Sunday 22 April 2018

The big man who always hit the right note for the Boss

Moira Sharkey , and Greg Lewis

It's a strange feeling to be mourning someone you never knew. But that's how it's been for thousands of Irish music fans since Clarence Clemons died last Sunday.

Clemons, a key member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, is one of those rock and roll heroes who became a legend from a corner of the stage.

He might have been a musician first and foremost but it was his role as sidekick to bandleader Springsteen which inspired his enormous following.

Clemons's saxophone was a key element of the E Street Band sound that Springsteen honed on his two best known albums, Born to Run and Born In The USA.

However, it was his onstage presence that spawned the myth of the Big Man.

Springsteen created a mythology around band members and right at its heart was the 6' 4" Clemons. He was the "master of the universe" in many of the Boss's onstage chats. At the RDS in 1988, he was the "most handsome Irishman you've ever seen".

In Ireland the band has one of its most loyal fanbases, and when we wrote a book about Bruce Springsteen's Irish shows, Land of Hope and Dreams, the response was phenomenal.

This week, one fan, Nigel Flynn of Ballymoney, told us: "One of my most precious memories is having my photo taken with Clarence in Dublin in 1999. He gave me that huge grin, put his arm around me and pulled me into him, so much so that I had to stand on tip toe to be in the same picture as the Big Man."

There was a warmth about Clemons which shone from the corner of the stage.

There will be other Springsteen shows, but there will be no more Clarence Clemons.

Clarence Anicholas Clemons was born in Norfolk, Virginia, on January 11, 1942, to devoutly religious parents.

In the early 1960s he won a sports scholarship to Maryland State College and was set to play pro-football when a car accident ended his career.

He couldn't have known it then but it was a piece of magnificent fortune.

Music had always been Clemons' other love. Aged nine, he had been given an alto saxophone as a Christmas present. He would carry it everywhere he went.

"I got into the soul music, but I wanted to rock," he said later. "I was a born rock'n'roll sax player."

For most of the 1960s Clemons worked as a counsellor with emotionally disturbed children. That brought him to New Jersey, where a thriving music scene was developing. And at its heart was a young singer-songwriter named Bruce Springsteen.

One night, Clemons joined Springsteen on stage.

Clemons later recalled: "We'd never even laid eyes on each other, but after that first song he looked at me, I looked at him, and we said 'this is it'."

With their third album, Born To Run (1975), Springsteen, Clemons and the E Street Band found stardom.

Although a lyricist at heart, Springsteen has always allowed space for his fellow musicians to play. Clemons's sax parts complemented Springsteen's themes of yearning and striving for something better.

In trying to deal with the colossal success of Born In The USA (1984), Springsteen began to seek new musical directions and the E Street Band split up. Clemons took the opportunity to record with other artists, including Aretha Franklin and Jackson Browne.

But in 1999 Springsteen brought the band back together. The band's most recent outings in Ireland, in 2008 and 2009, were widely reckoned to be some of their finest shows.

Clemons recently recorded with Lady Gaga. The video for her single, 'The Edge of Glory', in which he appears, was released shortly before his death.

Clemons, who had endured several years of poor health, suffered a stroke earlier this month and died on June 18, 2011. He was 69. He is survived by four sons and his fifth wife, Victoria.

At Slane Castle in 1985, an estimated 100,000 people saw the E Street Band at the height of its fame.

Introducing 'Glory Days', Springsteen told the crowd: "This is a song about time's winged chariot, Father Time and how all things must pass." Then he turned to Clarence: "Are you ready, Big Man?"

All things pass, all right. And as one internet poster exclaimed on Sunday: "My God, the Big Man has died. We must all die after all."

Clarence was that big. He was the soul of one of the biggest rock bands the world will ever see.

And people like him live on long after their footsteps have fallen silent.

For as long as rock'n'roll has a heartbeat, somewhere there'll be a transistor blastin' and Clarence Clemons's sax will soar like a bird on the breeze.

Moira Sharkey and Greg Lewis are the authors of Land of Hope and Dreams: Celebrating 25 Years of Bruce Springsteen in Ireland

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