Sunday, June 19, 2011

Clarence Clemons: 1942-2011

Just before going to sleep earlier this morning, I went online for a final catch up on the news and read the headline I'd been dreading I'd see for the last week: E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons had died. Since his stroke last week, it seemed that a man who had been in extremely poor health over the last decade or so was slipping even further downhill. At the very least, it seemed highly unlikely most of us would ever see him play onstage again. That's a selfish thought, I know, but a natural one for any hardcore Bruce Springsteen fan, such as myself. From the Springsteen fan perspective, a Bruce show with the E Street Band minus Clemons would simply not have been the same experience. Sadly, the "would" has now become a "will".
I've been a Springsteen fan for some 30 years now, although I never got around to seeing him live until 2003. Since then, I've seen him six times, including a couple of five hour drives to Ottawa for shows. Part of the reason for seeing him so much the last few years was to make up for lost time, plus the fact I wanted to see the original E Street Band while the members were still with us. Keyboardist Danny Federici was the first of the group to pass on, in 2008. With all due respect, Federici was possibly the least visible member of the group, tucked behind his keyboards at the side of the stage and always exhibiting a fairly low-key personality. Still, his presence was conspicuously missed on Springsteen shows following his death. Don't get me wrong, Springsteen and his band still put on a phenomenal show, but it just wasn't quite the same any more. Clemons' absence on Springsteen's right side of the stage now leaves a huge hole, not just from his imposing physical presence, but his centrepiece sax solos and comical interplay with The Boss.
One of my lingering memories of Clemons occurred at one of those Ottawa shows a few years back. I was standing in the front row and a couple of times when he made his way closer to my side of the stage I had a couple of those "eye contact moments" with him that one gets when they've got a stellar vantage point at a concert. He had that great smile on his face and I know that he was just doing what performers do, that it's just part of the show for them and as soon as his eyes left me he was just on to someone else whose face he likely wouldn't have recognized if you showed him a picture of them ten minutes later. For me, however, it meant something more - it added to the great experience I had at the show, just knowing that the dude who blew the solo on friggin' "Born To Run" had locked eyes with me, if only for a brief moment. Yes, I know that sounds like I'm completely geeking out - guilty as charged (and proud of it). Another memory from that show involves seeing him and Bruce take an unplanned spill a mere few feet in front of me while the pair were goofing around mid-song. If you've seen Clemons play onstage the past few years, you'll know that it was downright painful watching him move around, as he was hobbled by multiple hip replacements, knee replacements, and other assorted maladies. More so than watching the star attraction take a header, you could almost feel the entire audience gasp as the fragile Clemons, who was quite a few years older than anyone else in the E Street Band, went down. Both were okay, probably more embarrassed than anything.
The last work Clemons released before his death was the sax solo he contributed to Lady Gaga's newest single, "The Edge Of Glory". Most Springsteen fans would likely deem that an unfitting, undistinguished capper to the man's legendary body of work (and who knows what unreleased material featuring Clemons that Springsteen has lying around), but I'm okay with it. Nobody in music is as high profile as her right now, so hopefully their collaboration inspires one of Gaga's "little monsters" (as she calls her fans) to go and check out some music with a lot more substance from Springsteen's catalog, featuring Clemons' beautiful playing on tracks such as "Jungleland", "Night", or "Secret Garden", just to name a few.
R.I.P., Big Man.

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