thing. The music connected them but then the connection grew its own life.In the book's most lyrical passage, Clemons likens the music to a river. He listens every night. Some nights it's just noise, some nights it sings like a choir whose names he recites like a holy litany on p. 148. He includes "whoever played organ on Del Shannon's 'Runaway.'" "I can't be separated from the river ...," he says, " It is my purpose and it flows through my soul and it always will, and nothing in this world, including death, can stop that." Flow, river, flow. Here comes the sax coda on "Bobby Jean." Big Man, RIP.

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William, I enjoyed your reflection; thanks for sharing. Springsteen and the E-Street Band are one of the few rock bands ever written about in Commonweal and until that point I didn't know his music. I have been a fan ever since so your reflection was most appropriate in this new Commonweal venue.

Bill, I always enjoy reading what you have written. I find your reflections on topics most folks would think as "secular" to be imbued with such a deeply Catholic sensibility that you lay bare the Grace of God's presence in unexpected places. Thank you.

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About the Author

William L. Portier is the Mary Ann Spearin Chair of Catholic Theology at the University of Dayton.