When Bruce Springsteen reuinited the E Street Band for a reunion tour in 1999, I didn't know what to expect.
I spent my formative years listening to the band, each day thanking them for rescuing me from the hair band culture that favored cheesy music and shallow lyrics. When Springsteen dismissed the E Street Band, it was, to me, like watching like your favorite Aunt go through a brutal divorce.
But I wasn't sure I really wanted them to get back together for the reunion tour, either. I feared a sad spectacle. I feared that a band once renowned for its sheer energy and enthusiasm would become remindful of an old-timers game in which the once-great tried to avoid breaking their hips.
Instead, Springsteen, Clemons and the band put together the best concerts I've ever seen, concerts filled with hope, redemption, passion, sweat and solidarity. And because I went to a handful of those concerts, I began noticiing a trend.
Every time I went to a Springsteen concert, I saw more and more ballplayers, and more and more sportswriters. In Tampa, during spring training, a dozen Yankees crowded backstage. Paul Molitor, whom Springsteen befriended, showed up everywhere. In Kansas City during a Twins series, Molitor brought the entire coaching staff, and I remember running into venerable Rick Stelmaszek late one night in the team hotel after the concert, sitting in stunned silence at what he had just witnessed.
``My god,'' he said, reverently. ``They just bring it. And that sax player just sets himself and lets it rip.''
It's difficult to find a press box devoid of Springsteen fans, and I think there is a reason for this. I believe that Springsteen's story, and his passionate performances, and his persistence and sheer stamina thrilled many of us the way we wished sports would more often thrill us.
Springsteen isn't the greatest guitarist or singer or even songwriter of his generation. Clemons, who passed on Saturday, wasn't the most gifted or artistic or inventive saxophonist.
What the E Street Band specialized in was performing, and they rarely disappointed. They gave us sweat and brotherhood and teamwork and the feeling that a series of problems. They grew up poor in Jersey, starting playing for a few bucks in local bars, and, by outplaying and outworking their peers, turned themselves into a global phenomenon.
Springsteen couldn't have done it without Clemons, The Big Man, his foil and sidekick and friend. Clemons made Springsteen sound like more than just another singer-songwriter, lent the band both gravitas (with his looming presence) and playfulness (there was nothing like watching Springsteen and Clemons chase each other around the stage.)
Springsteen and Clemons together gave us what we all idealistically want from sports. The sense that neither race nor class can hold you back if, as the athletes say, ``you want it bad enough,'' that talent and desire can change your world if not the entire world.
When you watched Springsteen and Clemons leaning on each other, sweating, pumping their fists, breathing new life into songs they started playing on the Jersey Shore 40 years earlier, you were witnessing the effects of what Springsteen called ``The power of rock'n'roll.'' At its best, sport is a lot like a Springsteen concert, or at least what a Springsteen concert was like when The Big Man joined the band.
My top five Big Man sax solos:
1. Jungleland. I don't even love this song anymore, but Clemons' solo is riveting.
2. Promised Land. My favorite Springsteen song in concert, and my favorite moment of this favorite song is the solo, played while Springsteen walks around the stage leading the cheers.
3. Night. A song that begins with blaring, promising, sax.
4. She's the One. Staccato bursts help turn the song into a Bo Diddley rave.
5. The River. On the Live in NYC dvd, Clemons caresses the notes, and Springsteen stands by, transported.
Thank you, Clarence.