In memoriam: The Big Man

>> Sunday, June 19, 2011

News came over last night that Clarence Clemons is gone. This is a little hard to process.

Bruce Springsteen knew Clemons a little longer than I've been alive; well, maybe I'd been conceived. The story is appropriately self-contained and epic, like one of The Boss' early, sprawling songs: an unknown-but-rumored Springsteen was playing an Asbury Park club one dark and stormy night when Clemons, sax player for another local band, decided to check out this guy everybody in the hood was talking about; so Clemons goes to this bar, the story goes, but when he tries to go inside the wind from that terrible storm grabs the door right out of his hand and blasts it right open, and there he is, this giant standing in the blown-open door of this little club, framed by the wind and lightning. The rest is history. A couple of years later, he'd be blowing the roofs off arenas with Springsteen and the E Street Band; meanwhile he became one of the band's earliest members, and one of the only three to travel with Springsteen from the first album, Greetings From Asbury Park to 2009's Working On A Dream (not counting, of course, the hiatus when Springsteen worked with "The Other Band" in the '90s--not as bad as most people think, still, the less said the better--or side projects like the Seeger Sessions Band).

Springsteen's first two albums didn't sell and the only thing he really had going for him were that some folks at Columbia Records weren't willing to write him off just yet; these days, his career would have been over, but back in the early '70s you had still had some folks in the industry who weren't just looking at the bottom line. And anyway, Springsteen had been discovered by the legendary John Hammond, the guy who discovered Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan, the guy who almost signed Robert Johnson except the Reaper signed him first; Dylan's first couple of records hadn't done that well, either, and who was going to make the mistake of second-guessing Hammond on another tousled troubadour, give the kid time. Still, Springsteen's days were numbered, everybody knew it, especially Springsteen.

So the kid doubled down, figured if he was recording his last record, he might as well shoot his whole wad on recording the greatest rock'n'roll album ever recorded. And holy fucking hell, what he came out with was Born To Run and I'll be damned if it's not at the very least, the very least, a contender for the greatest rock'n'roll album ever recorded. I wouldn't say it's my favorite, and somehow, paradoxically, I'm not sure I'd say it's Springsteen's best despite being as close to perfect as anything that's ever been pressed to vinyl.

This was epic rock, that big Phil Spector-inflected pop sound being used to relate this myth-cycle of hustlers and musicians and grifters trying to grab some kind of heroic glory on the Jersey shore. And Clarence Clemons and Springsteen were right there in the midst of this cosmology, Springsteen as "Bad Scooter" and Clemons, "The Big Man" on Born To Run's second track, "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out":

When the change was made uptown
And the Big Man joined the band
From the coastline to the city
All the little pretties raise their hands
I'm gonna sit back right easy and laugh
When Scooter and the Big Man bust this city in half
With a Tenth Avenue freeze-out, Tenth Avenue freeze-out
Tenth Avenue freeze-out...

This was the duo on the album's cover (reproduced at the top of this post), Springsteen almost by himself on the front cover but when you opened the gatefold out there was Clemons, caught blasting away on his saxophone. Springsteen, appropriately, is leaning on the Big Man, Clemons is a tower of support; Clemons looks at the camera but Springsteen is looking at Clemons, hand covering a wicked, loopy grin. They're Sancho Panza and Don Quixote, but the funny thing is it's Springsteen who's the delusional one tilting at windmills, Clemons is the grounded secret hero of the whole thing.

Well, y'know, the damnedest thing is it didn't just work as art. Born To Run was an enormous commercial success, and only the Muses know what would have happened next if Springsteen's career hadn't gotten bogged down for the next several years with a business dispute with his manager that effectively exiled Springsteen from the studio and kept him from breaking into bigger live venues; when the smoke cleared, Springsteen and a somewhat reconfigured E Street Band would tack off in a different direction on 1978's Darkness On The Edge Of Town, a less-sprawling and grandiose album despite full-on rockers like "Adam Raised A Cain", "The Promised Land" and "Candy's Room".

If you grew up in the 1970s, anyway, Born To Run was everywhere. Not just the music on the radio, I mean every record store you went into for at least a decade following that record's explosion in '75, poster versions of the expanded gatefold sleeve, that Eric Meola photo of Panza and Quixote, was up on a wall somewhere, usually in a high, permanent place where it was never going to be taken down again. That image was the cover of Sgt. Pepper's, the cover of Dark Side Of The Moon, Sticky Fingers. That image was rock and roll and if you wanted to go and assemble the ultimate rock covers, the question isn't whether the faces of Clarence Clemons and Bruce Springsteen sharing that moment belongs in the Top Ten, but where does it place in relation to Dark Side and Velvet Underground And Nico (a.k.a. Peel Slowly And See)?

My Dad was--and is--an enormous Springsteen fan all the way back, as far as I can remember. Here's my earliest Springsteen memory, for what it's worth: lying on the rug of whatever crappy apartment my family was living in at the time, playing two-player Risk while Born To Run was on in the background. Back in '99 or '00, when Springsteen had just gotten the E Street Band back together--the bigger than ever E Street Band, with Little Steven Van Zandt sharing the stage and trading licks with Nils Lofgren, the guy who replaced Little Steven in the mid-'80s when Van Zandt wanted to do some things on his own, and why pick one when you can have both (and talk about mad, easily-overlooked genius on The Boss' part: the big E Street Band has three incredible lead guitarists in the forms of Van Zandt, Lofgren, and himself, and Springsteen the arranger finds great parts for all of them so that nobody is overshadowed and everybody gets a showcase)--anyway, back in '99 or '00 I took my Dad and my little sister to see the bigger'n'ever E Street Band play in Charlotte; when I called my Dad last night to see if he'd heard the awful news about Clarence, he reminded me we were on Clemons' side of the stage, over him the entire night. He sounded awesome that night, he sounded awesome every night.

People have been wondering if this means the end of the E Street Band. Springsteen is already saying they'll go on in his honor, and I reckon they will and they have to. It's just hard to imagine that stage with a Clemons-sized space in it. There are great saxophonists the world over, but Clemons was a unique persona and he was one of the band's oldest troupers. You know there are only two Springsteen albums that feature someone other than The Boss on the front cover/gatefold, right? There's Clemons and Springsteen on Born To Run and then there's the cover of the Live In New York CD (same tour I took my Dad and sister to see them on), two men in silhouette, Sancho Panza and Don Quixote, again. Clemons isn't the E Street Band's first casualty, and it seems almost accidentally cruel that his death, I dunno, diminishes the loss of Danny Federici a few years ago--there didn't seem any doubt that the show would go on, but now there is, now it just seems as impossible as it's probably inevitable. They have to, but everybody knows it won't be the same.

The New York Times' obituary can be read here, but the best obit I've seen today and the one you really, really should read is this one at The Onion A/V Club.

The obituary at the A/V Club pointed me to something I didn't know about but doesn't surprise me--everybody knows that Clemons' sax solo on "Jungleland", the final cut on Born To Run, is one of the most amazing things ever. But did you know it has its own Facebook page? As in, seriously, The Sax Solo In Jungleland Facebook page. People are leaving the virtual equivalent of flowers at the shrine, you might, too.

Speaking of: one of the treasures of the Internet age is being able to find things like the E Street Band's classic 1978 Passaic, New Jersey concert up at YouTube, converted from a very rough VHS copy and uploaded. This is "Jungleland" in all its glory:

Rest in peace, Big Man. You will be terribly missed by all of those you've left behind you.


vince Sunday, June 19, 2011 at 8:53:00 PM EDT  

“The universe is there to give you what you want,” Clemons once said. “You just need to be there to get it.”

He will be missed indeed.

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