Sunday, June 19, 2011

Clarence Clemons, 1942-2011

Clarence Clemons died yesterday, at the age of 69, from complications from a stroke he suffered on June 12th. For thirty-nine years, beginning in 1972, Clemons played saxaphone in the E Street Band, which, for my money, is the best backing bad in rock music history. Clemons also played the tambourine and provided back-up vocals, but he was most beloved for punctuating anthems like "Born to Run," "Jungleland," and "The Promised Land" with triumphant, bitchingly awesome saxaphone solos that lasted for up to three minutes, and never a second too long.

Clemons was working as a counselor for juveniles in Newark, New Jersey when he went to check out Bruce Springsteen, then in his early twenties and singing in bars on the Jersey shore. On a stormy night in Asbury Park, N.J., he went to see Bruce play at a place called The Wonder Bar in Asbury Park, N.J. The Wonder Bar was, apparently, not the best-built bar in New Jersey, and, when Clemons opened the door to walk in, a gust of wind tore the front door off of its hinges. Everybody inside turned to look at Clemons -- who was 6'4" and 250 pounds or more for most of his adult life -- and assumed that he had torn the door off of its hinges. Clemons walked in to the bar, carrying his saxaphone, and asked if he could play with Springsteen, to which Springsteen basically responded: "dude, anything you want to do." After all, who was he to tell a lineman-sized black guy who had apparently just torn the front door off of a white night club that he couldn't play? Appparently their performance went well; Clemons has said, in interviews, that he and Springsteen fell in love that night. and, having seen them play together several times, all more than thirty years after they met, I believe him.

Here is some of Clemons' best work:

"Jungleland" (Clemons' two and one-half minute solo begins around 4:41)

"The Promised Land"

"Born to Run"

And, finally, "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," the song in which, during live shows, Springsteen introduces his band members. Clemons was always introduced last, and to the biggest applause; the line "a change was made up town and the big man joined the band" line always drew the biggest mid-song cheer of any song in the concert.

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