Clarence Clemons, saxophonist of the E-Street Band passed away yesterday, a day before Father’s Day 2011. While I have Louisiana deep in my heart, my home state of New Jersey is still my soul, and Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band were the soundtrack of that soul during years where so much in my life didn’t make much sense.
To say the music they created together shepherded me through some tough times is an understatement. Much of what I learned about love, loyalty, commitment, defiance, and social conscience I learned through Springsteen’s hard poetry, lines that were punctuated with Clemons’ straightforward tone and beautiful sense of melody. The smokey, bluesy jazz of Spirit in the Night, the gorgeous bell tones of New York City Serenade, the soul lifting solo in Jungleland, Clemons’ sax was the hallmark of the early work of the E-Street Band. A mythical figure whose preternatural appearance literally blew the doors off an Asbury park club, forever changing Springsteen’s personal trajectory, as well as that of rock and roll, Clemons was indeed the “The Big Man.” He was Springsteen’s onstage foil, but more than that, he was a father figure, the rock to Bruce’s flailing wild man. To me, Clarence was the E-Street band, and his loss is devastating.
It is a funny thing to think about the importance of a musician in your life on a day like Father’s Day. Today, as I am with my own Father, and my son, I will be celebrating the fact that we all have one more day together; you never know when that gift will be taken from you. Just like you never know when something that seems eternal and intractable will suddenly leave your life, without warning. Clarence Clemons’ passing makes me feel incredibly mortal, and it also makes me think about my own father, and the time we have left. Moreover, it makes me think back to halcyon days, endless summers, and music that spoke to me directly, and personally, in a way they I have never been spoken to before or since.
One of Clarence’s finest and most underrated solos is on Bobby Jean from Born in the USA. The tale of an irreplaceable friend who goes away, the song is purported to be about Steve Van Zandt, who left the E-Street Band to pursue a solo career in 1984. In my mind, however, I will always remember the song for the beautiful saxophone solo that rides out the end of the song, following the ultimate line of “I’m gonna miss you baby, good luck, goodbye, Bobby Jean.” And miss you indeed I will. Good luck. Goodbye. Clarence Clemons, RIP.