An Appreciation: Clarence Clemons
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.
Photo of Clarence Clemons, left, and Bruce Springsteen at the Los Angeles Sports Arena in 2010. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times