Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Clarence Is Us
Clarence... gone, yet Summer is here. How can that be?
Most of Springsteen’s classics embody Summer, or at least seem to. Clarence Clemons made that classic Springsteen sound what it was, is and always will be. Summer has the gall to come back again even though Clarence is wailing on the other shore?
Takes some getting used to this most recent reminder of mortality.
I’m incredibly sad.
Sure, Trane and Cannonball might have had more dexterity and jazz can have more complexity when it comes to harmonics and arrangement, but the Big Man knew the right notes to play. He knew the targets to hit, and he never missed.
The proper comparisons of course are with the influences Clarence acknowledged: King Curtis and Junior Walker for instance. The student surpassed those teachers. Them cats are Rock & Roll progenitors, and of course, incredible players who should forever be praised. They mid-wifed Rock & Roll out of Jump Music and post-big band R&B. But Bruce Springsteen’s music grafted more genres together, the E-Street jams are more complex than the earlier strain of R&R. More importantly, Springsteen lyrics convey more complicated stories than those 50s ditties, many of which were instrumentals. Bruce's songs required Clarence to play more notes and express more feelings than his mentors faced. Clarence had a tougher row to hoe and he reaped a more bountiful harvest.
The best saxophone player in Rock & Roll? The case can be made regardless of how you define best.
Clarence almost single handedly (lips & lungly too) brought the Saxophone back to Rock & Roll. The particular wind instrument, so important to 50s not to mention Stax and Motown had sort of been pushed out of the airwaves by the 70s, Van Morrison being the exception that proves the rule. Born To Run returned the saxophone to top 40.
There’s something truly special about a saxophone solo. The instrument has a warmth in its sound that other horns and flutes seem unable to capture. Even the clarinet sounds odd when compared to the natural familiarity of the Saxophone, whose wails and bleeps seem closer to the actual human voice than any other wind instrument.
When Clarence plays, when his distinctive solos pour forth, which are almost always towards the end of the song and after the majority of verses have been sung and Bruce’s story told, he does more than just bring the song home. Clarence provides more than just a fitting conclusion. He brings us, the listener, the audience, into the song.
Born To Run, a perfect example, when we hear that loud cry of freedom, Clarence is encouraging us to participate in the escape this song celebrates. When we hear the sax, we join the pursuit of a better life that the narrator and Wendy have embarked upon. Clarence's sax personifies our empathy.
In the Bruce Songbook, Clarence is us.
Two solos stand out for me and ironically, both have to do with the World Trade Center. The first I wish to explore is Darlington County, one of the lesser lights on that mid-career masterpiece, Born In The USA.
Darlington County is a Springsteen saga (one of many) about losers, the song follows the narrator and his buddy Wayne who drive “800 miles” to work in Darlington County for the summer (they leave on the 4th of July). They meet a gal who they impress with the lies: “Me and my buddy were from New York City… Our pas each own one of the world trade centers/For a kiss and a smile I'll give mine all to you,” Bruce is unclear what happens exactly, although the narrator might switch to Wayne, who sings: “Little girl you're so young and pretty/Walk with me and you can have your way/And well leave this Darlington city/For a ride down that dixie highway,” suggesting some crime of passion might have been committed and the girl has been murdered. Or is it another less violent crime and the girl is merely abandoned?
Then the narrator returns to Wayne Buddy’s for the zinger last act, him leaving and “Wayne handcuffed to the bumper of a state troopers ford.” The melody is a funkified blend of country & R&B, somewhere between a ballad and hoe down. The story sounds like a honky tonk yarn, but its irony and bleakness could be straight out of Raymond Carver or Breece J. Pancake. Bruce sings Sha la la to end the song then Clarence breaks in, following the melody line than breaking into a wail.
We are now in the song, a parable without a clear morale. Just two working class guys whose bravado is challenged, and erased, by reality. Their adventure didn’t turn out as planned yet the adventure continues.
Bruce fills the track with some chatter, coaxing the “big man,” into a second solo. It’s like we’re back at the dance hall kicking back with some beers and we hear a story that is sad yet paradoxical, not sure what to make out of it, all we can do now is dance. That’s what Clarence does in that song. Clarence is us.
The other World Trade Center related solo, nearly 20 years later, elevates Mary’s Place to being perhaps the greatest song in the late-career phase of Bruce’s songwriting. A reunion of sorts for E-Street after a 10 year hiatus, this wonderful, joy in grief Anthem written for the 9-11 eulogy record, The Rising. “How do you live broken hearted,” the song’s narrator, a widow, asks and for Bruce, the answer is community and fellowship.
The song begins with spiritual overtones: “I got seven pictures of buddha/The prophet's on my tongue/Eleven angels of mercy,” and happiness after a long period of grief finally seems plausible: “My heart's dark but it's risin'/I'm pullin' all the faith I can see” Mary’s Place is about the sorrow and anguish, felt on a national scale, starting to subside. Loss is hard, my loss may be worse than yours, but at least it’s shared and at least we have our community.
“Familiar faces around me/Laughter fills the air/Your loving grace surrounds me/Everybody's here.” Is the Your God or the lost one in Heaven or our common humanity? Maybe there is no difference. Bruce is showing the oneness of existence.
The party that takes up most of the lyrics continues… the record is on the turn table, the furniture on the front porch… Clarence comes in early, near mid song, and he is mixed in with horn section that creates the bridge.. “picture of you in my locket... seven days, seven candles...” Grief is part and parcel of the spiritual comfort faith can bring.
The crescendo builds... “turn it up,” the Patti-led singers repeat as Bruce answers the call, “Waiting for the Shout from the Crowd.”
Bruce-ified Gospel transmitted by the E-Street Band, one of the greatest Rock & Roll Bands in the history of the music. When the crescendo climaxes “meet me at Mary’s Place, we’re going to have a party,” a sublime E Street moment transpires. Bruce does the “do do do” singing and then we have Clarence, before just hinted, now fully unleashed. Wailing to the heavens, voicing all the joy and grief we are sharing. This solo transpots all of us to that Porch. He brings us to Mary’s place. He sonicly makes true what Bruce sang earlier -- Everybody's here.
Clarence is us. The singers repeat… “let it rain, let it rain…” we can heal, we can heal each other, Clarence shows us how. His saxophone is the cleansing rain everybody joins the widow in welcoming.
Truly transcendent playing.
Because of the context of the solo in the song, and the song within the early 00’s in the wake of the terrorist attacks, it is one of the greatest moments of the saxophone in the history of recorded music, equal to Coltrane, Canon or Bird. Sorry, Curtis and Walker did not have the chops for a solo like Clarence's in Mary's Place.
I vote that Mary’s Place is Clarence’s best solo. It is certainly his last great solo.
It used to just make me gulp, this weekend it made me cry.
Clarence had a warm, friendly persona. He seemed like a guy who would be a lot of fun to hang out with. His presence gave Bruce’s music not just integrity – Bruce’s sincerity means integrity is never in doubt – but credibility. He connects the band with the Jump music roots of Rock & Roll, something most bands of the 70s had migrated away from. The E-Street Band emerged out of the dance halls Down the Shore where bands had to be juke boxes that could play both the Rolling Stones and Motown/Stax. Bruce was a folk rocker who had to get everybody dancing to make a buck. Only after he could do that could he be the poet he was born to be.
Clarence makes sure everyone is dancing.
When Bruce’s songwriting talent emerged and matured, Clarence still got us dancing.
In fact, that purpose gained a new importance. Bruce’s tells stories about the human condition, Clarence embodies our empathy. He underscores the universality of Bruce’s songs. That saxophone tells us of the human place we share with Bruce’s characters, yet it is a place the lyrics can’t quite go. It is the place only for the Saxophone.
I’ll be playing ONLY Bruce – ONLY E-Street Bruce – for many days. Summer is here and Clarence is gone? How can that be?
Clarence is Us.