I’m sure that like me you have a bookshelf or two that’s dedicated to those very special books—literary treasures that stand out because they’re signed first editions, personal favorites, rare galleys, or sentimental works that somehow marked a special time, place, or person, like a bipolar ex-girlfriend who was convinced by her iridologist to come off her meds and who claimed you stole her copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Alongside the well-worn hardcover copy of A Wrinkle in Time that my mother bought me in fourth grade, the signed first edition of Angela’s Ashes, and the singed copy of Roddy’s Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (a 1st edition in which “Clarke” is misspelled on the spine), proudly sits a copy of Clarence Clemons’ 2009 memoir, Big Man. To be honest, Big Man is the only book on my special shelf that I didn’t read and that I have no intention of reading. So why does Big Man deserve to sit alongside these other prized works?
Since junior high I’ve been obsessed with Bruce Springsteen. I use to fall asleep at night listening to his early albums like “Greetings from Asbury Park,” “Born to Run,” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” On each of these albums, there were moments when Clarence Clemons would step forward with his saxophone and release a symphonic burst of soulful energy that made you really feel the scenes that Springsteen scribed. While Springsteen would ruminate about a “barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain,” it was Clarence’s sax that somehow made me feel that I was right there alongside that girl. Springsteen might have created the river and determined its course, but it was Clarence’s saxophone that helped give it a strong and deep current.
During my senior year in high school I dated a girl named Whitney. Whitney was a Southern Belle who attended a private school called Robert E. Lee Academy, and in 1984 she was second runner-up in Miss Teen South Carolina. Her talent was piano, she owned horses, wore a lot of turtlenecks, and would put on her orthodontic headgear when she felt it was time for me to say “goodnight.” One Friday night we were parked in my dad’s 1976 Camaro on some dead-end road between Bishopville and Hartsville. Because of her commitment to the Lord Jesus and her leadership position with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, there was absolutely no base running happening, so instead we sat there uncomfortably and listened to Springsteen’s “The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle.” Although Whitney never showed the slightest interest in Springsteen or any music beyond her regurgitated piano recital melodies, she became enamored with my favorite song off that album, “New York City Serenade.” Over the next couple of weeks she taught herself the entire song on the piano, and on the night she flawlessly performed it for me for the first time, I wept like a ninny. Despite the fact that she was a frigid fundamentalist who wore a padlocked padded bra, and who was apparently betrothed to Jesus, for that one brief moment I was madly in love with her. And so with a hungry heart I took her to see Springsteen on his “Born in the USA” tour. Afterward, Whitney claimed the concert was too loud and too long, and that “big black men like Clarence Clemons are sort of scary, right?” I looked deep into her eyes at that moment and said, “I think we should break up.” Besides, Whitney looked nothing like Courtney Cox.
Many years later, I discovered that my friend Joe Drabyak of Chester County Book Company shared my affinity for Bruce and the E Street Band. Joe told me that when he worked for West Chester College back in the seventies he booked Springsteen at the school’s gym for the “Greetings from Asbury Park” tour. A few weeks before Joe passed away from cancer last September, the two of us flipped through his Springsteen vinyl collection reminiscing about favorite songs, concerts, memories, and a Southern Belle named Whitney who, for one brief moment, could have played alongside Bruce and Clarence. It was Joe who presented me with that signed copy of Clarence’s memoir. Joe probably knew I would never read it, but he also knew I would cherish it because of the music, the memories, and our friendship.
On the iconic “Born to Run” album cover, you bear witness to the intense fraternal bond between Clarence and Bruce. It shows a confluence of two souls that drift, then eddy, then amass into a swift flowing sound that runs deep. With the copy of Big Man on my special shelf I’ll always be reminded of my bond with Joe, the music of Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons, and how a book given as a gift from a departed friend truly becomes a tie that binds.
–Craig Popelars, Marketing Director