When Lady Gaga’s straight-outta-1986 video for “The Edge of Glory” premiered last Friday, Little Monsters everywhere were briefly flummoxed that the clip’s lone extravagance was a man sitting on a fake stoop, barely lit, miming a saxophone solo. One can only assume that Clarence Clemons would never have planned for this to be his final statement as a performing artist, but it’s safe to say that more people under the age of 20 learned his name from his appearance on this single than from 40 years as Bruce Springsteen’s foil. And that’s fantastic. Because if the ensuing curiosity compels just .001% of her slavishly devoted fans to dive into YouTube’s glorious wormhole of vintage “Rosalita” live clips, then she’s gonna go to heaven, guaranteed.
The news of Clemons’ death on Saturday night at age 69 stung, not because of its suddenness — he’d suffered a stroke nearly a week earlier and had health issues throughout the past few years — but because of the degree to which his mere presence didn’t just complement, but define Springsteen’s career, and the finality this seemingly brought to a band that was still churning out nearly three-hour shows last year. This is not to imply that the E Street Band is over — certainly nothing like that has been stated publicly. But, with all due respect to keyboardist Danny Federici, who was replaced shortly before his death by melanoma in 2008, the only thing harder to imagine than never seeing Bruce play “Born to Run” again is seeing him play it with some ace session guy strutting stage left.
He’s on the short list of artists (topped by his Boss) who’ve earned first-name ubiquity — who else could anyone ever mean by “Clarence?” — yet I couldn’t tell you a single thing about his life offstage or, come to think of it, what his speaking voice sounded like. Clemons was a mythical presence, possibly created by Springsteen during his steep and sudden ascent to help diffuse the spotlight, or maybe to help it shine a little brighter. In Two Hearts, definitive Springsteen biographer Dave Marsh recalls, in no small amount of detail, a show at New York’s Bottom Line in August 1975, just as Born to Run-mania was starting to roil. During a break in “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City,” Springsteen reenacts the first time he and guitarist “Miami” Steve Van Zant ever saw Clemons, wearing a white suit and clutching a walking stick during a rainstorm on the Asbury Park boardwalk, shaman-like, but also kinda mugger-like. The story is probably several different kinds of bullshit, but it heralded Clemons as a rock n’ roll character of the highest order and he’s never been anything less since.
A highlight of any Bruce show was his climactic kiss with Clarence, sometimes a quick peck, sometimes a full soul kiss delivered in a running slide, yet it never stirred so much as a wisp of controversy, no matter how broad the audience. Because the kiss wasn’t sexualized in the slightest — this was pure love. What’s more transgressive than that? No wonder Gaga loved him.
A month ago, when Born This Way was released, Jonah Weiner wrote at Slate that Clemons’ solo in “The Edge of Glory,” in conjunction with the sax part in Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” and a few other key recent examples, demanded a cultural re-evaluation of that long-maligned totem of smooth-jazz. And whether or not you believe that to be true, how many 69-year-old lifelong sidemen have had the honor and bittersweet fortune of going out at the apex of even a minor zeitgeist moment?