The Big Man Joins the Band in the Sky

The Big Man has left the building.

Clarence Clemons, the powerful tenor saxophonist of the E Street Band and onstage foil for Bruce Springsteen for 40 years, died Saturday at age 69 due to complications from a recent stroke.

I saw Bruce many times over the past decade, most often in his native state of New Jersey, and there was always a certain rush whenever Clarence would step up to blow an iconic sax line, aggressively tap on a cowbell or other percussion instrument, simply grin to express his onstage joy, or galvanize the crowd as only he could in any number of ways. His onstage moxie and appeal instantly overjoyed multitudes of people — a true gift that really can’t be manufactured.

As a tribute, while I was working in the yard on Sunday morning, I cued up “Jungleland” on my iPod and marveled at the mournful sax-driven section that serves as the centerpiece of the back half of the 9-and-a-half minute song. It’s a section that Springsteen and Clemons labored over for 16 hours in the studio to get just the right inflection and feeling. They succeeded — it’s the perfect Side 2 album-closer bookend to Born to Run’s table-setting Side 1 opener “Thunder Road.”

Back in December 2001, S+V ran a cover story by Jamie Sorcher about the making of the band’s triumphant Live in New York City DVD, which chronicled a triumphant reunion and return to Madison Square Garden in June 2000. (No, it’s not yet available on Blu-ray, but the Springsteen camp has released a few top-drawer BDs in recent years — such as London Calling: Live in Hyde Park, which I gave 4 stars to for both picture and sound last September — so one can hope we’ll get this one soon.) Jamie was able to get some face time with the Big Man in August 2001 before his Band of Faith side project took the stage at — where else — the Stone Pony is Asbury Park, New Jersey.

S+V: You can definitely see the magic between Bruce and the band on the concert DVD. After all these years, it’s still there.

CLARENCE CLEMONS: It’s enhanced. It’s grown, gotten more intense — it’s also more adult and more aware

What did you think of the sound?

It was so fantastic; it was really like being there. That’s the beauty of it.

Backstage at Madison Square Garden, I saw a dressing room with the sign “Temple of Soul.” Was that your room?

It was. My dressing room followed me on the tour. Wherever we went, there was always a Temple of Soul, always set up the same way. It just gives you the sense of being in the same place all the time — a sense of stability.

Tell me about the first night you met Bruce [in September 1971].

My friend Karen Cassidy kept telling me about this guy, Bruce Springsteen, and she kept insisting that I go meet him because she had this vision of me and him playing together. She got me interested, so one night when the band I was in at the time [Norman Seldin & The Joyful Noyze; Karen was the band’s lead singer] was playing at the Wonder Bar in Asbury Park and Bruce was playing about two blocks away at the Student Prince, I decided to take my horn with me and go for a walk down the street. But there was a big storm that night. The wind was blowing — I mean, howling! As I went to open the door, this big gust of wind came up and actually tore the door off its hinges and sent it flying down the street. So there I was standing in the doorway with lightning flashing behind me when Bruce first saw me. I walk in and say, “I want to sit in.” And Bruce says, “Hey — anything you want.” I mean, here’s this big black man who just tore the door off the place asking to play. What’s he gonna say — “No”?

What did you play that night?

I’ll never forget it. We did a version of “Spirit in the Night” with [former E Street Band member] David Sancious on piano. Man, it was a groovy night — it was chill. I looked at Bruce and he looked at me. We’d never seen each other before, but we both just knew. We bonded that day.

(photo: Lara/flickrCC)