R.I.P. Clarence Clemons, 1942-2011
When your music is bigger than life it takes a Big Man to convey it to the world. For Bruce Springsteen, his longtime saxophone player for the E Street Band, Clarence Clemons was that man. Sadly, Clemons died last Saturday at age 69 from the complications of a stroke.
A week ago Sunday, the sad news came that Clemons had a massive stroke at his home in Singer Island, FL, and the thoughts of having to write something like this came to mind. However, that prospect made it difficult to ponder when the person is still struggling for their life and their music meant so much to you. However, when Saturday evening the official word came from my fellow 3 Minute Record contributor Bart Darnell via text message that Clemons had passed the reality fully sank in.
The next morning as a slightly surreal Father's Day started I began to write this piece, but alas could not finish needing more time to gather my thoughts. Later that day as I listened to the music I found I could not sing along to those songs so ingrained in my head. I could only listen for any shred of sound that I could gleaned from Clemons' horn. Nevertheless, I knew that if I did not finish this piece I wouldn't be moving on.
Clarence Anicholas Clemons was born on January 11, 1942 in Norfolk, VA the son of a fish market owner and the grandson of a Southern Baptist preacher. Receiving an alto saxophone for Christmas at age 9, later switching to tenor sax, Clemons took up music just as rock 'n roll was starting in the early 1950s, beginning a lifelong love affair with the genre.
Inspired by Elvis Presley and growing up on '50s and '60s rock 'n roll, Bruce Springsteen was a young, inspiring singer/songwriter in the early 1970s making a name for himself in the boardwalk clubs of Asbury Park, NJ. The oft-repeated story of how the E Street Band fully solidified starts like the prototypical opening line to a novel when once upon a dark stormy night in 1971, Clemons quite literally busted into Springsteen's life. As the 6' 4" 250 pound former Maryland State College football player, Clemons entered the club where Springsteen was playing as a raging storm blew the door off its hinges leaving the imposing shadow in the doorway. Springsteen invited the saxophone player up on stage to jam creating a bond that lasted until Clemons death. Clemons brought his soulful saxophone playing and signature sound to what would become bedrock of the E Street Band.
Springsteen summed his thoughts about what Clemons brought to his music in the classic "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" from his 1975 breakout album, Born To Run.
"Well, a change was made in time and the big man joined the band/From the coastline to the city all the little pretties raised their hands/I'm gonna sit back right easy and laugh/When the Scooter and the Big Man bust this city in half."
To this day, Springsteen admits that he does not know what the title of the song means or refers to, but clearly he knew - even at that early time of his career - that having Clemons in the band was very special.
For Clemons his difference in age with the rest of the E Street Band seemed to make him the older brother - a mentor of sorts. While Springsteen, "The Boss," may have taught Clemons the importance of dedication to the artistic craft; Clemons taught Springsteen how to be a big man.
Clemons tenor saxophone added depth to Springsteen's cinematic lyrics invoking full color to the stark imagery the singer experienced all around him. The sound of Clemons sax perfectly suited the overall feel Springsteen achieved with his music. Just as John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter provided their own stamp on the Jazz music of their band leader Miles Davis, Clemons provided a soulful quality to the Rock 'n Roll music played by the E Street Band.
"You can hide 'neath the covers and study your pain/Make crosses for your lovers, throw roses in the rain/Waste your summer praying in vain for a savior rise from these streets."
Certainly, the 25-year-old Bruce Springsteen did not intend this lyric from his now classic song "Thunder Road" to mourn his saxophone player, yet no saviors will be rising from the streets to match Clemons sound. The Boss can't fully replace what Clemons brought to the band both on and off the stage. While Springsteen seems to leave the door open for future E Street Band shows with the last line of his public statement following Clemons' death "His life, his memory, and his love will live on in that story and in our band," what the future truly holds for Springsteen and the E Street Band is uncertain, but the memories of the music will always be there.
"For the ones who had the notion, the notion deep inside/That it ain't no sin to be glad you're alive/I wanna find one face that ain't lookin' through me/I wanna find one place, I wanna spit in the face of these Badlands"
Whatever the future may hold we have a way to stay strong. As Springsteen notes so well in his song "Badlands" with the line "that it ain't no sin to be glad you're alive," we must cherish the happiness that Clemons gave us with his brilliant saxophone playing and enjoy life to the fullest. Because, unfortunately, the harsh reality of Springsteen's lyrics that so many fans identify with so closely have a way of telling the true reality of the situation. The music gives us the freedom to escape and be happy even if just for a little while. Rest easy Big Man, you've made it to the Promised Land.
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