Shortly before recording his second album, in 1973, 23-year-old Bruce Springsteen began adding a new song to his sets. "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)" is a jubilant, multipart Romeo-and-Juliet epic, a desperate but joyful plea to a girl whose mother "don't like me, 'cause I play in a rock & roll band." As Springsteen would later write, "I wrote it as a kiss-off to everybody who counted you out, put you down or decided you weren't good enough."
Springsteen had everything riding on the disc that "Rosalita" ended up on, The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. His debut, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., had tanked when it was released that January. "I had no success, so I had no real concerns about where I was going," Springsteen wrote. "I was going up, I hoped, or at least out."
His Columbia Records contract called for two albums a year, so Springsteen, his band and producers Mike Appel and Jim Cretecos returned that spring to 914 Sound Studios in Blauvelt, New York, where Greetings had been cut. Playing bars and clubs, the band was making so little — $35 a week — that staying in hotels wasn't an option. Springsteen and bassist Garry Tallent would make the three-hour roundtrip drive from their homes near Long Branch, New Jersey; other band members — drummer Vini Lopez, organist Danny Federici and saxophonist Clarence Clemons — crashed together in a tent behind the studio. Tallent recalls the group recording even when Springsteen hadn't actually booked studio time: "It was kind of a clandestine operation."
Springsteen's vision for the album was to recall "the great soul revues," in contrast to the folky strums that propelled Greetings. Another key influence, according to Steve Van Zandt, was Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, which he says "was like a religion to us." Springsteen arrived in the studio with a full disc's worth of material that had been thoroughly road-tested: "Rosalita," the boardwalk funk of "The E Street Shuffle" and "Kitty's Back," which Springsteen later dubbed "a distorted piece of big-band music." "Incident on 57th Street" and "New York City Serenade" were ambitious street-corner narratives, the latter highlighting David Sancious' jazzy piano and featuring symphonic strings.
When a children's choir for the ballad "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" couldn't be arranged, Suki Lahav — wife of recording engineer Louis Lahav — sang an uncredited harmony. (Several decades later, "Sandy" would be one of the last songs Federici — who died of cancer in 2008 — played onstage with Springsteen. "He wanted to strap on the accordion and revisit the boardwalk of our youth," Springsteen said at Federici's funeral.)
For the background street clatter on the Curtis Mayfield-style jam "The E Street Shuffle," the band gathered around a microphone and had a studio party, complete with tequila. That tune also marked the first time fans heard any reference to E Street — taken from a running joke within the band ("Next stop, E Street!") about picking up and dropping off Sancious at his Jersey home before and after shows. The musicians wouldn't actually be dubbed "the E Street Band" until the following year.
Despite rave reviews, The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle wasn't the hit Springsteen needed: When it was released in September 1973, it peaked at Number 59. "It was pretty much dead on arrival," remembers Ron Oberman, a Columbia publicist at the time. "I didn't get any real sense of excitement from the label." But for Springsteen — who didn't break until two years later, with Born to Run — the disc marked the end of an era. "For me, this boardwalk life's through, baby," he sings on "Sandy." "It's sort of a funny song," he said onstage later. "I guess I was about to leave, and I didn't know where I was going exactly or what to expect. So it's kind of a farewell song."
As Tallent recalls now, "We were just trying to capture the energy and whatever we had live onto a record, which nobody seemed to know how to do. We all didn't know a lot. That's why it was wild and innocent, you know?"
This story is from the June 11, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone.