Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band of brothers is dwindling. Three years ago, organist Danny Federici died from skin cancer, at age 58. Then on June 18, 2011, saxophonist Clarence "Big Man" Clemons died, at 69, from the effects of a stroke he had suffered a week earlier. When Federici died, the band was on the road without him. He was replaced onstage by one of the players from Springsteen's Seeger Sessions band. And, in his official statement after Clemons' death, Springsteen clearly implied that the band would continue, saying, “With Clarence at my side, my band and I were able to tell a story far deeper than those simply contained in our music. His life, his memory, and his love will live on in that story and in our band.”
But it is hard to imagine the sparks flying on E Street without Clemons. For one thing, his saxophone was sonically crucial in most of the band's best-known songs. Clemons was not, technically speaking, a great saxophone player. But that was beside the point. As Clemons himself pointed out, he was a rock-and-roll sax player, and rock and roll plays by its own set of rules. Chuck Berry was not a particularly accomplished guitarist and Bob Dylan was nobody's Caruso. But they were both great in rock-and-roll terms because they had a distinctive sound and an original, if primitive, form of personal expression that connected both with a contemporary audience and deep American tradition. It's that very unschooled idiosyncrasy that would seem to make Clemons' horn irreplaceable. If a hired session player takes his solos, the E Street Band will become simply another legacy act descending into unintentional self-parody.
As Springsteen’s statement acknowledged, Clemons’ importance in the E Street legend was always more than simply musical. The presence of a black man front and center in America’s greatest rock-and-roll band broadened the "story" Springsteen could use that band to tell. Springsteen biographer Dave Marsh has likened the on-stage myth Bruce and Clarence forged to the one Mark Twain cooked up about Huck Finn and Jim, the runaway slave. Springsteen has always understood that the rock-and-roll story is about freedom, and that the music’s African-American roots are about more than just the rhythms. The African-American heritage, coming down through the spirituals and the blues to R&B, provides that liberating spiritual core. Springsteen didn’t bring Clemons into the band because he was black. And Clemons didn't stay because Bruce was white. Like Huck and Jim, they forged a partnership that transcended those considerations, and that allowed the band to project an idealized vision of an America at least temporarily redeemed from its original sin.
In the post-hip-hop (and post-Obama-election) era, when musicians and musical ideas flow freely across racial divides (witness the recent collaboration of rapper Ludacris and country hat act Jason Aldean), getting all mythic about Bruce and the Big Man can seem overblown at best, and mere tokenism at worst. Even back in the day, you often heard the joke that there were always more black people on stage at a Springsteen show than there were in the audience.
But Springsteen and his band emerged on the American scene at the very moment in the 1970s when popular music had been resegregated. "Disco sucks" was in the process of replacing “law and order” as the official code phrase for white racism. So Springsteen’s choice to keep his band sonically and visibly allied with the rhythm-and-blues tradition did signify. And, in fact, the band that Springsteen took into the studio to begin recording his Born to Run breakthrough was half black and half white, including, as it did, keyboardist David Sancious and drummer Ernest Carter. But those two went off to form a jazz band. Clemons, born to rock, stayed, and the rest is history.
Danny Duncan Collum teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort. Find out about his new novel, White Boy, and more at www.dannyduncancollum.net.