One of many — too many — great musicians who passed away this year was Clarence Clemons, the saxophone playing dynamo from Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. Clarence wasn’t just another musician in the band, he was a vital cog in the wheel; perhaps the most indispensible single member. Physically, he was a huge man, capable of commanding your attention at any time, but when he was onstage and playing his sax he become an even more imposing force of nature.
On songs like “Jungleland,” Clarence’s sax playing was as crucial — or more so — to the composition as Springsteen’s lyrics or guitar playing. Clarence’s sax added extra layers of atmosphere to each song; depending on the mood of the song, it could sound mournful, soulful, funky, or raucous. And when Clarence got hold of a song like “Kitty’s Back,” he would blow the roof off the tune, creating a joyous feeling of wild abandon. The man is irreplaceable.
Shortly after Clemons passed away in June, Springsteen issued this eloquent statement about his friend and bandmate:
“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.”
I saw Springsteen and the E Street Band six times in concert during their “glory years” from the mid-70s through the mid-80s. Those shows were, without a doubt, the best concerts I saw during that period. The energy that Springsteen, Clemons, and the other members of the band exuded each night was breathtaking, and sometimes exhausting. Shows that lasted three hours or longer. They gave all they had, and it showed. Clearly, this was a band having fun onstage, and their enthusiasm inevitably infected the audience.
During one the band’s early 80s tours, the night before a show in Lakeland, Florida, some friends and I went to the hotel where the band was staying and managed to find out which floor they were on. This was in the days of little to no security, so we had no problems roaming the corridors of the hotel. At one point during the night, “the Big Man,” as Clemons was fondly called, came wandering out into the hallway wearing only his underwear. He smiled and nodded at us — I think he might have even murmured “Howya doin’” or something like that — and then shuffled off in search of more ice. Ah, those brushes with greatness!
I was thinking about Clarence again this week as I listened to Springsteen’s amazing Hammersmith Odeon London ’75 live album. That double CD has some great early-period Springsteen songs, all of them punctuated by Clarence’s vibrant sax playing. These live recordings really embody what was so wonderful, and vital, about Springsteen’s music. But listening to this album also shows that it wasn’t just Bruce’s songs and charisma that thrilled audiences; it was a band effort. Listen to these songs, smile and remember the greatness of Bruce, Clarence, and the band. I’ve decided that their version of “Quarter to Three,” the old Gary U.S. Bonds hit that’s one of the encores on Hammersmith Odeon, will be a great way to ring in the New Year this weekend. Play it loud!