Surely Sam Cooke was singing, "Come on and loosen up and so loose!" before going back to the verses in his classic dance record "Shake," released late in 1964, around the time of his death.
Those words don't exactly make sense, but that's what I heard back then--same for when I became a huge Cooke fan a decade later. That's my sound and I'm sticking to it.
So it was a bit of a shock to catch a video of Sunday's tribute show at the Wonder Bar in New Jersey celebrating the life of Clarence Clemons. The Sensational Soul Cruisers and C.C.'s vocalist J.T. Bowen were joined onstage by Bruce Springsteen to perform "Shake," and when they got to the "so loose" part, Bruce distinctly sang, "Come on and loosen up your shoulder!"
Okay, that must be the correct line, but I honestly can't dicipher it on Cooke's original--and Sam Cooke had beautiful diction, not to mention a set of pipes that has never been surpassed in popular music. So call me deaf already. Cooke also vocalized, "move your body like a whip" on that song and Otis Redding never got it right on his rendition; Redding sang, "move your body like your hip." Maybe we mangled the lyrics because we got caught up in the excitement (Cooke's playful singing and Earl Palmer's tom tom-infested drumming, for starters).
He had a huge heart and a stratospheric saxophone sound to match. Clarence Clemons (1942-2011) didn't merely give Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band a musical edge over so many generic sounding 1970s groups. Together, they delivered on all the promises of brotherhood and community--a bond among band members and between artist and audience--that the rise of rock'n'roll in the 1950s suggested. In other words, hopes and dreams from the entire history of rock'n'roll.
That history was so audible and evident from the very beginning, even when Springsteen was electrifying growing audiences only in the Northeast and a few other places (I was lucky to discover them so early; thankfully, I lived near Austin, TX when I caught the E Street Band live for the first time in March 1974). Springsteen, of course, is the greatest or near-greatest live performer of all-time--having Clemons to play off of gave Springsteen's show additional layers of meaning and higher heights that perhaps only the Who or James Brown at his most dizzying could match.
Besides the E Street Band concerts, which always turned into dance parties, I caught Clarence and his Red Bank Rockers twice, when they gigged in Detroit and Royal Oak. It was the closest you could get to a steamy Stax Records soul revue in the not-so-magical year of 1983, when British synth pop ruled the commercial airwaves.
I met Clarence around 1991, when he was on an autograph tour. At this time, Springsteen was working with other musicians but I didn't want to allude to that when I
had a couple of words with Clarence. So I told him how much I loved his Red Bank Rockers shows and I wondered what happened to his vocalist, J.T. Bowen.
Clarence, who was probably glad that I didn't ask the same cliched question or two that he undoubtably heard over and over on his signing tour, gave me the kind of smile that had a great degree of wisdom behind it. "He was enjoying the rock'n'roll lifestyle just a little too much," was how the Big Man put it.
That's just one of the many things I loved about Clarence Clemons: Here was a force of nature who could blow the roof off a building with his saxophone, yet he was drenched in goodwill and kept his feet squarely on the ground. Thanks for the lessons of life as much as the music, Big Man.
"You're putting out a lot of crap--Iron Butterfly and all that shit."
--Jon Landau to Atlantic Records' Jerry Wexler, circa 1969 (Landau went from Rolling Stone critic to producing and managing Bruce Springsteen. The quote is taken from Fred Goodman's "The Mansion on the Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen and the
Head-On Collision of Rock and Commerce" [Vintage Books/1997]).
Looks like I'll have to take back my earlier comment that I caught Bruce Springsteen live for the first time (36 years ago this week) before Jon Landau did. Now that I've gotten to that part of the story in Goodman's book, my claim doesn't seem to hold up. But I will maintain that I experienced Bruce on a great night in March 1974 before Landau saw him on a great night in April, ahead of his famous review: "I saw Rock'n'Roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen."
I was so fortunate to be near Austin, TX in late 1973 when Springsteen's second album, The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle was released and then ignored by almost all radio in the U.S. Not ignored in the East, of course, and welcomed by Austin station KRMH (Karma), where they played "The E Street Shuffle," "Kitty's Back" and the double whammy of "Incident on 57th Street"/"Rosalita" with growing regularity. My friends at Texas Lutheran, Danny Davila and George Daeschner, were as astounded as I was to find something so energetic and joyous on the radio, because even at my young age, the 1960s were starting to feel like a different century. "Did you hear that?" we asked each other about the buzz that KRMH was picking up on.
The first two Springsteen Austin shows, at the fabled Armadillo World Headquarters, fifty miles from our school, were slated for March 15-16, 1974, and I think we were present the second night. Now I'm wondering if my friend George went to this show or if it was the next one we went crazy over, in November. Memory is a funny thing. Journals say that Alvin Crow & the Pleasant Valley Boys opened, but I don't remember that. All I know is that Springsteen and this mighty band (including David Sancious on piano and Ernest 'Boom' Carter on drums--they would leave later that year, after playing on the epic title track of Born to Run) electrified me. I'd heard you were supposed to be blown away by a great show, but for me so far (I was just shy of 19), concerts were enjoyable, hardly life affirming.
By then I was consuming all the music I could, still learning the history of Rock'n'Roll.
What I found is that Springsteen encompassed the whole thing, throwing out everything meaningless from Frankie Avalon to, well, Iron Butterfly; later for the garbage. His sound was every piece of the majestic: Presley, Dylan, the Shangri-las, the Ronettes, Wilson Pickett, Van Morrison--and that very definition of Rock'n'Roll melted seamlessly into Springsteen's own point of view. The first tune started quietly with Sancious' classical and blues piano motif, and then only Bruce appeared, strumming acoustic guitar and slowly building through "New York City Serenade." He would quiet down in certain places and the audience of a couple thousand gravitated to him more and more--you could hear a pin drop. Saxophonist Clarence Clemons joined in and gently accelerated the performance. Everyone went nuts and it was only the opening song.
From there, the full band knocked us out--their dynamics, ranging from restrained and eloquent to flat out blazing, were unbelievable. And they probably weren't that tight yet, as former drummer Vinnie Lopez had only recently been booted out, but their style was overwhelming. The originals, like "Kitty's Back," took on a "progressive" yet hard-edged drive (and played off the impact of the stage lighting), while the oldies weren't the cutesy kind that Sha Na Na was doing on TV. I remember that they did "Let the Four Winds Blow" that night, reminding everyone that Rock'n'Roll did not begin in 1964. Bruce himself was this full-throated vocalist, which the first two albums barely captured, and he was way into his material, playing a character in the most natural sense. But it wasn't like an empty broadway production. What Bruce and company created was a fully realized, deep feeling I've never "outgrown" (unlike the Doors, whom I thought were the stuff when I was 12).
That feeling has almost always been present where Bruce Springsteen is concerned (for me, the stadium hoopla, with all those newfound fans not really listening, had just gotten too big by 1985, when the second U.S. part of the Born In the USA tour brought him to the Pontiac Silverdome). Yet what remains is an authentic rush, producing chills whether it be 1974 or today. Allow me to note a few treasures among thousands:
*"Jungleland" from last fall's Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame concert in NYC--the man is 60!
* The YouTube video of "Tunnnel of Love," posted by "bruchee" and running 5:47, from 1988. You have to get 30 seconds into that to see how Bruce & the E Street Band entered the venue every night on that tour. It's a smile fest at the very least (yes, the song ends early--it's not a decent edit, but you need to see it).
*The long guitar intro version of "Prove It All Night" from the '78 tour. I believe the video has "Landover, MD" in the title.
*"Spirit In the Night" from the Hammersmith Odeon, 1975 ("Where'd my hat go?").
*I have to skip ahead to performances from Springsteen's 2005 solo tour, which I loved just as much as a full band show. "Incident on 57th Street" rules, and the new "Matamoros Banks" was more than haunting--it is tragedy set to music.
*Finally, the official "Born to Run" video, recorded live in 1985. He is a brilliant singer (on this version, note the phrasing of "there's no place left to hide") and the whole thing speaks to the danger, silliness, dead seriousness and friendship that the best Rock'n'Roll
provides. Here's the definitive five minute example of how it feels to be truly alive.
Thank you Bruce. And thank you Danny D. and George D. for that shared experience
36 years ago in Austin.