Clarence Clemons, Bruce Springsteen’s magnificent sax man, has died at age 69. This column was first to report last Sunday night that Clemons had suffered a massive stroke. At the time my source said that the situation was dire. But you always hope things are going to work out. According to reports, Clarence had two brain surgeries to relieve the pressure in his head after the stroke, but nothing worked. Reports during the week weren’t much more hopeful, with some saying that the paralysis Clarence suffered on his left side was severe and that he’d have to re-learn everything he’d known. It didn’t sound like he was making a recovery.
Here’s the thing about the E Street Band, which has zillions of devoted fans who can argue their merits for weeks at a time. In the end, the sound of that band came from Clarence Clemons. When Bruce Springsteen released “Greetings from Asbury Park,” he certainly established himself as a premier singer songwriter ready to inherit the mantle from Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Paul Simon. But when Springsteen released “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle,” suddenly his intentions were clear. This was an R&B band that combined that poetry.
The music, thanks to Clarence’s horn, was now elastic. He gave it swing. “Rosalita” is now a concert favorite but when it first was heard it was nothing short of magic. Proceeding into “Born to Run,” Clarence–I mean, it’s him on the cover with Bruce–is the signature sound beyond Bruce’s voice. The band is great, Steve vanZandt is a genius, etc. But suddenly the whole mission is defined, and you wait to hear that clarion call to know what’s coming–it’s The Big Man. There’s a hint of it on”Spirit in the Night,” but by the time “Thunder Road” is done, the Clarence Clemons sound is established like a national landmark.
And what an irony, that as Clarence’s life ends, his sound is heard on Lady Gaga’s “Born this Way”–he did for her what he did for Bruce. And he was never on “the edge of glory.” He was right in the center of it.
Rest in peace, Clarence. You will not be forgotten.