Nearly three hours into the Friday late show during his recent stand at the Bottom Line in New York, Bruce Springsteen, singer, songwriter, guitarist and cause célèbre, staged a mock collapse into the arms of his sax player, Clarence Clemons.
"I don't think I can go on, Clarence," he croaked. "It's cholesterol on my heart. My doctor told me if I sang this song once more, he wouldn't be responsible. But I gotta do it, Clarence, I gotta."
With that, he hurled himself into a hoarsely exultant final chorus of "Twist and Shout."
It was pure corn, of course, but a perfect instance of the way Springsteen can launch into a bit of theatricalized melodrama, couch it in affectionate parody and wind up heightening his own overwhelmingly personal rock & roll impact.
The ten sold-out Bottom Line shows may have been carefully orchestrated to garner press quotes and industry attention, but that didn't make the enthusiasm any less genuine. There were block-long lines of people hoping to buy the 50 standing-room tickets sold for each show. Every performance saw a good 200 extra bodies crammed into a club that supposedly seats 400. Springsteen's entrances were greeted with standing ovations, and by the end of each set the crowd's mood was one of delirium.
Springsteen himself was happy about the New York dates. "It went pretty ideally," he said a few days after they were over and a few days before he headed out on the road for his first major national tour. "The band cruised through them shows like the finest machine there was. There's nothin'--nothin'--in the world to get you playing better than a gig like that. The band walked out of the Bottom Line twice as good as when they walked in."
Springsteen's problem has been that while he has won audience and critical acclaim wherever he's played, his first two records haven't sold all that well--as of the release of the third, Born to Run, about 120,000 for Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and 175,000 for The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. Here's a man who is 26, has been playing in public for 11 years, has had a record contract for three and been hailed as yet another in the line of "new Dylans" for just as long--and he was still unknown to the bulk of the public. No matter how many critics call you the greatest thing since Elvis or Dylan, you aren't a superstar unless you sell millions of records. You aren't even ultimately a successful artist, especially when your artistry expresses itself in a popular idiom.
There are all sorts of possible explanations for why Springsteen hasn't made it big until now, and nearly all of them throw light on the nature of his talents. The first, which can be pretty much dismissed out of hand, is that he really isn't any good and that those who love him are the victims of in-crowd faddism, payola or localized mass hysteria.
No artist is universally admired; there are always some detractors. But in Springsteen's case there remains the special problem of aroused expectations. For the past year and a half, ever since Rolling Stone reviewer Jon Landau called him the "rock & roll future" in Boston's Real Paper, the drumbeat of praise has mounted from the press. Maybe he is a critic's pet because he awakens aging writers' long-lost memories of when they and rock were young. One of the astonishing things about his music is the way he recycles stylistic bits and pieces from so many rock, pop, R&B and even Broadway artists of the past 20 years--from Elvis to Dylan to the Drifters to Van Morrison to Leonard Bernstein and his West Side Story. Maybe Springsteen is just a self-conscious master of pastiche and will leave a young, forward -- looking audience cold. Perhaps, but most unlikely. Any original artist, in any field, is first perceived in terms of his influences. Springsteen has gone on to make an original statement that owes its depth to that very past.
Another accusation is that he is an East Coast regional favorite. The trouble with both the "critic's darling" and "regional hero" theories is that audiences obviously love Springsteen as much as the critics do and that when he has ventured out of his immediate area (to Austin, for instance) the response has been just as loving. And now Born to Run seems to be catching on nationwide with a vengeance.
A rather more persuasive notion is that he is still growing musically. "You're dealing with a diamond in the rough," argued Mike Appel, the fast-talking ex-Marine who manages Springsteen. "It's been a gradual process. If you really want to know why Bruce Springsteen is better today, it's because heis better today."
Springsteen agreed. "Kids come up and say, 'Man, I seen you ten times and this time you were the best ever.' It's because there's a million things to do. I get good guys in the band and a good situation for growth. There's no moody stuff goin' on. If there is, it gets put into positive-type energy. And I'm finding out I can do more things, too."
According to his parents, Springsteen is a German name. He was born and raised in Freehold, New Jersey. When he was in his late teens, his parents moved to San Mateo, California; his father is a bus driver. Springsteen went to high school in Freehold and tried college briefly, but since the age of 15, his life has been focused on rock & roll. He's always been a leader and during his teens he headed a series of bands with Springsteen names like Child and Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom. He became a local bar favorite and even played as far afield as the Fillmore in San Francisco. He was also making regular runs into Manhattan, appearing as both a bandleader and solo folkie in Greenwich Village clubs, learning his craft in the most basic and the most diverse way possible. In the spring of 1972 Appel became his manager and at about that time he began to concentrate on the deliberately poetic lyrics that characterize his work.
"I'd been reading that book [the Scaduto biography of Dylan] and read about how it all went down," said Springsteen, "and about John Hammond Sr. and stuff [Hammond signed Dylan to Columbia]. Then I went in and met Mike and he said he was takin' me in to see Hammond. I didn't get nervous. I figured nothin' would happen. It was amazing to me, reading that book and then I find myself sitting there in that office."
Hammond was impressed and got him to Clive Davis. In one of his last major signings for Columbia, Davis gave Springsteen a contract and pushed his first album hard.
But Columbia and even Appel thought of Springsteen as a solo, acoustic artist--the "new Dylan" hype was sincere but it was the pre-1965 Dylan everybody was thinking of. "I had to fight to get what band was on there," Springsteen said about his demand to have a band play behind him. "Mike didn't know what I was tryin' to do for at least a year after we were together."
The following year he began building his band in earnest, perfecting his stage show and redressing the balance between words and music in his songs. In conversation, he continually circles back to his musicians. Certainly the current E Street Band sounds better than anybody who has backed him since 1972, even with the departure of such a fine player as pianist David Sancious. Clemons is the key, with his gritty, evocative sax solos, but Miami Steve Van Zandt (a recent acquisition but a veteran of earlier Springsteen bands) is a welcome addition on guitar. Roy Bittan and Danny Federici do fine jobs on keyboards', and Garry Tallent (bass) and Max W. Weinberg (drums) provide a solid, lively, rhythmic underpinning. Words dominated the first album, but they don't any more.
"I never did separate the words and music all that much," Springsteen said. "The only time I did was when I was playin' by myself. The lyrics aren't as flashy now as on the first album. Then it was all a lot of images. I was writing about all the things that were happening around me. If it felt right, it was okay. Lately I've been trying to deal more with ideas--with concepts, with themes. The stuff I'm writin' now is closer to what I was writin' in the bars. I got pulled away then. I walked in off the street and was about to get a record deal. I wasn't about to argue."
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