The news hit Springsteen fans and music buffs like a punch in the gut: Clarence “Big Man” Clemons, sax player for the E Street Band for nearly forty years, dead at age 69. The king of the world, master of the universe, able to leap tall women in a single bound…was gone.
As word spread across the internet via social media, Springsteen buffs virtually cried upon one another’s shoulders, sharing memories and all that amazing music. If Twitter could somehow magically be transformed into a great bar, Saturday night would have been full of strong drinks, tipsy tears, and sax solo after sax solo blasting from the best jukebox in the universe.
Earlier this week, our own Ken Shane shared his memories of the Big Man. We continue to remember Clarence Clemons as an immense guy with an immense heart and an immense talent.
It sounds like a total cliché, but it’s true: I fell in love with Bruce Springsteen’s music while sitting in a 1969 Chevy Camaro, down on the Jersey shore.
It was June, 1984. My family and my aunt’s family rented houses across the street from one another in the Harvey Cedars section of Long Beach Island. I was almost 14 at the time, and a big part of the fun of the week was spending time with my cousin, D., who at six years my senior was kind of the big brother I never had.
D. was working a summer job, but was able to take off for a chunk of time and come out to LBI. He had restored a ’69 Camaro and installed in it a top-of-the-line stereo system. Springsteen’s Born in the USA had just come out, and D. bought the LP, made a tape for the car, and brought it with him to the shore. That tape was in the Camaro’s tape deck the entire vacation, and it made a significant impact on me. I call it my Wizard of Oz moment, when my tastes in music went from black and white (whatever was on the radio, or in my parents’ not-quite-cool record collection) to the brilliant technicolor rush of rock & roll.
The track I listened to over and over again was “Bobby Jean.” While I related to the melody and the lyrics (shot through with themes of friendship, longing, and lost chances) the truly magical moment in the song was the end. Springsteen extends the final verse to issue one last farewell:
And I’m just callin’ one last time
Not to change your mind
But just to say I miss you, baby,
Good luck, goodbye,
Clarence Clemons’s saxophone comes in and carries you off in the sweep of the song’s heartache. He rides alongside the melody, not quite sticking to it, but touching alongside its boundaries as he makes his own statement, observing the sentiments of the lyrics as an outsider, translating them through his horn, while still moving within the song. That was perhaps Clemons’ greatest gift, and why Springsteen’s music has never sounded right without him — he translates Springsteen’s voice and lyrics into a wordless sweep of sound, verbiage that sounds like music, but which speaks in words only the heart understands. That sound is the musical personification of soul — Clemons’, Springsteen’s, yours, mine. In “Bobby Jean” he expresses the sweetness of memories and the sting of silent farewells in such a manner that even today, 27 years on, my body reacts to that sound with goosebumps and a smile.
We miss you, Big Man. Good luck. Goodbye.
Clarence Clemons was a bridge in some weird way.
If you think about how genre in this day and age works, even the most radical and new-sounding music has direct descendents, so even if it is being hailed as the wildest wild thing yet, chances are you can pull it apart and see where its parents came from.
Modern pop has a heavy dose of disco, rolled into the powdered sugar of new wave and power pop. Lady Gaga and Madonna aren’t far apart. Animal Collective is ‘60s psychedelic and Beach Boys harmony injections. In so many ways, popular music today is a bumper with many stickers.
It wasn’t always that way though. I recall the scene in American Graffiti where one of the cruisers is complaining about the Beach Boys surf influence tainting rock and roll. The British Invasion would further dilute the mix and that core grouping of drums, guitar, bass, voice, and often saxophone, took on the feeling of the ‘50s, a slightly bygone era. By the 1970’s it would have been retro and quaint at best, and ridiculous and best avoided at worst. This was, after all, the age of the guitar stack and the many wonderful ways one could distort signal.
Into that came Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band with the Greetings From Asbury Park album. It did not sound quaint or out-of-touch. If anything, it sounded like a reflection of the danger people associated with good ol’ American rock and roll, the stuff that had record-smashing and artist-bashing on the minds of the townsfolk. In that, the E Street Band was bringing back to life not so much the aural equivalent of those times, but the energy of it, and much of that is due to Clarence Clemons and his saxophone.
I admit it: I don’t really like the sax that much. Most players are not very muscular about it. Sleazy, sure, but the sound of the sax has most commonly been about pretending to be something rather than being something. Clemons was, on the other hand, something. He played both sides of the tonal divide, and could be as smooth as anybody else.
Having said that, Clarence never brought a switchblade to the knife fight. He had the machete and the stamina to carry it, and that may be why it is so hard to think he is gone. A dude that big and imposing shouldn’t have to worry about little, gnat-like things such as age, illness and mortality.
That last one is incorrect. Clarence Clemons won’t have to worry about his place among rock’s immortals. I just wish he could still have had “living” attached to the word “legend.” Clarence was the bridge to the past, of it but not in it. That he should not be around to take us back there is a deeply saddening thought.
Bruce Springsteen had various issues with his record company in the late 1970s, so his fans turned to others with a similar sound and sensibility: Bob Seeger and the Silver Bullet Band; The Iron City Houserockers; and the pride of Cleveland, Ohio, the Michael Stanley Band. In the Spring of 1980, a good two years after Springsteen had released anything, MSB launched its best-selling album, “Heartland”. Through the thick flat light of the Midwest night came the stories of people trying to make it through the worst recession since the Great Depression. The steel mills were closed, the auto plants were in trouble, and MSB (and Seeger, and the Houserockers) sang about it. Clarence Clemons played on the Heartland sessions, and it’s his saxophone you hear on “Lover” and “He Can’t Love You”, two of MSB’s best-known songs.
Bruce Springsteen made peace with the record business and brought out The River in late 1980. Michael Stanley is now a classic rock DJ in Cleveland. Clarence Clemons was called up by someone even bigger than Bruce Springsteen. And people hitting the turnpike this summer will pop in an old mix tape and listen to the saxophone wail as they thank God for the man who put the white lines on the highway.
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out:
In the wake of Clarence’s stroke and subsequent death, so much was written (including by me) about the lyric, “The change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band.” But the lines that follow are just as important for two reasons. First, it’s the beginning of the mythology of the Big Man. Like a rapper boasting about his fame and fortune on his debut album, Bruce wouldn’t be busting any cities in half to the soundtrack of thousands of screaming girls until after the song’s release. Everything Bruce would tell us from the stage over the years about Clarence — from the hundreds of nicknames to the stories woven into the breakdown in “Growin’ Up” — spring from that moment. The second reason is that it’s Bruce rejecting the formula of the previous 20 years for rock stardom as defined so eloquently by The Byrds. You don’t need the right haircut or tight pants, Bruce said. The Big Man trumps all that. Oh, yeah. It’s alright.
Quarter To Three:
The original, a #1 hit for Gary “U.S.” Bonds in 1961, is a soul classic, but it doesn’t seem like much on paper: some doo-wop vocals, handclaps, a sax break, and a couple of verses and a bridge about partying late to the sounds of the Church Street Five with Daddy G swinging on his horn like nobody’s business. You’d think it was a less-polished rip-off of “Twistin’ The Night Away,” except that it predated Sam Cooke’s hit by a year. But as a regular part of the encores from 1974-8, it was when all hell broke loose. Even more so than “Rosalita,” which had the insanity but also a lyric and structure that demanded order, “Quarter To Three” was pure anarchy, with the E Street Band stretching out the song well beyond its original 2:35 as if it contained all the mysteries of life. Bruce would break out all his showmanship tricks he learned from Little Richard and James Brown. And just when it seemed like they couldn’t go anymore, Bruce would scream and the song would come back faster than before. At the heart of it all was Clarence, wailing through the whole song as if possessed by the spirit of Daddy G himself, stopping only to lend his booming bass in the vocal breakdown.
A couple days after Clarence Clemons died, I was fishing around my iTunes library looking to drown my sorrows in some of his sweet sax. Somehow, I found myself clicking on “Secret Garden,” a song I don’t usually seek out, and waiting for that haunting bit Clarence plays at the end. It’s like a melody from the past blown in on a spring rain.
And I got to thinking about sympathy, and what it really means to understand the music another artist is making and to strive not just for your own fame and glory and satisfaction, but for the fulfillment of the vision of another person.
I don’t know the exact reasons why Springsteen moved on from the E Street Band in the early nineties. I know he’s given reasons, and so have they, but who knows what really motivated his decision. And I know there have been moments like 1981 when Springsteen tried to record the Nebraska songs with the E Street Band, and the songs apparently didn’t “work” with the band.
But then you cycle forward twenty years and you hear the E Street take on “Mansion on the Hill,” or “Atlantic City,” or especially more recent versions of “Johnny 99” and “Reason to Believe,” and you think, seriously Bruce? This band couldn’t do that music? They sure can now.
That sympathy for Springsteen’s music is what sets apart the E Street Band from other backing combos. They don’t just play his songs; they elevate the music.
It is what I will probably miss most about Clarence Clemons. I know Bruce himself wrote the music for some of Clarence’s solos, and I know Clarence gained the greatest stature from being an on-stage foil to the Boss. He existed most vibrantly as a leading cast member in the ongoing mythology between Springsteen, his music, his live show, and his audience.
But he was a damn great musician, and demonstrated amazing sympathy for the music he performed. It’s why Springsteen would let Clarence perform a long, dark solo as an opening to “The River” while on tour. It’s why Lady Gaga would even bother calling the guy. And it’s why, even though it wasn’t his composition, our hairs stood on end every time he would intone the opening notes to that epic, magnificent solo on “JUngleland.” He may not have written the notes, but he made Springsteen’s music his own. We are all the better for it. Rest in peace, Big Man.
I didn’t really become a Springsteen fan till 1980 or so, although I certainly knew of him via reading constantly about him in Creem and other places, and of course the two covers Manfred Mann did of his songs. I loved, still do, me some 70’s Earth Band. Anyway, I kept hearing “Born to Run” and others at my college buds’ keggers, though, and one thing stood out clearer than anything else — that sax solo in that song — and it stuck with me so much that I eventually decided I’d best break down and get acquainted with Mr. Boss’ oeuvre. And so I did, going out and buying The River and Born to Run on the same day. My fandom was cemented, in a lot of ways, by Born in the USA‘s “Bobby Jean”, the beneficiary of another stellar Clemons sax workout. So while I probably would have gotten the Bruce habit sooner or later anyway, it was Clarence’s sax that extended me an engraved invitation, and I’m mighty glad to this day that he was on board.
Eighteen years ago this December, I sat in the cold basement of my parents’ house, sifting through the past with my best friend, Steve. I was just about to get married and the two of us, friends since childhood, were drinking and doing what all guys do when they have a difficult time expressing their feelings to one another: making a compilation tape of the seminal songs from our friendship. There was some Petty, some Smithereens and some Who. But the artist who showed up most often was Bruce Springsteen. The Boss and his E Street Band had set an example of the kind of loyalty and bond between brothers that I live by to this day.
Halfway through the tape, Steve veered from our list of songs from the past and recorded “Independence Day,” from the Springsteen’s double LP, The River. “Independence Day” is a message from a son to his father, as he vows to leave behind the old town and move on to someplace better. He isn’t going to let the world do to him what he’d watch it do to his old man. But the song is not just a moving tribute from a son to his dad, it’s also a tribute to the old town and a sad reflection of how tough times have become.
Midway through the track, the Big Man plays his sax with a gust of emotion that is almost shocking. While the rest of “Independence Day” is slow and mournful, that horn is a blast of emotion, a wake up call to anyone listening. In the song, the saxophone cries for the young men eager to step out on their own but fearful of the road ahead, it cries for the fathers and sons and their inability to say “I love you,” and it cries for the plight of the small towns beat down and ruined by the economy. Now it cries for the loss of the Big Man, whose place will never be filled on E Street.