Clarence Clemons, who died on Saturday at 69, didn't just bring life to Bruce Springsteen's music. He didn't just set rock-and-roll's standard for on-stage sidekicks, and he didn't just flirt and wink and point to pretty women with their hands raised more than any other member of the E Street Band. The Big Man knew how to bring warmth to sad moments.
Lord knows the New York Mets had plenty of those through the years at Shea Stadium, where I attended the last show of The Rising tour in October 2003. From my seats near third base, I could tell that Bruce wanted the rainy evening to be special. It was obvious from the sax-heavy set list -- "Night," "Prove It All Night," "Light of Day," "Bobby Jean," "Back in Your Arms" -- that he also wanted it to be Clarence's night as much as his.
Which makes sense. So many of Springsteen's songs are sad and desperate. Some, like those on "Darkness on the Edge of Town," are transparently so. But most are brilliantly disguised in the warmth of a sax solo. That's Bruce's genius: He writes sad songs that somehow make even the most jaded New Yorkers and New Jerseyites happy. That mission couldn't have been accomplished without Clarence.
Bruce has said that he considers the sax a warm sound. Just when you began to notice that "Hungry Heart" or "Dancing in the Dark" or "Ramrod" or "The Price You Pay" are serious downers, Clarence would come to the rescue. And so it was that night at Shea, with the Big Man pounding his horn and warming the crowd like at a baptism.
A month earlier, I had watched the E Street Band on a warm evening at Fenway Park. The Boston Red Sox still hadn't nipped The Curse. A few weeks after the show, Pedro Martinez was mercilessly shelled by the New York Yankees and a ring seemed farther away than ever. That night, Bruce's goal was to make the crowd forget. He chose to drive the point home with songs that didn't feature the Big Man: "Glory Days," "Something in the Night," "Adam Raised a Cain," "Born in the USA" and "Further On Up the Road." Yes, Clarence still had his moments -- "She's the One," "Jungleland" -- but it wasn't a pro-Big Man show. As people left Fenway, they knew they had been rocked, but not touched.
That October night at Shea, Bruce didn't mention the Mets or their suffering -- which, of course, would only get worse over the next eight years. He wanted to stress something bigger: Friendship. After all, as Bruce had said more than once, he was a lucky man: No members of his band had quit or died. They loved each other, in a way that few bands do.
To close the show, Bruce played "Blood Brothers," a song he wrote in the '90s to celebrate the reunion of the E Street Band. When Bruce fired the group in 1989, Clarence was the most peeved. After all, his sound helped transform Springsteen from just another of the "New Dylans." He was the best man in Bruce's first wedding. He had kissed Bruce on the lips at the end of "Rosalita" so many times that it's amazing nobody ever wondered about their relationship. So here was "Blood Brothers," and as he headed into the last verse, Bruce lined up the band on the stage in right center. Clarence, as usual, was to Bruce's right. Everyone joined hands, like the Jets used to do as they watched a game-winning kick on the same field. Bruce squeezed the Big Man and leaned into the mike, adding a verse that he'd only sung once before.
Now I'm out here on this road
Alone on this road tonight
I close my eyes and feel so many friends around me
In the early evening light
And the miles we have come
And the battles won and lost
Are just so many roads traveled
So many rivers crossed
And I ask God for the strength
And faith in one another
'Cause it's a good night for a ride
'Cross this river to the other side
My blood brothers.
Bruce then thanked the cheering crowd and left the stage. Clarence lingered for a few moments, and if you looked closely you could tell that his eyes were dark and glossy, his cheeks wet. He didn't want to go.
Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and an ESPN NFL Insider. He has seen Springsteen more than 30 times and dearly misses the Big Man. You can follow him on Twitter: @sethwickersham.