Farewell to the Big Man

June 27, 2011

Clarence Clemons died on June 18. E-Street fans knew him as “the Big Man,” from the famous line in “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” in which Bruce shouts out “when the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band,” to which Clemons steps up to blow out a great sax riff. It works great on record but even better live–it’s one of those moments that has been repeated on stage around the world at dozens of E-Street concerts every year for the past 30+ years (give or take a hiatus or Bruce-solo year here and there). Yet such a moment never seemed cliche, trite, or “done.” It always worked, just like so many other repeated bits work at an E-Street concert. If you’ve had the chance to see the band live or have watched any of their great Concert sets on DVD, you’ve seen certain stock moments repeatedly. Sure Bruce and the band have always been able to improvise, to switch up the way songs are performed, to give in to the moment and do something no one might have expected when the show began (including the band), but those repeated lines, bits, and events gave the essential Springsteen show a rock and roll liturgy–a canonical ethos born out of sacred repetition.

I fell in love with the music of Springsteen and the E Street band the summer after I graduated high-school. That summer was lucky for me in the music department for two notable reasons. I stumbled onto a cassette of Little Earthquakes by Tori Amos for a quarter at a yard sell and added a used copy of  Springsteen’s 18 Tracks on CD to my pile of albums during a music run from my town to the closest big independent music store. That was how you discovered music back then–word of mouth, magazine reviews, singles, impulse purchases. I-tunes was a few years away from us that summer and though napster had launched and the college kids who were home for summer tried to show me how it worked, with my dial-up internet causing it to take 45 minutes to download one low-quality digital track wasn’t really worth it.

18 Tracks was a single disc sampler of the Tracks box-set which made available for the first time around 100 songs Springsteen and the band had kept off of albums in the name of “thematic consistency” (that was common once too, and still is for many artists, that an album is a work of art itself and the songs are supposed to fit together thematically). Anyway, it was a great record. I had heard Springsteen before; whenever I got into my Dad’s truck and rooted through his cassettes as a kid, Born in the USA was one of my favorites and my older brother owned the first “Greatest Hits” disc Springsteen released which I selected for the stereo anytime I had the choice. But 18 Tracks insired me to see what this band was about and before the summer was over I had Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, The Wild, The Innocent, and the E-Street Shuffle and Tunnel of Love on CD. Born to Run quickly became my favorite record and is to this day. It’s the perfect rock and roll record and I have devoured it in every CD, SACD, and vinyl pressing I can find.

The cover of Born to Run is an iconic picture of Bruce with a guitar strapped on his shoulder grinning in a laugh as he leans on Clarence Clemons who clutches his saxophone to his lips. The two look like brothers, and that seems to be the point of the photo. If you read biographies of the band you get the sense that until Clemons walked into the bar that night to see Bruce play and soon became part of the band, there was no band, not in the sense of what the E-Street Band became. If you read Clemons’  autobiography you see how intense the moment they first locked eyes was–Clemons’ tries to reassure the reader that it wasn’t a sexual or romantic moment, and the reason he has to do so is because the only language he can find to describe that moment and the partnership they created deals heavily with the soul, with finding another person out there who shares your vision, purpose, and reason for living.

Clarence Clemons could play one hell of a saxophone solo, but he can’t be labeled as the best to ever play the sax; an argument might be made that he was the best to do it in rock and roll, but up against the jazz greats like John Coltrane, Charlie Parker or Sonny Rollins he was no match. His greatness didn’t come from his musical mastery. It came from his presence, his personality, and his inspiration. Pull out “Live in New York City,” or “Live in Barcelona” on DVD and catch Clarence playing the solo for a song like “The River.” There’s the traditional version, but there’s also an alternate version of that song Bruce often does in concert in which Clarence gets a long, slow, plaintive solo that introduces the song. The minute Clarence steps to the front of the stage and blows into that horn, he commands every eye in the house. He controls the stage and channels the energy that is usually spread out amongst the entire band all by himself. Bruce can preach everyone into a revival fervor with a rock and roll gospel, but Clarence could subtly pray and meditate every soul into spiritual ecstasy. I know such exclamations sound like cheesy hyperbole; I’ll grant you a level of cheese but if it’s hyperbole, it is so only slightly. Writing about great rock and roll always sounds this way to the unconverted. So Clarence was great in his presence. In his personality, the best way to catch that now is to read his autobiography; his wit and charm leaps off of each page and from his own “grey” sections in the book which contain “legends” rooted in truth but not in the details. Lastly, Clarence was great in his inspiration. Bruce is a remarkable songwriter, guitarist, vocalist, and showman, but you could see in his on-stage interactions with Clarence just how much of an inspirational spark he got from his best friend. That spark carried over onto the records, as Clarence packed excellent solos, background riffs, and an inspired presence even when his sax was silent–Clarence Clemons is felt at every part of every classic Springsteen song even when he isn’t playing.

So can there be an E-Street band anymore? Two years ago the band, the family, and the fans lost Danny Fedirici and his absence is felt by every missing accordion note in live performances of “E Street Shuffle” songs. I can’t see the E Street band continuing as they were. Bruce could easily go on as a remarkable solo artist or as an artist perorming with rotating members of the surviving band. But the abscence of the “Big Man” is just to big a space to fill and I can’t see Bruce choosing a new sax player. Stevie Van Zandt has said the band members will continue on because it’s “all they know how to do,” but that what continues on will be remarkably different.

Clarence wrote in his book that before every performance he prayed to reach out and touch at least one person in the audience–to make someone feel better, to give someone a moment of pure happiness. He wrote that to give happiness through his artistic gift was his single most important mission in life, a mission he felt tasked by God to do. His own pain, from injuries and hardships, replaced joints and broken bones taped together from a life on the road, vanished when he got the opportunity to share and spread joy. Here’s hoping (and believing) that all the pain he felt is forever gone and that he is somehow rewarded for all the joy his art, music, presence, and personality gave to so many over the years and continues to give to new people every day through the recorded music he has left behind.


One Response to “Farewell to the Big Man”

  1. Marile Cloete said

    Wonderfull post, thank you!

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