As most of our readers know by now, E Street has lost its most prominent resident and Block Captain with the death of Clarence Clemons. In poor physical health for years due to various ailments, he died on Saturday night from complications due to a stroke less than a week earlier. The Big Man was 69.
So we here at Rocks Off scrambled to our iPod, CDs and even cassettes for an intense Father's Day trying to determine his greatest solos. Alas, there are ground rules:
- We're limiting this list to Clemons' work with Springsteen, no offense to Jackson Browne, Aretha Franklin, or Lady Gaga.
- And then just Springsteen studio records; no Tracks, The Promise, Live in New York City. Though "Paradise by the 'C'" from Live 1975-1985 gets an honorable mention.
- They have to be true solos, not just repeated melodies or - as in "Meeting Across the River" - mostly adding atmosphere, no matter how crucial.
- The list is weighed toward the time period of his greatest work. After Bruce put the band back together in the late '90s, the music tended to feature less sax. In his autobiography Big Man, Clemons even bragged about laying down all his parts for Working on a Dream in a single day.
As if that were something to be proud of. So let's get to it!
7. "Kitty's Back," The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle
It doesn't show up until late in the tune, itself a swirling, wildly-building track with jazzy organ/guitar licks and a great percussive beat. But when Clarence starts to blow, he delivers a soulful, swinging solo that pulls the number back to earth before the sustained note brings this carousel to a crashing conclusion.
6. "Rosalita," The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle
Clean and crisp, Clemons here grabs the listener by the throat and the groin - embodying all the youthful swagger of the aspiring rocker the song is about. With the sax sound building and building and nearly carrying the tune, there's a reason this number was always a live show highlight. And it has more to do with the Big Man than the Boss.
"Sherry Darling," The River
While it's arguably the Springsteen record which features Clarence most prominently, this "Quarter to Three"- like house party tune (that actually opens with Clemons teasing the melody) is first among equals with a swinging groove and a handclap back beat. In fact, the two solos are enough to make you OK about putting up with Sherry's nosy mom.
"Badlands," Darkness on the Edge of Town
On one of Springsteen's most driving, forceful songs, Clemons' work here is the meat in a sandwich between the flashy guitar solos and the "mmmm...mmm...mmm" chorus. And while it's not long by any means, the solo takes the song to a compact and fiery fist-pumping high.
"Jungleland," Born to Run
While Bruce calls on him mostly to add punch to his songs, Clemons could also use his horn to be quietly emotive (see "Independence Day"). During this urban tale of the hungry and the hunted, Clarence cools things down with his slow blowing, at times sounding wistful, hopeful, and resigned all together. Just listen to this number with the solo excised, and you'll see how crucial it is to the Magic Rat's tragic tale.
"Born to Run," Born to Run
An obvious choice, sure. But Bruce's signature song also includes Clemons' signature riff. Those who have seen Wings for Wheels, the documentary on the making of the record, know how much time and how many takes went into recording, but it was certainly all worth it. Clarence's frenetic, nearly amphetamine-fueled solo bursts with urgency and power as if it were itself the sound of the engine pushing that car over the Jersey state line to freedom. Or the sound of just a really good orgasm.
Rest in peace, Big Man.
VH1 Classic's 24-hour Big Man memorial marathon, featuring full-length E Street concerts and much more, continues until 6 p.m. today.
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