I recently commented on the premature death of Amy Winehouse, and felt that the demise of Clarence Clemons, who had a somewhat more extended life, was worth a mention.
In my formative teenage years I sampled many musical genres, and in retrospect I am quietly smug about my own good taste. I instantly took to the Motown sound. I loved the simple sound, catchy hooks and vocal harmonies and the black roster gave it a touch of exotica. I instantly took to the guitar sound, harmonies and political stance of Crosby Stills Nash and Young too. Wisely, in retrospect ,I also identified the Rolling Stones as a spent force ( yet with a stunning back catalogue) with “It’s only Rock n Roll” in 1974 their last decent album. Equally Led Zeppelin, after Physical Graffiti in 75 had just about ground to a creative halt with “Achilles Last Stand” the only decent song to emerge subsequently. Prog rock had just about eaten itself. And then posters starting appearing proclaiming “The Future of Rock n Roll”…………………………………………….
The “Born to Run” album was actually Springsteen’s third album, and the first two are by no means duds with some great songs on them, particularly the first album. But neither the vision nor the sound had been fully realised, and “Born to Run” did just that, with a cover featuring a Dylanesque Bruce, and a big black saxophonist – Clarence Clemons. It was a multicultural image in rock that was not the norm, and all the more striking for it.
The album , for once ,lived up to the hype. A classic, which filled the cultural rock void that had been created by the cyclical turn of previous standard bearers. And a crucial part of that sound, and image, was “The Big Man”. Yes he could play, and his solos on “Jungleland” and “Independence day” raised those songs into another place, but you also knew he was always there, one of the boys, and as such he was essential to the image of good-hearted bonhomie that the band always exuded. He was a tremendous showman and Bruce was always happy, during his lengthy shows, to let Clarence take centre stage, or share it, whenever the drama of the song called for it. This might have been in the energy that he offered to “born to Run or Rosalita” or the fun of “Fire”
Clarence wasn’t the greatest saxophonist in the world, although he was an exceptionally good one. His achievement was as a black saxophonist being a key part of one of the most successful rock n roll bands of all time for the best part of forty years. Avuncular, brooding, yet fun he can never be replaced within the E Street band , and with Danny Federici also now sadly dead it will be interesting to see whether the E Street name is now also laid to rest, whilst not preventing Bruce from playing the songs with whomsoever he chooses.