Sparks fly on E Street for Clarence Clemons

Clarence Clemons

Clarence Clemons spent most of his career in the awkward position of having been the key to a musical idea that Bruce Springsteen lost interest in early on.

Clemons, who died on Saturday at the age of 69 after having suffered a stroke last week, was the heart of the great horn section that played on 1973’s “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle.” It was unlike any album Springsteen made before or after — an amalgam of rock, folk, soul and Latin music played by a first-rate band with lots of room for stretching out and soloing.

This early version of the E Street Band featured two black musicians — Clemons and keyboard player David Sancious — and a drummer, Vini Lopez, who was fired after a fight with the brother of Springsteen’s manager, but who on “The E Street Shuffle” plays with a wonderfully loose, propulsive feel that is the opposite of Max Weinberg’s hard-rock pounding. It may or may not have been Springsteen’s best album. I do think it’s the greatest summer album ever.

But Springsteen decided to go the rock-god route, although he continued to grow as a songwriter and, especially, as a lyricist. His next album, the elaborate, rococo “Born to Run” (1975), carved out large spaces for Clemons, especially on “Jungleland.” But “Darkness on the Edge of Town” (1978) is a traditional hard-rock album, with scarcely any room for Clemons at all. For the most part, Springsteen has stuck with a spare, stripped-down approach ever since.

What to do? Clemons and Springsteen were friends, and Clemons was the biggest draw at the live shows other than Springsteen himself. The solution was to keep him, let him play percussion and sing back-up, and of course play sax on the old songs — as well as on the occasional newer songs Springsteen would write to give Clemons something to do other than bang a cowbell.

It was a workable and honorable solution. But I always thought it was too bad that Springsteen abandoned his original (in more ways than one) idea of having an integrated band play integrated music in favor of becoming just another white rocker — albeit the best in the world for a time — with a black foil/sidekick on stage.

Tuesday is the first day of summer. Sparks fly on E Street, and I know what I’ll be playing in my car that day. God bless you, Clarence Clemons.

Photo (cc) by Martin Olbrich and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

14 thoughts on “Sparks fly on E Street for Clarence Clemons

  1. BP Myers

    Can’t help but think you’re attributing motives to Springsteen that you can’t possibly know. I’d point out that Springsteen was legally blocked from recording music for years after “Born to Run,” and “Darkness” was the . . . dark reflection of those years in song. Who’s to say what kind of music they might have gone on making if not for those lost years?

    Hard too to accept your (almost) dismissal of Springsteen as “settling” for Rock God status. The man who followed up his first top ten hit with the stark “Nebraska” album, and later recorded “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” seems to care little about being a Rock God.

    Finally, guess I’d point out that there was nothing stopping Clarence from playing music in his own right (and indeed, he did) both in between Springsteen gigs, and for the decade that Springsteen gave up the E-Street Band in favor of other musicians (again, not quite the thing someone who cared about Rock God status might do.) And there was nothing spare or stripped down about the albums he recorded during those years, “Tunnel of Love” and “Leap of Faith.”

    Guess in a nutshell, I think somewhere in your criticism of Springsteen, lies even more criticism of what Clemons might have been, and that’s not Springsteen’s fault at all.

  2. BP Myers

    Correction: “Human Touch” and “Leap of Faith” were recorded during Springsteen’s hiatus from the E-Street Band.

    Freudian slip, no doubt, because “Tunnel of Love” was not an E-Street Band album either.

  3. Stephen Stein

    This was a real shock. Thanks for the tribute, Dan. Clarence Clemons created WONDERFUL music, redefined the rock sax genre, totally the equal of his jazz contemporaries. There would be NO E Street band without the Big Man, and Bruce’s music wouldn’t be the same without him.

  4. A great appreciation, Dan. I feel so sad about this. Of course, you were the one who introduced me to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. And I don’t think you ever fall in love with a band like you do when you’re in your teens or 20s. It was so different then – no YouTube or MTV. The only way you could see your favorite band was to actually go see them! Honestly, I haven’t felt as captivated by Springsteen’s music in quite some time. But I remember when it all seemed so fresh and thrilling.

  5. George Field

    Appropriate tribute, Dan. The Big Man rewrote the rock sax playbook, and made it his own. The too-short solos in songs like “Born to Run” and “Prove It All Night” (the latter beautifully merging into a sweet guitar riff) are moments to treasure. In live shows, Clemons often got to do more, and those were some great performances. I remember one show at the old Boston Garden when no one wanted to go home. Clarence Clemons was a rough, gutsy rocker with class and personality. RIP, and thanks.

  6. BP Myers

    @Dan: Yup. Though I liked them both . . . they were indeed that memorable.

    Was at that 1980 show you reference as well. I recall Steve Morse commenting in his review that the show, just weeks after John Lennon’s death, reaffirmed the importance and transcendence of rock.

    After posting, I recalled too that “The Promised Land” off “Darkness” has one of the most iconic sax solos (perhaps) of all time. So it wasn’t all downhill after 1973.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @BP: Springsteen himself has said (and no, I doubt I’ll ever be able to come up with a link) that he lost interest in having horns in his music after “Born to Run.” That’s not to say he didn’t find ways to wedge Clemons into his songs here and there. In fact, I like the way Springsteen rewrote “Tenth Avenue Freezeout” on his last decent album, “Magic” (the song is called “Living in the Future”), to give Clemons a stage.

      @Esther: You’re so right about age being a key. I was 17 when I heard “The E Street Shuffle” for the first time, and was absolutely bowled over. I never wanted Springsteen to move beyond that sound. To this day I prefer David Sancious to Roy Bittan, whom I find too mannered by comparison. And though I know the bill of particulars against Vini Lopez includes a supposed inability to keep the beat (he was gone by the time I saw Springsteen in ’74, replaced by Ernest “Boom” Carter), I do love him on that album.

  7. BP Myers

    @Dan: Well, it’s his music. It’s what’s in his head. If he doesn’t hear horns in his head, that’s not a knock against Clemons. You can’t really blame Springsteen for that either.

    It’s no real surprise that maturity moved him away from the youthful exuberance of just signing a record contract (“Rosalita”) or the dark noir of “Born to Run.”

    I suspect there are some who wish Bob Dylan had never seen an electric guitar, or The Beatles had continued singing about holding girls’ hands.

    I think you’re response to Esther says it all. Clarence’s sax takes you back to a special time in your life. And that, my friend, is only human.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      Wow. That post was loaded with typos. I’ve cleaned it up, so it should be easier to read now.

  8. Doug Bailey

    Don’t think you’ve got it quite right here. While, maybe you could say that Bruce’s albums post-Born To Run were largely individual efforts – some he even recorded by himself and added the band as needed, he still found big spaces for Clarence. Listen to The River, for example (Sherry Doll, Independence Day, Hungry Heart, etc). And I don’t think you could really make the case that Bruce lost interest in horns since he frequently toured with a horn section – pre-Darkness tour, BITHUSA tour, Tunnel of Love Tour, and the most recent tours. There was greater room for Clarence’s expression on stage though, and anyone who saw that relationship blossom from ’75 (when I first saw them) through maybe 35 or 40 shows right up until 2009 at Comcast Center, would know he contributed a lot more than just the sax fills on the old songs.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Doug: I may have overstated the extent to which Springsteen lost interest in having Clemons contribute. The larger point I wanted to make stands — the ensemble playing and extended jams that made “The E Street Shuffle” so wonderful, as well as the complex arrangements of “Born to Run” that let Clemons stretch out, were consigned to the dustbin of history.

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