Saturday, June 18, 2011

When the Big Man Joined the Band

Clarence Clemons, saxophonist and occasional backing vocalist for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, died of complications today, June 18, from a stroke he suffered June 12, at age 69.
I can still write the lead for an obituary as I did for years as a journalist, but it will be tougher for me to explain the effect Clemons and the E Street Band had on me as a teenager when I first heard and fell in love with their music.
While I had heard their first two albums, I was really only a minor fan of Springsteen and the band until the album"Born to Run" was released in August 1975, just before I turned age 15. Not only did "Born to Run" launch Springsteen to superstardom, it turned my musical fandom and appreciation into something more of an obsession and religion, something that became a major part of my life and indeed a vocation of sorts.
To me, the depictions of people trying to break free of whatever and whoever were holding them back, and to escape what wasn't working, to have the opportunity to find something better and more fitting, even from the oh, so woeful adolescence I thought I was experiencing, were stories, ideas and feelings I had never experienced before. I had never been reached like this by a rock band, hell, any kind of band, before, with such intensity and meaning, such power and understandable message. And, hey, having a saxophone as a key instrument and Clemons an upfront member were vital to this then-tuba player.
"Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," off of "Born to Run," was a story about the beginnings of the E Street Band and of Clemons joining the group, a joyous, upbeat story, but for a while was not paid too much attention with an absolute classic as the title song, possibly the ultimate rock and roll break-our-chains, escape-to-glory song, naturally gaining the spotlight. Clemons' playing on these songs, as well as "Thunder Road" and "Jungleland," grabbed me then and stay with me more than 35 years later.
I never listened to or looked at music the same again after "Born to Run," and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band became one of my all-time favorite musical acts, along with The Clash, Elvis Costello, Sonic Youth, Husker Du, Neil Young and X. The amount of enjoyment, thought and fulfillment I received from the band's music, as well as gaining the viewpoint of not taking the music for granted or to not challenge it when it deserved it, never died in me, and no doubt led in part to me first writing about music more than 30 years ago, and, to my good fortune, still being paid to write about music today.
I was fortunate to have been assigned to review "The Promise: The Making of 'Darkness on the Edge of Town'" recently for Artvoice. A powerful movie on the arduous recording of the followup album to "Born to Run," the film ends on a soaring, evocative cover of "Darkness on the Edge of Town." As it comes to a majestic ending, Springsteen and the band look a bit lonely and desolate, not only because of how fitting that emotion is to the album itself, but because this version of the song was recorded shortly after the death of E Street Band keyboardist Danny Federici in 2008. It was as if the musicians knew that with Federici dead, that this song will never sound and can never really be performed as it should be presented again. With Clemons now dead, the band will probably feel this way more, not just on signature songs such as "Born to Run" and "Badlands," but every song, and may finally mean the end of the E Street Band, at least as a name under which to perform.
It also means another piece in the slow end to my musical innocence, something that part of my mind says has been gone for a long time, but part of me never wants to surrender, still believing in the transformative power of rock and roll to change and improve lives. I will not only still be immensely moved by Clemons' solos on, say, "Born to Run" or "Jungleland," I will appreciate and enjoy them even more.
Peace, Big Man.


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