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E Street Band Saxophonist Clarence Clemons, the Sound of Triumph and Hope, Has Died

Clarence Clemons and Bruce Springsteen on the cover of "Born to Run"
Clarence Clemons and Bruce Springsteen on the cover of "Born to Run"

Clarence "The Big Man" Clemons, the powerful and inspiring saxophonist for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, died on Saturday at the age of 69.

People who aren't Springsteen fans may not truly understand what a sad day it is for those of us who are, especially for someone like me, who grew up a few miles south of Asbury Park on the Jersey Shore in Monmouth County -- the heart of Springsteen Country. Let me explain it to you.

First of all, I went to high school with Clarence's son, Nick, who I didn't get to know, but seemed like a good guy -- I never heard any complaints about him. In the cafeteria of our high school, a Springsteen mural had been painted years ago, featuring Clarence and Bruce in that wonderful pose that's on the cover of Born to Run.

For four years we saw that mural, and it stood for the very best of what friendship has to offer: good times, loyalty, and successfully fulfilling your dreams with a good buddy who always has your back. That's what the mural said to me, anyway.

At that time, as a teenager, I was making lifelong friends, and I have no doubt that the friendship between Clarence and Bruce informed the way I handled those relationships.

You have to understand. Bruce was HUGE at that point, touring the world with the 1984 release of Born in the U.S.A. He was truly the pride of New Jersey, and he lived and hung out only minutes away from where we lived and went to school.

Springsteen was The Boss, and many of us took our cues from him and Clarence. At least I did. Whether it was enjoying yourself to the fullest -- the way The Big Man and Bruce did in concert -- or living your life with a certain integrity or taking pride in a state that the rest of the country often made stupid jokes about, you learned life lessons from these guys.

And we loved the music.

But the life lessons were vitally important for a teenager. You see, it wasn't just about taking pride in New Jersey in the face of ridicule.

It was also about taking pride in yourself and having faith in yourself when you face your own challenges and naysayers as you make your way in the world.

It was about sticking together and taking on the jerks with your friends and coming out triumphant.

That's what Clarence's saxophone solos always signaled to me: triumph and hope in the face of doubt, adversity, and despair. He did it in such Springsteen songs as "Born to Run," "Badlands," and many others.

A sound that told people everything's going to be all right, we're going to come out ahead, and we're going to have fun doing it. He just blasted all the bad feelings and assholes away.

And now the man who gave us that sound of triumph and hope -- who taught this one-time teenager some life lessons -- is gone. It's sad. A very sad day in Springsteen Country.

Contact Patrick Range McDonald at pmcdonald@laweekly.com.

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