Sunday, June 19, 2011

Clarence Clemons, 1942-2011

The last time I saw Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band I noticed Clarence Clemons had gold fingernails.
I remember thinking it wasn’t gold paint.
I thought it was actual gold and that’s just the way he grew them. He was just that cool.
You can check out a picture and decide for yourself here in my inconsequential blog review of the Boss’s May 19, 2009, Pittsburgh concert.
It’ll take the death of a Stone to so fundamentally change one of the great remaining bands the way the death of Clemons changes Bruce and the band.
The artistic generosity of Springsteen meant Clemons would often steal the song and always steal the show.
“When the change was made up town and the Big Man joined the band
“From the coastline to the city all the little pretties raise their hands”
His vocal baritone cameos on “Fire,” “10th Avenue Freeze Out,” and the on-stage mugging between Clemons and Springsteen always sent fans into frenzies.
Clemons liberated the saxophone from the high school band room and made it as eloquent a rock ‘n’ roll instrument as the sainted guitar.
I argue he did as much for race relations as Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton or any of the pretenders to Martin Luther King Jr.’s throne.
That’s him on the black and white cover of maybe the greatest rock album of all time, “Born to Run,” from 1975.
The picture shows the greatest American rock ‘n’ roll star since Elvis draped across the back of a big black man in such an affectionate interracial embrace it seemed to demolish multiple taboos.
This brother was a brother.
It’s fitting, too, because the album is as much his as it is Bruce’s. His saxophone makes indelible contributions on the monumental title cut, “Thunder Road,” “10th Avenue Freezeout,” “Night,” and most memorably on “Jungleland.”
Even as Bruce began writing studio songs away from Clemons, the Clemons solos remained concert highlights.
I listened to all 318 Springsteen songs in chronological order over 23.5 hours to write a career retrospective of one of America’s most important artists.
I’m still struck by the 16-year span from 1986-2002 when Bruce Springsteen chose to not record with one of the greatest bands in American history.
It still stuns. He did a bunch of mostly forgettable solo and often self-indulgent treacle while the scattered band did solo projects that never broke the pop culture surface.
I remember Clemons saying watching Bruce make music with other musicians was like watching your wife make love to other men.
And, you know, it felt like that to the rest of us, too. Each new release of forgettable material was like attending a divorce proceeding in family court where our custody was being decided.
What the hell was he thinking?
It took the tragedy of 9/11 for him to reunite the band for the sake of our national psyche.
That’s when even he understood. This isn’t just a band.
These are our brothers and sisters, our aunts and uncles. They raised us. They’re in all our scrapbooks.
There are times when I, and I’m not ashamed of this, actually look forward to the deaths of our legends, to the days when a well-aged Paul McCartney, Elton John or Mick Jagger struts off to rock ‘n’ roll heaven.
There will be parties at their passings.
Not out of disdain, certainly. It’s just that they’ve given us so much and I truly love them and I’m looking forward to putting their entire playlist on random and getting good and gassed listening to the songs that have meant so much to me.
It’s a kind of mourning we can all enjoy.
The passing of Clarence Clemons doesn’t feel at all like something to celebrate.
This was a death in the family.


Anonymous said...


The E-Street Reunion was assembled far in advance of 9/11 and certainly the studio recording of "The Rising."

Also having read your 23.5 listenathon many times you are far too critical of Springsteen's music quality withbout the traditional E Street line-up Much of Human Touch and Lucky Town is very good and clearly emblematic of his life with Patti and bringing her into the band.

Further not every album with E Street is remarkable. "Working on a Dream" is arguably Springsteen's weakest album.

Remember Springsteen made (and still makes) the band not the other way around. To be sure Claraence is irreplaceable but in E-Street lore he Avis, not Hertz.

Tom Bedell said...

Going to see the band on Aug. 18 in Boston, for the first time since the Big Man's passing. We'll see what up. But I agree with Pittsburgh Jawny about some of Bruce's other work. I love some (some) of the songs on "Human Touch" and "Lucky Town." And let's not forget about "Nebraska."

Chris Rodell said...

The cornerstones of the 90s albums, the twin releases are about 24 song that should be 10. Some good, for sure. I love Better Days, Human Touch, I Wish I Were Blind and a few others.

I'm contrary, too, that Nebraska's never done much for me.

Good point, Jawny, on "Working on a Dream." Parts of it are terrible and it is part of the discussion of worst ever, even though I still find it listenable.

I'd like to have this discussion in person with both of you over multiple beers. Brew connoisseur Bedell can pick.