RIP Clarence Clemons - (and the kozmic significance of the ordinariness it all)
I have written about Clarence Clemons many times in the past, however it has never been enough. I say that simply because people like him simply never get quite enough credit because their accomplishment is in the extraordinary manner that they go about doing what should be ordinary, but isn't.
1973 - FRESHMAN ORIENTATION
Next fall my daughter will be a college freshman. That means later this summer, she will be attending something called "freshman orientation." Here in the Davis household the topic of "freshman orientation," has been the topic of much conversation over the past few days. The passing of Clarence Clemons takes me back to my own "freshman orientation," at the University of Pittsburgh way back in 1973.
Freshman orientation is supposed to be a period of time when you as the recent high school graduate, but not yet college freshman can be introduced to your selected institution of higher learning in earnest. You get to live in the dorms, you get to learn about the administrative procedures in registering for classes, you get to learn about the support system available to you at the institution and more. It is designed to assist you with the transition between high school & college. I am all but certain that they vary from college to college, yet are all designed to be somewhat similar.
In 1973 my freshman orientation at the University of Pittsburgh was all of the above, strongly enhanced by something else that was quite unexpected, and yet at the same time something quite significant. You see perhaps because it was 1973 or perhaps it was the University of Pittsburgh or perhaps for reasons that I am completely unaware of, the memory of my own freshman orientation of almost 40 years ago is completely filtered thru the haze of "sex, drugs & rock n' roll." And at the very center of that "haze" is Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
You see the University of Pittsburgh has arranged for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band to perform in nearby Schenley Park for what seemed like morning, noon and night for all 4 days of freshman orientation. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were onstage performing whenever I happened to be in the park (which was as often as I possibly could be…..LOL)
The first thing that I noticed was that while the band was integrated, the crowd was almost 100 percent white. The music however seemed rooted in 1950's/1960's R&B and Doo Wop, so it was "retro." Yet at the same time it was contemporary and fresh. During that freshman orientation weekend I returned to that park many times, because I dug the whole scene (it was much like I had envisioned Woodstock to have been,) yet each time I returned, I was stunned by the fact that while there were many Black students attending freshman orientation weekend, almost none of them were in the park. One one occasion I did see a Black student in the park and we sought each other out. His name was Kevin Amos, who has been my friend ever since that day and whose name you will recognize from his many contributions to Soul-Patrol.com over the years.
1984 - JERSEY SHORE
In 1984 I found myself living in Red Bank New Jersey. I been living and working as an operations manager in Houston Texas for a well known "enormous nationwide public utility." As you all may recall 1984 was the year when the "enormous nationwide public utility" was deregulated and broken up. This "break up" created opportunities for employees who were willing to relocate to the New Jersey headquarters of the "enormous nationwide public utility." And I was one such employee. I headed for New Jersey for not only a new home, a new career and yet another intersection with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, at a transitional moment in my life.
As things would turn out I ended up living in Red Bank for no particular reason other than the fact that a friend of mine from HS was now living there and he offered me a place to crash, during my transition. Many of you will recall that 1984 was also the year when Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band became a nationwide/worldwide musical and cultural phenomena. And I found myself living in the very place that was the heart & soul of the culture from which sprang Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
In fact Clarence Clemons was from Red Bank, New Jersey. If you were to drive down the main drag (RT 35) thru Red Bank New Jersey, you would think that you had somehow been transported to a place in the Middle America. On RT 35 you will see beautiful early 20th century homes, tree lined streets with children playing, leading to a downtown area that looks like it could be in a Jimmy Stewart movie.
However if you peel back the onion just a bit you will find a small city where quite literally the Blacks live on one side of the tracks and the whites live on the other side of the tracks. Despite that legacy of segregation, the flip side of Red Bank as well as all of the dozens of other towns/cities stretching along the coast of New Jersey that make up this mythical place called "The Jersey Shore," is that it's probably among the most liberal places that you could possibly find in the United States. You see the real life "Jersey Shore" (not the TV show) is the complete antithesis of current day "2011 Tea Party Amerika."
As such race relations are quite a bit different then they are in almost anyplace else that I have ever lived in the United States, north, south, east or west. The reality of the Jersey Shore is that you have a large geographical area, with a large Black/White population where there is in fact something that approaches racial harmony. Oh to be certain, the Jersey Shore is by no means perfect, but it approaches the very ideal of what the people who fought so hard for something called "integration," during the last century had envisioned during that fight.
An understanding of what life is like at the Jersey Shore provides a quick answer to not only the "concept of "Bruce Spingsteen/Clarence Clemons," but also to their reality. I have seen "music/culture experts" at publications like Rolling Stone Magazine, eMpTVy, etc. describe the relationship between Bruce/Clarence as being somewhat analogous to that of Huck Finn & N*gger Jim. I would suggest that while that description might sound ok, that it is somewhat misleading (and also panders to a lingering kind of racism.) Huck & Jim weren't "equals." Not only were Bruce/Clarence "equals," but based on my own personal observation of 1984 Jersey Shore life, they weren't all that unusual either. I can tell you for a fact that wherever you went in the summer of 1984 you could see Black kids and White kids hanging out together. You could see Black families and White families hanging out together. You could see the vision of America that many Americans had been hoping for many generations would become a reality in actual practice all along the streets and boardwalks of the mythical place called "The Jersey Shore."
The music of the Jersey Shore is the same way. It harkens back to the roots of Rock n' Roll itself, where the guitar and the sax were at the heart of the music. The integrationist 1950's notion that lies just under the surface of rock n roll, "equal parts blues & country," serving as a musical metaphor for "equal parts black & white," serves as a revolutionary concept for a nation whose very creation is rooted in slavery of those who were constitutionally declared as "3/5 th's of a human being."
Only a place like the Jersey Shore, could give to us an integrated musical entity like Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band to remind us all not only what Rock n' Roll is supposed to sound/look like, but more importantly to remind us all what we are supposed to be like. To remind us all of just how "ordinary" our "extra-ordinariness" is actually supposed to be.
2006 - ROCK N' ROLL HALL OF FAME INDUCTIONS
In March of 2006 I traveled from New Jersey to NYC to do my then annual coverage of the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame Inductions at the Waldorf-Astoria. The primary reason I went was to interview the family of Miles Davis, who was being inducted that year. I had done the interview the night before the day/night of the induction. As I written before here on Soul-Patrol, it is the daytime of the induction, when the rehearsals take place that is my whole reason for being there as opposed to the actual awards ceremony at night. The Rock n Roll Hall of Fame Induction REHERSALS are perhaps the very best LIVE PERFORMANCES that I have ever been personally a witness to in my life. On top of that, the opportunities that I have had to speak with the legends of music in such a casual setting have provided me with experiences that I simply are unable to describe to you in words.
One of the most memorable of many such experiences was in 2006, when I spotted Mr. Clarence Clemons inside of the rehearsal hall (actually the same ballroom where the awards ceremony was to take place later.) I walked up to Clarence Clemons and I introduced myself. I mentioned to him during my introduction that I had once lived in Red Bank, NJ for a period of time in the 1980's and Clarence hugged me.
He said "I don't really know why you are here, and yes I have heard of your publication, but you do realize the kozmic significance of you and I being here at this place, at this moment in time, don't you?"
As I looked around the room, of course I knew EXACTLY what Clarence meant. Although the room was packed with people, very few of them besides Clarence, our friend Greer Brooks-Muldoon and myself were Black Americans.
I said to Clarence, "this meeting has the EXACT same kozmic significance as the very first time that I ever saw you perform live, during freshman orientation at the University of Pittsburgh, back in 1973."
I then told Clarence the story of me seeing the integrated Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, perform over the course of an entire weekend, during my freshman orientation.
He smiled and said "I told you it was kozmic.."
We then proceeded to have a one hour conversation about music, life, race, money and a whole lot more in a way that if you had been listening, you would have no idea that it was the very first time that Clarence & I had ever spoken with each other. Instead it sounded like two people who had known each other for 35 years. About ¾ of the way thru the conversation, I realized that I hadn't turned on my tape recorder and that this had in fact been one of the very best interviews/conversation that I had ever conducted. I also realized that if I had turned the tape recorder on, that the conversation would have been nowhere near as good or life effecting. (But I was able to get him to cut a Soul-Patrol Radio Station id: http://www.soul-patrol.net/clarence.ram)
6/19/2011 - TODAY
Clarence Clemons passed away yesterday, but today is also Fathers Day. This past Friday, I got the best Fathers Day present that I could possibly get as I watched my daughter walk to the podium and receive her HS diploma.
As I am sitting here composing this piece about the passing of Clarence Clemons, I can't help but to think of how the people who fought so hard for integration in the 1950's weren't doing so, just for the sake of doing so. They did so because they believed that integration would lead to equal opportunity for all of those who wanted to fully participate in American society. I too am a believer in that concept, have tried to live my life accordingly and tried to extend that notion to my daughter. My hope is that as she moves forward in her life that she will understand that the only restrictions on her are the ones that she places upon herself.
Clarence Clemons in his public life was a real life symbol for that philosophy. He was also one hell of a nice person, that I was privileged to admire from a far for decades and when I finally got the chance to spend some time with immediately connected with and in one day learned that although we had never met prior to that day, we had indeed been friends all along. That's because we had been "kindred spirits." And I say all of this simply to say that, if you have led your life in a certain kind of way, you are also probably a "kindred spirit," with Clarence Clemons, and most likely would have become his friend if you were ever to meet him, just like I did...
At the 2011 Soul-Patrol Convention on July 23 in Philadelphia (http://www.soul-patrol.com/convention), one of our panel discussions will be a topic entitled "WHO STOLE THE SOUL FROM ROCK N' ROLL." I have absolutely no doubt that Mr. Clarence Clemons will be listening in to that conversation and smiling. I also have absolutely no doubt that his name is going to be mentioned at least once or twice :)
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