The Big Man has left the building. Clarence Clemons—Bruce Springsteen’s main onstage foil for most of both men’s careers, a tall, broad, black saxophonist whose unflappability contrasted physically and temperamentally with the small, feisty, white frontman to great comic and dramatic effect—died Saturday, after a stroke felled him last week, at age 69.
Clemons was a crucial part of the E Street Band sound—apart from drummer Max Weinberg, maybe the crucial part. He had a lot to live up to—remember, Clemons’ job was to amp the drama of rock’s most dramatic songwriter. He was the group’s most direct link to the ’50s rock and roll that Bruce and band had come up on: King Curtis and Jr. Walker are obvious antecedents. In the pre-punk ’70s, saxophones skirted the edges of any number of big rock artists’ records—it was a show of roots. (Think of John Lennon’s post-Imagine solo work.) Springsteen’s early work, particularly 1973’s The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, fits that time like a velvet beret, though it sounds anomalous compared to what he’d eventually settle into with Born to Run.
Clemens is the constant. No one else could have made “Rosalita” sound like the band was keeping up with him instead of the other way around—he’s there at every hairpin turn. Structurally, “Born to Run” is completely different: Clarence leaps in, solo space clearly delineated to him, and he makes everything he can of it. He played sax the way Prince plays guitar: generously, using all the tricks he can pull out for their sheer entertainment value, yet you don’t question his sincerity for a second. He’s part of a well-oiled machine, of course—increasingly so as the years went on. And not just with Bruce: like many E Streeters, Clemons did plenty of sessions, and in some sense he defines the cliché of ’80s sax thanks to his work on Aretha Franklin’s “Freeway of Love.”
Or rather, because of the way that record was produced. It was often Clemons’ job, during that time, to provide a beating heart to a weirdly plastic chassis. That’s why his recent appearance on Lady Gaga’s “The Edge of Glory” seems like a strangely triumphant final turn before Clemons exited his pop life. Reclaiming every last thing that ever excited or embarrassed young listeners about the era “Freeway” and Born in the U.S.A. inhabited, Gaga’s taste for big gestures reaches a climax here. To push it all the way over, she knew there was only one man for the job—a Big Man.