Remembering Clarence Clemons

Clarence Clemons

“I’m all alone,” Bruce Springsteen howls on 1975′s “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” “I’m on my own.” Bruce feels trapped; his music’s going nowhere, he’s got his “back to the wall.” But then: “the change was made uptown, and the Big Man joined the band.” All of a sudden, things are looking up; together, Bruce and the Big Man are going to “bust this city in half.”

“Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” may not be literal truth… it might not even make much sense… but the crucial kernel of that story is this: Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band wasn’t whole until Big Man Clarence Clemons arrived. Drummers, guitar players and wives have come and gone, but Clarence has stood next to Bruce from the very first record (the only other musician who can make that claim: bass player Gary Tallent).

As of 7:00 PM on June 18, Mr. Clemons passed away due to complications from a stroke he’d suffered earlier in the week. As someone who’s been greatly affected by the music of the E-Street Band, I’d like to take this chance to look back at a few of the songs that wouldn’t have been half as special without the contributions of this (literally) larger-than-life icon whose work has touched so many.

Santa Claus is Coming to Town
For many of the musically uninitiated, the words “Bruce Springsteen” immediately call to mind the Boss’ interpretation of this Christmas classic — so much so that, when Springsteen and his band played the Bonnaroo Music Festival in 2009, the crowd demanded he play this song, despite Bruce’s protestations that “it’s too fuckin’ hot for Santa.” Clarence contributes probably the most memorable aspect of Springsteen’s recording, not with his saxophone but with his bass-y echo of the last line of the chorus. “You better be good, for goodness’ sake” has never sounded better than when it was intoned by the Big Man.

The Edge of Glory
Barring the release of any secret E-Street recordings, Clarence’s contributions to Lady Gaga’s latest record will go down as his final work in the world of pop music. “Edge of Glory” introduced Clemons to millions of new fans and saw his signature sax sound return to the top 40 for the first time since 1984′s “Dancing in the Dark.” It’s sad, yet appropriate, that Clarence’s final appearance comes on a song about death; Gaga wrote “Edge of Glory” about the passing of her grandfather. Think what you want about this pop goddess — Born This Way is a major contender for the top release of 2011, and a significant part of that’s due to Clarence’s contributions. This record is something special. Thanks, Big Man.

Born to Run
The song that’s become something of Bruce Springsteen’s anthem features two of Clarence’s sax solos — well, maybe 1.5 of them — in the song’s whirlwind breaks. “Born to Run” transitions effortlessly from verse to chorus to bridge to breakdown several times, climaxing in Bruce’s “one, two, three, four” third verse count that leads to what may be the only time in rock history it seems like a whole recording actually gets louder. What would this song be without Clarence’s solos filling those breaks? Born to Run is certainly Clarence’s signature work, and this is a big part of the reason why.

Thunder Road
Another piece of evidence for Clarence’s supremacy on Born to Run: the stunning outro of “Thunder Road,” the album’s first track. Call me crazy, but I think the single greatest moment in all of recorded rock music comes in this song’s climax — first Bruce’s cry that “it’s a town full of losers and we’re pulling out of here to win,” then Max Weinberg’s impressive drum fill, and finally Clarence’s melodic sax grooves as he takes us out of the song and into the record that shaped Bruce’s career. Clarence’s outro bridges “Thunder Road” — in which two average people try to escape their situation — with the rest of Born to Run, a record that rewrites the plight of the average man as epic poetry.

Jungleland
The ultimate statement of Born to Run‘s epic poetry of course comes in the record’s 10-minute closer “Jungleland.” This is the definitive Clarence Clemons solo… all two and a half minutes of it. The story goes that Bruce and Clarence spent 16 hours in the studio perfecting the solo; Bruce would sing Clarence the notes he wanted, and Clarence would commit them to the record. Without Clarence’s impassioned playing, “Jungleland” would be nothing; his stunning playing truly allows this album to reach its lofty aspirations. In concerts, Clarence’s spotlight here would bring houses down. If you miss the Big Man, just turn on this song and get swept away into a world where gang fights and teen romance take on the importance of Homer’s Odyssey. That’s the magical realm that Born to Run opens up for us, and Bruce Springsteen couldn’t have done it without Clarence Clemons at his side.

tags: bruce springsteen, clarence clemons, lady gaga

  • colby

    Well done, Eric. You put this together really well. But I’m sure you understand why I wish you’d never done it…

  • Anonymous

    Thanks, man. I think losing Clarence is second only to losing Bruce himself. The classic E-Street era is gone now. At least we got to see Jungleland together once. 

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