This Guy Died This Year: Clarence Clemons, Big Sideman

Illustration for article titled This Guy Died This Year: Clarence Clemons, Big Sideman

When Clarence Clemons, the saxophonist for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, died this year at 69 after a stroke, a lot of the remembrances, including Hickey's in this very webspace, cued up his solo in "Jungleland." "Jungleland" is a great song, one of Bruce's best, filled with lyrical drama and exceptional piano work on an album already filled with exceptional piano work. But Christ is that solo insipid. That solo is what gives people the wrong idea about Springsteen. It's a stagy dirge in a song otherwise filled with life, and an unrepresentative way to remember the Big Man.


The "Jungleland" solo does give us the easiest way to remember Clarence. If your first concert exposure to the E Street Band came within the last decade, you'll think of "Jungleland" when you think of Clarence. On the last tour, in 2009, he couldn't play any other solo as well as he played "Jungleland." That year, when Bruce called for "Kitty's Back," he'd have a horn section play the parts that Clarence once owned. When he played the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Anniversary Concert, another saxophonist handled the non-"Jungleland" parts. Clarence spent most of his shows seated, tapping on a tambourine. He dressed in baggy black robes that made him look like the baddest associate justice on the Supreme Court bench.

Besides, 2009 was the first tour where it became clear that Springsteen was just touring for touring's sake—the one that told us not to expect another great album out of him. It was OK for Clarence to sit on stage as a relic, because, in a way, that's what the entire band was doing. And, yes, we'd all rather remember Clarence's last passes at "Jungleland" in 2009 than his last concert appearance, on American Idol, backing up Lady Gaga in May. (Let's not even mention his playing on the Home Alone 2 soundtrack.) Gaga had picked the Big Man because she worships Bruce. But seeing him up there like that, before his stroke, struggling to hit half the notes in a nothing solo: It was depressing.

Clarence was never a precise performer, but at its peak the E Street Band played too fast for that to matter. Listen to "Born to Run" from 1978—he rips through that thing while the band moves along at its frenetic pace. It's not a showcase for the saxman, but that's where he's at his best. I love his contributions on "Hungry Heart" in Paris in 1985. He's wearing a sleeveless '80s nightmare of a red suit and fucking up the sax line, but he's sashaying with Nils Lofgren and making a fun song more fun in the process.

This is the blessing and the curse of being a Bruce Springsteen devotee in 2011. The band's best days are more than two decades past (although—funny enough—this claim wouldn't have been unreasonable 10 years ago) and two of the guys from the early years are dead, but, thanks to BitTorrent and the BTX mp3 index, it's easier than ever (and free) to get pristine recordings from the old days. The concert experience that made people fall in love with the band in the '70s will never come back, but the tapes will be around forever.

And it's in those recordings that we find the true force of Clarence Clemons. Listen to him play on "Prove It All Night" from Passaic in 1978, where his solo doesn't stand out but he keeps the song ripping. Or listen to "The Fever", from Winterland in 1978, when Clarence not only plays his sweetest and moodiest sax line ever but also sings (and not all that poorly). Listen to him blast on "Spirit in the Night" or "Sherry Darling," songs that don't work without the sax. They strike their divergent moods (spooky, peppy) because of Clarence. And his refrain on "Rosalita" makes the song swing. Even when he was just playing a rhythm line, Clarence never bored the listener.


Since this is a sports site, it's worth noting here that Clarence played college football with Emerson Boozer and had a tryout with the Cleveland Browns that he missed because of a car accident the day prior. That he played on the offensive line seems altogether fitting. Here's something he said in his autobiography, about his grandfather's stump-pulling mule, Big Red:

I used to watch him work. It was an incredible sight. He would pull and strain so hard, with such intensity I thought he would explode. Every muscle in his body was working and bulging out, and his eyes were like fire. I expected him to breathe smoke from his nose. And he would pull and pull and pull without stopping until he got that stump out of the ground. He was unbelievable!


He wasn't a virtuoso, which is why the solos never do him justice. He was a sideman, the perfect sideman, the guy not so much playing the song as working it, breathing smoke all the while and pulling and pulling and pulling.