One thing you could count on during any Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band concert over the last four decades is that the biggest cheers of the marathon whoosh of hyper-energy rock-and-roll invariably would greet the first notes of every Clarence Clemons saxophone solo.
The ovations were a signal we were reaching a highlight of the song, the part where the know-every-word crowd got to stop singing along for 12 or so bars and exult in familiar countermelodies that helped push The Boss’ lyrical story ahead without words. The ovations also were a tribute to the Big Man, a mountain of a presence, not only in his size but in the sense of permanence he gave to the music that’s the soundtrack to many lives and to the concerts that made time both fly and stand still.
For Springsteen fans, the death of the sax great Saturday at age 69, represents a loss of a towering figure in rock, and it's a loss that’s hard not to experience on a personal level – even from a distance, Clemons felt like a friend. But time should be spent less mourning the Big Man than celebrating his huge impact.
Like George Harrison’s guitars solo in Beatles classics, Clemons’ sax breaks became indelible parts of Springsteen’s songs in our collective memory – as key as the lyrics, melody and the rest of the multi-layered instrumentation provided by the E Street Band.
“Jungleland,” Springsteen’s epic, street-poetic anthem of youthful hope’s life-and-death battle against desperation, plays out at perhaps its most eloquent in Clemons’ mature mournful-to-life-affirming solo. In “Born to Run,” he provides an ecstatic prelude to the frenzy that builds and explodes into one of rock’s most memorable climaxes. Clemons’ blissful fills in “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” represent a joyful ode to the ups and downs of playing in a rock group.
That’s the song in which Springsteen sings of the day “the Big Man joined the band” – and it’s the line that usually got the biggest roar whenever he played the tune in concert.
Everything changed the day the Big Man joined the band, for Springsteen and for rock and roll. Everything, of course, changed in a far different way Saturday – no Springsteen album or live performance will ever be quite the same without Clemons’ talent and energetic, comforting presence.
Let’s remember Clemons in death as a saxophone master who helped give his band’s music life, captured forever in the recordings and too many times to count on stage, earning cheers that will echo in fans’ hearts forever.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.