June 20th, 2011
05:21 PM ET
On Sept. 20, 1975, I sat 10 feet from Clarence Clemons for four hours, as Bruce Springsteen and E Street Band rocked Darby Gym on the campus of Grinnell College, a small college located in an Iowa town of the same name.
The band had been booked a year earlier for what now seems a ridiculously low amount of money, the performance coming roughly a month before Springsteen simultaneously graced the covers of TIME and Newsweek magazines.
Dormitory presidents, such as myself, were warned to make sure that room doors and windows were locked, as virtually the entire student body (numbering some 1,200) was expected to be inside the aging brick gymnasium and there were concerns about outsiders flocking to the campus in hopes of getting inside (those hoards never materialized).
This was the “Born to Run” tour. Most of us were unfamiliar with Springsteen, but the fans among the students from New Jersey and New York City had heightened our anticipation – and we were rewarded.
I sat on the wooden floor of that packed gymnasium, close enough to look up and see the sweat dripping on Clemons’ face. I have memories of Clemons leaning forward, a massive presence clad in a white suit and wearing a white hat, seeming pointing his tenor sax directly into the faces of the students seated before him – flashing the smile that endeared him to audiences over the years; leaning with his back against Springsteen as he blew a solo and the two of them leaping off speakers, landing on stage at the pivotal point in one of the songs.
I've seen several more shows in the years since, collected a fistful of the band's recordings and made the Springsteen channel a favored pre-set on my car's satellite radio, but that night my junior year in college remains special, my introduction to Springsteen and music that remains one of my favorites.
In recent years, the toll the energetic performances took on Clemons was obvious, as he sometimes sat on a large throne chair until it was time to rise and let his sound roar into the night.
Springsteen would introduce Clemons last in naming the band, incredulously asking "Do I need to say his name?" to which the crowd would roar.
The loss of Clemons leaves a hole in the E Street Band that cannot be filled, no matter how talented a sax man may be recruited. He was the Big Man, Ruler of the Universe, King of the World.
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