COMMENTARY | According to the Washington Post, Clarence Clemons, who plays saxophone in Bruce Spingsteen’s E Street Band, suffered a massive stroke at his Florida home Sunday. He was brought to the hospital, where he underwent two brain sugeries and was listed as “responsive and in stable condition.”
The site backstreets.com reported that band members headed to Florida as soon as they could. Initially the news was grim: Clemons was paralyzed on his left side. Yet now the site is reporting that he is doing much better than expected. With his vital signs improving, he’s responsive and even “squeezing with his left hand.”
Clemons, known as “the Big Man,” is best known for his work with the E Street Band, but has also worked with other artists, including Jackson Browne, Aretha Franklin, and, most recently, Lady Gaga.
His playing was essential to the E Street Band’s sound, and his larger than life stage personality was a big part of the band’s epic live shows.
To pick my favorite Clemons musical moments would be hard. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band is one of my all time favorite musical acts. From the urgent playful sounds of “Greetings From Asbury Park;” the wild romantic intensity of “The Wild, The Innocent, and The E Street Shuffle;” to the raw power of “Darkness on the Edge Of Town” and “The River;” the pop grandiosity of “Born In The USA;” all the way to the post-9/11 “The Rising” and their most recent title, “Working On A Dream,” for me, their grand masterpiece is “Born to Run.” Even with such a large selection of work to choose from, the three Clemons moments that immediately come to mind appear on “Born To Run.”
The opening track is the haunting, post-graduation, beautiful, summer epic “Thunder Road.” As the introduction to the album, it starts out slow and builds momentum, adding instrument upon instrument until climaxing with the full band, and the prominent sound of Clemons’ sax clearly cutting through the mix. The outro of “Thunder Road” is one of the most recognizable bars in music, and it wouldn’t be the same without that saxophone.
The very next track on “Born To Run,” “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” is a mainstay at E Street concerts because of its rolling, funky rhythm. Again, Clemons is a stand out. The saxophone chugs along with jazzy, fluid notes, and brings the whole song along with it. It is truly one of the great saxophone rock songs of all time, and it changed the game for Rock ‘N’ Roll. Then, in the second verse ,when Springsteen sings, “changes made uptown and the Big Man joined the Band,” The Big Man himself answers with a quick, but appropriate, solo, seemingly saying, “I did join the band, and here I am.”
The closing track is another epic Springsteen standard; at nearly 10 minutes long, “Jungleland” is a farewell to the urgency that is “Born To Run,” a complete, put all we have into it song that showcases the talents of every band member. The song starts with just piano and voice, building and building to a signature Springsteen wail, which sends it careening over the edge of a cliff, only to be revived by a long saxophone note and solo from, who else, The Big Man, Clarence Clemons, which carries the band back to the top and out in style. A fitting ended to the master piece that is “Born To Run.”
Whether Clemons plays sax again or not, his music will outlive all of us and continue to inspire and entertain countless others for years and years to come.
Get well soon, Big Man! From all of your many, many fans.