Well, they made a change uptown. The Big Man has left us.
The loss of Clarence Clemons, at the age of 69, leaves a gaping hole in the E Street Band and in the hearts of Springsteen Nation. The tributes online have been warm and generous. As usual, Clarence is described in legendary terms. His influence on Springsteen was “transcendental.” He was larger than life, the band’s talisman. When Springsteen introduced the band on stage, Clarence was introduced last. The Big Man always got the biggest applause. More than a band mate, he was a soul mate. And for the fans, he was a massive presence. Even when he didn’t play much saxophone, it was reassuring to see him on the stage. He was a fixture, elemental to the band's identity and to the fan’s experience.
Because Clarence was such a perfect stage foil to Springsteen, his actual musical contributions are sometimes overlooked. He wasn’t the most accomplished musician in the E Street band, but his saxophone solos are an indispensible part of the band’s sound and Springsteen's greatest songs. There are detractors who saw him as part of a formula – get a big black guy with stage presence who can fill gaps in rock songs with sentimental sounding sax solos. Springsteen fans know better. There’s soul in those notes. Yeah, they can find someone else to play the parts, but Clarence MADE those parts.
And so, in the tradition of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, let’s honor Clarence Clemons with a list of his 10 greatest Springsteen sax solos:
10. The Ties that Bind
The opening track of The River. During the bridge, Bruce sings about feeling the hurt inside. Then Clarence delivers the release.
The E Street Band started playing this Jimmy Cliff song on the Born in the USA tour. Being trapped never sounded so joyful.
8. Spirit in the Night
Not merely a soloist, Clarence plays the melody here, his tenor sax providing the heartbeat of the characters in the telling of this magical night.
7. Prove it All Night
A simple enough solo, it’s the perfect lead-up to the searing guitar that follows.
6. Bobby Jean
In High Fidelity, Nick Hornby’s character talks about this one: “And then one of those sax solos comes in and you get goose pimples, if you like sax solos.”
Well, I do.
5. Drive All Night
Gentle and soothing, the perfect part for this underrated track.
4. Thunder Road
It’s more of a coda than a solo, but it’s one of the most joyous things ever recorded.
It’s a short simple solo that basically punctuates the main melody. But it’s a wonderful moment. Hearing it live, you stand at attention, completely absorbed.
2. Born to Run
A classic solo that runs with the fevered energy of Springsteen's most famous anthem. Another blogger put it best: “That thing is the sound of freedom.”
Epic. Definitive. Transcendent.
Thank you, Big Man.