I was 12 when I first became aware of Clarence Clemons, the saxophonist who was such a powerful force in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. Born in the USA was high in the charts and whilst I desired the album, my pocket money didn’t quite stretch to it so I looked on enviously at people I knew who talked about how good it was and satisfied myself with what I could hear on BBC Radio 1, back in the days when it played music I liked, my doesn’t that make me sound and feel like an old fart!
One afternoon my uncle paid me a visit and asked, “You like that Bruce Springsteen guy don’t you?” to which I replied “Yes” he then produced a package from behind his back which no amount of wrapping paper could disguise as a good old fashioned vinyl album. I remember ripping the paper off with great gusto only to be slightly disappointed to find that it wasn’t Born in the USA but Born to Run, an album I’d never heard of. I’m not sure my uncle realised it wasn’t the current album, I certainly didn’t tell him. No matter, I disappeared up to my room to have a listen and before the closing bars of Thunder Road my life had changed.
Whilst everyone I knew was listening to Born in the USA, Springsteen’s most recent album, I was working from the beginning. Thanks to those Nice Price albums my pocket money stretched to Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. I soon added Darkness on the Edge of Town and thanks to my PE teacher at school I got a copy of The River on cassette, he later supplied me with a copy of the Live 1975-1985 box set; back in the days when no one felt anything was wrong with making copies of albums for friends.
By the time I was 14 I was in love with the sound of the saxophone thanks to hours of listening to Clarence add that something extra to Springsteen’s musical storytelling. It’s safe to say I endured a lot of ridicule at school, not only was I a fan of an artist that wasn’t really cool amongst my peers, given that they couldn’t comprehend why I was listening to stuff from the 70’s but I liked a band that one of our teachers liked, something that appeared to be an unforgivable crime.
As I grew up most of my friends dreamed of being guitarists and drummers thanks to the popularity of Whitesnake, Bon Jovi, AC/DC, Metallica and the other rock bands of the 80’s that were filling the airwaves but I was forever lost in my dreams of playing the saxophone. I remember reading an interview with Clarence in which he mentioned listening to jazz and so off I went seeking out jazz records, specifically saxophone heavy jazz and so it came to pass that for my 30th birthday I bought myself an alto saxophone and told myself I’d learn to play it.
Almost 10 years on I’m ashamed to say my musical ability is still hovering around my ankles; I hadn’t considered how impatient I’d become. I wanted to play all the songs I loved but I didn’t want to have to spend hours learning how to play the notes, I just wanted to wake up one morning and find I had been given the gift of being able to read music. I still do.
When I read on the BBC news website this morning that Clarence Clemons had passed away on Saturday night I shed a tear or three, something that surprised me given I didn’t know the man, had never been fortunate enough to meet the man and in fact for all my love of Springsteen, I’ve only ever seen them perform once, in 2009 when they headlined at London’s Hyde Park but yet I still feel hes been an instrumental influence in my life, together with Springsteen’s lyrics. I’m minded of a line in one of Springsteen’s songs, Terry’s Song;
When they built you brother, they broke the mould.
There’s any number of songs that show Clarence’s something extra but perhaps his solo on Jungleland is the one that people remember most vividly. Personally every single track he played on is my favourite but that’s just me. Born to Run, being my first album, is quite special to me and I recall standing in Hyde Park that evening in 2009 and feeling a rush that I had only ever felt while high on drugs when the opening bars of Jungleland wafted over the 60,000 plus crowd on a beautiful balmy evening. I remember then, as I remember now, that it could all have been so different if my uncle hadn’t confused Born to Run with Born in the USA. However he did and the rest, as they say, is history.
Now, if you’ve read this far, settle back for another 10 minutes or so and enjoy this performance of Springsteen and the E Street Band doing Jungleland at London’s Hyde Park in 2009. Clarence’s solo kicks in at the 4 minute mark and is perhaps 120 seconds of musical magic that is unlikely to be matched, let alone bettered. Although it’s closest contender is possibly the 1975 performance at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. Whicherever you prefer you can’t deny the saxophone solo is something else. RIP Clarence Clemons. You were and always will be the original Big Man.