Sunday, 19 June 2011


People forget how frenetic Bruce Springsteen was in the early days of the E Street Band, which is why the Big Man, Clarence Clemons was so essential; on stage he provided an anchor for Springsteen's antics as he dashed and jumped across the stage, only to make it back (most of the time) just in time to hit the mike, and Clemons, at just the right time. He provided another sort of anchor, too, because Bruce wrote serious songs and often it was Clarence who reminded him, the songs themselves, and us that this was rock and roll.

Musically, Clemons did for Springsteen what King Curtis did in Memphis, or Junior Walker in Motown, providing that anchor, but also the raw squawking reminder that there is more to life than teenager-satisfying guitar solos and hip-hop bottom.

But possibly the most important thing was Clemons looked just right to unify a ragtag bunch of white kids from the Jersey shore. Although people forget that the E Street Band originally included another black musician, the talented pianist David Sancious. Sancious was in some ways even more of a professor than The Professor, Roy Bittan. They both provided elegance, trills weaving in and out underneath the big sax (and sometimes organ) that shared the lead with guitar. Think of the Band's Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel doing the same, and think too of how Springsteen used Danny Federici playing glockenspiel, even in 'Born To Run'. Sancious moved on to more serious (and less star-making) musical pursuits, while Clemons, who never seemed to move on to bigger things (unless you count Lady Gaga, which I can't) always seemed to fit best as Springsteen's sideman, Bill Cosby to his Robert Culp. It's an American stereotype that goes back to Chingnachook and Deerslayer. The relationship is made iconic on the cover of Born To Run (recently voted one of the top 10 ever by Rolling Stone readers) with Springsteen seeming taking a break and resting as he leans on the Big Man, who's playing up a storm, apparently giving him the crucial something he needs.

I first saw the E Streeters in the summer of 1975 at Tanglewood, before Born To Run broke. I'd been directed there way by my friend Berms, who came from Toms River and insisted Greetings From Asbury Park was the greatest record he'd ever heard. It wasn't, but The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle soon jumped into my consideration, and while I lived with Berms in Washington he scared away a woman named Adriana I was dating by calling her Rosalita. Many years later I picked up a bootleg of Springsteen's 'farewell' concert, broadcast on WMMR in Philly from the Main Point, and it is one of my all-time favourite bootlegs. It's from just before that Tanglewood concert, and it's full of energy and promise and never sounds stale. Oddly, it's just become available legitimately, which may be the fate of all my favourite bootlegs—Neil Young's International Harvesters was another of my treasures and that one's just come out too.

The best of Clemons' E Street solos may be the one on Jungleland, but the one on Rosalita may be the one that expresses best his role in the E Street Band: it kicks, it drives, and it restates the theme, which is the theme of so much of Springsteen's music, of salvation through music. He's the second E Streeter to die, after Federici, and he was 69, a bit older than the rest of the band, but it still makes me feel old to think he's gone. I'm not sure how they could tour now without him, but I sure as shit would like to hear a tribute album, with other sax players taking his parts. RIP Big Man.


David Harrison said...

A terrible loss, and another heartbreaking reminder that Bruce and the E Street Band aren't going to be around forever. As an avid fan since the days of The River, I feel even more privileged that I saw Clarence live on several occasions and got to hear that peerless, spine-tingling solo in Jungleland - although if pushed to choose a favourite "sax song" I'd probably go for The Way or Drive All Night. RIP Big Man.

Paul Birchard said...

Great tribute to Clarence Clemons - Thank you.

Just the other day - as Synchronicity and Cosmic-titude would have it, I decided to *finally* learn the lyrics to Bruce Springsteen's song "Savin' Up" which was recorded by Clarence Clemons and the Red Bank Rockers - I love his version of this song. And I used to play it on my radio show "American Eye" on Radio Clyde back in the 1980's...

So I was probably playing and singing up a storm on this timely (for the Big Man) song - at the time he was passing over...Its lyric is timeless good advice for all of us!

Here's Clarence Clemons singing and blowing on the song: