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Clarence Clemons, 1942-2011, a saxophone shredder

Clarence Clemons, 1942-2011, a saxophone shredder (photo)

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In a recent piece for Slate called “Bringing Saxy Back: The sax solo returns to pop music,” critic Jonah Weiner connected hits by Katy Perry and Lady Gaga to proclaim that “the saxophone is repopulating” pop music. In earlier decades, the shiny, serpentine cylinder had been a staple, used by everyone from No Wave noiseniks and Lou Reed to red-blooded American rock bands and Elton John. But with the ’90s–or the rise of grunge gruffness and indie irony, countered by the popularity of soft-jazz sax anti-icon Kenny G–the instrument fell out of favor, relegated to bit comedy and very minor musical roles.

Interestingly, Weiner claims that the saxophone suffered during the last two decades because it was wimpy, a one-time rock ‘n’ roll accessory that lacked much of rock ‘n’ roll’s requisite machismo. Better tools could be brandished. “Compare the fanboy hyperbole. A guitarist shreds. What does a saxophonist do? Blow? Cook?” It’s a notion to which any Bruce Springsteen devotee should take umbrage.

Clarence Clemons, who died Saturday in Florida from complications stemming from a stroke he suffered two weeks ago, was a shredder. Despite the PR and personnel troubles Weiner notes of the saxophone during the last 20 years, Clemmons was a commensurate showman, the sweaty, hulking centerpiece that always took high moments only higher. I only saw Clemons play live once, two years ago. I’d never before seen the E-Street Band, despite all the talk I’d heard of how they were a rock unit that couldn’t stop climbing. I was cynical upon going, a disciple upon leaving. When you thought their energy had peaked, they’d somehow get bigger, better, bolder. When I saw the E-Street Band, Springsteen himself crowd-surfed early in the show. That, somehow, was less inspiring than each time the band locked in as a tireless unit, when Van Zandt looked down at his hands, checking himself, while Clemons arched his back and puffed his cheeks to find just the right phrase or howl. Despite the warnings, I wasn’t ready for Clemons, a supreme showman among showmen. After that night, I always assumed I’d have another chance to see the E-Street Band, a touring machine for decades. I won’t, at least not with Clemons. I regret only seeing him once.

At least, as Weiner notes, Clemons lived long enough to see his instrument of choice return to favor. He was a professed Lady Gaga fan who played on two tracks on her latest record, as well as American Idol just before the stroke that finally killed him. What’s more, the saxophone is creeping back into the underground that Weiner suggests helped silence it. Last month, when I interviewed Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, he talked about the sounds on his new record, including the saxophone. He studied Duke Ellington charts and recruited two modern giants of the instrument, Mike Lewis and Colin Stetson, to make his latest LP. “Colin and Lewis are literally my favorite living saxophone players–like Happy Apple is my favorite jazz group in the world,” he said, speaking with a candor that shut down any ironic winks the record could suggest. What was unhip, then, has returned somewhere near the top, just as the guy who carried the instrument through decades of what otherwise might have been atrophy has died.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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