' ' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: Clarence

Sunday, June 19, 2011

In Memoriam: Clarence

From behind the stage at Madison Square Garden on July 1, 2000 during yet another massive rendition of "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" I watched Bruce Springsteen take the hand of Clarence Clemons as the two stood there, joyous, defiant, locked hands raised in respect for "the ministry of rock and roll." All by itself it was a beautiful moment I can still see more clearly in my mind than any image ever on any 77 inch LCD TV. But the moment was more, and it was more because this was the last night of the Reunion Tour of Bruce and The E Street Band that had by then stretched out over a year. When Bruce broke up the band back in 1989 it seemed clear the person who was hurt most by this dissolution was Clarence. And with the band coming back together and hitting the road it's safe to assume that maybe Clarence was the happiest. Except now it was the final evening and at that specific moment in time no one - perhaps not even Bruce - knew what lay in store for the future. Maybe the band would play more, maybe they wouldn't, maybe this was it, and so when Bruce went to relinquish Clarence's hand, Clarence refused. He pulled Bruce back and made him dance. And Bruce obliged. Clarence, damn it, did not want the moment to end.

Clarence Clemons, The Big Man, saxophonist in The E Street Band, passed away yesterday from complications of a stroke at the age of 69. And if The E Street Band is a family, and it most surely is, then that family might have just lost its most essential member. It's safe to say he is (specifically) rock and roll's most famous, cherished sax man. Some of his sax solos wrench the heart, some of them soothe the heart, some of them make the heart soar. His most famous solo came on "Jungleland" from the "Born to Run" album in 1975 which is the Jordan River of rock and roll sax solos. Last April I stood in front of the very saxophone Clarence used to play that solo at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland during the gargantuan Springsteen exhibit. Like many things there that day, it was all I could do to keep from grabbing every person who walked by, shake them and scream, "THAT'S THE SAXOPHONE CLARENCE USED TO PLAY THE 'JUNGLELAND' SOLO!"

His solos could be shots of electrolytes in the midst of rockers, like "Badlands" or "I'm Goin' Down." His solos could be elegant codas, like "Bobby Jean" or "Back In Your Arms." They could be the warning shots at the start of a song like "None But The Brave" or they could be the gospel like "The Promised Land" or they could be spiritual whispers like "American Skin." In the early days of The E Street Band his sax was often omnipresent, like "Rosalita" or on the splenderific cover of "Mountain of Love" they used to do way back when. Or his sax solos could, simply, just be epic, like "Jungleland" or like "Mary Lou" or like my favorite Clarence sax solo on "Drive All Night."

"Drive All Night" is a lengthy (eight minutes plus) tune from "The River" album (1980) that is nothing much beyond bass, piano, a hint of drums and one of those majestic Bruce vocal tracks where he sounds like he's drunk on romantic delusion. Which he sorta is because just wants to drive all night down the highway or the freeway or the back roads, whatever, just to get home to his baby to "taste (her) tender charms" and to "sleep tonight again in (her) arms." Over and over and over he makes this plea and he's not really even making the plea to her. He's making it to her in his mind. This is a lonely, heartbroken, devastated man. And well......

Max Weinberg has called Clarence's saxophone "the soul of The E Street Band", and this is so spot-on it's stunning. People don't think or act or function with their honest-to-God souls quite as often as they should, it's only once in awhile that true soulful feeling comes to humanly fruition. This is why Clarence's sax only turns up now and again. It's only when the song becomes truly soulful that it's required and it's why his sax is nowhere on the "Tunnel of Love" album (1987). That album was about Bruce's marriage to Julianne Phillips disintegrating. Bruce's soul was dead. The sax couldn't show up.

And when that Clarence solo crashes in during "Drive All Night,' a solo longer than most of his for Bruce, you realize that what you're hearing is the narrator's soul and that the narrator's soul is genuinely cracking right here before your eyes (or in your ears). His sax was so often soulful, but never more so than on this song.

As you may know, Clarence's sax recently turned up on the latest Lady Gaga album "Born This Way." The last track on the album is "The Edge Of Glory" which features a prominent solo from The Big Man but even more telling, especially this morning, is the way the song ends. It's one of Clarence's aforementioned elegant codas in unison with a bit of synth that sounds, eerily, a little like an EKG flatlining. They go out together, meaning the very last sound you hear on Lady Gaga's mega-monstrous record isn't Gaga. It's Clarence.

I reckon a few weeks or a few months or a few years from now there will be E Street Disciples who claim a bit of sadness that his last sound on record was on "Born This Way" as opposed to a Bruce record but I can only speak for myself. And I speak as a man with a photo of Lady Gaga embracing Bruce Springsteen on his refrigerator. Thus, I could never have hoped to a imagine a better way for him to go out. He wasn't fading away. He was still relevant, all the way to the end.

In fact, I'm gonna crank "The Edge Of Glory" right now. Clarence is gone. Except he isn't. And he never will be.


The Kid In The Front Row said...

I felt pretty good about myself after I wrote about Clarence, thought I was onto something -- but wow, what you've written here has blown me away, I LOVE what you wrote about 'Tunnel..' -- and how the GaGa stuff kept him relevant to the end.

I am so happy for you that you got to be there on the last night of that reunion tour. Wow. Thanks for sharing your poignant memories.

You're the best.

Nick Prigge said...

You're too, too kind. But thank you. Of course, as I'm sure we all know, I really wish I didn't have to write it.

Reanaclaire said...

Hello..coming by to visit your movie blog..