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June 20, 2011

Clarence Clemons: More Than a Showbiz Foil

There's never been a character quite like Clarence Clemons, the E Street Band saxophonist who died Saturday after complications from a stroke. An imposing figure of basketball height and linebacker torso, the the Big Man served Bruce Springsteen as conscience and commentator, a "Voice of God" and a sly operator from the deep backstreets, a wise soul whose intimidating presence became central not merely to individual songs but Springsteen's overriding myth of young souls desperate to escape dead-end circumstances.

Bruce could spin endless tales about tramps with dreams, but when the spotlight shifted to Clemons, the lone African-American in the band, all that abstract restless desire became suddenly transformed into a speeding tornado of sound. Bruce mythologized restless. Clarence symbolized it.

Clemons wasn't any kind of virtuoso. He connected not because of how he looked or acted, or even his much-discussed skill as a showbiz foil. No, Clemons' great gift, his killer app, is much more basic: He had a sound. His tenor just spoke, with a completely unique and deeply idiosyncratic tone that came roaring out of nowhere, grabbed your insides and squeezed until everything was rearranged. You heard -- and, crucially, felt -- its call. Its texture wasn't saxophonistic in the typical sense: Coarse and blistering with just a hint of abrasiveness, it was beautiful sandpaper. On any note at any part of the horn, Clemons could scream in ten smeared colors at once. If John Coltrane's sound was a blazing hot surgical needle, an instrument of considerable precision, Clemons' was a mile-wide buzzsaw, demanding attention by virtue of its sheer brawn.

Though the obituaries place him in the lineage of R&B sax honkers like King Curtis, Clemons was always broader than that stylistically, incorporating bits of noir jazz and boogie. He's perhaps better appreciated as one of a small handful of great rock and roll soloists who didn't play guitar. He figured out a way to underscore Springsteen's moves just with a few little phrases, and understood how to occupy the background as effectively as the foreground. And like every great rock soloist, Clemons was instantly identifiable: Just one note, and you knew who it was. Check out virtually any solo break from the Springsteen records, and listen to the way Clemons slides into the spotlight. Fully revved from the start, he fashions a testimony not from saxophone jumbles of notes (the way most horn players do), but sturdy pealing arcs of melody that linger long after the vocals kick back in. There's no deliberating going on, no practice room hijinks -- just pure spirit, in concentrated form, kept aloft by that pure tone.

In this age of AutoTune, the loss of Clemons' raw and intense sound -- which is heard in its glory not just on the studio records but also the Live 1975-1985 boxed set -- is something to mourn. For while it is possible to teach people to play the notes he played, in something approximating his rhythm, his art lies beyond all that. It's in the way he went about his job. There was some fire in him, and he just worked with it, wrestled it, pushed it straight out of his horn and into our heads. Where it will stay forever.

June 20, 2011 12:32 PM | | Comments (0)

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