Sunday, June 19, 2011

Heroic Sideman Clarence Clemons Dead At 69

It seems that when some individuals die, their death seems incomprehensible. Not just because they were strong or larger than life, but because some people just seem invincible. Icons. Blocks of granite. Cornerstones. Tougher than the rest.

Clarence Clemons of the legendary E Street Band was certainly one of those. In my youth rock stars were more like comic book characters, superheroes that sometimes walked amongst the mortals on earth, I took notice of the Big Man (his nickname). I remember watching his ebullient, charismatic smile in Born In The USA era videos on MTV, somehow feeling like I knew him. He was familiar to me, like I had seen him before, like I somehow had already grown to feel great love for this person that I didn't actually know at all but merely smiled back at me through the TV screen.

Now looking back on it, I wonder how much of my own notion of what friendship, of what brotherhood actually looks like was formed from those videos. And the best visual example of what a bond between brothers looks like has to be the cover of Born To Run. The Boss and The Big Man, leaning back to back, an image that spoke volumes; this is what brothers look like. For someone who didn't have a brother, I think that this image taught me what that word - brother - looked like, and in fact, what the word meant.

The other aspect of his legacy is of course the music itself. To be honest, I rarely like horns in rock and roll, and I especially dislike the saxophone in general. But Clemons' sax was always different. Rather than the cringe I normally felt when a horn might come into a song, I felt a twinge of excitement whenever he stepped to the plate. His playing was totally distinct, more soulful, more celebratory, more spiritual than any other sax player in rock history. From the desperate ache of Drive All Night, the cinematic widescreen reach of Jungeland, the broken-hearted wail of 41 Shots, to the out-in-the-street summer bounce of Tenth Avenue Freeze Out or Livin' In The Future or Sherry Darling, the sound of that horn could take you all over the city, a geographic resonance.

Thank you Big Man, for all those lessons and all that beauty. Thank you for all the nights I have spent sitting in an open window overlooking the city as the warm summer breeze filled the room. Thank you for providing the soundtrack to the streets of the Saginaw of my youth, at least in my mind.

You always were too big for this world.