This is actually a repost from last year – but now more than then….
The Best 2-1/2 minutes in Rock & Roll
There have been endless “greatest rock & roll song ever ” lists published in magazines and blogs everywhere, and anyone can argue for any song not on the list. Of course, you don’t see many people arguing for “Sugar, Sugar” by “The Archies” (apparently you CAN find almost anything on YouTube). Obviously what you choose depends on the music you grew up with and my greatest songs probably aren’t yours. But rather than debate the merits of “Freebird” vs “I want to Hold Your Hand” I’d rather talk about the best music of the rock and roll era. There’s a difference of course. A song is the combination of music and lyric, and each can stand alone. For me the best rock & roll music ever written and performed is the saxophone break in Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s “Jungleland” played of course by Clarence Clemons.
Springsteen excels in writing epic stories, with evocative, often poetic lyrics. And as he’s proven over the years he can turn those stories into incredible songs with almost any band behind him. But to create his masterpieces he needs The E Street Band. While he “led” the other band of Human Touch/Lucky Town and The Sessions Band, he plays alongside E Street. It’s no coincidence that his best music comes with E Street. He trusts them with his most valued possession, his songs, and they seemingly never fail him. But he trusts no one more than Clarence.
Almost from the beginning (and I actually did see some of the beginning, sneaking into Jersey bars and clubs in ‘74 and ‘75 with fake ids, and twice catching Bruce before Born to Run was released), it’s been clear that Bruce needed Clarence to make the music special. There couldn’t be “Kitty’s Back”, “Rosalita”, or “Born to Run”, at least as they’re instantly recognized now, without Clarence. But the two outdid themselves with “Jungleland”.
The roller coaster tragedy runs from the exhilaration of youthful expectations to the depths of despair in failure to escape, or even survive the gritty streets of the city and shore towns of the Rat and the Barefoot Girl. Operas out on the Turnpike fade to soft surrender, and it’s the saxophone that takes everyone from the rock & roll celebration of youth in the streets to the dark uncertainty of a dark bedroom as reality crashes in on the Rat, the Girl, and the rest of the midnight gang.
The emotion of the story is captured completely and elegantly by the Big Man. The long opening wail assembles the gangs under the Exxon sign. The sultry melody, at first tentative and then seductive sets the stage for romance to play out in a slow dance on Flamingo Lane. The bands explode in the night as Clarence takes everyone higher and higher, straining, reaching for success, escape, love. Your heart pounds in expectation, soaring with each note! But it’s all just out of reach, and the mournful closing of the break returns everyone to the tragedy of realization of failure.
If you go to a Springsteen show try and watch the crowd if Jungleland is played. For any other sax player in any other band you’d expect the crowd to celebrate wildly as the solo ends. But Clarence and his horn have ripped the guts out of everyone, their faces sad, strained, almost exhausted, caught up in the emotion and unable to celebrate. It remains for Bruce to clean it up and tell us the details of how it turned out. But we don’t need the words, we already know. Clarence took us on a 2 and half minute ride that wrings everything out of you with just his horn, his talent, and the music. I can’t think of any other piece of rock & roll music that can do that.