A Tribute To The “Big Man”, Clarence Clemons

”And last, but not least… The Minister of Soul, Secretary of the Brotherhood, probably the next King of England… I have seen the future of the whole fuckin’ thing and it’s Big Man Clarence Clemons.” — Bruce Springsteen.

In June 2011 the E Street Nation confronted the worst moment of its 40-year history, for it was on June 18th of last year that the “Big Man”, Clarence Clemons, died. Whilst Bruce brought the words and stunning vocals to the music of the E Street Band, it was Clarence’s sax, which was the highlight of the emotional expression of love contained within their music. Even though he was known as the Big Man for his frame, Clarence Clemons was also the Big Man for his extraordinary heart, his deep soul, and his beauty. His love of life said more about him than his words ever did, and the profound adoration he felt for his music was reflected in not only his musical expression, but also his interactions with fans. To Clarence, everyone was equal, and so the people who held such deep affection for his music were as much a part of his life as the band, which he so adored. When taking to the stage the Big Man was known to pause for a moment, and bow with his hands clasped as though praying. He was deeply spiritual. His famous saxophone solos, which defined the highlight of the saxophone’s standing in Rock music, was as raw an expression of devotion as is possible. From the heartbreakingly beautiful sax solo of “Jungleland”, which only Clarence could have created, to the brief but glorious expression of hope contained within his solo in “Born to Run”, Clarence Clemons and his sax remained the peak of the songs which truly represented the passion of the band with which he played. The E Street Band is unrivalled in its’ ability to express that which we all feel, but which so very few of us can describe. Through Bruce’s existential ability to use the beauty of language to reflect the soul’s deepest needs and desires, and, with equal fervor, also utilizing the full force of music to shake people’s souls to the core – not to mention rocking them to the bone too – Springsteen’s band has become, over its’ 40 year history, one of the greatest musical ensembles of all time. Without Clarence Clemons, this would arguably never have been possible. The day he died, the heart of the E Street Nation, and of the E Street Band, broke.

As Bruce Springsteen himself put it; “The best music is essentially there to provide you something to face the world with”. At the hardest point of my life, the music of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band entered my life, and I knew at that moment that I would never face the world alone again. Bruce’s voice, combined with his band’s dedication to their eternal vow to “bring the power of the music down on you” became the light in my darkness. Upon hearing “Out In The Street”, the first song by the band I listened to, Clarence’s sax spoke to me like nothing ever had done before. I felt the love which they exude, the care, which they provide, and the inspiration of their music. When the world felt colder than it ever had done, I was reminded that there was always something to live for. Forming a deep relationship with the band’s music, it sustained me through hard times. In my transition from childhood to adulthood, I became more and more intensely aware of the fact that my relationship with their music, whilst so personal, was shared by many across the world. The E Street Band has tapped into the souls of people from every walk of life, and has become the undying element of hope in a “world gone wrong”. People love the band, and they love us. I know some who have even described the band as saving them, and that is no surprise when you consider the power of their music. Thus when the day came that Clarence Clemons died, I felt not only my own pain and grief, but was also acutely aware of the E Street Nation entering a state of mourning for the BIGGEST man you’ve ever seen, Clarence.

To lose Clarence was devastatingly difficult to comprehend, let alone come to terms with. Personally, I sat that morning listening to “Jungleland” again, and again, crying. I was not alone. That expression of grief was evident throughout the Springsteen fan community, for every single person who had ever been touched by the life and music of Clarence Clemons, felt the same. It was the lowest point of the E Street Band’s 40-year life. Even though Clarence was not technically family, the relationship which is forged between the band he was apart of and its fans is one which reflects all the fundamental elements of family itself. That is, an undying and passionate bond. Thus, when we consider “C”’s death, we can see how it was such a painful moment for fans too, beyond the context of simple fandom. However, out of such pain, a degree of solidarity was born which I had never experienced before. We recognized in our pain as a group of people united by a shared love of the music of the E Street Band, and of Clarence Clemons

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. We weren’t going to concentrate on the pain which we felt, but rather on honouring the Big Man by living our lives in the way he lived his – with love, compassion, and for others.
When the realization of Clarence’s death began to set in, thoughts were turned from the grief of losing the Big Man, to a shared question of Springsteen and the band’s future. Personally I never for a moment felt that Bruce and his band would cease to continue. The best way in which they could ever honour Clarence was by continuing on the journey to the Promised Land, a journey which “C” himself transcended. With the reassurance that the band would be back this year, for, not only a new album, but also a World Tour, another question arose – how would they manage without the Big Man?

Before the World Tour opened on March 18th, this was a question which most had considered for a significant time, but which was ultimately unanswerable before the tour commenced. Clarence was truly irreplaceable. There will never be anyone who can completely and truthfully emulate the impact that Clarence Clemons and his saxophone had on people. He was as unique as it is humanly possible to be. However, the E Street Band, despite being profoundly hurt by the loss of their saxman, is not equally damaged. Rather than Clarence’s death marking the end of his band’s “glory days”, this is more a new chapter of their ever-continuing story.
Whilst it was natural for us, as fans, to question Bruce and ponder about how “C”’s shoes would be “filled”, the truth is that until the tour began, we couldn’t truly have known. However we could rest comfortably knowing that that decision lay with Bruce Springsteen. Ultimately he knew Clarence better than anyone; after all, they did share “the most passion you have without sex”… In the same way that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band has always been there for us, it is our turn to be there for them. We must allow Bruce and his band to do whatever they feel is right for their future, taking into account the deeply moving effect which losing Clarence – their brother and friend – has had on them personally too, and how continuing up the road without him by their side will affect them in the future. It is their decision, and nobody else’s, how they continue, and how they honour Clarence. As Bruce said in his eulogy, “Clarence doesn’t leave the E Street Band when he dies. He leaves when we die.”

As it transpired, the way Clarence was honoured is beyond that which I do believe most fans had anticipated. Their memorial to The Big Man is poignantly simple, as it mixes what defines the E Street Band’s fame – their music – with the people who made their journey possible: their fans. Playing Bruce and Clarence’s signature “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”, “when the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band”, The Boss and his band take a step back and allow magic to happen. Without hesitation, from night one, the crowd roared, cheered, and clapped for Clarence; creating a sound so momentous that it echoed the very sentiments of Clarence and his sax. Where once was played a 10 second explosion of hopeful life from The Big Man’s Saxophone, following on from Bruce’s tale of their meeting, now stands a 4 minute thundering from the crowd. The testimonies from fans that have experienced this moment all agree; simply nothing could compete with the emotional intensity of that moment. It is quite an extraordinary thing, for tens of thousands of people to all cheer for a man, for minutes on end, in unison, with undying and unrelenting passion, however this reflects the love and indeed pain of the E Street Nation for Clarence Clemons.
It is true that some doubted the band’s ability to pack the same punch sonically without Clarence and his saxophone. Beyond the emotional connection, between Clarence and the band, and the band and their fans, there was of course the musical importance of his place on stage. The Big Man was one of the most talented saxophonists in rock. His 3 to 4 minute solo of “Jungleland”, arguably his most famous, was a highlight of any of their concerts. Clarence was able to create a sound which most saxophonists could merely dream of. Whether it was due to his passion for, and dedication to, his instrument and his music, or his large frame that allowed for such power – or both – Clarence Clemons was unique in his ability to rock a crowd. With this in mind, we can understand how some questioned Bruce Springsteen and the remaining members of the E Street Band, and their ability to rock in the same way without Clarence. After all, the Big Man was a big presence on stage and a vital component to the E Street Band sound.

The new chapter of the E Street Band sees Clarence Clemons’ spot being respectfully filled by no less than 6 men. Forming a horn section, which includes Clarence’s nephew Jake Clemons, and life-long friend Ed Manion – who together share the responsibility of saxophone – they have the task of stepping up to the musical prowess that was left behind. Songs such as “My City of Ruins”, from “The Rising”, now feature a delightful full horn instrumental. From beginning to end, the horn section is present in the song, which brings a new sound to a 10 year old, but much anticipated and appreciated, track. Echoing the days of Bruce Springsteen’s Sessions’ Band, with whom he toured in 2006, the E Street Band has evolved into what we are witnessing this tour, is now bigger than ever in its’ history. Nothing can replace the painful gap which Clarence, along with Danny Federici, leave, however the move to incorporate a horn section is wholly positive in maintaining and redefining the band’s sonic power. Furthermore, the new album “Wrecking Ball” strongly embraces horn music, and so the songs being featured this tour are geared specifically towards music which one associates much more with the folk music of early 20th century America. Songs like “Death To My Hometown” have been compared to an Irish jig, and there is no denying that the horn section is responsible for this current E Street Band phenomenon. The song “American Land” is testament to the notion that Bruce has tackled the earlier days of music that was greatly influenced by the men who immigrated to the USA at the turn of the century. A powerful song in its own right, there is a power to it that could only be achieved with a dedicated horn section like the one we see today. Finally, the horn section also provides another means through which to pay respect to Clarence. “Land of Hope and Dreams”, one of the band’s most famous sax-loving songs, is making appearances again this tour – as well as a place on “Wrecking Ball”. It is entirely appropriate that a song which reflects the journey of life, through death and into the next dimension, The Land of Hope and Dreams, should not only feature a stunning saxophone element, but also take such a prominent and poignant place within Springsteen’s band’s current musical choices. Joining “Jungleland” and “Drive All Night”, it is one of the most special examples of Clarence Clemons’ talent as a saxophonist, and integral part of the E Street Band.

Like fellow members of the E Street Nation, I hold such love for Clarence, even though I never saw him live. I never stood and experienced, in all his wonder and glory, The Big Man playing his saxophone to the thousands taking part in the holy communion of an E Street Band concert… And I never will. I will see Bruce and the band this year, however there will be a spot on that stage where Clarence once stood, but where now he does not. At first this was a terribly difficult thing for me to accept. Something which had fueled my desire to continue in the face of adversity was the promise of one day seeing Clarence play, and so when he died not only did I lose him, but I also lost that dream too. However, nearly a year up the road I now realize that what is fundamentally important in a relationship such as this I have experienced, and continue to experience every day.
Despite never seeing him play, I did feel everything that made Clarence the Big Man. The depth of his tenderness, the power of his music, and the inspiration of his life. It is with such feeling that I continue to remember him. Like the whole of the E Street Nation, united in an undying ardor of music – of life – and a desire to dedicating our lives to help create a caring world, I live on with Clarence and his sax in my heart. Clarence Clemons hasn’t left us, he has merely moved on to the place we all go one day. He now lives in the Promised Land.
2012 brings with it the new era of the E Street Band. One where Clarence doesn’t play on stage, but where instead his soul consumes us, at the concerts of Bruce Springsteen and “the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, house-rocking, earth-quaking, booty-shaking, Viagra-taking, love-making – Le-gen-dary” E Street Band’s musical communions.
“C” really was the biggest man you’ve ever seen, so big in fact that he outgrew life. His affection was simply too powerful, his spirit too deep. Clarence Clemons was love personified. His music was music defined. And so it is that rather than this new chapter of the E Street Band’s journey being one without Clarence, more truthfully it is the one where The Big Man takes a different form. Rather than see his beautiful smile we will feel it more intensely than ever, and rather than hearing his famous sax solos, we will experience them in our hearts. Such devout affection is exactly what Clarence was all about. Death is not the end – some would say it is merely the beginning. Whatever it is, The Big Man has experienced it, or as I like to think, it has experienced Clarence.
The Promised Land really is now the Promised Land, as Clarence Clemons sits there today… When once asked about his ‘favourite’ Springsteen song, “C” cited “Someday (We’ll Be Together)” as one of them, which is poignant with the line; “This love will last forever, Someday we’ll be together.” As Springsteen himself so movingly put it, “If you’re, and we’re here, they’re here”.

With that spirit we embrace the new music of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Finally we remember Bruce, his band, and Clarence’s family who, whilst they sustained a loss even greater than the one we experienced, can live forever more knowing that their Big Man changed our lives forever.

Amen indeed.

Connor Kirkpatrick May 23, 2012
“In the early years, I found a voice that was my voice and also partly my father’s voice.” – Bruce Springsteen. “In the same way that the music of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band has sustained me through my life, that statement rings true today.” As an 18 year old just out of high school, Connor is venturing into a life where he hopes to combine his two passions; writing, and music.

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