Clarence Clemons had dispersed a crowd on the Great Wall of China so a filmmaker could record him playing his saxophone when a member of the crowd demanded, "Who do you think you are?"
The accusation can be heard off camera in the Who Do I Think I Am? documentary that emerged from the encounter and that Clemons premiered at the Garden State Film Festival in Asbury Park Saturday night.
Clemons narrates the story himself.
It was 2005 and he had gone to China in search of rest and alternative medicine after a grueling tour took a toll on his body. Instead his accuser's question became both the title and subject of his film and a catalyst for a spiritual quest.
Clemons visits an industrial, blue collar city in northeastern China much like the one where he grew up. People there never heard of him, the E-Street band, or Bruce Springsteen. They had also never seen a black man before and their surprise at seeing one for the first time is captured on screen as they surround him and touch his dreadlocks.
He visits Buddhist temples and learns to pray to his ancestors. The meditation and prayer reminds him of his grandfather's church, of being baptized as a Christian at 13 years old, and of meeting his guru at 40. He says the experience elicits the same emotion he had when he picked up the saxophone for the first time.
"I'd never been here before, but I knew my way around," Clemons says.
The host family that he'd met through a fan throws him a party unlike any one he's ever been to before. A bonfire is lit in the street, there's food, and singing and dancing. It's unclear what the significance of this is, but he says he let himself become an open book on the journey and absorbed the ritual and majesty in everything.
Here Clemons provides the first glimpse into where his spiritual journey will lead. It's not about religion, but spirituality, he says.
"Spirituality comes from within; religion from outside you," he says he's been told.
And then he plays his saxophone at a Korean church two blocks from where he's staying. Next he goes to Beijing and sits in with a band that speaks no English, but performs a Rolling Stones song.
The turning point comes on February 26, 2006 when he receives a call telling him that his mother has died.
"It was as if she had been preparing me for this day all of her life," he says.
A hymn plays in the background.
Again it's unclear how his mother's Christian faith inspires him to "look inward for his own source of being," but this is what he says.
The scene changes to a recording studio in Los Angeles where Clemons is collaborating on a song.
"Sometimes what you're looking for has been there all the time. You just don't see it. You can't see it," he says, before concluding, "The temple where my heart has always been is my music."
That one note, played night after night is the promised land, he says. It's who he thinks he is.
During the question and answer session after the film, Clemons expounded upon these themes and talked about the "law of attraction," saying that we draw to ourselves what we project into the universe. He advocated sending out love.
He appeared thinner than he does in the film and needed two canes to walk. He leaned against the stage for support, but exuded a warmth and generosity of spirit that would make any mother proud.