Monday, June 20, 2011

Ballad for the big man

Strumbum notes: Atlanta contributor Mike Tierney introduced us to Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band at the Lakeland Civic Center in Florida, circa 1978. Thirty-three years and many memorable concert experiences later we remain eternally grateful, and today we pay our respects to the band's beautiful big man, sax player Clarence Clemons.
Bruce Springsteen leaned heavily on Clarence Clemons.
By Mike Tierney

In the early 1980s, I found myself backstage after a Bruce Springsteen concert in Oakland, Calif., awaiting a one-on-one interview for which I had spent months arranging.

Well, Spingsteen's father, who had just moved to the area, showed up unexpectedly. Off they went, leaving me stranded. (Because these words are being typed on Father's Day, I feel a modicum of forgiveness, but no more than that.)

I did, however, take away a vivid memory from that frustrating night. Seems I wound up outside a separate dressing room designated for a single member of the E Street Band. The others, I believe, got on their game faces in a communal space.

You might have guessed that the special treatment was afforded to Clarence Clemons, the larger-than-life saxophonist who apparently required a larger-than-normal room. Curious, I was planning to ask Springsteen if other bandmates were jealous about the set-up.

Some years later, I learned second-hand through guitarist Nils Lofgren that Springsteen operates as a benevolent dictator who holds his sidekicks in high regard as long as they are clear that he calls the shots. In such hierachies, usually the others unite to commiserate or plot how to get their voice heard. So I have assumed ever since the rest were cool with the favoritism.

Clemons, who died Saturday at 69 from after-effects of a stroke, was a top-notch musician, but no better than the other players in the finest rock 'n' roll band ever to grace the planet. For most Springsteen songs, in fact, the sax sat idle, not lending a hand.

For good reason. Springsteen ingeniously picked the spots for the sax -- a song intro there, an instrumental break there, a fade-out when it fit. In doing so, he made the instrument's presence special. That is the secret of record-making: Leave 'em wanting more.

On the rare occasions when Clemons cut loose for an extended period, best illustrated in the chilling masterpiece "Jungleland," the moment rose to the level of Springsteen highlights. (Check out YouTube and notice the clips edited down to Clemons' segment on the tune.)

Springsteen respected the role of the sax in his genre, and he found a contributor who blew on one to emit the ideal sound that blended with "these drums and these guitars," as Bruce wailed in "No Surrender."

Of course, Clemons' character was the perfect foil for Springsteen onstage. He was big, black, stylish. Bruce is short, white, scruffy. Their interplay, which sometimes led to a lips-to-lips kiss, was knee-slapping entertaining and is what endeared most Bruceniks to the Big Man.

But it is music, not performance, that is forever, and what flew out of Clarence's instrument helped lift Springsteen's songs to an unparalled plane in the annals of pop music. They have, and will, stand the test of time.

A few years ago, I shared a hotel bar table in Atlanta for a minute with Clarence. Same as in Oakland 2 1/2 decades earlier, I heard were no memorable words, though at least I got small talk this time. What struck me was non-verbal -- his gait, slow and forced. I concluded he was not long for future E Street Band tours.

Turns out, he was not long for this earth. As his family prepares for burial, I am sure their grief is palpable. But I cannot imagine it being any greater than the suffering of Springsteen, who has lost a part of himself.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this. 1000memories created a tribute site for Clarence today - - thought you'd appreciate it.