Rock Flashback: Clarence Clemons, Bruce Springsteen, And “Rosalita”

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Nils Lofgren, Clarence Clemons, and Bruce Springsteen in 2002 (Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)

Nils Lofgren, Clarence Clemons, and Bruce Springsteen in 2002 (Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)

Around the web, articles and tributes to [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Clarence Clemons[/lastfm], who died Saturday at age 69, are thick on the ground. And like everybody else, I’m thinking about the Big Man.

When [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band[/lastfm] exploded onto the scene in 1975 — with the famous simultaneous appearance on the covers of both Time and Newsweek — “Born to Run” was just another record on the radio to me. I was a bad high-school saxophone player at the time, and I don’t remember thinking much about the sax on the record at all. It’s possible that I never even heard the name Clarence Clemons.

clarence bruce nils full 385w Rock Flashback: Clarence Clemons, Bruce Springsteen, And Rosalita

Nils Lofgren, Clarence Clemons, and Bruce Springsteen on the first show of a 2002-2003 world tour, in New Jersey, August 7, 2002 (Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)

When I got to college (the fall that Darkness on the Edge of Town came out), one of Springsteen’s acolytes introduced me to a song I had never heard from an album I had missed entirely, and it not only converted me to the Church of Springsteen, it also made me a member of the Society for the Veneration of the Big Man: “Rosalita,” from The Wild, the Innocent, and the E-Street Shuffle. It’s not merely Springsteen at his most dramatically romantic (or is it romantically dramatic?), it’s also unimaginable without Clemons’ blowing.

There are lots of live performances of the song at YouTube. Here’s the studio version from 1973. Notice how Clemons plays behind Springsteen like a lead guitarist. When he rises to solo, it’s as natural and organic as the sunrise.

“Rosalita” can’t be “Rosalita” without that saxophone. In fact, “Rosalita” might be the Springsteen song to have if you can only have one. But its significance goes far beyond its sound.

Every time I hear that song — every time, and it’s been a long time  — I see my college apartment, keg in the kitchen, the stereo cranked, living room full of people, every one of  ‘em chanting along with “Rosalita,” if they can manage to get the words out through the beer fog: “Your papa says he knows that I don’t have any money/Your papa says he knows I don’t have any money.” And right at the end: “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!” Everybody’s smiling, laughing, shouting, eyes bright, souls without care, having as much fun as is possible with both feet on the floor. In the 30 years since, I’ve never had that much fun again.

And so, the significance of the E Street Band’s music goes far beyond its sound. It moves us just as much by what it represents. It’s music to build your life around, a record of brotherhood that spans decades, and Springsteen and Clemons are the sun around which the brotherhood revolves. (You can see it in Springsteen’s eyes in the photo above: He loves that man.) Clarence was never the star, but he always seemed larger than life, and Springsteen encouraged the development of the Big Man’s legend. A couple of years ago, he said of Clemons, “You all want to be him, but you can’t.”

We do, and we can’t. But he was, and long may his legend live.
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