A tribute to Bruce Springsteen And The E Street Band sax player Clarence Clemons, who died on June 18 following a stroke suffered a week earlier
In the admittedly narrow category of great and revered saxophone players in rock, Clarence Clemons stands supreme. His two-minute solo on ‘Jungleland’, the closing track on ‘Born To Run’, is surely the best sax solo ever, coaxing gracefulness and poetry from an instrument that generally struggles to convey either.
It’s testament to Clemons’ giant-lunged talent that his E Street solos are pretty much the only sax music most rock fans listen to. While the instrument was a key feature of the bar band scene that birthed Springsteen in the early 70s, it had become deeply anachronistic by the late ’80s – and Springsteen himself would admit that he sometimes struggled to work out exactly how to use Clemons on his records.
But it’s no coincidence that when Springsteen dissolved the E Street Band (therefore sacking Clemons) in 1989, he entered the suckiest period of his career. Check out the parade of slick session types he assembled for his MTV Unplugged performance in 1992. Without Clemons, Bruce loses an important part of his everyman appeal.
Springsteen has always needed Clemons, especially live, even if The Big Man’s position in the band is as much a sentimental one as a strictly musical one. The night they met, immortalised in ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out’, became the stuff of myth, repeated at length at live shows and endlessly embellished.
And of course that shot of the pair together on the ‘Born To Run’ album sleeve (even if you had to flip the cover over to actually see Clemons) was emblematic of racial brotherhood and friendship, at a time when that still needed affirming, less than a decade after legal segregation held sway in America.
Clemons transcends music – his bond with Bruce stands for something greater. The great affection in which Clemons is held is summed up his cameo as one of the Future Council in Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the joke being that The Big Man represents all that is cool and righteous in the world of rock and roll.
Springsteen formally reassembled the E Street Band in 1999. By then, he’d worked out how to use Clemons’ sax to convey subtle atmospheres, rather than as an arena-rock battering-ram. This new approach is best exemplified by 1995’s ‘Secret Garden’ – one of the saddest and most beautiful songs ever to reference blow-jobs – which ends with a solo that floats mournfully in and out, instead of obliterating everything in the mix.
You suspect it’s the battering-ram side of Clemons that Lady Gaga appreciates – the best you can say about his contribution to her current ‘Edge Of Glory’ single (he also appears in the video) is that it might persuade a few thousand young pop fans to explore Clemons’ discography.
Sitting anonymously in the background while the world’s neediest celebrity grabs her boobs and dances like Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club might seem like a bathetic swan song. Still, you can see why Gaga was drawn to the Big Man: there are few sounds in rock as immediate and exhilarating as a Clemons sax solo erupting from the speakers. Here are a few of my personal favourites.
5. Prove It All Night
The most thrilling sax moment on ‘Darkness On The Edge Of Town’. In this 1978 live performance, it kicks in at 3.57.
4. Bobby Jean
Drips with both heroism and pathos – a very Springsteen combination. From 2.57.
3. Born To Run
It’s not the best bit in the song (that’s the vocal octave leap after “One two three..!”), but it’s still impossibly exciting. From 2.10.
2. Secret Garden
One of Springsteen’s subtlest songs, best known for its use on the Jerry Maguire soundtrack. You wouldn’t think a sax solo would add much, but miraculously it does. From 3.19.
Well obviously. Two minutes of masterful timing and phrasing – the most brilliantly OTT moment in a brilliantly OTT song.
Also check out this hometown show version from 1978, from four minutes in. Astonishing.