Clarence “Big Man” Clemons passed into his Glory on June 18, 2011, taking with him a musical voice that lived large, loved large, and infused rock n roll with outsized and passionate soulfulness. Like so many musicians, Clarence spoke and sang through his instrument, and oh! – the songs he sang! the stories he told! Just as brassy as his saxophone, Clarence was Street, and his was the song of the Road: the music that travels on two feet, sits on a stoop, pours out from the doors of storefront bars with crackerjack stages where booze and music wash away the poverty, and scrub it down to a Shine. His was the voice of dirt yards and tire swings, brick tenement row houses with asphalt lawns crumbling in the heat, the sweaty sweltering heat of summer wherever she goes.
With every song he brought the grit of the road, the soulful moan of the midnight train, the road song of urban gypsies and rock n roll vagabonds, bluesy troubadours and dancing troupes, the rumbling diesel rhythm of the tour bus, tires clicking their tongues over the concrete miles and lonely nights unspooling and playing out behind.
Steeped in gospel as a child, Clarence was gifted with an alto sax and music lessons at the age of 9, played in high school jazz band, and attended college on music and football scholarships. If not for bad knees, he might have had a career in the NFL, and he certainly had the talent to become a great jazz musician. But the seminal music of the 50s and 60s, embodied in the honking saxophone style of R&B legend King Curtis, inspired his momentous shift from baritone to tenor sax, and set his feet on the determined path to rock n roll and his musical destiny. He became the face as well as the musical soul of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, anchoring anthemic Jersey rock n roll to its authentic black roots in jump blues, jive, doo wop, R&B, and soul.
His physical presence in flashy dress and his bantering stage-play with Springsteen carried as much weight as his signature instrumental solos, filled with urban yearning and visceral deliverance from the sorrows of the day. Without Clarence, who could imagine that “Born to Run” or “Thunder Road,” “Jungleland” or “Dancing in the Dark” could have risen above the basic elements of composition to become the truly epic songs that moved a generation to laugh and cry, dance and sing, live and love. There’s not a single Springsteen song of great sentiment that does not have The Big Man’s musical fingerprints all over it.
Though he’s best known for his work with Springsteen, his much larger legend was built over the years, song by song, album by album, in his solo work, his studio sessions work, and on stage with legends like Jackson Browne, Aretha Franklin, the Grateful Dead, his own lesser-known Red Bank Rockers, and many more artists, gifting each project with his distinctive playing style and his passion for life and music forged in those moments of musical truth and heritage.
His final project was on Lady Gaga’s album, Born This Way, where he contributed sax solos for two songs, “Hair” and “The Edge of Glory” (both of great personal significance to Gaga), and gave his last live performance on American Idol. The day before his death, he appeared in the video for “The Edge of Glory,” Gaga’s first truly classic music video.
Having rejected a high-end fantasy concept at the last minute, Gaga chose instead to produce a pure, stripped down, deeply personal solo performance that premiered to much controversy and carping. Her instinctive commitment to making THIS video THIS way for THIS song now seems poignantly prophetic. Clarence was the visual as well as musical anchor for the video. He was the Street in Gaga’s New York City. His solo was the Edge and Glory that she danced to with utter abandonment and joy, giving flesh and blood to the voice of his saxophone. His last pulsing notes punctuated her final sashay and strut into the New York night. The video was authentically Gaga, on the edge of her glory to come, authentically Clarence, literally “on the edge of something final we call life,” authentically the heart and soul of rock n roll dreams made flesh.
I’m so very grateful to have these last artistic moments with Clarence, to embrace his final song to us. And a message no one could have foreseen when this video was made.
With his passing, I fear that we’ve lost a great deal more than simply a legendary man, a legendary artist. We’ve lost the tether that ties contemporary music to its deep historical and cultural roots. I look out over a rather bleak musical landscape, where saxophones are dismissed as “cheesy” and a generation has a musical memory that doesn’t go much farther back than Madonna, a landscape where music can be created by machine, in bits and bytes, in mechanistic manipulations of voice until nothing human remains…no soul is required and isn’t even necessarily desirable.
But the Street is still here, always and everywhere, and I imagine that tonight, on a thousand stoops and porches, on rusting skeletons of urban fire escapes, on the shoebox stages in a hundred dimly lit bars, thousands of new voices are being raised, to celebrate his Glory, and put passionate flesh and blood to the dance of the life he lived, the life he loved, and the life he played for us all those long years.
If we owe Clarence Clemons anything at all, we owe him the respect to pick up his blazing torch and carry it forward into the next decades where music with heart and soul still matters, still lives and breathes, still dances on rainy streets and fire escapes, still loves in the full heat of summer, and still lives in the fullness of its own authenticity and history.
Rest well in your Glory, Big Man.
Cheryl Helm is an unapologetically unreconstructed hippie and devoutly politically incorrect. She sold her soul to rock n roll in the 50s, bought her first good electric guitar from Patti Smith's husband in Detroit, and never looked back. She writes poetry, prose, L-Word fan fiction, essays, editorials, music criticism, and some things she can’t quite define. She’s been published in obscure feminist literary journals, alternative presses, newspapers, Creem Magazine, and blogs, leaving behind digital traces like glitter.
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