Los Angeles, Tuesday, July 4th
One of Bruce Springsteen's most popular early songs is called "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)." That he is spending this Independence Day on the shores of the wrong ocean is an irony that escapes no one, including himself. L.A. is not terra incognita, but Springsteen does not yet reign here as he does back east, and perhaps the time is auspicious to change that. Although he has been up all night mixing tapes recorded at his last concert (Saturday night, in Berkeley), he is at the pool soaking up the sun by 11 a.m.
If God had invented a hotel for rock bands, it probably would look like the Sunset Marquis, where Springsteen and the E Street Band are staying. Nestled on a steep side street just below Sunset Strip, the Marquis is a combination summer camp and commune. Its rooms are laid out around the swimming pool and guests on the first floor use the pool terrace as a sort of patio. In the daytime, the poolside is jammed, and at night, it's easy to tell who's home by the lights inside, behind curtained glass doors. Springsteen, the band, their crew and entourage occupy 30 rooms, including all those around the pool.
At noon, producer/manager Jon Landau, Bruce and I disappear into Springsteen's room to play the Berkeley concert mixes. There are two mixes of an eight-minute rendition of "Prove It All Night" that shatters the LP version, and one mix of an unnamed, shorter instrumental, often called "Paradise by the Sea," which opens the second half of his concerts. Even on a small cassette player, it's clear that something considerable is going on.
For years people have been begging Springsteen to make a live album, and "Prove It All Night" shows why. The song is considered the lightest item on Darkness on the Edge of Town, his new album, but onstage it becomes what pianist Roy Bittan, for one, thinks is the most exciting song of the show, featuring a lengthy guitar and keyboard improvisation that sounds like an unholy alliance between the Yardbirds and Bob Dylan. When the introduction gives way to the melody of the song, "Prove It" is transformed from something potentially light and dismissible into an emotional crucible. Hearing it, you may wonder if "Prove It All Night" is a hit single, but you know it's a great song.
"Paradise by the Sea" is its alter ego. Only Springsteen, touring behind a new album, would have come up with this to open the second half of the show: a five-minute instrumental featuring Clarence Clemons' sax and Danny Federici's organ, which simultaneously evokes Duane Eddy and Booker T. and the MGs.
Clemons walks into the room with an unbelievably joyous look on his face, and when the tape ends, he takes Bruce by the arm and shouts, "Everybody into the pool!" The next sound is a series of splashes, and in a few moments they reappear, bathing suits dripping, and listen again, then repeat the performance. Soon, the tiny hotel bedroom is crowded with half a dozen people dripping wet and exuberant.
At 6:30 p.m., Bruce is at KMET-FM to do an on-the-air interview with disc jockey Mary Turner. There are a couple of bottles of champagne, which may be a mistake; Bruce gets loose pretty easily. And in fact, he is a little sloshed as the interview begins, but Turner plays it perfectly, fishing for stories. She gets at least one winner. "When my folks moved out to California," Bruce begins in response to a question about whether he really knows "a pretty little place in Southern California/Down San Diego way" as he claims in "Rosalita," "my mom decided – see my father and I would fight all the time – and she decided that we should take a trip together. She decided that we should go to Tijuana [he laughs his hoarse laugh, reserved for the truly absurd]. So we got in the car and drove down there, arguing all the way. First I drove and he yelled at me, and then he drove and I yelled at him.
"Anyway, we finally got there, and of course, my old man is the softest-hearted guy in the world. Within 15 minutes, some guy has sold him some watch that must've run for all of an hour and a half before it stopped. And then some guy comes up and says, 'Hey, would you guys like to have your picture taken on a zebra?'
"Well, we looked at each other – who could believe this, right? Zebras are in Africa. And so we said, 'Well if you've got a zebra, we definitely want to have our picture taken.' So we give him 10 bucks and he takes us around this corner, and he's got . . . he's got a damn donkey with stripes painted on its side. And he pulls out these two hats – one says Pancho, one says Cisco – I swear – and he sits us on the donkey and takes our picture. My mother's still got that picture. But that is all I knew about Southern California at the time I wrote 'Rosalita.' "
This is the easiest I have ever heard Bruce speak of his father. "Adam Raised a Cain," from the new album, may have exorcised a lot of ghosts. In some of the stories Bruce has told onstage about their relationship, however, his father seems like a demon, which of course, he is not.
In fact, Douglas Springsteen has lived a very rough working-class life. For a great deal of Bruce's childhood, his family (he has two sisters, both younger) shared a house with his grandparents while his father worked at an assortment of jobs – in a factory, as a gardener, as a prison guard – never making as much as $10,000 a year. Later he moved the family from New Jersey to northern California, where he is now a bus driver. Bruce says that the tales of their conflicts are true ("I don't make 'em up"), but that they're meant to be "universal." He is not exactly enthusiastic about discussing the relationship, although in a couple of the songs that did not make it onto Darkness, particularly "The Promise" and "Independence Day," he has chronicled his preoccupation with fathers as thoroughly as did John Steinbeck in East of Eden, the film that inspired "Adam."
Bruce is so loose by now that when an ad for Magic Mountain's roller coaster – the largest in the world – comes on, he discusses great roller coasters he has known, and his desire to see this one. "Ya wanna date?" he asks Turner, in front of who knows how many listeners. She makes the perfect reply: "Only if we sit in the front seat."
After the interview, we head to the car and a beach house in Santa Monica, where there's a promise of food and fireworks. We race straight out Santa Monica Boulevard to the freeway. It's like something out of a Steve McQueen movie (Bullitt). I haven't spent as reckless a moment as this one in years. But Bruce, who isn't driving, is determined to see those fireworks. "C'mon," he says, over and over again. "I don't wanna miss 'em." He's like a little boy, and the car whips along, straight into a traffic jam at the end of the Santa Monica Freeway, where we can see hints of the fireworks – blue, red, gold, green – cascading out over the ocean.
It's a chill night and the party is outside. Band and crew members shiver on the patio, chewing on cold sandwiches (Swiss cheese, ham, turkey, roast beef) and sucking down beer and soda. Bruce quickly decides this won't do. He heads for the gate leading to the beach. "C'mon," he says to one and all. "Let's walk up to the pier. I want a hot dog."
And so we strike out down the beach. The pier is a mile south, far enough so that its lights are only a glow on the horizon. And covering the beach the entire distance are people shooting off their own fireworks, Roman candles and skyrockets. We haven't gone a hundred yards before the scene has become a combat zone. I suggest a strategic retreat to the highway. Bruce gives me a look. "C'mon, what's the worst that can happen? A rocket upside the head?" He giggles with joy and keeps trudging on through the sand.
The rockets are exploding directly over our heads now, and once in a while, closer than that. A rocket upside the head is not unimaginable. Bruce strikes out closer to the water, where the sand is more firmly packed and the walking is easier. Down here there are other sorts of activity: lovers in sleeping bags and drinkers sitting in sand pits, nursing themselves against the chill with liquor. The rockets, fewer now, drift out into the water to die with a hiss or a fizzle, and Bruce Springsteen moves through it all, just another cloud in a hurricane, a natural force or maybe just another kid.
Two hot dogs with relish and an hour of pinball later, we walk back along the highway to the car and zip back to the hotel. Tour manager Jim McHale, David Landau (Warren Zevon's lead guitarist and Jon's brother) and booking agent Barry Bell are talking in Jon's room when Bruce bursts through the poolside curtains. His face is glowing. "We're goin' to make the hit," he shouts, and ducks back out. McHale's jaw drops, and he races from the room. "I think they're going to paint the billboard," says David.
The raid isn't completely a surprise. Sunday night, driving up the Strip on the way to see The Buddy Holly Story, Bruce had first noticed the billboard looming above a seven-story building just west of the Continental Hyatt House. Billboards are a Hollywood institution – they're put up for every significant album and concert appearance – and this one uses the Darkness cover photo, poorly cropped, to promote both the new record and the group's Forum appearance tomorrow night. As we passed this enormous monument, which rears up 40 feet above the building, Bruce had groaned and slumped in his seat. "That is the ugliest thing I've ever seen in my life," he said.
The billboard is only a few blocks up the street. According to all accounts, Springsteen, Clemons, bass guitarist Garry Tallent and several crew members approached with some stealth the office building on which the billboard is perched. Much to their surprise, the building was wide open, and the elevator quickly took them to the roof. There, McHale, perhaps figuring that cleverness is better than a bust, quickly organized them. There were 20 cans of black spray paint, quickly distributed, and Bruce, Garry and Clarence quickly took positions on the paperhangers' ledge. Bell was positioned across the street to watch for cops. At a signal from McHale, the painting began: PROVE IT ALL NIGHT spread across the billboard from edge to edge, the middle words nearly lost in the dark photo of Bruce. Then Bruce stood on Clemons' shoulders and painted another legend above NIGHT: E STREET, it said. As they were clambering down, a signal came – the cops. Some headed back for the elevator, but Bruce, Clarence and McHale left Cagney-style, down the outside fire escape. It was a false alarm anyway.
In the hotel lobby at a quarter to three, Bruce is exhilarated. "You shoulda been there," he says, running over the event like a successful general fresh from battle. Was he worried about getting caught? "Naw," he says. "I figured if they caught us, that was great, and if we got away with it, that was even better." He looks down at himself, hands black with paint, boots ruinously dusty from the beach, and laughs. "There it is," he says. "Physical evidence.… The only thing is, I wanted to get to my face, and paint on a mustache. But it was just too damn high." He terms the paint job "an artistic improvement."
Wednesday, July 5th
Last night, as we were getting into the car after the KMET interview, Bruce began to talk about the reviews Darkness on the Edge of Town has been getting. It is a subject on which he qualifies as something of an expert: more has been written about him – and about what has been written on him – than any other rock performer of recent years, with the possible exception of Mick Jagger. The miracle is, I guess, that the scars barely show – instead, Springsteen looks at the press with avid interest.
"It's a weird thing about those reviews," Bruce says. "You can find any conceivable opinion in them: one guy says the record's exactly like Born to Run and it's great, the next one says it's not like Born to Run and it's great, the next one says it's not like Born to Run and it's awful." This amuses him. The nearly unanimous opinion that the album is grim and depressing doesn't.
It's the title, I suggest. "I know, I know," he says impatiently. "But I put in the first few seconds of 'Badlands,' the first song on the album, those lines about 'I believe in the love and the hope and the faith.' It's there on all four corners of the album." By which he means the first and last songs on each side: "Badlands" and "Racing in the Street," "The Promised Land" and the title song. He is clearly distressed: he meant Darkness to be "relentless," not grim.
Later, I ask him why the album lacks the humor that buoys his shows. "In the show, it's a compilation of all the recorded stuff," he says in the halting way he uses when he's taking something seriously. "If you go back to The Wild and Innocent, 'Rosalita' is there, and all that stuff. But when I was making this particular album, I just had a specific thing in mind. And one of the important things was that it had to be just a relentless . . . just a barrage of the particular thing.
"I got an album's worth of pop songs, like 'Rendezvous' and early English-style stuff. I got an album's worth right now, and I'm gonna get it out somehow. I wanna do an album that's got 10 or 11 things like that on it. But I just didn't feel it was the right time to do that, and I didn't want to sacrifice any of the intensity of the album by throwing in 'Rendezvous,' even though I knew it was popular from the show."
The other criticism that is easily made of Darkness concerns the repetition of certain images: cars, street life, abandonment by or of women, family and friends. Those who like this call it style; those who don't say Springsteen is drilling a dry hole. But perhaps Springsteen's greatest and most repeated image is the lie.
"It's hard to explain without getting too heavy. What it is, it's the characters' commitment. In the face of all the betrayals, in the face of all the imperfections that surround you in whatever kind of life you lead, it's the character's refusal to let go of their own humanity, to let go of their own belief in the other side. It's a certain loss of innocence – more so than in the other albums."
I drove out to the Forum this afternoon with Obie. Obie is 25, and she has been Bruce Springsteen's biggest fan for more than a decade. When he was still just a local star, she waited overnight for tickets to his shows to make certain she'd have perfect seats. She is now secretary to Miami Steve Van Zandt, Springsteen's guitarist and manager/producer of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. This means that while Springsteen is on tour, Obie is the de facto manager of the Asbury Jukes. But she's also something more. She makes some of the jackets and suits Bruce wears onstage. She is also a historian; there are a thousand Asbury Park legends behind her twinkling eyes. More than anything, she is a fan who counts the days between Springsteen shows. Her loyalty is rewarded. Whenever she comes to a show, in any town, the front-row center is reserved for her.
It is partly this that makes Bruce Springsteen so attractive: he is surrounded by real-life characters that form the kind of utopian community most of us lost when we graduated high school; one of the reasons Springsteen is such a singular performer is that he has never lost touch with this decidedly noncosmopolitan gang.
Part of the legend is the E Street Band. "Ya know, you can tell by looking at 'em," Bruce explains to me, "that this isn't a bunch of guys with a whole lot in common. But somehow the music cuts right through all that."
There's a lot to cut. Bassist Garry Tallent is a consummate rockabilly addict who looks the part. He's been known to use Brylcreem. Organist Danny Federici has an angel face that could pass for the kind of tough guy Harvey Keitel plays in Fingers. Pianist Roy Bittan and drummer Max Weinberg are seasoned pros, veterans of recording studios and Broadway pit bands. Miami Steve Van Zandt is a perpetual motion machine, a comic version of Keith Richards' Barbary pirate act, with a slice of small-town-boy-made-good on the side. And Clarence Clemons, last of all, dwells in a land all his own, not quite like the universe the rest of us inhabit, though it is seemingly available to all comers. Clemons transforms any room he enters, as a six-foot-plus black man with the bulk of a former football player often can do, but even in his own digs at the Marquis, there's something special happening – his hospitality is perfect, and it is in Clarence's room that the all-night party is most likely to run.
Bruce stands distinctly outside this group. "It's weird," he says," 'cause it's not really a touring band or just a recording band. And it's definitely me, I'm a solo act, y'know." But there is also a sense in which Bruce Springsteen does not mesh in any society, and it has a great deal to do with what makes him so obsessive about his music.
Before he landed a record contract, all of the Asbury Park musicians held day jobs – Garry Tallent worked in a music store, Clemons was a social worker, Van Zandt was in the construction union. The exception, always, was Bruce, who never held any other job, apparently because he could not conceive of doing anything else. At age eight, when he first heard Presley, lightning struck, and when he picked up the guitar at 13, another bolt hit him. "When I got the guitar," he told me Wednesday night, "I wasn't getting out of myself. I was already out of myself. I knew myself, and I did not dig me. I was getting into myself."
By 14, he was in his first band; by 16, he was so good that when he practiced in his manager's garage, neighborhood kids would stand on milk crates at the windows with their noses pressed to the glass, just to hear. The only other things besides music that ever meant much to him, Springsteen says, were surfing and cars. But nothing – even girls – ever got in the way of his obsession with his music; there is a certain awe in the way that people who have known him for many years speak of his single-minded devotion to playing. It's as if he always knew his destiny, and while this hasn't made him cold – he is one of the friendliest people I know – it has given him considerable distance from everyday relationships. One does not ever think of Bruce Springsteen married and settled down, raising a family, having kids; that would be too much monkey business.
What keeps the band so tight is the two-to-three-hour sound check before each gig. Today's began at 3:30 p.m. – it's a 7:30 show on the ticket – and didn't end until nearly seven. In part, these are informal band rehearsals, with Bruce working up new material: as we enter the hall at five, he is singing Buddy Holly's "Rave On," a number he has never done live. But there's more to it than that.
On this tour, Springsteen's sound mixer is Bruce Jackson; a tall blond Australian who worked for Elvis Presley for several years. He is amazed at Springsteen's perfectionism. "At every date," he says, "he goes out and sits in every section of the hall to listen to the sound. And if it isn't right, even in the last row, I hear about it, and we make changes. I mean every date, too – he doesn't let it slip in Davenport, Iowa, or something." Presley, on the other hand, was concerned only with the sound he would hear in the onstage monitors.
("Anybody who works for me," Springsteen says, without a trace of a joke, "the first thing you better know is I'm gonna drive you crazy. Because I don't compromise in certain areas. So if you're gonna be in, you better be ready for that.")
Which perhaps explains the consistently high quality of Springsteen's live performances. I must have seen 40 over the years, and no two are alike. Even if the songs are the same, which they hardly ever are, Bruce brings something different to every one. Tonight's is conversational – the loosest I've ever seen, and at the same time, frighteningly intense. He begins immediately after "Badlands," the opening number, by talking about the walk on the beach last night ("It's like a combat zone out there") and makes some self-deprecating remarks about his press attention, which has mushroomed this week: Robert Hilburn had given him a rave advance notice in the Sunday Los Angeles Times, and Ed Kociela had more than matched it with a pair of pieces – interview and Berkeley concert review – in Monday's Herald-Examiner. In a way, Springsteen was taking Los Angeles by storm, as he had taken New York in August 1975 with the release of Born to Run and 10 shows at the Bottom Line. There are some who must find such excessive praise threatening or suspicious – though only a fool would think that such enthusiasm could be manufactured – but Bruce defuses it easily: "See all that fancy stuff in the papers about me? Big deal, huh? I gotta tell you, I only levitate to the upper deck on Wednesday and Fridays . . . Wednesdays and Fridays, and I don't do no windows."
Perhaps the most nervy and nerve-racking antic Springsteen has retained in making the transition to hockey arenas is his trademark leap into the audience during the third song, "Spirit in the Night." He looks frail – at an extremely wiry and agile five-foot-nine, he is not – and one is always worried that his consummate trust in his fans is going to let him down. But night after night he gets away with it. Somehow. Tonight, the security doesn't get the picture and tries to drag the fans off Bruce as he ascends an aisle deep in the loges. "You guys work here or something?" Springsteen demands. "Get outta here. These guys are my friends." The crowd roars.
His parents have come down from their home near San Francisco for the show, and the evening is sprinkled with allusions to them and his 16-year-old sister, Pam. The stories he tells are always among his best moments, but what gets me tonight are the asides and dedications: he tells about the billboard ("We made a few improvements,"), about asking Mary Turner for a date, and when he does "For You," he dedicates the song to Greg Kihn, who recorded the song for Berserkley Records a year ago. And because Gary Busey is here, he tells about seeing The Buddy Holly Story. It's the perfect review.
"It's funny because I could never really picture Buddy Holly moving. To me, he was always just that guy with the bow tie on the album cover. I liked the picture because it made him a lot more real for me."
But the encores are the evening's highlights. First, "The Promise," a quiet ballad that was one of the first things Springsteen wrote for the new album, and which was finally dropped from it. In an earlier version, "The Promise" was taken by many listeners to be a metaphor for the lawsuit with former manager Mike Appel that delayed production of the new LP for more than a year. But tonight, with a new verse added in the studio, it's obviously about something more universal: "Now my daddy taught me how to walk quiet/And how to make my peace with the past/And I learned real good to tighten up inside/And I don't say nothin' unless I'm asked."
And then, to top it all, he does his two most famous songs, back to back: "Born to Run" and "Because the Night," the latter in a version that shrivels the Patti Smith hit. When the night finally ends, it is with "Quarter to Three," houselights up full and the crowd singing along as spontaneously as I've ever heard 14,500 people do anything.
Backstage I run into Jackson Browne. "Good show, huh?" I say. He looks at me querulously, like I was just released from the nut house. "Uh unh," Jackson says. "Great show."
At midnight, local FM stations broadcast an announcement that Springsteen will play the Roxy, the 500-seat club and record-company hangout on Sunset Strip, on Friday night, one show only. Lines begin forming almost immediately.
Thursday, July 6th
Walking through the lobby of the Marquis last night, just after 2 a.m., I ran into Bruce, who asked if I wanted to walk over to Ben Frank's for something to eat. On the way I mentioned that there must be a lot of people in line at the Roxy just up the street. Bruce gave me a look. "I don't like people waiting up all night for me," he said.
Bruce ate another prodigious meal: four eggs, toast, a grilled-cheese sandwich, large glasses of orange juice and milk. And the talk ranged widely: surfing (Bruce had lived with some of the Jersey breed for a while in the late Sixties, and he's a little frustrated with trying to give a glimmer of its complexity to a landlocked ho-dad like me), the new album and its live recording ("I don't think I'll ever go back to the overdub method," he said mentioning that almost all of the LP was done completely live in the studio, and that "Streets of Fire" and "Something in the Night" were first takes). But mostly we talked or rather, Bruce talked and I listened.
Springsteen can be spellbinding, partly because he is so completely ingenuous, partly because of the intensity and sincerity with which he has thought out his role as a rock star. He delivers these ideas with an air of conviction, but not a proselytizing one; some of his ideas are radical enough for Patti Smith or the punks, yet lack their sanctimonious rhetoric.
I asked him why the band plays so long – their shows are rarely less than three hours – and he said: "It's hard to explain. 'Cause every time I read stuff that I say, like in the papers, I always think I come off sounding like some kind of crazed fanatic. When I read it, it sounds like that, but it's the way I am about it. It's like you have to go the whole way because . . . that's what keeps everything real. It all ties in with the records and the values, the morality of the records. There's a certain morality of the show and it's very strict." Such comments can seem not only fanatical, but also self-serving. The great advantage of the sanctimony and rhetoric that infests the punks is that such flaws humanize them. Lacking such egregious characteristics, Bruce Springsteen seems too good to be true when reduced to cold type. Nice guys finish last, we are told, and here's one at the top. So what's the catch? I just don't know.
At the end of every show, before the first encore. Bruce stands tall at the microphone and makes a little speech. "I want to thank all of you for supporting the band for the past three years," he concludes and then plays "Born to Run." I wondered why.
"That's what it's about," he said. "Everything counts. Every person, every individual in the crowd counts – to me. I see it both ways. There is a crowd reaction. But then I also think very, very personally, one to one with the kids. 'Cause you put out the effort and then if it doesn't come through it's a . . . it's a breakdown. What I always feel is that I don't like to let people that have supported me down. I don't like to let myself down. Whatever the situation, as impossible as it is, I like to try to . . . I don't wanna try to get by."
And so it was no surprise that waking up this morning, I found that all hell had broken loose. Only 250 seats for the Roxy show were available for public sale, which meant that a great many of those who had waited up weren't going to get in. And Bruce was not just upset about this: he was angry. It was a betrayal, however well intentioned, and the fact that another 120 tickets would go to fans through radio-station giveaways did not mollify him. People had been fruitlessly inconvenienced by him. It did not matter that at most similar small-club gigs, the proportion of public to industry is reversed. This was his show, and it should have been done properly.
Friday, July 7th
Whatever bad blood had erupted from the overnight Roxy fiasco is gone. In its place, one begins to get a sense of Springsteen's impact on L.A. Polaroids snap at the billboard modifications up the Strip, and the band seems prepared for a big night. At 6 p.m. there's media first: Springsteen is interviewed on KABC, the first time he has ever been on TV in any way, shape or form. It's a good interview – "It's probably the only thing that I live for. When I was a kid, I didn't know nothin' about nothin' until rock & roll got into my house. To me, it was the only thing that was ever true, it was the only thing that never let me down. And no matter who was out there, 10 people or 10,000 people, there's a lot to live up to. . . . What happens is, there's a lotta trappings, there's a lotta things that are there to tempt you, sort of. It's just meaningless. And I just try to . . . I play Buddy Holly every night before I go on, that keeps me honest."
But even more striking are the filmed performances of "Prove It All Night" and "Rosalita" that accompany the interview. Even on this small screen, Springsteen is a visual natural, mugging like a seven-year-old and leaping like the rocker of someone's dreams; I know why so many film directors, seeing him for the first time, have virtually drooled in anticipation.
After the Forum the Roxy seems cramped. The broadcast is set for nine, but it's quarter past by the time the band takes the stage. The place is packed – even the balcony box above Roy Bittan's piano looks like it is holding twice the customers it was intended for. And while there are celebrities here – Cher and Kiss' Gene Simmons, Jackson Browne, Irving Azoff and Glenn Frey, Karla Bonoff, Busey, Tom Waits – it is mostly a crowd of kids and young adults.
The crowd rustles as Bruce steps to the mic, but he holds up his hand. "I want to apologize to everybody," he says, "for what happened with the tickets to this show. It was my fault, and I'm really sorry. I wasn't tryin' to make this no private party – I don't play no parties anymore. Except my own." I think that Mrs. Springsteen, sitting in the back, must be very proud to have such a son. And he steps to the mic and sings: "Wel-a-well-a little things you say and do . . ." It's "Rave On" and the joint explodes. Garry Tallent, who loves this music as much as anyone I have ever met, is singing the choruses, his face shining. "I've always wanted to sing Buddy Holly onstage," he tells me later in his quiet way.
But "Rave On" is only the ignition. Having decided to play a special show, Springsteen goes out of his way. He dances on the tabletops, and the crowd leaps to grab him. He adds "Candy's Room," one of the Darkness songs he never performs, and halfway through the first set, he introduces a "new song that I wrote right after I finished Darkness. It's called 'Point Blank,' and it's about being trapped." And he tells a story of a friend of his who has to work two jobs, as does her husband, to make ends meet, and "they're" still trying to take the couple's house away. And when he sings, it's very real, living up to that title: "Point blank, right between the eyes/They got you, point blank/Right between them pretty lies that they tell. . . . No one survives untouched/No one survives untouched/No one survives."
Near the end of the first set, he tells this story: "Last summer, I went driving out in the desert near Reno – we just flew to Phoenix and rented a car and drove around. And in the desert we came upon a house that this old Indian had built of stuff scavenged from the desert. And on his house there was a sign: THIS IS THE LAND OF PEACE, LOVE, JUSTICE AND NO MERCY. And at the bottom of the sign there was an arrow pointing down this old dirt road. And it said: THUNDER ROAD." This gets the biggest hand of the evening.
The second half is, if anything, harder to believe. It begins, after the usual 20-minute intermission, with Bruce stepping to the mic and saying: "All right all of you bootleggers out there in radioland. Roll them tapes!" And he comes on with a performance that deserves to be preserved: when a guitar has to be sent backstage for repairs, he calls a brief conference, and the band suddenly steps forward and sings, of all things, "Heartbreak Hotel," with Bruce as the very incarnation of his hero. There's an encore performance of "Independence Day," another of those songs that didn't make Darkness, this one the most moving ballad version of the "Adam Raised a Cain" story I have ever heard. During "Quarter to Three," three hours into the set, Bruce climbs to the balcony and sings a chorus there before he leaps 10 feet down to the piano, by some miracle uninjured. The houselights go up, and the kids are on their feet, chanting – no one is going home. And even when the announcement comes that the band has left the building, no one moves. "Br-u-ce, Bru-ce" the chant goes on and on, and suddenly the curtain is raised, and there they are (Max Weinberg fresh from the shower). They roll into "Twist and Shout" and finally, nearly four hours after it all began, the show is over.
Los Angeles Times rock critic Robert Hilburn is at a loss for words. "How do I come back and review this show," he says despairingly, "after I just said that the Forum was one of the best events ever in Los Angeles? Who's gonna believe me?" Maybe, I can only suggest, that is everybody else's problem.
Phoenix, Saturday, July 8th
My favorite comment on last night's show came from Max Weinberg on this morning's flight. "You know, I was thinking in the middle of the show that when I was 12 years old, this is exactly what I wanted to be doing."
Later, I ask Springsteen why he had apologized. "It just seemed like the only thing to do," he says. "I couldn't imagine not. There was a little naiveté in thinking that the kids are gonna come and when somebody tells them that there's no more tickets, they're gonna go home. They're not. All I know is, it should've been done better."
Still, I suggest, he could have gotten away without an apology. "I couldn't have gotten away with it," he says, throwing me a look. "That's all I try to do – live so I can sleep at night. That's my main concern."
It's going to be a task tonight. It was 109 degrees when we got off the plane and into this oven, and a film crew has shown up to shoot tonight's performance for a TV commercial. They'll be at the sound check, and they'll also have cameras – and additional lights – at the show.
Springsteen seems more open and eager to promote Darkness than any of his other albums. Despite the massive amounts of ink he has attracted, he has never been a particularly accessible interview, and he has never, ever appeared on TV. I wonder why the change.
"I always had a certain kinda thing about all those things – like the TV ad or this ad or that ad. But I realized shortly after this album came out that things had changed a lot since Born to Run. I just stopped taking it as seriously, and I realized that I worked a year – a year of my life – on somethin' and I wasn't aggressively tryin' to get it out there to people. I was super aggressive in my approach toward the record and toward makin' it happen – you know, nonrelenting. And then when it came out, I went, 'Oh, I don't wanna push it.'
"It's just facing up to certain realities. It was ridiculous to cut off your nose to spite your face. What it was, was I was so blown away by what happened last time. I initially thought of doing no ads. Just put it out, literally just put it out." It is the first time I have ever heard Springsteen refer to a negative effect of the past three years of litigation and layoff. It's strange he's not more bitter, I suggest. "At the time that that went down," he explains, "I wasn't mentally prepared. I knew nothin' about it. It was all distressing to me. There were some good times, but what it was, was . . . the loss of control. See, all the characters [on the LPs] and everything is about the attempt to gain control of your life. And here, all this stuff, whether it had a good effect or a bad effect, I realized the one thing it did have was it had a bad effect on my control of myself. Which is why I initially started playing, and why I play. That's what upset me most about it. It was like somebody bein' in a car with the gas pedal to the floor."
(I have only heard him explain his relationship with former manager Mike Appel better on one occasion: "In a way, Mike was as naive as me," he said then. " 'You be the Colonel, and I'll be Elvis.' Except he wasn't the Colonel, and I wasn't Elvis.")
There are of course other reasons for the TV commercial: while Springsteen is enormously popular in certain areas, in others he is all but unknown. This is particularly true of the South. And it is especially difficult for people who live in the Northeast and Southwest, where Springsteen already is a star, to grasp his commercial difficulties elsewhere. Anyone who sells out both the Los Angeles Forum and Madison Square Garden (three nights at the latter) ought to be a national star, but for a variety of reasons, Springsteen is still not there yet. Most of this has to do with his lack of acceptance on AM radio – on that side of the dial, he is a virtually invisible quantity: "Born to Run" made it to Number 17, and "Prove It All Night" will be fortunate to go that high, principally because both emphasize electric guitars, which makes them hard rock, not exactly what AM program directors are currently looking for.
In Phoenix, however, all of this can be forgotten. Phoenix was the first town outside of the New York-New Jersey-Philadelphia-Boston region where Springsteen became popular. In the words of Danny Federici, "This is the first place I ever felt like a star." It's hard to believe, driving past these deserted desert streets at 7:30 on a Saturday evening, that the 10,000-seat Veterans Memorial Coliseum is sold out. But when the show is over, I know what Robert Hilburn felt.
It's not just that it's another fantastic show. This is another goddamn event, and it goes farther than the Roxy, with all of the show's intimacy, innocence and vulnerability, but with an added factor of pandemonium. It's the sweetest-tempered crowd I've ever seen, and at the same time, the most maniacal. Bruce dedicates the show to the town in memory of the time "when this was about the only place I could get a job," and the crowd gives it back. During "Prove It All Night," three extremely young girls in the front row hold up a hand-lettered sign written on a bedsheet. Quoting the song, it says, JUST ONE KISS WILL GET THESE THINGS FOR YOU. And he gets them, during "Rosalita," one after another, as they race up to kiss him, lightly, on the cheek. A fourth darts up, and just . . . reaches out and touches his hand. And finally, three more race up and bowl him over. ("This little girl, couldn't have been more than 15, and she had braces on her teeth," Springsteen exclaims later. "And she had her tongue so far down my throat I nearly choked.")
I've never seen anything like this in such a big hall. Before the encores – which include "Raise Your Hand" and the inevitable "Quarter to Three" – are over, not seven, but 17 girls have climbed up to kiss him, and there are couples dancing, actually jitterbugging, on the front of the stage. The cameramen are torn between filming Bruce, who is pouring it all out, and simply shooting the crowd, which is pushing him father and farther.
It is a perfect climax to a week of rock & roll unparalleled in my experience. All I know is, it lives up to the grand story Bruce told in the midst of "Growin' Up." The story has become a virtual set-piece by now, but that night he added a special twist. You should get to hear it too. Maybe it fills in some of the cracks, maybe it explains just why Bruce Springsteen pushes people to the edge of frenzy.
It began with a description of his family, house and home, and his perennial battles with his father. "Finally," he says, "my father said to me, 'Bruce, it's time to get serious with your life. This guitar thing is OK as a hobby, but you need something to fall back on. You should be a lawyer' – which I coulda used later on in my career. He says, 'Lawyers, they run the world.' But I didn't think they did – and I still don't.
"My mother, she's more sensitive. She thinks I should be an author and write books. But I wanted to play guitar. So my mother, she's very Italian, she says, 'This is a big thing, you should go see the priest.' So I went to the rectory and knocked on the door. 'Hi, Father Ray, I'm Mr. Springsteen's son. I got this problem. My father thinks I should be a lawyer, and my mother, she wants me to be an author. But I got this guitar.'
"Father Ray says, 'This is too big a deal for me. You gotta talk to God,' who I didn't know too well at the time. 'Tell him about the lawyer and the author,' he says, 'but don't say nothin' about that guitar.'
"Well, I didn't know how to find God, so I went to Clarence's house. He says, 'No sweat. He's just outside of town.' So we drive outside of town, way out on this little dark road.
"I said, 'Clarence, are you sure you know where we're goin'?' He said, 'Sure, I just took a guy out there the other day.' So we come to this little house out in the woods. There's music blasting out and a little hole in the door. I say, 'Clarence sent me,' and they let me in. And there's God behind the drums. On the bass drum, it says: G-O-D. So I said, 'God. I got this problem. My father wants me to be a lawyer and my mother wants me to be an author. But they just don't understand – I got this guitar.'
"God says, 'What they don't understand is that there was supposed to be an Eleventh Commandment. Actually, it's Moses' fault. He was so scared after ten, he said this is enough, and went back down the mountain. You shoulda seen it – great show, the burning bush, thunder, lightning. You see, what those guys didn't understand was that there was an Eleventh Commandment. And all it said was: LET IT ROCK!' "