The E Street Band are the people who know Bruce Springsteen best, and in his own words, “They are my greatest friendships, my deepest friendships — irreplaceable things.” Springsteen started the band in 1972, gave it its official name two years later and recorded some of his most iconic albums — Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, Born in the U.S.A. — with them in the 1970s and ’80s. In 1989 he decided to venture on alone as a solo artist, breaking up the family for 10 years he refers to now as “a lost period.” In 1999 Springsteen reunited the group, and he says the second half of last year’s acclaimed, energetic Magic tour was the band “at its best.”
David Fricke got close to Bruce Springsteen for his cover story in the new issue (on newsstands now). Here’s an intimate look at the musicians who have played by his side for decades — The E Street band — in their own words. Guitarist Steven Van Zandt discusses how Springsteen’s songwriting process has changed since the Darkness on the Edge of Town days. Drummer Max Weinberg opens up about taking the stage for his debut show with the E Street Band in 1974. Guitarist Nils Lofgren recalls the nervous moments before Springsteen’s first big set at Neil Young’s 1986 Bridge School Benefit. And pianist Roy Bittan shares stories about Springsteen’s special relationship with Danny Federici, and how the band reads Bruce’s body language onstage.
Steven Van Zandt
When I first heard Working on a Dream it made me think of The River crossed with Exile on Main Street, with all of those guitars and the vocal harmonies shooting up in the mix. But on headphones, I could hear all of the little details too, in those guitars, the harmonies and the strings.
I see these records [The Rising, Magic and Working on a Dream] as a trilogy. They make sense together in terms of sound, concept and writing style. The three records have been a projection more toward the pop-rock form — this one more than the other two.
Is Bruce loosening up? It’s like he’s going back to something he did a long time ago.
Very much so, I think. Every song on Tracks [Springsteen’s 1998 box set of outtakes] was a lost argument — I’m not kidding. That is my own personal favorite style of writing. It was extremely frustrating for me to see him suppressing that side of his talent, which he is ridiculously gifted at. He was consciously squashing that.
I’m a pop-rock-band guy. That’s all I am. Intellectually, I understood what he was doing. I respected and supported it. But you’re throwing away “Restless Nights?” [Laughs] “Loose Ends”? What’s wrong with that? I think if you asked him about it now, he could see what I meant. But he wasn’t wrong. He was doing it for a specific reason. He had his eye on history. He knew that in order to have a place in history, to be relevant in the truest sense of the word, you must find your own place.
When did you first hear the songs on the new record, before you played on them? Bruce cut the rhythm tracks with that core four: him, Max, Garry and Roy. When do you come in?
It’s a different world now, a different process. [Producer] Brendan O’Brien has become his partner, and by the time I get involved now, it’s no longer in the early stages of arrangement and discussion. It’s been arranged; the stuff is there. You play whatever they have in mind for you, and you add whatever you have as an idea. I think it’s probably the way most normal bands record.
Does it still feel organic — like a band?
Yeah, it does. Because now he’s self-editing. He’s self-arranging with us in mind. It’s like writers on a TV show. By the third or fourth year, you know the actors so well that you’re writing for them. It’s very seamless, effortless. and occasionally we cut something all together. We did that a couple of times for this album.
How different was it on Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River?
It was, “I wrote a song last night. This is how it goes.” I got an arranging credit on Darkness, because at that point, he wanted to start tightening things up from the epic nature of Born to Run. And that’s up my alley. I’m Mr. Two-and-a-Half Minutes.
How much of that tightening up was a running away from the sudden pop success of Born to Run, from the Time and Newsweek covers in 1975?
That was part of it. I’m not going to psychoanalyze it, but it was the easiest way to gain control of one’s own destiny, one’s own career, in a funny way — to not be too successful. He knew that we had an advantage over almost everybody live, because we came from that old school: Our job was to make people dance. And if we didn’t make people dance, you were fired. You didn’t pay the rent. In the early days, we had an apartment together down in Asbury Park. There was no mommy and daddy paying the rent. We had to do the right thing — and that meant making people dance, just like the Stones did, just like the Beatles. That creates an energy — there is no substitute for it. By the time we broke through, forget it — that energy was unstoppable.
I think perhaps Bruce felt, there’s always that: “You can do whatever you want, Mr. Music Industry, Mr. Journalist, Mr. Cover-of-Time. We’ve got something that’s mine. We can play live. The records — whatever, we’ll get around to it.”
There is a sense in the new, rapid turnaround ¬— two E Street albums in just over a year, all of the touring — of time running out, especially with Danny’s passing.
That keeps the energy going until it does run out, rather than waiting ’til it does. What you’re getting at, though, is something we will have to face: Which is, at what point is it still the band? How many people can be replaced? That remains to be seen. And we’ll see what that means, in terms of the communication. Because the communication, the friendship, is where it all begins. That’s what makes a band. That’s why bands are different than individuals. They communicate something different, by their nature. You are not just communicating music. You are communicating friendship, brotherhood, sisterhood and ultimately your community. It doesn’t matter if there’s one guy who’s a leader. It’s a band. You are communicating community, and an individual cannot do that. The way to do is to be. And as long as you are there being, then nothing needs to be said.
How much rehearsal time do you need for a tour now?
There is no getting ready, no advance preparation. We are ready at any moment to do anything. We rehearsed three days for the last tour. [Laughs] I mean, that stuff’s all done. It’s just “Let’s go.”
This time, we’ll rehearse to learn some of the new songs. We don’t even learn the old songs we haven’t played for awhile. There are at least four or five guys in the band that know them. And the rest of us pick it up.
Producer Brendan O’Brien said that for The Rising, Magic and the new album, most of the rhythm tracks were cut live by a core four — yourself, Bruce, Garry Tallent and Roy Bittan. That’s like a band inside a band.
Rhythm sections typically are. The basic tracks for Born to Run were bass, drums, piano and vocal. But because we’ve played together for so long, the four of us play like a four-piece power group. Any of those basic tracks on the [new] record — they sound like a record, like you could release them just like that. My son, Jay, who is a drummer, came to the session in New York where we did “Kingdom of Days.” He was in the control room. He was amazed at how it sounded like a record as we were playing it. The thousands and thousands of hours we played in live concerts and studio work — it all comes out now. We get a lot of results very quickly.
How much did you see Bruce live before you joined the band?
I never saw Bruce and the E Street Band before I joined them. I went to Seton Hall University, played in a pickup band there — the singer wrote all the songs. He was from the Jersey Shore. He somehow he got a job to open for Bruce and the E Sreet Band at Seton Hall in April of ’74. So I played the opening set. But before that, I felt myself getting sick, so I left immediately after. I never saw Bruce.
The only thing I knew about Bruce when I saw the [musicians wanted] ad in the Village Voice was it said he was on Columbia Records. That indicated he was doing better than me. I remember at my audition Bruce asked me if I knew any of his songs. I knew “Sandy” [“4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)”]. My guy covered that song. I knew it the way he played it. I’d never heard the record. But I’m a good mimic. I’m good at following people and improvising.
The first time I played with the E Street Band, it was me, Bruce, Clarence [Clemons], Danny [Federici] and Garry. I had never played with a group where everybody was focused on one individual. Every group I’d ever played in was fairly chaotic. Here, there was no doubt where the inspiration is coming from. I’ll never forget it. It was the third week of August, 1974. And there was no piano player at that point. It was on a Monday. I came back a week later, and Roy was in the band.
Does playing with the band feel different to you now? There have been changes, additions and losses — Danny’s gone now — and there was that long break in the Nineties.
I’m sure it was different when Roy and I joined. It was the E Street Band before me, with [Ernest] “Boom” Carter and Vini Lopez [on drums]. But when a band has been together this long, you expect to see the same people. It takes on an iconic visage. This is the core of the people who have been with Bruce all of these years.
We learned basically through listening. There was a lot of that in the early days. We had this bus — literally a school bus — and we would sit around and listen to the music that we liked, and what Bruce liked. And we talked about what was good about it and what he didn’t like about it.
It could be a little thing. In the middle of “The Wanderer” by Dion, there is a drum part by Panama Francis, a brilliant drum part, one of the classics. He plays it on the snare drum. Then in the sax solo, he goes to the cymbal. Bruce got such a kick out of it. Then when Dion goes back to the vocal, you hear the cymbals just shut down [makes a “zip” sound], and Francis goes back to the snare beat. It was those little details that Bruce would point out to me, what he thought was brilliance in drumming.
There was another thing, in another Dion song, “Love Came to Me” . At one moment, one of the background singers goes “Hey, hey!” It’s real quiet — you can barely hear it. But to Bruce, that was a perfect moment. In the early days, we always used to talk about these perfect little moments.
You joined the E Street Band in 1984, after it had been going for a decade. How often did you see Bruce and the band before you became a member?
I’m a big fan. I used to buy a ticket and see the band in the ’70s and early ’80s. When I hit the road in 1968 with my band Grin, we were on kind of the same circuit. Actually, we both did an audition night at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West in 1970. He was with Steel Mill. We happened to get the same night. The first time I saw the E Street Band was in 1975. My first solo album came out, and I was playing my first show at the Bottom Line [in New York] as a solo artist. I got into New York a night early to see the last night of the famous stand at the club by Bruce and the E Street Band. Obviously, between 1970 and Steel Mill and 1975 and the E Street Band, it was a huge growth. I was really inspired by it.
What impressed you the most?
You take the material and the intensity of the leader, then you mix it with everyone on board. You get everyone as focused as you, on the intent of the music, the rest is how you navigate it. Bruce is a master at that. It goes beyond doing it well. It becomes a calling. When you mix the love of performing and leading a band with a catalog of songs you can call on, if you keep everyone around you focused with the same commitment for three hours, it’s a formidable thing. He had that early on.
Take this last tour, which I think was our best. It went from our normal audible signals to him grabbing 20 or 30 request signs from the audience. The last three months, the set list was useless. It surprised all of us — even Bruce, because I don’t think it was that premeditated. It grew into a completely improvised show, but still with the intent of having it grow and explode into this finality of emotion, something Bruce insists on.
When you joined in ’84, did Bruce give you an idea of what he was looking for? How verbal was he in what he wanted from you?
Bruce knew I was a bandleader. He’d seen me play. We had a very open dialogue about his specific needs. The one problem was, I got the job four weeks before opening night [of the Born in the U.S.A. tour]. He was a bachelor at the time, and I moved into his house in Rumson [New Jersey]. We’d get up, have a light breakfast, then we’d jog five miles, real easy, through Rumson. Then I’d go up to this little rehearsal room and isolate myself. He gave me a big list of songs to start with, in addition to the new Born in the U.S.A. album, and I had a giant notebook with these different sections: music, instruments, harmony singing, where do I stand. He was always available if I had questions. He’d walk in every once in awhile, give me pointers.
“Here’s a harmony you’re singing on this song. But you know what? At these two or three points, why don’t you come over to my mike and sing them with me center stage?” Or “Here’s a song I was thinking of playing guitar on, but I don’t want to play guitar. Forget that part you were learning, play mine, and bleed in some of that second part.”
Bruce played this great rhythm guitar in “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” on most of the last tour. Then out of the blue, for the last two months, he says, “I don’t want to play guitar on this anymore.” So I stopped playing my pedal steel part from the record. Bruce said, “Leave that alone and take over my guitar part.” He wanted to prowl the front of the stage. He’s not only an instrumentalist and the singer. He’s gotta navigate the harmony singing and the stage presence.
My impression is he thinks as big as possible. Then when he get there, he goes, “Can I top that?” I remember when me and Danny [Federici] and Bruce did the Bridge School benefit for Neil [Young] in 1986. It was Bruce’s first, big acoustic show. We rehearsed in New York — he was feeling a bit nervous, to do something on such a large scale. We had a little show planned, and sure enough, at the last minute, just before we started with our three-piece acoustic set, Bruce said, “I’m gonna just go out and do something by myself. Then you guys come out.” That was the wheels turning. As nervous as he might have been, instead of starting with one of the numbers we had down, he goes out and does “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” [from The River] a cappella, snapping his fingers on the mike. Despite his apprehension of the unknown, he challenged himself, and found a way to completely put himself on the spot, in the hardest way possible.
Bruce now records basic tracks for the E Street albums with a core four — himself, you, Max Weinberg and Garry Talent. How does the music feel when you record that way, compared to E Street sessions in the Seventies and Eighties?
Some history first: when we recorded Born to Run, we cut the basic tracks with piano, bass, drums and Bruce. So this is not the first time we have relied on that process, of cutting a basic track and then overdubbing. We strayed from that as we progressed. Darkness on the Edge of Town was cut pretty much with everybody playing.
Today, Bruce has a more specific idea of in his head of what he wants the songs to sound like. It works very efficiently for us to cut a basic track. That gives him all the freedom in the world to add guitar, more guitars, background vocals, strings and anything else that behooves him.
His first allegiance, at this point, is to his songwriting. We do whatever we want to interpret the song when we cut the basics. He does rely on us for that. But as far as sweetening the tracks, he’s interested in trying to eke out the song’s potential that he hears in his head. Which is evident on this new record. It’s almost a little shocking to hear the songs at first, because the album is different than our classic E Street records, which were recorded mostly live.
Are there examples of things you played on the basic tracks of the new album, a little improvisation, that stayed in the arrangements?
“Working on a Dream” — there’s a spot in the chorus when he sings “Working on a dream,” a little space immediately after that where I go down to the bottom of the piano and do a double hit on the real low end. It seemed to work itself into the final arrangement, almost as a tiny hook.
What do you look for when Bruce is improvising on stage? Are there signals or gestures he makes when he’s about to change gears in a song?
The connective architecture of my parts means I often have to play a phrase going into a new section, a phrase that musically pulls us to the next bridge or the chorus. I have to watch and make sure he’s going there [laughs]. It can be extremely subtle. You have to read the river. If he’s down at the end of the stage, not near the microphone, and you know a new verse is coming up, he may need a couple of measures to get back. Or he may want to go around one more time before he gets back there.
I watch everything. I listen to him. I watch his body English — and certainly watch his arms. He may point to something, and that means we’re changing.
As the other keyboard player in the group, how would you describe Danny Federici’s role in the E Street Band? What kind of hole did he leave in the music when he died last year? Steven Van Zandt said Danny couldn’t tell you the chords to “Born to Run” but always played the right notes.
What Steven said was an exaggeration but not far from the truth [laughs]. Danny would play what he felt. If you asked him in the studio, “Could you play that part again?”, I don’t know if it would come out exactly the same. If you asked him to replicate something, he would shrug and say, “I’ll play it again. I don’t know if I can do it the same way.” That was the beauty of Danny for me, as the other keyboard player in the group.
Often there is only room for one keyboard player in a group. One of the things that made it work was that Danny was an extremely different player than me. I was more architectural, more about the song form. Danny would just play around — play around me and everybody else. He was like the wind. He would blow in and around everybody else. He was glue, he was excitement. Unfortunately, you don’t truly appreciate things until they’re gone. We appreciated him, but I think a lot of people didn’t realize exactly what he did in the band until it wasn’t there. We were always more than the sum of our parts. But when you take one of those parts out, the machine is not working in quite the same way.
Bruce always nicknames band members with a purpose. Danny was Dangerous Dan. Clarence Clemons is the Big Man. How did you become the Professor?
I think it was because I seemed to have a plausible answer for any question that came up, whether it was true or not. [Laughs] I was the answer man.
Not just musically?
Bruce once called me to the back of the bus and said, “Professor, what exactly is E=MC2?” I said. “Well, it’s energy equals mass times the speed of light squared, which is 186,000 miles per second.” And he said, “Uh, okay.”