jason stives fondly remembers The Big Man …
I have never known the term “cool” personally. Assumingly, it’s a word that associates with mammoth acts of machismo, style, and performance. James Dean was cool for being rebellious, Joe Cool was cool by name only, but very rarely does a person inhabit the actual entity of coolness without trying. Clarence Clemons was cool in every sense of the word’s meaning.
My earliest memory of Clemons, who died Saturday at the age of 69, was as one of the “three coolest people in the world” in Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Looking back now, it makes perfect sense that he be cast as one of the planet’s coolest people. How could he not? As the main pivot, dare I say the Rock of Gibraltar that held together Bruce Springsteen’s mighty mighty E Street Band together, it’s hard for anyone to not be in awe of the man he is — in size, talent, and from what I know, a soulful spirit. A large man in stature with a boisterous voice, he was undoubtedly one of the best modern day saxophone players to hit the music scene.
My memories of Clarence as a world-class sax player are many, having seen him perform some six times in the past decade, and always with a new sense of amazement of the volume and power of his lungs playing some of the greatest solos I have ever heard or had the chance to see on a live stage. His presence alone elicited great vibes in whatever venue and somewhere along the line you knew that he would aid his partner in crime in giving a show that no one would go home unhappy about.
I’m a firm believer that the legacy of Clemons as well as the legacy and importance of Bruce Springsteen’s music is punctuated by the song “Jungleland,” the stirring magnum opus that closes the Boss’ classic 1975 album Born To Run.
“Jungleland,” as my best friend has always pointed out, is great not just for the vivid illusions of rebellious young do-gooders marching through the streets, but because of Clemons’ sax solo. We are given all these stories by Springsteen in the song’s first five minutes only to be blown into a stratosphere of reality by that signature sax sound. Suddenly, concrete jungles exist in Ginsberg-esque dreamery of gangs beneath giant Exxon signs and inebriated young girls on sex driven machines of power. This would never be made possible and so emotionally moving if it wasn’t for that sax solo.
For my father and I, Clarence Clemons just made you smile at even a glance of his “Big Man” frame and we had always hoped to one day hear that famous solo of his on “Jungleland” in person. After my father died, the song became a moving emblem of fond memories that I would always treasure but never get to relive in exactly the same form. My hopes continued to one day hear it, but now those hopes are completely muted. In fact, and not to be too glum on such uplifting tribute to a wonderful specimen of cool, but it pains me to know that the final chapter of the E Street Band has probably been written. No more tours, no more on stage banter, and no more solos as all goes quiet along the boardwalk.
The greatest big man to ever live has taken his last stand down in “Jungleland,” and we are all grateful for being given in our lifetime the coolest person ever.