This month marks the first anniversary of the death of Clarence “Big Man” Clemons, the beloved saxophonist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. As one of Clarence’s many fans, I’ve been thinking a lot again recently about his passing and its impact.
Of course, the main reason that Clarence’s death touched so many of us so deeply is that his life and what he chose to do with it as a musician and public figure touched us even more deeply, and continues to do so.
For me (and many others, I suspect) Big Man’s death also felt so strange because he often seemed to be downright immortal. As the oldest E Street Band member, Clarence had gone through various health problems, surgeries, etc. over the years, but for his entire musical career he never missed an E Street Band performance, performing strongly throughout whenever I was lucky enough to catch a show.
Lyrics from Jackson Browne’s “For A Dancer,” one of the best songs ever written about death, come to mind: “I must’ve thought you’d always be around…always keepin’ things real by playin’ the clown.” (Coincidentally, Browne also sang with Clarence on Big Man’s solo hit single, “You’re A Friend of Mine.”)
"Keepin’ things real by playin’ the clown" sums up much of the beauty and purpose of what Clarence Clemons did for so many of us. His nightly onstage bonding rituals with Bruce Springsteen were usually (though certainly not always) delivered humorously. At the same time, they raised openly, deliberately and consistently the absurdities of racism and the wonderful possibilities of breaking through racial barriers, many of which still stand today.
Recently, I found it especially appropriate to reconsider this important aspect of Clarence’s legacy. A few weeks ago, I had the honor of moderating an interview/audience-Q-and-A with filmmaker Nick Mead right here in Philly (where legend has it that Clarence cut his first record back in the 1960s as a member of The Vibratones.) Nick was a close friend of Clarence who collaborated with him on the excellent documentary film Who Do I Think I Am?: A Portrait of a Journey. The film focuses on Clarence’s more serious, spiritual side.
After screening Who Do I Think I Am?..., Nick and I discussed Clarence and the film with a large audience of fellow fans. In the National Constitution Center’s Kirby Auditorium, we sat on the very same stage in the same room where then-Presidential-candidate Barack Obama delivered his famous 2008 speech on racism, “A More Perfect Union.” I believe this speech probably is Obama’s best to date, which is saying a lot, given how good a speaker he can be. It still gives me chills to read or see video of the speech now, though I also find it very sad, of course, to see just how far President Obama and (more importantly) the rest of us remain from fulfilling the hopes and promises contained in those words from back in 2008.
For me, at least, this has everything to do with honoring Clarence Clemons and his legacy, and here’s why:
Much of what’s been written about Clarence since his passing has touched at least somewhat, of course, on the importance of his being the sole African-American member of the E Street Band from 1975 onward. The impact of that soulful, majestic presence that Big Man brought to so many of Bruce Springsteen’s records and concerts was very significant indeed, especially for an overwhelmingly white audience at a time when rock music had returned to a highly segregated state.
Nevertheless, aside from a few exceptions such as the version of Springsteen’s eulogy posted at his website, most public commentary failed to convey just how consciously and seriously Clarence took on this role as a very public and powerful symbolic voice against racism/white-supremacy. Of course, the core of Clarence’s persona was always about fun, humor, good times, great music, etc., but in reading his great book, Big Man: Real Life & Tall Tales, something else also becomes very clear, all jokes and tall tales aside. Though Clarence directly addressed racial issues only a few times in the book, he also revealed himself consistently to be very intelligent, well-read and perceptive. There’s no way that a guy like that didn’t fully accept all aspects of his role in the E Street Band, knowing all too well the loneliness and fear that sometimes would be involved, especially in the early days when great wealth, fame, etc. weren’t yet a part of the bargain.
He also had to remain aware of how little actually had changed, significantly and for the better, around issues of racism/white-supremacy over the years, despite the efforts of famous people like himself and many others not so well known. Of course, the best musical evidence of this can be found in one of Clarence’s greatest performances from his later years with the E Street Band: “American Skin (41 Shots)”, from the Live in New York City CD/DVD. On this track, Big Man is the very first voice heard and, through his saxophone, the very last voice heard, as well. Watching the DVD version, especially, shows just how much seriousness and commitment Clarence devoted so bravely to this performance, on a night when by almost all accounts a sense of danger in the venue itself was palpable. (E Street Band performances of the song recently resumed in light of the killing of Trayvon Martin.)
Shortly after Clarence’s death last year, there were two online essays that analyzed in detail both the victories and defeats that occurred through the years since Scooter and the Big Man first began busting our brains in half, trying with all their might to fill them with new ways of seeing and acting towards each other. One was Samuel G. Freedman’s “Springsteen and Clemons: Music’s Buddy Movie?”. The other was “MIGHTY MIGHTY, SPADE AND WHITEY: Clarence and Bruce, Friendship and Race …” by Dave Marsh. For whatever it’s worth, I personally found more to agree with in Marsh’s essay than in Freedman’s. Both essays, however, stood out in raising tough, important questions about what most white audience members actually have learned from the Big Man’s efforts. They inspired this white audience member, in turn, to write my own short “to-do” list, based on Clarence’s beautiful onstage nickname. I share it now with the hope that others may find it useful, too:
B-I-G M-A-N: Six concrete ways we white fans of Clarence Clemons can continue to honor his legacy by fighting white supremacy…
B – Begin acknowledging that we still have a lot to learn and unlearn about black people and black culture, and begin helping other white people in our communities to do the same. The essence of the Scooter-meets-Big-Man pageant always revolved around discarding our learned fears and myths about black people. Even (or, more accurately, especially) after the election of President Obama, most white people in the U.S. continue to ignore white supremacy’s devastating effect on the overwhelming majority of black people and other people of color. We need to stop letting ourselves and our communities believe in harmful fantasies and instead begin paying more attention to black people and others who are very aware of the complex realities of twenty-first-century racism.
I – Inform ourselves so we can individually and collectively begin fixing this mess. If we’re serious about changing the way we and others think and act, then first we’re going to need a lot of good information. It’s out there, too, if we’re willing to look. One good place to start is with the work of Tim Wise, among the best current writers/speakers/activists around anti-racism education. Wise’s 2011 essay on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy, “Twisted Dream: The Disappearance of the Real MLK,” remains one of the shortest, clearest explanations ever written about how unchallenged white-supremacy eventually hurts the majority of us white people, too.
G – Go to where the people are. It’s difficult for us to have much of an effect, if any, on how others in our communities think and act unless we create ongoing opportunities to listen and talk. We each need to be part of one or more places where we can connect with other people and share/discuss ideas on a regular basis—a community center, sports group, church, union, neighborhood organization, student group, seniors group, etc. It may not even necessarily be something that formal, maybe just a popular local hangout of some type where people tend to gather and gab. Online groups also have their place in this, of course, but ultimately the more face-to-face interaction, the better.
M – Make yourself known as someone who cares about your community. For the most part, people tend to be more receptive to challenging ideas when they’re presented by someone known already as a concerned community member. If we’re already active somehow around other community concerns, e.g. organizing a fundraiser for a community member who’s fallen ill, joining with others to demand more government funding for after-school programs, etc., more people may be willing to at least consider what we have to say about white-supremacy, etc.
A – Avoid assumptions. Too often people’s abilities get underestimated because they’re too young, too old, too this, too that. This is a mistake we truly can’t afford to make; good help for this kind of work already is pretty hard to find. Therefore, we never should dismiss anyone too quickly when considering important allies, leaders, etc. To pick a very relevant example, who but possibly Clarence Clemons (no stranger himself to being underestimated) would ever have predicted the major, beautiful role that Lady Gaga and her “Little Monsters” played in honoring/recognizing him during the latter part of his career and life?
N – Never lose hope. We’re trying to change a set of conditions that took hundreds of years to create. We don’t need or have hundreds of years to make significant changes, but we also shouldn’t expect those changes to happen overnight. This won’t be easy work, and sometimes it will be very scary and discouraging. Mistakes surely will be made along the way, but they also can be corrected if we’re willing to learn from them. Progress eventually will be made, too. We will reach people’s hearts and minds and help to change their lives, our lives and our world for the better, often without our ever knowing directly that we have done so, very much in the way that Scooter and the Big Man helped to change so many of us. Whenever we’re in doubt of any of this, we should remember Clarence Clemons’ own words that Bruce Springsteen quoted at the end of his beautiful eulogy: “This could be the start of something big.”
Shawn Poole is a contributing writer for Backstreets and also works for the School District of Philadelphia. This essay represents Shawn’s personal views, and should not be construed as any type of official statement or endorsement by Backstreets or the National Constitution Center.