Clarence Clemons, Bruce Springsteen’s erstwhile sax-man, pal and foil, was my favorite non-guitar-playing musician. When my friends and I mimed “Born in the U.S.A.” at a summer camp talent show in the mid-1980s, I insisted on “being” Clemons. Never mind that the song has no sax part (or that we had no talent to show). For fans of the E Street Band, Clemons didn’t need to play to be heard (which was fortunate, as his parts on Springsteen’s records diminished over the last decade).
Later, as I was learning to drive and envisioning a life full of month-long road trips across deserts and cities (didn’t exactly work out that way), I decided Clemons, of all the members of E Street, would be the perfect co-pilot. Can you imagine, pulling into some small town in Ohio with Clemons in the passenger seat? Sneaking into train stations to blow his sax and scrape up a few bucks for a beer?
As any reader of this blog surely knows by now, Clemons died on Saturday at 69. Apart from the emotional void his death leaves in the lives of his friends, family and fans, his death robs the E Street band of its soul. And an essential facet to its sound. The question, then, is whether the band will continue. Springsteen has implied it will, but one has to wonder how.
- Clemons has been with the band since its inception in 1972/3. The only other “original” member is bassist Gary W. Tallent, a behind-the-scenes member of the rhythm section.
- Clemons, who was featured on the cover of Born to Run, was the only person other than Springsteen to appear on the cover of a Springsteen album.
- Clemons’ horn defines many of Springsteen’s classic songs, from “Rosalita” to “Jungleland” to “Dancin’ in the Dark.”
- Clemons was giant and black and looked great on stage. No one else in the band fits that description.
- Clemons painted his fingernails gold. No one else in the band could get away with that.
- Clemons was Springsteen’s alter ego and, in some ways, his audience. Springsteen spent long portions of songs singing directly to Clemons. Who’s he going to sing to now?
So, can the E Street Band endure without Clemons? Should it try? How, by finding another sax player? Your thoughts are welcome.
Meantime, do yourself a favor. Look up the recording of “The E Street Shuffle” performed at the Bottom Line, in the Village, in 1975. It’s about 19 minutes long and includes a preposterous story of Springsteen and Clemons meeting for the first time. It’s got gorgeous sax work from Clemons throughout, but listen especially for his playing at the very end. He’s barely whispering into his horn, as if he’s just suggesting the notes. It’s the sound of the biggest man on stage with the softest touch. It’s the sound of E Street.