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Arts & Life

Clarence Clemons, The Big Man In The E Street Band, Has Died

Nils Lofgren, Clarence Clemons and Bruce Springsteen onstage.
Chris Walter
Nils Lofgren, Clarence Clemons and Bruce Springsteen onstage.

Clarence Clemons, saxophone player for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, has died of complications of a stroke. He was 69.

If the above seems abrupt, that's because Clemons's death was abrupt. Unlike when his bandmate, keyboard and glockenspiel player Danny Federici, succumbed to cancer in 2008, there was no time to prepare, little opportunity to make peace with the fact and say goodbye. Clemons's stroke hit on June 12; there was just enough time for fans of Lady Gaga (whose recent single "Edge Of Glory" featured his sax work) to make a heartfelt "get well soon" video, and then he was gone.

Clarence Clemons performing during halftime of an NFL game last November.
Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery / Getty Images
Getty Images
Clarence Clemons performing during halftime of an NFL game last November.

Clemons was, of course, Springsteen's main onstage foil and the first among equals in the E Street Band. No other E Streeter got such an explicit mention in any of Springsteen's songs as he did in "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out," where everybody knows what happens when the change was made uptown. And with Born To Run, he was the only one to ever share focus with Springsteen on the cover of an album. Take a look again at that photo: Springsteen is leaning on him for support, sure, but he's also implicitly asking for his approval. He was the person that the Boss wanted to impress.

It was the same with Lady Gaga. Like her or loathe her, she's the biggest pop star in the world right now, and her video for "Edge Of Glory" (which premiered on Thursday, after Clemons's stroke but before he died) ditched the extravagant concepts, sets and armies of dancers in favor of just her and Clemons on an apartment stoop. He was the only one with whom she'd share the spotlight.

But the more affecting tribute may be the video Lady Gaga released on Wednesday collecting her fans' wishes for Clemons to make a speedy recovery. It was put together with astonishing speed, and watching it earlier this week was like being overwhelmed with an ever-increasing snowball of love. It was little more than one person after another offering their well-wishes from all over the world, and the longer you watched it, the more momentum it generated and the more wonderful it became. Now it may be unwatchable for more than a few seconds. The emotion is still overwhelming, but it now breaks your heart instead of warming it.

Lady Gaga's just the latest artist to introduce Clemons to a new generation. He also played with Jackson Browne (remember "You're A Friend Of Mine"?), Aretha Franklin, Gary U.S. Bonds, punk icon Jim Carroll and hair-metal titans Twisted Sister, among many others. More detailed tributes to his musicianship are sure to pour in over the next few days. I'll simply recommend putting on Born To Run in the meantime. Listen to Clemons bursting into his solo with the joy of unleashed freedom on the title track, hitting the hard-soul groove of "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out," blowing with uncommon grace on "Jungleland." And marvel at the final minute of "Thunder Road," one the most transcendent moments in all of rock and roll.

In the recent "Plan B" episode of 30 Rock, as Liz Lemon wonders if bring a writer makes her obsolete, she encounters "people whose professions are no longer a thing." One of them is someone, clearly modeled at least in part on Clemons, who "played dynamite saxophone solos in rock and roll songs." It's possible that Clemons was the last of his kind. It's certain that he can't be replaced.

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