Farewell, Big Man...

I was away - and very busy - when the death of Clarence Clemons, the Big Man of the saxophone in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, was announced.  In fact, we were on a van heading towards the Asian side of Istanbul to play our final gig with the Jazz Ambassadors. My heart felt wounded.

Clarence and Bruce have been my close friends in the Spirit of music since 1978 with the release of "Darkness on the Edge of Town."  I had listened to the band before that - really liked parts of "The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle" from 1973 like "New York Serenade," "KItty's Back" and "Incident on 57th Street" (and parts of the first album, too, like "For You" and "Spirit in the Night") - but I didn't get hooked until "Darkness."  My brother Phil - often ahead of the my musical curve in those days - kept raving about this young, soulful punk from New Jersey with an attitude - celebrating "Thunder Road" and all the rest - but I was a musical dinosaur in those days.  Living in San Francisco after leaving the Farm Workers union, going to college with a little baby, I was practicing Dave Von Ronk and Mississippi John Hurt licks, god dammit:  I didn't have time for any smartass hipsters from New Jersey.

But "Darkness" got under my skin - everything about it haunted me - from the opening power chords of "Badlands" (which still brings tears to my eyes after all these years" to the aching laments of "Racing in the Streets" - it is a masterpiece of modern blues with just a hint of hope.  It is powerfully class conscious, too:  "Factory" speaks of the daily grind in the "work, the working,its just the working life;" "Adam Raised a Cain" in either the electric or wooden version rages against the burden of both working class angst and father/son conflict and the urban romanticism of "Streets on Fire" and "Darkness" itself are full to overflowing with passion and longing and hurt and determination to rise above it all. God, I love that record.

Then came that incredible double-album from 1980, "The River" that came out in the early days of my seminary work, and I was over the top.  That record was PERFECT - the blues, jazz, attitude, straight ahead rock and roll, songs of romance, songs of sex, songs of losing, songs of class with an awareness of racism and so much more - it blew my mind.  And through the heart of it all was this friendship and musical partnership born of Bruce, Clarence and also Little Steven.  These guys were immigrant kids embracing Motown with respect and gusto. 
Look at the cover to "Born to Run" - as a few others have noted recently and over the years - these guys were doing more for race relations for those of us born in the USA than most of us realized.  There is love in Springsteen's eyes, there is a devil-may-care smile, too as he rests his arm on the Big Man's shoulder listening to the wail of the sax.  Clarence (and Bruce) restored the saxophone to its righteous place in rock and roil and kept the affectionate tension between Black and White alive in attitude and music, too.  Clarence was part King Curtis and Jr. Walker with a healthy mix of Motown and Memphis groove. 

But that's not all, he could be a tender jazz man, too as his heart-breaking intro to "The River" from the reunion tour of 1999 makes clear.

He could also be meditative and evocative as well as his "Peacemaker" from 1995 documents. Together with Bruce and the E Street Band they were part Young Rascals meets Motown, part Van Morrison meets the Byrds, part 60s girl groups meets Woody Guthrie with a little bit of Sam and Dave and Big Joe Turner meets Elvis, too.  Clarence put his work with Springsteen like this:

One night we were playing in Asbury Park. I'd heard The Bruce Springsteen Band was nearby at a club called The Student Prince and on a break between sets I walked over there. On-stage, Bruce used to tell different versions of this story but I'm a Baptist, remember, so this is the truth. A rainy, windy night it was, and when I opened the door the whole thing flew off its hinges and blew away down the street. The band were on-stage, but staring at me framed in the doorway. And maybe that did make Bruce a little nervous because I just said, "I want to play with your band," and he said, "Sure, you do anything you want." The first song we did was an early version of "Spirit In The Night". Bruce and I looked at each other and didn't say anything, we just knew. We knew we were the missing links in each other's lives. He was what I'd been searching for. In one way he was just a scrawny little kid. But he was a visionary. He wanted to follow his dream. So from then on I was part of history.

He is a force who cannot be replaced - the E Street Band will continue but it will be very, very different.  For our last gig in Istanbul I felt called to do "Shake, Rattle and Roll" in a very phat and loopy way - kinda like the Boss and Clarence did it to open the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame back in Cleveland - and it was one of the highlights of the night.  Charlie, our Big Man, played the hell out of it in Clarence's honor and I gave it my propers, too.  Rest in peace, dear man, you will be missed.


Black Pete said…
Clarence and Bruce created an anomaly musically: a racially-integrated band, still a relative rarity, though not quite so non-existent as it was in the 60s-90s.

And here's to a couple of other musical pioneers: the Chambers Brothers, and Johnny Clegg.
RJ said…
Two other greats, I agree: cheers!

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