Clarence Clemons, 1942 - 2011

Clarence Clemons, 1942 – 2011

The E Street Band had started gelling with the release of Bruce Springsteen’s first album, Greetings From Asbury Park, but Born to Run was the first album where they were actually named that. It features many interesting people, not the least of which are Patti Scialfa and Steven Van Zandt. They are a near-perfect example of a personality-based band, with Bruce being the brightest star of the bunch. However, always at Bruce’s side was a presence that loomed very large, both figuratively and literally, tenor saxophonist Clarence Clemons.

When it comes to brass instruments, I’m pretty wary about them being used in rock music. Oftentimes they end up bringing chintz and lowering the level of seriousness. Just look at the ska renaissance of the late ‘90s. No one took bands like Reel Big Fish or Save Ferris even close to seriously, which is why the fad died out after just a few years. The disposable nature of those bands is due to the song-and-dance, isn’t-this-funny nature of the music they played, and I’m glad it’s gone now (except Five Iron Frenzy – those guys rocked).

But Clarence Clemons was different. His sax didn’t lend jokiness or cheese to the music or make you believe it less. Quite the opposite, actually – you believed in it more. When he comes in with his solo on “She’s the One,” the force and fervency the whole band puts forth bowls me over every time, and Clarence is leading the charge. Somehow, the overwhelming power the E Street Band has down to a science is amplified and glorified by Clarence’s sax.

Clarence was nicknamed “The Big Man,” and one glance at him makes it easy to see why. He’s even referred to by that name in the lyrics to “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” Somehow, tenor saxophonists just seem to be better the more thick-bodied they are. A lot of air needs to go through that brass, and the more you can hold the better.

One could say the E Street Band was like a well-oiled machine, but that simile would ring false. It was a tight band, no doubt, and the music they made had (and still has) a cohesion and energy like no other band. But it was more like a family. Each member knew its place and worked its hardest in the context of the band itself, but also felt free to work elsewhere and do his/her own thing. And at the end of the day, there was no doubt where he/she belonged.

Bruce was the leader, providing direction and a source of energy. Clarence, however, was Bruce’s perfect foil. Visually, they were almost opposite. Bruce was white, scrawny, wiry, talkative, energetic, and prone to give into his passions. Clarence was big, black, impassive, quiet, calm, and on a very even keel. Bruce was the first thing you’d notice about the E Street Band, but Clarence was always there, and could always be counted on to be there.

Clarence left this life after a stroke in 2011, at the age of 69. When he died, the music world lost something it simply can’t get back. So did the E Street Band. To their credit, they didn’t even try. And amazingly, the band’s power, passion and let’s-give-it-all-we’ve-got attitude weren’t diminished at all by Clarence’s absence. Wrecking Ball, Bruce’s first album since Clarence’s death, was one of the brightest spots of the music world in 2012, and here’s why: they were doing it to honor Clarence’s memory. In the liner notes for Wrecking Ball, Bruce writes: “Clarence Clemons doesn’t leave the E Street Band when he dies – he leaves it when we die.”

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