When Clarence Clemons suffered a stroke Sunday night at his home in Florida, it likely signaled the end for The E Street Band as a going concern.
“Members of the E Street Band were advised to get down to Florida as soon as possible,” is the new “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.”
Just as Eddie & The Cruisers never really weathered the loss of the fake Clarence Clemons, nether will Springsteen & The E Streeters survive without the real Big Man.
By all accounts, Clemons is improving from what’s been termed a massive stroke, and I’m sure I speak for a lot of people when I say I’m rooting for him, and I’ll be grateful for whatever recovery Clemons makes. But as stroke victims often do, he’s suffered paralysis, difficulty speaking, and an array of symptoms that make it hard to imagine him being able to play saxophone at a professional level anytime soon — especially given the fact that he hasn’t been in good general health for some time now.
So I’m not going to eulogize Clarence Clemons, because I hope he has a lot of years remaining. But I am going to mark the end of one of the great bands of the rock and roll era.
When E Street organist Danny Federici succumbed to melanoma in 2008, I thought Springsteen might close up shop with the band and continue only as a solo artist. Federici had been around since the earliest days of Springsteen’s career, and The Boss had often credited his organ player with adding that Jersey Shore magic to the E Street sound. But Springsteen replaced Federici with Charlie Giardano and pressed on.
I can’t see the same thing happening without Clemons, though. In the 21st-century version of The E Street Band, Clemons may have been the least important member of the band musically. But he loomed large spiritually.
The saxophone decreased in prominence in Springteen’s oeuvre from 1980 forward, and during modern-era E Street concerts, Clemons often had nothing to do. When he wasn’t stepping to the front of the stage to take a sax solo, he was playing tambourine or extra percussion, adding backing vocals, and in recent years, sitting on a giant throne on the stage to rest his ailing body.
Moreover, many Springsteen fans complained that Clemons had declined as a musician. He played the same solos and sax parts for years on end with little variation. His solos on newer Springsteen songs aped his work from the glory days. He occasionally got lost during more complicated songs (“Jungleland”). Clemons’s participation helped feed the perception in some corners that the E Street Band had stopped moving forward and had become a nostalgia act.
These criticisms had merit, to varying degrees, but they’re overlooking the importance of Clemons’s role in the band, which is multi-layered. Sax solos still were a crucial part of many Springsteen songs, particularly those from classic albums like Born to Run and The River. Clemons also played foil to Springsteen on stage, even if he was no longer spry enough to dance with The Boss like in the halcyon years. When he stepped out into the spotlight, he was no longer Clarence Clemons. He was The Big Man, a character sculpted by Clemons and Springsteen together, and one that remained essential to the E Street mythology that fed so many of Springsteen’s lyrics and themes. Even if Clemons’s saxophone wasn’t as vital to the music, The Big Man remained a key component of E Street performances.
I saw Springsteen and the E Street Band live for the first time in the Meadowlands, on the first U.S. date of the group’s reunion tour in 1999. I was as excited as I’ve ever been, giddy with disbelief at my fucking luck. When the band came out on stage, I lost my shit. When they launched into their first song, “My Love Will Not Let You Down,” I lost my shit. But when Clemons unleashed his first sax solo of the night, I came unglued. And everyone in the crowd was with me. Such was the power and persistence of his legend and persona.
So, sure, Springsteen could replace Clemons with another sax player for a rumored 2012 E Street tour, and the band wouldn’t miss a beat. But the feeling in the building could never be the same. I realize I’m making the same argument about Clemons that people make about Derek Jeter — that he’s essentially the Captain Intangibles of the E Street Band. But music, particularly live performances, are much less tangible than sports. The feeling, the atmosphere, the buzz in the crowd — those things do matter.
From that perspective, Clemons is the hardest member of the band to replace, other than Springsteen himself. If they continued without Federici, they could continue without pianist Roy Bittan or bass player Garry Tallent. They could march on without either guitarist, no matter how talented or charismatic, and they’ve proven they can play without Max Weinberg while he was stuck on The Tonight Show with Conan. If Patti Scialfa departed, the band’s sound would improve measurably.
Without Clemons, though, there is no E Street Band. There’s just Bruce Springsteen and some guys standing behind him. To Springsteen, Clemons represents the historic origins of his band and his career — with a strong undercurrent of symbolic racial harmony. In concert, Springsteen would tell a rambling tall tale about the night he met Clemons, complete with a stormy night in New Jersey, a dive bar, and The Big Man tearing a door off its hinges. He can’t allow this band to continue without its patron saint.
Selfishly, I hope I’m wrong. I need E Street Band concerts in my life. Mrs. Dilemma compares the shows to church, and she’s not wrong. Springsteen shows are one of the few places in life where we feel the anticipation, euphoria and release that the faithful experience in their houses of worship. I don’t want to think that’s gone forever.
Get well soon, Big Man. And maybe stop hanging out with Lady Gaga so much.
UPDATE: Rest in Peace, Clarence. Damn it. A couple years ago, while promoting your book, you told an interviewer that you once said to Springsteen: “as long as I’m breathing, you’ll never be alone.” Well, what’s he supposed to do now?