I’ve written a lot about how Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street band captures the sounds of summer. Much of this really has to do with Clarence Clemon’s instantly identifiable saxophone playing. Clemons elevated Springsteen’s most classic songs into anthems of warmth and comfort perfect for afternoon sing-alongs even if the subject matter was a little bleak (see “Badlands”). Clemons offered a fun and soulful side to the band – a perfect foil to Springsteen’s earnestness an sincerity. The cover of Born to Run says it all – these two musicians were bonded in brotherhood and music.
“Well, I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk,” Springsteen declares mid-way through “Thunder Road”. Even back in 1975, no one believed in the power of rock and roll like Bruce Springsteen and Clemons breaks into his famous sax solo at the end of the song, it’s the perfect embodiment of that idea. Rock and roll can mean something. The ending to that song is so perfect, that if the rest of the album weren’t so damn good, you’d be inclined to never listen to the rest of the album.
Without a doubt Clemons was the most famous saxophone player in rock and roll. Who else is there? He had no contemporaries – maybe Bobby Keys (who played saxophone on many of The Rolling Stones songs from their classic era) – because in a way, for many Clarence Clemons was the saxophone. When you picture the instrument, you automatically envision Clemons with his lips pressed to the horn ready to wail. To the public, he seemed to live for music. There was always a joy in his eyes in interviews when talking about playing. Even recent health issues couldn’t keep him from playing on the last couple of E-Street Band Tours.
I came to Springsteen late in life. I had a few of his albums but never really “got” him until I heard the Live at the Hammersmith Odeon ’75CD. It was the performance of “Spirit in the Night” that truly made me a Springsteen fan. It was a wild, and chaotic treatment of the song – nearly veering out of control. (I’ve heard many version of the song played from that era, and none of them are as commanding as this one.) Springsteen can barely contain himself as he spits out the lyrics – a song about drinking and summer love turns into something erotic and and sinister – the chanting of “all night” becomes “all damn night”. Amidst all this chaos, Clemons playing remains grounded – holding the song together. When it comes times for the instrumental break, Springsteen shouts, “Big Man! Woooow!” – as if there is no other option, but for Clemons to take control of the song and bring it back to some sense of normalcy. It’s one of those performances that almost feels unreal. How can a band be this amazing?
E-Street will never be the same without Clemons. While Clemons was surely Springsteen’s brother in music and life, he also felt like ours as well. Rest in peace, Big Man. Heaven surely got a lot cooler with your saxophone playing.