Thursday, June 23, 2011
Clarence Clemons: The Big Man Leaves the Band
I have been wondering why the death of Clarence Clemons has hung over me like a dark cloud. Every few days, there is an obituary about some music pioneer or rock and roll sensation who has died, the passing of a generation. But this event was somehow different and I have been looking back for answers.
As a fan of Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band since before he was on magazine covers I have marveled at how his music has evolved, remaining thought-provoking and entertaining for decades. When Clarence brought his one-man horn section to the band, it was not just the straw that stirred the drink, it was more like a Waring Blender that mixed up the music to produce a new sound. From the guitars and drums and harmonica of folk rock, a big band sound emerged that produced the blockbuster album Born to Run.
The cover art for that gives the clue to the chemistry between the two front men: Clarence made Bruce laugh. I think he also could keep Bruce on an even keel even as he skyrocketed to superstardom. You just got the feeling that Clarence did not put up with bull---- from anyone (not even Bruce).
It seems in retrospect that Clarence's towering presence gave Bruce the cover he needed to keep experimenting and reworking his musical styles. His "partner, his friend" could be both a sounding board in the studio and the go-to guy on stage when the band needed a kick-start. And I wonder if back in the early days of playing in little seaside bars, that a lot of drunks thought twice about messing with the skinny lead singer when Clarence was on stage.
More recently Clarence became the big finish to Bruce's lengthy musical introductions of the E Street Band members ("and on bass, the man whose mother was a talent and whose father was a talent...Gary Tallent). He didn't have to remind the audience what instrument Clarence played, he just slid on his knees in front of the high priest in the temple of soul and rock and roll.
It was a good thing for Bruce and the rest of us that knee trouble kept Clarence from making it in the NFL and even though his passing seems to mark the end of the Glory Days for the rock and roll generation, his music can still bring back those memories.