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Remembering the 'Big Man' who gave E Street its soul

It's one of those moments in popular music that seem to transcend the music itself.

The moment comes during Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's "Jungleland," near the song's coda, at the tail-end of one of the most "novelistic" songs in all of rock 'n' roll. Springsteen's tale of beautiful losers desperate to make more of themselves against tough odds -- the sort that are inherited from previous generations and all too often handed down to subsequent ones -- seems to throttle full-bore toward an apex, when Clarence Clemons puts the saxophone's mouthpiece to his lips and simply explodes with the only notes that matter.

In this deeply emotional yet musically economical series of tones, you can hear all of the frustration, passion, rage, hope and Romanticism that defines the lives of the characters in Springsteen's songs. It's simply a profound piece of musical drama.

Clemons died Saturday, following complications resulting from a stroke suffered a week previous. He was 69. He'd been ailing for a while, due to hip and knee replacement surgeries, but that didn't prevent him from signing on for the E Street Band's most recent tour -- one that saw "the Big Man," as he's known to the E Street Band's legion of followers, taking the stage for a transcendent show at HSBC Arena in November 2009.

The immediate aftermath of Clemons' death found a galaxy of artists -- from U2's Bono to former Guns 'N Roses guitarist Slash; from Coldplay's Chris Martin to members of the pop-metal band Def Leppard -- offering tributes to the man via their websites, through Twitter, or during concert engagements. (According to Spinner.com, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder learned of Clemons' passing during a solo set in Hartford, Conn., on Saturday evening, and promptly dedicated "Better Man" to the saxophonist, changing the song's chorus to "Can't find a bigger man." On the same night, U2 concluded its set in Anaheim, Calif., with Bono's dramatic, unaccompanied recital of the entire "Jungleland" lyric. Even jam-band nonpareil Phish paid tribute over the weekend, with a roughshod but heartfelt "Thunder Road.")

Not surprisingly, the most poignant remembrance of Clemons came from his musical partner and "soul mate" of 40 years, Bruce Springsteen.

"Clarence lived a wonderful life," Springsteen said on his official website.

"He carried within him a love of people that made them love him. He created a wondrous and extended family. He loved the saxophone, loved our fans and gave everything he had every night he stepped on stage. His loss is immeasurable and we are honored and thankful to have known him and had the opportunity to stand beside him for nearly forty years. He was my great friend, my partner, and with Clarence at my side, my band and I were able to tell a story far deeper than those simply contained in our music."

This last bit of Springsteen's note is most telling, for Clemons' gift seemed to have as much to do with the traits of integrity, loyalty and commitment as it did with his sax playing. The E Street Band always offered as a subtext to its very existence the notion that rock is a communal experience, one that can welcome ideas of brotherhood, endurance, decency, and even unconditional love. Clemons embodied this conception of rock 'n' roll community.

When Springsteen first erupted from New Jersey in the early '70s, Clemons' role in the band was a pivotal one -- his deep early R&B influences rooted the E Street Band in a stirring blend of soul and rock 'n' roll, and in concert, Clemons was Springsteen's visual and musical foil. This version of the band peaked, appropriately, with the breakthrough success of the "Born to Run" album, its LP sleeve photo of a leather-jacketed Springsteen leaning on Clemons' shoulder now considered one of the most iconic images in all of rock.

As Springsteen's music changed -- largely abandoning the raucous, New Orleans "second line"-style horn codas, ramshackle sense of swing and Van Morrison-esque soul-folk in favor of a lean, taut, song-centered approach -- so, too, did Clemons' presence within that music. He seemed to accept a more limited and orchestrated role in the E Street sound with grace and good cheer, and if his playing was more specifically composed and less improvisational, it was no less powerful and eloquent.

"Like all of the greatest musicians, he redefined his instrument," says Gary Zoldos, longtime Springsteen fan and singer with Buffalo rock band the Pillagers. "He did for the saxophone what (the late Who bassist) John Entwistle did for the bass guitar. Nobody played like Clarence, and nobody sounded like Clarence, and you could tell that it was him from the very first note."

Among those contributions, it is likely that the "Jungleland" coda looms largest, but Clemons provided dozens and dozens of Springsteen's songs with emotional heft, well-placed color and texture, and visceral excitement. Early on, he brought a smoky elegance to "Spirit in the Night"; led the band through soul-rock masterpieces like "The E Street Shuffle," "Linda Let Me Be the One" and "Thundercrack"; and translated the rugged dignity of the unrepentant narrative within "Badlands" into a torrid burst of notes.

"To get some sense of how important Clarence Clemons was to Bruce Springsteen's early career as an artist, you have to flash back to the mid-1970s, when the scrawny, charismatic Springsteen played poete maudit to Clemons' siren of R&B romanticism," says The News' Poetry Editor R.D. Pohl.

"Take the stunning live 1978 You Tube version of 'Jungleland,' (from the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, N.J.) featuring the 3-minute signature solo that would forever establish Clemons as one of rock 'n' roll's greatest sidemen."

Local jazz promoter and author Bruce Eaton recalls his initial exposure to Clemons as an eye-opening experience.

"Back then, in 1973, there was no Little Steven Van Zandt -- Bruce and Clarence were it," recalls Eaton, who booked Springsteen and the Band to perform at Hobart College while Eaton was a student there.

"Clarence played so much back then -- he was really the primary soloist, and it was immediately apparent that he was a huge part of the sound, the vibe, the spirit and the image of the E Street Band," Eaton said.

It is indeed difficult to imagine an E Street Band concert without Clemons flanking Springsteen and blasting out the immensely thick-toned, long notes that helped define some of the most significant and enduring rock music of the last 40 years. Indeed, the rumor mills are already churning out the idea that Clemons' passing spells the end for the band.

"From the first time I saw him, back in 1973, Clarence was always bigger than life," says Bruce Moser of Buffalo's Could Be Wild Promotions.

"He was an iconic figure on stage, and he was also the spark plug of that band. Clarence helped re-establish the saxophone as a prominent rock 'n' roll instrument during a time when it was considered unfashionable. The sax parts played a huge part in the way those songs were received by people. The fans loved him so much. He's just not replaceable. The E Street Band was able to carry on after (keyboardist) Danny (Federici) died (in 2008), even though he was truly missed. But without Clarence, there really is no E Street Band."

It should be noted, however, that Springsteen concludes his clearly anguished online tribute to Clemons with these words.

"His life, his memory, and his love will live on in (the story told by our music) and in our band."

Rest in peace, Big Man.

e-mail: jmiers@buffnews.com

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