Bruce Springsteen Raises Cain

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Before he landed a record contract, all of the Asbury Park musicians held day jobs--Garry Tallent worked in a music store, Clemons was a social worker, Van Zandt was in the construction union. The exception, always, was Bruce, who never held any other job, apparently because he could not conceive of doing anything else. At age eight, when he first heard Presley, lightning struck, and when he picked up the guitar at thirteen, another bolt hit him. "When I got the guitar," he told me Wednesday night, "I wasn't getting out of myself. I was already out of myself. I knew myself, and I did not dig me. I was getting into myself."

By fourteen, he was in his first band; by sixteen, he was so good that when he practiced in his manager's garage, neighborhood kids would stand on milk crates at the windows with their noses pressed to the glass, just to hear. The only other things besides music that ever meant much to him, Springsteen says, were surfing and cars. But nothing--even girls--ever got in the way of his obsession with his music; there is a certain awe in the way that people who have known him for many years speak of his single-minded devotion to playing. It's as if he always knew his destiny, and while this hasn't made him cold--he is one of the friendliest people I know--it has given him considerable distance from everyday relationships. One does not ever think of Bruce Springsteen married and settled down, raising a family, having kids; that would be too much monkey business.

What keeps the band so tight is the two-to-three-hour sound check before each gig. Today's began at 3:30 p.m.--it's a 7:30 show on the ticket--and didn't end until nearly seven. In part, these are informal band rehearsals, with Bruce working up new material: as we enter the hall at five, he is singing Buddy Holly's "Rave On," a number he has never done live. But there's more to it than that.

On this tour, Springsteen's sound mixer is Bruce Jackson; a tall blond Australian who worked for Elvis Presley for several years. He is amazed at Springsteen's perfectionism. "At every date," he says, "he goes out and sits in every section of the hall to listen to the sound. And if it isn't right, even in the last row, I hear about it, and we make changes. I mean every date, too--he doesn't let it slip in Davenport, Iowa, or something." Presley, on the other hand, was concerned only with the sound he would hear in the onstage monitors.

("Anybody who works for me," Springsteen says, without a trace of a joke, "the first thing you better know is I'm gonna drive you crazy. Because I don't compromise in certain areas. So if you're gonna be in, you better be ready for that.")

Which perhaps explains the consistently high quality of Springsteen's live performances. I must have seen forty over the years, and no two are alike. Even if the songs are the same, which they hardly ever are, Bruce brings something different to every one. Tonight's is conversational--the loosest I've ever seen, and at the same time, frighteningly intense. He begins immediately after "Badlands," the opening number, by talking about the walk on the beach last night ("It's like a combat zone out there") and makes some self-deprecating remarks about his press attention, which has mushroomed this week: Robert Hilburn had given him a rave advance notice in the Sunday Los Angeles Times, and Ed Kociela had more than matched it with a pair of pieces--interview and Berkeley concert review--in Monday's Herald-Examiner. In a way, Springsteen was taking Los Angeles by storm, as he had taken New York in August 1975 with the release of Born to Run and ten shows at the Bottom Line. There are some who must find such excessive praise threatening or suspicious--though only a fool would think that such enthusiasm could be manufactured--but Bruce defuses it easily: "See all that fancy stuff in the papers about me? Big deal, huh? I gotta tell you, I only levitate to the upper deck on Wednesday and Fridays… Wednesdays and Fridays, and I don't do no windows."

Perhaps the most nervy and nerve-racking antic Springsteen has retained in making the transition to hockey arenas is his trademark leap into the audience during the third song, "Spirit in the Night." He looks frail--at an extremely wiry and agile five-foot-nine, he is not--and one is always worried that his consummate trust in his fans is going to let him down. But night after night he gets away with it. Somehow. Tonight, the security doesn't get the picture and tries to drag the fans off Bruce as he ascends an aisle deep in the loges. "You guys work here or something?" Springsteen demands. "Get outta here. These guys are my friends." The crowd roars.

His parents have come down from their home near San Francisco for the show, and the evening is sprinkled with allusions to them and his sixteen-year-old sister, Pam. The stories he tells are always among his best moments, but what gets me tonight are the asides and dedications: he tells about the billboard ("We made a few improvements,"), about asking Mary Turner for a date, and when he does "For You," he dedicates the song to Greg Kihn, who recorded the song for Berserkley Records a year ago. And because Gary Busey is here, he tells about seeing The Buddy Holly Story. It's the perfect review.

"It's funny because I could never really picture Buddy Holly moving. To me, he was always just that guy with the bow tie on the album cover. I liked the picture because it made him a lot more real for me."

But the encores are the evening's highlights. First, "The Promise," a quiet ballad that was one of the first things Springsteen wrote for the new album, and which was finally dropped from it. In an earlier version, "The Promise" was taken by many listeners to be a metaphor for the lawsuit with former manager Mike Appel that delayed production of the new LP for more than a year. But tonight, with a new verse added in the studio, it's obviously about something more universal: "Now my daddy taught me how to walk quiet/And how to make my peace with the past/And I learned real good to tighten up inside/And I don't say nothin' unless I'm asked."

And then, to top it all, he does his two most famous songs, back to back: "Born to Run" and "Because the Night," the latter in a version that shrivels the Patti Smith hit. When the night finally ends, it is with "Quarter to Three," houselights up full and the crowd singing along as spontaneously as I've ever heard 14,500 people do anything.

Backstage I run into Jackson Browne. "Good show, huh?" I say. He looks at me querulously, like I was just released from the nut house. "Uh unh," Jackson says. "Great show."

At midnight, local FM stations broadcast an announcement that Springsteen will play the Roxy, the 500-seat club and record-company hangout on Sunset Strip, on Friday night, one show only. Lines begin forming almost immediately.

Thursday, July 6th

Walking through the lobby of the Marquis last night, just after two a.m., I ran into Bruce, who asked if I wanted to walk over to Ben Frank's for something to eat. On the way I mentioned that there must be a lot of people in line at the Roxy just up the street. Bruce gave me a look. "I don't like people waiting up all night for me," he said.

Bruce ate another prodigious meal: four eggs, toast, a grilled-cheese sandwich, large glasses of orange juice and milk. And the talk ranged widely: surfing (Bruce had lived with some of the Jersey breed for a while in the late Sixties, and he's a little frustrated with trying to give a glimmer of its complexity to a landlocked ho-dad like me), the new album and its live recording ("I don't think I'll ever go back to the overdub method," he said mentioning that almost all of the LP was done completely live in the studio, and that "Streets of Fire" and "Something in the Night" were first takes). But mostly we talked or rather, Bruce talked and I listened.

Springsteen can be spellbinding, partly because he is so completely ingenuous, partly because of the intensity and sincerity with which he has thought out his role as a rock star. He delivers these ideas with an air of conviction, but not a proselytizing one; some of his ideas are radical enough for Patti Smith or the punks, yet lack their sanctimonious rhetoric.

I asked him why the band plays so long--their shows are rarely less than three hours--and he said: "It's hard to explain. 'Cause every time I read stuff that I say, like in the papers, I always think I come off sounding like some kind of crazed fanatic. When I read it, it sounds like that, but it's the way I am about it. It's like you have to go the whole way because…that's what keeps everything real. It all ties in with the records and the values, the morality of the records. There's a certain morality of the show and it's very strict." Such comments can seem not only fanatical, but also self-serving. The great advantage of the sanctimony and rhetoric that infests the punks is that such flaws humanize them. Lacking such egregious characteristics, Bruce Springsteen seems too good to be true when reduced to cold type. Nice guys finish last, we are told, and here's one at the top. So what's the catch? I just don't know.

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