Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Change Was Made Uptown

September 12, 1985 and July 10, 1984 were often thought of as the best days of my life prior to getting married and having kids.  Even now it's hard for me not to look back on them as they may still be atop that list.  July 10th was the day my sister, Todd Taylor, Phil Harris, their brothers and I hopped into a car and went to see Van Halen at Reunion Arena on the 1984 tour.  It was the time of our lives and little did we know that would be the 2nd to last US show the original Van Halen would perform to this day.  That night was all about rock and roll to the hilt, everything was louder, bigger, sensationalized.  It had a huge effect on 13 year old Bob.

September 12, 1985 was the day my father turned 40.  He has told me since that was the toughest birthday he ever had.  I had no idea.  I was a distracted 15 year old who was on his way along with my sister, Eric Gabriel, Steve Harmon, Chris Hoff and his girlfriend to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, TX.  My Springsteen obsession was maybe 2 years old at this point.

Eric's brother Billy liked Springsteen so I went into my Dad's collection and pulled out Nebraska, the album Bruce did by himself on an acoustic guitar.  It was good but it was no Van Halen.  I remember thinking these are really good stories.  I listened to it a lot mainly as a source to paint pictures in my head of the guy leaning over a dead dog, poking him with a stick and the Mansion on the Hill.  It was missing something though, I needed a punch to my music at the time.

A few months after I discovered this dark world I had never even thought of, Dancing in the Dark came out.  I watched that video on MTV and thought that's a sea of people, one I'll never see in a live audience.  I liked the song but it didn't seem right to me that it was the same guy who did Nebraska, this was cheesy keyboard music.  I had never even seen Bruce before, he wasn't anywhere to be found on the artwork for Nebraska.

Then my dad brought Born in the U.S.A. home.  I had a hatred for keyboards at the time but putting that album on and then the keyboard and bass drum come booming through the speakers, WOW!  The next thing I notice, there is a story here, an incredible story.  Every song on the album jumped out at me as an incredible tale that I had never come across before.   There was a punch to Born in the USA, but it still wasn't AC/DC, Van Halen or even the Rolling Stones (my top 3 at the time).  I eventually came to terms that not everything had to have a punch to it and just dove into the songwriting.  I then started pulling out Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town and it was one great song after another.

Eric and I tried like hell to see Bruce at Reunion Arena in November of 1984, but we couldn't get tickets.  By the time he announced two shows at the Cotton Bowl in September of 1985, there was no way we were going to miss this one.  We camped outside of Sears for 12 hours to get tickets.  We were able to get 6 seats and September 12th couldn't come fast enough.

By the time the show finally arrived, I had memorized every record from Born to Run on.  I knew them like the back of my hand, I felt there was nothing I didn't know about Bruce.  I was ready for this show, can you believe it will be 4 hours long?  No way!

The tickets said 7:30 but he didn't come on until well after 8 which was driving me insane.  Then, the lights went down and out he came with an American Flag behind him.  The stage was on the other end of the football field from me, I was on about the opposite 10 yard line.  So, I'm figuring he was about 100 yards from me.

To this day I can recite the set list from that show.  I knew all but one song that he played and I had the time of my life.  The thing that struck me from across the stadium as it began, the big ol' flag and the big ol' dude next to him in the white suit.  I knew that was the Big Man, Clarence Clemons.  I knew he played Saxophone.  That and the fact that Max Weinberg was on drums was all I knew about the band.

I can still see that glow of that white suit in the twilight from that evening.  They started with Born in the USA and I couldn't sing along loud enough, I friggin' loved that song.  I felt it was speaking for the veterans of this country even though the only vet I knew (Uncle Bill) had never once spoken to me about the war at that point.

From Born in the USA, they went right into Badlands, and that's when my life changed.  Literally.  Everything I felt I knew about Bruce was wrong.  He wasn't a man who had single handidly changed the way I think about music, thinking I needed music with heavy guitars and drums.   Bruce was a member of a band, and oh my what a band it was, and holy crap did they come with a punch!  When Clarence stepped center stage in the white suit and started the sax solo in Badlands, the Cotton Bowl erupted.  It was much louder than when the show began.  It was like God had just walked to the mic.

I couldn't believe it.  Saxophone player seemed like the easiest gig you could get in a rock band.  I mean, you only played for a few seconds every other song, but this guy ruled the stadium.

As the first set progressed, it just kept happening, he'd step to the center and blow out a solo that would bring the house down.  The final song of the first set was Thunder Road (a song I love as much as just about any song there is now, but at the time for some reason was one I didn't know too well).  I had listened to that album, but I listened to the side that started with Born to Run - Side 2.  Side 1 just didn't get as much play I guess.  As the song began, I wasn't sure what it was.  Then when the crowd sang along with the lyrics "you ain't a beauty but hey your alright," and I was floored.

That was nothing.  When the sax solo came, again, I couldn't believe what I was seeing, and the solo, kept building and building, it just kept getting bigger and bigger.  As it hit the crescendo, Bruce ran across the stage, sliding at the end right into Clarence's arms.  The Big Man bent over and gave Bruce a big kiss.  My jaw dropped as this huge black guy was kissing the Boss in front of 70,000 people who let out a huge roar.

I had no idea what to think, it freaked me out.  I spent most of the 30 minute intermission saying, they didn't really kiss did they?  Chris Hoff even suggested they were gay.  Huh, what?  No way?  I must admit, I didn't understand it at all.

As the show went on the party just continued and my admiration for the E Street Band and really Clarence Clemons was just beginning.  Clarence came out in a big red suit as they went on to play hit after hit and I just couldn't get enough.

The rest of that year, I no longer spoke of Bruce Springsteen, it was always Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.  The more and more I thought of that kiss and listened to the music, I realized it didn't have anything to do with sex, it was about family, brotherhood  It took me years to realize it, but as I did, I began to appreciate my family and friends much more.  I have held my friends dear as much as possible.  I pretty much still have the same friends I had that night in 1985.

As the years passed and Bruce broke up the band, the outrage came from all over and surprisingly, I was amongst them.  I saw 2 shows on his "solo" tour supporting Human Touch/Lucky Town, and I had fun but something was missing.

What Bruce built with his audience from the beginning, and with me that night in Dallas, was a bond between a band and the audience.  He stenciled out the picture but it wasn't complete until Roy put the Piano down, Danny came over the top on the Oregon, Max and Gary kept the rhtyhm, Nils and Stevie playing guitar and then came Clarence to top it off.  You take those elements away, and the songs are still great, but something was wrong.

In 1989, I left Texas Tech to join my family in California.  I had been there maybe two weeks when I drove up one December night to Ventura to see Clarence Clemons and his band play at the Ventura Theater.  It was a really small place and I had great seats about halfway back, right behind the sound board.  This was about 2 months after Bruce announced he had broken up the E Street Band.

I went into the show thinking, poor Clarence.  It was a good show, but I didn't know most of what they played.  I kept thinking to myself, this is cool, but it's just not right.  During the encore, Bruce came out and I went bonkers.  They played 3 songs together, Cadillac Ranch, Glory Days and Sweet Little 16.  I remember singing so loud during Cadillac Ranch the sound guy turned around and looked at me like I was the Boston Strangler.    What a glorious night that was.  It both infuriated me and made me happy.  It upset me that he'd break that bond but then made me think, they aren't split up for good, they are too good together. 

The reunion shows in '99 and 2000 proved it to me.  The E Street Band was a family that I loved.  I didn't know those guys, but I felt like they were a significant part of my life, a significant part of not only who I am, but who everybody else in the arena is.

That kiss in 1985 was about a bond, and I realized that during that '99 tour.  Every time Clarence would step to the mic to sing the lines "Now There's a Beautiful River in the Valley Ahead" from If I Should Fall Behind, I'd tear up.  It's true, he had that incredibly low voice, it was just awesome.

There is a danger when speaking of people you've never met to romanticize them, to make them more than they are, to overstate what they mean to you.  My sister has often kidded that when Bruce dies I'll be a wreck.  I've often thought that might be true.

I knew this past week that Clarence had been sick, and that things weren't looking good for him.  It bummed me out but not as much as it would have 10 years ago.  Not because Clarence and the E Street Band mean any less to me now, in fact, they may mean more.  I think it's because they taught me how to be a good friend, how to enjoy the hours we have together and to appreciate the sound of great music coming from a great band.

Last night when I heard that he had passed, I was sad.  I didn't cry, but the thought of never seeing the E Street Band again with Clarence Clemons is one that I'm never going to come to terms with.  Every time I hear 10th Avenue Freeze Out I get excited when "A Change Was Made Uptown".  Alone in my car I holler after it's announced that "the Big Man Joined the Band" and that quick sax lick erupts.
I'm sure going forward I will still holler, except now I imagine it will be with a heavy heart.  I typically laugh when people say they are going to miss celebrities who pass away, take Heath Ledger for example.  We will always have the Dark Knight and Brokeback Mountain.  I didn't know him, I don't miss him because I had no idea what he would have done in the future.

This is different.  While I still have the solo in Jungleland, I will have no more evenings with 18,000 of my closest friends throwing our fists in the air as Clarence plays the solo in Badlands.

That makes me sad, but also makes me eager to have my kids watch Live in New York City with me to see the "Little Cuties Raise Their Hands".