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Bruce Springsteen Raises Cain

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The rockets are exploding directly over our heads now, and once in a while, closer than that. A rocket upside the head is not unimaginable. Bruce strikes out closer to the water, where the sand is more firmly packed and the walking is easier. Down here there are other sorts of activity: lovers in sleeping bags and drinkers sitting in sand pits, nursing themselves against the chill with liquor. The rockets, fewer now, drift out into the water to die with a hiss or a fizzle, and Bruce Springsteen moves through it all, just another cloud in a hurricane, a natural force or maybe just another kid.

Two hot dogs with relish and an hour of pinball later, we walk back along the highway to the car and zip back to the hotel. Tour manager Jim McHale, David Landau (Warren Zevon's lead guitarist and Jon's brother) and booking agent Barry Bell are talking in Jon's room when Bruce bursts through the poolside curtains. His face is glowing. "We're goin' to make the hit," he shouts, and duck back out. McHale's jaw drops and he races from the room. "I think they're going to paint the billboard," says David.

The raid isn't completely a surprise. Sunday night, driving up the Strip on the way to see The Buddy Holly Story, Bruce had first noticed the billboard looming above a seven-story building just west of the Continental Hyatt House. Billboards are a Hollywood institution--they're put up for every significant album and concert appearance--and this one uses the Darkness cover photo, poorly cropped, to promote both the new record and the group's Forum appearance tomorrow night. As we passed this enormous monument, which rears up forty feet above the building, Bruce had groaned and slumped in his seat. "That is the ughiest thing I've ever seen in my life," he said.

The billboard is only a few blocks up the street. According to all accounts, Springsteen, Clemons, bass guitarist Garry Tallent and several crew members approached with some stealth the office building on which the billboard is perched. Much to their surprise, the building was wide open, and the elevator quickly took them to the roof. There, McHale, perhaps figuring that cleverness is better than a bust, quickly organized them. There were twenty cans of black spray paint, quickly distributed, and Bruce, Garry and Clarence quickly took positions on the paperhangers' ledge. Bell was positioned across the street to watch for cops. At a signal from McHale, the painting began: Prove It All Night spread across the billboard from edge to edge, the middle words nearly lost in the dark photo of Bruce. Then Bruce stood on Clemons' shoulders and painted another legend above Night: E Street, it said. As they were clambering down, a signal came--the cops. Some headed back for the elevator, but Bruce, Clarence and McHale left Cagney-style, down the outside fire escape. It was a false alarm anyway.

In the hotel lobby at a quarter to three, Bruce is exhilarated. "You shoulda been there," he says, running over the event like a successful general fresh from battle. Was he worried about getting caught? "Naw," he says. "I figured if they caught us, that was great, and if we got away with it, that was even better." He looks down at himself, hands black with paint, boots ruinously dusty from the beach, and laughs. "There it is," he says. "Physical evidence.… The only thing is, I wanted to get to my face, and paint on a mustache. But it was just too damn high." He terms the paint job "an artistic improvement."

Wednesday, July 5th

Last night, as we were getting into the car after the KMET interview, Bruce began to talk about the reviews Darkness on the Edge of Town has been getting. It is a subject on which he qualifies as something of an expert: more has been written about him--and about what has been written on him--than any other rock performer of recent years, with the possible exception of Mick Jagger. The miracle is, I guess, that the scars barely show--instead, Springsteen looks at the press with avid interest.

"It's a weird thing about those reviews," Bruce says. "You can find any conceivable opinion in them: one guy says the record's exactly like Born to Run and it's great, the next one says it's not like Born to Run and it's great, the next one says it's not like Born to Run and it's awful." This amuses him. The nearly unanimous opinion that the album is grim and depressing doesn't.

It's the title, I suggest. "I know, I know," he says impatiently. "But I put in the first few seconds of 'Badlands,' the first song on the album, those lines about 'I believe in the love and the hope and the faith.' It's there on all four corners of the album." By which he means the first and last songs on each side: "Badlands" and "Racing in the Street," "The Promised Land" and the title song. He is clearly distressed: he meant Darkness to be "relentless," not grim.

Later, I ask him why the album lacks the humor that buoys his shows. "In the show, it's a compilation of all the recorded stuff," he says in the halting way he uses when he's taking something seriously. "If you go back to The Wild and Innocent, 'Rosalita' is there, and all that stuff. But when I was making this particular album, I just had a specific thing in mind. And one of the important things was that it had to be just a relentless…just a barrage of the particular thing.

"I got an album's worth of pop songs, like 'Rendezvous' and early English-style stuff. I got an album's worth right now, and I'm gonna get it out somehow. I wanna do an album that's got ten or eleven things like that on it. But I just didn't feel it was the right time to do that, and I didn't want to sacrifice any of the intensity of the album by throwing in 'Rendezvous,' even though I knew it was popular from the show."

The other criticism that is easily made of Darkness concerns the repetition of certain images: cars, street life, abandonment by or of women, family and friends. Those who like this call it style; those who don't say Springsteen is drilling a dry hole. But perhaps Springsteen's greatest and most repeated image is the lie.

"It's hard to explain without getting too heavy. What it is, it's the characters' commitment. In the face of all the betrayals, in the face of all the imperfections that surround you in whatever kind of life you lead, it's the character's refusal to let go of their own humanity, to let go of their own belief in the other side. It's a certain loss of innocence--more so than in the other albums."

I drove out to the Forum this afternoon with Obie. Obie is twenty-five, and she has been Bruce Springsteen's biggest fan for more than a decade. When he was still just a local star, she waited overnight for tickets to his shows to make certain she'd have perfect seats. She is now secretary to Miami Steve Van Zandt, Springsteen's guitarist and manager/producer of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. This means that while Springsteen is on tour, Obie is the de facto manager of the Asbury Jukes. But she's also something more. She makes some of the jackets and suits Bruce wears onstage. She is also a historian; there are a thousand Asbury Park legends behind her twinkling eyes. More than anything, she is a fan who counts the days between Springsteen shows. Her loyalty is rewarded. Whenever she comes to a show, in any town, the front-row center is reserved for her.

It is party this that makes Bruce Springsteen so attractive: he is surrounded by real-life characters that form the kind of utopian community most of us lost when we graduated high school; one of the reasons Springsteen is such a singular performer is that he has never lost touch with this decidedly noncosmopolitan gang.

Part of the legend is the E Street Band. "Ya know, you can tell by looking at 'em," Bruce explains to me, "that this isn't a bunch of guys with a whole lot in common. But somehow the music cuts right through all that."

There's a lot to cut. Bassist Garry Tallent is a consummate rockabilly addict who looks the part. He's been known to use Brylcreem. Organist Danny Federici has an angel face that could pass for the kind of tough guy Harvey Keitel plays in Fingers. Pianist Roy Bittan and drummer Max Weinberg are seasoned pros, veterans of recording studios and Broadway pit bands. Miami Steve Van Zandt is a perpetual motion machine, a comic version of Keith Richards' Barbary pirate act, with a slice of small-town-boy-made-good on the side. And Clarence Clemons, last of all, dwells in a land all his own, not quite like the universe the rest of us inhabit, though it is seemingly available to all comers. Clemons transforms any room he enters, as a six-foot-plus black man with the bulk of a former football player often can do, but even in his own digs at the Marquis, there's something special happening--his hospitality is perfect, and it is in Clarence's room that the all-night party is most likely to run.

Bruce stands distinctly outside this group. "It's weird," he says," 'cause it's not really a touring band or just a recording band. And it's definitely me, I'm a solo act, y'know." But there is also a sense in which Bruce Springsteen does not mesh in any society, and it has a great deal to do with what makes him so obsessive about his music.

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