Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Vinyl Vednesday 6/15/2011

[Vinyl Vednesday is a weekly feature about three favorite vinyl finds. It’s not meant to be a dick-measuring contest, but it usually turns out that way. This week’s installment is dedicated to E Street Band saxophonist/percussionist/vocalist/cornerstone Clarence “Big Man” Clemons, who suffered a stroke this week. The E Street Band already took a hit when organist Danny Federici passed away in 2008, so I wonder what happens next. Love, respect, and prayers go out to the group. Anyway, as always, e-mail with your own big finds!]

Records: Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band’s The River (1980), Live/1975-85 (1986), and Tunnel of Love (1987) on black. They’re not Clemons’ best moments, but Vinyl Vednesday has already covered them.

Place of Purchase: I inherited The River from my Uncle Mike and Live from my parents. Tunnel of Love was purchased for $2, maybe $3 from Disc World in Conshohocken.

Thoughts: It’s hard to perfectly sum up the impact Clarence Clemons had on The E Street Band throughout their run. Each of their ’70s records is defined by his sax playing: Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle are party records, while Born to Run takes on some of its cinematic quality from his alternately mournful (“Jungleland,” “Meeting Across the River”) and celebratory playing (“Thunder Road,” “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out”). Clemons barely shows up on Darkness on the Edge of Town, but that’s part of the point – He provided so much comfort on Run that his absence makes Darkness that much darker. Still, that solo on “Badland” rips. That album’s follow-up, The River, is more balanced emotionally, and while Clemons isn’t the instrumental focus like he was on previous albums, he still lends a fun, pop atmosphere to tracks like “Hungry Heart” and “Sherry Darling.” The River is a little schizophrenic, containing some of Bruce’s biggest party anthems since his early days while still dropping loathsome, longing, sad tunes like “The River,” but Clemons helps meld them into a cohesive whole.

Live/1975-85 is, in some ways, the penultimate E Street release. Their records have always been great, but they remain better as a live unit, and anyone who’s seen them live will tell you as such. Yeah, Born to Run is as perfect as a record can get, but it’s still better when you’ve got thousands of voices singing along. Or, in the case of Live’s lead off track, when it’s completely stripped down: “Thunder Road” gets reimagined as a solo piano track with a flourish of harmonica and xylophone. Then the track segues into a raw ’78 performance of “Adam Raised a Cain.” Dig Clemons on the tambourine (He also holds down the low end on the vox). He gets more to do on other tracks, though, like “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight),” “Hungry Heart,” and a cover of War’s “War.” At five LPs, Live is a lengthy but rewarding listen.

Clemons was a big part of The E Street Band dating all the way back to Greetings, but not even he could keep the group together forever. By 1987, Springsteen’s life was breaking apart. His 1985 marriage to actress Julianne Phillips was already splintering and after the massive success of Born in the U.S.A., he was getting drained creatively. On its follow-up, Tunnel of Love, he went insular. The record is pretty downright depressing – every tune is about trying to stay faithful in a marriage that’s clearly headed for divorce. Musically, there’s not much going on, as Bruce recorded most of it himself with a drum machine and synthesizers. While The E Street Band is given credits for the record, they barely appear. In Clemons’ case, he lends vocals to “When You’re Alone,” and that’s it. The E Street Band’s real finale was Live, at least until 2002’s triumphant The Rising. It’s a compelling listen, but compared to Springsteen’s other ’80s releases (The River, Nebraska, Born in the U.S.A., Live), it’s not something I can listen to often.

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