Scooter, the Big Man, and Me: In Memory of Clarence Clemons

In the summer of 1975, I was seven years old, and I’d just saved up enough money to buy my first record. I had other albums already: the ones my musician-father gave me as gifts (Wings, Chicago, The Woodstock Soundtrack), and the ones my older brother kept in the room we shared (Zeppelin, The Who, Black Sabbath), but I’d never gone out on my own, with my own money, to buy a record of my choice before.

I split a small paper route with a friend, and after a few months of saving, I had enough to walk across the fields behind our house, through the dusty hills beyond the electrical plant and the cookie factory, across the highway where cars went to and from the city, past the bowling alley and Carvel ice cream store, to the Pathmark supermarket where, in an out-of-the-way aisle, they sold records. I knew exactly which one I wanted.

♦◊♦

I’d heard Bruce Springsteen on the radio before that summer. Some unusual tracks from unusually named albums, songs that lasted a long time and had a lot of words and shouts and instruments. And I knew he was from Jersey, where I lived, but I wasn’t into him so much. But this new album was different. Before its release, they’d been playing it on New York’s rock station, WPLJ, a lot, and I kept an ear open all summer to the radios that played out of windows of my teenage neighbors’ bedrooms and the cars they worked on in their front yard.

The songs were punchy and tight, clever and romantic but muscular, too. They seemed to exist in a new territory, somewhere between the artistic rock albums my father bought me and those hard bands that my brother liked. So I delivered my newspapers in the heat and saved best I could. And by the time Born to Run came out in late August, I was ready to take that long walk.

The album cover blew me away. The Pathmark was cold in August, and I stood there, still sweating in my sneakers and jeans and t-shirt, nearly shivering, holding this amazing-looking album. I’d gotten used to fantastic imagery on album covers of rock bands, artistic creations of magical places full of vivid color and shapes. But here was Bruce Springsteen, in black and white, all scruffy and cool, a guitar strapped outside his leather jacket. An earring stud in his left ear! I’d never actually seen his picture before, but I knew it was him.

But he wasn’t alone. He shelved one arm on the shoulder of a large figure that partially entered the photo from the side. A figure Springsteen looked at with great admiration. I turned the album over, and there he was: The Big Man. I knew it was him, the guy in the “10th Avenue…” song, from the line about Scooter and the Big Man busting the city in half. Scooter was Springsteen, and this saxophone colossus, Clarence Clemons, was the Big Man.

♦◊♦

Suddenly, I could hear all the songs in my head, and I knewsomehow, by instinctwhy the album cover moved me so. The real image of “Scooter and the Big Man” embodied what I imagined those radio songs really represented: friendship, rebellion, style, substance, joy. Right there in my hands, a great big image on the front and back of an album spoke about things that I knew nothing formally about but already sensed were important and desirable. And the album itself met all those expectations. I played it over and over for many years.

I moved away from New Jersey a few years later. The kids in the Midwest weren’t into Springsteen, and the St. Louis stations didn’t play him on the radio. My tastes changed, but I always longed for those things that Born to Run spoke to. In my teens, my family moved back to the east coast; I went to my old Jersey town often to stay with the kids I’d been friends with as a child. I remember fingering through a yearbook, feeling lonely for a hometown of my own, when I came across a photograph of a gorgeous girl, leaning into the shoulder of a boy who played the saxophone. The obvious homage to Born to Run captured the themes of the album and its cover, especially the girl’s effusive smile and rebellious pose.

Fifteen years later, I married that very same girl. And 15 years after that, we were driving home from the Jersey shore, our son and daughter asleep in the back seat, when the radio announced that the Big Man had died. I thought back to that album cover and how it had made me feel at such a young age, about all the many things I’d made me want and that I eventually got; and I thought of Scooter and all him and the Big Man must have experienced over nearly a lifetime of friendship, rebellion, style, substance, and joy, and how he must feel about that picture they took together that made it on a record cover and spoke to all those things.

Photo I_rice/Photobucket

Premium Membership, The Good Men Project

About Andrew Cotto

Andrew Cotto is the author of THE DOMINO EFFECT and OUTERBOROUGH BLUES: A BROOKLYN MYSTERY. His novels can be found at Amazon and Barnes&Noble.  Learn more about Andrew at his website.

Comments

  1. great article! Im a Jersey girl now so I have been listening to some Springstein, he’s okay but JERSEY SUCKS! ;)

    • Don’t worry, Mina, you’ll be a fine “Jersey Girl” someday!

    • Mark Flaherty says:

      I LOVE this article! I immediately pulled up Born to Run on my iPod and am playing it in my office as I write this…good writing moves people. This article beautifully illustrates how music acts as a bookmark in the story of our lives. Every once in a while it’s good to flip back to an old forgotten page and enjoy the vivid memories that only music can stir…to remember where you were, where you were going, and to be proud of just how far you have come. Clarence Clemens and all of those responsible for creating the soundtrack of our lives never die. Thanks Andrew…I have not listened to Born to Run in WAY too long!

  2. Great Article!
    I’m so glad that you married the girl in the picture.

  3. Eric Valkys says:

    This boy can write!! Great article

    • Eric Valkys says:

      Love the line in the article where you worked in alittle Bruce as you “were ready to take the long walk”!! Accidental or pure genius??

      • Ah, great catch, E! There’s one more small reference to a Springsteen song in the article – it’s far more subtle, though. I’ll give you a few hints: same album, three words (prepositional phrase). Good luck!

  4. Well, this is a hell of a lot better than my story about the day the lead synth player from Soft Cell died. Thanks a lot. Great work!

  5. Bruce will play on from here on out but it will be different from now on. Clarence was the Big Man and you captured the beauty of that friendship, that life-shifting partnership beautifully. Thanks.

  6. Thanks for posting this. 1000memories created a tribute site for Clarence today – http://1000memories.com/clarence-clemons – thought you’d appreciate it.

  7. Great perspective. Bruce and Clarence were a terrific team. That sweet sax will continue to be a living tribute to Clarence.

    BTW – nice touch that Danny Rorro loves to jam out to Springsteen music in your book, The Domino Effect. I see now how much Born To Run touched your life, growing up in NJ.

    • Yes, great observation: there is an intentional Springsteen presence in THE DOMINO EFFECT. The fact that Bruce is the only musician Danny likes is intented to speak to his aesthetic. And there’s the line where Danny’s mentioning his singular devotion to the wonderful Brenda Divine: “She was my Springsteen. I didn’t like anybody else.”

      The specific songs that are referenced (“Rosalita,” “Growing Up,” “Thunder Road”) are also intended to inform the narrative in meaningful ways.

      Of course, THE DOMINO EFFECT is not “my” story, but growing up in NJ and being a fan has influenced me as a writer in many ways. Great connection. Thanks!

  8. Great article, Andrew. Along with millions of others, I was pretty crushed when I heard the news on Saturday. My first Springsteen record was Darkness on the Edge of Town. I was 12, I think. The kids in Battle Mountain, Nevada weren’t that into Springsteen, either… I may have been the only kid in the state listening to Springsteen back then. But those songs about wanting to get away, find the promised land, figure things out and survive really resonated with me. A few years later I finally got ahold of BTR, and that cemented my relationship with Springsteen and the band. And of course, after hearing BTR and Jungleland, the Big Man was my hero.

  9. This is a really beautiful article. It is nostalgic and moving. Really just wonderful writing.

  10. supertuscan says:

    Wonderfully written Andrew. Thank you. Bruce & Clarence shared a special relationship and they’ll always be a part of the fabric of New Jersey. I wasn’t a Bruce guy growing up because the hoodlums who I hung with listened to hard rock and Mr. Springsteen just didn’t fit he bill. Now that I’m in my 40’s and somewhat mature, a number of his songs have grown on me. Your first record purchase adventure brought me, and possibly a number of your readers ,back to a time when life was real easy and all about having fun. My kids last day of school is today and they’ll have 10 weeks off. Did you hear me…10 weeks off !!! What a nice life we had when we were 7. I remember my first record purchase like it was yesterday…the Destroyer album by Kiss, 1976 at Crazy Eddie. For those of you who grew up in NJ around that time you might remember that Crazy Eddie ” HAD PRICES SO LOW HE WAS PRACTICALLY GIVING IT ALL AWAY!!!”

  11. I listened to Be True a couple times the other night in my mind, and
    then for real. Something about how the sax blows near the end, it
    shakes me every time. Those two had a visceral connection to each
    other that exploded out as music, and this article captures that. RIP Big Man.

  12. This was lovely and sentimental in all the best ways. It captured the magic of their relationship and all those that it inspired. Oh, and you’re hot, Cotto!

  13. Eloforte says:

    Great stories, I love to read them all. Best of all I know the author and his stories are as great as he is.

  14. Andy,

    Thank you so much for sharing this article. I don’t know if you remember me but I lived a few houses away from you on Brookfield Avenue. Man, you sure pinned that time when Born to Run came out. I’m sure it was my brother, Bill, who was working on cars in the front yard cranking out Springsteen tunes. You brought me back in time. Thanks so much. Alice Johnson Quinlan

    • Hi Alice! Of course I remember you! And, yeah, it was your brother across the street and the Junkins next door that gave me those great images of motor boys doing their thing. I hope that you are well. It was a great time to be kids, and I’m glad the article brought you back. I’ve written a couple of novels (one’s out now and the other is due next June – see my website: http://www.andrewcotto.com). I read from the released novel at the Glen Rock Inn a few weeks ago!! So funny, but I’m still best friends with Mike O’Shea and others from Glen Rock, and I married a Glen Rock girl, too. One of the novels I’ll write someday will be a fictionalized version of growing up in that isolated little neighborhood with so much freedom and so much to do. It will be called DEAD END KIDS and hopefully I’ll be able to get started on it soon. Thanks, so much, for reaching out. It was great to hear from you. Send me your e-mail or friend me on facebook if you want to see my regular articles. Best, Andy.

  15. Your article was touching and brought back memories of myself. I apparently am a few years older so in the late 70’s would save my babysitting money to buy albums, didn’t always matter by who, just to listen to all kinds of things. One day I stumbled on The Wild, the Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle and, well, that was it! So sad to hear of Clarence’s passing. Had the opportunity to see them on stage over 10 times and it can never be the same!

  16. Hi Marnie,

    Thanks so much for reading the article and sharing your thoughts. I’m glad it brought back some memories. Just in case you’re interested, I just published a novel where the main character is recalling his adolescence, and he happens to be a huge Springsteen fan with a few of the songs informing the narrative in a big way. It’s called THE DOMINO EFFECT and you can read about it on my website.

    Regardless, thanks for writing.

    Best Regards,

    Andrew

  17. Great work Andrew, looking forward to reviewing your book.

  18. Thanks, Angelique!! Much appreciated.

  19. Frank Gioiosa says:

    Hey andrew its Frank .G your old neighbor from Glen Rock how is CHris and your family?

Trackbacks

  1. [...] recently wrote about the Bruce Springsteen album Born to Run. It was the death of Clarence Clemons that inspired [...]

Speak Your Mind