Big Man is no more. Clarence Clemons, a towering presence both in E Street Band mythology and in the distinct sound of Bruce Springsteen’s best and biggest records, has died, at 69. It’s an incredibly sad day for all lovers of rock ‘n’ roll, and for lovers of a rock attitude that combined energy and good humor with the aura of coolness and unflappable dignity that Clemons brought to the scene. With the loss of Clemons, a mere two years after Danny Federici passed away, the E Street Band – arguably the best backing band in rock ‘n’ roll history, and home to a handful of musicians who managed to break out of their backing band status to become stars in their own right, like Clemons, guitarists Nils Lofgren and Steven Van Zandt and drummer Max Weinberg – it’s almost hard to see where the band could go from here. If one person personified the E Street Band, it was Clarence Clemons.
I’ve been meaning to write about my relationship with Bruce Springsteen’s music for years, and when I heard the news that Clemons had died, I was actually writing a post about My Hometown, the first Springsteen song I learned the lyrics to, and probably my favorite to this day. It’s inevitable that when famous people who meant something special to you die, your writing about them ends up being more about you than about them. But the presence of Clarence Clemons is hatched onto my memory as an eye-opener to the wonderful world of rock music older than myself. It was my mother, a devoted Springsteen fan since Born To Run, who insisted that, when we took the leap from music cassettes to CDs, one of the first CDs we would buy was that Springsteen Greatest Hits compilation that had come out a couple years earlier. At the time (I was about 12) I only knew Springsteen from Streets of Philadelphia, but mom insisted on buying the compilation for us, and teaching us to love her favorite song, The River, in particular. I didn’t fall for The River immediately, but there were so many others, from Hungry Heart and Dancing In The Dark, over Badlands and Atlantic City, to My Hometown, Born To Run and Thunder Road. I loved it instantly, partly because it was simply great, and partly because I felt mature for liking something that meant so much to my mom. It was like a seal of approval. And it was my mom who made me understand how important The E Street Band was to Bruce’s music. In the booklet that accompanied the album, there was this great group photo of the band, with Clarence as the obvious center of attention, as he was the one your attention gravitated toward when you opened the famous Born To Run cover. You didn’t have to know much about the band’s history and merits to get that Clarence was a cornerstone.
It’s a sentimental anecdote, I know, but that sense of what Clarence Clemons brought to The E Street Band, of course strengthened by what I later learned about the band’s mythology (his Big Man role) and internal dynamics, has formed my image of him to this day. Obviously, it has to do with how his signature is heard, indeed felt, on classic tracks like Born To Run, Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out and Thunder Road. But I think some credit must be given to his very physical presence. The man himself was impressive, but it also had to do with his instrument. Not only was the saxophone an unusual instrument for a rock band, I’ve always considered it a sensual instrument. It both looks and sounds sensual, an interesting contrast to Clarence, a massively built, steely man, albeit wih a jovial smile. And yet, he was able to take the E Street sound in completely different directions, always while taking just enough of the attention to be memorable, but never stealing Bruce’s thunder. In this respect, too, he was a perfect gentleman.
With regard to Bruce’s total output, I guess you could call me an E Street fan as much as I’m a Bruce fan. Which is just another way of saying that, like most people, I think Bruce was at his best in the core E Street years, between 1975’s Born To Run and Born In The USA in 1984. It’s not a rigid split – Tunnel of Love (1987), the opposite of a traditional E Street record, is among my favorites, and some late E Street stuff, like Magic (2007), has been great as well – but in those years, you won’t find one album that is not a monumental masterpiece. Fundamentally, it’s about the energy and attitude that the band added to Bruce’s abilities as a storyteller. Don’t get me wrong: I like much of Bruce’s more restrained material too (Nebraska, The Ghost of Tom Joad, Devils & Dust), but even these songs get better by the E Street treatment. There’s much to commend about the original Youngstown, but I much prefer this hard-hitting performance. Same goes for the Tom Joad version with Tom Morello from the Magic tour, or the rougher version of Nebraska‘s excellent Johnny 99. These may not be the most obvious examples to highlight in a tribute to Clarence Clemons, but they still speak to how The E Street Band has always been a versatile group, capable of bringing their distinct sound to whatever songs Bruce needed them to use their magic on.
When I saw Bruce and the band live in my hometown two years ago, my expectations were so high (and the sound technician so incompetent) that I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. Now, of course, I’m grateful I got to see them while Clarence was still with us. His age was starting to show, and he wasn’t as integral to the on-stage chemistry as he seemed to be back in the day, but when you’ve been pretty much the coolest guy in rock for over thirty years, you’re entitled to let others do some of the heavy lifting for you (Nils Lofgren really stepped up). For a good feel of how the E Street Band sounded on that tour, I highly recommend the Live In Hyde Park DVD that was released last year.
Before he died, Clarence also managed to perform on a few tracks for Lady Gaga’s sophomore album. I’m not sure if they will take on the significance of Michael Brecker playing with Dire Straits, but if it can get some Monsters to check out his main gig, he will have done us all a favor. Plus, it means you could be paying tribute to Big Man, whether you’re listening to Hair or Thunder Road. Just take a moment to remember him.