The Backstreets Phantom of Rock
The rock-'n'-roll generation: everybody grows up by staying young.
Bruce Springsteen is onto this. ln fact, he has written a song about it:
I pushed B-52 and bombed 'em with the blues With my gear set stubborn on standing I broke all the rules, strafed my old high school Never once gave thought to landing. I hid in the clouded warmth of the crowd, But when they said "Come down" I threw up. Ooh... growin' up.
He has been called the "last innocent in rock." which is at best partly true, but that is how he appears to audiences who are exhausted and on fire at the end of a concert. Springsteen is not a golden California boy or a glitter queen from Britain. Dressed usually in leather jacket and shredded undershirt, he is a glorified gutter rat from a dying New Jersey resort town who walks with an easy swagger that is part residual stage presence, part boardwalk braggadocio. He nurtures the look of a lowlife romantic even though he does not smoke, scarcely drinks and disdains every kind of drug.
In all other ways, however, he is the dead-on image of a rock musician: Street smart but sentimental, a little enigmatic, articulate mostly through his music. For 26 years Springsteen has known nothing but poverty and debt until, just in the past few weeks, the rock dream came true for him. ("Man, when I was nine I couldn't imagine anyone not wanting to be Elvis Presley.") But he is neither sentimental nor superficial. His music is primal, directly in touch with all the impulses of wild humor and glancing melancholy, street tragedy and punk anarchy that have made rock the distinctive voice of a generation.
Springsteen's songs are full of echoes -- of Sam Cooke and Elvis Presley, of Chuck Berry, Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly. You can also hear Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and the Band weaving among Springsteen's elaborate fantasias. The music is a synthesis, some Latin and soul, and some good jazz riffs too. The tunes are full of precipitate breaks and shifting harmonies, the lyrics often abstract, bizarre, wholly personal.
Springsteen makes demands. He figures that when he sings
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.
Everybody is going to know where he's coming from and just where he's heading.
Springsteen first appeared in the mid-'60s for a handful of loyal fans from the scuzzy Jersey shore. Then two record albums of wired brilliance ("Greetings from Asbury Park. N.J." and "The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle") enlarged his audience to a cult. The albums had ecstatic reviews -- there was continuing and growing talk of "a new Dylan," -- but slim sales. Springsteen spent nearly two years working on his third album, "Born to Run," and Columbia Records has already invested $150,000 in ensuring that this time around, everyone gets the message.
The album has made it to No. 1, the title track is a hit single, and even the first two albums are snugly on the charts. Concerts have sold out hours after they were announced. Last Thursday Springsteen brought his distinctively big-city, rubbed-raw sensibility to a skeptical Los Angeles, not only a major market but the bastion of a wholly different rock style. It remained to be seen how Springsteen would go down in a scene whose characteristic pop music is softer, easier, pitched to life on the beaches and in the canyons, hardly in tune with his sort of dead-end carnival. Springsteen's four-day stand at a Sunset Strip theater called the Roxy was a massive dose of culture shock that booted everyone back to the roots, shook 'em up good and got 'em all on their feet dancing.
Even the most laid-back easy rocker would find it tough to resist his live performance. Small, tightly muscled, the voice a chopped-and-channeled rasp, Springsteen has the wild onstage energy of a pinball rebounding off invisible flippers, caroming down the alley past traps and penalties, dead center for extra points and the top score.
Expecting a monochromatic street punk, the L.A. crowd got a dervish leaping on the tables, all arms and flailing dance steps, and a rock poet as well. In over ten years of playing tanktown dates and rundown discos, Springsteen has mastered the true stage secret of the rock pro: he seems to be letting go totally and fearlessly, yet the performance remains perfectly orchestrated. With his E Street Band, especially Clarence Clemons' smartly lowdown saxophone, Springsteen can caper and promenade, boogie out into the audience, recite a rambling, funny monologue about girl watching back in Asbury Park or switch moods in the middle of songs.
He expects his musicians to follow him along. Many of the changes are totally spur of the moment, and the band is tight enough to take them in stride. "You hook on to Bruce on that stage and you go wherever he takes you," says Clarence Clemons. "It's like total surrender to him." A Springsteen set is raucous, poignant, brazen. It is clear that he gets off on the show as much as the audience, which is one reason why a typical gig lasts over two hours. The joy is infectious and self-fulfilling. "This music is forever for me," Springsteen says. "It's the stage thing, that rush moment that you live for. It never lasts, but that's what you live for."
He once cautioned in a song that you can "waste your summer prayin' in vain for a savior to rise from these streets," but right now Springsteen represents a regeneration, a renewal of rock. He has gone back to the sources, rediscovered the wild excitement that rock has lost over the past few years. Things had settled down in the '70s: with a few exceptions, like Paul Simon, Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt, there was an excess of showmanship, too much din substituting for true power, repetition -- as in this past summer's Rolling Stones tour -- for lack of any new directions. Springsteen has taken rock forward by taking it back, keeping it young. He uses and embellishes the myths of the '50s pop culture: his songs are populated by bad-ass loners, wiped-out heroes, bikers, hot-rodders, women of soulful mystery. Springsteen conjures up a whole half-world of shattered sunlight and fractured neon, where his characters re-enact little pageants of challenge and desperation.
The "Born to Run" album is so powerful, and Springsteen's presence so prevalent at the moment, that before the phenomenon has had a chance to settle, a reaction is already setting in. He is being typed as a '50s hood in the James Dean mold, defused for being a hype, put down as a product of the Columbia promo "fog machine," condemned for slicking up and recycling a few old rock-'n'-roll riffs. Even Springsteen remains healthily skeptical. "I don't understand what all the commotion is about," he told TIME Correspondent James Willwerth. "I feel like I'm on the outside of all this, even though I know I'm on the inside. It's like you want attention, but sometimes you can't relate to it."
Springsteen defies classification. This is one reason recognition was so long in coming. There is nothing simple to hold on to. He was discovered by Columbia Records Vice President of Talent Acquisition John Hammond, who also found Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman and Bob Dylan, among others. Hammond knew "at once that Bruce would last a generation" but thought of him first as a folk musician.
Casting Springsteen as a rebel in a motorcycle jacket is easy enough -- it makes a neat fit for the character he adopted in "Born to Run" -- but it ignores a whole other side of his importance and of his music.
Born to Run is a bridge between Springsteen the raffish rocker and the more ragged, introverted street poet of the first two albums. Although he maintains that he "hit the right spot" on "Born to Run," it is the second album, "The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle," that seems to go deepest. A sort of free-association autobiography, it comes closest to the wild fun-house refractions of Springsteen's imagination. In "Wild Billy's Circus Song," when he sings, "He's gonna miss his fall, oh God save the human cannonball," Springsteen could be anticipating and describing his own current, perhaps perilous trajectory. In case of danger, however, Springsteen will be rescued by the music itself, just as he has always been. "Music saved me," he says. "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."
He was born poor in Freehold, N.J., a working-class town near the shore. His mother Adele ("Just like Superwoman, she did everything, everywhere, all the time") worked through his childhood as a secretary. His father, Douglas Springsteen (the name is Dutch), was "a sure- money man" at the pool tables who drifted from job to job, stalked by undetermined demons.
"My Daddy was a driver," Springsteen remembers. "He liked to get in the car and just drive. He got everybody else in the car too, and he made us drive. He made us all drive." These two- lane odysseys without destination only reinforced Springsteen's already flourishing sense of displacement. "I lived half of my first 13 years in a trance or something," he says now. "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."
The parents pulled up stakes and moved to California when Bruce was still in his teens. Bruce stayed behind, with some bad memories of hassles with nuns in parochial school, an $18 guitar and random dreams of a phantom father for company. By the time he was 18, he had some perspective on his father. "I figured out we were pretty much alike," Springsteen says, by which he means more than a shared cool skill at the pool table and a taste for long car rides. "My father never has much to say to me, but I know he thinks about a lot of things. I know he's driving himself almost crazy thinking about these things... and yet he sure ain't got much to say when we sit down to talk." The elder Springsteen currently drives a bus in San Mateo, a suburb south of San Francisco. Neither he nor his wife made it to Los Angeles for their son's big show.
Bruce bunked in with friends back in Jersey and tried to make it through public high school. He took off on weekend forays into Manhattan for his first strong taste of big-city street life and began making music. He started writing his own because he could not figure out how to tune his guitar to play anyone else's material accurately. "Music was my way of keeping people from looking through and around me. I wanted the heavies to know I was around."
In 1965, while he was still finishing high school, Springsteen began forming bands like the Castiles, which did gigs for short money in a Greenwich Village spot called the Cafe Wha?. He met up with Miami Steve Van Zandt, current lead guitarist of the E Street Band, around that time. "We were all playing anything we could to be part of the scene," Van Zandt recalls. "West Coast stuff, the English thing, R&B and blues. Bruce was writing five or ten songs a week. He would say, 'I'm gonna go home tonight and write a great song,' and he did. He was the Boss then, and he's the Boss now."
Still, the Boss was sufficiently uncertain of his musical future to quit school altogether. He enrolled in Ocean County College. showed up in what is still his standard costume -- Fruit of the Loom undershirt, tight jeans, sneakers and leather jacket -- and was soon invited round for a chat by one of the guidance staff. As Springsteen tells it. the counselor dropped the big question on him immediately.
"You've got trouble at home, right?"
"Look, things are great, I feel fine," Springsteen replied warily.
"Then why do you look like that?"
"What are you talking about?"
"There are some students who have... complained about you."
"Well, that's their problem, you know?" said Springsteen, ending the conversation and his formal education.
Instead, he took his music anywhere they would listen. His bands changed names (the Rogues, the Steel Mill, Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom) as frequently as personnel. "I've gone through a million crazy bands with crazy people who did crazy things." Springsteen remembers. They played not only clubs and private parties but firemen's balls, a state mental hospital and Sing Sing prison, a couple of trailer parks, a rollerdrome, the parking lot of a Shop-Rite and under the screen during intermission at a drive-in. A favorite spot for making music. and for hanging out, was Asbury Park.
"Those were wonderful days," says Springsteen's buddy, Southside Johnny Lyon. "We were all young and crazy." Bustling with music and the fever of young musicians, bands swapping songs and members, new jobs and old girls, Asbury Park sounds, if only in memory, like Liverpool before it brought forth the Beatles. Springsteen lived in a surfboard factory run by a displaced Californian named Carl Virgil ("Tinker") West III, who became, for a time, his manager.
Everybody had a band; not only Springsteen and Southside, but also Miami Steve, Vini ("Mad Dog") Lopez (who played drums on Bruce's first two albums) and Garry Tallent (now bass guitarist for the E Street Band). They all would appear at a dive called the Upstage Club for $15 a night, work from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m., then party together, play records and adjourn till the next afternoon, when they would meet on the boardwalk to check the action and talk music. For sport everyone played Monopoly, adding a few refinements that made the game more like the Jersey boardwalk they knew. There were two special cards: a Chief McCarthy card (named in honor of a local cop who rousted musicians indiscriminately) and a Riot card. The McCarthy card allowed the bearer to send any opponent to jail without reason; whoever drew the Riot card could fire-bomb any opponent's real estate.
Springsteen was a demon player and won frequently, according to Southside, because "he had no scruples." Nicknamed "the Gut Bomb King" because of his passion for junk food, he would show up for a Monopoly tourney with armfuls of Pepsis and Drake's cakes. Whenever anyone would get hungry and ask for a snack, Springsteen was ready with a deal: one Pepsi, one hotel.
Nobody was getting rich outside of Monopoly. In 1970 Asbury Park was the scene of a bad race riot. and the tourists stayed away. "The place went down to the ground. and we rode right down with it," says Miami Steve. There were jobs to be had in a few of the bars, playing easy- listening rock, but Springsteen and his pals disdained them because, as he says simply, "we hated the music. We had no idea how to hustle either. We weren't big door knockers. so we didn't go to New York or Philly." Adds Van Zandt, who lived on a dollar a day: "We were all reading in the papers how much fun rock 'n' roll was -- it seemed like another world. We didn't take drugs. We couldn't afford any bad habits."
A lot of the life Springsteen saw then and lived through found its way into his songs, but indirectly. Filtered through an imagination that discovered a crazy romanticism in the ragtag boardwalk life.
She worked that joint under the boardwalk, She was always the girl you saw boppin' down the beach with the radio, Kids say last night she was dressed like a star in one of the cheap little seashore bars and I saw her parked with her loverboy out on the Kokomo.
Tinker, the surfboard manufacturer and manager, called Mike Appel on Springsteen's behalf. Appel, whose major claim to fame until then was the co-authorship of a Partridge Family hit called "Doesn't Somebody Want to Be Wanted," was smart enough to see Springsteen's talent and brash enough to spirit him away from Tinker. Appel got Springsteen to work up a clutch of new songs by simply calling him frequently and asking him to come into New York. Springsteen would jump on the bus and have a new tune ready by the time he crossed the Hudson.
Appel also called John Hammond at Columbia. The call was Springsteen's idea, but the come- on was all Appel. He told Hammond he wanted him to listen to his new boy because Hammond had discovered Bob Dylan, and "we wanna see if that was just a fluke, or if you really have ears." Hammond reacted to Springsteen "with a force I'd felt maybe three times in my life." Less than 24 hours after the first meeting, contracts were signed.
Even before Springsteen's first album was released in 1973, Appel was already on the move. He offered the NBC producer of the Super Bowl the services of his client to sing The Star- Spangled Banner. Informed that Andy Williams had already been recruited, with Blood, Sweat & Tears to perform during half time, he cried, "They're losers and you're a loser too. Some day I'm going to give you a call and remind you of this. then I'm going to make another call and you'll be out of a job." Says Hammond: "Appel is as offensive as any man I've ever met, but he's utterly selfless in his devotion to Bruce."
Appel and Springsteen understood each other. They agreed that Bruce and the band should play second fiddle to nobody. After a quick but disastrous experience as an opening act for Chicago, Springsteen appeared only as a headline attraction. That meant fewer bookings. There was also little to be done about the narrowing future of Bruce's recording career. Regarded as a pet of banished Columbia Records President Clive Davis, Springsteen was ignored by the executives who took over from Davis. "The Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle" was not so much distributed as dumped.
For two years Springsteen crisscrossed the country, enlarging his following with galvanic concerts. Early last year, playing a small bar called Charley's in Cambridge, Mass., he picked up an important new fan. Jon Landau. a Rolling Stone editor, had reviewed Bruce's second album favorably for a local paper, and Charley's put the notice in the window. Landau remembers arriving at the club and seeing Springsteen hugging himself in the cold and reading the review. A few weeks later, Landau wrote, "I saw the rock and roll future and its name is Springsteen."
Some loyalists at Columbia persuaded the company to cough up $50,000 to publicize the quote. Columbia's sudden recommitment caught Springsteen in a creative crisis. He and Appel had spent nine months in the studio and produced only one cut, "Born to Run." The disparity between the wild reaction to his live performances and the more subdued, respectful reception of his records had to be cleared up. Landau soon signed on as co-producer of the new album and began to find out about some of the problems firsthand.
"Bruce works instinctively," Landau observes. "He is incredibly intense, and he concentrates deeply. Underneath his shyness is the strongest will I've ever encountered. If there's something he doesn't want to do, he won't." Springsteen would work most days from 3 p.m. to 6 a.m.. and sometimes as long as 24 hours, without stopping. Only occasionally did things go quickly. For a smoky midnight song, called Meeting Across the River, Springsteen just announced, "O.K., I hear a string bass, and I hear a trumpet." and, according to Landau, "that was it." Finally the album came together as real roadhouse rock, made proudly in that tradition. The sound is layered over with the kind of driving instrumental cushioning that characterized the sides Phil Spector produced in the late '50s and '60s. The lyrics burst with nighthawk poetry.
The screen door slams Mary's dress waves Like a vision she dances across the porch As the radio plays 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.
If all this effort has suddenly paid off grandly, and madly, Springsteen remains obdurately unchanged. He continues to hassle with Appel over playing large halls, and just last month refused to show up for a Maryland concert Appel had booked into a 10,000-seat auditorium. The money is starting to flow in now: Springsteen takes home $350 a week, the same as Appel and the band members. There are years of debt and back road fees to repay. Besides, Springsteen is not greatly concerned about matters of finance. Says John Hammond: "In all my years in this business, he is the only person I've met who cares absolutely nothing about money."
Springsteen lives sometimes with his girl friend Karen Darvin, 20, a freckled, leggy model from Texas, in a small apartment on Manhattan's East Side. More frequently he is down on the Jersey shore, where he has just moved into more comfortable -- but not lavish -- quarters, and bought his first decent hi-fi rig. He remains adamantly indifferent to clothing and personal adornment, although he wears a small gold cross around his neck -- a vestigial remnant of Catholicism -- and, probably to challenge it, a small gold ring in his left ear, which gives him a little gypsy flash.
When he is not working, Springsteen takes life easy and does not worry about it. "I'm not a planning-type guy," he says. "You can't count on nothing in this life. I never have expectations when I get involved in things. That way, I never have disappointments." His songs, which he characterizes as being mostly about "survival, how to make it through the next day," are written in bursts. "I ain't one of those guys who feels guilty if he didn't write something today," he boasts. "That's all jive. If I didn't do nothing all day, I feel great." Under all circumstances, he spins fiction in his lyrics and is careful to avoid writing directly about daily experience. "You do that," he cautions, "and this is what happens. First you write about struggling along. Then you write about making it professionally. Then somebody's nice to you. You write about that. It's a beautiful day, you write about that. That's about 20 songs in all. Then you're out. You got nothing to write."
Some things, however, must change. Southside Johnny recalls that after "Born to Run" was released, "we had a party at one of the band members' houses. It was like old times. We drank and listened to old Sam and Dave albums. Then someone said my car had a flat tire. I went outside to check, and sitting in the street were all these people waiting to get a glimpse of Brucie, just sitting under the streetlights, not saying anything. I got nervous and went back inside."
These lamppost vigilantes, silent and deferential, were not teeny-boppers eager to squeal or fans looking for a fast autograph. As much as anything, they were all unofficial delegates of a generation acting on the truth of Springsteen's line from Thunder Road: "Show a little faith, there's magic in the night." Just at that doorstep, they found it. Growin' up.