Two months on, I still can't shake the dull sorrow stemming from the death of Clarence Clemons. So it's odd when I think that right when it was all happening, back in the day, as it were, I really wasn't much of a Springsteen fan at all. Now when I say "back in the day," I'm talking-- let's be very specific here-- say June through December 1978, during which time Springsteen and the E Street Band were embarking on what I think most Springsteenologists would now agree was his definitive tour-- for Darkness on the Edge of Town, still playing the great theaters, and leaving behind documentation by virtue of having broadcast 6 of these shows on the radio.
I caught this tour on a Friday, September 15 at the Palladium on 14th Street-- that would be 4 nights before the show on the 19th, broadcast from the Capital Theater over in Passaic, which my friend Bill will tell you was THE best Springsteen show ever. Much of the appeal of the show I saw was lost on me at the time; that year I saw bands like Yes, ELP, Todd Rundgren, and more than once the Grateful Dead. Springsteen was an act in black and white, while I was looking for music that was bursting with color.
Since then, of course, I've learned to love the appeal of black and white...
We sat in the fourth row at the Palladium. I still remember the show quite vividly. Muhammad Ali was fighting that night, so Springsteen opened with "Darkness on the Edge of Town," dedicated to Ali, before tearing into "Badlands." I remember him crowd surfing, before that particular behavior had a name, during "Spirits in the Night." I remember they played "Because the Night," which was cool because the Patti Smith version had been on the radio. And I remember that some guy kept calling for "Kitty's Back" all through the first set, and finally Springsteen said, "We haven't done that one in a while, but I'll tell you what, we'll work it out during intermission, and we'll play it in the second set." And then they opened the second set with it and just about tore the house down (and it stuck in the rotation after that.)
But more than anything else... I remember Clarence. We sat in the fourth row, right center, which put us literally in the shadow of the Big Man. And you couldn't not look up at him; he was massive, imposing, deep dark black, sporting a red suit and hat, and blowing into that shiny golden horn like some sacred demon. Even today, I'm both thrilled and a little bit scared at the memory of that visage.
As time passed though, and I got older, I began to more fully appreciate the Springsteen appeal. And you have to pay some attention, and go to the shows, because at it's core, the appeal goes beyond the songs and their playing, and certainly it goes beyond the records; no, the appeal turns out to be metatextual.
The way Springsteen has presented himself and his art, there's a heavy narrative element to the presentation. Bruce Springsteen-- or rather, the character he plays in an E Street Band concert-- is a man on a quest, and he undertakes that quest with the assistance of this sturdy, stout-hearted band of brothers (and, after a time, sisters.) Every presentation of a Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band concert is a fresh undertaking of that quest, with us along for the ride. (He's even called "Thunder Road," the first track off his greatest if not his best album, an invocation, an invitation to the audience to come along for the ride.) These quests might begin in "Badlands," and deliver us, four hours later, unto a "Paradise by the C." (Where we're likely as not to dance till "Quarter to Three" with a "Devil With the Blue Dress.")
You can imagine the classic E Street Band as the cast of a 1944 World War II movie. But no one looms larger in that band than the Big Man, Clarence Clemons. I think now that the core elements of the Springsteen Jersey Shore sound that are most central to that sound's definition are bells, organ, the Bruce/Steve tight harmonies-- and finally that sax, that wailing sax, that storms in and defines whatever song it graces-- "Sherry Darling," "Rosalita," "Born to Run," and perhaps most profoundly, "Jungleland."
"Jungleland" is a song so overwrought with narrative and drama as to justify a criticism of cheesiness, unless you've signed on for the whole ride. When that sax solo kicks in at what is the 3:55 mark on the album version, it is as if Springsteen the narrator has given out. We know this scene from the World War II movies-- "It's getting dark boys, I can't go on, you all go on without me." But then Clarence says no without words, puts his head down, picks the Springsteen character up, tosses him over his shoulder-- in doing so tosses US over his shoulder-- and hauls us there...to wherever "there" is...
At 6:27, the plaintive piano signals a return, and soon the Springsteen character emerges into the aftermath, dusts himself off, surveys the landscape as the smoke clears, "Beneath... the city... two hearts beat..." We've gone through a transformation, a metamorphosis, a transcendence, a passage. We've arrived on the other side, and it is Clarence who has taken us there.
To me our whole experience with Springsteen, and with Clarence, is embodied in that song; it was repeated on a grander, more "real life" scale, and with a happier ending, in every E Street band concert.
We all want to keep making that journey, that quest. We all want to go with Springsteen as he brings us from out of these hard times, to that place where we're gonna walk in the sun... that meeting across the river... that Promised Land. And I'm sure Springsteen will find some way to keep making the voyage, because by God it's what he does. But I don't know how he's going to get us all there without the Big Man by his side. Those were awful damn broad shoulders, and you just don't replace them.
So I guess, in the end, we're all going to have to shoulder a little more of our own burden as we make our way across that dark abyss, toward whatever Promised Land awaits. I suppose that's inevitable. But it's still sad.
Here's what I mean.
If we require that a politician's positions and behavior remain consistent over time-- that if you are for something today but actually you voted against it 8 years ago you are a hypocrite-- well, pretty much all politicians will fail that test. Circumstances change, viewpoints evolve. Whether you're talking about Obama having voted against raising the debt ceiling as senator, or about Romney's beta version of Obamacare in Massachusetts, if a politician is in public life long enough, he or she will almost certainly self-contradict over time.
Unless, of course, that politician is so zealous and fanatical in their ideals as to be inflexible. In which case, bingo, lunatic.
Given the choice between hypocrites and lunatics, I generally vote for the hypocrites.
Labels: The politics