Magic with Springsteen
Goodbye, Big Man: Clarence Clemons, dead at 69, was always born to run
No one is indestructible, but damn it if Clarence Clemons didn’t seem that way.
Even as news filtered in about his stroke and the serious nature of it earlier this week, my mind kept travelling back to the first time I saw him live. It was back in 1999 in Philadelphia, in one of the first shows performed by Bruce Springsteen with the reunited E Street Band.
Even from my nosebleed seats, Clarence’s stage presence was undeniable. There were songs when he was just banging on his tambourine, and yet you couldn’t take your eyes off him. As the show progressed, it came time for The Boss to introduce the band, which he did during “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” his brilliant piece of self-mythology in which he and Clemons took on the alter-egos of Bad Scooter and The Big Man.
He introduced the band one by one during the bridge, and, of course, he saved Clarence for last.
Bruce began hopping slowly across the stage to where his sax man stood, as if the Big Man was a magnetic force pulling everything not nailed down him. Right when Springsteen got to him, the band kicked back in, Bruce sang the line, “When the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band,” and Clarence blasted away with a saxophone riff that seemed to shake the rafters. The crowd erupted.
That enduring image flashed like lightning into my head when I heard that Clemons passed away Saturday at the age of 69 of complications from the aforementioned stroke. One of the hardest parts of being a rock and roll fan is the bewilderment you feel when immortals die, and Clarence was as immortal as they come.
Bruce always played up the magic surrounding his association with Clemons, right from their famous first meeting when Clarence supposedly came into a bar as a gust of wind blew the door right off the place. All of the fantastical tales the singer would tell during his inimitable stage patter between songs somehow seemed perfectly believable when you looked at the towering saxophone player standing alongside nodding his head.
But Clemons was more than just an imposing presence. His impact can be found in the work. It’s in the breathless solo that energizes Springsteen’s magnum opus, “Born To Run.” It’s there in the jazzy solo that sends out Bruce’s biggest hit, “Dancing In The Dark.” From the joyous honk of “Rosalita” to the mournful moan of “Independence Day,” all the way to the glorious wail found in the coda of “Kingdom Of Days,” a gem from the band’s last studio album, Clarence is there, doing the work.
Springsteen has always recognized the importance of his bandmate. It’s Clemons on the cover of BornTo Run with the Boss, Bruce literally leaning on him as they share an inside joke that all their fans somehow seemed to get. The Springsteen sound wouldn’t exist without Clarence’s saxophone, and the Springsteen stage show wouldn’t have been the same without Clarence as a seemingly unfazed foil for Bruce’s wild antics.
When I got out of work after hearing about Clemons’ death, I quickly turned on E Street Radio on Sirius XM in the car. Sure enough, Dave Marsh, Springsteen’s biographer and close friend, delivered the news in somber tones, leading into the opening violin strains of “Jungleland.” Here it was, Clarence’s finest moment on record, which means, by definition really, that it’s the finest moment for the saxophone as an instrument in the history of rock and roll.
As I listened to that majestic solo, a heartfelt benediction for a city of lost souls, chills formed and a tear hung stubbornly at the bottom of one eye. I felt like every E Street Band fan, still reeling from the death of Dan Federici a few years back, and now this, could identify with those poets in the song who “wind up wounded, not even dead.” And I grunted and howled along with the wordless cries Bruce lets loose in the final bars, a futile attempt at catharsis.
It turns out that The King of the World, The Master of Disaster, The Big Man Clarence Clemons was vulnerable after all. Where the hell does that leave the rest of us?