At the end of one of the many Springsteen biographies that are out there, there’s a scene taking place on stage during one of the Boss’s legendary concerts. Springsteen is reminiscing with his bandmate Clemons, who, it can be argued, was second only to Bruce when creating the classic E-Street sound.
The odds are pretty good that your favorite Springsteen song features Clemons on it in a big, big way — especially if that song’s on Born to Run. In addition to lending his baritone and sax to songs like “Jungleland” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” (where he famously said “Boy, you better get the picture.”), Clemons lent his distinctive presence to everything from Aretha Franklin’s “Freeway of Love” to The Wire. The saxophonist was enjoying a bit of non-Springsteen related fame recently through his work with Lady Gaga. Her latest single, “The Edge of Glory,” is very much in the 70s/80s rock opus — far more grandiose than something Springsteen ever would write, but clearly inspired by it — and Clemons was singlehandedly bringing back the wailing sax to pop music. And if there’s one thing pop music is missing, it’s a wailing sax. Do you know how much better “Baby” or “Friday” would be with a wailing sax? A LOT.
Anyway, in this Springsteen book — I think it was Dave Marsh that wrote it — as they’re onstage, Springsteen turns to Clemons and remarks, “Look at us, man — we’re old!” Clarence agrees, and I can’t remember whether he says it, or Bruce does, but someone says, “Yeah. Let’s dance.”
And they do.
Clarence Clemons’s death is sad, and coming three years after the death of E Street organists Danny Federici, serves to highlight just how important these guys were to so many of the Springsteen songs that we know and love, the songs that are part of our culture and still are. It also calls attention to the fact that their work, while beloved, still goes somewhat unrecognized. I’m talking about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame here — kind of ridiculous that you have a Sidemen category for induction, and you have yet to induct one of the most famous groups of sidemen since the Motown era. Or, as G.O.B. would put it, “Come on!” If there’s anything that’s totally bumming me out about losing Clemons, it’s that he won’t be able to share in that moment when the E Streets are eventually inducted with his family.
Still, I keep coming back to that moment from the bio, especially as I listen to one of my favorite Springsteen recordings, the Live at the Hammersmith Odeon, London ’75, and testament to bold, brash youth the songs are from that era. The live recordings of “Jungleland” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” are so vibrant, so stunning, that you can hear the enthusiasm in them all these years later. This is a band who is ready to take their shot — and they’re going to have a hell of a lot of fun and do a ton of dancing while doing it.
So while the E-Street Band and even Springsteen himself will one day all be gone, we’ll still be able to remember that they were young once. And even as his knees and back went, the Big Man got to be young for a very long time.