Monday, 19 March 2012

Emptiness on E Street

“And the poets down here
Don’t write nothing at all,
They just stand back
And let it all be.”

- Bruce Springsteen, 'Jungleland'

On the evening of Friday March 9th, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band played Harlem’s Apollo Theater. Arguably the most famous music hall in the United States, the Apollo holds a significant place in the careers of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson Five, and many more. A teenage Jimi Hendrix won amateur night there. James Brown recorded Live at the Apollo there. Released in 1963, this album is still considered one of the greatest live records ever.

Copping a line from Brown - and honoring the Apollo’s innumerable ghosts - Springsteen introduced himself as the “hardest working white man in show business” as the show opened. The sell out crowd gave this nod a rapturous response. I would guess, however, it wasn’t these ghosts most were interested in.

From the moment Clarence Clemons’ death became public in June of last year, a sizable question mark has hung over E Street. One of the band’s original members, the sax-playing Big Man had been an essential part of Springsteen’s persona for decades. That’s him back to back with Bruce on the cover of Born to Run. It was Clemons who silhouetted with Springsteen at the beginning of their Super Bowl show. On tour, Clarence’s introduction - “The biggest man you’ve ever seen!” - or Springsteen’s shaggy-dog telling of their meeting - “It was a dark and stormy night...“ - invariably sent the crowd into spasms of delight.

Questions, then, understandably arose as news of his passing broke. ‘Will they continue?’ people wondered of the band. ‘Can they?’ As word of a new album and a world tour spread, such inquiries underwent a slight shift: ‘How will they continue? How will they do it?’

The band played a couple slots before March 9th. One song at the Grammys, a small fistful on Jimmy Fallon’s TV show. Neither were full-length concerts, though, so the question marks remained. Their answer, most agreed, would have to await the band’s first ‘regular’ performance since Clemons’ demise - the Apollo.

In Buddhism, the word ‘emptiness’ speaks to experience without concept. We typically layer every moment of our lives beneath ideas, beliefs, opinions - concepts. ‘This is Sally,’ we think. ‘She is a good friend. She likes coffee, but not tea.’ Emptiness points to experience stripped bare of such notions. More precisely, the term points to the fact that experience is inherently empty of designations like ‘Sally’ and ‘good’, ‘coffee’ and ‘tea’.

The Buddha’s most memorable teaching on this subject is ‘The Sutra of the Heart of Transcendent Knowledge’. More commonly known as ‘The Heart Sutra’, this tells us again and again that life has little to do with what we think. “No eye. No ear. No nose. No tongue,” the sutra asserts. Translation? Whatever you think ‘eye’ might be, that’s not it. Whatever you think ‘ear’ is, that’s not it, and so on - just fill in the blank!

To some the notion of life stripped of thought is cold, even desolate. “Depressing,” more than one student has commented. “I mean, what’s left? Nothing? Who wants to live like that?”

But this equation does not offer an accurate rendering of the situation. Life minus all we think about ‘life’ does not equal nothing. When all we think is removed for a moment, something does remain. What is this something? The teaching above tells us. What remains in emptiness is the heart of life. When experience is no longer muddied by the obscuring influence of ideas - when it is empty of this influence - we have an opportunity to be touched by life’s unpredictable, indescribable essence.

After months of speculation, Bruce Springsteen answered all the questions about how the E Street Band would continue without Clarence Clemons by bringing emptiness into Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater. By giving those in attendance a moment stripped clean of all they thought or knew or expected, he offered them an opportunity to be touched by something far, far more essential.

Released on 1975’s Born to Run, ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze Out’ loosely tells the tale of the E Street’s formation. The song opens with Springsteen’s proxy, Bad Scooter, searching for “his groove.” That things are not going well is made apparent midway through when Bruce chants, “I’m all alone.” Scooter’s fortunes take a turn for the better at the start of verse three. This is when we learn that “the Big Man joined the band.” In concert this line has for years been Clemons’ moment. Emerging from the shadows of stage right, he swaggers into a waiting spotlight. Towering at Springsteen’s side, a blast of saxophone fearlessly proclaims both his presence and his place.

‘Freeze Out’ was the evening’s penultimate song Friday March 9th. Springsteen worked the band hard through the opening bars, repeating them several times. He worked the crowd, too. Moving from side to side across well-worn floorboards, he gestured people into the words with a pair of thick, muscled arms. One has to believe everyone there knew ‘Freeze Out’, its story, its importance in the Springsteen canon. One has to believe everyone knew verse three was Clemons’. When it finally arrived, however, Springsteen transformed this signature moment into a rock and roll 'Heart Sutra'.

Springsteen sang the opening lyrics of that verse without music. As he leaned into those two lines - “When the change was made uptown / and the Big Man joined the band” - the mighty E Street fell silent. “No eye. No ear,” the Heart Sutra tells us. Same at the Apollo: ‘What you think is Freeze Out, is not Freeze Out,’ Springsteen affirmed in that once familiar moment. ‘What you think is the E Street Band, is not the E Street Band.’ And: ‘What you think is my friend...’

The effect was abrupt, but emptiness always is. Whether ushered in by unexpected news or a sudden shock or a pleasant surprise, the experience of having ideas torn away has a lot in common with having the rug pulled out from under one’s feet. The moment is shocking; for an instant, it seems we are left with nothing.

But something is left behind in emptiness. When our ideas are ever so briefly stripped away, something has an opportunity to show itself.

This is how it seemed at the Apollo. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were playing their first full-length gig since the passing of the irreplaceable Clarence Clemons. The second to last song that night was ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze Out’. As the third verse of this opened, the E Streeters fell suddenly silent. While Bruce sang solo everything we thought or expected of this song vanished.

In this moment of emptiness something shouldered its way forward. It was a big, muscular presence. Towering. Powerful. It was as eternal as it was completely unexpected. Watching a since removed YouTube clip one could almost see this presence taking its rightful place at his old friend’s side. It was the Big Man himself finally answering the question that had been asked so many times over the previous months. That it was an answer nobody would have predicted is not surprising. This is life at its essence: impossible to pin down with our paltry notions of what should or could.

How will the E Street Band continue without their anchor of a sax man? ‘They won’t continue without,’ we were informed that night in New York City. ‘I’m still here.’