One of the things that makes Springsteen a whole different species of rock performer is his candor about the numbed, paralytic rage his father, Douglas Springsteen, a bus driver and sometime prison guard, converted to bitterness at a very early age. Bruce will stand on a darkened stage and remember out loud about coming into his house late at night, almost always seeing the kitchen light on, to face his father. One day his aunt showed him a picture of his father, back from World War II, about to marry and start a family that would include Bruce and two sisters. "He looked just like John Garfield, in this great suit, he looked like he was gonna eat the photographer's head off. And I couldn't ever remember him looking that proud, or that defiant, when I was growing up. I used to wonder what happened to all that pride, how it turned into so much bitterness. He'd been so disappointed, had so much stuff beaten out of him by then…."
Sitting in various arenas, ten years gone from my own home, I envy the teenage audience that is hearing Springsteen talk to them about that troublesome blood tie. For many, it is the first time anybody has nosed around in their feelings about their parents; paradoxically, Springsteen's anger seems to set beating, at least for a few moments, a kind of heartsickness that might turn out to be love for those parents. But it's not a Sunday school rap: "…so much beaten out of him that he couldn't accept the idea that I had a dream and I had possibilities. The things I wanted, he thought were just foolish. People get so much shit shoveled on 'em every day. But it's just important to hold on to those things. Don't let anybody call you foolish."
He takes the Esquire he has absently, slowly been stroking, shrieks once and slams into "Badlands" and the cathartic, energized slide licks that sound like the hand of God reaching down to rip the tops off fleeing cars: "Poor man wanna be rich/Rich man wanna be king/And a king ain't satisfied/Till he rules everything…."
When he rocks back to goose out the taut guitar break in "Candy's Room," or jumps downstage with harmonica to race Clarence Clemons' sax to the end of "Promised Land," it's invigorating to notice that the guy can play, that despite all his steeplechasing and singing, he doesn't come off as a slacker on harp and guitar. Maybe that's because there's nothing ever casual about his attack.
At age nine, Springsteen saw Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show. But in 1959, Bruce found guitar lessons to be "oppressive," his hands were too small, and aspirations toward big-league baseball took over. "I wanted it pretty bad at the time. Every day from when I was eight till thirteen I'd be outside pitching that ball." But the guitar fantasy wouldn't quit. "The best thing that ever happened to me was when I got thrown out of the first band I was in, and I went home and put on 'It's All Over Now' by the Rolling Stones and learned that guitar solo.
"I think when I first started, I wouldn't allow myself to think that someday….I just wanted to get in a halfway band, be able to play weekends somewhere and make a little extra dough, working at some job during the week or something. Which is what my parents used to say that I could do. That was allowed. I could do it on weekends, but it was impossible to see or think at the time."
Then it was bars and CYOs and clubs, in and out of various bands, playing, copping licks, going to the Village on Saturdays to catch matinee sets at the Cafe Wha.
"I don't ever remember being introduced to Bruce," says Miami Steve Van Zandt, who lived nearby and shared local guitar hero honors. "I just remember I would go to New York, to the Village, and one day seeing him come walking down MacDougal. We looked at each other like, ah, 'You look familiar' and 'What are you doin' here?' It took a long time to become really close." Stints in bands called the Castiles, Steel Mill, Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom followed lowed. And then there was Bruce Springsteen, leader of a band bearing his name.
He signed a management deal with a feisty entrepreneur named Mike Appel on the hood of a car in a dark parking lot. It was a signature that meant Springsteen and band would not make any serious money until the 1978 tour for Darkness on the Edge of Town, his fourth album. "People always say, 'Gee, it must have been tough for you.' But I always remember bein' in a good mood, bein' happy even through the bad stuff and the disappointments, because I knew I was ahead of nine out of ten other people that I've seen around me. 'Cause I was doing something that I liked." Appel did get Bruce face to face with Columbia Records A&R head John Hammond. Bruce signed on with Columbia Records. After Jon Landau saw him perform at Harvard Square Theatre in 1974, Landau declared, in a review that was a landmark in both men's lives, that Bruce represented "rock & roll future." They became friends, and Springsteen asked Landau to come into the studio to help him and Appel produce Born to Run. Released in late 1975, it quickly went gold.
Springsteen is happy in the front seat of anything, and he spends the ride from Rochester to Buffalo, New York, gazing at the sunny, snow-covered fields on either side of the highway. Arriving at the hotel, he tucks his cap under his cap under his sweat shirt's hood and invites me for a walk downtown in the "fresh [twenty-two degrees] air." In high boots and a well-broken-in black cloth coat, he looks like a gravedigger off for the winter. He has pored over the local record store's entire cassette case (choosing collections by the Drifters and Gene Pitney) before the guys who work there recognize him. (The cassette I'd found in Bruce's portable player was Toots and the Maytals' Funky Kingston. Bruce confesses a love for reggae, a music he calls "too complex and too pure" for him to interpret.)
The guys behind the counter put on "Hungry Heart," which has plowed through the charts to Number One. It was a song Bruce originally didn't even want to have on the album until Jon Landau (now his manager) insisted. Bruce describes the song as an evocation of what the Beach Boys and Frankie Lymon used to do for him.
Still gimpy from a stumble he'd taken during a show in Washington, he walks on incognito until some jewelry-stand salesgirls corner him for autographs in a bookstore.
We cross the street to McDonald's. "Paradise," he calls it. "I never did get comfortable with places that got the menu in the window," he explains, making two Quarter-Pounders disappear. He looks contentedly around as the munching Buffalonians make no sign of recognizing him. "I love coming to these places where it's nothing but real."
Springsteen works hard at keeping his own life real. His mother is still doing the kind of secretarial work she began at age eighteen, and he predicted that his new money would not make any difference. "What's she gonna do – quit and run around the world and buy things? In a certain way, the money aspect of it is not very useful to them. I gave 'em some money one day and found out later on they didn't spend it. They thought that was gonna be the payoff, you know, there wasn't gonna be anymore. They live around people like them [in San Diego]. The whole thing of driving your folks up to some big house and saying. 'This is yours,' they don't want that. Then it's not them anymore."
Bruce himself still lives in a rented house near his hometown, with enough acreage to lure him into tearing about on his three-wheel, off-the-road scooter (though he gave his right leg a severe muscle tear by driving it into a tree last spring). Yet his life at home tends toward more quiet activity, like staying up all night watching late movies, often with his California-based actress girlfriend, Joyce Heiser.
Heiser, to whom Bruce frequently dedicates "Drive All Night," has been subjected to backstage scrutiny this time around because one theme that takes up a lot of room on The River is marriage and relationships – the ties that bind. "That's the hardest thing for me to talk about. I don't know, I'm in the dark as far as all that stuff goes. It took me five albums to even write about it. People want to get involved, not because of the social pressure, not because of the romantic movies that they grew up on. It's something more basic than that, it's very physical and it presents itself. It's just the way men and women are.
"My mother and father, they've got a very deep love because they know and understand each other in a very 'realistic way. Whatever form relationships take is up to the people involved, I guess. But on the album the characters are wrestling with those questions – the guy in 'Stolen Car,' the guy in 'Wreck on the Highway,' 'Drive All Night,' the guy in 'Sherry Darling,' even. It is a puzzle and a question, it's hard to separate it from the tradition, very hard to separate it from all the impressions that are created in you as you grow older. That's why I wanted 'I Wanna Marry You' and 'The River' together,' cause they're similar songs, similar feelings.
"Everybody seems to hunger for that relationship, and you never seem happy without it. I guess that's good enough reason right there. It just got to a point where all of a sudden these songs about things of that nature started coming out. I think you do tend to think about that particular thing around thirty. But even up till then, when I was writing all the earlier songs, 'Born to Run' and stuff, they never seemed right without the girl. It was just part of wherever that person was going, that guy was going. It wasn't gonna be any good without her."
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