A candid look at the legend from his “greatest friends” - the E Street Band.
The E Street Band are the people who know Bruce Springsteen best, and in his own words, “They are my greatest friendships, my deepest friendships — irreplaceable things.” Springsteen started the band in 1972, gave it its official name two years later and recorded some of his most iconic albums — Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, Born in the U.S.A. — with them in the 1970s and ’80s. In 1989 he decided to venture on alone as a solo artist, breaking up the family for 10 years he refers to now as “a lost period.” In 1999 Springsteen reunited the group, and he says the second half of last year’s acclaimed, energetic Magic tour was the band “at its best.”
David Fricke got close to Bruce Springsteen for his cover story in the new issue (on newsstands now). Here’s an intimate look at the musicians who have played by his side for decades — The E Street band — in their own words. Guitarist Steven Van Zandt discusses how Springsteen’s songwriting process has changed since the Darkness on the Edge of Town days. Drummer Max Weinberg opens up about taking the stage for his debut show with the E Street Band in 1974. Guitarist Nils Lofgren recalls the nervous moments before Springsteen’s first big set at Neil Young’s 1986 Bridge School Benefit. And pianist Roy Bittan shares stories about Springsteen’s special relationship with Danny Federici, and how the band reads Bruce’s body language onstage.
Steven Van Zandt When I first heard Working on a Dream it made me think of The River crossed with Exile on Main Street, with all of those guitars and the vocal harmonies shooting up in the mix. But on headphones, I could hear all of the little details too, in those guitars, the harmonies and the strings.
Is Bruce loosening up? It’s like he’s going back to something he did a long time ago.
I’m a pop-rock-band guy. That’s all I am. Intellectually, I understood what he was doing. I respected and supported it. But you’re throwing away “Restless Nights?” [Laughs] “Loose Ends”? What’s wrong with that? I think if you asked him it now, he could see what I meant. But he wasn’t wrong. He was doing it for a specific reason. He had his eye on history. He knew that in order to have a place in history, to be relevant in the truest sense of the word, you must find your own place.
When did you first hear the songs on the new record, before you played on them? Bruce cut the rhythm tracks with that core four: him, Max, Garry and Roy. When do you come in?
Does it still feel organic — like a band?
How different was it on Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River?
How much of that tightening up was a running away from the sudden pop success of Born to Run, from the Time and Newsweek covers in 1975?
I think perhaps Bruce felt, there’s always that: “You can do whatever you want, Mr. Music Industry, Mr. Journalist, Mr. Cover-of-Time. We’ve got something that’s mine. We can play live. The records — whatever, we’ll get around to it.”
There is a sense in the new, rapid turnaround ¬— two E Street albums in just over a year, all of the touring — of time running out, especially with Danny’s passing.
How much rehearsal time do you need for a tour now?
This time, we’ll rehearse to learn some of the new songs. We don’t even learn the old songs we haven’t played for awhile. There are at least four or five guys in the band that know them. And the rest of us pick it up.
Max Weinberg Producer Brendan O’Brien said that for The Rising, Magic and the new album, most of the rhythm tracks were cut live by a core four — yourself, Bruce, Garry Tallent and Roy Bittan. That’s like a band inside a band.
How much did you see Bruce live before you joined the band?
The only thing I knew about Bruce when I saw the [musicians wanted] ad in the Village Voice was it said he was on Columbia Records. That indicated he was doing better than me. I remember at my audition Bruce asked me if I knew any of his songs. I knew “Sandy” ["4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)"]. My guy covered that song. I knew it the way he played it. I’d never heard the record. But I’m a good mimic. I’m good at following people and improvising.
The first time I played with the E Street Band, it was me, Bruce, Clarence [Clemons], Danny [Federici] and Garry. I had never played with a group where everybody was focused on one individual. Every group I’d ever played in was fairly chaotic. Here, there was no doubt where the inspiration is coming from. I’ll never forget it. It was the third week of August, 1974. And there was no piano player at that point. It was on a Monday. I came back a week later, and Roy was in the band.
Does playing with the band feel different to you now? There have been changes, additions and losses — Danny’s gone now — and there was that long break in the Nineties.
It could be a little thing. In the middle of “The Wanderer” by Dion, there is a drum part by Panama Francis, a brilliant drum part, one of the classics. He plays it on the snare drum. Then in the sax solo, he goes to the cymbal. Bruce got such a kick out of it. Then when Dion goes back to the vocal, you hear the cymbals just shut down [makes a "zip" sound], and Francis goes back to the snare beat. It was those little details that Bruce would point out to me, what he thought was brilliance in drumming.
There was another thing, in another Dion song, “Love Came to Me” . At one moment, one of the background singers goes “Hey, hey!” It’s real quiet — you can barely hear it. But to Bruce, that was a perfect moment. In the early days, we always used to talk about these perfect little moments.
Nils Lofgren You joined the E Street Band in 1984, after it had been going for a decade. How often did you see Bruce and the band before you became a member?
What impressed you the most?
Take this last tour, which I think was our best. It went from our normal audible signals to him grabbing 20 or 30 request signs from the audience. The last three months, the set list was useless. It surprised all of us — even Bruce, because I don’t think it was that premeditated. It grew into a completely improvised show, but still with the intent of having it grow and explode into this finality of emotion, something Bruce insists on.
When you joined in ‘84, did Bruce give you an idea of what he was looking for? How verbal was he in what he wanted from you?
Bruce played this great rhythm guitar in “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” on most of the last tour. Then out of the blue, for the last two months, he says, “I don’t want to play guitar on this anymore.” So I stopped playing my pedal steel part from the record. Bruce said, “Leave that alone and take over my guitar part.” He wanted to prowl the front of the stage. He’s not only an instrumentalist and the singer. He’s gotta navigate the harmony singing and the stage presence.
My impression is he thinks as big as possible. Then when he get there, he goes, “Can I top that?” I remember when me and Danny [Federici] and Bruce did the Bridge School benefit for Neil [Young] in 1986. It was Bruce’s first, big acoustic show. We rehearsed in New York — he was feeling a bit nervous, to do something on such a large scale. We had a little show planned, and sure enough, at the last minute, just before we started with our three-piece acoustic set, Bruce said, “I’m gonna just go out and do something by myself. Then you guys come out.” That was the wheels turning. As nervous as he might have been, instead of starting with one of the numbers we had down, he goes out and does “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” [from The River] a cappella, snapping his fingers on the mike. Despite his apprehension of the unknown, he challenged himself, and found a way to completely put himself on the spot, in the hardest way possible.
Roy Bittan Bruce now records basic tracks for the E Street albums with a core four — himself, you, Max Weinberg and Garry Talent. How does the music feel when you record that way, compared to E Street sessions in the Seventies and Eighties?
Some history first: when we recorded Born to Run, we cut the basic tracks with piano, bass, drums and Bruce. So this is not the first time we have relied on that process, of cutting a basic track and then overdubbing. We strayed from that as we progressed. Darkness on the Edge of Town was cut pretty much with everybody playing.
Today, Bruce has a more specific idea of in his head of what he wants the songs to sound like. It works very efficiently for us to cut a basic track. That gives him all the freedom in the world to add guitar, more guitars, background vocals, strings and anything else that behooves him.
His first allegiance, at this point, is to his songwriting. We do whatever we want to interpret the song when we cut the basics. He does rely on us for that. But as far as sweetening the tracks, he’s interested in trying to eke out the song’s potential that he hears in his head. Which is evident on this new record. It’s almost a little shocking to hear the songs at first, because the album is different than our classic E Street records, which were recorded mostly live.
Are there examples of things you played on the basic tracks of the new album, a little improvisation, that stayed in the arrangements?
What do you look for when Bruce is improvising on stage? Are there signals or gestures he makes when he’s about to change gears in a song?
I watch everything. I listen to him. I watch his body English — and certainly watch his arms. He may point to something, and that means we’re changing.
As the other keyboard player in the group, how would you describe Danny Federici’s role in the E Street Band? What kind of hole did he leave in the music when he died last year? Steven Van Zandt said Danny couldn’t tell you the chords to “Born to Run” but always played the right notes.
Often there is only room for one keyboard player in a group. One of the things that made it work was that Danny was an extremely different player than me. I was more architectural, more about the song form. Danny would just play around — play around me and everybody else. He was like the wind. He would blow in and around everybody else. He was glue, he was excitement. Unfortunately, you don’t truly appreciate things until they’re gone. We appreciated him, but I think a lot of people didn’t realize exactly what he did in the band until it wasn’t there. We were always more than the sum of our parts. But when you take one of those parts out, the machine is not working in quite the same way.
Bruce always nicknames band members with a purpose. Danny was Dangerous Dan. Clarence Clemons is the Big Man. How did you become the Professor?
Not just musically?