Bruce Springsteen's Long and Winding Road

The members of the E Street Band look back at the fifteen-month tour that made Bruce Springsteen a national hero

February 27, 1986
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Bruce Springsteen on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Aaron Rapoport

The show would be well into its fourth hour, the musicians visibly wilting under the hot lights and the damp weight of their own sweat as they summoned up the energy for that last blast of "Born to Run." But Bruce Springsteen would never say, "Enough," until the last member of the audience keeled over in joyous exhaustion. After each encore, every night for nearly a year and a half during his 1984-85 world tour, Springsteen called his E Street Band into a brief huddle backstage.

"We had a saying," explains saxman Clarence Clemons. "'Are they still on their feet? Yeah, let's go back and get 'em. Can they still raise their hands? If they can, we haven't done our job.' When we finally saw the guys in the front row falling down, lying over each other, then we said, 'Okay, they've had enough. Let's go home."'

Having started the Born in the U.S.A. tour in St. Paul, Minnesota, on June 29th, 1984. Springsteen and the E Street Band didn't go home until October 2nd, 1985–after their last four shows drew more than 330,000 people to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Their labors, of course, did not go unrewarded. Born in the U.S.A. sold more than 10 million copies in the United States alone, becoming the biggest-selling album in the history of Columbia Records. The tour grossed $80 to $90 million from ticket sales ($34 million of that came from Springsteen's stadium shows in only fourteen cities). Bruce was the people's choice in Rolling Stone's 1985 Readers Poll, sweeping the Artist, Male Vocalist, Songwriter and Best Live Performance of the Year categories. And in the Critics Poll, he shared Artist of the Year honors with miracle worker Bob Geldof, while the E Street Band – Clemons, drummer Max Weinberg, keyboardists Roy Bittan and Danny Federici, bassist Garry Tallent, guitarist Nils Lofgren and vocalist Patti Scialfa – tied for Band of the Year with Irish pals U2. In short, Bruce Springsteen was indisputably the Boss in 1985.

100 Greatest Artists: Bruce Springsteen

The sales figures and tour grosses tell, however, only the accountants' side of the story. Whether it was the June '84 warm-up date at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, New Jersey, or the outdoor concert in Göteborg, Sweden, where Springsteen performed under the burnt-orange rays of the midnight sun, his shows were do-it-till-you-drop spectaculars, parties already way out of bounds by the time he trotted out the old bar-band standbys ("Twist and Shout," "Devil with a Blue Dress On"). One night in Japan, Springsteen brought a young girl up onstage, as he did everywhere, to do the twist with him on "Dancing in the Dark." "She was good, too," Clemons recalls, "but as soon as she got offstage, she collapsed. She fell right over."

The fun of falling over never obscured Springsteen's unmistakable message – you've got to stand tall in spite of it all – in songs like "Born in the U.S.A.," the bouncy "Working on the Highway" and his electrified Nebraska meditation "Mansion on the Hill." Springsteen took it upon himself to set the example, giving his usual 110 percent during an '84 show in Tacoma, Washington, even though he was suffering from a debilitating virus. In the face of Rambo-mania and the misrepresentation of his Born in the U.S.A. message by nearsighted conservatives, he plugged Vietnam-veterans organizations, local food banks and community-action groups while quietly pledging his own money to many of these causes. And in a year when Live Aid proved what a world community of rock fans could accomplish, Springsteen demonstrated night after night what just one die-hard rock fan could do.

"I don't really think I could live with myself if I did it any other way," Springsteen told Rolling Stone early in the tour, describing his faith in the power of music and how that faith manifests itself in his performances. "A lot of what I do up there I do for myself, because you go out there and your pride is on the line, your sense of self-respect, and you feel like 'Hey, there's something important happening here.' You have a chance to do something. And you wanna make the best of it."

"It takes a lot of courage to believe as strongly as he does," remarks Patti Scialfa, whom Springsteen hired after hearing her sing at a Stone Pony jam session one Sunday night in 1983. "It made every show special to me because you carried that belief with you. It was great to be going around making music that had such a strong center of faith. It made every show seem to have so much more depth. It wasn't just a musical expression; you were working your heart muscles, too."

Springsteen didn't waste too much energy on rehearsals for his massive tour. In May of '84, he convened the E Street Band at Big Man's West, Clarence Clemons' club in Red Bank, New Jersey. The purpose was a combination jam session and audition for Nils Lofgren. It was the first time Springsteen and the band had played together in a live setting since the River tour in 1981. Yet as soon as Springsteen counted off "Prove It All Night," "It was like we'd never stopped," says Max Weinberg. "We looked around at each other like 'Wow, that's what we've been missing."'

Weinberg had undergone five hand operations for tendinitis prior to the Born in the U.S.A. tour, but he was ready to play. (During the last nine months of the tour, however, he had to tape the ring finger of his left hand around the drumstick because he couldn't bend the finger at all.) After that Red Bank jam session, he says, the band rehearsed for four or five days in New Jersey before heading to central Pennsylvania for three days of dress rehearsals with full sound and lights.

"It was maybe eight or nine rehearsals altogether," Weinberg recalls. "And that's a lot. On the River tour, we rehearsed four days. On the Born to Run tour, we didn't rehearse at all. We went right from the last recording session to a rehearsal room at eight in the morning, we ran through the set and played that night."

"We know each other so well," says organist Danny Federici, who has played with Springsteen for eighteen years, "that we can tell what song we're going to play just by the way Bruce counts it off or the way he wants it by the intensity with which he counts it off. Bruce would go, 'One, two, three, four,' and we'd all play the same song. We didn't discuss what it would be."

The secret, according to Clarence Clemons, a member of Springsteen's band for fourteen years, is simple: "When you learn a Bruce Springsteen song, it's like learning to ride a bike. You don't forget it."

But newcomers Scialfa and Nils Lofgren – the first new E Street members in ten years – didn't have a lot of time to learn. Lofgren had met Springsteen in 1969 at the Fillmore West in San Francisco, where Bruce's band Steel Mill was playing an audition. They kept bumping into each other on the Northeast college circuit in the early Seventies, so when Lofgren got a call from Springsteen, right before the rehearsals, asking him to replace the departing Miami Steve Van Zandt, "I was familiar with a lot of the famous songs. But I wasn't exactly ready to step into the guitar parts." Lofgren paid a visit to a Springsteen tape collector he knew in Washington D.C. and borrowed bootleg recordings of a 1981 River show and Born in the U.S.A., which hadn't even been released yet. He worked up chord charts for about fifteen songs, then went to New Jersey the next day.

"People ask me to compare playing with Neil Young and Bruce," notes Lofgren, who has recorded and toured extensively with Young. "To me, if you gotta label it, Bruce plays melodic rock & roll – melodies with tough rhythms. His songs are more structured. So it was easy for me to know when to step in and step out. Originally, all I did was cop some of the important guitar parts that Bruce and Steve had done on the records. At least it was something they wrote, and it wouldn't throw anybody. It seemed to be a safe place to start."

Scialfa, a graduate of Asbury Park High School, had in fact auditioned for Springsteen twice previously – before Born to Run was released and earlier, when he was leading a big band called Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom. But she was thrown straight into the deep end when she joined the tour on five days' notice. She spent the first three weeks singing from "cheat sheets," with the lyrics printed in bold letters and specific cues written in the margins. Her biggest problem onstage, though, was concentrating on her parts with all of that E Street energy whipping around her.

"There was one time where I forgot to sing because I was so absorbed in watching and listening," Scialfa remembers. "But I felt confident inside because Bruce was so confident. I'd try to lock in with him. I'd watch his back, watch him breathe."

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