With rock bands becoming less and less visible, will there ever be another figure like Springsteen's legendary, saxophone-wielding partner?
When you open the gatefold of the Born to Run LP, completing the suggestive half-image on the album cover, you get not only one of the most indelible images we have of the late saxophonist Clarence Clemons, but a visual definition of the sideman. You see Bruce Springsteen literally leaning on Clemons, his eyebrows ever so slightly raised, his mouth curved into the sort of smile you save for inside jokes. It’s clear that Springsteen not only counted Clarence as part of the E Street band, he counted on him: as a direct tie back to the sweaty and raucous black R&B of their youth, as a mountainous teddy bear of sheer physical presence, and of course as one of rock and roll’s finest soloists, capable of taking over the middle two minutes of the final epic song of the biggest rock album of the ‘70s, sending the whole thing giddily heavenward.
Clemons died of a stroke this past Saturday, a sadly appropriate feat of timing given that he contributed his signature burst of sound to one of the year’s biggest singles—Lady Gaga’s "Edge of Glory"—in the midst of an extended moment in which everyone from pop starlet Katy Perry to indie heroes Deerhunter have incorporated sax solos in their songs. To many, Clemons is equivalent to former Doobie Brother and Steely Dan contributor Michael McDonald: a curious relic of an earlier era when flashy earnestness like the "Jungleland" solo ruled. But real rock and roll fans know him as one of the most indispensable sidemen of all time.