“…If we didn’t play together, the E Street Band at this point would probably not know one another. We wouldn’t be in this room together. But we do…We do play together. And every night at 8p.m., we walk out on stage together and that, my friends, is a place where miracles occur…old and new miracles. And those you are with, in the presence of miracles, you never forget. Life does not separate you. Time does not separate you. Animosities do not separate you. Death does not separate you.”
Words spoken by Bruce Springsteen, eulogizing not the late, great saxophonist Clarence “Big Man” Clemons, but E Street Band organist Danny Federici, who succumbed to cancer in 2008. The words are just as easily applied to Clemons, though, who passed away on June 18th of complications following a stroke.
The E Street Band is an extraordinary machine, and one that has an incredibly long history with The Boss. Federici and “Little Steven” Van Zandt played with Springsteen as early as 1969. Clemons and bassist Garry Tallent appear in the musicians list for Springsteen’s first release, 1973’s Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ, and all the way though 2009’s Working on a Dream. The endurance of Springsteen and the E Street Band, despite drugs, infighting and simply growing up, is all the more astounding when you step back to observe the rock n’ roll landscape. How many other bands have maintained essentially the same lineup, with no giant dip in quality of output, for so long? U2 and Aerosmith jump to mind, but the former had some critically-drubbed albums (like 1997’s Pop) and the latter had some crazy band infighting that persists to this day. And neither band holds a candle to The E Street Band live. Widely known for their marathon live shows that leave no corner of the song catalog unturned, their 2007 performance at the LA Sports Arena was easily one of the best concerts I’ve seen in my life.
The loss of Clemons hits a little harder than most rock n’ roll deaths, because it feels like Bruce and the E Street Band have lost a family member. Arguably the first guy you think of when you think “E Street Band”, Clemons leaves a void that seems impossible to fill. His joining the band is commemorated in the Born to Run track, “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”, and he graces that album’s cover along with Springsteen. His sax permeates all the big Bruce favorites: “Rosalita”. “She’s The One”. “Badlands.” Clemons’s playing pops up on releases from artists as diverse as Aretha Franklin – that’s his solo on her 1985 hit, “Freeway of Love” – to Jackson Browne, with whom he duetted on the single, “You’re a Friend of Mine”. Clemons lives on in today’s pop chart; he played on three tracks on Lady Gaga’s new CD, Born This Way, including current single “The Edge of Glory”.
So, what did Bruce have to say about Clarence Clemons’s passing?
“Clarence lived a wonderful life. He carried within him a love of people that made them love him. He created a wondrous and extended family. He loved the saxophone, loved our fans and gave everything he had every night he stepped on stage. His loss is immeasurable and we are honored and thankful to have known him and had the opportunity to stand beside him for nearly forty years. He was my great friend, my partner and with Clarence at my side, my band and I were able to tell a story far deeper than those simply contained in our music. His life, his memory, and his love will live on in that story and in our band.”
Much love to you, Big Man, and to your road family. Those epic 3-hour shows won’t be the same without Clarence Clemons, but I do hope the show goes on. I have the feeling Clarence would want it that way.
One of Bruce Springsteen’s classicly overwrought introductions of Clarence Clemons onstage:
Clarence doing his thing – rocking the solo to “Jungleland”:
One of my favorite Springsteen songs, live: