Here is a selection of various Springsteen pieces. First up is a Consumer Guide for the US magazine Blender, printed in their issue of November 2003. After that:-
It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City, the story of David Bowie’s cover version, The Word, February 2011.
Darkness On The Edge Of Town, reassessed for The Word, June 2005.
We Shall Overcome: The Pete Seeger Sessions, for The Word, June 2006
Springsteen: Acts Of The Noughties, a feature for The Word January 2010.
And for my memories of meeting Springsteen, go here.
Many rock’n’roll stars like to pretend they’re inhabitants of a fabulous, faraway planet that we can only dream of. But Bruce Springsteen’s music is grounded in the everyday world – his talent is for turning ordinary lives into poetry. New Jersey’s best-loved export since Sinatra was a scuffling Dylan-alike until the full-tilt exuberance of 1975’s Born To Run made him so famous he scored the covers of Time and Newsweek on the same day. Fans called him the Boss because he ran a mighty beast called the E Street Band, but his style has swung from stadium bombast to folk-club intimacy. Whatever its volume, his music is loved by millions who trace their own stories through the everyman eloquence of his songs. He’s “a cool rockin’ daddy in the USA,” as one song goes, but he’s much more besides.
1. BLENDER APPROVED
BORN TO RUN
Pulsing with the elation of a young man whose time has arrived, this was Bruce’s breakthrough. With future manager Jon Landau now assisting in the studio, the E Street sound was suddenly Spectoresque, huge and dynamic. The lyrics were no less epic – surging celebrations of hot city streets, emotional hunger and the urge to burst free. Formerly an introverted songsmith, Springsteen learned to touch on universal chords and he played them like a champ.
Standout tracks: “Born To Run,” “Thunder Road,” “Jungleland”
DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN
With his career stalled by three years of legal disputes, Springsteen reassessed the youthful bravado of Born To Run, to emerge a more serious man with adult concerns and a brooding nostalgia for lost optimism. Country music influences and Biblical references creep in, while social themes confirmed his symbolic switch from leather jacket to blue collar. Brooding or not, though, he could still rock whole city blocks.
Standout tracks: “Adam Raised A Cain,” “Streets Of Fire,” “Darkness On The Edge Of Town”
Tiring of the tour-and-studios routine he holed up in his bedroom with a tape recorder and cut these starkly unvarnished tracks, modelled on old blues records “that sounded so good with the lights out.” The desolate sonic landscape is matched by bleak tales of murder, lust and fate: the title track concludes, “There’s just a meanness in this world.” He took the results to the E Street Band but eventually stuck with the demo cassette he’d carried in his jeans.
Standout tracks: “Nebraska,” “Atlantic City,” “Highway Patrolman”
BORN IN THE USA
The one that took the Boss from mere rock star to outright national icon, with a written-to-order hit in “Dancing In The Dark” and the much-debated title track (song of social protest or anthem of defiant pride?). Plenty of plain, goofy fun (“Darlington County”) and sexual sweatiness (“I’m On Fire”) helped round out the package. The post-Nebraska shift to big production values and red-blooded human interest stories helped make this the Springsteen album that the whole world owns.
Standout tracks: “Born In The USA,” “I’m On Fire,” “Dancing In The Dark”
A stadium-pleasing double CD of gruff, good time rock’n’roll, with the E Street boys sounding like the biggest bar band in the universe. The rollicking “Hungry Heart” became his first big single hit. But there are many reflective moments, too, and thanks to Springsteen’s famous rambling prologues they became stage favourites as well.
Standout tracks: “Independence Day,” “Hungry Heart,” “Stolen Car”
TUNNEL OF LOVE
Its theme, he said, was “the more intimate struggles of adult love” and though he denied it was autobiographical, everyone concluded there were problems with his recent marriage to model Julianne Phillips. Doubt, deception and disillusion stalk the majority of songs, which are firmly in the key of lonesome. Though the braver numbers combat cynicism, within a year he was embroiled in a divorce.
Standout tracks: “Tougher Than The Rest,” “Brilliant Disguise,” “Valentine’s Day”
3. CHECK IT OUT
Triple CD that celebrates the peak years of the E Street Band, when crowds went “Brooooce” and his gigs were legendary for their firepower and stamina. Partner Steve Van Zandt bows out for Nils Lofgren, and ¬– hell-oooh – here comes a red-headed backing singer named Patti Scialfa…
Standout tracks: “The River,” “Because The Night,’ “Jersey Girl”
A last track recorded for Human Touch, “Living Proof” sent Springsteen on a fresh songwriting spree and two separate albums (released simultaneously) were the result. Recorded virtually solo, it’s the more spontaneous and tuneful of the two, though it lacked a killer song to grab the popular imagination. Neither album sold in the amounts that Springsteen records were meant to.
Standout tracks: “If I Should Fall Behind,” “Souls Of The Departed,” “My Beautiful Reward”
The AIDS-addressing “Streets Of Philadelphia,” written for Jonathan Demme’s movie, makes a first-class addition to all the familiar Bruce biggies. But the curious inclusion of four mediocre rarities rather dampens the impact you would expect this set to have.
Standout tracks: “Born To Run,” “Hungry Heart,” “Streets Of Philadelphia”
Finally reunited with the E Street Band, the Boss was suddenly overtaken by 9/11 and the universal expectation that he would address it in song. He rose to the challenge so magnificently that the moving New York tributes, such as “Empty Sky,” made the rest of his new songs look ordinary in comparison.
Standout tracks: “Into The Fire,” “Empty Sky,” “The Fuse”
4. BE CAREFUL
GREETINGS FROM ASBURY PARK N.J.
The debut album has an eager charm but tries too hard to fill Bob Dylan’s shoes, with self-consciously poetic fables of New Jersey street life. Promising songs trip over themselves and the production is poor, but some critics detected a fine new writer learning his craft.
Standout tracks: “Blinded By The Light,” “Spirit In The Night,” “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City”
THE WILD, THE INNOCENT & THE E STREET SHUFFLE
Second album finds Bruce in transition from trainee troubadour to confident bandleader. The arrangements are ballsier and more complex, and unafraid to try everything from R&B to jazz. The songs are fun, if still a little overwrought, but they’d find their full stature in later stage performance.
Standout tracks: “4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”
The companion volume to Lucky Town finds only pianist Roy Bittan surviving an E Street purge, as Bruce adjusts to a new marriage (to Scialfa) and to fatherhood. The songs are tender but not generally among his best.
Standout tracks: “Human Touch,” “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On),” “I Wish I Were Blind”
Perversely for an artist who’s happy playing solo, Springsteen scrapped the acoustic format of MTV’s Unplugged series to rock out with a massive band. A brash party spirit pervades, though the songs are mostly from his less favoured albums Lucky Town and Human Touch, while the transient line-up behind him makes it unrepresentative of Bruce live.
Standout tracks: “Red Headed Woman,” “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)”
THE GHOST OF TOM JOAD
Nearly a Nebraska Mark 2 as Springsteen opts for stripped back arrangements and dark meditations on the plight of American underdogs. Some affecting tales of migrant lives, inspired by Steinbeck’s Grapes Of Wrath, but many find the music’s austere style to be unapproachable.
Standout tracks: “The Ghost Of Tom Joad.” “Across The Border”
Nurturing this four-CD retrospective helped him through a period of writer’s block. The bootleg-style anthology collects various outtakes and unreleased songs, plus obscure B-sides to form a shadow history of Springsteen’s career – too much for the uncommitted but a feast for Boss completists.
Standout tracks: “Sad Eyes,” “Gave It A Name,” “Part Man, Part Monkey”
5. FOR FANS ONLY
Unsatisfactory sampling of the Tracks extravaganza, yet with a few new tracks to lure collectors – commercial exploitation masquerading as generosity.
Standout tracks: “Pink Cadillac,” “Gave It A Name,” “Part Man, Part Monkey”
LIVE IN NEW YORK CITY
Two-disc souvenir of The E Street Band’s 2000 reunion, captured for a TV special. Funkier and more intimate than the sprawling Live 1975-85 but minus most of his really popular songs.
Standout tracks: “The River’” “American Skin (41 Shots),” “Jungleland”
6. FURTHER LISTENING
Folkways: A Vision Shared
Bruce joins U2 and Dylan in multi-artist tribute to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, declaring allegiance to the American folk tradition that has increasingly been his inspiration.
7. FURTHER VIEWING
The Complete Video Anthology 1978-2000
Double DVD of 33 clips, mostly from live shows but also souvenirs of his 80s MTV phase – including a stage jive with the teenaged Courtney Cox in Brain De Palma’s video for “Dancing In The Dark”.
8. FURTHER READING
By Bruce Springsteen
Sumptuous presentation of song lyrics, top photography and, best of all, Bruce’s revelatory memoirs of the songwriting process, album by album.
It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City, by Bruce Springsteen… as covered by David Bowie
From a piece in The Word, February 2011, that described notable cover versions.
Two rock legends, of similar vintage, who probably have a million fans in common. And yet… chalk and cheese. Springsteen and Bowie seem cut from different cloth, somehow. It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City marks a rare convergence between the honest blue-collar grunt they call the Boss and the flighty pan-sexual space alien we call the Dame. How did that happen?
Bruce wrote this song when he was unknown; it became the closing track of his 1973 debut, Greetings From Asbury Park N.J. Though its hoodlum street-poetry sounds over-ripe, it impressed David Bowie. He’d already seen Springsteen play a New York club. Now, in the first flush of his Ziggy fame, he recognised the Jersey kid as a contender. Perhaps Bowie liked the urban dread: “After I heard this track,” he said later, “I never rode the subway again… That really scared the living ones out of me.” I think there is an echo of it in Bowie’s apocalyptic Diamond Dogs.
Bowie attempted It’s Hard To Be A Saint in 1974, while recording Young Americans in Philadelphia. And Springsteen dropped by the studio. The pair got along OK, but they were not soul mates. Besides, Bowie at that point was fundamentally off his cake. (Keepin’ it real, Bruce wore a dirty leather jacket and arrived by public transport. Bowie, on the other hand, wore a bright red beret and yapped about UFOs.) The track was abandoned, then revived a year later when Bowie was making Station To Station. Once again it failed to make the cut and has only appeared, since then, as a bonus out-take on sundry CDs. (He also tried Springsteen’s Growin’ Up, and ditched that too.)
From that point on their styles diverged entirely: Springsteen went from Byronic grease-monkey to plain-speaking Everyman. Bowie’s next stop was austere European art-noise. They’re both rock’n’rollers, of course, and their respective versions of this fine, urgent song are not wildly different. But the Dame has other roots, in Cockney music hall, mime and cabaret, while the Boss is rock, rock and more rock. Artifice versus authenticity? Well, I’m not so sure. There is more emotional sincerity in Bowie than he is given credit for, while Springsteen’s image is a fabulous showbiz construct, and none the worse for that. Just for one day, in 1974, those two young men were brothers in the cause.
Darkness On The Edge Of Town
In 1978, two years into the punk rock guerrilla wars, the last name on British minds was Bruce Springsteen. He hadn’t been seen or heard around these parts since 1975, when he’d played some shows to support his big hit album Born To Run. Personally, if I thought of him at all, it was vaguely mixed up with the Fonz out of *Happy Days* – a cheery pseudo-hoodlum in black leathers, doing those likeably overwrought numbers involving cars, Catholic girls and endless “rumbles” between people with names like Switchblade Joey The Greek or One-Eyed Jimmy Zoot Suit.
God knows, British punk rock was not without its own share of posturing. But the years of Springsteen’s disappearance had been a watershed all the same. The mood of the times, in hipper circles, had turned against such rock’n’roll panto in favour of stern social realism. When I heard that Bruce was finally making a comeback I was not expecting anything much. But I was wrong. He came back with one of the great LPs of that era. It turned out that Darkness On The Edge Of Town was a properly grown-up album by a man who had changed almost beyond recognition. I don’t love Springsteen unconditionally, as some fans do, but thanks to this record I’ll always take him seriously.
We now know what took him so long. After ten years of scuffling obscurity, the vast American triumph of Born To Run had turned Bruce Springsteen into a star. But he was a confused star, who found himself wondering what you were supposed you do after your dreams came true. Firstly, of course, you sue your manager.
Bruce was taking advice from his friend and co-producer Jon Landau, the journalist whose quote about seeing “rock’n’roll’s future” had stoked the growing hype around him. Springsteen began litigation against his manager Mike Appel on issues of money, copyright and Landau’s role in the recordings. Appel counter-sued and won an injunction to keep Springsteen out of the studio. Thus stalled, the singer took his E Street Band out on the road, but otherwise spent his days on a farm in New Jersey – “Boss Acres”, they called it – brooding on his fate. He turned to country music for inspiration, especially the flinty wisdom of Hank Williams. And Landau introduced him to the epic movies of John Ford. to film noir and Steinbeck’s Depression-era classic The Grapes Of Wrath. All of this would influence the songs he was writing for the next album – if he was ever allowed to make it.
On Landau’s recommendation, Springsteen tried to “de-glib” his lyrics and though the tunes came quickly the words took months of labour. Now that he was a star, he said, “I had a reaction to my own good fortune. I asked myself new questions. I felt a sense of accountability to the people I’d grown up alongside of.” He looked to his working class family and their dead-end Jersey lives, and to those locked out of the same American Dream he was suddenly living. “I wanted my new characters to feel older, weathered, but not beaten,” he said. Against that slightly melancholic strand, there was pent-up fury at the Appel law-suit. Darkness At The Edge Of Town was born of twilight contemplations but also of towering rage.
The legal dispute was finally settled on 29 May, 1977 and the E Street Band were summoned to the studio within 48 hours. But it was still another year before the album came out. Springsteen’s perfectionism was obsessive: the pressures of following Born To Run were intense. And the backlog of songs was enormous. The guiding principle was that anything too cheerful had to be junked.
They built a lumbering beast in those 12 months. The band blasts righteously, Springsteen howls and roars. Roy Bittan’s brittle piano lines define the tunes, anchored by the colossal wallop of Max Weinberg’s drumming. Compared with Born To Run the pace seems slower, more grimly intent than breathlessly intense. But the really stunning advance is in Bruce’s song-writing. Where his earlier work was inclined to be fussy and florid, Darkness is stark and pungent. From the opening track, Badlands (its title taken from the murder movie), we’re in a world of hurt. By the father-and-son attrition of second song, Adam Raised A Cain, Springsteen is offering his emotional scars for public inspection. In Streets Of Fire he’s lost his way entirely. Something’s gone wrong in every story told on this record.
The funereal tread of Factory, maybe the bleakest number here, combines more ruminations on Bruce’s father with a compassionate take on the stultifying fall-out from lives of industrial drudgery. It’s a long way from Hotel California or anything you were hearing from Fleetwood Mac at that time. And while there is still a car in nearly every song, they’re no longer there to wow the kids on Main Street – they’re just an attempt at fleeting escape, driven down those no-hope highways. “I’m riding down Kingsley, figuring I’ll get a drink,” goes Something In The Night, “Turn the radio up loud, so I don’t have to think.”
Perhaps the whole key to Darkness is the song called Racing In The Street. Its title looks like some hot-rod yarn off Born To Run but it’s actually the opposite. Threading its way throughout the track is a mournful four-note riff recalling Then He Kissed Me, one of those wonderful pocket-symphonies Phil Spector cut for The Crystals in 1963. Here the riff has been dramatically slowed down, all its zippy teen vitality drained away. To an audience of Springsteen’s baby boomer generation, the effect was not so much nostalgic as elegiac, expressing the ache of faded dreams. The chorus also cops a lyrical lick from Martha & The Vandellas’ Dancing In The Street, just to emphasise the emotional distance Bruce and his contemporaries had travelled in those years. Inside the song, the character’s still bragging about his car and trying to pretend that nothing’s changed. “But now there’s wrinkles ’round my baby’s eyes / And she cries herself to sleep at night.”
Darkness On The Edge Of Town came out in Britain in Summer, 1978. Like David Bowie’s albums of that period, Low and "Heroes”, it was hardly punk rock but still it chimed with the times and was spared the scorn of dinosaur hunters. Partly it was the artwork, featuring Bruce, unsmiling, in some cheap-looking room in artfully distressed clothing – this was surely calculated, but shrewdly done. Sales-wise it performed less well than Born To Run – the lack of flamboyance and obvious crowd-pleasers probably lost him some ground. But I believe it deepened his appeal to those who cottoned on. It won him respect from everyone from punky cynics to one John Lennon, currently in Dakota Building hibernation and watching carefully while the Boss made hay in his absence.
Between our adolescence and our obsolescence, does rock’n’roll have anything to say to us? Darkness On The Edge Of Town was powerful evidence that it does. As Springsteen would say, years afterwards: “With the record’s final verse, ‘Tonight I’ll be on that hill…’, my characters stand unsure of their fate, but dug in and committed. By the end of Darkness I’d found my adult voice.”
We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions
When you hear that Springsteen’s “made a folk album” you anticipate, perhaps, something stark and quiet, in the chin-stroking style of Nebraska or The Ghost Of Tom Joad. What you get, though, is a big old ass-kicking thing. We Shall Overcome is acoustic music, and rooted in the centuries, yet it booms out like those stadium-rocking Boss-athons Born To Run and Born In The USA. It resembles an imaginary Phil Spector folk album, where everything – fiddles, banjos, horns, voices and stomping feet – sounds triplicated and turned up to 11.
The album’s sub-title honours Pete Seeger, one of the archivists and performers who saved whole swathes of American folk song from extinction. Springsteen played on a Seeger tribute CD some years ago and was moved to follow up with these 13 prime examples of the art, his first all-cover version LP. The sessions took place on his New Jersey farm and the results are packaged in artwork of sepia-tinted, rustic antiquity. But as if to banish that Mighty Wind image of folk music as tweedy, nerdish or worthy, Bruce bookends his set with two terrific blasts of rollicking jollity, Old Dan Tucker and Froggie Went A Courtin’. These songs were old when Charles Dickens was a boy, but they don’t sound it.
Elsewhere we’re into that Woody Guthrie kind of territory – half protest, half commentary – that first inspired Bob Dylan and which, come to that, has never been far from Springsteen’s own work. One song grafts the Robin Hood legend onto the outlaw Jesse James; Erie Canal, Pay Me My Money Down and John Henry are muscular work songs, bristling with pride; My Oklahoma Home is a fine and poignant dustbowl lament. And while I don’t quite buy the “too-ri-aa” Oirishness of Mrs McGrath, its damnation of “all foreign wars” will doubtless strike the intended contemporary chord.
Is it, then, a political record? Thanks to Seeger, Guthrie and others, the US folk world has traditionally dressed to the left. It’s been the medium of choice at picket lines, peace marches and civil rights meetings, and there are songs here reflecting all of those values – chiming, too, with the Bruce world-view that led to his campaigning for John Kerry in the last US election. But there is also a deeply religious streak in Springsteen’s choice of covers. As a songwriter he always knew the power of Biblical imagery and these folk sessions followed on from last year’s Devils & Dust album, a record that revealed his spiritual interests to be reviving.
Hence the emotional core of We Shall Overcome is to be heard in a clutch of songs – the title track included – that were Christian anthems, and especially African-American anthems, adopted by the wider social protest movement. There is O Mary Don’t You Weep, which swings and rocks with optimism (“Pharoah’s army got drownded!”); Jacob’s Ladder is a joyous toil towards something finer (“We are brothers, sisters all”); Eyes On The Prize exhorts the faithful to stay faithful to that dream of freedom: “Dungeon shook and the chains come off”. And We Shall Overcome itself, of course, is the very model of noble stoicism and quiet, unbreakable resolve.
All of which reminds you that the real power of folk music is that it can serve as a topical morale-booster when you want it to, but it’s both older and more enduring than any of our present preoccupations. All things must pass, even the Bush administration. But although presidents change the human condition remains the same. Old scoundrels go and new scoundrels arise to take their place. Folk music in its widest sense, taking in the blues and traditional songs of any land on earth, will address the permanent facts of existence. And just as great folk songs are usually rooted in some specific place on the face of the earth, they find a universal echo in hearts everywhere. The best example here is surely Shenandoah, the rolling, melancholy masterpiece of love and homesickness, already reckoned to be two centuries old and, most probably, imperishable.
These are tunes to last the ages. They aren’t always cheerful, but they are cheering. For Bruce Springsteen this sounds like it was a wonderful vacation from the responsibilities of being his country’s musical conscience – a Bossman’s holiday, if you will – and it might be just the tonic he needed. These old songs are deep wells to draw from and good things come up by the bucketful.
Bruce Springsteen: Acts Of The Noughties
He entered the century as a respected rock senior. Like the majority of respected rock seniors, it looked as though his glory days were gone. There remained only the years of quiet decline, playing to greying crowds of nodding nostalgics. Artistically, in fact, the 1990s had been a slack time by Springsteen’s standards, producing only three new albums and none of them were crowd-pleasers.
But then came September 11, 2001. It set in train the appalling events we still struggle to grasp. In Springsteen’s world the effect was to re-connect his writing with his voice. In his album The Rising, he managed what remarkably few artists seemed to attempt. He framed a coherent response to that devastating day that was not maudlin, facile or vengeful. It reminded a few of us of why this man had once seemed so important. It opened, for him, a new decade of engagement with the wider world. After this he stood as more than a rock senior. He became the living representative of a changed America.
Not all his recent music has the power of The Rising. The other albums of new material have been less directly topical, even if this year’s Working On A Dream lent inspiration to supporters of Barack Obama. The contemplative Devils & Dust, from 2005, was a record for his closer followers who don’t require regular stadium anthems. Of all his later albums, though, it’s a knockabout set of instant folk songs, We Shall Overcome, that represents the high point. Somehow, all its fiddle-and-banjo revivalism is more dynamic than anything he’s done since his first flush of stardom. It’s evidence of Springsteen’s move into the wider narrative of North American music. The man once hailed as rock’n’roll’s future was actually a skilled summation of rock’s entire past. Now he aligns himself to an even deeper tradition.
No legend of American music can stand still for three minutes without Bruce sidling up and doing a duet. Pete Seeger, John Fogerty, Roger McGuinn and Alejandro Escovedo are just a few of his recent victims. There has been a vacancy for that Grand Old Man role ever since Johnny Cash died, and in the decade ahead, my money’s on Springsteen. Nor is Hollywood immune. His song for The Wrestler, a movie that makes Mickey Rourke seem more than ever like a character from a Springsteen song, is an epic to rival his previous big-screen weepie Streets Of Philadelphia. Basically, if you need a song to put some communal heart into a modern multiplex, call the guy in New Jersey.
Not since Frank Sinatra has a New Jersey boy been so well-connected. Springsteen’s place in Barack Obama’s new Camelot is assured. It was hard-earned, too. His present friendship with the powerful is a reward for long months on the campaign trail, both for the new President and the Democratic candidate before him, John Kerry. In that 2004 election, when it wasn’t hard to find actors and musicians who loathed George Bush, Springsteen made the best stab at Jeffersonian eloquence. “It is through the truthful exercising of the best of human qualities – “ he wrote, “respect for others, honesty about ourselves, faith in our ideals – that we come to life in God’s eyes.”
It took him decades to commit to one particular set of politicians, but if they’ve any sense they’ll clasp to him. More than any radical troubadour he can wear Woody Guthrie’s mantle to the White House. More than Bob Dylan or Neil Young, he has an Everyman quality that speaks to the broad mass of voters. There is nothing disturbingly strange about him, nor sneering, nor urban smart-arse. He represents a certain style of US patriotism and he has a religious sensibility – on those two counts alone, he is closer to the country’s heartland than many liberal acts. Early this year he played the hugely symbolic half-time slot at the Super Bowl, sealing his eminence in that place where working America comes together. And to us, abroad, where a sports final means very little, he’s the frank and manly face of a country we had forgotten how to trust.