The hearts of Bruce Springsteen fans ached on Saturday when news broke that legendary E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons died after a massive stroke earlier in the week. Though nothing official was ever released, fans on online message boards had been reporting rumors of a 2012 tour. But now that Clemons is gone, can Bruce and the boys ever embark on another tour? Or is this the end of the E Street Band?
In a statement released on his website late Saturday evening, Springsteen doesn’t mention future performances—but doesn’t rule them out either, “[Clarence’s] life, his memory, and his love will live on in that story and in our band,” he wrote.
Now we have to wonder whether a tour could happen without E Street’s second-most notable member. Would it be the same? Could the sax solo in “Born to Run,” the heart of E Street’s most popular tune, possibly be as exhilarating if someone else plays the notes?
This isn’t the first time the E Street Band has had to figure out what to do after losing a member: In 1984 Steve Van Zandt left the band and was replaced by Nils Lofgren. (Van Zandt later rejoined but Lofgren remains a full-fledged band member.) When longtime organist Danny Federici died of melanoma in 2008, Charles Giordano joined the band.
But with Clemons, things are a bit more complicated, because what he brought to E Street went beyond talent. Certainly there are gifted saxophonists in the world who could pull off an admirable impression of his “Jungleland” solo. But even if the notes are right, the chemistry will be all wrong.
Clemons was part of the E Street experience. When the band walked out on stage, fans cheered as loudly for Clemons as they would for Springsteen. For first-timers, it was awe-inspiring to see that the Big Man was actually freaking huge, weighing in at 260 pounds on his 6’4″ frame. A tiny smile from Clemons or a quick-witted interjection and the crowd would go insane, thankful for the mere gift of his voice. No offense to bassist Garry Tallent or pianist Roy Bittan, but that just isn’t happening for them. The fans need Clarence on stage to complete each adventure with E Street.
Clemons’ presence will be missed most notably during “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” a concert staple that explains the E Street Band’s creation, referring to Springsteen as “Bad Scooter” and introducing Clemons as “The Big Man.” Without Clemons, Bad Scooter has no mate and the song, which the band has played for 35 years, has no place in the set list.
Because if there’s no Big Man, there’s no E Street Band.
Erica Palan is the managing editor of Phillymag.com. She has seen Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform live 11 times.