“Do you want to meet Clarence?” the micro-skirted, junior assistant PR lady asked me and my son, Peter. There he sat, all 250 pounds, perched on a high captain’s chair and drawing soulfully on a cigar that was just a shade smaller than a B-flat clarinet. Clarence Clemons eyes were fixed straight ahead, impervious to the screams of 15,000 rabid rock fans coming from just the other side of a massive curtain that separated the Hartford Civic Center’s backstage area from the platform where the E Street Band would soon perform its nightly magic.
To say the scene was surreal is to say Bruce Springsteen is only a singer. In a cavernous space sometimes used for Barnum and Bailey’s circus elephants to take warm-up laps, there were now no more than a dozen humans. Miami Steve, Max Weinberg, Garry W. Tallent, Patti Scialfa, and Nils Lofgren – wearing requisite black garb, guitars slung rakishly from shoulders – talked quietly among themselves. A couple of clipboard-toting handlers, eyes searching nervously for the prescribed cues, flitted in out of this otherwise placid assemblage. Jon Landau, rock manager extraordinaire, calmly surveyed the scene waiting for the appearance of his boss, the “Boss.” And then there was me, my 15-year old son, and two Hartford Food System volunteers, aching with anxiety as we awaited our one-minute of face-time with Bruce.
The occasion of this unearthly gathering was Bruce Springsteen’s generous commitment to ending hunger. As the local non-profit organization chosen as the recipient of his charity, the Hartford Food System was given front-row seats to auction off (one pair went for a cool $7,000), free tickets for the tour’s two-night stand in Hartford, and of course the backstage meet-and-greet with Bruce that was now turning my legs to jelly.
If I was at all capable of thinking clearly, I would have realized that I was standing there at that moment in 2001 because of Springsteen’s 1975 “Born to Run” album cover. The image showed a scruffy white kid from New Jersey (I was also from New Jersey!) leaning on a bad-ass looking Clemons who was in the process of “torturing” a tenor sax. It was black and white, the cover photo that is, but the black and white racial theme was as clear and sublime as a golden summer day at the Jersey Shore. I would soon discover that the eight song tracks inside would change my life, but it was the cover that sent shivers up my spine.
As a child of the sixties I had lived through the civil-rights movement, race riots not more than 10 miles from my lily-white suburban town, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. My only black childhood friend was abruptly removed from my sandbox for reasons I still don’t understand. I’ve been called a racist, I’ve participated in anti-racist training, and I’ve read a dozen black authors who explained everything I needed to know about racism except how to stop the pain. But with Bruce Springsteen’s sweet smile directed at the soulful visage of Clarence Clemons, I sensed a transcendent moment. Could this flagrant display of humanity be the beginning of the end for America’s 300-year old nightmare?
My son, who was then playing saxophone in his first garage band, approached Clarence with an innocence I had lost 35 years ago. He slowly shifted his giant stogie from his right hand to his left and enveloped Peter’s hand in his meaty paw. With precociousness that has served my son well throughout his life, he said, “I play tenor sax too. Can you give me any advice?” The Big Man sized him up for a second or two, pulled long and deep on his cigar, and lofted a plume of smoke skyward to the Civic Center’s ceiling. He replied, “Play with soul, son. Just play with soul.” And with that, he lifted his immense self from the chair and joined his band mates on stage.
Rest in peace, Big Man.