Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Thoughts About the Big Man

When I was in high school, I had a crush on a tenor sax player, and wanted to switch from the flute to the tenor sax, so I could march near this guy in marching band.

I talked to the band director who told me that she had 4th and 5th graders who were doing summer music camp for their first instruments. She told me that would be the best thing for me to do, to come to summer music and learn how to play the thing. Either that, or learn how to play it myself.

So I did. I spent each morning with the 4th and 5th graders, honking away on a saxophone that my parents rented from the school district. I already had SOME music skills from playing the flute, but the fingering and the sound and the style of play were totally different and alien to me. We got through the summer, me and those little kids. And I was deemed good enough by our band director to make the change to tenor sax.

I wasn't just crushing on the boy who played tenor sax. I was inspired by The Big Man, Clarence Clemons.

I had been introduced to Springsteen in 8th grade English class when Mr. Smiley brought in "Darkness on the Edge of Town" for us to read the words and analyze. I saw live footage of the shenanigans on stage that Bruce was doing and I loved the energy and the love he gave in his performances. I didn't become a rabid Springsteen fan by any stretch of the imagination, but I do think that he joined the lineup of Taylor, Browne, Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young and Fogelberg for me at that time and his songs over the years have been written into the fabric of my heart.

And the way Clarence played that sax breathed such beautiful life into some of the songs. "Spirits in the Night" would not be the same without his short opening riff, and the end of "Jungleland" for me far surpasses that keyboard ending to "Layla" by Eric Clapton, hands down.

"Jungleland" was always my Springsteen song. I always imagined myself on many summer nights over the past two dozen years as "Barefoot Girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain..."

My husband doesn't like Springsteen. But as a sax player himself, I think that he most definitely respects the Big Man.

His passing ends an era, one where warm deep horn tones illuminate the text the way a monk would decorate the opening letter of a passage in a book. Now, everything is electronic, no one plays sax, and storytelling is truly lacking in songwriting. He will be sorely missed.

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