New Heathens

Grieving, From Asbury Park

Another nexus of work and rock 'n' roll. This one, sadly, is about the Backstreets community coming to grips with the death of the Big Man, E Street Band behemoth Clarence Clemons.


ASBURY PARK, N.J. — Toward the rear of the Stone Pony, Jack Moran sipped a sweating Coors Light and gazed at the portraits that showed Clarence Clemons onstage.

Having seen countless E Street Band concerts in the past three decades, Mr. Moran, 61, said he always saw the band as a reflection, or even an extension, of himself.

“That beautiful feeling the music gave you made you think it would just go on and on and never end,” he said. “Now it just hits you, especially if you’re in the same age as me and Clarence, that things don’t go on forever.”

Mr. Moran was among more than 300 people who were drawn to the Stone Pony, a seminal Jersey Shore music haunt, to pay their respect to Mr. Clemons, the titan sax man of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. Mr. Clemons, 69, died on Saturday after suffering a stroke last week.

When a bright, reedy horn solo blasted through the speakers, the crowd roared, much as they did during the band’s performances at places like the Stone Pony, and at venues much larger as the years went by. The mourners stood amid four framed pictures of Mr. Clemons that were placed under the spotlights in center stage, along with bouquets of flowers. Every eye in the house was still on him, and many of those eyes were wet.

If Mr. Springsteen put into song the stories of so many who came to the Stone Pony, then it was Mr. Clemons who gave the sound its soul, many said.

Many of those who came out to the Stone Pony on Sunday noted how Mr. Clemons helped give vibrancy to the sound that legions of fans found so life-affirming, but that his death sent a more somber message: “Thunder Road” ends. The music may live on, but the performance stops.

Mr. Springsteen’s band has dealt with the death of one of its members before: Organist Danny Federici passed away in 2008 after a battle with melanoma. But the loss of the charismatic Mr. Clemons seemed indisputably more catastrophic for fans, and stoked fears that the band may not go on.

Several people inside the Stone Pony, including Mr. Moran, wore T-shirts featuring the cover of Mr. Springsteen’s breakout 1975 album, “Born To Run.” The iconic image featured a young, smiling Mr. Springsteen leaning against his on-stage foil, Mr. Clemons, who appeared, as he did throughout his performing career, sturdy, mountainous and invincible.

Outside the Stone Pony, mourners left bouquets of flowers, handmade signs and candles, as though a beloved neighborhood fixture just died. One sign read, “Big Man, Big Hole in Our Hearts.” Another read, “Big Man, Bigger Legacy.” The marquee at the club, which still features live music as it had when the E-Street Band was still coalescing, read simply, “God Bless Clarence Clemons.”

Many mourners at the Stone Pony spoke of learning about Mr. Clemons’s death late Saturday night, and feeling that they had to gravitate to the club on Sunday. In years past, fans of Mr. Springsteen would visit the club in the hope, occasionally fulfilled, that he or a member of his band would make a surprise appearance.

There was none of that hope on Sunday. Mourners knew that the surviving band members were in Florida for the funeral. Many said they worried for Mr. Springsteen himself, knowing his close bond with Mr. Clemons. Many more said they feared for the future of their favorite band.

A few said they feared for themselves; if Mr. Springsteen’s music and lyrics reflected a part of their lives as they grew older, so too did the death of his sax player.

“He’s 69, I’m 68, it could happen to me tomorrow,” said Hank Salkowski, a butcher from Manahawkin.

Mr. Salkowski stood in front of Mr. Clemons’s portraits, shaking and weeping on Sunday afternoon. He said that through decades of cheering the E Street Band he had always counted on them for joy, never before hearing in their music notes of his own mortality. He was so affected by Mr. Clemons’ death that he brought his grandson, Henry Salkowski, 8, to the Stone Pony for him to see how music can touch people’s lives. When asked if he had ever seen his grandpa so upset, Henry said, “Never like this.”

The crowd reached a fever pitch as a rousing live version of the song “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” sounded through the bar. Hundreds shouted “Clarence! Clarence!” in anticipation of Mr. Springsteen’s lyric, “the big man joined the band,” in recognition of Mr. Clemons.

When the line came, the roar overwhelmed the speakers. Hundreds of hands flew in the air in celebration, masking the tears that soon followed.

My one small personal Clarence Clemons story is that the only time I saw him offstage, he was buying flyfishing gear at Urban Angler, New York City's lone fly shop. As if blowing sax for The Boss didn't make him cool enough.

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