Clarence Clemons wasn’t born in New Jersey, but he might as well have been. Those of us who hail from the Garden State are used to the “What exit?” jokes, but truth to tell, we can identify those exits by the great musicians who lived in those towns off the Garden State Parkway or New Jersey Turnpike. One such towering talent was our favorite adopted son Clarence, who had an early job counseling troubled children in Newark (Parkway Exit 145), participated in one of his first recording sessions in Plainfield (Turnpike Exit 10), and met a certain Bruce Springsteen in Asbury Park (Parkway Exit 103) in 1971, joining the formative E Street Band roughly one year later. As they say, the rest is history. But it’s nonetheless hard to speak about Clemons, who died Saturday at the age of 69, in the past tense. He was known as the “Big Man,” and even led his own outfit, The Red Bank Rockers (Parkway Exit 109). But “big” might have been an understatement for this towering talent.
Though we're both Jersey boys, Mike and I have had very different experiences over the years with the music of Clarence Clemons and his brothers and sisters in The E Street Band. Today, we'd like to share those with you.
Mike Duquette kicks things off...
I've often joked about the irony of starting a blog about catalogue music at my age - I'm writing about artists and albums I was largely not alive to enjoy. So it may make you feel old when I note that I first discovered Clarence Clemons outside of the E Street Band, which had been put on ice not long after I was born. I first saw and heard the Big Man blowing his horn for Darlene Love on "All Alone on Christmas," her single cut with most of Bruce's band for the soundtrack to Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992). Even then, though, I thought the towering guy who balanced Macaulay Culkin on his shoulders while playing tenor sax was pretty cool.
Fast forward to this year, and the news that Clarence was lending his talents to Lady Gaga's new album. As one of the few modern day pop stars that can excite me musically, the idea of Gaga joining forces with one of the best sidemen in the game was exciting - and a reminder that Clarence was as cool and talented as he was when Bruce Springsteen was a young buck. In between there was a growing appreciation for the Boss and his crew, that started with the incredibly-ridiculous-on-paper decision to buy Born in the U.S.A. simply because it was a record lauded by critics and flourished with the realization that Springsteen really knows how to assemble a catalogue title. (There was also the recent rediscovery of "You're a Friend of Mine," Clemons' hit duet with Jackson Browne, which is one of those songs I'd heard on FM radio as a kid and committed to memory without realizing who performed the track - until I dug it back up for a Reissue Theory post.)
Even if all you knew about Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band was based on audio waves alone, there's no mistaking their collective talents or the importance of Clemons to that group. Few others elevated the saxophone to the kind of heights that Clarence did; without him, the instrument would have been a relic of traditional rock or a staple of only R&B/soul music. And the Big Man possessed the kind of personality that we all wish sidemen could have. Can anyone name Britney Spears' backing band members? Adam Lambert's? And yet, The E Street Band weren't relics, but relevant components of a bandleader that is still going strong after nearly four decades on the scene.
After the jump, Mike poses a difficult question, and Joe offers his tribute!
This leads us to the question that nobody wants to ask: what's next? Is there an E Street Band without The Big Man? What lies ahead for Bruce without his collaborator and emotional bedrock? We all knew such a day was coming, but the suddenness of it - particularly given that Clemons was nowhere near retired - makes it hard to take. Moments like these are why the work of catalogue enthusiasts and compilers is increasingly essential: someone has to chronicle the great work that people like Clemons committed to magnetic tape.
I could say more, but quite frankly the best words were taken, not once but twice, by my friend Dave Lifton. The latter post, in particular, encapsulates the kind of feeling we all want as a side effect of being obsessed with music. My wish for anyone reading this and feeling something close to loss for the great Clarence Clemons is to reach out through the music. We're all here and we're all united by sound; right now that sound is a clear saxophone cutting through the static.
Joe reflects on Clarence Clemons...
It may be a sure way to detect a native of New Jersey to ask how many Bruce Springsteen concerts he’s attended. If he’s lost count, there’s a good chance he’s from the home of baseball and the light bulb. And though there are those who have followed Bruce and the E Street Band for many more years and many more concerts, I’ve, indeed, lost count. It was probably inevitable; the rock and roll of the Jersey Shore is practically in my blood. A close relative of mine even worked numerous shows at The Stone Pony and elsewhere in the ascendancy of Springsteen, Southside Johnny Lyon and the rest, and her stories still always bring a smile. So I'm finding myself recalling the concerts attended in New York and Pennsylvania, both close enough to home but missing that special Jersey frisson. There was the show in Las Vegas, with its numerous empty seats and lack of electricity in the audience despite the always-valiant effort from those onstage. (The band played a smoking performance of “Viva Las Vegas,” natch.) But nothing could compare, onstage or off, to seeing The E Street Band on its home turf. Perhaps the most exciting stands in recent memory were the band’s gigs at the late, not-really-lamented Giants Stadium. The E Street Band brought a carnival to the imposing monolith during the 2003 shows. It remains a memorable birthday spent in the company of the E Streeters that year. Return engagements in 2008 and 2009 were overdue, but worth the wait, not to mention the traffic! With a seating capacity of over 80,000, it was far from a small room. But without a doubt, Clarence Clemons was always the coolest man in that room.
A benevolent giant, Clemons always got the kind of cat-calls and applause usually reserved on that hallowed field for a touchdown. Then again, he was built like a football player. His distinct sound built on the funky grooves of King Curtis, the lithe lines of Junior Walker and the honking bravado of Wrecking Crew saxophonist Steve Douglas. Clemons’ fluid, lyrical and instantly recognizable tone was filled with swagger and abandon, whether on his signature tenor saxophone or even baritone or soprano. He elevated being a sideman (a badge of honor, itself) into an art. He was a flashy dresser, but not always a flashy player. If a song didn’t call for a solo, Clemons was still right there, anchoring the sound, part of the whole. When Lady Gaga recently was seeking a Clarence Clemons sound on her latest record, she went right to the source. Big Man, meet Little Monsters. They, too, fell in love with him.
Upon hearing of Clemons’ passing, I recalled a flood of still-vibrant performances with Springsteen, but I also couldn’t help but think of one of his solo recordings. It was a cover version of the Bob Crewe/Bob Gaudio song “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” originally written for Frankie Valli, the former Frankie Castellucio of Newark, New Jersey. For his version, Clarence enlisted Darlene Love for the vocals. While not from Jersey herself, Darlene’s career renaissance in the 1980s (like Ronnie Spector’s) owed a great deal to The E Street Band. Springsteen, Clemons, Steven Van Zandt and the rest didn’t pay mere lip service to their forebears, but always treated them with respect and reverence.
Loneliness is the coat you wear/A deep shade of blue is always there
The sun ain’t gonna shine anymore/The moon ain’t gonna rise in the sky
The tears are always clouding your eyes
When you’re without love
But thanks to the music that Clarence Clemons gave us in his all-too-short time here, we don’t ever have to be lonely. A day won’t go by where those indelible, cathartic solos on “Badlands” or “Thunder Road” or “Jungleland” or “Born to Run” won’t be blaring from a car radio somewhere, epitomizing the sounds of joy and love and lust and hunger and youth. The sun will still be shining bright and dappled on the boardwalk, a car will go by with the roof down, and a girl named Mary won’t be too far away. The sweet sound of the saxophone is in the air, and even if tears come, we know that everything’s going to be all right. I do believe there’s a rock and roll heaven, and in that hell of a band, The Big Man is wailing, with his brother Danny Federici right beside him. Bruce Springsteen always introduced the saxophonist last among the E Street Band members. The gesture was fitting. After all, who could follow Clarence Clemons?
Dave Lifton says
Thanks guys, both for the post and the link.