The Likes of Clemons Cannot be Replaced

Tony Sauro

Bruce Springsteen always introduced Clarence Clemons last.

Who in Springsteen’s incomparable E Street Band wanted to follow that?

Everyone knew the Big Man was No. 1.

With a sweaty, out-of-breath, revival-meeting buildup, Springsteen would conjure fantastical, mythological, fire-and-brimstone tales to embellish on their original (some say alleged) 1971 connection, which was only slightly more mundane.

Asbury Park, N.J. Violent thunderstorm. Bar door gets ripped off and flies away. Big dude enters and eagerly improvises on his saxophone with a stranger’s band. “Spirit in the Night.” Seriously.

Springsteen’s Elmer Gantry soliloquies weren’t mere showmanship – though they definitely qualified as that back in the day when the band played four-hour-plus marathons. They were an ongoing homage. A living testament to the unmatched power and passion provided by a saxophone player in a big rock ‘n’ roll band.

Clemons, Springsteen’s blood brother, on-stage wingman and rock ‘n’ roll soulmate for 40 years, passed away Saturday in Palm Beach, Fla., after suffering a stroke on June 12. He was 69. Springsteen eulogized him during a funeral service Tuesday in Palm Beach.

He’d struggled mightily in recent years: three hip replacements, two knee replacements and accompanying depression, following an earlier retinal detachment and persistent back pain.

No matter. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound Clemons – with his equally huge smile, warm persona, giant spirit and enormous appetite for joy – represented eternal youth to Springsteen’s career-long followers.

“The biggest man you ever seen,” Springsteen would growl and shout like a carnival barker.

Rarely in modern musical history has a band member been so inextricably entwined with the image and art of the main man: Johnnie Johnson (Chuck Berry), Maceo Parker (James Brown), James Burton (Elvis Presley), Mickey Raphael (Willie Nelson) among them.

None were – almost literally – larger than life, though.

Before any E Street Band show, fans would hope for a major ration of dynamic Big Man interludes: alternately soulful, soaring, staccato tenor sax epiphanies that lifted everything.

Even the proverbial roof.

Even when there was no roof.

Everyone knew the run-up and the cues. Clemons, never a showboater or scene-stealer, would stand and deliver. People would go nuts.

His onstage relationship with Springsteen was a reassuring and familial blend of affection, mutual respect and boys-will-be-boys playfulness.

Like the professional defensive lineman he might have become – an auto crash ended his football aspirations in 1968 – Clemons didn’t have to sack the figurative quarterback on every play. He contentedly provided percussion (tambourine, maracas) and some backing vocals until his number was called. Then he was gone.

Every E Street Band recording was quickly assessed for its Clemons Quotient. During the years when Springsteen wandered down different musical paths – no matter how brilliant or rewarding – something was missing.

Clemons recorded solo albums, acted and collaborated with other musicians during the gaps. His presence acted as a kind of regal reassurance.

After Clemons’ loss – following organ player Dan Federici’s death at 58 from melanoma in 2008 – the E Street Band’s road now leads in an uncertain direction. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame would be nice.

Clemons, a native of Norfolk County (now Chesapeake), Va., who was seven years older than Springsteen, isn’t merely the random repository of fuddy-duddy nostalgia or sentimentality.

His last gig was with Lady Gaga.

New Jersey-born Jon Stewart closed “The Daily Show” with a gentle video elegy for Clemons on Monday. The most popular Springsteen selections on Rhapsody this week? All Clemons-powered setpieces: “Jungleland,” “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and “Thunder Road” (1975) and “Dancing in the Dark” (1984).

The first three are from “Born to Run,” Springsteen’s breakthrough masterpiece. The 1975 album is known almost as widely for its iconic black-and-white cover photo of a grinning Springsteen leaning on Clemons’ symbolically supportive shoulder.

The implication was very clear and happily hopeful in the post-Nixon era.

It might seem quaint – actually totally bizarre – now. In the early ’70s, though, mixed-race bands (playing original material, too) had hard times getting booked in New Jersey.

As Clemons – calling himself “C” – wrote in his 2009 memoir (“Big Man, Real Life & Tall Tales,” with Don Reo) that was a consideration (quickly dismissed) when he joined Springsteen’s band (lovingly and soulfully chronicled in “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”).

In the charming, slightly mystifying, book’s preface, Springsteen wrote that the photo lets the album begin “to work its magic. Who are these guys? Where did they come from? What is the joke they are sharing? A friendship and a narrative steeped in the complicated history of America begins to form and there is music already in the air.

“Forty years later, I read this book with the same questions still running through my mind.”

Just like all those precious memories.

On May 3, 1988, Springsteen and the E Street Band were preparing to play their second sold-out show at Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View.

Early arrivals mistakenly were allowed in before the sound check had ended. Springsteen – grubby shirt-tail dangling, big grin in place, strumming an acoustic guitar – was singing Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Then Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” Totally crazy.

To his right stood Clemons, holding his 3-year-old son up to the microphone. Springsteen, who had become a father himself by then, was guiding the Little Man as he sang along with Bruce and dad during “Crying.”

There have been a lot of tears shed since June 12.

It remains – always will – a timeless father-son tableau. A 10-year-old never has forgotten. Nor has a teenager-at-heart.

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Best “Rosalita” Ever?

Bruce Springsteen may have been on the covers of both “Time” and “Newsweek”, but he was positively unknown.  This was half a decade before MTV, long before Reagan legitimized greed and money became more important than music.  The only way to hear the music was to buy it, or to wait for your favorite radio station to play it.  And the stations only played the hits, “Born To Run” was ubiquitous, but “Jungleland” was not.  That was for fans.  Who purchased the long player and went to the show.

And the show was a religious experience unknown to the mainstream.  It wasn’t like you flipped the channels and stumbled upon the E Street Band by mistake.  You had to go out of your way to buy a ticket.  And the show was not about visual pyrotechnics, nothing was on tape, hard drives were not even known yet.  No, all the fireworks emanated from the instruments, the performance itself.

Bruce had to prove it all night.  Every night.  Because that was how you made it.

In the wake of the untimely death of Clarence Clemons I’ve been inundated with links to articles and photographs and videos.  But this one stopped me in my tracks, this one was positively stunning.

Sure, the Big Man was featured.  He wailed.  But Bruce and the rest of the band!  Just watch this clip.  They’re so hot, you’ll be closed even if you never got the Boss previously.

That’s the power of live performance.

Never mind how well-oiled they are.  It’s the joy.  Like they’d rather be nowhere other than here, on stage.  That they want to earn the right to keep on doing this, forever and ever.

Despite the success of “Born To Run”, this was three years later.  The band was almost starting all over again.  Momentum had been lost.  And “Darkness At The Edge Of Town” didn’t yield a hit single.

But you release an album and you go on the road, your hard core fans show up, they drag their friends and you fan the flames of the fire.

When Springsteen plays now, he’s carrying the weight of his career, of your expectations.  Despite making albums for most of the seventies, on some level Springsteen is still new here.  He’s still climbing the ladder.  He’s still got a way to go.

And he’s gonna earn it.

He’s gonna play all night and wear you out.  Showing that he’s more into it than you.

And you’re gonna walk out the door almost speechless.

But the next morning you’re gonna have a smile on your face, you’re gonna tell everybody you know, I WENT TO THE SHOW!

This whole damn gig is on YouTube.  It goes on for hours.

The songs are not old chestnuts, they’re still in their prime.

But my favorite is “Candy’s Room”.

“Darkness” is my favorite album.  Well, tied with “The Wild, the Innocent”, since that’s when I was converted, when I realized this was not some run of the mill act.

And I love “Racing In The Street”.

And when Bruce exclaims in “Streets Of Fire”, you feel his pain.

And the closer, the title track, is positively spooky, you want to spin the album again just to prevent being creeped out.

And that’s when you hear the raucous “Badlands”.

But “Adam Raised A Cain” and “Something In The Night” don’t prepare you for what comes next.

The agitation of Max’s sticks lead to an intimate scene, a boy confessing in his bedroom, within a halo of pixie dust.

Then you’re off on an unexpected roller coaster.  You get all the confidence of a boy turning into a man.  One who believes in himself, one who can get what he wants, what he deserves.

That first kiss puts you on the tilt-a-whirl.  You want more but it seems almost unrealistic.

All the excitement of love, the hope that it’ll continue, the concept of finding someone on your level or above, who you’re gonna win, is in this song.

And I’ve never found a live take with both the intimacy and the excitement of the studio version until now.

Once upon a time there was no greater profession than rock star.  Someone who wrote his own rules and played by them.  Someone whose only goal was to reach deep inside himself in the hope that you’d connect.  The money came last.  You threw cash at him or her like you place bills in the collection plate, it was a religious experience, you wanted to be saved.

Clarence Clemons may be gone, but if you watch these videos, you’ll be saved.  I promise.

“Candy’s Room”:

Bruce Springsteen – Capitol Theatre Passaic NJ 1978:

Bob Lefsetz

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Clarence Clemons: An Appreciation

Pop & Hiss

The L.A. Times music blog

Post a CommentJune 20, 2011 |

Clarence Clemons with Bruce Sports Arena 2009
I’ve been listening to and going to see Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band for more than 35 years now, but it wasn’t until after word came down Saturday of the death of group member Clarence Clemons that it hit me that in all that time, I’ve never given much thought to Clemons’ sax playing.

That’s not to say I didn’t long recognize his central role in that exceptional outfit, his place as musical foil and compadre-on-the-road-of-life for the band’s leader, or that I never appreciated his inestimable contributions to so many cornerstone songs in the band’s long and deep repertoire.

The revelation of Clemons’ passing is the crystallization of how the signature blazing sound of tenor sax work never spent much time in my head—it always went straight to my gut, my heart, my soul.

I never met the man, but through countless Springsteen shows I’ve witnessed, along with the legacy of the band’s recordings, like so many other music fans I considered Clemons and the rest of the E Street Band to be part of my extended family, brothers in musical arms.

Springsteen himself, guitarists Steve Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren, keyboardists Roy Bittan and the late Danny Federici (and, early on, David Sancious), bassist Gary W. Tallent and drummer Max Weinberg each at various times have left me in awe of their mastery of their instruments in a way that Clemons never did.

I’m a sax player too, and like Clemons, I’ve been playing since I was a kid.  There have been a lot of players I’ve admired over the years (Lester Young, Stan Getz), many I’ve been daunted by (Charlie Parker, Don Menza), but none I ever felt more of a spiritual bond with than Clemons.

In part that’s because he came not out of the school of jazz that has produced so many technically astonishing players, but from the school of “honkers and shouters”: R&B and soul sax players such as Big Jay McNeely, Sam “The Man” Taylor, Lee Allen, Junior Walker and Clemons’ original role model, King Curtis. As others have accurately noted, Clemons was the E Street Band’s looming connection to the African American foundation of rock music that was so influential on all the band members.

The wondrous thing about Clemons was that everything he played, in solos or accompanying his bandmates, was astonishingly simple from a technical viewpoint, which surfaced in the’70s in striking (and, to me, welcome) contrast to the more sophisticated styles of the likes of Tom Scott and David Sanborn, who were ever-present in studio sessions at that time and since.

Sometimes, as on “Cadillac Ranch,” Clemons would essentially mirror the song’s melody or main guitar riff; in others, “Born to Run” and Jungleland being sterling examples, he fashioned indelibly melodic parts that became essential limbs of songs without which they’d be crippled.

In “Badlands” Springsteen sang of the yearning for something beyond the meager rewards of ordinary life: “I don’t give a damn for just the in-betweens/Honey I want the heart, I want the soul/I want control right now.” When Clemons enters the conversation after Bruce’s guitar solo a few seconds later, he conjures up the sound of the heart and soul unfettered by earthly worries, all in the impossibly short space of eight bars.

More than once, Clemons’ solos were positioned at the end of a song, rather than stereotypically in the middle, Springsteen’s tacit acknowledgement that having expressed himself in words, Clemons’ job was to express the rest of the feeling that couldn’t be contained in words.  Think of “Thunder Road” after Springsteen sings “It’s a town full of losers and I’m pulling out of here to win” and Clemons answers with a bristling ascending melody that pushes the lyric into the clouds.

The first track I wanted to hear after learning of Clemons’ death on Saturday was “Sherry Darling”  from “The River.” For me it’s his perfect expression of unbridled joy, and it’s hard not to think that Springsteen dreamed up this rock tango in large part just to give Clemons an excuse to blow so happily. Whenever I hear it, my spirit dances, even in situations where my feet must resist.

For similar reasons, the instrumental Paradise by the C was always a much-anticipated concert highlight when it was a regular part of E Street Band tours of the ’70s, with its swinging echoes of Gary U.S. Bond’s “Quarter to Three,” itself a Springsteen staple on the road that always gave Clemons room to exercise those ample lungs of his.

And those lungs? Bruce sang in “The Promised Land” about the twister that would “blow away the dreams that tear you apart/blow away the dreams that break your heart”; with his sax in hand, Clarence was that twister.

How or whether the E Street Band can continue without him is unknown.  When Neil Young’s longtime steel guitarist Ben Keith died last year, Young estimated that there’s about 70% of his repertoire he feels he can’t play without Keith there at his side.

It’s not hard to imagine Springsteen feeling the same way about attempting Born to Run, Jungleland, Prove it All Night, Badlands, Rosalita and so many other songs with all the E Streeters except the Big Man along.

The band has continued after the loss three years ago of Federici, so maybe there’s a way to do it, but it will take a lot of thought.  Scratch that. Considering who we’re talking about, such matters should be left entirely to the realm of feeling.

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Clarence Clemons Obituary

Clarence Clemons (AP Photo)

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Clarence Clemons, the larger-than-life saxophone player for the E Street Band who was one of the key influences in Bruce Springsteen’s life and music through four decades, has died. He was 69.

Clemons was hospitalized about a week ago after suffering a stroke at his home in Singer Island, Fla. He died of complications from the stroke, spokeswoman Marilyn Laverty said Saturday.

Known as the Big Man for his imposing 6-foot-5-inch, 270-plus pound frame, Clemons and his ever-present saxophone spent much of his life with The Boss, and his booming saxophone solos became a signature sound for the E Street Band on many key songs, including “Jungleland,” a triumphant solo he spent 16 hours perfecting, and “Born To Run.”

In recent years, Clemons had been slowed by health woes. He endured major spinal surgery in January 2010 and, at the 2009 Super Bowl, Clemons rose from a wheelchair to perform with Springsteen after double knee replacement surgery.

But his health seemed to be improving. In May, he performed with Lady Gaga on the season finale of “American Idol,” and performed on two songs on her “Born This Way” album.

Clemons said in a 2010 interview with The Associated Press then that he was winning his battles — including severe, chronic pain and post-surgical depression. His sense of humor helped.

“Of all the surgeries I’ve had, there’s not much left to operate on. I am totally bionic,” he said.

“God will give you no more than you can handle,” he said in the interview. “This is all a test to see if you are really ready for the good things that are going to come in your life. All this pain is going to come back and make me stronger.

An original member — and the oldest member — of the E Street Band, Clemons also performed with the Grateful Dead, the Jerry Garcia Band, and Ringo Starr’s All Star Band. He recorded with a wide range of artists including Aretha Franklin, Roy Orbison and Jackson Browne. He also had his own band called the Temple of Soul.

The stage “always feels like home. It’s where I belong,” Clemons, a former youth counselor, said after performing at a Hard Rock Cafe benefit for Home Safe, a children’s charity, in 2010.

Born in Norfolk, Va., Clemons was the grandson of a Baptist minister and began playing the saxophone when he was 9.

“Nobody played instruments in my family. My father got that bug and said he wants his son to play saxophone. I wanted an electric train for Christmas, but he got me a saxophone. I flipped out,” he said in a 1989 interview with the AP.

He was influenced by R&B artists such as King Curtis and Junior Walker. But his dreams originally focused on football. He played for Maryland State College, and was to try out for the Cleveland Browns when he got in a bad car accident that made him retire from the sport for good.

His energies then focused on music.

In 1971, Clemons was playing with Norman Seldin & the Joyful Noise when he heard about rising singer-songwriter named Springsteen. The two hit it off immediately and Clemons officially joined the E Street Band in 1973 with the release of the debut album “Greetings from Asbury Park.”

Clemons emerged as one of the most critical members of the E Street Band for different reasons. His burly frame would have been intimidating if not for his bright smile and endearing personality that charmed fans.

“It’s because of my innocence,” he said in a 2003 AP interview. “I have no agenda — just to be loved. Somebody said to me, ‘Whenever somebody says your name, a smile comes to their face.’ That’s a great accolade. I strive to keep it that way.”

But it was his musical contributions on tenor sax that would come to define the E Street Band sound.

“Since 1973 the Springsteen/Clemons partnership has reaped great rewards and created insightful, high energy rock & roll,” declared Don Palmer in Down Beat in 1984. “Their music, functioning like the blues from which it originated, chronicled the fears, aspirations, and limitations of suburban youth. Unlike many musicians today, Springsteen and Clemons were more interested in the heart and substance rather than the glamour of music.”

In a 2009 interview, Clemons described his deep bond with Springsteen, saying: “It’s the most passion that you have without sex.”

“It’s love. It’s two men — two strong, very virile men — finding that space in life where they can let go enough of their masculinity to feel the passion of love and respect and trust,” he added.

Clemons continued to perform with the band for the next 12 years, contributing his big, distinctive big sound to the albums, “The Wild, The Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle,” ”Born to Run,” ”Darkness on the Edge of Town, “The River” and “Born in the USA.” But four years after Springsteen experienced the blockbuster success of “Born in the USA” and toured with his group, he decided to disband the E Street Band.

“There were a few moments of tension,” the saxophonist recalled in a 1995 interview. “You’ve been together 18, 19 years. It’s like your wife coming to you: ‘I want a divorce.’ You start wondering why? Why? But you get on with your life.”

During the breaks, Clemons continued with solo projects, including a 1985 vocal duet with Browne on the single “You’re a Friend of Mine” and saxophone work on Franklin’s 1985 hit single “Freeway of Love.” He released his own albums, toured, and even sang on some songs.

Clemons also made several television and movie appearances over the years, including Martin Scorsese’s 1977 musical, “New York, New York, in which he played a trumpet player.

The break with Springsteen and the E Street Band didn’t end his relationship with either Springsteen or the rest of the band members, nor would it turn out to be permanent. By 1999 they were back together for a reunion tour and the release of “The Rising.”

But the years took a toll on Clemons’ body, and he had to play through the pain of surgeries and other health woes.

“It takes a village to run the Big Man — a village of doctors,” Clemons told The Associated Press in a phone interview in 2010. “I’m starting to feel better; I’m moving around a lot better.”

He published a memoir, “Big Man: Real Life and Tall Tales,” in 2009 and continued to perform.

He is the second member of the E Street Band to pass away: In 2008, Danny Federici, the keyboardist for the band, died at age 58 of melanoma.

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Springsteen Pays Tribute to Clarence at RNR Hall of Fame Induction

When he was inducted  into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, Springsteen singled out Clemons at the close of his speech. “You want to be like him but you can’t,” Springsteen said. “The night I met Clarence, he got up on stage (and) a sound came out of his horn that seemed to rattle the glasses behind the bar, and threatened to blow out the back wall. … But there was something else, something that happened when we stood side by side. Some energy, some unspoken story. … He always lifted me up. Way, way up. Together we told a story of the possibilities of friendship, a story older than the ones that I was writing, and a story I could never have told without him at my side. I want to thank you, Big Man, and I love you so much.”

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