Bloodbrother: Clarence Clemons, 1942-2011

by David Remnick

In the summer of 1971, when an ambitious Shore rat named Bruce Springsteen was playing at an Asbury Park bar called the Student Prince and writing songs for his first album, a band called Norman Seldin and the Joyful Noyze was playing at the Wonder Bar down the road. The tenor saxophone player was a huge ex-football player with a King Curtis sound named Clarence Clemons. The story, oft-repeated, is that one stormy night, between sets, Clemons wandered into the Student Prince and sat in, playing “Spirit in the Night.”

“Bruce and I looked at each other and didn’t say anything, we just knew,” Clemons said many years later. “We knew we were the missing links in each other’s lives.” Clemons played on that first album, “Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.” and, at a gig at the Shipbottom Lounge, joined the group that would be called the E Street Band. The legend of that meeting and the formation of the band was the stuff of “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out”—an anthem of becoming that was part of the repertoire for four decades. (“Well the change was made uptown/and the Big Man joined the band….From the coastline to the city/all the little pretties raised a hand.”)

Clemons, who died Saturday of complications from a stroke, was not an entirely original player—he was a vessel of many great soul, gospel, and R&B players who came before him—but he was an entirely sublime band member, an absolutely essential, and soulful, ingredient in both the sound of Springsteen and the spirit of the group. Clemons will be irreplaceable; Sonny Rollins could step in for him and never be able to provide the same sense of personality and camaraderie. His horn gave the band its sound of highway loneliness, its magnificent heart. And his huge presence on stage was an anchor for Springsteen, especially when Bruce was younger, scrawny, and so feral, so unleashed, that you thought that he could fall down dead in a pool of sweat at any moment. At the brink of exhaustion and collapse, Springsteen could always lean on his enormous and reliable friend—an emblematic image that is the cover of “Born to Run.”

On the band’s most recent tour, one that celebrated forty years of music-making, Clemons was clearly hurting: bad knees, bad hips, long shows. Backstage he was ferried around in a golf cart; onstage he played a lot of cowbell and, like Pavarotti in his later years, gave his aching joints breaks when he could. But he was still capable of playing, note for note, his signature solos. He made a joyful noise. Musicians as various as Jackson Browne and Lady Gaga called on him to record, to lend them some of the largeness and warmth of his tone.

If you want to hear the Big Man at his best, a few suggestions:

Two commercial sources first: I love the film of the E Street Band’s foray in England, the DVD of their 1975 concert at Hammersmith Odeon, which is included in the deluxe edition of “Born to Run.” Having gone through the extended boot camp of recording the album over many months, Springsteen, Clemons, Steve Van Zandt, and the rest of the band members seem liberated as they play the songs with the kind of abandon that comes from—practice, practice, practice. They are absolutely alive and the songs are fresh. Another live recording that is sometimes overlooked is “Live in New York City,” a double CD of their “reunion” tour in 2000. The band seems utterly un-bored playing the old songs. Clemons is riveting on his signature solo on “Jungleland” and he and the rest bring you to tears at their anthem of fellowship, “If I Should Fall Behind.”

The YouTube bonanza—and perhaps the greatest of all available Springsteen concerts—is his performance at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, New Jersey, in September, 1978. (Video below.) By then, the band had taken on the songs from “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and Clarence was a presence more powerful than an N.F.L. linebacker. His solos on “Thunder Road” and many others are as urgent as Springsteen’s singing. Of course, I may think so highly of the Capitol Theater performance because I grew up in Jersey and hooked into Bruce early; and I was there. The first time I saw Springsteen was when he was the back-up act for Chicago at Madison Square Garden—“Who is that guy?”—and then kept following him, from the Capitol Theater and beyond. (A similarly brilliant 1978 concert, in Houston, is included as a DVD in the deluxe edition of “Darkness” that came out last year.)

Springsteen is a rock ‘n’ roll romantic, and a large part of his romanticism stems from his notion of what a band means. No one, save Springsteen himself, meant more to the E Street Band than Clarence Clemons. The word is that Springsteen is writing a memoir; the passages on his late, great friend will undoubtedly be the hardest to write and the most moving to read.

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