In 1981, Patty Burrell made me, Skippy and Bop, new friends and freshman at East High School in Corning, New York listen to the greatest saxophone solo ever recorded. It was Clarence Clemons in Jungleland. We were sitting in the Burrell's back room, three on the sofa, we listened quietly to the whole mesmerizing ten minute song, a story of a boy named Rat out on the streets, who takes a stab at romance with a barefoot girl, but whose dreams gun him down. He winds up wounded, and not even dead. If you do a statistical analysis of Springsteen's lyrics, the three most frequently occurring words are girl, street and night. Jungleland is pretty much in the mean.
Jungleland has been one of my favorite songs since that day thirty years ago. I don't relate to gang violence in New Jersey, it's because I sat with Bop and Skippy when I heard it for the first time, it was the first exclusive piece of information provided to me as a high school student by an actual big sister: this sax solo is important. And it is because Patty's tip is right. That sax solo. It's important.
The solo starts with a sustained single note, builds slowly to another one, Clarence, a mountain, over piano work of Roy Bittan. About 16 bars in, Max Weinberg swings it into an anthem, an anthem of the every day, an anthem of the drama of each person's life, an anthem of small things, and Clarence blows this haunting anthem so your heart aches. It goes on and on. And just like life itself, you don't want it to ever finish.
What that song gave me when I was 14 was an outlet. I am sure that every teenager before 1975 felt the longing and despair and loneliness that I did, but it was never scored so accurately. I wasn't getting stabbed, but in the quick of the night I was making my honest stand. We all fucking were. We were trying to be adults. Thirty years later and I am still always trying to make my honest stand and I am always finding life wounding, always, I am wounded but not even dead.
So great was my loyalty to that song, and to Patty and Bop and Skippy that I made my own ritual. The last thing I do before I move out of any place is listen to Jungleland and think about my life in that place, in all its boring glory, in all its pedestrian wonder. Listening to Clarence play the perfect anthem of small things transformed my small things into things as huge as the ache in my heart. You see, I am terrible about moving, I never want to move, it's a little death, a little end. I guess I play that song to mourn the passing of my own life. But this week I play it to mourn the end of Clarence Clemons.
Where I grew up, Springsteen and Dylan were indisputable geniuses, poets and artists of the highest order. And you know who Clarence Clemons was? He was the guy who was cooler than Bruce Springsteen. There from the beginning (not like the ridiculously late on the bandwagon Patty Scialfa or the questionable Nils Lofgren), Clarence was immutable. What I felt for Clarence Clemons before he died was more respect than affection. I believed Patty and I believed Bruce, he was the Big Man, the greatest saxophone player who ever lived.