At New Jersey haunt, big tears for Springsteen’s Big Man

ASBURY PARK, N.J. — Nancey Ryder-Cunningham said it felt like the end of the soundtrack to her life.

Outside The Stone Pony, the Jersey Shore rock club that helped launch Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, she wept Sunday as she surveyed the flowers, candles and photos that had sprung up overnight in honor of saxophonist Clarence Clemons.

“It changed everything in my life,” said Ryder-Cunningham, 59, recalling the first of about 100 Springsteen concerts she estimated she had attended. “I was just a disillusioned kid on the street, and I feel like they rescued me.”

Hundreds of the band’s fans, including some who drove from hours away, gathered at the club, where Springsteen and his bandmates got their start in the early 1970s. Clemons died Saturday at age 69 of complications from a stroke.

“R.I.P., Clarence — you filled my life with music,” said the inscription on one bouquet left outside the club. Inside, framed photos of the band, arranged side by side, were left on the stage Clemons graced so many times.

Clemons was known as the Big Man — for both his 6-foot-5-inch, 270-pound frame and his imposing stage presence. His raucous sax solos helped define the Jersey Shore sound of the 1970s and ’80s.

Clemons’ last performance at Stone Pony was a solo show in the summer of 2006, house promoter Kyle Brendle said, but Springsteen and Clemons played routinely at the club in the 1970s, usually as unannounced acts.

The gathering Sunday afternoon juxtaposed bereavement and festivity. Fans milled around, drank beer and sang along to Springsteen tunes as they talked about what Clemons’ music meant to them.

“One of our first dates was a Bruce concert,” said Cyndi Matts of Little Silver, recalling the night more than a quarter-century ago when she and the man who later became her husband heard the band perform the song “Jungleland.” “When he had that solo and everyone put their hands up — it still gives me chills.”

Val Vancleef, a 27-year-old podiatrist from Ocean Grove, said her parents never tire of talking about the time they sat next to Clemons at a restaurant when she was a baby. Clemons overheard it was the child’s birthday and performed “Happy Birthday,” the family story goes.

Gary Mottola, who owns The Stone Pony, said the E Street Band was “the soul of Asbury Park” and Clemons the soul of the band. When the city fell on hard times, it was the band’s energy that kept it alive, he said.

Expressions of adoration for Clemons came from across the country after he suffered a stroke last week at his home in Singer Island, Fla. Lady Gaga encouraged her fans to create video tributes and Springsteen called him a “beloved comrade.”

On Sunday came one more — from Gov. Chris Christie, who said Clemons represented the soul and spirit of New Jersey.

“On a personal note, when I heard about the Big Man’s passing on Saturday night, I was struck with an overwhelming feeling that the days of my youth were now finally over,” he said.

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