In Memory of Clarence Clemons

I’ve noticed that most of what I’ve written about this Parlando project in the first month or so has concentrated on words and the world they reflect; but Parlando’s subtitle is “The Place Where Music and Words Meet.” This piece has a simple musical setting, and yes I’m going to talk more about words, but the subject of “In Memory of Clarence Clemons” is a working musician and what a musician can do.

Clarence Clemons was a working musician his entire adult life. That’s an achievement. The number of people with a handful of musical gigs in their background (someone like myself) is much larger than the number of people who spend their working life doing that. The reason for that is that it’s a hard life, however rewarding in moments. Many of us who play music know those moments, and they are much intensified when those moments happen to be shared by other people. Drugs and sex are compared to that experience, but to many musicians they are pale shadows to that experience of musical communion. This is a reason why some musicians over-indulge in drugs and sex, to try to match, with quantity, that quality experienced when music is communicating. There is another reason musicians seek such salve. Being a musician is, over time, a collection of wearing days against those bright moments: the frustrations of every informal job with irregular hours, irregular pay, irregular working conditions, irregular demand for the music the musician plays, irregular co-workers and bosses, topped with the specific failures that can be the other side of music’s joys.

I did not know Clarence Clemons. I know next to nothing about his personal life, how he coped with or experienced these things. But I do know how that musical communion feels, both as an unfaithful musician and as an ardent audience.

In the early 1970s I was living in New York in a city that was suffering, and a large part of that suffering was racism and racial tribalism. It was like America—and the world I suppose—in general in that regard, but a little more intense. Some folks, I was one, tried to make life work despite this. This is the glory of humanity: suffering from such blindness and weakness—yet even with those handicaps, some, perhaps even most, try to make it work. Compared to this, art sometimes seems trivial.

Among rock critics of the time there emerged an implicit search for what was called “The New Dylan.” They had figured they needed to find “The New Dylan” because the old one seemed to not want the job anymore. Why was this important to them?

There is a famous maxim about rock critics “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Though no one knows who said it first, it’s been said many times because it points out a truth about how rock music was written about. Since it’s hard to write words about music—and particularly hard for non-musicians writing for non-musicians—rock critics, to a large degree, weren’t music critics. They were performance critics, fashion critics, social movement critics, and—here’s the biggest portion—lyrics critics. Because of that, “rock criticism” was largely the child of the emergence of Bob Dylan.

Since I have other points I need to make, I’m going to say this as briefly as possible. Bob Dylan utterly changed popular song lyrics. It’s impossible to underestimate his importance in this. There are scattered influences that Dylan had to draw on as he made his lyric revolution, but afterward his influence is everywhere. In ’60s and ’70s it was possible for a time to easily understand lyric writers were imitating Dylan, but as time has passed we no longer remember what those changes were.

So in the early 70s rock critics had no fresh Bob Dylan revolution to write about. They believed they had no one who was using words in an exciting new way reflecting new ways to experience the world. It’s a disrespectful joke to say this, but if Bruce Springsteen didn’t exist, rock critics would have to have invented him. In actuality, this was one cross Springsteen had to bear for the first decade of his career: that rock critics had invented him to fill their needs. The debate, of course, was held between rock critics.

I bought Springsteen’s first album in 1972 after reading about it in a magazine article that quoted generously from the lyrics. I’m sure the article somewhere must have used the term “The New Dylan.” Yes, I was attracted by the playfulness in the use of language, but I was also drawn to what was emerging as his subject matter: the honest confusion and struggles of life. To go beyond this writing about the lyrics, the article’s architectural ballet, I had to listen to the LP to hear the music. My favorite track turned out to be “Spirit In the Night,” which was kind of a Van Morrison groove, and in place of what would have been the obligatory guitar solo, a sax solo. That was Clarence Clemons.

By 1972 you weren’t likely to hear a sax solo in a rock tune. The instrument was already in its long popular music decline from near ubiquity in ’50s R&B to now. Can you think of one significant current indie rock band with a full-time sax player?

About a year later the second Bruce Springsteen album came out: “The Wild, the Innocent, and the E-Street Shuffle.” His lyric writing had improved, but musically this album is at a whole different level. His song structures are often through-composed, the playing is great, and the arrangements are sublime. The front cover of that LP is a perfectly serviceable sensitive-singer-song-writer picture reminiscent of an isolated frame from Van Morrison’s Moondance cover. Flip the cover over and there is a picture of the musicians who played the music. In the center of that picture (as is should be) is the young and dark face of David Sancious, who was the main contributor to those arrangements and that playing; and at the beginning of the lineup, standing next to Springsteen is Clarence Clemons, the second Afro-American in the band.

Integrated bands existed before and after this. It’s a common musician’s peccadillo, in their professional blindness, to care less about color and more about sound. But I’ll say this, there was such hope in that picture for me at that moment, living in that city that maybe didn’t even know that it’s sadness had roots in tribalism and hateful racial stereotypes. A couple of years later, while I was still living there, the Born To Run LP came out, with the iconic fold-out cover: against a stark white background, Springsteen leaning on the much larger Clemmons playing his sax.

So when Clemmons died in 2011, all that came back to me in a rush. The words came out almost as you hear them here, and I recorded this performance myself over a humble bass and drum loop shortly after writing them. The way it came out was one of the things showed the way to the Parlando project.

So with the publication this week of Bruce Springsteen’s memoir, also called Born To Run, I thought it’d be a good time to share this early spoken word and music piece that speaks to these things. To hear it, click on the gadget that should appear below.

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