Though I consider Bruce Springsteen our greatest rocker, longtime sax man Clarence Clemons, who died Saturday, was the one who forever changed my perspective toward rock and music in general. Heck, he just may have changed my life, because a defiant, energized rock ‘n’ roll spirit is at its heart. Having a bad day? Rock out — and turn it up to 11.
And how did he do this? With one tenor sax solo for one song.
The night: Dec. 1, 1978. The place: Lloyd Noble Center, on the campus of the University of Oklahoma in Norman, OK. The event: A concert attended by 5,000 fervent fans (the large arena was handsomely scaled down with black curtains to make it seem both intimate and packed) on the Darkness on the Edge of Town tour.
The song: Jungleland.
You know the song. And you know its recorded sax solo. But did you ever hear it live when it was fresh and new, and when the E Street Band was charging back with a vengeance after legal troubles kept them off the road for far too long?
Disco ruled, and its kings were the Bee Gees. Springsteen? Wasn’t he the guy who’d been hurt by perceived hype when he landed on the covers of Time and Newsweek in the same week in ’75? And what had he done lately? Were any of his new tracks competing with dance music on the radio?
At LNC, we quickly saw the fallacy of any such assumptions. Rock was alive and well with the Boss and his band. In fact, it had never sounded better, with incredible energy, showmanship, compositions and sheer gutsy drive. They were all there that night when a bold band from New Jersey conquered Oklahoma for three-plus glorious hours.
And no song was more glorious than Jungleland, Springsteen’s epic urban anthem off his breakout Born to Run album, which worked up to Clemons’ soaring sax solo as its peak.
I have never been more thrilled and more moved by a musical performance than that one. It had so much heart, passion and power. It was so beautiful, so dexterous, so immediate and real. It was the star giving way to the band — the headliner giving way to the music itself. It was the greatest assertion of a rock ‘n’ roll spirit I have ever heard. And it set a standard that makes me truly appreciate greatness in rock, and dismiss rock’s posers, preeners and pretenders.
Clarence’s sax solo for Jungleland was the real deal — as were so many of his great solos, including one not mentioned much in the eulogies after his death, but which I still cling to: for Be True, a non-album b-side from The River sessions. Years later, out of the blue, it became the second song of the set on the Tunnel of Love tour, galvanizing shows right out of the gate. And why was it chosen? Probably because of that great CC solo.
Clarence, we love you, and we miss you — always will. We will never forget, and rock will never be the same. But that’s only because you left your mark on it, not because you’re gone. That mark will last — forever.
So God bless, Clarence. In a music form not known for reed instruments, you became a dominant force and were the best at what you did. And up there in heaven, with other great rockers, we know one thing:
You’re still proving it all night.