Monday, June 20, 2011

King of the Entire Known Universe

During concerts on the Darkness On The Edge of Town tour, during "Growin' Up" Bruce Springsteen would tell a story about being sent by his priest to talk to God. It would go something like this: "... so I walk home, and try to figure out where I’m gonna find this God, you know, it’s like I don’t go to church... you know, I can’t go back there, I don’t know... said 'I know what I’ll do, I’ll go over to Clarence’s house ‘cause Clarence, he knows everybody.' So I go over there, I knock on the door, I say ‘Clarence, I’m in this fix. I gotta see God right away, can’t wait.' He said ‘Listen, no problem, I know just where he is.'"

I remember how the story sometimes continued: "... so I figured I gotta go see God and all I have to go see Him in was my mother's Rambler, was all beat up, all smashed up, paint scraped off the side... He says, Well, you can't go in that car! 'So what do you mean I can't go in this, it's the only car I got.' He says, 'That thing is, thing's ugly as hell, it's like, you think He's gonna see you in that car?!? There's gonna be guys up there with Monte Carlos, Lincolns, Continentals, you think He's gonna notice you?"

Clarence Clemons passed away two days ago. Writing about Clarence in death I feel a bit like going to see God in that Rambler: small. But here's the thing: As the story played out, Bruce got the car painted, and Clarence got in to drive with him to see God. Only then did God deliver the word: LET IT ROCK!!!

That was Clarence in my vision of Bruce's world: The faithful friend who had the answer, who came along for the ride, and who made sure the mission was accomplished in style.

I was introduced to Clarence's sound in 1977. My summer camp bunkmate, Andy Bienstock, was a Springsteen fanatic, and I had a tape deck. It was a package deal. The listening was a package deal: I couldn't listen to "Jungleland" unless I heard out every last note of that solo. (Andy is now Program Director at WYPR in Baltimore, and I thank him for allowing me to be among the first teenage beneficiaries of his music expertise)

Clarence was not the best technical player around; the "Born to Run" solo, in particular, was a nightly adventure. But no one else had that sound. The raspy bellow that just announced, "The Big Man is in your ears." Whether on a solo for Bruce, or Aretha Franklin, or even Lady Gaga, he had a tone that was all his; and the emotion and feeling for his parts more than compensated for any technical flaws. My favorite solo is tucked away on the 4th side of The River, and turns the nearly mawkish song "Drive All Night" into an emotional masterpiece.

During the last 24 hours before Clarence's death, I looked through youtube, watching dozens of video highlights from his career. There he was, at the height of the Born in the U.S.A. frenzy, making an appearance on Late Show With David Letterman, first playing a version of Springsteen's From Small Things... and then sitting down for an interview. And then there's the majestic video promo for If I Should Fall Behind, in which Clarence sang a verse after playing a defining solo. A 1978 video of Paradise by the 'C', an instrumental named for Clarence. A 1984 version of Rosalita with Bruce and Clarence doing multiple sight and sound gags, culminating in the "Clarence" cheer and chant, and the announcement that he was, in fact, the king of the entire known universe (including Hoboken, New Jersey) and master of all things. But my favorite, from Landover in 1980, was a rendition of the "Detroit Medley." Clarence wasn't even in most of the video, but we can see that he was playing a baritone saxophone. Having played sax myself, I have an idea for the weight of that instrument, and how difficult it can be to get any sound out of it. Clarence was playing and strutting. And, then, just after 8 and a half minutes in, my jaw dropped: A mere mortal should have passed out from honking the bari while dancing that long. But there was Clarence, not only playing, but swinging the bari sax!! All the way, in rhythm, like a giant pendulum. Bruce was singing of hearing a train, and Clarence was operating the hand car. Both sides!!

In recent years, Clarence's health failed him badly. Though he was still an astonishing presence on the stage, he could barely move. The sight of Bruce assisting him to get on the stage was one of both love and pain. Yet, if anything his playing seemed to improve in the last years. On those occasions when I got to see a show from "the pit," there was no better place to be than 2 deep from Clarence; close enough to see the manufacturer's mark on his horns, close enough to feel the emotion and power of the show, and close enough to catch his eye when he wasn't playing.

I saw the E Street Band for the last time on November 22, 2009, in Buffalo. My friend Karen talked me in to going at the last minute, and a traffic jam made us almost an hour late for the show. But it was the last show of the tour, and who knew if there'd ever be another chance? Had to be there. We got there just in time for me to pick up a copy of Clarence's book, and to race to our seats as the band launched in to a song-by-song replay of the Greetings From Asbury Park NJ album. When it got to the break in "Growin' Up," Bruce came to the mic and said, "There I was..." I just smiled. The Rambler had reached its destination.

Clarence, at the time of his death, was in a position rarely attained in recent years by Bruce: In the Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart (Lady Gaga's The Edge Of Glory, featuring Clarence, currently sits at #6). With a bullet.

(photos by Lois Bernstein)

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Heart of a Heartless World

For much of the last month, my commute companion has been Stewart Francke's new album, Heartless World. "Heartless World" was funded in part by a kickstarter campaign, in which fans who ponied up small amounts of money were promised an advance copy of the CD, and those who ponied up especially large sums were promised, "name it, we'll do it." I don't have much history contributing to things that don't have "501 (c)" next to them, and this definitely wasn't one of those. But then, I've also heard Stew's past releases. As Stew wrote in his kickstarter announcement, "These are exciting times for independent artists, musicians, and music business entrepreneurs." It was a no-brainer. More than 200 people chipped in, and happily, the album was fully funded.

Happily, because this is the best album I have heard in a long, long time. Over repeated listening during my daily commute to downtown Detroit, I never once considered skipping a track. The weakest thing about this album must be the cover art, because there are no weak tracks here, and each listen seemed to reveal a part, a lyric, or even a lyricist I hadn't noticed before. On most days, I'd get through just more than half of the album getting to my parking spot at the Millender Center, and hear the rest on the way home. But if the Lodge was particularly backed up, I might be fortunate enough to make it through the entire album on the way in.

"Heartless World," to me, is an album defined by its sense of places. Physical places, in particular in and around Detroit. Seasonal places. Places in time. Places in our past and present lives. Places within ourselves, and places for ourselves. If, not so long ago, we could talk of surviving the good times while dreaming of better days, now we can talk about simply surviving... while dreaming of better days.

There are plenty of musical references here, from Motown to Stax to P-Funk to Jackson Browne to Van Morrison -- at least, those are some that I think I've heard -- and I'm sure, many more. The trick, of course, is to make them work as something new. "Sam Cooke's On the Radio," the third track on the album, seems to come right out of the Steely Dan songbook... the best part of the Steely Dan songbook. With a groove. With the backup singers kicking off the song, and then adding one of my favorite lines of the album, "singin' fa fa fa fa fa fa," a line so good it just made me smile all over. Times might be bad, but this is no sad song.

Stew has every reason to be down. He lives in metro Detroit, which has been especially hard hit by the recent economic downturn -- not that times were good here for many years before that. Since his last record, Stew's gone through the loss of both of his parents. Those scars mark several of the songs on the album, from the declaration in "Heart of a Heartless World" that "I've said farewell to my mama, and said goodbye to my dad," until the imperfect but necessary resolution of "Boo Yah / Take My Mother Home": "Ain't gonna grieve my mother no more, ain't gonna grieve my father no more." But from that sadness, comes a sense of joy and celebration. That last song features a searing vocal by Mitch Ryder, declaring, "feeling mighty joyful, feeling mighty high." It fits.

And that's just scratching the surface. I suppose I could go on about the use of the various instruments. Or the song "Givin' It Up," which features a melody that could make it in the Paul McCartney songbook, but with lyrical confessionals ("I was a fool, so smart and so smug") that seem to me beyond anything I can imagine from Sir Paul... Or of the horns. Are they out of tune at the end of "Snowin' in Detroit"? Well, yeah, maybe. But, goodness, I wouldn't change 'em if they are.

My two word summation for Heartless World is this: Buy it. (You can use the link, or get it from Stew's site. This is a record that deserves to get wide recognition, to be heard, and to be enjoyed.

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Last night Lori and I went to the release concert for "Heartless World" at Callahan's, a local music cafe. When we got there, Stew was hanging out near the front door, ready to greet. Of course, though Stew had his beautiful wife and daughter in the room -- and, I'm sure, plenty of other friends and relatives there as well -- the first thing he asked me was how my children were doing. Somehow, that didn't surprise me. He also let on that "Heartless World" is about as good as he can do... to which I had no idea how to respond. Except to say that it's better than the best of many artists that I admire. I didn't think to say that last night, of course. but I get to fix that a bit now.

The concert was a blast, of course, featuring about half of the new album. During "You Want What You Don't Got," the dance floor filled... and it was all women. Stew did not look disappointed. Later, during "My Old School" (a Steely Dan song that's been a staple of Stew's live shows for some time), Lori got an extended private solo on the dance floor. She did not look disappointed.