If ever there was a rock ‘n’ roll icon who needed no introduction, Bruce Springsteen — who got his nickname “The Boss” because, from very early on, he was the guy who made sure the band got paid — is surely that guy. As for that band, the current lineup of his longtime crew the E Street Band is Nils Lofgren on guitar, Miami Steve Van Zandt on guitar and sundries, Springsteen’s wife Patty Scialfa on backing vocals, Garry Tallent on bass, Roy Bittan on keyboards and Max Weinberg on drums. (Longtime organist and key architect of Springsteen’s sound Danny Federici died in 2008, and the inimitable saxophonist Clarence “the Big Man” Clemons in 2011.) This legendary performer has had — is having! — a legendary career, but not one that’s monolithic or repetitive. There are quite a few facets to the man and his music, and some of those might surprise you. What follows are some notes on the Springsteen you know, the Springsteen you think you know and the Springsteen you ought to get to know.
The Wild-Eyed New Jersey Rock Poet
Way back in the day, the Boss was what you'd call a "singer/songwriter," and the music industry was on a non-stop search for the "new Dylan." Understand, though, that as singer/songwriters go — or we should say, went — the South Jersey-based Springsteen was different. No sensitive wet noodle, this veteran of several Jersey shore bar bands was as rangy and tough as he was romantic and verbally dexterous. Hence, when Springsteen auditioned in the early '70s for legendary talent scout and record man John Hammond, who had discovered the old Dylan a decade and change prior, Hammond really did hear something new. And for all the classic rock influences audibly evident on his debut album—Dylan, of course, but the Band and Van Morrison are the more obvious antecedents — the passion and the humor and the crazy imagery of songs such as "For You," "Growin'Up" and the epic "Blinded By the Light" still vibrate with a distinctive energy. David Bowie was impressed — he covered "Growin'Up," for potential inclusion on his Young Americans album. Prog Brits (and longtime Dylanologists themselves) Manfred Mann dug Bruce too—their synth-driven cover of "Blinded" became a US Top 40 hit.
"Sparks fly on E Street where the boy prophets walk it handsome and hot." Indeed. The sonic palette here almost reminds one of action painting, with funk guitars (the spirit of Curtis Mayfield looms larger here than it ever has on any Springsteen record) splattering up against wild synth sounds. And Springsteen's tossing off great lines with wild abandon—-"my machine she's a dud, I'm stuck in the mud somewhere in the swamps of Jersey" is an immortal image. That line's from the simultaneously supercharged and playful "Rosalita," still a live Springsteen highlight. The other side of that song is "Fourth of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" a lament for a dying town and prayer for a kind of rebirth.
The Rock-and-Roll Anthem Master
The labor pains of this defining masterpiece are, like so much in Springsteen's career, the stuff of rock myth. Featuring a largely reconfigured E Street Band (and the first of Springsteen's records to be produced by Jon Landau, the former critic who had announced that Springsteen represented the future of rock a couple of years before), much of the album updates Phil Spector's legendary "Wall of Sound" approach, attaching it to almost operatic tales of passion and escape. "It's a town full of losers — I'm pulling out of here to win," announces the narrator of "Thunder Road," and if shivers don't go up and down your spine as the song then shifts into its overdrive outro, you need to check yourself for a pulse. The ever-astonishing title track aside, the record's other individual high points are all thoroughly distinctive: the yowling story of friendship and betrayal "Backstreets," the West Side Story-meets-Dylan epic "Jungleland," the loose, funny and funky "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" and the terse, lyrical "Meeting Across the River," still one of Springsteen's best story songs, and maybe one of the best story songs ever.
Bruce trades in the expansiveness of Born to Run for an almost frighteningly sustained intensity. Having folded all of his influences into a sound now unmistakably his own, he ups the ante, with one song hitting harder than another. "I wanna spit in the face of these badlands," he sings on the album's opening track, summing up the strength and defiance of the renegades that people this record. There's nothing here as sprawling as, say, Born to Run's "Jungleland" — the longest track is a relatively brief seven minutes — but this is still a record that proclaims "Go big or go home." In this context, "Prove It All Night" is less a lover's boast than an existentialist credo.
Still the ultimate Springsteen and the E Street band statement, this finds the group — recently enhanced by ace guitarist Nils Lofgren, of solo, Grin and Neil Young fame — firing on all eight cylinders. The songs themselves cover a magnificent range of themes and emotions. The feisty chorus of the title track still blinds many to the fact that it's a resolutely downbeat song about an out-of-luck Vietnam vet."No Surrender" is the real barn-burner here — Springsteen and the band revived it while campaigning for failed presidential candidate John Kerry. The awesome "Glory Days" is a rocker's wry take on getting older — a follow-up of sorts to Asbury Park's "Growing Up." And "I'm On Fire" is simply the best of Springsteen's simmering love/lust songs.
"We need you," was a cry Springsteen heard from a whole lot of his fans in the days after 9/11, and the Boss took heed of the call. Reconvening the E Street Band for the first studio album in almost two decades, he cut 15 songs of horror and hope, including "My City In Ruins," a tune he had originally written about his old stomping grounds Asbury Park, but which takes on a greater, and even sadder, weight here. At its best, the record is a superb document of hope and even exhilaration rising from both literal ashes, and the ashes of despair. Well played.
The Greatest Bar Band You Ever Heard
This record has a deck-clearing swagger that's entirely appropriate to its original format — the vinyl double album. It's full of tunes that are great to chug beer and pump fists to — titles such as "Sherry Darling," "I'm A Rocker," "Out In The Street," "Crush on You," "Cadillac Ranch" all speak for themselves. Then of course, there's "Hungry Heart," the first Springsteen song to have a big Top 40 impact, and a tune that Bruce had originally shopped to the Ramones. As much fun as it is, the record's not entirely light-hearted and, in fact, Springsteen wrote a lot of the darker tunes late in the album's recording, in the interest of creating a wider-ranging, more fleshed-out record. The title track and "Point Blank" are two of his finest ballads, and the latter is one of his most harrowing songs. Then there's the epic "Drive All Night," which has more in common with the drony avant-rock of Suicide (a band whose influence Springsteen would acknowledge years later with a cover of their "Dream Baby Dream") than with "Jungleland." And finally, the album's quietly haunting closer, "Wreck on the Highway," once heard, never forgotten.
A genuinely experimental record, with Springsteen playing all the (sparse) instruments, recording on a lo-fi 8-track, and peering deep into the lives of those for whom there's no escape, certainly not any of the sort hoped for in earlier songs such as "Born to Run," "Promised Land," and so many others. Its characters are pursued by demons — both inner and outer — of the kind that can turn the American dream into a nightmare. The stories are bleak, but also complex and compelling — the events described in "Highway Patrolman" in fact inspired the Sean-Penn-directed film The Indian Runner.
Springsteen's modern-day Western — the easternmost point of the US it mentions is Pennsylvania, and that's just as a jumping off point for a journey into what was once pioneer country. As its title indicates, the record's an exploration of Grapes of Wrath country, post-Steinbeck. Mexican illegals sneak into the country to try and make an honest living, and wind up as cooks in a meth lab; a border patrolman faces an untenable moral choice; and more. Quieter (albeit more polished) than Nebraska, and just as dark, a critical and commercial debacle when it was first released, it now feels like one of Springsteen's most deeply considered and resonant works.
As if setting out to prove that solo Bruce and bandleader Bruce could enjoy not just a peaceful but fruitful coexistence, Springsteen cut this record in the wake of The Rising, bringing some bandmates along but largely keeping the job to himself. If The Rising largely traded specific stories for more generalized expressions of emotion, here Springsteen proffers some of his most detailed narratives yet — including "Reno," the tale of a laborer's sad encounter with a prostitute that's actually surprising in its explicitness. The title track is as devastating an account of what war does to a man as any in pop music. A thoroughly masterful set of songs, overall.
Thirty-nine years after the release of his debut album, Bruce Springsteen continues to not suck. If that seems like faint praise, consider his most decorated contemporaries. Has any singer-songwriter in pop history had such a long streak of success, with so few missteps? Certainly Bob Dylan has hit the skids from time to time, to say nothing of rough patches from the likes of Paul Simon, Neil Young, Elvis Costello, Randy Newman and Leonard Cohen. And yet here is the Boss, with his 17th album, still a working-class hero with populist melodies to burn. Wrecking Ball is among his angriest records, a convincing musical coda to Occupy Wall Street, an empathetic millionaire's meditation on the struggles and prejudice that mock the American Dream. "The hands that built the country we're always trying to keep out," he snarls on the Pogues-channeling immigrant's tale "American Land," and as long as that's the case, Springsteen will never run out of material. The theme reverberates even more loudly on "Land of Hope and Dreams," the record's seven-minute centerpiece, which quotes the protest anthem "People Get Ready" and celebrates the saints, sinners, losers, winners, whores, gamblers and lost souls that make America America. (And after all that, manages to throw in a big whomping sax solo from late E Street Band sideman Clarence Clemons.) "There's a new day coming," he assures us on "Rocky Ground." "I want everybody to stand up and be counted tonight," Lyn Collins hollers in a soul sample on "Shackled and Drawn." The title track itself is a dare: "Come on and take your best shot/ Let me see what you got/ Bring on your wrecking ball." The idea is that Springsteen, and Springsteen's America, can absorb any blow without ever breaking. When the song explodes into galloping drums and blasting brass, you can't help believing it's true. — Nick Marino
His Own Man
There had been quite a few love songs in Springsteen's repertoire before he made this record, but very few in the true first person. Most of them were narrated by his various characters, and you could even argue that the exuberant kid crowing "the record company, Rosie, just gave me a big advance" on E Street Shuffle 's "Rosalita" was a construct of sorts. But here, in the middle of a first marriage that would end in divorce, Springsteen essays a group of songs all about the joys, but mostly sorrows, of emotional commitment and connection — or, more to the point, lack thereof. "I just can't see what a woman like you is doing with me," he sings on "Brilliant Disguise." An insecure Bruce — imagine that. The music is suitably spare. One of Springsteen's most fascinating records.
Bruce goes Hollywood? After parting ways, at least for the time being, with the E Street Band, Springsteen moved to LA with new wife and longtime backup singer Patty Scialfa. And embarked on a record using, for the most part, session musicians, including the late Jeff Porcaro, stalwart drummer for Steely Dan and Toto, and future American Idol judge Randy Jackson on bass. Righteous Brother Bobby Hatfield and Sam and Dave's Sam Moore kicked in some backing vocals. It's Bruce's stab at making a relatively conventional '90s rock album, and because of the ever-solid songwriting, the results still hold up. Although in these days of digital TV, the everyman's cable lament "57 Channels (And Nothin'On)" could use an update.
Trying to come up with a single tune to top off Human Touch, Springsteen spewed off a bunch of them, most of them reflecting a new optimism found, at least in part, in the wake of his marriage to Patty Scialfa. "These are better days; better days with a girl like you," he sings on the opening track. The title tune sees him going to said lucky town "to shake off these blues I've found." And "If I Should Fall Behind" is a beautiful affirmation of love's faith, and a lover's patience. Almost all the tunes have a kind of loose, seemingly tossed-off authoritativeness to them that only the most accomplished and careful songwriters can pull off.
Scenes From A Career
Where Springsteen and company had made their reputation in the years prior to Born to Run was on the stage; indeed, Springsteen's biggest champions in the early '70s could be heard lamenting that the records, as good as they were, didn't really capture the raw electricity and energy of a Bruce show. This sprawling set charts his evolution from raising the roves of clubs to doing the exact same thing in arenas. Among the never-before-heard (officially, at least), or at least rarely heard, goodies include a version of "Because The Night," the collaboration with fellow Jersey poet Patti Smith that became her biggest hit; a nod to folk and classic rock roots with Tim Hardin's "Reason To Believe;" and, inevitably, The Boss'take on Tom Waits'"Jersey Girl."
Marking time during a fallow period in the mid-'90s, Springsteen offered fans this 66-song collection of audition recordings, demos, alternate versions, and most excitingly, unreleased tunes that were previously the provenance of bad, bad bootlegs. Kicking off with stripped-down acoustic solo versions of "Mary, Queen of Arkansas," "Growin'Up," and other early songs, you hear such confidence and craft that you think, "Of course this kid was always gonna be a star!" The set ends almost as it begins, with a latter-day Springsteen on his own, giving a clear picture of where this journey's taken him...and us.