Clarence Clemons (1942-2011)

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Clarence Clemons and Bruce Springsteen on the cover of Born to Run (1975).
Clarence Clemons and Bruce Springsteen on the cover of Born to Run (1975).

When the change was made uptown

And the Big Man joined the band

-Bruce Springsteen, “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”

It is painful to think that Clarence Clemons’ sax will never be heard again. I only saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band play once, on the 22nd of March 2003 at the Sydney Cricket Ground. The experience was simultaneously unforgettable and disappointing, both for the audience and, I would imagine, the band, who have not ventured so far south since. The best efforts of Springsteen, Clemons and the rest were thwarted by the SCG’s horrific acoustics and a sound system which, whether due to interference from eastern suburbs cell phones or gremlins, repeatedly conked out entirely. The silver lining was a very special treat, a big, shaggy rendition of “Rosalita,” the only time it was played on the Australian part of their tour. During the sudden intervals of silence when the machinery broke down, the band kept playing, either in the hope that the malfunction would be brief, or because the huge E Street sound, like a locomotive, takes some time to come to a complete stop. Clemons, of course, who needed no amplifier, was so intrinsic to that sound that you anticipated his roaring solos even when he wasn’t playing.

Those solos were the symbol but hardly the entirety of what made Clemons as important to the band as Springsteen himself. If E Street were a city, say Paris, Springsteen would be Baron Haussmann, the other band members the urban fabric of solid limestone apartments and Clemons Notre Dame or Beaubourg, the monument simultaneously within and apart from its surroundings. The best Springsteen songs have a strong structure, even when played live, and required for their architecture the big man and his sax, just as on stage the propulsive Springsteen always played off Clemons’ lapidary stillness. I have no doubt E Street will keep on playing, but Clemons is irreplaceable.

Clarence Clemons leaves behind a lot of great music. I rate “Jungleland” both as his finest solo and, not coincidentally, one of Springsteen’s best moments as a lyricist. Clemons’ sax becomes an articulation of the moment beyond words; Springsteen’s lyrics cannot quite say everything that the song needs to say. Clemons takes over about a third of the song’s ten minute running time (it’s longer live), and then Springsteen gets his second wind, with the especially beautiful lyrics which begin “Beneath the city two hearts beat…”. There is no better example, other than Born to Run’s famous cover, of the way Clemons enlivened Springsteen even as he drew energy from him. Whether heard live or in the studio version, the “Jungleland” solo defines Clemons as the consummate rock and roll saxophonist, the standout member of a team. We are lucky the band recorded, on CD and DVD, a cracker of a live version during their ten show stand at Madison Square Garden in the summer of 2000. The Live in New York City album ends with “If I Should Fall Behind,” a song absolutely made by Clemons’ basso profundo singing voice. His lyric, hesitant and powerful, seems to contain the weight of the band’s decades together. Though we perhaps remember him first as a soloist, Clemons’ highest calling was to be a part of the joyous sound the band made together.

The late equivalent, or perhaps counterpoint, to “Jungleland” is Clemons’ playing on “American Skin (41 Shots)” a song Springsteen wrote in 2000 about the shooting of the unarmed Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo by the NYPD. Like “Jungleland,” “American Skin” climaxes with Clemons’ sax, but this time his solo is quiet and reflective, summarizing and concluding the song’s raging elegy. The sax again speaks beyond words, but Bruce chimes in with no coda this time — the last note belongs to Clemons.

I listen to less rock and roll than I used to; like cinema, it always seems to be dying. Even though their recent work — new songs and, in concert, total transformations of old ones — is as good as ever, what Springsteen and his E Street mates do is inexorably laced with nostalgia. When they stop playing, and I hope they keep rocking for a very long time, music will lose something it isn’t going to get back. Sui generis, they’re nevertheless the last of their kind.

The best rock and roll is able to distill ideas which are sometimes hidden in more complex music, whether Bach, Wagner or Coltrane. When the E Street Band play, performer, performance and music are united to the point where none can stand alone or be replicated by anyone else at any other moment. Clemons’ sax solos existed in a kind of eternal present which is always passing out of view. The band will play on, but how can anyone ever play “Jungleland” again?

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