Musings: Life after Clarence

As most of you know, Clarence Clemons died on Saturday night. I personally heard about it from my roommate on Sunday. Although he claims to be a Bruce fan, he’s a casual listener at best, which leaves him with an emotional disconnect with the news. So it was with an incongruous nonchalance that he mentioned the loss casually in the middle of a conversation.

I obviously never knew Clarence Clemons personally. In many ways, he always struck  me as more of a symbol than as a person. He was the massive dude with the distinct tone on his sax. He was the one that was always standing next to Bruce, mutual respect binding their distinct personas. He’s the one who shares the cover of the greatest rock record of all time. He was an icon.

I was particularly stunned by the news because I had just finished watching a documentary on Bruce and the band on Saturday. In a dumb sort of way, I was feeling particularly close to them yesterday, having just witnessed a detailed representation of the painstaking process they went through to make Darkness on the Edge of Town over 30 years ago.

As soon as I heard the news, I couldn’t help but think of the footage in the documentary, snapping back and forth between present day interviews and old film from the studio. The whole bunch of them weren’t much older than I am now when they were making the album; in the past 3 years, two of them have died.

It’s also hard to come to grips with the fact that I’ll never see the big man live. As much as I love Bruce, I still haven’t had a chance to be to one of his shows. As anyone who has been to one of them can tell you, they’re where his music really comes alive. I’m still sure I’ll see them one day, but it will never be same. Clarence’s sax is the second most distinct sound in that band, second only to Bruce’s voice. It doesn’t matter if someone new comes on board to play the solos; they’ll never sound the same, let alone feel the same. I sort of wonder if Bruce will even bother trying to find someone to fill in.

He even pioneered my signature "cutoff and a bandana", years before I was born.

So farewell our giant friend. You played a major part in the production of some of music’s most inspired albums of all time. There’s not a single song that you played on that will ever sound the same without you. I hope you keep looking down with that penetrating gaze, zapping a little inspiration from the beyond.

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Stuff That I Like: Unpopular Music

A lot of the music that I listen to isn’t very popular. I place a lot of the blame on the fact that it’s not as immediately accessible or instantly gratifying as most of the music on the radio. Popular music tends to be heavily combed over, to the point where only a very particular subset of the music being produced ever reaches listeners’ ears. This is a shame, because it means that a lot of people are only exposed to overly-produced songs about a rather limited number of topics (love, drinking, loving drinking). While this isn’t necessarily a universal truth, I’m confident in saying that the average listener is rather limited in what is presented to them.

I can’t really blame anyone for it either. It can be nice to have a distilled selection of tunes handed directly to you. There’s a fair amount of popular music that I like as well. The problem I have with it is that a lot of really great music gets missed.

In addition to the mainstream things that I like, such as Bruce and the Beatles and some rap, I listen to a good amount of ska and somewhat obscure indie/punk/difficult to classify bands. I don’t really like those labels, especially the indie and punk ones, but thems the breaks. Also, before I sound pretentious talking about my non-mainstream interests, please note that I would love for this stuff to become widely popular. By no means do I want to fall into that “Look at how cool I am, you’ve never heard of my bands” stereotype.

Carrying on, I fully understand the issues that most people have with the music I listen to. It takes a lot of time and patience to find what’s good. A lot of the time, it just takes repeated listening to really start enjoying it. For example, ska tends to all sound pretty similar if you don’t listen closely and try out a bunch of different bands. With that said, the genre has far more to offer than the goofy Southern California jams that people listened to in the mid-90’s. I’ve long said that there was something for everybody in the genre and I frequently try to sneakily play a bunch of different stuff until friends admit to liking something.

Another element that keeps people away from some of what I listen to is the singers. It’s a strange common theme, but a lot of the bands just don’t have singers who are very good at singing. The good part is that, probably due to their less gifted vocal cords, they write some exceptional lyrics. For those of us that are into it, there is nothing better than a song that you can really relate to, or at the very least, that paints a vivid picture.

Take for instance Bomb the Music Industry. Jeff doesn’t have a very good voice, but he writes songs that I can straight up relate to. Have you ever been irritated by hipsters, punks, or straight edge kids? Does life get you down sometimes? Does life get you up sometimes? His songs aren’t all that poetic, but most of them are intensely satisfying. It’s like working out some of your irritations by hearing someone else sing about them. The same thing goes for Atom and His Package, the one-man-band who combines plenty of nonsensical humor with sharp criticisms of the world around him. Sure, his voice is nasally, but at least he doesn’t try to hide it. He just keeps on doing what he does.

Then there are the Mountain Goats, of course. The more-or-less one-man-band that were initially well known for their lo-fi albums (recorded solely through a tape recorder). John is probably the best song writer that I’ve ever heard. A lot of people walk away when he starts singing, but he provides his expertly written songs with such emotion that it’s difficult to care, once you’ve adjusted.

Finally, there are the bands that don’t always have the most relatable or well written lyrics, but are just damn fun to listen to regardless of the singer. There’s a lot of hate out there for ska music based on this one. While I’ll disagree that all ska bands have crappy singers, I think it’s still possible to enjoy them when they do. Big D and the Kids Table fall squarely into this category for me.

These are all the types of bands that you want to play for your friends, but know that it will probably fall flat. They’ve never heard them before, and no matter how much you nag them about it, they’re unlikely to take the time to really listen and understand why you love the songs. Again, it’s not a slight on them, but an unintended consequence of the music industry as a whole.

I seriously doubt that it ever happens, but I sincerely hope that one day, the industry is more open to the obscure and inaccessible. It may not be the most outright pleasing, but it’s got a whole lot to say.

Stuff That I Like: Bruce Springsteen

I’m getting ready to head back to Maryland today and it’s as bittersweet as always. Obviously I love being in New Jersey, but my home, and my life for that matter, is actually in Maryland/DC these days. I always listen to a lot of Bruce on the way to New Jersey. When I’m driving up here, he’s a bit of a primer to get me in the Jersey mood (as if I’m ever not in the Jersey mood). On the whole though, I primarily listen to ska when I get back to NJ, because that’s where the real memories of my youth are.

I’ll have to write a major FY post about that later though; this one is about the Boss. I definitely listen to Bruce the most when I’m out of the state. He just lets my mind drift momentarily back to Jersey when I can’t actually be here and gives me what I’m jonesin’ for.

Just as leaving Jersey made me appreciate it so much more, my love for Bruce definitely grew during the end of college when I was really missing the Garden State. When I was immersed in the state, and it was all that I knew, I guess I couldn’t see how quintessentially Jersey he was. But when the indescribable grittiness and freedom that I associate with my state were suddenly gone, I realized that Bruce poured it right back in through his music.

Besides, are you fucking kidding me? That's basically me if I was born 38 years earlier.

The more that I’ve listened to the man, the more lyrics I’ve come across that seem to yank on threads attached to memories of growing up in NJ and the desire that I’ve always had to get out into the world and discover the unknown.

When I think about how popular Bruce has become, I always wonder if everyone that listens to him feels it the way I do. The songs are certainly good enough on their own, but I associate them so tightly with so many things, I have a hard time believing that the masses appreciate them in the same way I do. I’ve come to equate it to something like really good Kimchi. I’m not Korean, but I know when I’m eating something delicious. On the other hand, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to pick out all of it’s nuances, because I haven’t grown up eating it, sharing it, and really experiencing its place in its native culture. The closest I can get to letting you know how, and why, I feel so close to the man is sharing this video with you. If you’ve got the time though, I highly encourage you to watch it; Bruce explains how I feel better than I ever could.

I mean, seriously. The man just expressed everything I’ve ever felt in words. I almost want to shut this blog down after only a handful of posts because he summed up everything I’ll ever want to say.

All of this aside, it is seriously my life’s ambition to meet Bruce. I was originally planning on doing it solely by becoming excessively rich and/or famous, but on the way back from Seaside on Friday night, my friend Beaver suggested just hanging around Monmouth county. Becoming rich can wait until later I guess; I just wonder how long I’d be able to survive panhandling in Monmouth county.

Anyway, for all those Bruce noobs out there, I suggest that you listen to the following to get started: The entirety of Greetings from Asbury Park and Born to Run, Rosalita, 4th of July (Asbury Park), and Jersey Girl. Don’t bullshit either; really listen to them. I know I will.