RIP Clarence Clemons: Reflections of a former Jersey Shore rock critic on the E Streeter he never met
When I served as pop music critic for the Asbury Park Press -- the newspaper of record for Bruce Springsteen's hometown and home base -- the Big Man had already left the building, at least temporarily.
The year was 1993, and Springsteen had separated himself a few years earlier from his longtime backing group The E Street Band to try defining himself as a solo artist. To this outsider's eyes, many of his former sidemen seemed set adrift by the circumstance; drummer Max Weinberg tried law school and owning a record company before settling in as Conan O'Brien's first bandleader, while keyboardist Danny Federici wound up auctioning off many of his possessions in a sale I covered. (some might say The Boss himself was adrift, earning some of the harshest reviews of his career in this period)
But Clarence Clemons seemed the brightest star cut loose from The Boss' orbit. Already, he'd had hits outside the Jersey Shore rock scene, spicing Aretha Franklin's Freeway of Love and hooking up with Jackson Browne and Darryl Hannah for the pop hit You're a Friend of Mine.
During the three years I spent in Jersey Shore bars getting to know the guys from Southside Johnny's band, hanging out with Jon Bon Jovi and finally meeting Springsteen himself for a couple of short interviews, I never saw Clemons.
But his presence was felt by its absence, as a college buddy of mine, multi-instrumentalist Crystal Taliefero, filled in on saxophone during Springsteen's tours behind his E Street-less Human Touch and Lucky Town records.
As great as that backing band was -- and it had my favorite hired gun drummer Zachary Alford anchoring the action -- what it lacked was a personality that could go toe-to-toe with Springsteen and push him to new limits. A friendly rival who knew all his moves and could compliment them, even before the star himself knew he was going to go there.
During my time in New Jersey, I saw the distorting power of celebrity up close; how Springsteen could make a bar owner's month simply by stepping inside to have a drink. Or how even celebrities who work hard to stay down to earth can be subtly affected by a level of success which ensures they are almost always regarded as the funniest, smartest, coolest guys in the room.
In world like that, you need guys around you who remember when you were scuffling to pay the rent from gigs at the Stone Pony. You need back up from the days before presidents quoted your lyrics and young actresses became world famous sitcom stars after appearing in your videos.
Many years later, seeing Clemons take the stage next to Springsteen with a reunited E Street Band, it felt like the stars had realigned in an important way. Springsteen had that opposite anchor, who could take a bit of the spotlight and dazzle the man whose talent usually does the dazzling.
I hope Clemons' death Saturday at age 69 doesn't keep Springsteen from eventually heading out with the E Streeters again when the time is right. As a longtime road dog, Clemons knew well as any working musician how much the show needs to go on.
But his departure caps a legendary musical partnership, as important and enduring as Richards/Jagger or Lennon/McCartney, to those of us bitten by the E Street bug.
RIP, Big Man. You certainly earned it.