When Bruce Springsteen introduced Clarence Clemons to audiences, he announced him with such titles as the Emperor, the King of the World, the Minister of Soul. As if to match the rhetoric, Clemons often adorned his 6-foot-4 frame in a gaudy three-piece suit and wide-brimmed fedora, flirting with the stereotypes of preacher and pimp.
The tableau of Springsteen, the scrawny white scamp, and Clemons, the great black guardian, made iconic in the cover photo of the Born to Run album, was a calculated pose. As much as the friendship between the two musicians was by all accounts deep and genuine, its presentation was two-dimensional. In the pop-music marketplace, the picture wasn't photojournalism; it was the logo on a package, and that package ultimately became a brand.
But you would never guess at any of these complexities from the outpouring of eulogies after Clemons' recent death from the complications of a stroke. The encomiums have gone beyond praise for his musicianship and stage presence in the E Street Band to tributes to him and Springsteen as the very model of transracial brotherhood.
"Clemons, Bruce Bridged Rock's Racial Divide," read the headline at newser.com. A writer at the Huffington Post said that Clemons' impact on race relations for many Americans "will last a lifetime." A New York Times op-ed columnist lifted up Clemons and Springsteen as "a cultural example of how the divide of race can come together over music."
These garlands are true in ways their authors don't understand, and false in ways they don't recognize. The packaged image of Clemons and Springsteen barely hinted at the meaningful way they did connect, against a backdrop of race riots and white flight along the Jersey Shore in the 1960s and '70s. The image alone, though, seemed to suffice for plenty of fans and critics. And let's face it: All, or virtually all of them, are white. If there has been a testimonial to the Clemons-Springsteen bond by a black journalist these past weeks, I have missed it.
The reason is that Springsteen and Clemons were enacting a familiar trope: the buddy movie. From Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones to Bill Cosby and Robert Culp in I Spy; to Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta in Pulp Fiction to Scott Bakula, Ray Romano and Andre Braugher in Men of a Certain Age, we have seen this show before. The entertainment industry, in all its well-meaning liberalism, supplies fictional versions of black-white fellowship to replace the dearth of it in real life.
However laudable their alliance, Springsteen and Clemons hardly offered the first example of interracial rock and roll. Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Booker T. Jones, Carlos Santana and Prince all led mixed bands decades ago. What is different, I'd venture, is the fan base Springsteen reaches — one that is far whiter than those of the other groups, one that finds more novelty and idealism in the mere fact that there's a black sideman onstage.
At the outset of the E Street Band, Clemons wasn't even the sole (dare one say, token) black. The group also included another African American, David Sancious, on keyboards, and a Latino, Vini Lopez, on drums. Sancious left, Lopez was replaced and Springsteen's music after Born to Run veered from the ethnically mongrel influences of soul, pop and even jazz to folk rock inspired by Woody Guthrie. One of Springsteen's masterpieces, "The Rising," drew on Celtic and Sufi sounds.
All along the way, Springsteen's most important alter ego and collaborator in the band was Steven Van Zandt, something that was apparent in last year's HBO documentary about the making of Darkness on the Edge of Town. No wonder Clemons had less of a role, on recordings or in concert, as the years went by.
I say all this, by the way, as a longtime Springsteen fan who first saw him live in 1976 and who owns most of the catalog. But as a native New Jerseyan, I also have a sense of the backstory of Springsteen and Clemons, the part that really does endow their friendship with meaning.
Both Springsteen's hometown of Freehold and his musical base of Asbury Park endured racial violence. Asbury Park went into a steep decline thereafter, going from a shore resort to a slum by the sea. Springsteen knowingly describes these ravages in such songs as "My Hometown" and "My City of Ruins," and the author Kevin Coyne, a Freehold native, writes trenchantly about them in his book Marching Home.
But a couple of honking tenor solos and some onstage shtick, the routine that Springsteen and Clemons trotted out for arena crowds, are no substitute for the tough subtleties of ordinary existence. Nor are they meant to be. Entertainment has no requirement to be social realism, except, I suppose, in the old USSR. In his own political activism, Springsteen has emphasized individual action and personal engagement rather than the passive and self-satisfied reliance on symbols.
So in memory of Clarence Clemons, it's completely right to listen to "Spirit in the Night" or "Jungleland" or "Mary's Place." It's entirely appropriate to get sentimental about concerts when Clemons, and we, were young. And there the legitimate mourning should end. Bruce Springsteen lost a friend, and that is a tragedy. The rest of us white folk lost an illusion, a proxy, a friendship that we experienced only from a nonthreatening distance, and that is a lesson.
Samuel G. Freedman, a journalism professor at Columbia University, is the author of six books, including Upon This Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church. He is currently writing a book about football and civil rights at two HBCUs in the 1960s.