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August 5, 2011

Reflections part 2

Filed under: Columns from Our Towne Magazine, General — Paul Czech & Associates @ 9:22 am

I wanted to write a column about my next door neighbors.  Sensing that I was not going to be kind (and I wasn’t) my wife put her foot down and wouldn’t let me do it.  I understand, I suppose.  It’s best to keep up a facade and give a forced wave once in a while, difficult though it may be.  Unfortunately, I don’t always do what’s best.

Now I want to make it clear, before I move on, that I have no issue with my neighbors in the community in general.  I have always made it known that I like it here very much and part of liking it here includes a like for the people who live here as well.  There’s Rick and Sandy who are just amazing people.  The two of them have done so much for me and my family while I’ve been sick that there’s no way I could ever possibly repay them.   Rick was with me while I was unconscious in the emergency room and he came to visit on numerous occasions during my nearly two month hospital stay.  And Sandy, his wife, watched our son for us in their home when my wife was spending most of her time at the hospital with me making sure that the doctors were paying attention.  And there are lots of other things that the two of them have done for us as well that, had they not, we probably could not have survived through this past winter.  They are not related to us by blood and I’ve only known them since living here in Rensselaer County which is maybe three or four years.  They’re our neighbors and I’m very happy for it.

Then there’s the G-Man and Rocky.  Both of these guys are musicians who came to me first as clients and ended up being great friends.  Both of them took time from their extremely busy lives to visit  at the hospital and at home and have been keeping tabs on me now for months.  And Michelle and Susan, who I know from one of the boards I am affiliated with, both of them showed some very neighborly kindness while I was ill.  And Mr. P and Marian, neither of whom I have met personally , but both of whom took the time to contact me to simply wish me well after reading about my health issues in this column.   (Marian sent a question that will be answered here shortly.)  And Bill who contacted me with his advice about using an etch-a-sketch to talk with people.  I’m glad my neighbors have a good sense of humor.

I only wish that these neighbors could live next door to me.  Oh well.

So, since I can’t write about my next door neighbors, I have a very different subject to write about indeed.  Clarence Clemons.  That’s right – the “Big Man”.  The amazing saxophone player from Bruce Springsteen’s E Street band who passed away just a few weeks ago.  Now I have to make myself clear here as well – I do not follow the comings and goings of celebrities.  I’m as interested in being entertained as the next guy (or gal)  but I’ve never been enamored by stardom.  I have met a few celebrities in my day (that comes with working in the entertainment industry) but, quite honestly, I was never really impressed with any of them enough to ask for an autograph.  (I take that back – I asked Julius “Dr. J” Erving for his when I made a commercial with him years ago in Philadelphia.  He’s the only one I ever asked.)   To me, drooling over someone who acts or sings is kind of distasteful and, quite honestly, I never got the feeling that any of these celebrities were better than me which is why I could never put them on a pedestal.   (This month’s column was too long to be printed here in its entirety.  To see the complete article, please visit my website at
Nevertheless, there are certain celebrities who have had an impact on me, sometimes for truly unknown reasons, and when they die, I am somehow affected.  Luciano Pavarotti’s death was like that for me.  Don’t get me wrong – I am by no means a big opera fan.   Yeah – I can tell Puccini from Verdi (barely).  And I have listened to Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” all the way through on more than one occasion.  I’ve even seen live Opera maybe a dozen or so times - even once at the Met.  It has never really played a huge role in my life.  Yet when I heard Pavarotti had died, it reminded me somehow that I was getting old.   Pavarotti had been around for so much of my life and had dominated opera for so long, that when I heard about his death it simply startled me.  But there was more to it than that.  I never really gave any thought to the great tenor getting sick himself or, like the rest of us, aging.  I just thought he would always be there.

Paul Newman caught me by surprise as well.  When I was a kid, Mr. Newman was a sex symbol.  I remember reading an article in some magazine that went on about whether or not he was too good looking for his own good.  What they meant was, did his looks overshadow his incredible talent as an actor.  I never gave it much thought, really.  Paul Newman’s films were one of the reasons that I started to love movies.  I remember seeing “Butch Cassidy” at a drive-in theater when I was a kid and being just absorbed in the story and the two main characters.  And then “The Sting” came along.  I remember seeing that in a theater in Queens with a few of my schoolmates.  Once again, I was totally sucked in to the story and, I remember, when it ended, I just wanted more.  Later, in college when I became “serious” about films,  I rented a few of Mr. Newman’s older films (”The Hustler”, “Cool Hand Luke”, “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” to name a few) on VHS.  He truly was a great actor.  And I remember thinking that he had this youth and swagger about him that he carried with him in all of his films, the later ones as well as the early ones.  Somehow I believed he would never grow old.  But he did.

And now Clarence Clemons.  I first began listening to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in the mid-seventies when I was going from grade school to high school.  First there was “Greetings From Asbury Park” followed by “The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle”.   The music was good -  I liked it well enough.  The lyrics reminded me so much of Bob Dylan but the music certainly didn’t sound like anything Dylan had done.  I think it was because of that saxophone sound that was woven in and out of the songs to give such a sweet contrast to Bruce’s raspy, street poet vocals.  When “Born to Run” was released, I remember looking at that now famous cover photo of Bruce leaning on Clarence while the music flowed out of my record player (and I do mean a record player.  I didn’t know from stereo yet) and thinking that it represented Springsteen’s music so well with the guitar leaning on the saxophone and both of them front and center.     Just give a listen to “Jungleland” from that album and you’ll see what I mean.

At the beginning of the eighties, I moved to Philadelphia where it seemed like everyone was obsessed with “The Boss” and his band.   I fell right in step.  I had only heard incredible things about Springsteen and his band mates and their live performance prowess.  Sometimes the stories were so incredible that I had to believe they were embellished by those rabid Philly fans.  They’d tell stories about these endless performances that went on for hours.   People would go to multiple shows claiming that not one of them was ever the same as  the one that came before it.  I finally got my chance to see the E Street Band live when they were touring behind “The River”.   And I was not disappointed.  The show lasted about 4 hours.  There was no opening act.  Springsteen was  a wild man on stage.  Even the old Spectrum in Philadelphia couldn’t contain his energy.  He had huge fans set up on either side of the stage and every once in a while, dripping with sweat,  he would go and stand in front of them to cool off.  Stage hands would pour buckets of water over him and he would shake off the excess water, put his guitar back on, and, re-energized, he would start all over again.   The “Big Man” got his turn when they played “Jungleland”.    When it came to the part where the song slows down and the saxophone solo begins,  the stage got dark except for a lone spotlight on Clarence at center stage.  You understood how he got his nickname then.  It wasn’t just because of his size (even from my seats in the middle of the arena he looked huge), it was because of his sound.  The song was his and, at that moment, so was every fan in the house.

Clarence had a band called “The Red Bank Rockers”.  When I saw he was going to perform on South Street in Philly at a place called Ripley’s (which, a few years later, was closed and was turned into the home of Philadelphia’s “Tower Records”), I bought tickets immediately.  On the night of the show, for some reason, I was running behind and I got to the club a few minutes after Clarence and his band hit the stage.  The place was packed, standing room only, and I was stuck in the back near the door unable to move anywhere else.   About five minutes after I got there, while Clarence and the band were performing, I suddenly noticed that someone, who arrived even later than I had, was standing next to me.  He was a short, dark haired guy wearing a very old, comfortable looking brown leather bomber jacket and some old worn jeans.  He just looked at me, smiled pleasantly and nodded,  and turned his attention back to the stage.   It was Bruce.  I could hardly believe it.  I’d read in Rolling Stone that he had a habit of just showing up at clubs, particularly clubs in Philadelphia, but I never thought that I would be lucky enough to be at one of those shows.  And to be standing right next him just seemed so surreal.

I didn’t give him away.  We smiled at each other a few more times, both nodded our appreciation for the “Big Man” and his band, and otherwise just enjoyed the show.   After about an hour or so, he took a big drink from the glass he was holding, and finished what was in it before he set the glass down on the table that was to our left.  Then he turned to me and smiled, this time adding a wink, and he made his way to the front of the club and got up on stage.  He was no longer anonymous.  He picked up a guitar and he started with a rousing cover of a fast rock song, the title of which I’ve since forgotten.  I used to know but, through the years, the excitement of what happened that night has somehow made me forget. When he finished it, he reached up and touched the ceiling above him, then did an abbreviated jump in the air, being careful not to smack his head against the stucco above.   Everyone could see he was way too big for a club that size.   For his second song, he did a version of his own “Because The Night” , the song he and Patti Smith wrote that she had a hit with.  When it was over, he waved to the audience as he took off his guitar and exited stage right.

And despite all of that, Clarence was the star that night.  There was no denying it.  He commanded the stage without “The Boss”, so much so that no one even noticed that Springsteen was there until he went on stage.  That’s a pretty strong presence.  He stood back and let his special guest have the spotlight, but, when Bruce was finished, Clarence just picked up where he left off and continued with the show.  What a gentleman.  What a star.  And, for me, one incredibly memorable night.

And now Clarence is gone.  His death brought the memory of that night back to me as if it had just happened yesterday.  It’s hard for me to believe that all that took place over 25 years ago.  And so, once again, I am reminded that death comes to all of us, even those that make our lives seem more special than they really are.   None of this makes me sad at all.  This is not some kind of morbid obsession that I have.  It’s just a reality check brought on unexpectedly by people who impacted my life without ever even knowing it and I’m grateful for it.   And because of that, when they passed, I was reminded to not take life for granted which I don’t.  It comes and goes far too quickly to ignore and there are way too many things to experience and enjoy.   So I just want to give one last thanks to the “Big Man” for giving me such great memories and, in the end, for reminding me to keep on living life to the fullest.   Here’s to you, Clarence.

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