Bruce Springsteen is 64. He has been on tour for the past 2 years, regularly playing 3-1/2 hours without an intermission; on 7/31/12 he played a record 4:06. Rolling Stone recently named him their top live performer. One message I repeat to my children is that good habits are the backbone of a good life; Springsteen is surely living testament to that idea.
I first heard Springsteen in 1983. I used to borrow records from the library, and Nebraska was in the new arrivals stack. I liked the cover – black and white, looking through a car windshield on a dingy landscape, with stark red letters on black. I was ready to move on from the pop music of my youth to something more sophisticated. During that time I was reading Kesey, Ginsburg, Salinger and Brautigan. I brought the record home and talked my brother into rearranging our bedroom. My brother and I dismantled our bunk beds, hauled our parents’ console stereo down from the attic, screwed a red light bulb into the overhead and pulled the shades. I dropped the needle and heard a plaintive harmonica wail over simple guitar arpeggios. The singer sounded like he was practically asleep – defeated and resigned to his fate. The whole package spoke to something elemental in my nascent teenage consciousness. I was also surprised at how accessible the music was, for something I’d perceived as “difficult.”
This introduction to Springsteen probably helps to explain my enduring fascination with his entire body of work, not just the arena rock statements he is best known for. Springsteen’s fan base is famously loyal, but it is maddeningly fickle. Many will attend twenty or even fifty E-Street Band shows and clamor for the same songs over and over, but Springsteen’s solo tours and his folk collaborations with the massive Sessions Band rarely sell out in the United States. His spare, beautiful albums such as Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad have sold barely a million copies each, a pittance next to the commercial success of his rock masterpiece Born to Run and the behemoth Born in the USA. Springsteen’s music is grounded in folk and traditional rock, with a smattering of R&B and punk; his image has always been that of the populist, a super-serious rock‘n’roll evangelist for whom music is nothing less than salvation. He is not a groundbreaking musician (nor are his band mates), but instead presents himself as a blue-collar craftsman. This authenticity is part and parcel of the Springsteen mythos, for better and for worse.
I offer Springsteen’s career as the most artistically consistent statement of the modern pop music era. I can think of no other artist whose work after five decades is simultaneously valedictory and yet continues to evolve and expand. If he never works too far from his roots, he continues to explore the possibilities of the folk/rock/pop form with confidence. The list of indispensible artists is small, when considering those we can’t imagine living without. My musical list includes: Sinatra, Miles Davis, Dylan, The Beatles, and Springsteen.
Springsteen was “discovered” by Columbia scout John Hammond (via Mike Appel’s incessant badgering) in 1972; Hammond had also signed Bob Dylan eleven years earlier. Springsteen resisted efforts to connect or compare him with Dylan, but listening to his early work, it’s easy to see why the comparison was made. He worked with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica, delighted in kaleidoscopic wordplay, and his vocal delivery was similar to Dylan’s; it’s understandable why Columbia marketed him as “The Next Dylan.” Still, Springsteen never had Dylan’s literary chops – his gonzo poetry was a put-on; at the same time, Springsteen was a more interesting composer and arranger out of the gate. What’s interesting is how vehemently Springsteen discouraged the connection. From the beginning, he seemed to have an idea about where he was going, and how he wanted to be perceived as an artist, even if it meant sacrificing near-term sales. More than any of his pop music forerunners, Springsteen approached music as a career.
The Wild, The Innocent & The E-Street Shuffle was released in September 1973, just six months after his debut album. The earlier record gave no hint of the miracle that Springsteen’s second album would be; among other accomplishments it ended any talk of his being The Next Dylan or the next anything. Begin with the title: a perfect name for a rock album. It encapsulates the album’s themes as well as Springsteen’s musical aspirations for the record. Sure, it’s rock‘n’roll, but it’s funky cool, too. When I was singing in a high school rock band, I asked the players if we could do Springsteen’s Rosalita. “Are you crazy? Do you know how many key changes are in that tune?” This is where Springsteen started to rein in his lyrical excesses while pouring everything into the music. It was a preposterously ambitious statement; the entire thing is a crazy swing for the fences.
Springsteen’s next three albums comprise a trilogy that defines his vision – these established the definitive E-Street Band “sound,” and for many fans they may be the only Springsteen records they want or need. The fact that these three albums can be considered together obscures the circumstances and difficulties surrounding their creation, and much has been written about everything that happened during those years and what might have been.
Born to Run is a dreamer’s album; Darkness on the Edge of Town is the realist’s; The River concludes the stories begun in the first two – the dreamers and realists sitting at a bar. BTR begins with the couple escaping the “town full of losers” on the open road, and “The River” concludes with the elegiac Wreck on the Highway. In the end, Springsteen’s dreamers don’t win. These albums are about living in spite of defeat.
While BTR is all of a piece, and it’s certainly a masterwork, it’s also the only one of Springsteen’s recordings that sounds like it was a lot of work. It’s exhausting. This is certainly part of Springsteen’s ethos, and he might even be pleased to have the album described that way. The live shows from BTR onward increasingly became pieces of work themselves – astonishing yes, but like Weinberg’s drums they seemed like they were trying to bludgeon the audience to submission. The circus clown who’d popped in and out of the first two albums wouldn’t be seen again for decades.
If the band sound in The Wild… was loose and beautiful, in BTR it became dark and powerful. Springsteen continued to pare his lyrical phrases back, but sometimes he skirted cliché only because the playing was so good. Lines like “…there’s an opera out on the Turnpike; There’s a ballet being fought out in the alley…” make you wonder if he’d just seen “West Side Story” on the Late Show. For me, the album’s real gem is the short story contained in Meeting Across the River. Over trumpet, piano and bass, the singer tells of a deal gone bad before it’s even happened.
Well Cherry says she’s gonna walk
‘cause she found I took her radio and hocked it
But Eddie man, she don’t understand
That two grand’s practically sittin’ here in my pocket
We know the two grand will never materialize, because every deal before this one has gone bust too. Cherry will walk, and the narrator will sink a little deeper and try something a little more desperate next time. The musical restraint allows the lyric to stand out, and Springsteen gauges his singing on a precise line between melody and grizzled worldweariness. It’s a beautiful song.