September 13, 1985
By David Huff
Bruce Springsteen - Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band
Bruce Springsteen transforms himself into a musical Rambo
This month marks JAM Magazine's sixth anniversary as a music publication, and to be quite honest with you, I had come to think that there was nothing I could ever witness again that would top the reunion of Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones at the Live Aid show in Philadelphia to play "Stairway to Heaven." It was, by far, the most incredible moment in rock and roll I had ever seen. But even now as I write this, there is another phenomenon that I can't even describe in words. His name is Bruce Springsteen.
From Pink Floyd's spectacular dramatization of The Wall tour in 1980, to Michael Jackson's unexpected Thriller, to the Purple Reign of Prince and the "jump" of Van Halen, even the spectacular comeback of Deep Purple all pale in comparison to the music that was ‘born in the U.S.A.” created by a man simply known as The Boss.
I suppose I should be considered fortunate to have met and talked with Bruce Springsteen. It happened four years ago when Springsteen's The River tour came to the Reunion Arena in Dallas where Bruce would perform, what he would later say, was a somewhat disappointing show. It was disappointing because it had only lasted three and a half hours instead of the usual four.
What fascinated me at the time, as it still does today, is the incredible power Springsteen holds over an audience. As I was sitting off to the side of the stage looking down at the crowd through a pair of binoculars, I vividly remember the sight of women pleading and crying to Springsteen as he sang. It was shocking as well as a little frightening. I could not believe that one man could control people's emotions, feelings and perhaps their very souls with the power of a song, but there it was happening right before my very eyes. Springsteen had the power, the connection and most certainly the ties that bind. Where in the world had he come from?
The Boss was born Sept. 23, 1949 on the day of the fall equinox, to Douglas and Adele Springsteen in Freemont, New Jersey. It was just a few miles away from Asbury Park, where the young Bruce would one day bring to life all his childhood and adolescent dreams.
"When I was growing up," said Springsteen, "the only thing that never let me down was rock and roll. Like rock and roll came to my house when there seemed to be no way out. It just seemed like a dead end street. I was like nowhere, on the outs. I had no choice. That's where I was, that's where I got put. It was my place in life all the years I was growing up. I did a lot of running away and a lot of being brought back. It was always very terrible."
Springsteen's haunting childhood memories were captured on his debut album, Greetings from Asbury Park. His themes throughout the album were heartfelt renditions of adolescent frustrations growing up in a screwball world.
"I lived half of my first thirteen years in a trance or something," he recalled. "People thought I was weird because I always went around with this look on my face. I was thinking of things, but I was always on the outside looking in. When it came to school, I didn't even make it to class clown. I didn't have the flair to be the complete jerk. It was like I didn't exist. There was the wall, then me."
"Blinded by the Light," from Greetings portrayed the characters of Springsteen's Asbury Park that set the tone for the type of childhood environment Bruce grew up in. His images are abstract; left open to interpretation. As *Blinded By The Light," showed us how Bruce viewed the world in 1972, then "Growing Up," reveals how he viewed his days as a maturing teen. He bought his first guitar for $18.
"A lot of rock and roll people," explained Springsteen, "that's where they came from, a solitary existence. If you're gonna be good at something, you gotta be alone a lot to practice. That's exactly what I did."
"Growing Up," portrays Springsteen rejected by his peers, looked down upon by his teachers, and his will to rise above it all.
"Music saved me," said Bruce matter-of-factly. "From the beginning, my guitar was something I could go to. If I hadn't found music, I don't know what I would have done. When I was growing up, the only thing that never let me down was rock and roll. Rock and roll came into my house when there seemed to be no way out. It just seemed like a dead end street. It reached down into all those homes where there was no music or books or any kind of creative sense and it infiltrated the whole thing."
The release of Greetings from Asbury Park created a sensation in the music world, breathing life into a stagnant, artistic climate. The comparisons to Bob Dylan were undeniable, but Springsteen's music scaled the spectrum as it ranged from jazz to the blues. And weaved throughout it all were the lyrics, always obscure, always fraught with meaning, and just as vital and urgent.
As I stood outside the doorway waiting with a handful of people to go back and say hello to the Boss, a multitude of things were running through my head from the show I had just witnessed. There was Springsteen holding the mic out to the audience as 18,000 strong sang, "Down in Jungle Land." There were the cries of joy and heartbreak from the seemingly lost souls who begged for Bruce to recognize their pleas. Here was one person, just one solitary soul – and I am not taking anything away from the rest of his band – but for the people in that audience, there was only one man whose lyrics were not only reflecting their own thoughts and dreams, but echoing the beat of their hearts. The fact that one musician had the power to connect with millions through his words and music was frightening and exhilarating.
The follow-up to Greetings was The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. The recording was a logical progression for the artist displaying a more raucous and less disciplined side. It is more of a group effort that bubbles with youthful enthusiasm. Almost every song sounds like a first take. The lyrics on this album aren't as obtuse, perhaps because Springsteen had chosen to evoke his feelings through the music this time rather than emphasizing the words.
Songs like "Kitty's Back," oozes raw energy and pure exhilaration. The "E Street Shuffle," portrays the summertime lifestyle. "Incident on 57th Street," is a stunning number of the ugly beauty Springsteen is so capable of portraying. This album really focused on how powerful a performer Bruce was and what type of raw energy one could expect to see from him in concert. It also saw his band began to develop as a working cohesive unit.
With two albums under his belt, Springsteen restricted his touring to mainly the East Coast. The reason was simple. He refused to open for any other act. It's more than likely that Springsteen would have been hard pressed to find a headliner to open for in fear of being him blowing the headliners off the stage. In 1974, an East Coast journalist named Jon Landau wrote a simple, candid observation of a Springsteen show he had just witnessed. "I saw the future of rock and roll," he wrote, "and its name was Bruce Springsteen." The prophecy would one day become an iconic declaration.
Journalists are the first to criticize, then endlessly analyze, situations they can't quite figure out. Coming to terms with Springsteen was a perfect example of that. What do you ask a man who's more comfortable speaking through lyrics than to the press? What do you say to a man whose music embodies the spirits of millions of people who swear by him? “Hi, Bruce. I enjoyed those four long and exhaustive hours of music." “Hey Bruce! Why do people live and breathe your songs?" “Ah, excuse me sir, are you real or a figment of millions of people's imagination?' I don't think the media or fans have ever quite put the finger on the ‘who’ or ‘what’ this man from New Jersey truly is, nor would they ever dare to.
The 1975 release of Born to Run would catapult Springsteen into the mainstream consciousness of this country. The album would transform the East Coast cult hero to a legitimate superstar. In one week, his face was featured on both the covers of Newsweek and Time. Though some critics dismissed the record's dense sound and complex lyrical structure as pretentious fluff, the album nonetheless hit home with rock fans from coast to coast:
This record, though exhaustive, was an extremely personal album for the singer / songwriter as it traced the coming of age life of this urban hero. Though it took Springsteen only three weeks to write most of the material on this album, it took him nearly six months to pen the classic title track, "Born to Run." That was proceeded by another 13 months in the studio to complete the finishing touches.
A notable song on the album, "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out," seems to be the turning point in Springsteen's emotional maturation. This hard-rocking blues songs revels in the contrast of society. Bruce is powerful, threatening to break down psychological barriers. He repudiates the tradition of alienation replacing it with the theme of hope in redefining the parameters of one's life. Born to Run's success focused the nation's media on this rock phenomenon and it’s lucky they did. For the next three years, the only noise that would come from Springsteen would be in a courtroom. Born to Run was a critical and commercial success. It peaked at number three on the "Thunder Road" and "Jungleland" would become FM radio staples and concert highlights.
Born to Run's success focused the nation's media on this rock phenomenon and it’s lucky they did. For the next three years, the only noise that would come from Springsteen would be in a court room. The most difficult three-year period of Springsteen's life would be his legal battle with former manager Mike Appel. It was Appel who brought Springsteen to the attention of CBS Records in 1972 and was the driving force early on in his career. But the controversy centered on the business side of music that Springsteen had given little thought to when he met up with Appel. When Bruce first signed on with Appel, he didn't realize the future implications of the original contract that granted all of the publishing rights to Appel. Springsteen's music and lyrics, his heart and soul if you will, belonged to Appel lock, stock and barrel.
"I didn't even know what publishing was," said Springsteen about that episode of his life. "It was one of those words. Publishing is one of those things that happen to books. I had never known anyone that had made a record before and I knew absolutely no one who had ever had any contract whatsoever with the music business.
"The only really frustrating thing which did cause me grief was the fact that my songs weren't my own. I didn't own my songs and that hurt. You know, when you go into one of these things (court) and you are gonna fight someone for a year, every day is toe to toe, face to face combat. You're gonna wanna kill him and he's gonna wanna kill you. That's what it’s all about – depositions. It takes a toll, but on the other hand, it's still a guy that you kinda like and you know he kinda likes you."
Appel had been slowly replaced as the influence behind Springsteen by journalist Jon Landau. Born to Run's direction was brought more into focus under Landau's auspices. Bruce's songs, poems if you will, had gone beyond the adolescent images to the traumas of young adulthood, people in a void going nowhere. Landau narrowed that scope and brought out the emotion and intensity the songs evoked.
"Mike worked hard for a long time," offered Springsteen. "We all worked hard. He sacrificed and okay, he deserved something for it. But what I wanted was the thing itself – my songs. It got to where if I wrote a book, I couldn't even quote "Born to Run." That whole period of my life just seemed to be out of my hands. I mean, that's why I started playing music in the first place, to control my life. There was no way I was gonna let it get away."
Springsteen indeed fought to the bitter end and won. In the summer of ‘78, three years of silence was broken with the release of Darkness on the Edge of Town. The New Jersey native was a changed man evident by the bitterness and cynicism the songs on this album portrayed. Pessimism and doubt dominate the record and it's apparent the emphasis was placed on the darker, foreboding side of Springsteen he perhaps never knew existed to this degree until his legal wrangling with Appel.
Springsteen is open and honest with the listener on this album as he reveals himself through lyrics more than in anytime previously. The balance between hope and despair is disturbingly tilted toward the latter. Songs like "Badlands," and "Streets of Fire," echo those claims. After a three-year semi-enforced hiatus from music, Springsteen's future indeed rested on the success of this album. Many wondered if he indeed could come back. Darkness on the Edge of Town was hauntingly brilliant and indeed proved that a morose Springsteen was just a good as a `born to run' Springsteen.
As I was escorted through a door into a small room; there stood the man whose music had the power to move mountains. Onstage, Springsteen is indeed larger than life. In person, surprisingly, he was very gracious and appreciative – all “5'7 of him. My first impression of Bruce Springsteen, especially after hearing him talk for a few minutes, was that of a street-wise kid who never finished high school and talked like it as well. His New Jersey accent was thick, his sentences somewhat broken, yet there indeed was some sort of aura about him that made you feel comfortable. I was somewhat amazed to look at him and realize that there before me stood one of the most insightful and gifted songwriters the world would ever know. And he certainly knew how to rock.
"When I was a kid," said Bruce, "what mattered to me more than the performance was the power of the music. People emphasize the personal too much. Being a rock star, that's the booby prize. Me, I set out to be a rock and roller.
"You see, rock stars are just people who want to crawl back in the womb, people who have built their own reality and are afraid of it. They let all the other things become more important than playing. That's the important thing. Once you forget that, you've had it."
With the release of The River in 1980, the despair of Darkness had subsided. There are cuts that are sad, and there are tracks that offer hope for the future. Past anguish had finally subsided and mellowed within Springsteen. The music on this album had taken all the pain and transformed it into a deep understanding of love, hope and pain. Bruce had made peace with himself. The Springsteen of the '80's was more involved in getting to the bottom of things. The compositions on this 20-song, double LP, was a mature balance of negative and positive songs. The happiness here is more deeply felt than it was on Born to Run and the misery of Darkness is tempered nicely. The message was clear – life was to be enjoyed. And then the unexpected occurred – Bruce disbanded the East Street Band so he could venture forth to Nebraska.
Springsteen's sixth album was done without the comfort of the E Street Band nurturing the songs along until they were correctly crafted. Gone were the bone-cutting sax riffs of Clarence Clemmons and crisp keyboards of Roy Bittan. They were replaced by a naked Boss, save his guitar and harmonica for cover. Nebraska was an album that would further display Springsteen's lyrical genius and craftsmanship.
Once again, the musicians showed a great deal of empathy in verbalizing difficult problems such as debt, poverty and unemployment as he delved in the man-made sense of hopelessness created by those problems. Varied themes of the album are all interrelated and held together by a kind of lyrical magic. Springsteen touches upon certain thoughts in early songs, and then repeats the idea later in the album by placing characters in different emotional situations. Central to the album was the contrast between those who wilt under the weight of their troubles and those who try to persevere even though the load never gets lighter.
Two major themes ran throughout Nebraska that gave the entire album a real cohesiveness. First was the resiliency of mankind and the sometimes lack of it in a society where our ability to bounce back is tested often and sometimes harshly. Second, and greater still, is the theme of man's hope, even when placed in entirely impossible situations.
Looking back to my meeting with Springsteen on Nov. 8, 1980, and seeing how far he’s come since then is quite amazing. During this time period Mike Appel sold back to Springsteen the rest of the publishing of his music that he owned. Who knows, maybe it had something to do with the lyrics on the 1984 masterpiece, Born in the U.S.A. On this recording, Springsteen expressed signs of hope in the daily fight of the ordinary people following the American dream. The spirit this album emits spoke to millions, turning Freemont, New Jersey’s favorite son into a global hero. To date, the album has sold over eight million units making it Columbia Records biggest setting LP in history. (Sister label Epic released Michael Jackson’s historical best-selling album Thriller two years earlier). Outside of the United States, Born in the U.S.A. has sold five million copies. More profound than Springsteen's music is what he's come to symbolize – when the going gets tough, the tough get going.
You could go on and on about what Bruce Springsteen means or represents to rock and roll. There are millions of people out there with separate answers to that never ending question. In a very real sense, it's frightening to think about the enormous proportions Springsteen's popularity has soared to. Then again, look what Michael Jackson did to pop music, so maybe it’s not so far-fetched after all. For the working class man, humble Bruce is a larger than life hero. Though the singer was brought down to earth briefly this past May with his marriage to Julianne Phillips, his first time ever outdoor shows in Australia, Japan and the United Kingdom sent Bruce right back up to those lofty heights one again.
"Whenever a song,” noted Springsteen, “has got life and the ability to move you, that's important. All the music I perform is different, and it's obvious by the reaction they get. It's never easy performing though it may look easy. It can be fun, like it is most of the time because if it wasn't, then I would probably do something else.
"Rock and roll is never giving up. You owe your best, and that's why I can't understand people who rush out to get an album done by a particular date and then regret it afterward. If it's not the best you can do, it's not worth doing, not for me at least."
Bruce Springsteen is serious business nowadays. He no longer is just a musician, but an institution. The values he champions within his songs have taken on symbolic overtones with people from every walk of life. In a musical age were synthesized pop and head banging, guitar bashing sounds are all the rage, this particular artist has bucked the norm with a no nonsense, straight ahead rock and roll approach.
Hope must never die is a viewpoint this artist has tried to instill with his music even in his own darkest days. Keeping the faith has been the one stream of consciousness that’s kept The Boss, well, The Boss. With one album, Springsteen has been able to revitalize his past, make his present all that more relevant, and bring undeniable hope to the future. Springsteen won't sell as many albums as Michael Jackson; then again, Michael Jackson will never moonwalk in Bruce’s shoes either.
The true magic of this artist lies in the brilliant observations he turns into songs. The Boss’ lyrics speak to people in all walks of life. The songs spark a responsive chord that allows all who hear them to feel the energy; embrace the passion and understand the meaning behind even the subtlest Springsteen tune. And let’s not forget his infamous marathon shows that are unequalled in rock and roll today.
I never thought I'd devote an entire issue to one artist, then again, this 35-year old musical poet has proven he’s much more than your typical guitar slinging songwriter. Theirs is a beacon of hope shining through this American icon, and it’s available for all to enjoy. Jon Landau’s words ring truer today than they did ten years ago. And its name was indeed Bruce Springsteen.