Goodbye to the Big Man: Clarence Clemons
I’ve been listening to Born to Run in the car for the past couple of days as a sort of tribute to Clarence Clemons who passed away last week. I played the album for my daughters who are sadly never going to get to see the E Street Band in all its glory, but last night one of them stayed in the car with me even after we arrived home so that she could finish listening to the album’s title track. I consider this a mild victory as a parent, and one The Big Man would no doubt be proud of.
The album’s opening song, “Thunder Road,” arguably one of the greatest songs to open an album, reminds me of a Rock ‘n’ Roll History Class I attended at the Berklee College of Music back the fall of ’87. One morning we watched a film that included a live version of “Thunder Road,” and when Bruce sung the words, “Well I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk,” about half of the large class – many of them guitarists who spent hours playing harmonic minor scales at 180 beats per minute – broke out into laughter. Such was the snobbery that underlay the school in the 80s. Jazzheads mocked rockheads, and rockheads mocked rock ‘n’ rollers who didn’t play like Steve Vai.
Since those days, I’ve heard many horn players scoff at Clarence Clemons’s chops in the same way, as if they can’t believe that such a hack managed to make the big time.
But I would argue that Clarence made his mark in ways other saxophonists could only dream of. Clemons had a signature sound, filled with all the force and majesty required for a band that explored the themes of restlessness, disillusionment and redemption. The E Street Band didn’t need virtuosos. It needed members with power, presence and – perhaps most importantly – personality. Clarence provided all three. It was a match made in heaven, and there’s something to be said for playing distinctively, if not masterfully. Clarence’s sound was indisputable.
Even Bruce, despite the young guitarists’ mockery of his skills so many years ago, played ably enough to do exactly what the song required. His solo during Jungle Land is just melodic enough to build the instrumental section into the bridge. Nothing more, and nothing less. A crazy finger-tapping solo would have sounded absurd.
Whatever Bruce Springsteen does in the future, I doubt he’ll ever tour with a band that calls itself The E Street Band again. Sadly, that chapter’s over now. I got to see them in ’84 at the height of their popularity, during the first (and preferred) leg of the “Born in the USA” tour, and again in ’99 during the E Street Band’s reunion. Both concerts rank right up there with the best I’ve ever seen.
Even after hundreds of listens, there’s a verse from “Thunder Road” that never fails to give me chills:
There were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away
They haunt this dusty beach road in the skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets
They scream your name at night in the street
Your graduation gown lies in rags at their feet
Name a popular artist today who can get away with lyrics like that. And then when The Big Man takes over a few lines later, it’s pure pop magic. Rock ‘n’ roll bliss.
Wherever you are, Clarence, keeping blowing away. You will be missed.