Sunday, June 19, 2011

Goodnight in Jungleland

Bloodbrother: Clarence Clemons, 1942-2011
June 19, 2011

clarenceclemons.jpgIn the summer of 1971, when an ambitious Shore rat named Bruce Springsteen was playing at an Asbury Park bar called the Student Prince and writing songs for his first album, a band called Norman Seldin and the Joyful Noyze was playing at the Wonder Bar down the road. The tenor saxophone player was a huge ex-football player with a King Curtis sound named Clarence Clemons. The story, oft-repeated, is that one stormy night, between sets, Clemons wandered into the Student Prince and sat in, playing “Spirit in the Night.”

“Bruce and I looked at each other and didn’t say anything, we just knew,” Clemons said many years later. “We knew we were the missing links in each other’s lives.” Clemons played on that first album, “Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.” and, at a gig at the Shipbottom Lounge, joined the group that would be called the E Street Band. The legend of that meeting and the formation of the band was the stuff of “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out”—an anthem of becoming that was part of the repertoire for four decades. (“Well the change was made uptown/and the Big Man joined the band….From the coastline to the city/all the little pretties raised a hand.”)

Clemons, who died Saturday of complications from a stroke, was not an entirely original player—he was a vessel of many great soul, gospel, and R&B players who came before him—but he was an entirely sublime band member, an absolutely essential, and soulful, ingredient in both the sound of Springsteen and the spirit of the group. Clemons will be irreplaceable; Sonny Rollins could step in for him and never be able to provide the same sense of personality and camaraderie. His horn gave the band its sound of highway loneliness, its magnificent heart. And his huge presence on stage was an anchor for Springsteen, especially when Bruce was younger, scrawny, and so feral, so unleashed, that you thought that he could fall down dead in a pool of sweat at any moment. At the brink of exhaustion and collapse, Springsteen could always lean on his enormous and reliable friend—an emblematic image that is the cover of “Born to Run.”
On the band’s most recent tour, one that celebrated forty years of music-making, Clemons was clearly hurting: bad knees, bad hips, long shows. Backstage he was ferried around in a golf cart; onstage he played a lot of cowbell and, like Pavarotti in his later years, gave his aching joints breaks when he could. But he was still capable of playing, note for note, his signature solos. He made a joyful noise. Musicians as various as Jackson Browne and Lady Gaga called on him to record, to lend them some of the largeness and warmth of his tone.

If you want to hear the Big Man at his best, a few suggestions:

Two commercial sources first: I love the film of the E Street Band’s foray in England, the DVD of their 1975 concert at Hammersmith Odeon, which is included in the deluxe edition of “Born to Run.” Having gone through the extended boot camp of recording the album over many months, Springsteen, Clemons, Steve Van Zandt, and the rest of the band members seem liberated as they play the songs with the kind of abandon that comes from—practice, practice, practice. They are absolutely alive and the songs are fresh. Another live recording that is sometimes overlooked is “Live in New York City,” a double CD of their “reunion” tour in 2000. The band seems utterly un-bored playing the old songs. Clemons is riveting on his signature solo on “Jungleland” and he and the rest bring you to tears at their anthem of fellowship, “If I Should Fall Behind.”

The YouTube bonanza—and perhaps the greatest of all available Springsteen concerts—is his performance at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, New Jersey, in September, 1978. (Video below.) By then, the band had taken on the songs from “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and Clarence was a presence more powerful than an N.F.L. linebacker. His solos on “Thunder Road” and many others are as urgent as Springsteen’s singing. Of course, I may think so highly of the Capitol Theater performance because I grew up in Jersey and hooked into Bruce early; and I was there. The first time I saw Springsteen was when he was the back-up act for Chicago at Madison Square Garden—“Who is that guy?”—and then kept following him, from the Capitol Theater and beyond. (A similarly brilliant 1978 concert, in Houston, is included as a DVD in the deluxe edition of “Darkness” that came out last year.)

Springsteen is a rock ‘n’ roll romantic, and a large part of his romanticism stems from his notion of what a band means. No one, save Springsteen himself, meant more to the E Street Band than Clarence Clemons. The word is that Springsteen is writing a memoir; the passages on his late, great friend will undoubtedly be the hardest to write and the most moving to read.

Read more

With Clarence Clemons, the notes that mattered most weren't on the saxophone

By David Hinckley
June 19, 2011

To assess the importance of Clarence Clemons in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band purely by his saxophone playing would be like judging a two-tone 1956 Chevy Bel Air by its gas mileage.

It misses the point.

Clemons, who died Saturday at 69 from complications of a severe stroke he suffered last Sunday, blew a lot of memorable sax riffs with Bruce since The Big Man joined the band in 1972.

But no one who loved that band, and least of all Springsteen himself, defined Clarence’s value by his sax solos – even though he commanded a microphone like a musical Paul Bunyon, wielding his ax the way most of us wield toothpicks.

Clarence Clemons wasn’t Charlie Parker or John Coltrane. He was something else, and in some ways the sax was merely an accessory. Okay, a really good accessory.

On stage over the years, Springsteen described Clemons in playful ways, creating a “Big Man” mythology that became one of the many shared understandings between Bruce and his audience.

But Springsteen, and his fans, also knew something deeper was at work, and Bruce summarized it in the statement he issued last night: “. . . .With Clarence at my side, my band and I were able to tell a story far deeper than those simply contained in our music.”

That role started with Clemons’s simple physical presence. He was a tall solid black man stationed at one side of a stage otherwise populated with a white rock ‘n’ roll band. Whatever leaps, splits, contortions or melodramas Bruce performed, Clarence held it down.

Not simply for shock value did Bruce occasionally end a song by sliding across the stage and kissing Clarence.

He made it seem so natural that it was easy to miss what a powerful statement that made – not about anyone’s sexuality, but about the fact that within Bruce’s and Clarence’s lifetimes, some theaters in America would not even book a band that dared to employ both black and white musicians.

Long before Springsteen was singing at political rallies, he was laying down his cards every night on stage.

This is not to suggest Clarence’s sax playing didn’t matter. If Springsteen wrote the notes in songs like “Spirit In the Night” and “Thunder Road,” Clarence understood how to play them.

But beyond that, Clemons maybe more than anyone besides Bruce himself represented the way music becomes important beyond the duration of the song and the way a good band becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

It was many years since Bruce and Clarence hung out together. Outside the band they led separate lives, with their own families and projects. That didn’t matter. Bruce played with other bands, Clarence accompanied everyone from Aretha to Lady Gaga.

Didn’t matter. From the famous “Born to Run” cover (above right) to the last day of the last tour, the circle was unbroken. That’s a message that’s a keeper.

Springsteen can hire a new sax man and replace the notes Clarence played. He can’t replace the anchor of his band.

Safe bet: He won’t even try.

Goodnight In Jungleland: Remembering Clarence "Big Man" Clemons

Author: Glen Boyd — Published: Jun 18, 2011 at 11:48 pm

When I first heard the news on Saturday night, June 18 at about 7 p.m. that Clarence Clemons had died as a result of complications from a massive stroke he suffered the previous weekend, my immediate reaction was a myriad of emotions that came rushing through me all at once: Sadness. Surprise. Shock. Resignation. Man, this sucks.

Although there was a general consensus that Clemons' stroke had been quite serious — early reports indicated there might be at least prolonged partial paralysis, if he even survived — there had also been reason for hope of a miraculous recovery as recently as just a few days ago. In light of this, and despite concerns for Clemons' health among fans going back for several years now, in many ways the news that he didn't make it still came as a shock. As I write this, I honestly feel like I've been punched in the gut.

You see, I always thought Clarence Clemons was one of those mythical guys who'd live forever.

Part of this is pure selfishness, of course. Although I have seen Clemons perform with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band numerous times dating back to the Born To Run tour in 1975 — that's nearly forty years ago now — the fan in me really wanted to see him do it just one more time. Even if it meant him taking to the stage in crutches.

Clemons himself did nothing to discourage such selfish optimism among his fans. Although he described the pain he felt touring with Springsteen in support of 2009's Working On A Dream album as "pure hell" — this following replacement surgery on both his knees and hips — in a recent interview, he'd indicated he was far from ready for the rock and roll retirement home.

"As long as my mouth, hands and brain still work I'll be out there doing it," he told Rolling Stone. "I'm going to keep going 'til I'm not there anymore. This is what's keeping me alive and feeling young and inspired."

Clemons had also kept reasonably busy in the recent months during one of the periodical E Street Band sabbaticals he'd no doubt become accustomed to over his many years with the Boss. Most recently, he was heard playing sax with pop sensation Lady Gaga on her single "The Edge of Glory."

Springsteen fans the world over have known Clemons by a variety of names, reflecting his larger-than-life persona in the E Street Band for some four decades. Many of these, such as "King of the World" and "Master of the Universe," became part of the universal language of E Street by way of Springsteen's lengthy, played-for-maximum-dramatic-effect introduction of his longtime sax player and all-around crowd favorite onstage. Ever aware of what (or in this case, who) moves an audience, Springsteen always saved Clemons for last when introducing the members of the E Street Band.

"Do I have to say his name?" Springsteen has been known to testify on stage with all the fire and brimstone of an old-time gospel preacher. "Do I Have To Say His Name?" Of course, E Street Band fans best knew Clemons simply as "The Big Man."

In addition to providing the unforgettable saxophone that proved such an integral part of the E Street Band's signature sound — including such standout sax breaks as those heard on "Badlands," "Born To Run" and especially "Jungleland" — the Big Man was the ideal onstage foil for Springsteen. Dating back to their earliest concerts in the '70s, Clemons cut a towering presence next to the comparatively smaller and wiry Springsteen, making for a unique onstage chemistry unmatched in all of live rock and roll.

Yet it was their onstage camaraderie, particularly as manifested in humorous stories Springsteen told with Clemons by his side, that became the stuff of legend. When Springsteen replaced the E Street Band with a group of studio musicians — including another sax player — for his 1992 tour behind the albums Human Touch and Lucky Town, fans never bought into the Boss' attempt to recreate this unique combination.

"He was my great friend, my partner," Springsteen said of Clemons in a statement Saturday night, "and with Clarence at my side, my band and I were able to tell a story far deeper than those simply contained in our music. His life, his memory, and his love will live on in that story and in our band."

That last promise could prove a bit tough for the Boss to keep. As much as carrying on the E Street Band might be the ultimate tribute to the memory of Clarence Clemons (as well as to keyboardist Danny Federici, who succumbed to melanoma in 2008), it neither could nor ever would be the same without the Big Man.

And so the change was made Upstairs and... well, you probably know the rest.

Clarence Clemons: 1942-2011

Another Gray Area

June 18, 2011 - Andy Gray

Listen to Bruce Springsteen’s catalog, and there aren’t many songs that open with Clarence Clemons’ saxophone.

That’s because Clarence wasn’t a starter or a lead-off hitter. Clarence Clemons was the E Street Band’s closer, its clean-up hitter. Those Springsteen anthems depend on the slow build – the intensifying emotion of the lyrics, the piano-organ interplay of Roy Bittan and Danny Federici, Bruce and Steve Van Zant trading guitar leads, the accelerating rhythm of Garry W. Tallent and Max Weinberg. Then, just when you think the energy can’t get any greater – BAM! – that saxophone solo comes in and take it higher as the Big Man plays notes that, from the coastline to the city make the little pretties raise their hands.

Like Ike and Tina Turner, Clarence Clemons never, ever did anything nice and easy. That woodwind instrument had a big, brassy feel when Clemons was playing it. One of his solos instantly is recognizable, whether it’s accompanying Springsteen or, most recently, Lady Gaga.

Springsteen has recorded albums by himself and worked with other bands. But when folks hear the name “Bruce Springsteen,” the sound that pops into their heads has a sax solo, one as big and distinctive as the Big Man playing it.

Clemons died Saturday evening from complications of a stroke suffered a week ago. Right now, it’s impossible to imagine an E Street Band show without him.

No comments: