Clarence Clemons – The Passing of a Musical Inspiration

 

by Peter Baulderstone

One of the great things about the Almanac is that its’ about more than footy.  Its’ footy and sport as an entrée to things that are deepest and most important in life.  Stuff that would sound ‘preachy’ if stated overtly, but sounds natural and unforced in the context of fandom, mateship and reminiscence.

 

Sometimes there is the passing of someone whose significance is more than their accomplishments.  Someone who added more to the team than what they achieved on their own.  Max Rooke, Paul Van der Haar, Adam Hunter – players who made their team mates walk taller for their presence, and their dependability in a crisis.

 

But this piece is not about footy or sport – but about a musician.  Clarence Clemons was the giant negro (I am old enough to use the term with MLK inspired affection) saxophonist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band.  For me the ‘Final Four’ in music’s premiership will always be Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Paul Kelly and Bruce Springsteen.  With condolences to Jackson Browne, Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison and Emmylou Harris on just missing out on the double chance.

 

All are great performers into their 50’s and beyond, but to me only Dylan and Springsteen continue to create great new music into their twilight years.  Dylan is greater as a poet and for the span of his creativity, but Bruce is the man I would be proudest to have as a friend.

 

The Avenging Eagle is not given much to idolatry outside of her dad and the blue and golds, but she calls Bruce her ‘journeyman’.  He was rocking up a storm with “Dancing in the Dark” and “Born to Run”.  Fed our adolescent dreams on “Thunder Road”.  Shared the middle-aged angst on “Brilliant Disguise” and Hungry Heart”.  Then rose defiantly from the ashes of the Twin Towers on “The Rising” and “Mary’s Place” (no prizes for guessing the Avenging Eagle’s real name!!).

 

One of our greatest shared experiences is 4 hours in the company of Bruce and Clarence at Docklands on the night Bush minor invaded Iraq.  Starting with Bruce on stage alone with a steel framed guitar doing “Born in the USA” (the bitter verses of the regrets of a Vietnam Veteran) – not the resounding chorus.  Segueing into a stomping full band revival of Edwin Starr’s “War – what is it good for      ?).  Not a word of politics all night.  The music had spoken.

 

The mark of the man is in his commitment to friends, his New Jersey roots and genuine (sometimes unpopular) causes.  A few years ago I read Springsteen’s 1999 acceptance speech when inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  In order he thanked his parents and early supporters, his management and record producers, his band members and his wife Patti (also a band member).

The final acknowledgement was for Clarence – the man who gave the band a unique sound that bridged rock and roll with rhythm and blues.  But more importantly Clarence gave a skinny, shy white kid the confidence to reach for the stars.  These were Bruce’ final words of acknowledgement:

 

“Oh now … last but not least, Clarence Clemons. That’s right. You want to be like him – but you can’t, you know. The night I met Clarence, he got up on stage (and) a sound came out of his horn that seemed to rattle the glasses behind the bar, and threatened to blow out the back wall. The door literally blew off the club in a storm that night, and I knew I’d found my sax player. But there was something else, something — something happened when we stood side by side. Some … some … some energy, some unspoken story. For 15 years Clarence has been a source of myth and light and enormous strength for me on stage. He has filled my heart so many nights — so many nights — and I love it when he wraps me in those arms at the end of the night. That night we first stood together, I looked over at C and it looked like his head reached into the clouds. And I felt like a mere mortal scurrying upon the earth, you know. But he always lifted me up. Way, way, way up. Together we told a story of the possibilities of friendship, a story older than the ones that I was writing and a story I could never have told without him at my side. I want to thank you, Big Man, and I love you so much. So, as Stevie Van Zandt says: “Rock ‘n’ roll, it’s a band thing.” *

 

Have a look at the DVD of the band’s “Live in New York City” reunion concert from Madison Square Gardens in 2000.  At the end the band stand arm-in-arm in a circle in the darkened stadium as each takes turns to step into the spotlight to sing a verse.  Listen to the husky Robesonesque baritone as Clarence concludes:

 

“Now there’s a beautiful river in the valley ahead,

There ‘neath the oak’s bough soon we will be wed,

Should we lose each other in the shadow of the evening trees…..”

 

Not lost Clarence, just moved beyond to that beautiful river.  Thanks for the inspiration.

————————————————————————————————————

 

If I Should Fall Behind


We said we'd walk together baby come what may
That come the twilight should we lose our way
If as we're walking a hand should slip free
I'll wait for you
And should I fall behind
Wait for me
 
 
We swore we'd travel darlin' side by side
We'd help each other stay in stride
But each lover's steps fall so differently
But I'll wait for you
And if I should fall behind
Wait for me
 
Now everyone dreams of a love lasting and true
But you and I know what this world can do
So let's make our steps clear that the other may see
And I'll wait for you
If I should fall behind
Wait for me
 
Now there's a beautiful river in the valley ahead
There 'neath the oak's bough soon we will be wed
Should we lose each other in the shadow of the evening trees
I'll wait for you
And should I fall behind
Wait for me
Darlin' I'll wait for you
Should I fall behind
Wait for me


* http://www.stoneponylondon.net/rrhofr.htm
 
 This is the link to Springsteen's full speech.  I'm voting for him to
 succeed Obama if Jed Bartlett is unavailable.

Comments

  1. Andrew Fithall says

    Thank-you for this Peter. Not being a fan of Bruce, I knew little of this Big Man, and you have provided a very warm insight into his music and the relationship he shared with BS and the E Street Band. From the more formulaic obituary in today’s Age, via the NYT, I also learned that he is survived by his fifth wife!

  2. John Butler says

    A ‘Big Man’ in many respects!

    Clarence did a solo album in the early 80’s with the Redbank Rockers. The album sleeve features some choice 80’s fashions. I now feel the need to give it a spin today (yes, it’s vinyl).

    Thanks Peter

  3. Dave Nadel says

    A beautiful obituary Peter.

    I was also at the Docklands concert the night Bush invaded Iraq. What made Bruce’s response so powerful was that he was touring “The Rising.” In effect Bruce had given the lie to Bush’s linking 9/11 with the Iraqi invasion just with his choice and placement of songs.

    I became a fan of the Boss in 1975 with the release of Born to Run. Then I bought his earlier albums. In 1985 I took two days off work and drove from Warrnambool to see Bruce do a midweek concert at The Showgrounds.

    As the obituary in todays Age pointed out, in the seventies there were mostly black bands and white bands. I never thought of the E Street Band as an intergrated band. I just thought of it as Bruce’s band. Ultimately it was about two friends who shared a similar musical vision. Another way of looking at it was that Springsteen and his lyrics represented the best of the American working class and the interracial partnership between The Boss and The Big Man represented the same thing.

  4. Rick Kane says

    http://www.pointblankmag.com/2011/06/clarence-clemons-special/

    Thanks Peter for a beautifully expressed remembrance of The Big Man. Like you, Springsteen is right up there for me (I learnt more from a three minute record than I ever learnt at school). It was a sad and lonely day on Sunday.

    Cheers

  5. John Butler says

    Dave

    1985 at the Showgrounds was one of the really great shows.

    1985! Am I feeling old?

  6. Dave Goodwin says

    I was another at the Docklands on Iraq night. It’s the late 70s albums with their racing in the street insights that get me in. How about Clarence’s sax on my personal favourite Drive All Night? Just Bruce’s vocals, Clarence’s sax and a clicking set of drumsticks can bring a man to tears. Try listening to this at 2am on an open road. “Baby I’d drive all night, just to buy you some shoes …” Vale big man.

  7. smokie88 says

    Thanks for that, Peter.
    I have been re-discovering Bruce lately (as a teen, he was one of my favourites).
    I was actually listening to “Devils and Dust” when I saw the sad news on the web.
    I instantly revisited “the River” album, on which Clarence is front and centre.
    JB, I was also at the Showgrounds in ’85. Doesn’t seem all that long ago…….
    Smokie.

  8. Shane Johnson says

    Agree.. a sad loss for a great band. Thats two gone now … Clarence and Danny Federici
    Jim Barnes and Bruce my two favourite working class muso’s
    The big fella fair dinkum made that bloody sax talk
    Bit like Wilbur Wilde really!!!!!!!!!
    Vale Clarence

  9. great words Peter
    I was fumbling through youtube a few minutes ago and loaded up CC’s solo from Jungleland. Put the earphones in and pressed play. The dog amd the war office jumped off the couch about 2 feet…..
    The power of that horn…..
    Following the thread above sadly I missed the Showgrounds gig in’85, but luckily caught the tour at Wembley on July 4th. Twice in my life I have felt so alive that sleep was not gonna happen. After that Wembley gig I was awake and pounding for days. The other time was after bungee jumping but that was more fear than fervour..
    Was at Docklands but skimped on the tix and regret it TO THIS DAY. Saw the acoustic set at The Palais late 90s where I first got Born n the USA as Bruce deconstructed it to the extent that it was the last chorus that I realised what song it was.
    Cant see who will be brave enough to walk on stage in The Big Mans shoes, but I hope I will be there again. Vale Big Man

  10. I came to this fitting and heartfelt tribute to Clarence Clemons a bit late (while browsing footy stories) but can only add my “Amen”. With or without Bruce Springsteen, he was one hell of a saxophonist. It is impossible to imagine the E Street Band without his driving power. Clarence Clemons released a fantastic solo album called “Peacemaker”, which demonstrated his musical virtuosity and versatility way beyond the boundaries of rock and R & B.

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