Tag Archive: E Street Band

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.”

Born to Run

Bruce Springsteen – Born to Run – 8/25/1975

I’m not much of a patriot. I’m glad I live in America and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else, and I also believe in our system of government (although that’s pretty hard right now…), but I don’t go in for supporting irrational things just because that the way we do thing in ‘Murica. I also recognize that life in America is no more legitimate than life in another country. It may be easier or more privileged, but a tribesman in Uganda or a monk on Nepal probably doesn’t enjoy his life less because he’s not living it in the United States.

But I still have some artifacts of the American experience, and I like having them. Barbeques, the 4th of July, the flag, baseball, church on Sunday mornings – they’re not particularly patriotic things, but they’re common to a lot of Americans’ lives. If nothing else, they lend a sense of national identity, which is a good thing. And for me, nothing captures what it means to be an American better than the music of Bruce Springsteen. Say what you want, but America is Bruce’s town.

Bruce and his music was just one of those constants in my life, and it was from a very early age. Bruce represents a kind of American paragon. He pulled himself up by his bootstraps, struggled doggedly for success and paid his dues, and has a humble attitude about stardom. He’s comfortable in the spotlight, but doesn’t trash hotel rooms or do copious lines of coke like more decadent rock stars. And more than that, his lyrics typically deal with real and common concerns like getting a job, urban decay, feeding your family, and poverty – and he gives you a sense of hope about those things, not a spirit of despair.

The song “Thunder Road,” which opens his 1975 breakthrough album Born to Run, contains the spirit of “we can make it if we run” Americanism in a glorious Platonic form. It’s simply the narrative of an ordinary guy trying to convince an ordinary girl to leave it all behind, hop in his car and believe in the “magic in the night.” Its gorgeous piano riff and blazing saxophone endgame, as well as Bruce’s particular gift for soaring vocal histrionics, make you believe that anything is possible if you just have faith, gas in the tank, and two lanes of blacktop.

Like so many American musicians, he was first inspired to pick up a guitar when he saw Elvis Presley on T.V. when he was 7. He had the thirst for success and inflated optimism about his future that befits a red-blooded American. When Marion Vineyard agreed to sponsor his musical career to get it off the ground, he promised her would make it big, and she believed him.

He played in many venues all up and down the north Atlantic coast, including the famous Café Wha? in Greenwich Village, before he was 18. Early on, he played in a three-piece called Earth. Though the timing is right, this was most likely not the Earth that Ozzy and Tony’s band heard about, deciding to change their name to Black Sabbath. A somewhat less patriotic but fully human story is of when he was 18 and called for induction to fight in the Vietnam War. He decided before he got on the bus, as he says, “I ain’t goin’.” He didn’t exactly draft-dodge, since he DID actually show up, but he torpedoed his chances by acting crazy and failing his physical – he got a 4F, which basically means the army wouldn’t take you if you had an American flag tattooed on your crotch.

Anyway, his blend of country town optimism and hard-as-steel stubbornness paid off, because by 1975 he had a great band behind him (the indomitable E Street Band), two solid records, and a growing reputation. But he was cooking something up, getting ready for a blast of all-or-nothing rock and roll in Born to Run. He was no longer satisfied with simply entertaining people; he wanted to change people’s lives.

Next: The Big Man.