So Long Big Man

We’ve lost a big man, and a great man.

Clarence Clemons, the huge 6 foot 5 inch saxophonist in Bruce Springsteen’s mighty E Street Band, has left this earth at 69, a victim of a stroke, and for me, a distinct memory comes swirling back.

I was lucky enough to see Springsteen and the E Street Band a number of times over the years, but it was the first that stands out more than any other. Because I think for most of us there that night, we had no idea what we were in for.

It was 1975, and although Born To Run was fresh on the charts, I really had no clue who Bruce Springsteen was. He was being billed as “The new Bob Dylan,” and it was for that reason my wife and I, along with another couple, bought tickets to see them at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, a 3000 seat venue with perfect acoustics. Our seats were dead centre, only a few rows from the front, and I expected a folk singer to perform.

Before long the lights darkened, and suddenly a lone voice began, serenading us with the opening of  Thunder Road. “The screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways….” and as the lights gradually came on and the song grew, the entire band swung into action. And aside from The Boss himself, it was Clarence Clemons, The Big Man, swaying to the music, blasting his sax, that our eyes were fixed on.

I knew this was going to be a night to remember.

Springsteen and the boys played for more than three hours, and the normally reserved Arts Centre, a place of ballet recitals and classical orchestras, had fans roaring and dancing in the aisles. The four of us looked at each other with shock and eyes bulging. I’ve seen much of rock’s royalty play over the years, but Bruce Springsteen, with Clarence and the gang, was by far the best. It really was a band you had to see live. Springsteen was everywhere on the stage, the band was tighter than tight, it was pure and unadulterated rock and drama, and I understood what music critic Jon Landau had meant in 1974 when he wrote “I have seen the future of rock and roll, and its name is Bruce Springsteen.”

It wasn’t just Bruce Springsteen who rocked our world that night. It was the entire E Street Band, with The Big Man, Clarence Clemons commanding the stage in his own right, and sending us into seventh heaven with his hauntingly beautiful saxophone solos.  He took up much of the stage, this giant man dressed to the nines with his sax glistening, and we were swept away.

Springsteen introduced the band one by one, and when he got to Clarence, whom he had left to the end, he smiled, proudly proclaimed…”and on sax, The Big Man, Clarence Clemons,” and the crowd exploded. Clarence was a force, and it had only taken a few minutes to love him, his sax, and his big, friendly smile.

So long, Big Man. We’ll miss you. And thanks for the memories.

13 thoughts on “So Long Big Man”

  1. I remember that night well Dennis. You’ve described it well. We saw them a few years ago at Scotiabank Place for $125 a ticket and it was not as good as that 75 concert.

  2. I was a tremendous night for the four of us, Ian. I have many wonderful memories, and you and Linda are in many.

  3. So sorry to hear about Clarence’s death. He will be missed.

    Happy Fathers Day Dennis and to all the dads who frequent your wonderful site.

  4. The ever shrinking E Street Band.Very sad to hear of Clarence Clemons passing.I got to see Bruce and the boys 4 times back in the 1970s and early 1980s.Always good but at times a little too loud.On the ‘Born in the USA’ tour Roy Bittan’s piano was lost in a wall of sound.A concert at the QE Theatre had great sound.

    And the rap Bruce would do in concert about the initial meeting of Bruce and the Big Man is classic.I am presently looking for a bootleg that has that rap.I know he did it on a live radio broadcast in the 1970s.I heard it on CITR(UBC Radio) around 1980.

    In the early 1980s Bruce wrote a few songs for Gary(US)Bonds.Bonds released the albums ‘Dedication’ and ‘On The Line’ that included the songs.Bonds toured the albums and played The Commodore Ballroom.I rate that show as the best I ever attended.What a voice.What a band.

    Big Man RIP

  5. DK, hope you got the links I sent you. Diana & I saw them in 2000 at what was then known as the Sky Dome. Talk about getting your monies worth, they played for 2.5 hrs took a 15 minute break and played for another 2 hours, pure magic! Rest In Peace —”BIG MAN!”

  6. Hi Doug,
    For me, the Born in the USA era wasn’t my favourite. He sort of lost his Jersey shore attitude and was playing in football stadiums by then. Even the cuts on the album weren’t my favourite compared to his earlier stuff. I saw Gary US Bonds at Camp Fortune near Ottawa and because Springsteen had a connection with him, the rumour was that he was going to show up. Of course he didn’t but everyone was hopeful.
    That first show that I describe in my post – a girl sitting next to me had already seen him a few times and was travelling around following him. She was extremely excited and I didn’t know why, but I soon found out – as soon as they hit the stage.

  7. Gary Anderson aka Gary(US)Bonds is still out playing live and has released two excellent albums recently.The albums ‘Back in 20′(2004) and ‘Let Them Talk’(2009) are excellent.
    http://www.garyusbonds.com/

    New albums by the likes of Dave Alvin,Joe Ely and Garland Jeffreys are also excellent.And being a big fan of Roy Loney I highly recommend any of his recent albums.

    And even Southside Johnny is still out there.Released a pretty good album last year.

    I guess it is ‘rock til you drop’.

    Oh yeah … being a Canadiens fan is certainly better than being a Maple Leafs fan.Well … not that much better!

    And the new Canucks theme song: Kaiser Chiefs ‘I Predict A Riot’.

    Go! Kings! Go!

  8. my fav recording bar none is nebraska recorded on a 4 track cassette recorder. it really shows his roots. the songs are brilliant and haunting, just him on acoustic guitar and harmonica. his record company didn’t want to release it wanting something with more mainstream commercial appeal. but bruce said RELEASE IT.

  9. Doug, Southside Johnny was one of my favourites back then and I had pretty well forgotten all about until you brought him up. And I saw Garland Jeffries at Barrymore’s in Ottawa in the 1970′s. Thanks for bringing back more memories. And being a Habs fan beats being a Leafs fan all to hell. We never had Harold Ballard to ruin things for us.

  10. Yeah Hobo, Nebraska was very creative. I like it but I still prefer the rocker in Springsteen. I remember reading somewhere that he always wanted to do a Nebraska-type thing even years before he did.

  11. You are right hobo it was a great album, it takes you back to the day’s of Woody Guthro & Pete Seger. For me & there were many The River stands out, it’s as though he was talking to me at that time in my life,you know reflecting on your life at that moment in time! Then moving on & later relise they were and still are the best of times!

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