For nearly four decades Bruce Springsteen has been a working-class hero: a plainspoken visionary and a sincere romantic whose insights into everyday lives — especially in America's small-town heartland — have earned comparisons to John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie. His belief in rock's mythic past (and its potential) revitalized pop music and made Springsteen a superstar in the Eighties. He maintained his enormous popularity into the 21st century, when he became even more of an outspoken political activist.
Springsteen, of Irish-Italian ancestry, was born September 23, 1949, in Freehold, New Jersey, the son of a bus driver and a secretary. He took up the guitar at 13 and joined the Castiles a year later. In 1966 the Castiles recorded (but never released) two songs co-written by Springsteen, and they worked their way up to a string of dates at New York City's Café Wha? in 1967. During the summer after his high school graduation, Springsteen worked with the band Earth, a Cream-style power trio, and hung out in Asbury Park, New Jersey. He entered Ocean County Community College that fall, but dropped out when a New York producer promised him a contract; he never saw the producer again.
While in college, Springsteen formed a group with some local musicians, including drummer Vini "Mad Dog" Lopez and keyboardist Danny Federici. Called Child, and then Steel Mill, the group worked the Atlantic coast down to Virginia. In summer 1969 Steel Mill visited California (where Springsteen's parents had moved); club dates in San Francisco led to a show at Bill Graham's Fillmore and a contract offer from Graham's Fillmore Records, which Steel Mill turned down because the advance was too small. The band returned east and was joined by an old friend of Springsteen's, Miami Steve Van Zandt, on bass.
Springsteen disbanded Steel Mill in early 1971, intending to put together a band with a brass section and several singers. Meanwhile, he formed Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom, which played only three dates. Eventually, the Bruce Springsteen Band was formed with Lopez, Federici, Van Zandt (now on guitar), pianist and guitarist David Sancious, bassist Garry Tallent, and a four-piece brass section. After the group's first show, the brass section was dropped and Clarence Clemons, a football-player-turned-tenor-saxophonist (a knee injury aborted his pro career), joined the band. The group didn't last; by autumn 1971 Springsteen was working solo.
Springsteen had auditioned for Laurel Canyon Productions, a.k.a. Mike Appel and Jim Cretecos, who had written a hit for the Partridge Family and produced an album by Sir Lord Baltimore. In May 1972 Springsteen signed a long-term management contract and an agreement giving Laurel Canyon exclusive rights to his songs. Royalty rates effective for five albums were set at a low three percent of retail price.
Appel arranged for his new client to audition for John Hammond, who had signed Bob Dylan to Columbia. After hearing Springsteen sing in his office, Hammond set up a showcase for CBS executives at the Gaslight in New York City and supervised a demo session. In June 1972 Columbia president Clive Davis signed a ten-album contract with Appel that gave Laurel Canyon about a nine percent royalty.
Within the month, Springsteen completed Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. Some of his word-crammed songs were set to an acoustic singer/songwriter backup, and others to the R&B-inflected rock of the reconstituted Bruce Springsteen Band. Released in January 1973 and touted as one more "new Dylan" effort, Greetings initially sold about 25,000 copies, largely to Jersey Shore fans. Springsteen and the band toured the Northeast, playing extended sets that earned him followings in Boston and Philadelphia. A string of dates opening for Chicago, which limited his sets to a half-hour, convinced Springsteen not to open for other bands.
With his second album, The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, Springsteen and his band integrated instrumental passages with his lyrics, forming long romantic narratives. The album sold as poorly as its predecessor, and Springsteen decided to concentrate on his stage show. Replacing Lopez with Ernest "Boom" Carter on drums, he tightened up what became the E Street Band, hired expensive light and sound crews, and rehearsed them to theatrical precision. He made up elaborate stories, often involving band members, to introduce his songs, dramatized the songs as he sang them, and capped his sets with fervently rendered oldies.
In spring 1974 music critic Jon Landau saw a Springsteen show in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and wrote in The Real Paper, "I saw rock & roll's future and its name is Bruce Springsteen." Columbia used the quote in an ad campaign, and rave reviews of Springsteen concerts and belated notices of The Wild began showing up in print. By November 1974, the album had sold 150,000 copies.
Springsteen and a revamped E Street Band (pianist Roy Bittan and drummer Max Weinberg replaced Sancious and Carter, who had formed their own fusion group, Tone; Van Zandt joined as second guitarist) were bogged down by an ambitious third album. Landau, who had been visiting the studio with suggestions, became co-producer with Springsteen and Appel (Landau would later become the singer's manager). Far from toning down Springsteen's histrionics, he inflated them with dramatic arrangements. While the album was being mastered, Springsteen wanted to scrap it in favor of a concert album. But that plan was dropped, and in October 1975 Born to Run (Number Three, 1975) hit record shelves.
Advance sales put the album on the chart a week before its release date, and it made the Top Ten shortly afterward. Within the month, it hit Number Three — and gold – while "Born to Run" (Number 23, 1975) became Springsteen's first hit single. Springsteen embarked on his first national tour. Time and Newsweek ran simultaneous cover stories on him. Yet Springsteen was still a cult figure; the album didn't stay on the charts long. In spring of 1976 an independent auditor's report called Appel's management "unconscionable exploitation." And when Appel refused permission for Landau to produce the next album, Springsteen sued his manager in July 1976, alleging fraud, undue influence, and breach of trust. Appel's countersuit asked for an injunction to bar Springsteen from working with Landau, which the court granted. Springsteen rejected the producer Appel chose, and the injunction prevented Springsteen from recording until May 1977. An out-of-court settlement gave Springsteen rights to his songs and he was allowed to work with Landau, while his Columbia contract was upgraded. Appel reportedly received a lump-sum settlement.
During the legal imbroglio, Springsteen toured and E Streeters did session work: Bittan with David Bowie and Meat Loaf, Van Zandt produced the debut by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, I Don't Want to Go Home, which featured several Springsteen compositions. Other Springsteen songs provided hits for the Hollies ("Sandy"), Manfred Mann ("Blinded by the Light," a Number One single in 1977), Robert Gordon ("Fire," later a smash for the Pointer Sisters), and Patti Smith ("Because the Night," to which she contributed some lyrics). And Springsteen continued to write new songs, several of which were chosen for Darkness on the Edge of Town (Number Five, 1978).
Darkness was a dire and powerful album that reflected the troubled period Springsteen had just endured. On "Badlands," "Promised Land," "Adam Raised a Cain," and the title track, Springsteen sang with choked emotion about working-class problems and the hopes that keep Americans going. The album proved his depth to critics, although it failed to deliver on crossover hopes, yielding only the minor single "Prove It All Night" (Number 33, 1978).
Work on The River began in April 1979 and went on for a year and a half. Springsteen appeared on stage only twice in that period, at the Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE) antinuclear benefit concerts in New York, which were filmed as No Nukes. Meanwhile, Dave Marsh's best-selling Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story was released, spreading the Springsteen legend out in book length. (It was released again in a revised edition, followed by a second Marsh volume, Glory Days: Bruce Springsteen in the 1980s, published in 1987; the books were put together with additional material in 2003 as Two Hearts: The Definitive Biography.)
Co-produced by Springsteen, Landau, and Van Zandt, the double-LP The River (Number One, 1980) sold over 2 million copies. A single, "Hungry Heart" (Number Five, 1980), was Springsteen's first Top Ten hit, followed by "Fade Away" (Number 20, 1981). The River was notable for its shorter, verse-chorus songs that were essentially short stories or character sketches ("Wreck on the Highway," "Independence Day," "Point Blank," "The River"). These four songs essentially revealed a sense of resignation, of Springsteen's characters learning to live with what they cannot change.
On the eve of The River's release in October 1980, Springsteen kicked off a tour that crisscrossed the United States twice and took him to more than 20 European cities; every one of his shows was sold out and routinely ran over three hours, sometimes crossing the four-hour mark. In the fall, he played six benefit concerts in L.A. for Vietnam War veterans. In 1981 Springsteen persuaded Gary "U.S." Bonds (whose "Quarter to Three" was a favorite Springsteen encore) to return to recording, on an album produced by Van Zandt that included Springsteen material. Members of the E Street Band played sessions for Garland Jeffreys, Joan Armatrading, Ian Hunter, and others. Van Zandt continued producing Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, and Bittan produced an album for rock singer Jimmy Mack.
In 1982 Springsteen made Nebraska (Number Three, 1982), a stark album recorded (initially as demo tapes) on a four-track machine at home. With its tales of losers, desperadoes, and dreamers, the album was Springsteen's folk-song commentary on the social problems of America in the Age of Reagan, and on the nihilism bred by alienation.
After Nebraska's deliberately noncommercial statement, Springsteen decided to head in the other direction and try to bring his message to a mass audience. With the simple, declarative songs on Born in the U.S.A. (Number One, 1984), Springsteen became a megastar. The album yielded a string of singles – "Dancing in the Dark" (Number Two, 1984), "Cover Me" (Number Seven, 1984), "Born in the U.S.A." (Number Nine, 1984), "I'm on Fire" (Number Six, 1985), "Glory Days" (Number Five, 1985), "I'm Goin' Down" (Number Nine, 1985), and "My Hometown" (Number Six, 1985) — and remained in the Top Ten for more than two years. Springsteen made his first videos for the album's singles, including "Glory Days," "I'm on Fire," and "Born in the U.S.A.", directed by John Sayles, and "Dancing in the Dark," directed by Brian De Palma (the single later won a Grammy). Although on Born in the U.S.A., Springsteen continued to look at the dark side of the American dream, he simplified sentiments and packaged them in an album featuring a U.S. flag on the cover.
Not surprisingly, many fans took "Born in the U.S.A." as an upbeat patriotic anthem, although the song was actually about the dead ends hit by a Vietnam vet. Ronald Reagan himself, during the 1984 presidential campaign, tried to co-opt Springsteen's vision as his own in one speech. Springsteen attempted to counteract such misinterpretations by meeting with labor, environmental, and civil rights activists in towns he played and mentioning their efforts onstage.
Springsteen has always played numerous benefits; in 1985 he sang on USA for Africa's "We Are the World" and on Van Zandt's anti-apartheid project, Sun City. But the Born in the U.S.A. concerts themselves fueled the spectacle of Springsteen's success, with fans waving American flags in sold-out stadiums. The previously scrawny, modest Springsteen had joined the country's mania for pumping iron, and his marathon concerts began to resemble athletic events. Constant touring in 1985 (with Nils Lofgren replacing Van Zandt, who went on to pursue a solo career, and Patti Scialfa added on vocals) took him to the Far East and Australia for the first time.
The 40-song live album package Live/1975-85 (Number One, 1986) was released partly to counter the flood of bootlegs that had been traded among fans for years. It featured his cover of Edwin Starr's "War" (Number Eight, 1986), a song whose critique he explicitly aimed in concerts at Reagan's militarism.
In 1984 Springsteen met model/actress Julianne Phillips, and the couple married in May 1985. On Tunnel of Love (Number One, 1987) Springsteen recorded some of his most personal songs — including the Grammy-winning "Tunnel of Love" (Number Nine, 1987), "Brilliant Disguise" (Number Five, 1987), and "One Step Up" (Number 13, 1988) — in which he detailed love unraveling. While he was headlining the 1988 Amnesty International Human Rights Now! Tour, tabloids began reporting that Springsteen and Scialfa were having an affair. In August 1988 Phillips filed for divorce. The couple divorced the next year, and Springsteen married Scialfa in 1991. They moved to L.A. and eventually had three children, Evan James, Jessica Rae, and Sam Ryan.
Springsteen was apparently rethinking his life in general during this period. On the Tunnel of Love tour he had tried to shake up the E Street Band's live habits by repositioning them onstage. Still, the large group no longer seemed to be the correct vehicle for his music, and in November 1989 he told them he no longer needed them.
After half a decade without a new studio album, Springsteen returned with the simultaneous release of two, Human Touch (Number Two, 1992) (co-produced by Bittan, the only E Street Band member on the albums) and Lucky Town (Number Three, 1992). The albums entered the charts at their peak positions, but merely went platinum as opposed to the multi-platinum of his previous three albums. The pop songs of Human Touch, which Springsteen had written over several years, received mixed reviews: critics generally preferred Lucky Town's ruminations on parenting and adulthood.
Springsteen performed on Saturday Night Live in 1992, his first network TV performance. He recruited a younger band of mostly session musicians for his tour, but hadn't quite freed himself of his old, overstated stadium style, and the shows seemed somewhat out of step with the albums' mature tone. For the first time in 15 years, Springsteen played to empty seats. In 1993, Scialfa released her first solo album, Rumble Doll; that year Springsteen wrote and recorded "Streets of Philadelphia" (Number Nine, 1994) for the Jonathan Demme film Philadelphia; the song won an Academy Award and four Grammys. Greatest Hits, which debuted at Number One on the charts, contained four previously unreleased songs.
In 1995 Springsteen released The Ghost of Tom Joad, an austere record in the tradition of Nebraska that invoked the populism of Steinbeck and Guthrie and applied it to problems of race and class in America at the end of the 20th century. The album, which Springsteen promoted with his first solo acoustic tour, won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album, although it didn't go platinum, a rarity.
After that Springsteen maintained a low profile until the November 1998 announcement of his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That same week saw the release of Songs, a coffee-table book containing his song lyrics, as well as Tracks (Number 27), a career-spanning collection that included 56 previously unreleased recordings. The album became the first box set ever to debut at Number One on the charts.
In 1999 Springsteen and the E Street Band reunited for the first time in more than a decade; both Lofgren and Van Zandt played guitar in the group, which kicked off their U.S. tour with a record-setting 15 sold-out shows at the Continental Airlines Arena in the group's home state of New Jersey. The band's performances testified to Springsteen's faith in the redemptive power of rock & roll and the human community.
At a run of 10 shows at Madison Square Garden in summer 2000, Springsteen also performed "American Skin (41 Shots)," a song that explores what happens when community breaks down — in this case, when New York City police officers shot at West African immigrant Amadou Diallo 41 times while he was reaching for his wallet to show them his ID. Two of the New York performances were documented on a 2001 HBO special and live album Live in New York City, which debuted at Number 5.
Springsteen addressed the 9/11 attacks — and America's reaction to them — in great detail on The Rising (Number One, 2002). Produced by Brendan O'Brien (Pearl Jam), it was his first album of new material in seven years. Hailed by critics and fans as Springsteen's return to form — he sang compassionately to the confusion, loss, hope and faith of fearful New Yorkers and average Americans in general — The Rising sold more than 520,000 copies its first week out.
In 2004, angered by the George W. Bush administration's war policy, Springsteen teamed with artists including R.E.M., Pearl Jam and the Dixie Chicks for the "Vote for Change" tour, which explicitly supported Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. Springsteen had never directly endorsed a specific candidate before and it created some controversy among his fans. Devils & Dust followed in 2005, the latest in Springsteen's occasional string of downbeat acoustic albums, its songs dealing with topics like immigration and the Iraq War. Like its predecessor, it debuted at Number One and won a Grammy for Best Solo Rock Vocal for the title track. During his Grammy appearance he performed the song and at the end said, "Bring 'em home," referring to the American troops overseas.
Springsteen returned quickly, releasing We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, on which he covered protest and folk songs by the legendary American folk singer Pete Seeger. Performances from the tour with Springsteen fronting the aptly named Seeger Sessions Band were released a year later as Bruce Springsteen with The Sessions Band: Live in Dublin.
The fall of 2007 brought another Number One album, Magic, Springsteen's most accessible collection since Tunnel of Love, and more big-venue touring with the E Street Band, who appeared on the album. Now more politically active than ever in his career, Springsteen announced his endorsement of U.S. Senator Barack Obama in April 2008. That November, the Obama campaign played "The Rising" after the new president-elect's victory speech in Chicago. Springsteen released Working on a Dream (Number One) in January 2009, and later that month performed "The Rising" and "This Land is Your Land" (with Seeger) at President Obama's inaugural celebration.
In December 2009, Springteen received the Kennedy Center Honors. The ceremony included tribute performances of his work by Sting, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, John Mellencamp, Melissa Etheridge and Ben Harper, as well as a speech by Daily Show anchor Jon Stewart. Referencing Springsteen's work ethic and heart, Stewart said: "He empties the tank, every time. He empties that tank for his family, he empties that tank for his art, he empties that tank for his audience and he empties that tank for his country."
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Mark Kemp contributed to this article.
Bruce Springsteen on Alan Vega: 'There Was Nobody Remotely Like Him'
"The bravery and passion he showed throughout his career was deeply influential to me," singer says
Hear Springsteen Read 'Born on the Fourth of July' Foreword
Audiobook edition of Ron Kovic's anti-war memoir will come out on Independence Day