Since his breakout from the New Jersey Shore in the 1970s, Bruce Springsteen has produced both arm-pumping rock classics and introspective acoustic ballads. His lyrics talk of the struggles of working class America and are interwoven with a cast of intriguing characters. He has become one of the greatest American storytellers since Samuel Clemens.
If you look at the yearbook of Freehold Regional school, you will not see Bruce Springsteen voted most likely to succeed. He might have got 'most likely to amount to nothing' if anybody had known who he was. He had moved to the New Jersey town's recently-integrated public1 school after being bullied by both the students and the nuns at the town's Catholic high school. Bruce hardly excelled at school; he relied on his memory to pass tests rather than intelligence. He didn't participate in any extra-curricular activities and some of his teachers thought that for the good of the school, he shouldn't graduate.
Born in 1949, Bruce was the eldest child of Douglas and Adele Springsteen. With parents of Irish and Italian decent, he had a strong Catholic upbringing. Douglas switched between a number of low-paid jobs, while Adele was a legal secretary. Bruce had a very strained relationship with his father which often descended into arguments. On the other hand, Bruce had nothing but love and respect for his mother.
In '65 tension was running high at my high school
There was a lot of fights between the black and white
There was nothing you could do'
Freehold was a relativity poor industrial town, deeply segregated and largely forgotten by the prosperity of the post war years.
There was one escape for the 14-year-old high school loser, a 18-dollar guitar, purchased with money Bruce had saved from odd jobs. He'd listened to the sounds coming out of his radio and wanted to make some too. Two years later, Adele bought Bruce a 60-dollar guitar on hire-purchase. The sight of his mother paying back the loan every week drove Bruce on.
His first band was called the Castiles. He'd arrived on the doorstep of local resident Tex Vinyard, who mentored local bands, and got told to go away and learn five songs to play. Bruce came back the next night after mastering five songs by listening to the radio - and got into the band.
Greetings from Asbury Park, New Jersey
When he was 18, Bruce's parents left for California, but Bruce didn't go with them and stayed around the Freehold area before moving to the nearby costal town of Asbury Park.
Asbury Park had been a thriving costal resort, just 60 miles south of New York City. While it had started going downhill, the remnants of the tourist trade were scared off by the race riots of 1970. What the town did have though was a decent music scene that was infused by rock, jazz, Latin, blues and R&B sounds.
One of the major clubs was called The Upstage. It was here that various musicians hung around and jammed for the audience. Bruce was a regular and led many of the jam sessions. His reputation as a performer spread around the state and soon the venue was packed most evenings to watch Springsteen.
'I was the prince of the paupers crowned downtown at the beggar's bash'
Springsteen's peers dubbed him The Boss, a nickname that stuck despite Springsteen's dislike of the tag. His first proper band in Asbury Park was called Steel Mill and featured Vini Lopez, Danny Federici and 'Miami' Steve Van Zandt who would all later become part of the E Street Band. They built a massive local following and tried to make it in San Francisco, but a few rave reviews aside, they achieved little and went back to their day jobs.
Springsteen started playing for food and rent in New York's Greenwich Village. He then became part of Dr Zoom and the Sonic Boom, a troupe of musicians, acrobats, car mechanics and Monopoly-players2. The height of their fame came when they opened for the Allman Brothers. From this, a ten-piece band emerged - The Bruce Springsteen Band.
Kings of Asbury Park they may have been, but elsewhere they were unknown: Enter Mike Appel. Appel, the polar opposite of the shy, uncommunicative Springsteen, could talk the talk and having once written a hit for the Partridge family, believed he could walk the walk. Appel saw himself as the next Colonel Tom Parker and got Bruce to sign a contract with him. If a music lawyer, a record company executive or anybody with any sense had seen the contract that Bruce signed, they may have had to have been rushed to hospital to have their sides stitched back up. Even for the record industry, it was incredibly greedy, giving Appel a vast percentage of earnings, and ownership of Springsteen's songs.
One thing you can not criticise Appel for3 was how he worked for his artist. He lived, breathed, prayed and talked Bruce, and then talked about him some more. He plugged the unknown singer to television executives for the Super Bowl Half Time shows. Later he threw a record executive and Bruce fan out of the car for suggesting that his charge's third album would 'only' sell 30 times the amount of sales the previous two had achieved.
A distinguished A&R4 man was needed. One who had been involved in launching or helping the careers of say, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. Enter John Hammond - who soon wished he hadn't.
He had agreed to see Springsteen on the recommendation of his secretary, but was initially faced with a man 'as offensive as any man I've ever met.'. Yes, it was Appel, who told Hammond that finding Dylan5 was just fluke and that Springsteen was much better!
'Tell him this is the last chance to get his daughter in a fine romance
Because a record company rosie just gave me big bucks'
Bruce managed to get Appel out of the office before any damage was done and played for Hammond, convincing him to arrange a gig for him at a Greenwich Village nightspot, The Gaslight. Impressed by Springsteen6, he signed the Boss to a ten-album contract at Columbia. Hammond also tried to warn him about the contract he had with Appel was little more than 'a slave deal' but Bruce was too loyal to Appel to listen.
Doing the E Street Shuffle
Recorded in 1972 and released in January 1973, the first album was Greetings from Asbury Park, New Jersey, and it wasn't a promising start. Hammond had wanted it to be like Bob Dylan - just Bruce and a guitar. However, Appel, Bruce and producer Jim Cretecos wanted more of a band sound, hoping for more radio play. Appel timed the sessions to be after midnight, knowing that Hammond, recovering from a heart attack, had to be in bed by then.
'Yeah he was blinded by the light. Cut loose like a deuce, another runner in the night.
Blinded by the light, he got down but she never got tight, but he's gonna make it tonight'
The two most memorable tracks were probably the ones that were written specifically to be the singles: 'Blinded by the Light' and 'Spirit in the Night'. 'Blinded by the Light', which was later a hit for Manfred Mann's Earth Band featured enough rhymes to make up for every single English lesson Springsteen slacked off in. Not only did three words in each line of this verbal barrage rhyme, but the end of each one formed rhyming couplets.
Neither the singles or the album made an impact on the charts. Reviews were good, but there was a bigger problem: Bob Dylan. With the patronage of John Hammond, a record contract with Columbia, scruffy dress, a ragged beard and a poetic take to his lyrics, Bruce Springsteen was seen as the latest in a long line of 'New Dylans'. The weight of expectation has been enough to bury many other artists, and there was every chance Springsteen would go the same way. A new record was needed.
The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle hit the racks in September, and was full of Boss Brand twisted biographies. Boy Prophets, Spanish Johnny, Weak-kneed Willie and Diamond Jackie were just some of the names and characters that were cut into the vinyl.
'And me I just got tired of hangin' in them dusty arcades bangin' them pleasure machines
Chasin' the factory girls underneath the boardwalk where they promise to unsnap their jeans'
'4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)' saw a romantic encounter on the boardwalk of New Jersey backed by fireworks, Latin lovers and policemen arresting fortune tellers. 'Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)', which became a firm favourite with audiences, is a life-affirming rock love song where the newly contracted rock star tries to get a girl to come out with him against her parents' wishes.
'Well the cops finally busted Madame Marie for tellin' fortunes better than they do
This boardwalk life for me is through you know you ought to quit this scene too'
While this was a stronger record than its predecessor and received even more glowing press reports, it failed to rock the charts.
However, Bruce and his band were making decent money touring.
The E Street Band
The E Street Band grew out of the musicians that Bruce had grown up playing with and had used for recording his first few albums. Although most of his tours were billed as Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band, the band didn't receive many recording credits. Originally, just the musicians were credited, but on later albums, such as The River the band were credited. They disbanded in 1988 as Springsteen switched to a more acoustic sound, before reforming for The Rising and touring with him again.
As well as Springsteen, the E Street Band have appeared on songs for artists like Gary US Bonds and Meat Loaf.
Its membership includes:
- Clarence 'The Big Man' Clemons - Saxophone, Percussion. Clemons was an original member, Bruce tracked him down for Greetings... even though the sax player had no fixed address. On stage he is a foil to Springsteen and normally dresses as a pimp. A drinking buddy from their days in Asbury park, the closeness of the two onstage annoyed some of the less enlightened members of American society who objected to seeing a white man embrace a black man.
- 'Phanton' Danny Federici - Keyboards, Accordion
- Vini 'Mad Dog' Lopez - Drums. Lopez was asked to leave in 1974 and was replaced by Ernest Cater. He went on to play old Springsteen songs with Steel Mill Retro.
- David Sancious - Keyboards. Sancious was on the first album but did not start touring with the band until June 1973. He left in August 1974 to form Tone and has a long career as a session musician.
- Garry Tallent - Bass
- Ernest 'Boom' Carter - Drums. Carter replaced Lopez in February 1974, but left to form Tone with Sancious.
- Max Weinberg - Drums. Weinberg replaced Carter in September 1974. He was a very powerful drummer; so powerful he had given himself Repetitive Strain Injury by the 1980s. After the band split, he gave up drumming and got a degree. Some time in the music industry led him to pick up his sticks again, leading the house band for Conan O'Brien.
- Roy 'The Professor' Bittan - Keyboards. Bittan joined to replace Sancious in September 1974.
- Suki Lahav - Violin. Lahav joined in September 1974, but left in March 1975 to move to Israel. She also sang vocals on '4th July Asbury Park (Sandy)'.
- 'Miami' Steve Van Zandt - Guitar, Vocals. Van Zandt was involved in many of Springsteen's old bands, and finally joined the E Street band in July, 1975. Onstage, he often dressed as a gypsy. He left in the 1980s to perform as Little Steven. He rejoined the band in 1995. Van Zandt appears in The Sopranos.
- Nils Lofgren - Guitar, vocals. Having been a member of Neil Young's Crazy Horse and a solo artist, Lofgren joined the E Street band in June, 1984 as a replacement for Van Zandt. His stint with the band only lasted until 1988 when Springsteen disbanded the group. During his time off he toured with Neil Young, Patti Scialfa and Ringo Starr. He also has a successful career as a solo artist. Lofgren rejoined the band when it was relaunched.
- Patti Scialfa - Vocals, Guitar. New Jersey singer-songwriter Scialfa was added to the band to provide backing vocals in 1984. She fell in love with Springsteen, who was then married to model Julianne Phillips, during the 1987 Tunnel of Love Express tour. (The couple eventually married in 1991).
- Soozie Tyrell - Violin, Vocals. Added in 2002.
'Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey that's me and I want you only
Don't turn me home again
I just can't face myself alone again'
Springsteen's live shows were the stuff of legend. Artists who let Springsteen act as their warm-up often found themselves unable to get on stage afterwards. As their careers progressed, the shows of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street became longer and longer - three hours of musical theatre with original songs and covers played with complete conviction by Springsteen and his band of characters.
It was at one of these shows that the respected rock critic Jon Landau claimed he had seen the future of rock 'n' roll. This review came at just the right time. Clive Davis, the boss of CBS, had left and the record company were wondering what to do. Springsteen had given an interview at Brown University saying that he didn't feel he had the support of the new label president, Irwin Segelstein. Whether Bruce knew it or not, being interviewed at Brown was fortuitous, as Segelstein's son attended that university, and like many of his friends was a Springsteen fan. He convinced his father to take another look at the star.
Work on the new album was a long process. Much to the annoyance of Appel, Jon Landau had been asked to help out. Bruce's vision of an album of Bob Dylan lyrics with Duane Eddy guitars backed by a Phil Spector Wall of Sound was obviously very hard to pull off. Steve Van Zandt came in and helped arrange some of the horns when nobody else could.
'Baby this town rips the bones from your back, it's a death trap, it's a suicide rap
We gotta get out while we're young 'cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run'
Meanwhile Appel was releasing rough takes to radio DJs to build up the audience anticipation. One of the tracks he realised was the title track for the album Born To Run. This epic track, driven by Clemons's powerful sax solo was the call of freedom for a generation of the disaffected youth of America.
The album, which opened with a similarly-themed breakout song in 'Thunder Road7' reached number three in the US charts and cemented Bruce Springsteen as a major rock artist.
'So you're scared and you're thinking that maybe we ain't that young anymore
Show a little faith, there's magic in the night
You ain't a beauty, but hey you're alright
Oh and that's alright with me'
The band set off on a major tour of America and Europe. Screaming fans saw their new hero, dressed in the rebel's uniform of white T-shirt, black leather jacket and stonewashed blue jeans, striking his Telecaster guitar and singing about escaping from his humdrum life.
While he wasn't trying to break into Graceland to see Elvis, Bruce was doing his best to avoid Springsteen fever, which was spreading around the country. He refused to play larger venues and even turned down lucrative television deals. Praise didn't come from all sides however: in Britain some 'major' figures in the industry just didn't get him. Bob Geldof said that Springsteen could never write a song as good as 'Rat Trap'. Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, Geldof was talking rubbish.
'Just wrap your legs round these velvet rims
And strap your hands across my engines'
The record industry were soon searching for the 'new Springsteen' and scoured the Jersey Shore. The band's old friends Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes got themselves a contract. It would be a few years before Asbury Park coughed up another group of anywhere near similar standing: Bon Jovi.
Darkness at the Edge of Town
'Where no one asks any questions
Or looks too long in your face
In the darkness on the edge of town'
Then, at the height of his career, Springsteen vanished. And like many people who disappear and reappear three years later, he was changed: He'd lost his innocence and tasted betrayal.
As is the case in many stories in the business they call show, the villain of the piece was, in Springsteen's eyes, the manager. Appel had been trying to keep control of the creative side of Springsteen and had been trying to get Landau banned from working with him. Springsteen, having worked out that after paying off the advances from the record company, he should be earning much more than he was, got an auditor to check Appel's books. This wasn't very easy since Appel never kept Springsteen's money separate from his own. Eventually it became obvious that Appel was taking far more than Springsteen thought he deserved so Springsteen sued. Appel then got an injunction saying that Springsteen couldn't go into the studio with Landau.
'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.'
Springsteen had a very simple answer for this; if he couldn't record with whoever he wanted, he wouldn't record at all. Since the main person making money from his record sales was Appel, he was hitting him where it hurt. Still, legally, if not morally, Appel had the upper hand. Springsteen had signed over all his publishing rights and most of his income to Appel. In a rather expletive-laden court session, it was suggested that the naïve boss knew little and cared less about money when he started and Appel took advantage of this.
Eventually, the case was settled; Appel got a portion of Springsteen's future profits but was out of his life. Springsteen entered the studio to record his next album. Gone was the triumphal freedom of Born to Run, replaced by tales from the downtrodden, in the ominously-titled Darkness on the Edge of Town.
'But to get to Candy's room you gotta walk the darkness of Candy's hall
Strangers from the city call my baby's number and they bring her toys'
While the album was more sombre, it had lost little in terms of quality, both lyrical and musical. In fact, unused songs recorded for the 1978 album reappeared as songs for Patti Smith, Gary US Bonds and Southside Johnny. Darkness on the Edge of Town reached number five in the charts but the singles, 'Badlands' and 'Promised Land' only hit numbers 42 and 33 in the charts.
'Now all them things that seemed so important
Well mister they vanished right into the air
Now I just act like I don't remember, Mary acts like she don't care'
Gary US Bonds was a '60s star who Springsteen helped resurrect his career as a diversion from his latest quest to write the perfect rock 'n' roll record. The result of this three year project was the epic double album, The River.
Co-produced by Landau, Springsteen and Van Zandt, this contained everything from love songs to slow dirges to rock songs. Its single, 'Hungry Heart' was originally written for the Ramones, but was chosen for a single and the combination of Van Zandt recording tricks and The Turtles singing backing, produced a song that entered the top ten.
The title track was about how the freedom of youth slowly fades into a rut of working family life. The female love intrest in it is called Mary, a name that frequently crops up in Springsteen's songs.
'Every monday morning I gotta drive her down to the unemployment agency
Well this morning I ain't fighting tell her I give up
Tell her she wins if she'll just shut up'
Reason to Believe
'One day he up and left her and ever since that she waits down at the end of that dirt road for young Johnny to come back
Struck me kinda funny seemed kind of funny sir to me how at the end of every hard-earned day people find some reason to believe'
The early 1980s saw critics wondering if The Boss would not only become the bigger than the music industry, but the biggest thing in American culture. It was the early years of Reaganism - a new decade. Things were getting bigger and better, and then came Nebraska.
Originally a high-production rock album about people who are isolated from friends, family, jobs and even the rest of America, it was abandoned by Springsteen before release. In its place he handed over the demo tapes, recorded in his garage on a four-track tape recorder.
'Nothin' feels better than blood on blood
Takin' turns dancin' with Maria as the band
Played Night Of The Johnstown Flood'
The album consisted of just voice, acoustic guitar and harmonica, and its stark emptiness just added to the atmosphere of this collection of what were, in effect, modern American folk songs. Although it met with critical success, it did not sell as well as the previous three albums.
The album would introduce a sound that Springsteen would return to time and again, both on record and in concert. This acoustic sound would, later in the decade, mark the end for the E Street Band.
'Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City'
'Like soldiers in the winter's night with a vow to defend
No retreat, believe me, no surrender.'
1984's Born in The USA was a completely different album. Filled with electric guitars, synths and a characteristic drum sound, this was an album made to sell records. In fact, it became Springsteen's biggest-selling album, and yielded seven singles, a record only matched by Michael and Janet Jackson.
The album, although arguably not the classic that some of its predecessors were, made Bruce Springsteen a megastar. It also saw the departure of Van Zandt, who had already had repeated clashes with Landau in the studio, felt the band was getting too successful and losing touch with its sound, and having repeated clashes with Landau in the studio.
'Hey little girl is your daddy home
Did he go away and leave you all alone
I got a bad desire
I'm on fire'
Even the simple cover was an expert piece of marketing. It was saying that Bruce Springsteen, in jeans and a white T-shirt, facing the American flag was 'one of us', a plain old working man.
Many of the songs featured Springsteen railing against the average working life, but they were mostly angry and catchy - which to many people was all that counted. The video for 'Dancing in the Dark' saw a young Courtney Cox get pulled from the audience 'entirely at random' to dance with The Boss.
'Down in the shadow of the penitentiary
Out by the gas fires of the refinery
I'm ten years burning down the road
Nowhere to run ain't got nowhere to go'
'Born in the USA' may have been a fist-pumping rock song, but it was a tale of how Vietnam veterans were being left behind by an uncaring society. A Republican writer noted how patriotic Springsteen's songs - this one in particular - were. He had obviously not listened to the song beyond the chorus. He went on to say that if American workers put in that much energy and enthusiasm, then its manufacturing industry would not be in such a state. The lyrics of the verses were also obviously overlooked by Reagan's advisors as they, bizarrely, chose this song for his re-election campaign. This wasn't the only time a Springsteen song was misunderstood; 'Born To Run' was recommended as New Jersey's State Song, with its legislature blissfully unaware that it was in fact a song about trying to leave the Garden State. John Kerry used 'No Surrender' in his disastrous 2004 election campaign.
The titles of the songs alone had allowed marketing men to stir up a new wave of national pride on the back of Springsteen: everyone and everything was proud to be born in the USA. People were even advertising places as 'This Is Your Hometown', overlooking the fact that the song concentrated on race riots ripping apart a small town.
'Hey little girl standing on the corner
Today's your lucky day for sure all right
Me and my buddy we're from New York City
We got two hundred dollars we want to rock all night.'
Meanwhile, in real life, Springsteen had got married. He walked down the aisle with actress Julianne Philips in May 1985, with Clemons, Van Zandt and Landau acting as best men.
A dozen years on from his debut album, Springsteen was riding high. He was the biggest rock star in the world, had recorded a string of hit albums, and was now happy in love. It would seem that this is as good a place as any to draw a close to this Entry.