Approximately three weeks ago I found myself in a predicament....I’d come face to face with celebrity, yet unsure of what to do.  It's not uncommon to hobnob with the rich and famous in Los Angeles, especially Beverly Hills, but when that individual is the BIGGEST celebrity of them all…..well then you're downright stupefied.  Mind you, we are not talking about the most FAMOUS celebrity…..we're talking about the BIGGEST celebrity you've EVER seen.  The King of the World! The Master of the Universe!  Best Selling Author!  The Next President of the United States! 


Do I have to say his name?!


Of course not.


But there he was, looking every bit the part of the Big Man, having just finished his guest stint on American Idol.  [yes, we can forgive him for that]   He was unmistakable sitting at a corner table, soft light cast on a large fedora that could barely contain his electric smile.   Clearly enjoying a quiet dinner among friends, he evoked a peace and presence that very few people have.   This is not a man you can take your eyes off of easily. 


Yes, I'm a Springsteen fanatic, and I've heard all the stories about his presence, but he's even BIGGER than that.   If he wasn't famous, you’d STILL have a primal urge is to run over, buy the guy dinner, hoist a drink and find out more about him.  He has a naturally inviting, warm and magnetic aura.  When you trick or treated as a kid, you wanted THIS guy to open the door.


Such is his ubiquity, I was able to process this in one minute and thirty two seconds at a distance of forty feet. 


There’s a strange type of ‘love at first sight’ when you’re in the room with him.  I suddenly began to understand the Springsteen-Clemons bro-mance a little more clearly.   A man kiss on stage?  You bet kid.  Lay it on me NOW.  Clarence Clemons will not be denied!

However, I was not here to fall in love with a man.  I was here to eat some of the finest steak in L.A., and that would require some composure.   We were directed to our table, which was positioned twelve feet parallel to the ‘Duke of Paducah’, with easy peripheral monitoring.  Sure it was my bad eye, but I would make due.  He's a large man. 


At some point, menus were placed on the table, drinks were ordered, and the waiter made her way over to review the choicest cuts that Wolfgang Puck had to offer.  Her presentation was magnificent, all portions were displayed on a single, oversized plate for ease of comparison.   She made a point to inform us that their Wagyu cattle are massaged by hand, and fed beer to ensure tenderness and taste.  Typically, this kind of foodie foreplay leads to instant coital.  My middle name is ‘abundantly marbled ribeye’, so it doesn’t take long to hook me.....but not on this night.  


Instead, the poor woman’s efforts were rewarded by my oafish inquiry.......'Is that Clarence Fucking Clemons?' 


I didn't need confirmation, I knew it was 'Him', which had already been doubly confirmed by my dinner companion.  But I pressed on.  I needed to hear the facts corroborated by an independent and impartial source.  Graciously, she conceded that the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ was in the house.


Understand, I've had encounters with other big time celebs, musicians, you name it.  I've even met other members of the band.  It's part of the business I'm in. 


However, this was different.  This was my pit mate, the guy you WANTED to be in front of, the guy who you could look to for reassurance on stage, for clarity, for laughs and for a bountiful serving of soul.   Yes indeed.....sitting twelve feet adjacent to my astigmatized left eye, was the center of the E Street Universe.


I had been placed in some kind of Temple of Soul trance with no firm escape plan.  I’d regressed to the maturity of a school girl, casually dropping my fork on the floor so I could see what was happening at his table.  Is he having the Wagyu?  Did he order the fries with ketchup or aioli?  Think he'd recommend the asparagus?


Meanwhile, across the table, I was getting ‘the look’.  You know, the ‘pull it together buddy’ look?   I subsequently promised to bring some dignity to the evening.


I ordered the massaged beef, and downed some glasses of ‘composure medicine’.....but kept my bum eye scanning for activity.  Truthfully, the thought of actually saying ‘Hi’, or mumbling some incoherent fan babble just seemed tacky and wrong.  Letting the poor guy out of the place without any hullabaloo was the way to go.  Internally, I'd resolved that being in his presence would suffice.


As I settled into the beer fed cattle on my plate, a blurry, peripheral commotion began and it became clear that Clarence and company were preparing to leave for the evening.  My  ‘simply being in his presence’ line of thinking was instantantly obliterated.  I instinctively rose from my chair when he began to move, [which is probably a habitual reaction from 25 concerts in the last seven years], and without even thinking, I started to make my way over. 


Within seconds however, I stopped in my tracks.  I wasn't prepared for what I saw. 


Clarence was frail. 


Although I was aware of the back surgeries, the knee replacements, the endless rehab, pain and suffering that he'd been through, but he was still mythical in my mind. These injuries were mere setbacks…..speed bumps if you will.   All that stood between him and an old school booty romping on stage with the Boss was some relaxation, dedication at the gym and a new album. 


Right?


My only view of the man-child had been from his seated position and he looked great.   When he rose however, it was with the aid of crutches and friends' support.  There was an awkwardness to the simple act of getting out of a chair.  It took entirely too long for him to make his way from his seat to the aisle.  Even with the aid of crutches, there wasn't so much of a walk, as a shuffle.  My heart sank and I returned to my chair.  This was not the time for fanatical fan tomfoolery, the man was nearly debilitated.  My optimism was dashed, suddenly I wasn't so hungry.  I stared at my finely prepared New Zealand cow.


Before long, Wolfgang Puck made the rounds, thanking each table individually [presumably for helping him make another payment on his fleet of Bentleys].  A class move for sure, and I would have appreciated it far more if Clarence's condition wasn't on my mind.   Fortunately, my dinner date was fully cognizant of how this visual played out in my head, and proceeded to [not so subtly] urge me to do the ‘right thing’.  After waffling back and forth for a minute or two, I capitulated and rushed back out to the lobby to find Clarence and company debating their next steps for the evening. 


Of course, with all the activity in my head and no rehearsal time, it was clear that nothing short of gibberish was going to flow out of my mouth.....but these opportunities don’t come along everyday.


The transcript of what I said is forgettable.  'Blah blah, you're an inspiration.  Blah, blah, you're the heart and soul of the band.  Blah, blah, 25 shows.  Blah, blah, I'm from New Jersey. Thank you for everything'.  My monologue was rushed, awkward, and lasted all of twenty seconds.  Positively awful.


The essence of what I was trying to communicate however.....was this: 


'Clarence, you are TRULY appreciated by all of us'


Expecting potentially no reaction, a pained look, or perhaps indifference after hearing me stutter and falter….faith was [naturally] rewarded. 


He flashed a 50,000 megawatt smile that lifted my heart from it's heaviness just a few short minutes prior.  A hand…..no sorry, a PAW, immediately rose off one of the crutches that supported him, and he shook my hand with confidence and strength.  In a familiar, bass filled resonance that I’d heard a million times before, came two simple sentences.... 'Thank you my brother.  That means a lot’. 


It was all I needed to hear.  There would be on stage booty shaking.  I could start planning for those road trips again.  Clarence was on the mend!  How could I have doubted this guy?  After all, he was the ‘King of the Entire Known Universe...including Hoboken’!


Just like that, it was all over.  I returned to my table, and effortlessly downed that massaged, beer fed, New Zealand cattle.  Never has a steak tasted so good.





Thank you for always inspiring the best in us Clarence....



Neil Van Harte

6/21/11

photograph © a.m. saddler