Clarence Clemons and the rock sax solo
By Thomas Conner
© Obit magazine
In a March episode of NBC’s hit comedy “30 Rock,” writer Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) panics because she has no “plan B” for her career and thus nothing to fall back on during an unforeseen professional hiatus. She stumbles through dark backstreets as she’s taunted by the voices of “people whose professions are no loner a thing” — such as travel agents, American autoworkers, the CEO of Friendster and a man who “played dynamite saxophone solos in rock and roll songs.”
This wasn’t the first winking obituary for the rock sax solo, but this week’s news might be the last. Sax player Clarence Clemons died Saturday from complications he suffered from a June 12 stroke. He was 69.
Clemons was a founding member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band — a pillar, given the way Springsteen leaned on him, both literally (the Boss supports himself on the Big Man in the iconic photograph on the “Born to Run” LP gatefold) and figuratively (utilizing Clemons’ impassioned sax solos to intensify his lyrical themes) — and, for at least one generation, Clemons was the epitome of the hooked horn’s particular power in a musical genre for which it was not designed.
A creation of the Romantic era (invented in 1846 by Belgian clarinetist Adolphe Sax), the saxophone evolved to become a signifier of romance. The bent woodwind never took hold in orchestral music but found solid purchase in military bands, where its portability and honking volume were valued. Marching bands, concert bands, big bands, jazz — its migration was natural and swift. By the 1950s, as rhythm-and-blues evolved into even more guttural rock ’n’ roll, musicians like Louis Jordan and King Curtis finessed this suitably throaty instrument into the robust soul that would define the rest of the century.
With its roots in rock’s genesis — Ike Turner’s 1951 hit “Rocket 88,” possibly the first rock single, was credited to Jackie Brenston, the band’s singer and one of the song’s two sax players — by the 1970s and ’80s the saxophone was often employed to evoke that era’s rose-tinted innocence and authenticity. When a third-generation rocker wanted to trace his New Wave stead to some age-old cred, he plugged in a sax solo — from David Bowie reinventing himself (again) by lamenting “all Papa’s heroes” in “Young Americans” and Billy Joel linking his contemporary tastes to the classics in “It’s Still Rock ’n Roll to Me” to INXS’s horn-y claims on American soul (“What You Need,” etc.) and the popcorn purity of the movie “Eddie and the Cruisers” (with John Cafferty & the Beaver Brown Band providing “On the Dark Side” and the rest of the Springsteen-parody soundtrack).
Within that cocoon of Eisenhower-level security, the more relaxed sax solo became an emblem of true heart and romance. (How do you imply that insipid bad-boy Rob Lowe has a heart of gold in the movie “St. Elmo’s Fire”? By making his rawest expression of his passion be through an extended sax solo with his bar band.) Among wind instruments, its reedy timbre sounds the most like a human voice, finishing lyrical thoughts by saying things a human just can’t say. But several Foreigners (“Urgent”), Quarterflashes (“Harden My Heart”) and Spandau Ballets (“True”) later, the cliché became a caricature, and Liz Lemon’s fears became inevitable.
But at the heart of that golden — or brassy — age was the hulking sideman who best encapsulated the instrument’s classicism, passion and romance, sometimes in a single sustained note. Clemons played tenor sax with studied passion much more than technical skill. This wasn’t jazz, this was rock. It was all about feeling — and reaction.
“There’s a lot of pride Bruce took in watching the response that Clarence would get from the audience with his solos,” Alto Reed, sax player for Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band, told the Chicago Sun-Times this week. “The songs would come to life with the first note of a sax line. He was brilliant. His tone was not your typical, classic horn-section sound. It was growly, gassy. You could feel the energy coming out of his sax. Big Man, big sax, big sound.”
Clemons turned in many memorable sax solos for Springsteen songs — “Born to Run,” “Thunder Road,” “Badlands,” I usually throw in his huffing on “I’m Goin’ Down” — but few argue over which was his greatest accomplishment: “Jungleland.”
The ultimate whisper to a scream, “Jungleland” is an epic from Springsteen’s 1975 breakthrough album, “Born to Run.” Springsteen relates the tragic story of the Magic Rat and his star-crossed affair with the “barefoot girl” amid a scene of urban angst and frustration this side of the Jersey state line. It’s “a holy night” filled with people who are “hustling,” “hungry” and “hunted,” and just as the most “desperate” are ready to split (“Just one look / and a whisper / and they’re gone”) the song slams on the brakes, stops chugging forward and — announced by an arresting, almost dissonant long note, like a siren in the band’s rear view — becomes a detour down Clemons’ own backstreets of American imagery and sound.
It’s a song within a song, two-and-a-half minutes within the nearly 10-minute anthem and a necessary non-verbal underscore of the hopeless scene Springsteen has been setting up. Clemons’ sustained warning wails a while longer, defiant against the cascade of cymbals and piano chords behind him, before beginning its eulogy for the Eden that sometime, somehow turned into Jungleland. Twice, three times he returns to the major chord, the hopeful tone, voicing the Rat’s own hubris and bringing the song’s pent-up rage to a rolling boil. In the end, though, Clemons and his narrative collapse whimpering and spent as the piano takes over. Springsteen returns to wrap up the story, and it’s even worse than we expected for the Rat and his girl: “They wind up wounded / not even dead.” But we already knew that. Bruce’s jittery homily left the options open, but Clarence’s rock-steady solo confirmed the despair to come.
“That’s the flip side of rock and roll,” wrote Bob Lefsetz, music industry observer and publisher of the Lefsetz Letter, of the “Jungleland” solo this week. “The exuberance — and then the solitary feeling that you’re Wall-E, alone in a city without heart, without hope.”
Clemons often relayed the story of working on his “Jungleland” composition for 16 straight hours. Today, his results are not only loved, they are liked: There’s a dedicated Facebook page called “Clarence Clemons’ Sax Solo in Jungleland.”
In a surprise twist, Clemons re-emerged this spring and seemed ready to bestow validation on the rock and roll sax solo with the help of an unexpected admirer: None other than Lady Gaga tapped the E Streeter for saxophone parts on three tracks for her third outing, “Born This Way,” one of the most anticipated and talked-about albums of the year. In the video to Gaga’s latest single, “Edge of Glory,” Clemons sits on a building stoop while Gaga dances in the street and on the fire escape. He hardly moves, except to finger the valves of his horn. Gaga has said the song is rooted in her own experiences witnessing her grandfather’s final moments before death; the week the video debuted her young fans were making their own “get well soon” video for Clemons after the stroke.
What was he doing there, with Lady Gaga of all people? He was doing what he always did: Adding gravitas and a much-needed counterweight to an outsized personality and the frenetic music s/he produced. In the “Edge of Glory” video, Clemons is the only other person in the scene — the only figure with whom Lady Gaga deigned to share the spotlight, just like Springsteen. His music and instrument were as key to that role as his size and personality, and let’s hope rock never forgets his lesson.
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These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.