Life gives you Clemons

"This is the important part!" Bruce Springsteen yells to the crowd in the concert version of "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," which you can find on his Live 1975-85 box set.

The song's a loose retelling - more like a fictionalized, alternate version - of the formation of Springsteen's E Street Band, maybe the most famous backing band in rock history. Literally, it's about a musician finding his niche after not being able to define himself by himself. The first two verses are a little mysterious. All we can decipher is Scooter, the musician, meaning Bruce, fighting against unknown forces, disappearing in the urban fog while more stabilized success stories take his place. Springsteen himself has laughingly said he doesn't really know what a "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" is. But it's chilly.

The third verse comes, and "this is the important part!" Scooter stumbles upon his muse. He had all these big ideas, and he can almost get them down on paper, can almost align them with the rest of the world, but couldn't do it without an accomplice. But finally he does: "The change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band."

Clarence Clemons then rips into a brief saxophone fill. On the Live 1975-85 performance, at this point in the song, the stadium audience starts screaming. It's their loudest exhortation of the entire song, and probably rivaled the top moments of the entire night.

They're cheering wildly for a sideman, a musician defined almost strictly as such. You know how long and hard sidemen have toiled just east of the stage light without so much as a compliment from the audience? Ask the Funk Brothers, or Booker T. & the MG's. Ask Crazy Horse for that matter.

Clemons, who died Saturday, was not your ordinary sideman. It's conceivable that Springsteen could have been a superstar without him. But he might have not become the myth.

The tenor saxophone is the A-type of the saxophone family. Depending on your point of view, it's either the most brassily expressive of the sax family (Coltrane's "Giant Steps") or the sleaziest (Bill Justis' "Raunchy"). In rock and roll it's the only saxophone that really works, because it's the only reed instrument that can hold its aggression when competing against guitars and drums.

The first two Springsteen albums are, notably, much more intimate than the work he became most famous for. Clarence Clemons was on both of them, but except for the jazz-driven "Spirit In The Night" and Springsteen's first big epic "Rosalita," he melds into the rest of the wind and horn sections. It's a minor supporting role. Even on "Rosalita" he doesn't rip into an unscripted solo - he's part of a faction. He's in the hit squad, he's not the hitman.

That changed with Born To Run. Whether Springsteen calculated the myth or not (more likely producer Jon Landau did), it was that 1975 album that gave Springsteen the identity he'd have for the next decade-plus. He knew he'd have to take a chance. Back then reflective singing-songwriting was a big commercial boon, and the first two albums showed Bruce could have settled into that wordy, restrained prose if he chose to. He was a "new Dylan," after all, of which there were approximately 4,000 at the time.

He chose otherwise. Although intimacy was nice, Springsteen was too restless to remain still. American rock and roll - I mean mainline, blue-collar rock and roll, not heavy metal or glam - had lost its sense of mobility. There was an epic story to be told about rock and roll, in which passion overtakes and almost gets out of hand, in which youth struggles to realize its big dreams, in which you need to get into a convertible and drive down the highway, fast. This would require reverb.

It would also require Clarence Clemons. The moment Clemons erupts in the title track of Born To Run, Springsteen's whole M.O. changes. The song hits the accelerator. Clemons' tenor, full of aggression and sleaze, takes the kid's loose dreams and frustrations and gives them an engine. The metal hits the floor. Scooter rolls the top down, his traveling companion Wendy straps in, and the Big Man is the most practical, dominating hood ornament in the history of songs about automobiles.

("Hood ornament" in this case does not refer to the often meaningless purpose of hood ornaments. It refers to something you put on your car meant to show the rest of the world that you intend to kick ass. Like those guys in Texas who put bullhorns on their grills. I don't know what the Jersey equivalent of the bullhorn hood ornament would be. A tenor sax would be a good one.)

When compiling a list of Clemons' career highlights like I had to do earlier this evening, it was almost impossible to not include all six songs on Born To Run where he figures prominently. The original version of "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," appropriately, is on it. There's a deep track called "Night" where his riff pushes Springsteen almost as hard as "Born To Run." There's a song called "She's The One," using the Bo Diddley rhythm, that Springsteen claims he wrote for the sole purpose of hearing Clemons' solo.

And then there's "Jungleland," closing in on ten minutes, that features Clemons' greatest solo ever. It's over a slow beat. But Clemons gives it urgency.

I guess that would be the hashtag for Clemons' work with Bruce: #urgency. With Clemons, Springsteen had a direct link to the early strategies of rock and roll. Clemons brought the carnal simplicity of Gary U.S. Bonds' "Quarter To Three" (a Springsteen concert favorite) into the complex psychology of "Born To Run." It made Springsteen's music sound familiar, even though it was, when you look more closely at the components, a pretty new approach.

Clemons' other great moment was Springsteen's 1980 album The River. You thought growing up was hard on Born To Run and Darkness On The Edge Of Town? It's even more catastrophic on The River. It's actually more schizophrenic and chaotic, too. It's a mixed-up circus where a young adult has to face unhappy compromises, unpleasant realizations, frantic parties and a remote, somewhat threatening future at least partially depicted an a car graveyard. (You guessed it: The River is my favorite Bruce album.)

And Clemons' performance on The River is heroic. He screams with joy as the narrator finds R&R in "Out In The Street." He mocks a troublesome in-law on "Sherry Darling," one of Bruce's funniest songs. He sadly comments on the charmless, robotic sex of "Ramrod." He spits at death right in the face on "Cadillac Ranch." And he provides the singer of "Drive All Night" with his lone comfort - perfectly timed, insistent at first, establishing his subject's passions, echoing the singer's devotion to his lover in powerful terms, then fading out, drifting, creating a segue to leave the lover to his intimacy.

That's another thing Clemons gave to Springsteen: surety. The affirmation that whatever the character felt was legit. It could be an exclamation point or a bunch of repeated commas, but it was rarely a question mark. I can't think of a corollary from the world of drama - "Greek chorus" came to mind, but a Greek chorus is frequently mocking. Clemons never mocked his boss's characters. (Just their in-laws.) He caught their joy, release, anger and fear, all those vulnerabilities Springsteen showed in his writing. He was never a distraction.

Lots can be said about Clemons' massive importance in Bruce's live show, which for a long time was the greatest live show on the planet. He was a man whose good cheer and humble happiness shot through the screen. His sax playing was so unique that you couldn't really mistake it for anyone else. (Randy Newman poked fun at it in a song once.)

All that's important, especially if you knew and loved the man as much as Bruce did. But for me, it overshadows the role he played in making Bruce who he is. Whether the myth of Springsteen annoys you or not (and really, it shouldn't in the least - we should be happy when good things like fame happen to good guys like Springsteen), Clemons had more than a passing hand in making Springsteen's vision clear. Maybe even to Springsteen himself.

And if you doubt that, just go back into the convertible that you've never owned but you've always had in your mind. Drive extremely fast. Don't worry - you have a great compass blowin' a mean sax.

Popular Recent Posts