Sunday, June 19, 2011

An Appreciative Farewell to the Big Man, Clarence Clemons (1942-2011)

One of my favorite sounds will never again be emitted anew.

And one of the few things in my life that I found absolute in its artistic quality and the pleasure I derived from it--seeing Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band live in concert--will never again be the same.

If at all.

Clarence Clemons, fondly known as the Big Man, the super-sized saxophonist who helped defined Springsteen's classic songs--and largely integrated the sax into the rock 'n roll soundscape--passed away last night from complications of a stroke he suffered last Sunday.

After monitoring reports of Clarence's condition all week and having had my hopes for his survival and eventual recovery emboldened by promising news, hearing of his death was a relative shock.

Last night, I had some friends over to watch the classic Western, The Wild Bunch, and after that movie ended, in honor of Paul McCartney's birthday, I threw on A Hard Day's Night. We were enjoying the brilliant buoyancy of the young Beatles, who, without wanting to get too deep into this, along with Springsteen are more like religion to me than any religion is.

Not long into the film, someone thought to ask how Clarence was doing. Oblivious to the truth already a few hours old, I replied that he seemingly was recovering better than initially expected. Soon thereafter, a friend that I rarely hear from texted me that "Clarence Clemons has died."

Perhaps because I was among friends and watching the Beatles, the news didn't crush me as much as it might have. Certainly, I was sad and after waiting for a song in the movie to finish, shared the news with my pals. After they left, I looked up the news reports and Facebook/Twitter posts, and read a bit more this morning while listening to some great Springsteen songs highlighted by Clarence's sax.

Just a few of my favorite Clarence moments come on "Badlands," "Born To Run," "The Promised Land," "The Ties That Bind" and "Night." But pretty much any Clemons solo was a great one.

Having seen Bruce with the E Street Band--whose original organist, Danny Federici died in 2008--32 times in concert, including 30 shows between 1999-2009, I appreciated just how much Clarence meant to the music, to the band, to Bruce, to the fans and to me.

The roar of the crowd when Clarence stepped up to play one of his phenomenal solos was always amazing, often goosebump-inducing. And though hobbled by serious pain in his back and knees on recent tours, when he put his horn to his mouth, he always gave it his all--and I don't remember any solos that were ever anything but note perfect.

Springsteen is the greatest live performer I--and perhaps the world--has ever seen, and Clemons made his legendary shows notably better, and not just musically. With no disrespect to the other E Street Band members, he was the most important person onstage besides Bruce, playing the Boss' stalwart foil while shredding on his sax. After he had suffered his stroke, someone called him "the greatest sidekick ever," and that seems about right.

Including the time when I saw him do a solo show at Milwaukee Summerfest in 2004, I would estimate that I saw Clarence Clemons live and in person for the equivalent of four full days. I'm sorry I never will again, but sure am glad I did.

And though his size--he was a promising football prospect in college until a car accident ended any chances of making it to the NFL--might suggest that he'd be intimidating, he had the warmest smile of almost anyone I've ever seen. Check out his 2009 interview with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show--accessible here--to see what I mean. His book, Big Man: Real Life and Tall Tales was also great fun, as was the interview he did with Howard Stern around its release.

Fittingly, Bruce paid tribute to Clarence last night with this post on 
Clarence lived a wonderful life. He carried within him a love of people that made them love him. He created a wondrous and extended family. He loved the saxophone, loved our fans and gave everything he had every night he stepped on stage. His loss is immeasurable and we are honored and thankful to have known him and had the opportunity to stand beside him for nearly forty years. He was my great friend, my partner, 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. 
The last sentence might suggest that the E Street Band isn't finished. Part of me hopes not, as I would hate never to see Bruce rocking out again if the rest of his bandmates are ready and willing. But as I said at top, it will never be the same.

The Big Man has left an immeasurable void.

So long, Clarence. And thanks.


Although the camera work here doesn't do it justice, I love how Clarence's sax powers the opening of "Night."

Again, not a perfect video, but a great old version of Thunder Road, with Clarence's sublime saxophone coda.

One of my true favorites, from 1980, "The Ties That Bind"

"The change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band." - "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" in Milwaukee, November 15, 2009, the last time I ever saw and heard Clarence Clemons.

Clarence's solo on "Jungleland" was probably his most famous, although the original was pieced together by Springsteen in the studio. Clarence never held it against him and this rendition is typically note perfect, fittingly from a concert for the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame.

When introducing the E Street Band onstage, Springsteen always called out Clarence last, with true reverence.

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