The music world lost a legend last week when Clarence Clemons, the saxophone player in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, died at the age of 69. NPR Music's Ann Powers talks about the symbolism of one of rock's great sidemen.
The music world lost a legendary player last week when Clarence Clemons, the saxophone player in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band died of stroke at the age of 69. Clemons’ sax solo signaled party time in the Springsteen rockers and often painted a melancholy landscape in early Springsteen anthems. Clemons wasn't a great musician, but he was a potent symbol in the E Street Band. While many of his obits mention the genuine love between him and Springsteen, few focused on what I call the semiotics of Clarence Clemons.
Ann Powers is a music writer for NPR.
Here I am, to be your semiotician today.
Well, that's probably too high-fallutin’ –
- for a scruffy guy like Springsteen, but I think it is true that Clemons symbolized some things that Springsteen was trying to convey about his style and his band, right?
Absolutely. Clarence Clemons was the foil for Bruce Springsteen in concert, also the symbol of both friendship, love, the love of music but, very importantly, also the embodiment of, of African-American music, not only onstage and in the show, but in the music itself.
And the cover of Born to Run, the iconic cover of Born to Run, is Bruce leaning on Clarence, not another member of the band, even though Clarence was far from the most important contributor to that album. And in concert, Springsteen did these lengthy intros, and they always built up to a crescendo of Clarence.
Give me a C – L – A – R – E – N – C- E.
What’s that spell?
I have seen the future of the whole thing and it’s big man Clarence Clemons.
MIKE PESCA: So why is it that Clarence was, as Bruce called him, the secretary of the brotherhood?
I was reading an interview with Clarence Clemons recently in which he talked about how as a young musician he was sort of pushed toward playing R&B, soul music, but he felt he was a rocker. Clarence Clemons himself was a crossover artist from the beginning.
And I think Bruce Springsteen wanted from the beginning, or at least from Born to Run, to be a guy who transcended the genre. And by adding the element of R&B sax through a rock filter that Clarence provided, he made a bigger sound, a sound that went beyond what many people thought of that rock could do at that moment.
And to take it even further than sharing a cover and sharing these great intros, there would frequently share a kiss on the lips onstage.
Onstage, in the moment, I think it felt very natural. It was part of the jubilation that surrounds a Springsteen show. But definitely when you look at the photograph you’re a little bit like wow [LAUGHS], that's an intense moment.
The scholar Eric Lott once wrote a book called Love and Theft about minstrelsy and about how white performers took from African-American traditions. It's a huge part of the legacy, some would say, the basis of American popular music.
Bruce Springsteen kissing Clarence Clemons on the lips, you can see it as a moment in which he is acknowledging in the most intimate way that he is borrowing from those traditions and trying himself to merge with those traditions. So, uncomfortable? Maybe. But honest? I think so.
But if we want to be really, I don't know, cynical – I mean, if you look at the website Stuff White People Like, number 14 is having a black friend [LAUGHS]
Yeah, exactly. And I mean, no joke on that. My critic friends and I have talked about that for years. Was Clarence Clemons being exploited?
But this is not the intention of someone like Bruce Springsteen. He’s trying to envision a magical place, where those issues that divide us go away. That's the message of his whole live show. And Clarence allowed him to succinctly say that, almost without saying it.
I mean you said he wasn't a great musician. I would argue, as the critic Tom Moon recently argued, that he was a great rock soloist. He had a particular sound.
Just the same way that another person who integrated a rock band, Slash, the biracial guitarist for Guns 'N Roses, has a signature sound, Clarence had a signature sound. You know his sound from the minute you hear that first note.
[CLARENCE CLEMONS PLAYING SAXOPHONE]
And that’s a lot of what being a rock star is about. So I would say he was a great rock player, a great live performer. And part of that is standing for something specific, easy to grasp. And he did that in the E Street Band.
We can argue ‘til dawn about whether or not what he stood for is something we should really believe in or really buy. But if you're at a Springsteen concert and you're letting it all go, and you’re letting your critical faculties melt into the floor, as Bruce Springsteen persuades you that this is the greatest moment of your life, part of that, part of the American dream is racial integration.
It may just be a dream, still, but that's what Springsteen is giving us, and selling us, yes, but also giving us in that moment.