New Dylan From Jersey? It Might as Well Be Springsteen

He's won audience and critical acclaim, but is still unknown to the bulk of the public

bruce springsteen 1975
Gus Stewart/Redferns
Bruce Springsteen
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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.

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run

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."

Album Review: Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run

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."

Appel is thus correct in saying that the Springsteen whom people are wild about now is a different Springsteen from the word-fixated, electrified folkie people thought they heard on Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. But although he has no doubt improved in the past 18 months, he's been good for so long that there have to be more reasons to explain his delayed national recognition.

Some say that Columbia faltered in its support, backing off the second album after the disappointing response to the first. But there can be no doubt that the company is solidly behind Born to Run. Columbia bought 1000 of the 4000 seats for the Bottom Line dates--not only to proselytize the press, record dealers and radio personnel, but also to fire up its own employees for a maximum effort.

There has also been criticism of Appel, who can be arrogant, aggressive and belligerent, and of Springsteen himself, who takes a decisive role in managing his own career. Springsteen's insistence on doing two-hour-plus sets and his reluctance to defuse Springsteen his impact in gigantic indoor arenas have meant that the time-honored methods of building a career through touring have been closed to him. He did a tour with Chicago a couple of years ago but hated it.

"The best part about the tour was the other band," he recalled. "But we had the problems of any opening act playing in 20,000-seat halls. They just won't listen to you. They can't hear, for one thing. They don't know how to listen, for another. Some groups just go out and plow through it. But I can't do it that way. And it showed--we played 13 or 14 gigs in them big halls and we sold no records. We didn't start sellin' records until we started playin' smaller places. It's a slow process. But I was always certain. I was just sure about what I was doin'."

Springsteen avidly defends Appel. "I think Mike is the greatest, number one. There never was a situation when he was guiding my career. I don't go out there to do half. Mike understands this. He ended up takin' the heat for a lot of decisions I made.

"I did other things. I painted houses. If you want your house green, I paint it green. But when I walk out onstage, I do what I want to do."

The real problem in his career so far has been the discrepancy between his live performances and his albums. And his own painful awareness of that threatened the momentum of his career for the past year. In early 1974 he toured wherever he could get dates, building up pockets of rabid followers. But from June 1974 to July 1975 he was hung up in the studio, struggling to come up with the album that everybody expected. His protracted work on that album not only interrupted his performing but left Columbia without a product to push. And careers are built on records; Springsteen, who shares with all great rock & rollers an almost cosmic ambition, knew that full well. "Bruce is determined before he dies to make the greatest rock & roll record ever made," was the way Landau put it.

Born to Run began with the title track. It was recorded last summer in Blauvelt, N.Y., site of the first two albums. Meant as Springsteen's bid for a commercial hit single, it took three-and-a-half months to finish and was four-and-a-half minutes long. Then things came to a standstill, however much Springsteen optimists like to talk about his "learning his way around a studio." From October until April, time was wasted unproductively in the studio or sitting about, working up the energy to try again.

The former producer-of the MC5 and Livingston Taylor, Landau resigned as recordings editor of Rolling Stone to co-produce the album. He moved the proceedings to the Record Plant here and got things underway again.

"We needed an outside perspective," Springsteen willingly admitted. "Things had fallen down internally. He got things on their feet again. He was able to point out reasons why we weren't progressing. Nobody knew why; we were completely in the dark. Jon was a super-important figure. He came up with the idea, 'Let's make a rock & roll record.' His whole thing was to help me do things my way, but to make it easier."

Even so, things hardly sailed smoothly. Work was held up by rethinkings and outright indecision: Springsteen can explore all his options from performance to performance, but records are fixed forever, and you have to choose among options. As the summer went on, committed performance dates threatened to interrupt the sessions, and the final mixing was not finished until just before the Bottom Line dates.

"I was rehearsing the band in one studio, singing 'She's the One' in another and mixing 'Jungleland' in the third," Springsteen recalled the day before the Bottom Line stand began, sprawled on a blanket on the beach at Long Branch, New Jersey, where he's lived for the past year. "It was off the wall. I'm never gonna do that again." He made the key production decisions and chose a rich, Spectorian mix, full of overdubs and echo.

"When I had just made it, I hated it," he recalled. "I just couldn't listen to it. I went nuts or somethin'. It scared me off a little bit, maybe. I was puttin' down things I hadn't put down before; that's such a personal thing. You wonder how far, how much. I almost didn't put it out. But that was one of the few times I figured there must be something the matter with me, since everybody also said we should release it. I like it now.

"The experience of making a record was like a total wipeout. It was a devastating thing, the hardest thing I ever did."

Springsteen began his most ambitious tour yet on September 6th. It is scheduled to last most of the rest of the year with nearly all the dates in halls seating between 2500 and 3500. After that, there is talk of a European swing in January and considerations of how best to play large halls. "It's a problem," said Appel. "You can't stay in Avery Fisher Hall [which seats 2836] for 14 days. We're thinking of trying to block off part of a hall like Madison Square Garden, both acoustically and visually, so it would seat about 10,000."

And after that comes the awaited live album, Appel said. "We want it to be a two-and-a-half- to three-hour album, just like a concert. It will be two or three records--maybe a series of single records but probably one big set. When? It all depends. . . ."

What it all depends on, of course, is how well Born to Run is ultimately received. But by this time it seems just a matter of the degree of its success. Nobody this good, is the reasoning, can miss. The worries now are for the future.

Is Springsteen ready for fame? Can he handle the demands of rock stardom after a decade of hustling on the South Jersey shore? Will his writing, so closely tied to street life, still flourish with success?

"It's difficult," Springsteen mused on the beach. "It gets harder as it goes along. I guess it's because you got to fight your way through more and more of the bullshit. You have to go a little farther than you went the last time. Go a little deeper down into yourself. That's hard to do, because you gotta face emotions and stuff. I don't know--it's a bit scary."

Springsteen as superstar would find it hard to live the kind of life he's led up to now. It's been confining, but it's made him what he is. Even now, he finds it hard to live relaxedly in Long Branch. More friends than he ever knew he had invade his little green house a half block from the one that has his yellow Chevy with the brown flames on the hood parked out front. When he hangs out in clubs or walks down the beach hand in hand with his girlfriend, Karen Darvin, all sorts of people who look pretty much like himself stop and talk. It's a world he's raised to universality in his songs, but it's real, and one hopes he can function outside of it. Springsteen himself professes a streetpunk confidence that ultimately makes you believe. "I don't know how important the settings are in the first place. It's the idea behind the settings. It could be New Jersey, it could be California, it could be Alaska. The images are like the coloring, not necessarily the picture. I can float anywhere--uptown, downtown, anywhere. I want to do everything. I want to see everything, I want to go everywhere. I know what kind of situation it is. Inside, I got everything straight."

This story appeared in the October 9th, 1975 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 197: October 9, 1975
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