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

bruce springsteen 468
Aaron Rapoport
Bruce Springsteen on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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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."

The first American leg of the tour totaled ninety-four shows in forty-five cities. It climaxed on January 26th and 27th, 1985, with two concerts at the cavernous Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. The crowds there – 39,000 people each night – were the largest of Springsteen's career up to that time. They were also a sign of things to come.

For Federici, the first leg was the hardest part of the tour, "because we were doing a lot more one-night stands in real close cities, flying out and playing the next day." But there was little rock & roll backstage monkey business; the entire Springsteen organization, from Bruce on down, was a model of efficiency.

"When you go backstage at a Bruce Springsteen show, you don't see a circus," declares Clarence Clemons. "Everybody has a job to do, and everybody goes about it seriously. Bruce instills the moral fiber that runs through the whole organization."

Each of the members of the E Street Band prepared for the evening's work in his or her own quiet way. Clemons, a recent convert to the Indian guru Sri Chinmoy, meditated for about a half hour and received a massage before every show. A few band members warmed up with a game of ping-pong. Backstage guests were usually escorted to a hospitality suite, well stocked with food and drink, where they awaited visits from Springsteen and the band.

It was often an all-star crunch. Elizabeth Taylor, Don Rickles, John McEnroe and Jack Nicholson, with Meryl Streep on his arm, were among the nonrock stars who attended. Royalty included Princess Stephanie and Prince Albert of Monaco, who attended the Paris show, and purple potentate Prince of Minneapolis, who showed up in Clarence Clemons' dressing room there and complimented Clemons' Swedish wife, Christina, on her dress.

Clemons says one of the high points of the tour for him was when Sean Connery, "the James Bond, came back and said he really admired me." But did it ever get crazy backstage with all those luminaries jockeying for position? "No," he says serenely, "we were the luminaries. They came to our gig."

No one enjoyed those gigs more than the musicians themselves. "Nils said it in a fantastic quote," notes Weinberg. "He said it's like you get up there with Bruce and they've given you four hours to live. And this is your four hours. Now what are you going to do with your time?"

To a man – and woman – the E Streeters agree that out of the approximately 150 shows they performed in 1984 and 1985, they didn't have a single bum night. Led by Springsteen, with a calm assurance born of nearly twenty years at center stage, they displayed a consistency each night that was equal parts technique and telepathy. The "stump the band" aspect of the group's mid-Seventies concerts – when Springsteen would suddenly alter the set in midshow, calling out an old cover or a forgotten LP track – tapered off as the band went into stadiums. "For the sake of projecting to 50,000 people, you needed more structure," claims Weinberg. Yet, while ninety percent of every show ran like clockwork, Springsteen always left an extra ten percent, Lofgren says, "to goof with."

For example, there was the night at Giants Stadium in New Jersey when the band was set to play "I'm on Fire," from Born in the U.S.A., and Springsteen abruptly called out "Fire" instead. At one of the last shows on the tour, Springsteen had finished the last encore when someone in the crowd threw an artificial leg onstage. "A whole leg," recalls Weinberg, marveling. "Bruce picks it up and says, 'We've got to play one more for this guy.' So we all run back to our instruments, but what the hell are we gonna play? Bruce looks at the leg and says, 'Fellas, "Stand on It." ' "

After completing the U.S. arena tour in syracuse, the band took a six-week breather during February and March before taking on the rest of the world. Springsteen's international itinerary included spring and summer swings through Britain, Europe and countries like Australia and Japan where the group had never performed before.

But Bruce's rock & roll gospel of self-respect and emotional liberation needed no translation. Japanese, Australian and European audiences easily grasped the universality of his frank, lyric portrayal of the tarnished American dream – the dashed hopes and defiant aspirations. Clarence Clemons was astonished to see young Japanese fans waving American and Japanese flags sewn together during shows there. In Milan, Italy, 60,000 people sang "My Hometown" with Springsteen while, ironically, an American serviceman near the foot of the stage stood at attention, holding the Stars and Stripes for the entire show.

"You could hear the whole audience singing," Max Weinberg remembers. "The idea of community in rock & roll is never more apparent than when something like that happens. The things we've seen from our vantage point onstage are irreplaceable memories."

"I wish some of the politicians had seen these things," declares Clemons. "Those kids didn't understand the words to 'Born in the U.S.A.,' but they understood what we were singing about. Those things Bruce sings about, attention to self and country, pertain not only to America. They pertain to everybody."

Clemons remembers swooping down in a helicopter over Slane Castle, near Dublin, Ireland, awed by the sight of over 70,000 people gathered there for the band's show. "It's wasn't only the sheer volume of numbers, but the sheer volume of harmony and peace. The next day I was in a cab going to the airport, and the driver turned to me and said: 'You were better than the pope. You brought the North and the South together, and there were no fights.' And that's what it's all about. That's why we knock ourselves out."

Audiences responded everywhere. At a race track in Brisbane, Australia, Springsteen asked the crowd to raise their hands in the air during "Twist and Shout." "They were so tightly packed together," says Weinberg, "they couldn't get their hands down. They were standing there in front of us, waving their hands. I felt, 'Wow, this must have been what Beatlemania was like.' They were completely freaking out." The normally reserved Japanese, he adds, "were the best dancers I've ever seen. And they knew all the words."

The decision by Springsteen and his manager, Jon Landau, to play large, outdoor venues, first in Europe and then in the States, was not made lightly. Springsteen worried about the loss of intimacy and the often inferior sound quality at stadium rock shows. "But there was a time when Bruce didn't want to go into arenas because of the same argument," Garry Tallent points out. "We had to take the shot. Some intimacy was lost." he admits, "but something was there to replace it – the event itself. We pulled it off."

To compensate for the increased distance between band and audience, Springsteen doubled the size of his sound system and added giant video screens to broadcast the action onstage to the back rows. Danny Federici says some of the band members also made slight adjustments in their stage wear. "We'd wear more vivid colors so we could be seen. I remember telling Garry, 'That shirt's a little too busy; they won't see you in the back.' We tried to get our clothing together a little bit better, wear more outrageous shirts."

"When you play big places like that, there's a tendency to think that if you jump around a lot, people are going to notice you more," explains Nils Lofgren, a veteran of stadium shows with Neil Young. "But in those places, it doesn't matter, because twenty or thirty rows out you still look like a dot. The best thing for us to do, with the video cameras there, was to do exactly what we normally did – be ourselves and let the cameras pick it up."

Max Weinberg dubbed the U.S. outdoor stadium shows that wound up the tour in September and October the Pestilence Tour. At the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, the band was attacked by a horde of crickets that got in the musicians' hair, on Weinberg's drum kit and even down the back of Springsteen's shirt while he was getting sentimental in "My Hometown." In Philadelphia, the temperature onstage registered 106 degrees. In Denver, the mercury plummeted to 35 degrees, with snow to boot. The weather was fine in Miami; unfortunately, the Orange Bowl there did not have an electrical system adequate for high-volume rock & roll. Diesel generators were brought in to take up the slack and set up behind the stage. Says Weinberg, groaning, "Those fumes were killing us."

Throughout the tour, the Springsteen road crew numbered between thirty and forty members. (By comparison, the Who traveled with a crew of ninety on their 1982 farewell U.S. tour.) The sound, lights and band gear filled nine tractor-trailers; the three separate outdoor stages used for the stadium shows took up another fifteen trucks. Often, while a crew was dismantling a stage in one stadium, Springsteen was performing on a second one in another city and a crew member was overseeing construction of a third stage in the next scheduled venue. Although the crew usually had two days to set up the entire production, they set a record at Giants Stadium when, because of a conflict with a football game there, they put up the stage, sound, lights and instruments in only seventeen hours.

Springsteen probably set a record, quite unintentionally, for breaking female hearts when he married actress and model Julianne Phillips last spring. But the betrothal didn't come as a real surprise to the E Street Band. "Seeing the look in their eyes before they were married reminded me very much of me and my wife, Becky," says Max Weinberg. Clarence Clemons knew it was coming after Springsteen played godfather at the christening of Clemons' third son, Christopher, in Hawaii early last year.

"When he was holding the kid," Clemons recalls, smiling, "I looked into his eyes and thought, 'Well, he's gone.' Two weeks later he called me up and said, 'Big Man, I'm gettin' married.' I said, 'I know."'

When the tour finally ended in Los Angeles last October, Springsteen and the E Street Band felt, in Max Weinberg's words, "incredibly drained but incredibly buzzed." The length of the tour and of the shows themselves had a kind of reverse effect on the band. Charged by the unflagging energy of their leader and their audiences, they actually thrived on the physical and psychological demands made on them.

"Of course, you get exhausted," admits Clemons. "You want to pass out. I came close a couple of times. But you're filled with something, that feedback that comes from the audience. You feel so strong that if somebody shot you with a gun you could keep going."

Everybody has settled down in recent months, at least for the time being. While Springsteen enjoys married life at his home in Rumson, New Jersey, the members of the E Street Band are using their extended vacation to indulge their own interests. Both Clemons and Nils Lofgren managed to squeeze recording sessions into tour breaks last year that resulted in solo albums – Lofgren's lively rock-out Flip and Clemons' ebullient pop outing Hero. Spurred by the Top Twenty success of his duet with Jackson Browne, "You're a Friend of Mine," Clemons will be taking most of his Hero studio band on the road for a summer tour. The Big Man may also take up a large chunk of your television screen; he's in the running for future guest-star roles in Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice. But in keeping with his spiritual rebirth, he insists, "I'll never do a role I wouldn't want my guru to see. I won't be a coke dealer, I won't be a pimp."

Lofgren recently spent a working holiday at Neil Young's ranch in northern California, writing material for a solo album to be recorded by spring. He is a permanent member of the E Street Band, though. "I didn't want to be a gun for hire for eighteen months. I'll be there whenever they play."

Patti Scialfa is shopping a demo tape of original material. She wants to release an album this summer. Danny Federici bought a house in his old home town of Flemington, New Jersey; an electronics enthusiast, he installed a recording studio where he composes instrumental music – for television soundtracks, he hopes. Garry Tallent has ambitions in record producing. He just finished production on a charity-rock single by Jersey Artists for Mankind (JAM), featuring Southside Johnny, assorted Jukes, jazz guitarist Tal Farlow and Nils Lofgren.

Roy Bittan continues to do sessions, and Max Weinberg worked as both drummer and mixing assistant of the debut album of highly touted Philly rocker John Eddie. Weinberg, who published a book called The Big Beat, a collection of interviews he conducted with great rock drummers, is also touring as a solo act – on the college lecture circuit, talking about both his drumming and life with you-know-who.

But Bruce only has to nod his head and everyone will jump back to E Street again. At a New Year's Eve party for the band at his home, Springsteen suggested getting together periodically for jam sessions, hinting that he already had some new material ready. "There isn't anybody in the E Street Band who wouldn't immediately drop what they're doing," declares Weinberg. In fact, they were all very sorry to see the tour end.

"On the last night, I cried," Weinberg admits. "There's a video clip that I saw on Entertainment Tonight. We were all lined up, and I can see tears in my eyes. I can see tears in everybody's eyes. When Bruce was singing 'Glory Days' and he turned around and said the line, 'Boys, we're going home now,' it really struck home."

This story appears in the February 27th, 1986 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 468: February 27, 1986