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White America Reacts to the Death of Clarence Clemons Pretty Much Exactly the Way You’d Expect It To

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by Scott Creney

Clarence Clemons, best known as the saxophone player for Lady Gaga — er, Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band — died last week. Naturally, Timothy Egan, a Pulitzer-prize winning columnist for The New York Times, took the occasion to reflect on what Clemons’s life — excuse me, Clemons’s role in the E Street Band — said about race relations in the United States of America.   

The article is called Bromance With The Big Man.

“There weren’t a lot of blacks in my high school graduation class — two, to be exact — which meant that race was somewhat of an abstraction, happening elsewhere, mostly on a screen or from the grooves of a record”

Because you never talked to those two black kids in your class? I bet they could have told you some things that would have made race a little less abstract.

“And then I saw Clarence Clemons with Bruce Springsteen. Mind you, this was a stage, only a bit more of projected reality than television”

And certainly less real than those two kids you mentioned earlier. But go on, tell us what Clarence and Bruce taught you about race.

“… the Big Man and the Boss — opposites in look and style, Southern Baptist black and Jersey Shore white”

It was a six-hour drive from Baby Clarence’s house in the third largest city in Virginia to Baby Bruce’s shithole town in the middle of nowhere New Jersey. I think the opposites you’re looking for are BLACK and WHITE, and the rest of it is a smokescreen because you don’t want to be blatant about it. And this will probably come as a shock to you, but a black man is not the fucking OPPOSITE of a white man. The opposite of a white man would actually be something closer to a black amoeba. Or a purple entity with six eyes and 17 testicles. Bruce and Clarence were NOT opposites. They had different color skin. Caucasian is not the opposite of Negroid. Any more than Eskimo is the opposite of Norwegian.

“[They] projected a kind of joy that made it easy to believe that this mess of a country could get along”

Really? I could write articles for a WEEK about the troubled history of race relations in this country. Troubles that continue to this very day — higher rates of imprisonment, harsher sentences for the same crimes, more likely to get the death penalty, more likely to be hassled by the police in the first place, not to mention just the day-to-day struggle of dealing with all the bullshit, etc. etc.

And seeing ONE black musician and ONE white musician (Timothy didn’t notice the rest of the E Street Band apparently — either that or he just doesn’t want to complicate the story) get along together ON A FUCKING STAGE, gave you hope — no wait, made it EASY TO BELIEVE that we could get along? There better be a fucking epiphany in this article somewhere.

(And what kind of quaint 50s huckster babble is “this mess of a country” supposed to be anyway? Golly. It’s just a right ol’ mess. Beats me how on earth it could have gotten that way. Go sell it somewhere else, Gomer.)

“My friends and I came home humming saxophone riffs”

Oh god. Unless your friends hadn’t reached puberty yet, or you stopped off to hear some Pharoah Sanders on the way home from the Springsteen concert, this sounds kind of pathetic.

“Clemons was one tradition, of gospel, storytelling, and swagger”

Springsteen doesn’t swagger? Springsteen doesn’t tell stories? I’m being disingenuous. The ‘swagger’ Timothy’s referring to is obviously Clarence’s gigantic black cock.

“Springsteen was another, the garage band with blue-collar urgency and a poet’s lyrical touch”

Sigh … Anyone who follows American sports knows exactly what Timothy’s talking about. That “blue-collar” means Bruce is hard-working. Because white people work hard. I’ve lived in the USA for 39 years, and I have NEVER seen/heard a black person referred to as ‘blue-collar’.

And so the white guy gets to be the hard-working poet. And the black guy bring the (ahem) spiritual element. And the (ahem) swagger.

Just like in sports, where black players are successful because of their ‘innate athletic ability’, while white players are successful because of their ‘hard work’. There’s even a name for it. It’s called the ‘Quarterback Syndrome’, so named because in US football, quarterback requires the greatest degree of intelligence and leadership. Needless to say, a ridiculous high proportion of quarterbacks, at the professional, college, and high school levels, are white.

Timothy Egan continues on for a couple of paragraphs about segregation in rock, and (for some reason) baseball. He says well-meaning things about whites stealing rock and roll from blacks — no mention of hip-hop though. Or what Clarence might have thought about playing to arenas and stadiums filled with next-to-zero black people. (Springsteen’s audience is pretty much exclusively white.) Or, for that matter, how Timothy felt standing in a room full of white people congratulating himself on America’s ability to successfully and peacefully integrate itself, due solely to the fact that there was a black guy in the band playing saxophone.

(continues overleaf)

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9 Responses to White America Reacts to the Death of Clarence Clemons Pretty Much Exactly the Way You’d Expect It To

  1. Same mistake, different author June 26, 2011 at 8:49 pm

    Good piece but I the headline engages in the same type of racial bullshit as Egan’s piece. It sets Egan up as emblematic of a mythical “White America” as much as Egan sets up Clemons as emblematic of an “ideal” or something.

  2. WayneCha June 27, 2011 at 5:15 am

    The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Love, and Booker T. and the MG’s are other examples of black-fronted integrated bands, but I’d like to make a case for The Negro Problem as the ultimate commentary on this subject:

    http://www.allmusic.com/artist/the-negro-problem-p225310

    And as a proud owner of their album “Joys & Concerns,” I can tell ya that Stew is the real deal.

  3. Joseph Kyle June 27, 2011 at 9:12 am

    I like your writing, Scott. But I have to take the point that was made above; this article annoys me because I feel as if you are misguided in assuming that one writer’s opinion validates a blanket condemnation of all.

  4. Scott Creney June 27, 2011 at 9:38 am

    Probably read a half-dozen articles about CC’s death. Every single one of them made a point of mentioning the color of Clarence and Bruce’s skin. I’ll grant you that Egan’s was the most offensive, but all of them were condescending/patronizing on some level. Furthermore, as someone who’s lived in America my whole life, this kind of backhanded racism occurs ALL THE TIME. You read the part where I talked about sports, right?

    I’ll agree that the headline is provocative, but I think my ‘racial bullshit’ is an entirely different kind of bullshit. I WISH that ‘White America’ were as mythical as Mr. Egan’s Huck & Jim routine. If you guys are bothered by the headline because not all white people in the USA are racist, I’m totally in agreement with you. But if you’re saying that white culture doesn’t dominate the USA, or that the USA isn’t dominated by white values/ideals/attitudes, then I have to respectfully disagree.

    And if you’re saying that America isn’t (for the most part, with some exceptions, more often than not) racist as a whole, then I envy your good fortune.

    @Wayne. Had the good fortune of living in San Diego, Ca. in 1997-8 and saw tons of Negro Problem shows. ‘Post Minstrel Syndrome’ is still a favorite (or favourite, depending on where you live). Pretty sure Stew took his talents to Broadway at some point and finally got the attention he deserved.

  5. robotsdancingalone June 27, 2011 at 10:12 am

    Excellent piece. Hilarious.

  6. sleevie nicks June 27, 2011 at 6:04 pm

    i heard bruce springsteen was actually adopted and really mexican but raised in an all white family so this whole article might be invalid on a technicality.

  7. E.J. Friedman June 27, 2011 at 9:39 pm

    White America reacts to the death of great black musicians universally in one of two ways: the homogenized, utopian way that Egan did towards Clarence Clemons or, more often, with (as I discovered in the death of Gil Scott-Heron last month) a recurring nonplussed look of, “Who?” Egan seems to me not racist but rather a bit egomaniacal. Is it because of his experience with racial dynamics in his own upbringing and his ability to equate it to the relationship between Clemons and Springsteen that we’re supposed to give a shit about what he has to say about Clarence Clemons?

    The truth is, as you’ve pointed out hilariously, that type of post-mortem assessment by white journalists, no matter how many books they’ve written or awards they’ve won, unconsciously robs revered black performers of their identity by trying to compartmentalize everything about them as it relates to white culture. I gleaned the same thing from Egan’s article, in some respects the sense that Clarence Clemons doesn’t get to be who he actually was in this world because he was a sideman for Bruce Springsteen. Let the man rest in peace, and quit letting journalists transmute the legacy of musicians like him to always seem like they came to life on a raft bound for Cairo, Illinois.

  8. Joseph Kyle June 30, 2011 at 6:25 am

    Hey, I would love to get your take on Bruce’s elegy, he used some of the same metaphors that seem to be criticized here….

    http://www.brucespringsteen.net/news/index.html

  9. Scott Creney June 30, 2011 at 8:21 am

    Hey, Joseph. Thanks for forwarding this. I feel kind of weird commenting on Bruce’s eulogy, like it’s a private thing between him and Clarence. It comes from an entirely different place than Tim Egan’s article, which tried to take the significance of someone else’s relationship and turn it into a very public metaphor/ideal for an entire nation. In short, an article in the NYTimes is my business in a way that a private eulogy is not.

    Having said all that, the way Bruce talks about Clarence, it’s obvious that he saw him at all times as an equal. Reading Egan’s article (and others), it seems that he was eager to reduce Clarence to a sidekick, someone whose role, first & foremost, was to make Bruce look good. And the only thing Bruce gave back (or was supposed to) in their eyes was his appreciation & gratitude. Obviously, Bruce gave back a lot more than that. Furthermore, Bruce’s eulogy is 98% NOT about Clarence’s skin color. So when race does come up, it’s in a radically different context from Egan’s article, which makes their relationship almost entirely about race (and its effect on a young Tim Egan). I guess you could say that Egan turns CC into a symbol. Bruce allows him to exist as human being. And Bruce never once tries to turn their relationship into some kind of model or ideal.

    I suppose when it comes to subjects like race, context is everything. And even though there ARE similarities between the two, I guess Bruce’s doesn’t bother me the way Egan’s did because of its context. And because I respect Bruce’s right to say whatever he wants to about his dead friend. Reading Springsteen’s words made me smile, and even feel a little warm inside. And I say that as someone who is NOT a huge fan of his music. Also, a lot of Egan’s words about CC echoed a lot of things I’ve heard over the years from white people in America that tend to rub me the wrong way, and would take me another 2000 words to properly explain/analyze. Bruce’s words didn’t. For the reasons mentioned above.

    I hope I gave your question the decent answer it deserves. And thanks for taking the time to ask it. I look forward to one day writing the aritcle, ‘Black America Reacts to the Death of Englebert Humperdink Exactly the Way You Would Expect It To’. Which will have the word ‘Shrug’ written below the headline in 72-point font.

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