“The Biggest Man You Ever Seen”

June 21, 2011

It was June 9, 1984 – a Saturday – that I made it into Cincinnati and bought a copy of Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band’s Born In The U.S.A, which had been released five days earlier.

Though I knew a handful of songs by Springsteen from the radio, Born In The U.S.A. was his first album released with the E Street Band since I had become obsessed with music.

It was their first album where I was there.

It was the first album by the already-legendary band that I would own.

I was hardly alone as Springsteen brought a lot of new fans into the fold as Born In The U.S.A. sold millions, dominated the musical landscape, and the band embarked on a sell-out tour that seemed to last forever.

At that age, for me, it did seem like forever.

I had just finished my sophomore year of high school that Saturday when I purchased Born In The U.S.A. and I was making plans to come home for Thanksgiving from my first semester at college when the sprawling Live/1975–85 set was released at the tour’s culmination.

A year later, Tunnel Of Love arrived and though it was a success, there was no possibilty of maintaining the fervor that had surrounded Springsteen and a portion of that audience – for whom the music might have been no more than a trendy accessory – had moved on.

I was in for the long haul.

Oh, I didn’t become one of those Springsteen fans that can recite setlists at will, but each new release was anticipated and, as those releases became catalog, the music was cherished.

I wouldn’t see Springsteen live until ’96 when Paloma and I caught a show on his acoustic, solo tour for The Ghost Of Tom Joad. It was memorable, but, after years of reading of and seeing clips of Springsteen performing with the E Street Band…

Finally, in 2000, I had the chance to see the E Street Band on their reunion tour.

It was everything I’d read of, heard of, or been told of for twenty-some years and though it was the joyous three-hour celebration I’d been promised, but perhaps the most memorable moment had been the performance of the sparse, solemn If I Should Fall Behind near the end.

One by one, Bruce, Steve, Nils, and Patti stepped up to the mic, sang a portion of the song and stepped aside for a bandmate before surrendering the spotlight to Clarence, playing the sax and singing with Bruce.

It ended with the five of them crowded around that one mic together.

Of the however many hundreds of shows I’ve attended, I have never seen a band that seemed so genuinely happy to be together. There was a love and devotion between this somewhat disparate group of people that was palpable even from the cheap seats.

I left the arena that night knowing that – trademarked self-anointments be damned – I had just seen the greatest rock and roll band in the world.

(not to mention what must have been one really cool gang to be in)

I had one last chance to see them together, sharing a show with Paloma eight years later.

I’ve been surprised at how truly sad I have felt at the passing of The Big Man.

Maybe it’s because the E Street Band loomed so large during my sixteenth summer.

Maybe it’s because it seems as though this collection of scrappy underdogs has always been there and it seemed that they always would be.

Maybe it’s the stark reminder that not even The Boss is immune from the inexorable march of time.

And maybe it’s the realization that there is no more E Street Band.

Hours I’ve spent the past few days reading the recollections of fans and those tributes rightfully mention Springsteen classics like Rosalita, Thunder Road, Born To Run, and Jungleland, songs that were made transcendent by the sound of Clarence Clemons’ saxophone.

But it was none of those songs that I heard in my head upon learning of Clarence’s death.

Instead, the song that came to mind was one from Springsteen’s 1995 Greatest Hits set that had been newly recorded by the reunited E Street Band.

The song captured the bond between Bruce and his bandmates that, for me, made them a band for the ages and makes me grateful I got to witness some of it.

Buon viaggio, Big Man

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band – Blood Brothers
from Greatest Hits

Advertisements

Today, My Best Friend…Tomorrow, Who Knows?

May 11, 2011

Sometime last week, during the spate of coverage on the demise of Osama bin Laden, I happened upon a program on the life of the iconic terrorist.

One of the people interviewed was described as bin Laden’s best friend as a teenager.

It must make a pretzel of the mind to have such a notorious character as a former best friend.

The first best friend that I can remember having was a kid named George. There’s little else I recall aside from his name and I have no recollection as to what earned him status as numero uno amigo.

I do recall that I stripped him of the title and I slotted another classmate into the position.

I wanted John as my best friend because he was tall, a head taller than everyone else.

(people have been placed in high office using such logic, but I was five)

I’ve had no contact with either of these kids in almost forty years, but it seems as though George is a DJ in the upper Midwest, so perhaps I was being prescient about the interest I’d someday have in music.

By the time I reached high school, I was in a transitional period with friendships. The concept of best friend had evolved into a group of eight or nine of us who would end up together in different permutations and numbers.

One of these buddies was a bit of a fire enthusiast and devotee of things that go kaboom.

During senior year, Kirk The Pyro went to California with another of our friends for spring break.

(most of us settled for wandering the malls in Cincinnati)

This dynamic duo returned to the grimness of March in the Midwest with tans and dynamite.

“Where did you get dynamite?”

“Tijuana”

“So, you brought dynamite from Tijuana on your flight home from California?”

It was a simpler world and a time when – relative to today – the airlines essentially had a don’t ask/don’t tell policy.

The interviewee on the television screen had described bin Laden as quiet and polite, their friendship rooted in a shared love for soccer.

I could only describe Kirk The Pyro as like Woody Woodpecker in human form and our bond forged by a common appreciation for antics, hijinks, and shenanigans.

And though I haven’t had contact with him since college, I also haven’t seen him become the target of a global manhunt.

Here are four friend songs…

Clarence Clemons And Jackson Browne – You’re A Friend Of Mine
from Hero

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band were probably as big as any act in my lifetime. During the mid-’80s. Born In The USA sold ten million copies and pretty much every song on the record got extensive airplay on the radio. The group’s success was so massive and demand for more music so great that b-sides like Pink Cadillac and Stand On It got played heavily.

E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons even had a solo hit during the winter of ’85 when he duetted with Jackson Browne on the upbeat and catchy You’re A Friend Of Mine.

The Rolling Stones – Waiting On A Friend
from Tattoo You

Personally, I’ve always thought that Waiting On A Friend was one of the Stones’ finest post-’70s moments. The song is so casual and the vibe so laid-back that it’s always welcome when it pops up on shuffle.

Apparently it was the first video by the Stones played on MTV (with reggae great Peter Tosh hanging out on the steps).

Grateful Dead – Friend Of The Devil
from Skeletons From The Closet: The Best Of Grateful Dead

Grateful Dead got discovered my generation while I was in college when A Touch Of Gray put the venerable band all over MTV. I liked the song and I even liked a lot of its parent album, In The Dark, which was played often in the record store where I worked.

I’ve also enjoyed stuff from their catalog as I’ve been introduced to it here and there, but I’ve never felt the rabid passion for The Dead that they inspired in a lot of my peers.

Jellyfish – He’s My Best Friend
from Spilt Milk

I discovered Jellyfish when the record store where I worked received a promo copy of the band’s debut, Bellybutton, in 1990. The psychedelic album cover was eye-catching and the music earned the group from San Francisco comparisons to greats like Queen, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, XTC, and Cheap Trick.

Despite plenty of swooning by critics, Jellyfish was unable to find mainstream success and would split up after just one more album, 1993′s Spilt Milk, but the group has continued to loom large in the hearts of power pop devotees for the past two decades.