Articolo lunghissimo su Bruce Springsteen datato 1985. È talmente lungo che lo ho diviso in due post.
Articolo lunghissimo su Bruce Springsteen datato 1985. È talmente lungo che lo ho diviso in due post.
‘We’re gonna take a short break, then come back and do another whole set for you’ must be the
most encouraging words you can ever hear from a rock stage. But only one man can say it, mean it
and really do it. His name is Bruce Springsteen. He is 36 years old, and the only ceiling to his
ambitions is his own exacting standards. For those who believe that rock’n’roll can be a route to
salvation, Bruce Springsteen has become its prime exponent. To the fans, he has come to be the music
of the present, the inheritor of the past, and the symbol of hope for the future. But to understand
that, to understand him, you really ought to have been there . . .
In my case ‘there’ was Madison Square Garden, New York City, Thanksgiving Night 1980.
November 27, Gate 3, Section J, Row 21, Seat 3. It’s a long walk from the entrance, but after coming
3,000 miles and waiting five years, it doesn’t seem that far. Thanksgiving is a time to be spent with
the family, not to be alone, particularly in New York. The wind whips offthe East River, and
everyone I know in this strange town is gathered around the ceremonial turkey. Home is five hours
and an ocean away. All I am is a figure filling a seat 360,000 others wanted. But it’s okay. I may be a
stranger in a strange land, away from the things and people I know and love, but tonight this is
definitely the Promised Land!
My mind goes back to how it all began, when a neighbour the other side of the ocean pressed a copy
of Born To Run into my arms. But then, I am wrenched back into the present. A tape of the Crystals’
‘Then He Kissed Me’ blares from the PA, and sets the seal on the atmosphere of eager excitement.
The capacity crowd is restless in the vast auditorium, geeing itself up on the waiting. Madison Square
Garden takes on the appearance of a rock venue as might have been staged by Cecil B. de Mille:
frisbees cascade around the auditorium and the fans are divided into tribes, each bearing banners,
like medieval Crusaders. Each wears its own colours, each pledging its devotion to ‘The Boss’. Much
as my own reserve mistrusts the ceremony, it’s hard to remain uninvolved. Then the lights dim, and
there’s a roar that rattles your fillings. Seven figures race onstage and take their places – the roar gets
even louder, welcoming. Your eyes seek out the little guy, the figure who shuffles around stage
centre, who carries himself like a bantam-weight, who’s scuffing his feet, who skips on tiptoe, who’s
hungry to start. He’s ready. And, after everything you’ve read, heard and experienced, so are you. It
could be anywhere in the world; fortunately for me, it happens to be on his home turf, only a bus
ride from Asbury Park.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band start on an ovation most bands would kill to finish with! The
little guy grins delightedly as the lights burst on, pinpointing the band. He turns to them, stomps his
foot with an exultant ‘Ah-one-two-three-four . . .’ and they crash, as one, into ‘Born To Run’. They’re
off and running before the flag’s even dropped. And, within seconds, we’re into passion and
intensity. Nothing has prepared you for the blitzkrieg that is to follow. Opening with ‘Born To Run’!
It’s like Sam Goldwyn’s advice: ‘Start off with an earthquake, and build up to a climax!’ Then out
come the songs, dozens of them, each played with an energy and commitment which propels them
off the albums you’ve lived with for years. They span Springsteen’s career, pouring out, cataclysmic;
they barely pause for breath’Growin’ Up’, ‘Fire’, ‘Rosalita’, ‘Promised Land’, ‘Because The Night’,
‘Hungry Heart’, ‘Sherry Darling’. All the dreams you’ve hoarded are suddenly made vivid and real.
Everything you’ve heard about those legendary shows is true: the crowd really does cry out
‘Brooooose’ after each number (and the first time it does sound like booing, then you know better);
they do play for four hours; they do play everything you want to hear, and then some. They (we)
chant along with every song, and remain silent at his bidding. It’s like there’s 22,000 people trying to
reach him, focusing everything on that scrawny little figure. It’s frightening. It’s also unique and
So totally involving is the music that every mention of ‘New Jersey’ and ‘Asbury Park’, I, a stranger
from another continent, belonged there, an honorary citizen. During ‘I Hear A Train’, I diligently
trilled ‘Whoo whoo’, much to my later embarrassment. In ‘Independence Day’ tears fell like rain. By
the end of the show, the audience was as drained as the band. Four hours of high energy, high
intensity rock’n’roll, which took you to the heights of elation.
In concert, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are simply the best there is. That show piloted
you through a vast range of emotions. It gave you the possibility to forget your fears, to revel in the
camaraderie, to realise your dreams, to be transported away from reality. But it also took you back
to reality, clarifying your aspirations, charting your losses, celebrating your victories. By the end of
the show, it was the audience’s music. We chanted along to the throaty rockers, and remained
pensive during the ballads. What made it more than just a great rock’n’roll spectacular was that you
could learn something about yourself; the music reflects back on you, stopping the experience being
Springsteen knows he is the best, and his conviction convinces you too. So much has been written
about his power in concert that the hysteria has to be placed in some sort of context. Even his
harshest critics admit that he does put on one hell of a show. At Madison Square Garden, I felt a
revitalisation, a sense of regaining everything I’d ever wanted from rock’n’roll. For four glorious
hours, I experienced its restorative power. In the calm afterwards, the only question was, just who
was that man up there?
Bruce Springsteen is the single most important rock star to have emerged during the 1970s, but his
reputation is built on an astonishingly small recorded output, although fuelled by numerous
bootlegs. Unlike most other rock stars, it is his live shows that have made his name. And it is in these
that he comes over as rock’s great unifier, a performer who remembers the power and passion of
early rock’n’roll, and who is burning with the desire to preserve and pass on that excitement in his
own music. He zealously revels in rock’s rich past, and stands as one of the few artists who can
positively affect its future.
This excitement and commitment only fully come across in live performance. Despite the meticulous
care he attaches to recording, such is the intensity of a Springsteen performance that afterwards the
albums simply become pale souvenirs.
It can be said that rock’n’roll is one of America’s greatest contributions to the twentieth century. Ally
that to Hollywood’s domination of the cinema, the sharpness and vitality of its literature and the
country’s dominance in the Free World, and you have a powerful culture, unparalleled in its
modernity. Through his commitment to the roots and traditional qualities of rock’n’roll Springsteen
is linked to the full vitality of that culture, and in his music we can hear the authentic voice of modern
America. If the term has any meaning, Springsteen is a particularly American artist. In music his best
work can be said to have the same qualities as Thomas Wolfe in writing, of John Ford and Martin
Scorsese in the cinema, of Edward Hopper in painting and of Woody Guthrie and Robert Johnson in
folk music. His America is twofold – the America of urban New Jersey, and the vastness of the
frontier country, the America (particularly on The River and Nebraska) familiar from the images of
Hollywood and popular songs. He conjures up the American Dream, where every man can be a
king, and the only ceiling to ambition is the extent of your dreams. The realisation runs through his
songs, but the songs also dwell on the underside of the Dream, of the loser that never made it to the
mansion on the hill or the house up in Fairview. Springsteen’s characters are descendants of those
who populate the songs of Guthrie and Hank Williams, and, before them, the figures of the country
and blues worlds. His songs evoke the America described in the conclusion of Scott Fitzgerald’s The
Great Gatsby: ‘(It) had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a
transitory enchanted moment, man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent,
compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last
time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder … his dream must have
seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him,
somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled
on under the night.’
Born In The USA
Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen~ the only son of Douglas and Adele, was born in Freehold, New
Jersey, on 23 September 1949. He was their first child, and was later to acquire two sisters Virginia,
born the next year, and Pamela, who did not appear until 1962. Bruce’s father was mainly of Irish
extraction and his mother of Italian – a volatile combination – although the family name is Dutch.
Freehold is a small town in mid-New Jersey. It is about fifteen miles from the coast. For Freehold’s
young it was overshadowed for both vitality and opportunity by the nearest town, Asbury Park.
Freehold itself offered little to anyone with aspirations, or even a keen desire to enjoy himself. By
Bruce’s birth it was already in decline, the filling station next to the Springsteen home offering the
main social center for the local kids during Bruce’s youth.
Bruce’s father worked at various jobs, including as a factory hand, a gardener, and a prison guard,
although he was to settle primarily for driving coaches. Money was usually scarce – eating out, for
example, was out of the question, and Bruce was 22 years old before he went into a restaurant.
Douglas and Adele were both Catholics, so Bruce was sent to local Catholic schools. He hated them
and antagonized the nuns with his strong streak of individuality (so much so that on one occasion, in
an often-repeated story, one of them made the young Springsteen sit in a rubbish bin under her
Springsteen’s upbringing was pretty normal for someone from that background – unadventurous,
unscholastic, his only escape being via the radio or TV. There was little intellectual stimulus in his
home life, and he once claimed only ever to have read three books for pleasure.
In remembering those early year, there is only really one potent, deeply etched memory. He told
Crawdaddy: ‘Rock’n’roll, man, it changed my life. It was . . . the Voice of America, tic real America
coming to your home. It was the liberating thing, the way out of the pits. Once I found the guitar, I
had the key to the highway!’
This discovery came with seeing Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan Show when he was nine years old.
He was so excited afterwards that he persuaded his mother to buy him a guitar. But he could not get
his fingers round it, so it was put aside. Nevertheless, the experience lay dormant, resting under the
surface ready to reassert itself when the time was right.
From then (‘Man when I was nine, I couldn’t imagine anyone not wanting to be Elvis Presley!’) Bruce
was a fan, and he decided that for him it was rock’n’roll glory, or nothing. That singleminded
intensity, which, at times, has proved infuriating, has been a dominant force in his adult life. The urge
that won him to rock’n’roll in the first place is now reflected in his attitude to recording and
performing, of offering nothing but the best.
School was not the only source of trouble for the young Bruce. His father was as strong-willed as the
son would be, and they often clashed, particularly when Bruce was in his teens. These early
experiences at home and school were to appear later in the words of some of his songs – the loathing
of Catholic values, his edgy relationship with his father, rock’n’roll as the way out of the drudgery.
The tensions in the Springsteen household echoed those across the country during the turbulent
sixties. Bruce resented his father’s championing of the work ethic, never able to understand his
adherence to what he regarded as a corrupt and valueless system. It was the time of Vietnam,
student riots, drugs and hippies, and parental values were widely flouted. Although Bruce himself
has always been vehemently anti-drug, hasn’t smoked, and has only ever drunk in moderation, and
has never been overtly political, he shared in the rejection of parental authority. In later years, his
attitude towards his father was to mellow, and his adolescent arrogance was to be remembered with
guilt on certain crucial songs like ‘Factory, ‘Independence Day, and ‘My Father’s House’.
Nevertheless, his interests and ambitions encountered encouragement from his mother, who acted
as a buffer, while his father offered scorn and derision. In those early years in Freehold, Bruce and
Douglas Springsteen were typical examples of the ‘generation gap’.
The feeling of guilt evident in the songs shows just how bitterly Bruce and his father must have
argued, and also how Bruce still feels attached to his roots. But as he grew up, Springsteen could
realize just what made his father the way he was, but as an angry, dissatisfied adolescent, like all such
youths, he did not have that perspective.
Bruce’s acrimonious relationship with Douglas was, in fact, little different from that of other
teenagers, but rebellion has always been at the roots of rock’n’roll, and without it Bruce would
perhaps never have become the musician he is. That tension was to be the specific force behind a
series of fine songs. On ‘Factory he understood the bitterness and resentment which shaped his
father, watching him leave work ‘with death in his eyes’, half-deafened, simmering, resentfill, and all
for ‘the working life’. At times on record, almost embarrassingly, Springsteen atones for the sins
committed against his father. On the Gothic ‘My Father’s House’ he dreamed of those distant days,
then: ‘I awoke and I imagined the hard things that pulled us apart/VVill never again, sir, tear us from
each others’ hearts.’ On ‘Independence Day’ it all came together: ‘There was just no way this house
could hold the two of us/ I guess we were just too much of the same kind’. Here he made the
realisation, confirmed on ‘Highway Patrolman’: ‘Man who turns his back on his family, well he just
ain’t no good.’ And on the unreleased ‘Song Of The Orphans’, Springsteen sang poignantly of ‘The
sons return for fathers/But the fathers are all gone/The lost souls search for saviours/But saviours
don’t last long.’
In concert Springsteen has offered long, ruminative raps about his father. When in Britain on the 1981
tour, he told an audience in Newcastle about how his perception of his father’s way of life came to
influence his whole outlook. ‘I grew up in this little town, and we lived on this main street next door
to this gas station .. . and at 6am every morning I used to watch my old man, I’d hear him out back,
fiddling with the hood of the car so he could get it started . . . And as I grew older, I watched around,
and I didn’t see how my life was going to be much different than his, because it seemed that if you
were born in a certain place that things didn’t change much for you . . . When I got older I never had
a picture of him laughing – all I could remember him doing was sitting at the kitchen table at night
with the lights out, smoking a cigarette, waiting . . . for it all to go away, or something. And I tried to
think what was the thing that we all had in common, why did it – time after time – end up that way?
And that we didn’t have enough knowledge about the forces that were controlling our lives. I started
reading this book, The History Of The United States, and it seemed how the way that things were,
weren’t the way they were meant to be; like the way my old man was living, and his old man, and
the life that was waiting for me – that wasn’t the original idea. But even if you find those things out,
it’s so hard to change those things. And it wasn’t until I started listening to the radio, and I heard
something in those singers’ voices that said there was more to life than what my old man was doing,
and the life that I was living; and they held out a promise – and it was a promise that every man has a
right to live his life with some decency and dignity. And it’s a promise that gets broken every day, in
the most violent way. But it’s a promise that never, ever fuckin’ dies, and it’s always inside of you.
But I watched my old man forget that, and don’t let it happen to you.’
Springsteen, perhaps, talks so much about his father because he was the dominant influence on his
adolescence. The image of the American Dream was becoming apparent to him there in the example
of his father – not the Dream realised, but instead the Dream frustrated and forgotten. Bruce watched
his father, like many of his generation, and has never let himself forget what he saw. The themes of
many of his later songs were already forming in his youthfill mind.
Douglas offered another instance of the Dream, that of freewheeling mobility, though again, to
Bruce, it seemed that the ideal was soured. He told Marc Didden in 1981 of a typical Sunday of his
youth, which obviously was the basis for ‘Used Cars’ on Nebraska: ‘I used to dislike cars. That was
because of my father, he was obsessed by cars. When I would be listening to records in my room on
Sunday, he would come and bang on the door: “Come on Bruce, let’s go for a ride.” And then, no
matter how much we disliked it, my mother, sister and I had to tear across the highways because my
father thought it was the most beautifiul entertainment. I think he liked to show off his car because
he had worked so hard to buy it. The bad thing was that he liked to drive so much, we never stopped
anywhere! We would drive around the whole damned Sunday and come home in the evening all
exhausted. And he would just beam. Perhaps that kind of action was the only thing he needed after
working the whole week at his machine in the plastics plant …’ That parental dissension was not
unusual, but Springsteen’s single-mindedness about his music was.
A scrawny youth, non-academic, an unenthusiastic sportsman, and dissatisfied with his parents’ lives,
Springsteen turned to the radio and the record deck for sanctuary. Like so many of his generation, he
found that rock’n’roll offered some sort of escape from the ordinariness of his existence. However,
few bands ventured down to Freehold, so listening to music was essentially a solitary experiencc for
him. To this day, Springsteen is still basically a loner; while he thrives on audience contact in his
concerts, he is prone to long, solitary drives in his car, and many of the characters in his songs are
individuals, refusing to be ground down by a system which had all but destroyed his father.
When Bruce was 13 years old the most exciting music coming out of the record player and radio was
British. American pop in the early sixties was emasculated, until it was rescued by the British
Invasion. Like so many young Americans, Springsteen was mesmerised by the style and musical
ebullience of the Beatles (the first song he ever learned was ‘Twist And Shout’) and remained
captivated by the Animals, the Rolling Stones, Manfred Mann, the Searchers, Them and the Who.
Then the music of Tamla Motown blasted across the airwaves, the compelling rhythms of Martha
and The Vandellas, the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye. To these the avid listener added the
soul music of Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and the gritty R&B of Gary ‘US’ Bonds
and Mitch Ryder. Anything good was gratefully received by the young Springsteen, who not only
listened but absorbed and remembered. The effect of these groups can be heard still – Bruce
Springsteen in concert is a one man history of rock’n’roll, a human jukebox, lovingly replaying the
old rock classics.
The power of rock reasserted itself on the 13-year-old and the desire to play re-emerged. Springsteen
went out and bought himself another guitar, this time spending all of $18 on a secondhand one from
a pawnshop. For two years he listened and he learned, teaching himself to play. Then in 1965 he
heard that a local teenage group, the Castiles, needed a new guitarist. He offered his services to Tex
Vinyard, whom the group somewhat grandly had appointed manager. Tex was initially impressed
by the stringy kid, and asked him to come back when he had learned five songs. He was even more
impressed the next evening when Springsteen not only came back with five songs, but played them
fantasically – and then offered a couple more. He was in.
The Castiles, named after the soap, were modelled on the fashions of the time (there’s a photograph
of a 1 7-year-old Springsteen, with a haircut that looks as if it was grown for an audi tion for George
Harrison’s role in A Hard Day’s Nigght). For a high school band the Castiles were quite successfill.
They gave Springsteen his first professional gig, at the Woodhaven Swim Club, when the five of
them shared a princely $35 with Tex Vinyard. Springsteen had quickly made his mark as a composer
as well as a player, for the closing number was his arrangement of Glen Miller’s ‘In The Mood’. They
went on to play the normal round for local groups of teen clubs, high schools, supermarket openings
and drive-ins, generally finding the New Jersey shore more fruitful territory than their native
Freehold. During 1966 the group’s playing had improved sufficiently to win various local
competitions, and Tex bought stage uniforms for them. Then in May 1966 they hired time in a local
studio to cut a demo disc, ‘That’s What You Get’ and ‘Baby I’, written by Springsteen and lead singer
A series of gigs in New York’s Greenwich Village followed in December 1966 and January 1967, but
then, like so many hundreds of bands formed in the wake of the Beatles, when the members left high
school in 1967 they drifted apart. No one really noticed and few people really cared. The group’s
drummer was to enlist and go to Vietnam. He never came back.
Springsteen’s next move was a group called Earth, formed while he was at Ocean County College
where he went when he left school. It was a combo heavily influenced by the extended blues riffing
of Cream and the dominant psychedelia of the period. Earth didn’t last long, but while with them
Bruce came more and more to regard Asbury Park as his musical home, and after they broke up he
played with several scratch Asbury bands. At this time he met ‘Miami’ Steve Van Zandt, who was to
become one of his closest friends and musical associates.
Springsteen formed his next band, Steel Mill, in 1969. They were to prove more durable, as their
name suggested. According to Springsteen, they were ‘a Humble Pie type band’, and it wa there that
the nucleus of the E Street Band was formed, with Springsteen joined by drummer Vini ‘Mad Dog’
Lopez anc organist Danny Federici. Fashionably hippy in appearance—Bruce sporting hair below his
shoulders – though not in attitude, Stee Mill played a tough, driving blues-based music. The group
gained a new level of popularity for Springsteen, playing in clubs an colleges, and has become
something of a New Jersey legend.
Steel Mill marked Springsteen’s first serious efforts at song writing—’Goin’ Back to Georgia’ was
reminiscent of Them circa 1965, ‘Resurrection’ was bitterly anti-Catholic, and ‘American Song’ was a
lengthy indictment of militarism.
In early 1969, Springsteen’s parents and sisters had moved to California, but the 20-year-old Bruce
defiantly stayed put on the Jersey shore, squatting in the family home. That streak of
selfdetermination was already apparent. It was a determination that helped him to avoid the draft in
1969 by the crude, but obviously effective, method of faking madness. He capitalised on the
concussion he had suffered in a motor bike accident two years before, and filled in the forms
Another New Jersey musician and friend, Southside Johnny, recalled the crisis points his group, the
Jukes, went through at the same time about whether to stick with a day job, or go all out for the
music: ‘Everyone went through it, except Bruce. Bruce always knew. There was never any question
about it as far as he was concerned.’ So little question, in fact, that Bruce readily left college, where he
did not feel particularly at home, without a degree in order to concentrate on his music. Miami Steve
remembered that intensity that Bruce and all the other Asbury musicians felt: ‘Rock’n’Roll is not
entertainment; it is motivation. No drugs, no alcohol, no lasting diversion!’
Steel Mill were not satisfied with having only local fame, and in winter 1969 Bruce and his band
followed his parents west to California. In the first three months of 1970 they got several bookings
supporting big name groups in San Francisco. They even cut a demo tape at Bill Graham’s Fillmore
Recording Studio and were offered a recording contract, but by now the group was sufficiently
confident and mature not to be tempted by the poor sum offered. They returned to Asbury Park in
spring 1970 with some good notices but little money to show for their trip.
By now, Asbury Park is as potent a piece of rock mythology as Penny Lane – for which the residents
are permanently grateful to Bruce Springsteen. Although compared with Freehold it was a Mecca,
Asbury had, in fact, always been a joke, a crumbling beach stop, which – out of season – was pretty
desperate. Asbury is 53 miles from New York City, a derisory sort of resort of which the locals said:
‘If you never had enough gas to get to Atlantic City, you’d stop at Asbury!’ From New York, you get
to it via the Lincoln Tunnel and the New Jersey Turnpike. That gave the place its first taste of rock
fame: ‘Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike’ was the memorable image of departure on
Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘America’. The Turnpike was also the place – as legend has it – from where
Jack Kerouac set out ‘on the road’. Atlantic City is further on down the road, supposedly the last
resort (as evinced by Louis Malle’s film and Bruce’s song of the same name) but Asbury Park was
even lower down the scale. The boardwalk (of’Sandy’ fame) runs from Ocean Avenue straight down
to the cold, grey Atlantic. As an urban centre, it distinctly lacked charisma, but for a musician it had
one great asset. The clubs were hot – like Southside Johnny the nascent E Street Band eked out a
living and built up a reputation at the Upstage and the Student Prince.
Inspired by Springsteen’s later success, there have been attempts to promote ‘The Sounds Of Asbury
Park’ (there was even a compilation album of that name), but, in truth, that sound lies on ‘Sandy
(Asbury Park, 4th of July)’ and Southside Johnny’s first album (complete with suitably effusive sleeve
notes from Springsteen). What inspired the musicians from Asbury Park was desperation. Its
seediness brought that glittering American dream into even sharper focus.
The mythology of Asbury Park as evoked by Springsteen on songs like ‘The E Street Shuffle’ and
‘lOth Avenue Freeze Out’, was rooted in reality. Clarence Clemons, the E Street Band’s saxophonist,
literally bumped into Bruce at the Student Prince one night: ‘A cold, rainy night on the boardwalk in
Asbury, windy, raining like crazy,’ recalled Clemons, ‘and I opened the door, the wind just blew the
door right off the hinges and down the street, and it was like “Here I am! I came to play!” and he
couldn’t say no. When we jammed, it was like we’d been together forever, like a team.’ As Miami
Steve told me: ‘There ain’t nothing magic about Asbury. You could do the same with . . . Brighton! All
it takes is a band.’ But you do need a rather special band.
In the summer of 1970 Asbury Park gained unaccustomed and unwelcome national publicity and
scrutiny when the town exploded in race riots. In the desolation that followed Steel Mill was allowed
to fall apart. It was a situation that called for either depression or humour and Springsteen responded
by forming the cumbersome Dr Zoom and the Sonic Boom, which only managed two gigs before
folding. Everyone in the band acquired nicknames, some of them, like ‘Mad Dog’ Lopez and ‘Miami’
Steve Van Zandt (who became members of the E Street Band) sticking. The Bruce Springsteen Band
that followed only lasted 12 months, but it was all experience, and the rigorous playing and gigging
helped forge a commitment which then bound together several of those who were later to form the
E Street Band. The friendships made in Asbury play an important role in Spingsteen’s music, and it
was then that an affinity was established with Van Zandt, Danny Federici, Garry Tallent, David
Sancious and Clarence Clemons.
It was in the Upstage club in Asbury that Springsteen cut his musical teeth, from the hard days
grinding on the Jersey shore, playing rock’n’roll when he could, and almost with whom he could,
often with no money and with necessity promoting his passion for junk food. In those clubs he met
the people who were to play with him around the country, and it was in their joint experiences that a
sense of community was forged – a community evidenced in his contract where it says that his narne
and the band’s are to appear in equal type on hoardings. And whatever city they now play in, there’s
a slice of Asbury Park up on stage.
The New Dylan
Springsteen’s professional career can be said to have begun in ernest when Mike Appel appeared on
the scene in early 1972 and signed him to a management contract. Springsteen would later bitterly
regret it, but at the time it represented the turning-point he needed. Appel and his partner Jim
Cretecos were strictly small time (their chief moment of glory prior to meeting Springsteen had been
a Top 10 hit for the Partridge Family), but they were in the record business. Springsteen’s audition
was a decisive moment for the three men. Having seen his band dwindle away the previous winter,
Bruce had decided to go it alone. ‘He sang as if his life depended on it,’ Appel told Dave Marsh of the
audition. In many ways it did, for here was the opportunity to make it. If Springsteen blew this one,
he might have no alternative but ‘the working life’ which had gutted his father.
Mike Appel has since been castigated for his heavy-handed approach in nurturing Springsteen, but
when Springsteen was a struggling 23-year-old, scraping a living in the bars of Asbury Park, it was
Appel who saw his raw talent. However brash and tactless his method, he went on to achieve the
vital breakthrough by impressing that raw talent on John Hammond at CBS. This was a crucial
development for it landed Springsteen a record deal – in fact with the company he has stayed with.
Appel went on to act as overseer on Springsteen’s first three crucial albums, and Born To Run itself
was a co-production between Appel and Springsteen.
When Springsteen was taken to the audition the significance of John Hammond was not lost on him.
One of the three books he claimed to have read for pleasure was Anthony Scaduto’s biography of
Bob Dylan, so he recognised Hammond’s name, and recalled that in the film of The Benny Goodman
Story Hammond had been played by the actor who played Dennis the Menace’s father on TVI John
Hammond stands as one of the most venerated figures in the history of American popular music. His
track record speaks for itself- he recorded Benny Goodman, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. He had
gone out in search of the legendary Robert Johnson. He had signed the young Aretha Franklin and
Bob Dylan to CBS. He had also numbered Charles Laughton an Sergei Eisenstein among his friends.
When they met on 2 May 1972, Hammond immediately say that Springsteen had talent, and was
keen to have him on CBS even though he found Appel overbearing, and had to shut him u~ in order
to listen to his protege. When Bruce started with ‘It’ Hard To Be A Saint In The City’ Hammond sat
up, and in no time had booked him into the Gaslight Club that evening so he could( hear him
perform before an audience. The next day Bruce was a. the CBS Studios recording 14 tracks.
Hammond was keen to cast Springsteen in the role of an acoustic poet, much as he envisaged the
young Bob Dylan over ten years before. Although Bruce’s experience was mainly playing with
bands, there was logic in this as he auditioned solo, accompanying himself on piano or acoustic
guitar. Of the two, Springsteen struck Hammond as being more mature than the unknown Dylan.
He told Crawdaddy’s Peter Knobler: ‘When Bobby came to see me he was Bobby Zimmerman. He
said he was Bob Dylan, he had created all this mystique. Bruce is Bruce Springsteen. And he’s much
further along, much more developed than Bobby was when he came to me.’
It is to Hammond’s credit that he recognised Springsteen’s potential at that early stage (Springsteen
remembered Hamrnond’s faith in him, and dedicated ‘Growin’ Up’ to him during his 1980
Thanksgiving Show.) If one examines the evidence contained on the bootleg of The Hammond
Demos, the songs are clumsy and cluttered, wordy and unwieldy, with Springsteen nervously
accompanying himself on guitar and piano. That wordiness was a trait that Springsteen was to carry
on well into his recording career, as if syllables and images piled on top of each other could enhance
the intensity of his performance. But the song, ‘If I Was The Priest’, held Hammond spellbound,
loaded with its virulent anti-Catholic imagery, and steeped in the myths of the Wild West: ‘And Jesus,
he’s standing in the doorway/With his six guns drawn, and ready to fan/He says “We need you, son,
up in Dodge City”/ But I’m already overdue in Cheyenne.’
Inevitably, comparisons with Dylan spread as soon as it was heard that John Hammond had signed
another young singer/ songwriter. In terms of impact and influence, Dylan is, indeed, the obvious
comparison to make with Springsteen (Springsteen acknowledged that Dylan ‘was the guy who
made it possible to do the things I wanted’), but the differences are immense. Two years into his
recording career Dylan was already addressing himself to ‘every hung-up person in the whole wide
universe’. In contrast, Springsteen hadn’t even cast his net beyond New York City by that time! The
comparisons are, in fact, tenuous, for the only Dylan ‘period’ which had any real effect on
Springsteen was the immaculate quick burn ‘folk rock’ years of 1965-6, and Springsteen’s most
Dylan-like album, Nebraska, was not released until 1982, 20 years after Dylan’s debut and ten years
after his own. The comparisons are further stretched when you compare the two: Dylan has gone
out of his way to be anyone but Bob Dylan, presenting a chorus line of characters – the concerned
social poet of 1963, the ‘spokesman of a generation’ in 1964, the iconoclastic folk-rocker of 1965, the
contented married man of 1970, the aggressive evangelist of 1979 and the born-again Jew of 1983.
Springsteen has never attracted any of Dvlan’s sort of mystique. seeing his job as being simply to
rock, and not to get bogged down in anthologies of ‘Rock Poets’. While the influences on Dylan
extend from a 19thcentury French Symbolist poet to Little Richard, you get the impression that Bruce
Springsteen wouldn’t know the difference between Arthur Rimbaud and ‘Over The Rainbow’!
Hammond signed Springsteen up to record on 9 June 1972, and Bruce then asserted his difference
from Dylan by insisting on recording with a band. In no time he scraped together a rudimentary E
Street Band from his Asbury Park friends – Clarence Clemons (saxophone), Garry Tallent (bass),
David Sancious (piano) and Vini Lopez (drums) – and tore into the studio to record. In the back of his
mind, John Hammond remained convinced that Springsteen was a solo performer, and could not
understand why he wanted these characters from across the Hudson. Bruce had to fight with him
and Mike Appel to get his way.
Greetings From Asbury Park NJ surfaced in the middle of an outbreak of ‘new Dylans’, a particularly
meaningless epithet which the music press invented, their sixties’ responsibilities endeavouring to
come to terms with seventies’ aspirations. Promising singer/ songwriters like Steve Goodman, John
Prine, Loudon Wainwright – even Dylan himself- were lumbered with that millstone. It did not help
the album gain acceptance, especially when CBS decided to put their might behind it and deliberately
promote it under the Dylan comparison. Disc jockeys and large parts of the public did not want a
new Dylan – there were those who even thought the original had been around long enough.
This quest for the ‘new Dylan’ was indicative of the poverty o~ the music industry in the early
seventies. The power of the original rock’n’roll had dissipated. The enthusiasm and experimentation
o~ the sixties had led up a lot of blind alleys, and the yellow submarine had failed to deliver its
passengers to a psychedelic Shangri-La. In the hope that the past could be recaptured every group of
promise was touted as the ‘new Beatles’, every singer/songwriter was the ‘new Dylan’. The only star
to have emerged with any real degree of permanence was David Bowie, with his androgynous
visions of a rock’n’roll apocalypse. The heroes of the sixties couldn’t be relied on any more at the
beginning of the new decade – the Beatles were no more, Dylan was in retreat, the Stones had
become tax exiles, Neil Young and Rod Stewart had failed to live up to their expectations. Lumbering
rock technologists like Emerson Lake and Palmer, Yes and Pink Floyd took their truckloads of
equipment into vast stadiums for an increasingly cerebral audience. For the kids there was the
manufactured teeny pap of the Osmonds, David Cassidy, Chicory Tip, the Bay City Rollers and
Sweet. But, like yesterday’s papers, most of these soon outlived their usefulness. The greats had
gone; by 1970 Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin were dead; Jim Morrison was to follow soon. Syd Barrett
had disappeared; John Fogerty had gone into hiding. By the beginning of 1973 there was a definite
Greetings From Asbury Park NJ wasn’t enough to fill that void. But its very brashness and terrierlike
tenacity blew a breath of fresh air into a foetid world. The first blast of’Blinded By The Light’ was
enough to make people sit up and take notice, even if it was only to draw unfavourable comparisons
with Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ eight years before. ‘Blinded By The Light’, for all its
flamboyance and wordiness, certainly packed a punch. It was cocky and exultant; you could even
overlook the cumbersome wordplay for the sheer enthusiasm of the performance. Here was
someone not whining about the angst of super-stardom, or penning wimpish love songs to a dream
heroine. Greetings was hard, shiny leather playing off against the prevalent denim. That first album
sounded as if Springsteen figured he had only one crack at the big time, and subsequently poured
everything into it.
‘Lost In The Flood’ managed to sustain elements of the epic sweep Springsteen intended (although
‘His countryside’s burning with wolfman fairies’ must rank as his worst-ever line). There was
something brash and invigorating in the way the characters were painted, like the ‘pure American
brother’ who ‘races Sundays in Jersey in a Chevy Stock Super 8…. On the side he’s got ‘Bound For
Glory’ painted in red, white and blue flash paint/He leans on the hood telling racing stories, the kids
call him Jimmy the Saint.’ When Springsteen exercised restraint, and distanced himself from his
characters, the effect was exhilarating, but when he cluttered the songs with excess verbiage – as on
‘Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street?’ – they groan and sink under their own verbosity. He did shine,
though – the snotty sincerity of ‘It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City’, the Scorsese-style pazzaz
of’Spirit In The Night’ and the swirling climax to ‘Lost In The Flood’. The faults were equally obvious:
the uncomfortableness of ‘Mary Queen Of Arkansas’ and the elaborate metaphors piled onto ‘For
You’ which diminish its stark, morbid power.
The alburn’s best song, and one that Springsteen still includes in his live performances, is ‘Growin’
Up’, an audacious and vivid depiction of rock’n’roll rebellion, and the encapsulation of his attitudes in
his teens. The very brashness is irresistible, particularly when he joyously declares, ‘I swear I found
the key to the universe in the engine of an old parked car!’ That one line could well be said to sum up
Springsteen’s defiance and attitude at the time, coupled with his true loves: ‘I had a jukebox graduate
for a first mate, she couldn’t sail but she sure could sing!’ He is uncertain exactly what he’s searching
for, but is determined to carry on looking. Glowing with pride at his achievements, disregarding all
that’s been, heedless and free, and chancing on the Holy Grail beneath the bonnet!
It was an assertive debut album, and on those early songs there were many themes that were later to
become familiar – the unashamed romanticism, the car obsession, the anti-Catholicism. Although the
layered imagery and rhymes grew tiresome, Springsteen obviously revelled in the richness of
language, and married his ideas to strident rock rhythms. But the album didn’t set the world on fire,
and sales were disappointing. Neither the ‘Dylan’ tag nor the poor production helped. However, the
quality of the material on Greetins was recognised by other artists, and it was drained for cover
In September 1972, with an album on the way, a manager, and a band he trusted, Bruce Springsteen
hit the road. Touring to help promote an album is nothing new, but people were surprised by the
vigour with which Springsteen tackled it. Weaving across the USA, the E Street Band supported the
then fashionable Chicago, working at establishing a reputation. They were an odd bunch; drummer
‘Mad Dog’ Lopez lives up to his nickname, and seems determined to be remembered as America’s
answer to Keith Moon. Clarence Clemons, ‘Big Man’, is a 6ft 4ins ex-college football player who
amply justifies his nicknarne. Danny Federici, once dubbed the ‘mystery man’ by Bruce, is a careful
and warm keyboard and accordion player. And holding them all together was thc mercurial and
indefatigable 5ft 10ins, 1551b frame of Bruce Springsteen.
The tour was not a success for the Springsteen outfit. Their rough tough style did not go well with
the smooth jazz-rock sound of Chicago and audiences did not warm to them. The nadir came in June
1973 when they gave a wretched performance at New York’s Madison Square Garden, watched by
several CBS executives. It was particularly bad timing as they needed to improve their stock with the
company because CBS’s president Clive Davis, who had personally backcd thc promotion of
Springsteen, had left the company the previous month. One highlight, however, was three nights at
Max’s Kansas City where they headed the bill with Bob Marley and the Wailers.
Nevertheless, before the end of 1973, the motley E Street Band was back in the studio. Springsteen
had a clutch of songs ready for recording, many of which even at that early stage would never see
the light of day, offficially (bootlegging is another matter, of which more later). Eventually, the
selection was narrowed down to seven songs, which constituted The Wild, The Innocent And The E
Street Shuffle, which was released in February 1974.
Springsteen’s second album marked a musical maturity, although the breezy ‘E Street Shuffle’
sounded like a hangover from the first album; despite being enlivened by a snappy brass
arrangement, it didn’t offer anything new. But ‘Sandy (4th of July, Asbury Park)’ emphatically did.
While the song was, and remains, Springsteen’s finest love song, it also helped establish Asbury Park
as a myth. ‘Sandy’ pinpoints a time, a place, a girl in an idealised youth. The places mentioned in
Asbury are real (you can still see Madame Marie’s fortune-telling booth on the boardwalk), but
Springsteen portrays it as a ‘Little Eden’, a place of lost innocence. The song describes the passing of
not only a relationship but of that whole time for which everybody has nostalgic memories which is
always associated with a particular place, but is different from person to person – in this case, the
New Jersey shore. Springsteen’s evocation is conveyed without sounding precious or twee; it sounds
like a drunken message left on the girl’s answering machine. Unable to face her, the song’s narrator
pours out fragments of memory and bitter resignation, recalling the wizards and fortune-tellers, and
realising that for him ‘this boardwalk scene’s through’. Asbury Park, that Independence Day, is a
special place. Evelyn Waugh wrote of another place in Brideshead Revisited: ‘I should like to bury
something precious in every place where I’ve been happy and then, when I was old and ugly and
miserable, I could come back and dig it up, and remember.’ That feeling is what Asbury Park meant
to Springsteen, that Fourth of July, when he was young and uncluttered; it is a touching farewell to
‘Wild Billy’s Circus Story’ is one of Springsteen’s most uncharacteristic songs, which offers an all-toorare
outing for Danny Federici’s accordion. The circus has always exercised a fascination for rock
writers: the Everly Brothers, the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Richard Thompson have all tried their hand
at a circus song. Springsteen’s is a curious exercise, a sort of veiled homosexual paean – or not so
veiled when you consider lines like: ‘The hired hand tightens his legs on the sword swallower’s
blade…. And the strong man Samson lifts the midget . . . way up, and carries him on down the
midway . . . past the sailors, to his dimly lit trailer!’ More realistically, it’s an impressionistic
fairground fable, which significantly ends with: ‘All aboard, Nebraska’s our next stop!’
The most mature song on the album is the sweeping ‘Incident On 57th Street’. While Springsteen still
romanticises the street gangs (‘little heroes’, ‘romantic young boys’) the song has a genuine narrative
thread, with fully realised characters, soaked in atmosphere. It stands as archetypal Springsteen,
conveying a drowsy big city day, with plenty of astute vignettes: ‘Upstairs the band was playing, the
singer was singin’ something about going home…. And the sister prays for lost souls, then breaks
down in the chapel after everyone’s gone.’
‘Rosalita’ is the album’s outstanding rocker, and became Springsteen’s show-stopper for years. It
was, perhaps, the song most associated with him in Britain, as for six long years it was the only film
clip available of him there. Filmed in Phoenix Arizona in July 1978 by Malcolm Leo, ‘Rosalita’ is a filllthroated
celebration, with Springsteen exulting that the record company, Rosie, just gave me a big
advance’. The mythologising continued, with his car stuck out ‘somewhere in the swamps of Jersey’.
However, the song has the verbosity of ‘Blinded By The Light’, with a whole new cast of characters –
‘Weak Knee Willie . . . Sloppy Sue and Big Bone Billy’. The lengthy ‘New York City Serenade’ was a
jazzy excursion, influenced by pianist David Sancious, and based on an earlier Springsteen song
The Wild, The Innocent And The E Street Shuffle was vinyl proof of Springsteen’s development, and
his concerts to promote the album laid the foundations for his epic gigs of later years, dipping into
the musical reservoir that made up rock history, and performing a number of his own new songs,
like ‘The Fever’, ‘Born To Run’ and ‘Jungleland’. After the release of the album there was a change in
personnel. In February 1974 Bruce sacked Vini Lopez, replacing him with Ernest ‘Boom’ Carter, a
friend of David Sancious . He had agonised for a long time over dismissing Lopez, who was an old
friend from Asbury Park, but the move strengthened the group. Carter stayed with the band until
only August 1974 when Sancious himself left in order to follow a solo career.
They took to touring again, building up their numbers so that by the end of 1974 they were playing
90-minute sets. During a break between shows on this tour, in Massachusetts in April 1974,
Springsteen met Jon Landau for the first time. Landau was to play a crucial role in the development
of Springsteen’s career, and when they met he already had a reputation as one of America’s finest
rock writers. At Rolling Stone, along with Greil Marcus and Dave Marsh, Landau’s exhaustive
interviews and thoughtfill features had helped elevate rock writing to a respected critical level.
Landau had already dabbled in record production, with the MC5 and Livingstone Taylor, but was –
by the time he met Springsteen – reconciling himself to growing old gracefillly in a young man’s
business. He was 27 when he saw Springsteen perform for the first time, and was blown away by his
energy and enthusiasm. The two men continued to see each other over the next few months. In Jon
Landau Springsteen intuitively recognised someone whose academic (albeit heartfelt) approach to
rock’n’roll mirrored his own fervent enthusiasm.
Even with two albums to his name, and a decade of performing under his belt, Springsteen was still a
virtual novice when it came to the intricacies of the music business. Mike Appel oversaw
Springsteen’s management as well as his record production. The two had developed a mutual trust,
and despite the hostility Appel and his sometimes heavy-handed methods attracted, Springsteen had
faith in him. He adhered to the Western code that if you gave a man your trust, it was a stronger
bond than any written contract.
CBS were plainly unhappy with Springsteen’s sales. While he garnered all sorts of critical eulogies,
good notices didn’t shift albums in the quantity a major record company required, and Springsteen’s
first two albums had all but stiffed. Then Landau ran a piece on Springsteen in Boston’s Real Paper in
May 1974. It was, at times, hyperbolic: ‘Springsteen .. . is a rock’n’roll punk, a Latin street poet, a
ballet dancer, a joker, a bar band leader . . .’ but more often thoughtful: ‘I saw my tock’n’roll past
flash before my eyes. . . . On a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing
music for the first time.’ CBS executives gleefillly rubbed their hands, and singled out the one line, ‘I
saw rock’n’roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen!’, and used it as the cornerstone of a massive
marketing campaign, designed to bring Springsteen to the nation’s attention. The campaign worked
better than anyone had dared hope. Landau’s quote echoed round the world. Sensing a story, other
publications also ran features. This blitz was an indication of just how desperate the media were
during the early seventies, lavishing such attention onto a relatively unknown quantity, but it had an
enormous effect on Springsteen’s status. Suddenly, from being a struggling musician up against
massive indifference, he was becoming known. Springsteen himself was understandably upset on
account of the accusations of hype: ‘I was always the kind of guy who liked to walk around and slip
back into the shadows. What you dig is the respect of doing what you do, not the attention.
Attention, without respect, is jive.’
Within months Springsteen was being hailed as America’s rocking salvationist. While the fame was
most welcome, to an extent the massive media coverage rebounded on him. Many people felt it was
simply an opportunistic method of inflating a minor talent into a major one, with little real proof of
talent or durability. While it undoubtedly helped bring him to the attention of a vast new audience,
and was essential in ensuring his position at CBS, the whole exercise smacked of’hype’, particularly in
Britain, where such excessive zeal in marketing a new talent was regarded with cynical caution. The
coverage also exerted other less salutory pressures on Springsteen himself. He had begun recording
his third album, which, conventional wisdom has it, is the crucial one in an artist’s career. If he makes
it with that, then he’s there to stay. If he fouls up, then the first two can be seen as flukes. Springsteen
was as aware of that as anyone, and was experiencing problems himself with the album. Now there
was all this extraneous pressure bearing down on his work. On the other hand, it did now mean that
people were paying attention.
Springsteen ushered Landau into his inner circle, feeling he could supply the objectivity crucial in
finishing the album. It had been taking months, and progress was excruciatingly slow. But Appel also
had his own forceful ideas on how the record should sound, and Springsteen was caught between the
two of them. Further delays were inevitable. The months threatened to drag on into years, and all
concerned were growing tired with the delays, which they saw as the product of Springsteen’s
unrealistically painstaking approach to recording. Everybody urged him to get the record out. But
Springsteen would not be moved. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘the release date is one day. The album is forever.’
When it was finally released in August 1975, a year had passed since he had employed Ron Bittan
(piano) and Max Winberg (drums) to replace Sancious and Carter to work on the album. But the
finished record proved Bruce right. The surging, urgent power chords which usher in Born To Run
are classic rock’n’roll. Its thrashing, restless energy takes the listener back to America of innocence
and drive, of Phil Spector and the lost highway, of Buicks and Thunderbirds, of a time before
Watergate and Reaganomics. Perhaps that time of innocence never really existed, except in our
imagination, but the sheer joy of Born To Run is enough to convince one that it should have done.
Despite numerous attempts at emulating it (Bob Seger, Meat Loaf, John Cougar) and subsequent
efforts at deriding it, Born To Run stands as a classic rock album. Like Sergeant Pepper it had become
synonymous with its time, and like Pepper, it has worn less well than the maker’s later works. At its
worst, it sounds like bargain-bin Spector, with songs populated by cliched characters, and
Springsteen already sounding like a parody of himself. At its best, it is exultant, full-throated
rock’n’roll, with Iyrics that ably display Springsteen’s ability as a narrator and storyteller.
It found its audience in those who were looking for a reassertion of rock values, for whom rock had
lost its way, and for whom the current rock heroes were deficient: Bowie was too aloof and
mercurial, Dylan was all wrapped up with nowhere to go, and Elton John was gutless.
The reputation of Springsteen’s concerts was spreading. After Madison Square Garden in 1973
Springsteen stuck to smaller venues, seating about 3,000, where he could feel in touch with the
audience, resounding with genuine commitment and concern for them. His gigs carne across as
accessible and desirable. Springsteen found himself swiftly propelled right onto the front grid. The
tour which accompanied Born To Run saw Springsteen established as a virtuoso performer; his sets
began to expand, frequently running to over 20 songs, and attracted celebrities like Jack Nicholson,
Carole King, Robert de Niro, and Warren Beatty. After Born To Run, there was no looking back. In
the audience rush to share that experience, to celebrate the new contender, the weak spots of the
album were overlooked.
All over the world, the effect was shattering. Here was an album which evoked that genuine feel of
authentic rock’n’roll, which many had feared was lost forever. Born To Run reasserted all rock’s
promises. It spoke the traditional language of rock’n’roll, of highways and cars, of love and
redemption in burned-out Chevrolets, sunshine and salvation over the Jersey state line. From the
opening punch of ‘Thunder Road’, invoking the spirit of Roy Orbison’s ‘Only The Lonely’, through to
the song’s exultant, defiant ‘It’s a town full of losers, and I’m pulling out of here to win!’ the album
sounds a triumph of ideals over circumstance. A line like ‘Your graduation gown lies in rags at your
feet’ speaks of the lost ideals and tarnished hopes of a generation. Born To Run was a shining clarion
call at a time of grey mediocrity.
‘Jungleland’ can be seen as a climactic expansion of ‘Incident On 57th Street’. Springsteen casts an eye
over a vivid city, sprawling beneath that giant Exxon sign. He over-reaches himself with the
appalling line ‘There’s a ballet being fought out in the alley.’ But the stark conclusion about the poets
reaching for their moment, and winding up ‘wounded, not even dead’ echoes the conclusion to T. S.
Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’: ‘This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.’
Springsteen sees something glorious in the achievement of death in the pursuit of something worth
dying for, but the street poets aren’t even allowed the dignity of death. For them it remains the
ignominy of a life compromised by lost ideals and a weary acceptance of the routine.
On the bootlegged ‘Contessa’ (properly known as ‘Hey, Santa Ana’) from 1973, Springsteen sang of:
‘Some punk’s idea of a teenage nation’; in ‘Jungleland’ lies the realisation of that bitter ideal.
Appositely, Charles Shaar Murray quoted extensively from ‘Jungleland’ in his excellent New Musical
Express piece on the punk phenomenon two years later, singling out urgent lines like ‘Kids ~ash
guitars like switchblades . . . hustle for the record machine . . . explode into rock’n’roll bands’. But
above that street level sincerity, Springsteen’s writing isolates character and incident in rock’n’roll
film noir, the song’s focus shifting like a camera – a tracking shot down Flamingo Road, parallel with
the Magic Rat burning over the state line. A crane shot over the Exxon sign, swift cutting to the
streets, throbbing with action, with lovers crying and gangs slicing into each other, and all the while
the soundtrack is rock’n’roll radio. Then the final, slow pull away from the ambulance, and the ‘girl
shuts out the bedroom light’. A dark screen, the credits roll.
The ‘theme’ of the album is one of escape. On ‘Backstreets’ the forlorn love is lived out in movie
houses, the streets, the beach. On ‘Night’ it is the union between a man and his motor ‘with all the
wonder it brings’, and an escape into the velvet darkness. On ‘Born To Run’ it is escape with the
dream heroine, and even though ‘broken heroes’ clog the highways, salvation lies ‘out on the streets
tonight in an everlasting kiss’. Even on the uncharacteristic ‘Meeting Across The River’ there is some
sort of hope offered even though it is salvation through a sordid drug deal, a last desperate chance.
According to Springsteen himself, though, escape is only one aspect of the album; it was also about
searching. He told Musiciar, magazine in 1984 of the feelings that motivated Born To Run: ‘I think
that what happened during the seventies was that, first of all, the hustle became legitimised. First
through Watergate. That was a real hurting thing, in that the hustler, the dope pusher on the street –
that was legitimisation for him. It was: you can do it, just don’l get caught. Someone will ask, what
did you do wrong? And you’ll say, I got caught. In a funny kind of way, Born To Run was a spiritual
record in dealing with values.’ In answer to the corruption endemic to the Watergate era it praised
the values of hope, faith, friendship and optimism. Those very qualities also gave Springsteen’s critics
plenty of ammunition. They singled out his efforts at mythologizing his characters, his ‘everything
but the kitchen sink style of production. At a time when America was dead from the feet up
musically, Springsteen’s album revelled in Americana Springsteen glamorized the common-place,
relied on Chuck Berry imagery, and celebrated a past most were happy to forget, or have moved on
Immediately following the album’s release at the end of August 1975, Bruce Springsteen had made it.
The album hit Reeord World’s Top 10 in its first week and went gold (500,000 copies sold) a few
weeks later. Following the media build-up that had started with Landau’s piece 18 months
previously, Springsteen achieved the unique scoop of simultaneous covers on Time and Newsweek
on 27 October. The accusations of hype upset Newsweek and were to colour its coverage of rock for
years after, but at the time the accolade meant that Springsteen had definitely arrived.
Springsteen’s 1975 dates carried him around the States and into Europe. The critical and commercial
success of the album inspired him, and spurred by that enthusiasm, Springsteen poured everything
into his live shows. In Britain, the hype had preceeded him and posters blossomed around the capital
proclaiming ‘Finally, London is ready for Bruce Springsteen’. Springsteen was incensed by this
heavy-handed campaign and personally tore down as many offending posters as he could lay his
hands on. The publicity affected his performances and he later recalled that his first show at London’s
Hammersmith Odeon was one of the worst he had ever given.
With the E Street Band honed as a performing unit, Springsteen kept on running. Fans accustomed to
distant and clinical ‘concerts’ by groups could not believe their energy and strength. By the end of
1975 Springsteen could well look back, and smile that familiar broad grin of his. It was apparent that
his real energies were devoted to performance or studio work. After a rigorous tour, he took a wellearned
rest, then slowly set about work on the follow up to Born To Run. It proved to be a long and
frustrating wait for all concerned.
Streets of Fire
Springsteen has always been a notoriously methodical person when it comes to recording. He first
went into the 914 Studios in New York to start recording Born To Run in May 1974 but the album
was not ready for release until August 1975. It is not that he is unawarc or does not care about his
fans’ desire to have the fire and energy they enjoy in his concerts repeated in albums for home
consumption, but his drive for perfection has always made himself his own harshest critic when it
comes to fixing the music on vinyl. He told International Musician and Recording World in October
1984 of how he docs not understand himself why it takes so long to produce his records: ‘Well it’s a
bizarre thing. If I kncw that, I’d probably put ’em out faster. I just kinda wait till I feel there’s
something going on there. The only bad thing about it is that I feel kinda like a friend that goes away
and doesn’t write. But it’s unbelievable how great the kids are. I’d see a kid like a year afterwards,
and he’ll say, “How ya doin’?” “Still working on it.” “Aw, take your time. We want it to be right.” It’s
amazing. The funny thing about the record is that we don’t do any more than five or six takes on a
However, after Born To Run a far more serious problem than his own working methods was to
prevent Springsteen recording.
A growing estrangement between Mike Appel and Springstee (with Landau’s increased involvement,
much to Appel’s dissatisfac tion) came to a head in July 1976, when Springsteen sued Appel for
mismanagement. On 2 July, when Springsteen was thinkin seriously about recordhlg a fourth album,
he reccivcd a letter fror Mike Appel which said that under the terms of his contract h could not use
Jon Landau as producer. This brought home to Bruce just how circumscribed he was, and on 27 July
he filed his mismanagement suit. In his enthusiasm to get into the music business, Springsteen had
only read his original contract with Appel cursorily, and had signed it on a car bonnet in the parking
lot of a club.
But for a very long time Bruce Springsteen’s faith in Mike Appel – his mentor, the only man to place
any faith in his nascent talent – was such that he would not have it redrawn. However, this trust was
not to persist indefinitely; by 1976 Springsteen was reckoned to have earned around two million
dollars, but had actually only received $100,000. Moreover, the contracts gave Appel control over
most of Springsteen’s creative work, so that when he countersued on 29 July he was able to gain an
injunction preventing Springsteen from entering a recording studio without him.
Springsteen’s original naivety was to cause a protracted and rancorous dispute. He told journalist
Peter Knobler in 1978: ‘What did I know? I didn’t know what publishing was! What’s publishing? Ask
the guy down the street, he isn’t gonna know. You’re gonna think it’s what happens in books. It’s
one of those words. I knew no one who had ever made a record before. I knew no one who had
ever had any contact whatsoever with the music business.’ The essence of his charge was that this
innocence had been exploited, and he sued for ‘fraud … undue influence and breach of trust’.
Springsteen felt that he had been betrayed, and – worst of all betrayed by a friend. That undermined
one of the basic features of Springsteen’s way of working – the camaraderie on which the E Street
Band had been founded and run. What particularly incensed him was the discovery that he did not
even control his songs, and that the material he had written hirnself could only be used with Appel’s
permission. For all his faults, there was, however, no denying Mike Appel’s devotion to Springsteen,
and his guidance of his career. But Springsteen was aware that he had outgrown him creatively, and
was torn between the man who had got him his start in the business, and the man he felt could help
him develop as a musician. The battles were fought out in court, and, as is inevitable in such cases,
were bitter. They kept Springsteen out of a recording studio for almost exactly twelve months. The
ban hurt him considerably and he fought against it throughout the proceedings, appealing in both
September and December 1976 against it, but without success. In the December appeal he even asked
to be allowed to record with Landau as his producer on the condition that the tapes were deposited
with the court until such time as the case was settled.
In the first hearings Appel had the upper hand. He could afford for the case to be long and drawnout,
but Springsteen was both eager as a committed musician to get back into the studio and needed
the money. Then in October Springsteen changed his lawyer and took on Michael Tanner, who
specialised in rock musicians, numbering Paul Simon, the Rolling Stones and John Lennon among his
clients. It was a turning-point, and on 28 May 1977 both parties agreed to settle their differences out
of court. The terms were never officially made public, but it was a compromise that satisfied both
men. Springsteen was free of his management contract and was able to record with whatever
producer he wanted; Appel received a flat payment and kept a share in the profits of the records
Springsteen 4ad already made. Four day later Springsteen and Landau were in New York’s Atlantic
Studio to start work on Darkness On The Edge Of Town.
During the layoff from the studio Springsteen poured all hi energies into touring and performing.
They started him on a energetic programme that was to keep going through 1976, 197 and 1978,
when he covered the USA as comprehensively as a map maker: Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Ohio,
Tennessee, Cleveland Poughkeepsie…. These gigs saw the establishment of his mar athon set, and by
the end of 1978 a typical performance would b pushing four hours, including something like 26
songs. He alsl came to be lionised, joined onstage by such luminaries as Gar Bonds, Patti Smith, Eddie
Floyd, Ronnie Spector, Southsid Johnny and Gary Busey.
The 1976 tour saw Springsteen and the E Street Band become the first rock’n’roll band to play the
legendary home of Country and Western music – Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry on 28 April. The
following night found Springsteen trying to bluff his way into Elvis’ home, Graceland, in Memphis.
From that first glimpse of Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1958 he had been Springsteen’s idol. ‘Fire’
had been written specifically for him, and the 1981 song ‘Johnny Bye Bye’ was written about Presleys
death. In it Springsteen spoke movingly of his hero’s death, prefacing the song in concert with: ‘It’s
hard to understand that somebody who had so much and seemed to loom so large, could in the end
lose so bad!’ In addition as a tribute to the King, Springsteen regularly included two Presley ballads –
‘Follow That Dream’ and ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’ – in his shows, and recorded ‘Johnny Bye Bye’
as a B-side of his 1985 single ‘I’m On Fire’.
Those lengthy and flexible shows and the dearth of official albums were a Godsend to bootleggers.
There had been bootlegs of him before, but the legal battles and the tour of 1978 opened the
floodgates. Fans of any star (real fans) will go to incredible lengths to obtain rare material; whether
studio recordings, or, more usually, live tapes of gigs, primarily as souvenirs. And Springsteen was
exactly the performer to fuel this demand. In his live shows from the 1975 to 1978 period he
performed countless new or rarely heard songs, many of which he was never to record.
Bootlegging is, of course, criminal. It denies an artist his royalties, and offers the fans sub-standard
recordings of songs which were never intended for official release. It gives a wholly distorted idea of
how a song develops. Jon Landau has called it ‘out and out theft’, stating: ‘These people come along
and confiscate material that was never intended for release on an alburn, sell it, and make a profit.’
He and Springsteen were obviously concerned that songs which were intended to be heard
professionally recorded and produced, in sequence, on an official album, were being stolen,
duplicated and sold on inferior quality vinyl.
In addition, Dave Marsh has contended: ‘It is no more fair or just to release the scraps and fragments
of a performer’s work without his consent than it would be to publish the crumpled first draft of a
book, or the cutting room out-takes of a movie.’ However, there is another case. Legally, Marsh is
right but artistically he is wrong. Who would deny that Ezra Pound’s annotatedversion of T. S. Eliot’s
The Waste Land has given an audience a greater understanding and insight into the writer’s craft, or
that Rembrandt’s sketches are great works of art in themselves? Of course, the fans resent having to
fork out extortionate prices for inferior recordings. But as a loyal fan, who has dutifillly played (and
paid) along with CBS, is it theft to want a souvenir of the best live rock show you have ever seen – or
are likely to see – when there is a marked reluctance to release any official souvenir?
With the growth of home videos, the threat of bootleg videos has also presented itself to the
Springsteen organisation. In these times when a promo video for a record has become recognised as
an art form in itself, fans now have the opportunity to hear and see their heroes in action. The
package is usually either a wildly overinflated collection of promos, or a straightforward film of an
artist in concert. Typically, neither had surfaced from Springsteen, until ‘Dancin’ In The Dark’ in late
1984, when he belatedly realised the impact of video and authorised a number of TV specials. The
promo video for ‘Atlantic City’ in 1982 was an atmospheric black and white effort in which
Springsteen did not appear. However, low-quality bootleg videos are available in the same way as
bootleg records and it is now possible to see rehearsals for ‘The River’ tour (real fly on the wall stuff)
and badly shot hand-held films of concerts.
Only Bob Dylan has been more bootlegged than Springsteen, and like Dylan, Springsteen has some
infuriating characteristics. Much of his finest material has never been (quite possibly, never will be)
released. Dylan’s attitude to bootlegging was ambiguous; he shrugged off the eight-year delay
accompanying the legendary Basement Tapes with ‘I thought everyone had ’em anyway!’
Springsteen’s attitude, too, has been ambiguous. Initially, he wryly acknowledged the industry he
had spawned, but latterly he has been clamping down with a vengeance. At the height of his
exhaustive gigging, at San Francisco’s Winterland in 1978, he can be heard exultantly crying
‘Bootleggers . . . roll your tapes!’, and later in that same show, as he introduced ‘Racing In The Street’:
‘This is for all the guys in Asbury Park, who I am sure will hear this one day through thc magic of
bootlegging.’ In Europe, fans were particularly attracted to bootlegs, because prior to 1981 not many
people had seen him live.
Springsteen’s perfectionism feeds the bootleggers. He applies massive dedication to everything he
does, aiming for both the highest quality recordings, and the best live shows. But to achieve that is a
lengthy and frustrating process. Even after the Appel lawsuit had been resolved, and with a stockpile
of songs, enough for a double album, there was still a year’s delay before his fourth album was
released. And there has never been a live album by the man that many consider to be the finest
living exponent of rock’n’roll. There has never bcen an official opportunity to hear records of the
composer’s own versions of Southside Johnny’s ‘The Fever’, the Pointer Sisters ‘Fire’, Patti Smith’s
‘Because The Night’ (which he co-wrote with her), Dave Edmunds’ ‘From Small Things …’, Gary
Bonds’ ‘Rendczvous’. We have yet to hear Springsteen’s interpretations of John Fogerty’s ‘Who’ll
Stop The Rain’, Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land’, Jimmy Cliff’s ‘Trapped’, Jackie de
Shannon’s ‘When You Walk In The Room’ and hundreds more. Springsteen seemed to be waiting for
the ideal live show for release, when everything coagulates. Such is his frustrating search for
perfection that we may never get to hear such an album. Hundreds of shows have been legitimately
recorded, but, even with judicious editing, such an album has never even come close to official
By 1984 Springsteen was to cool entirely on the idea. He told BBC television’s ‘Whistle Test’ that he
was unlikely to make a live album because the essence of his performances was being present at
them and because a live album would create a distance between the audience and the band: ‘Our
band is about breaking down distance.’ He also fclt it would be boring to record his old songs.
Springsteen himself is aware of the criticisms of his slowness, telling Dave Marsh: ‘In the studio, I’m
slow, I take a long time . . . I’m lucky because I’m in there, I’m seeing it every step of the way. I
would assume that if you didn’t know what was going on, and you cared about it, it would be
frustrating … I got into a situation where I just said “Hey, this is what I do, and these are my assets.
and these are my burdens.” I got comfortable with myself bein~ that kind of person…. So at this
point, I just settled into accepting certain things that I’ve always been uncomfortable with. I stopped
setting limits and definitions – which I always threw out anyway but which I’d always felt guilty
about. Spending a long time in the studio, I stopped feeling bad about that. I said: “That’s me, that’s
what I do. I work slow, and I work slow for a reason. To get the results that I want.”‘
And again, to Point Blank, in discussing his responsibility as an artist: ‘Of course I could have done an
album a year, but would they have been good? I have a responsibility to myself and the fans I won’t
release anything I’m not satisfied with, that I don’t have my heart and soul in…. If people aren’t ready
to wait, then they weren’t interested in the first place.’ Perhaps these arc admirable sentiments,
evincing a genuine sense of responsibility and concern but they are frustrating too, as anyone will
testify who has heard any of Springsteen’s studio out-takes, or seen him in concert. It is the quantity,
as well as the quality, of material which seems to be lost forever.
Even by the time of The Wild, The Innocent And The E Street Shuffle in 1974, Springsteen had already
accrued a backlog of material which would never find its way officially on to record. He has always
been a prolific writer, but he grew increasingly selective as the pressures on him mounted.
Memorable songs from that 1973/74 period include the chilling ‘Ballad Of A Self-Loading Pistol’
(‘Papa, you showed me the beauty of buckshot/The love song a bullet sings as she whistles …’) ‘Hey,
Santa Ana’ (bootlegged as either ‘Contessa’ or ‘Guns of Kid Cole’), ‘Thundercrack’ (a.k.a. ‘Angel
From the Inner Lake’/’Heart Of A Ballerina’) with its marvellous vocal harmonies from the E Street
Band. The same period saw ‘Zero And Blind Terry’, a tale of renegade children pursued by an
avenging father, which recalls Terence Malick’s film Badlands (which in turn was the inspiration for
the title track of Nebraska). ‘Jeannie Needs A Shooter’ (which was covered by Warren Zevon on his
Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School album) is in a similar vein, about the love for a lawman’s
daughter, which finds the hero in the final verse in the best outlaw tradition, shot down by the
border, and Iying in the darkness ‘with a pistol by my side’. And there is the beautiful ‘Southern Son’:
‘And though the Western plains are still stained/with the blood of great cowboys/ It’s a Southern
sun that shines down on this Yankee boy.’
Between 1975 and 1978, Springsteen was writing furiously, and the songs which appeared on Born To
Run and Darkness On The Edge Of Town were only the tip of the iceberg. Even the officially released
versions have fascinating antecedents, like a version of ‘Thunder Road’ which only features a piano
accompaniment, enforcing the quality of the Iyrics, or the plethora of renderings of ‘Bom To Run’.
‘Streets Of Fire’ and ‘Racing In The Street’ can be seen to have undergone massive Iyrical alterations.
‘The Promise’ is a moody ballad, which comes dangerously close to self parody (‘Johnny works in a
factory and Billy works downtown’) and was held from Darkness because a number of people
interpreted it as Springsteen’s comment on his acrimonious court battle with Appel, although
Springsteen snapped: ‘I don’t write songs about lawsuits!’ During these three years Springsteen’s
concerts became practically potted histories of rock’n’roll itself. Those four-hour shows encompassed
his own three albums, as well as generous slices of the Bobby Fuller Four, Sam and Dave, Creedence
Clearwater Revival, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, the Ronettes, Dylan, Chuck Berry, Mitch Ryder,
Jerry Lee Lewis, the Beatles and others. Even familiar songs from his own albums took on a life of
their own. ‘Thunder Road’, ‘Growin’ Up’, ‘Badlands’ and ‘The Promised Land’ sounded even better in
concert than on vinyl.
After the long delays since Born To Run it would have made perfect sense for a live double album to
be issued next, or after the album that was eventually to be issued, or, failing that, in the wake of the
dynamic 1981 shows. But Springsteen refrained, so much of the fine work of those years, such as an
official version of his own composition ‘Because The Night’, or his dramatic reworking of Jimmy
Cliff’s ‘Trapped’, did not appear. Small wonder then that the Springsteen bootleg industry is such a
thriving concern, particularly when you consider such a lavish package as the triple Teardrops On
The City set. Having tolerated them for a long time Landau and Springsteen eventually moved into
action in August 1979, when they took five bootleggers to court, which served as a warning and
stemmed the flood momentarily.
However frustrating the layoffof 1976-77 proved, it gave Springsteen an opportunity to assess
himself and the position he found himself in. Catapulted to the top after Born To Run, the year gave
him time to gain a perspective on himself and his career. As an artist, it gave him the opportunity to
chart the changes his country was undergoing – how the characters in his songs were coping with
maturity and a recession; how dreams were stifled, but never died. The result of those deliberations
was Darkness On The Edge Of Town, which finally appeared on 2 June 1978, a year and a day after
recording work had started. There had been innumerable problems sifting through the songs which
were to constitute the final album and, in the meantime, Springsteen had changed studios, from
Atlantic to the Record Plant. He had caused a further delay just before the scheduled release, because
he was unhappy with the proofing of the sleeve. Even after all the time spent in the studio
Springsteen remained dissatisfied with the recording quality and later said he would like to re-record
it, especially as the album contained some of his best stuff.
In the album a sense of resignation was apparent in Springsteen’s writing. Up until then he had
eulogised the punks who kicked against the system, but his belief in ‘the pursuit of happiness’
remained intact. But from this album on, he was to look at the underside of the Dream. The Promised
Land was still there, alluring at the end of the highway, but to obtain entry, an arduous journey had
to be undertaken, through suffering to salvation. Springsteen’s new songs were manifestly aware of
the rigours facing man in society. He now knew the characters he wrote about, and there was no
need to turn them into Magic Rats or Spanish Johnnys.
Of that change in his writing, and how his perspective had altered, Springsteen told Dave Marsh in
1981: ‘I guess it just started after Born To Run somehow. I had all that time off, and I spent a lotta
time home. We were offfor three years, and home for a long time. It came out of a local kind of thing
– what my old friends were doing, what my relatives were doing. How things were affecting them,
and what their lives were like. And what my life was like.’
This emphasis on apprehending ordinary life was important to him. He later toldMusician magazine:
‘I wanted the record to feel like what life felt like. You know, not romantic and not some sort of big
heroic thing. I just wanted it to feel like an everyday, Darlington County kind of thing.’
The album was originally to have been called ‘American Madness’, after Frank Capra’s 1932 film
about the effects of the Great Depression on small town America. But Springsteen eventually settled
for the sombre Darkness On The Edge Of Town. By the time of its release, in June 1978, he was
edging 30, a tricky age for anyone, but for a rocker, a boundary. It was to that darkness that
Springsteen found himself drawn. The face that stared bleakly out from the album cover was one
that had endured three years of bitter wrangles, self-doubt, gruelling touring and soul-searching. The
mistrust and self-doubt were, inevitably, reflected on the finished album. Darkness stands as one of
rock’s bleakest testimonies, not wallowing in self-pity, but permeated by a sense of realisation, tinged
with bitter experience.
Of the ten new songs, seven dwell on darkness. They speak of trust, betrayal, faith and belief. The
cars are still there, but only as a means of escape. All of the songs are intensely autobiographical, but
in the cases where Springsteen casts himself as observer (‘Factory’, ‘Candy’s Room’) the results are
moving, following the narrative exposition of ‘Incident on 57th Street’ and ‘Meeting Across The
River’. The heroine of ‘Candy’s Room’ is no idealised Wendy, to die with on the streets in an
everlasting kiss. She’s an embittered hooker, dealing in dreams, provided the dollars are upfront in
subsidising those dteams. The litany on ‘Factory’ comes from the poignant observation by an only
son of the indignity of his father’s life seen slipping away in front of his eyes. It is on ‘Factory’ that
Springsteen sings with unashamed sympathy, for the first time, of his father, undergoing the
numbing repetition of a factory job for a living wage, making sacrifices which remain unrecognised
by his family. The implicit message was that there must be more to life – any life – than this. By the
time of Nebraska in 1982, and the economic depression it reflected, the dignity of work was to take
second place to the job itself.
The key lines from the album are to be found on ‘Racing In The Street’: ‘Some guys just give up
living/And start dying, little by little, piece by piece/Some guys come home from work and wash
up/And go racing in the street.’ It’s where the world is split in two: on one side of the line slump
those who have been crushed by the system, on the other side stand those who can still see the
dream, and are willing to pursue it. The street is still sacred, but not because it’s populated by gangs –
that’s adolescent time. This time it’s the road that stretches to the Interstate, which propels them
towards a destiny which is a blessed relief from the stifling conformity of their lives. Where a Spanish
Johnny, four years on, can express his individuality, or cling to the carnaraderie of his youth. Where,
in a closed shop of car parts, he can escape the monotony of TV dinners, his hollow marriage and the
scream of the factory whistle. Where he can prove himself, if only to himself. The song’s chorus acts
as a gloomy counterpoint to Martha and the Vandellas’ ‘Dancing In The Street’.
The song from Darkness that most typifies the whole album is ‘The Promised Land’ (again, surely no
coincidence that Springsteen filched the title from Chuck Berry?). It is here that the evidence of
Springsteen’s maturing as a writer is apparent – driving all night, but only chasing a mirage, and
knowing it’s a mirage. It describes a smouldering resentment of time, place and circumstances, to
‘take a knife and cut this pain from my heart/Find somebody itching for something to start’.
Searching, again, even if only for a mirage, someone, something, that offers salvation. ‘The Promised
Land’ is where you escape to – it may be a girl, a jukebox, a stretch of road – but it’s where you have
what is your own, and to enter it you have to have a faith in yourself and your own abilities. When
Springsteen sings ‘I believe in a Promised Land’, he can persuade his audience to sing along with him
and seize his belief as their own, because if you haven’t got that belief, there isn’t anywhere else to
Of the characters on the album, Springsteen told Crawdaddy: ‘Theyre 28 to 30 years old, like my age,
theyre not kids anymore. . . . On Born To Run there was the hope of a free ride. On Darkness there
ain’t no free ride – You wanna ride, you gotta pay! And maybe you’ll make it through, but you ain’t
gonna make it through till you been beat, you’ve been hurt, until you been messed up. There’s hope,
but it’s just the hope of, like, survival.’ Darkness shows Springsteen struggling to come to terms with
life, and with the lives of his contemporaries, and charting those changes in his songs. He is learning
to see the world in shades of grey, instead of starkly divided black and white. It marks his maturing.
The album’s title track describes the line that has to be walked. Pleasures and salvation which can
only be found on the edge, in the darkness, away from the bright lights of suburbia and conformity.
The singer drives to his ex-lover’s home where she lives in middle-class respectability, with ‘that
blood that never burned in her veins’ – blood should burn not just flow. Springsteen calls her to the
place where their dreams are buried, ‘neath Abram’s Bridge’. To regain those precious dreams, you
have to leave the light, and scrabble around in the darkness. It may not work, maybe theyre buried
too deep. They may not be able to rekindle that old flame, but theyve got to try. For the old times,
theyve got to try for what they had, for what theyve lost. To try for what they are still searching for.
On ‘Prove It All Night’, he scornfully asks ‘If dreams came true, oh wouldn’t that be nice?’ He’s
enough of a realist to know now that dreams are dreams and have to be kept like that. But all those
sacrifices are worth it, if ‘you want it, you take it, you pay the price’. There is redemption, but it’s
redemption which is won through bitter experience, not a prize on a TV game show. (An early
version of ‘Something In The Night’ finds Springsteen still ‘riding down Kingsley, but on the
recorded version, he picks up a hitch-hiker who’s looking ‘to die or be redeemed’.)
‘Badlands’ was an apocalyptic vision (with which Springsteen appropriately opened his set the night
Reagan was elected). ‘I don’t give a damn/For the same old played out scenes/I don’t give a
damn/For just the in-betweens/Honey I want the heart, I want the soul/I want control right now’,
stands as a statement of intent on the album’s opening track. Ultimately, though, there is that
residual strand of hope which Springsteen offers: ‘I believe in the love that you gave me! I believe in
the hope that can save me! I believe in the faith! And I pray that someday it may raise me above
The production of the album reflected its stark Iyrical feel. There were no strings, no embellishments,
just hard, thunderous rock’n’roll. Springsteen’s singing, too, had changed. It was more assertive,
more prominent. The aching howl on ‘Streets Of Fire’. which lapses almost into incoherence, sounds
like some wounded animal sloping through the city streets, injured, but defiant.
In the turbulent America of the times, Darkness On The Edge Of Town reflected that changing
society, and firmly established Bruce Springsteen as the American rock star of the seventies.
The Price You Pay
The impending release of Darkness On The Edge Of Town prompted a new surge of touring,
starting on 23 May in Buffalo, his first live performance for five months. While mcga-bands like
Aerosmith, Kiss, Rush and Kansas plugged round the large venues, and stuck pretty close to the
same linc, Springstccn’s itinerary cncompassed the whole country, playing in 37 states and ,anada.
From East Coast to West, and back via the neglected leartland of thc Mid-West, the tour careered
across the States for six solid months, with the band playing shows usually in excess of three hours
every night, then on the bus, and further on down the .oad. It was a gruelling slog which exacted a
high physical price – Springsteen would lose between three and five pounds a show dnd it says much
about his dedication that he both undertook it so :omprehensively, and did not skimp on any show.
He told Sounds In 1978 why he never let up: ‘You may be playing 80 shows in eight months, but this
kid out there, it’s his money, and it’s his one night. He may not see you again for a year. So you
mustn’t let him down…. You’ve got a lot to live up to when you walk out on that stage – a certain
tradition from the early rockers up to now that I believe in a lot. It’s like, you’ve got to be your own
hero, find it out for yourself – I’m just sort of like the catalyst.’
Springsteen still shunned large auditoriums, preferring the clubs, where the audience could fully
appreciate the excitement and intensity of an E Street Band show. It was as if he was repaying a debt,
for it had been clubs like Asbury Park’s Upstage, New York’s Bottom Line and the LA Roxy which
had helped establish his live reputation. He felt he could communicate better with a small audience
than a large one. This community of response was what the shows were about, with Bruce
interspersing the numbers with long monologues about his past. An E Street Band concert wasn’t a
matter of the group just playing and the audience receiving the sounds; it was meant to be a shared
experience. Once when a French journalist went backstage to ask him for an interview after a
concert, Springsteen replied: ‘But haven’t I just been talking to you for the last four hours?’