In Praise of Bruce Before Born to Run

#8 In My List of 10 Albums Vital (To Me)

In July of 1975, one month before Born to Run was released, I saw Bruce Springsteen in concert for the first time.  It was outside, at the Carter-Barron Amphitheater in D.C., and even though I had listened to his first two albums almost obsessively, I was not prepared for what I’d see. I was there with friends who were also fans of the first two albums, neither of which had sold well.  I had come to see a romantic and a story-teller, the contemplative young man in the close-up photo on the album’s cover and the author of incredible narrative lyrics. Of course, I had thrilled to the rock-and-roll dreams of “Rosalita,” and I wanted to be around when Kitty got back to town, but I was especially awed by the story-telling poet. 

I didn’t expect the skinny kid who did backflips from the grand piano, his guitar strapped in place, and who landed on sneakered feet without losing the song, and who kicked excitement into our sky-topped venue. He shot us full of energy. He lifted us up with songs about hustling, daring kids who lived among aging would-be saints, and who were also full of need, desire, and dreams.

Unlike Born to Run, the huge breakout of his career, E-Street Shuffle is pretty  unpolished. The horns that open the title tune are a little off key, Bruce falls slightly flat on the ascending notes of his guitar’s closing on “Incident on 57th Street,” and there’s some cloudiness in the overall recording quality. Bruce was not yet the exacting perfectionist he would become when he had to, on Born to Run, when his career was suddenly on the line because of his earlier album’s tepid sales and because of the hype from Jon Landau’s famous promise that Bruce was “the future of rock and roll.” But listening to E-Street Shuffle even now, I’m taken by the charm of those early flaws. They give us that feeling of hearing the music in a small, good club where this upstart band is raising the roof with bravado, is throwing its heart, all players together, into a poetry that offers a world’s worth of characters rich as any novel’s.

Laundou clearly felt something like that in 1974 when he wrote that famous review of  Bruce’s opening act for Bonnie Raitt, at the Harvard Square Theater in Cambridge, MA. (Bonnie was also there!! Man, I wish I’d been.)  Landau’s full column containing the rave about Bruce is actually a kind of confessional memoir that leads slowly to his praise of Springsteen. You can find it here.  It contains this key passage about the impact of that night.

“When his two-hour set ended I could only think, can anyone really be this good; can anyone say this much to me, can rock’n’roll still speak with this kind of power and glory? And then I felt the sores on my thighs where I had been pounding my hands in time for the entire concert and knew that the answer was yes.

“Springsteen does it all. He is a rock’n’roll punk, a Latin street poet, a ballet dancer, an actor, a joker, bar band leader, hot-shit rhythm guitar player, extraordinary singer, and a truly great rock’n’roll composer. He leads a band like he has been doing it forever. I racked my brains but simply can’t think of a white artist who does so many things so superbly. There is no one I would rather watch on a stage today.” 

All that Landau found magical is captured on The Wild, The Innocent, and the E-Street Shuffle.  In fact, Born to Run was at first a slight disappointment to me. It seemed too polished, too impeccably produced. I missed the rawness of the first two albums. I did quickly learn  to love Born to Run — for its great songs and amazing energy (and for the mere fact it contains the opening image captured by  “Screen door slams. Mary’s dress waves”). Indeed, everything I loved about Bruce’s first albums are also right there on Born to Run. But let’s not dismiss those first two albums for their awkwardness or rawness, their lack of professional polish. The impulsive energy and searching need of Bruce Springsteen are clearly present and beautifully inspirational on his first two records and especially, I think, on The Wild, The Innocent, and the E-Street Shuffle. I ask you, for instance, to come up with a title greater than that. 

And so…to the album itself.

As off-tune as those opening horns may be, they remind me of the music I heard on Frenchman’s Street in New Orleans — and I mean truly out in the streets when I was there — and I really love that naturally raucous party sound that kicks in the “E-Street Shuffle.” It’s all strut and cockiness, as the lyric takes us down a seething street of individual characters, just “as the sweet summer nights turn into summer dreams.” After the break, guitar and mandolin and drums start driving us on to the fade, but not until the horns come in to take us out. In 1974, that whole song felt like an adventure.

Sandy comes in next, as the “fireworks are hailing over Little Eden tonight, forcing the light into all those stony faces stranded on this warm July.” The song is all about a yearning for escape, and in daring to bring accordion up front it breaks ground immediately. I know folks who say this is the Big Song, the sweet anthem of teenage angst and yearning that, without pulling punches, still  manages to be free of whining and full of hope. 

Later, Spanish Johnny shows up as the hero of an “Incident on 57th Street,” where “out of the shadows came a young girl’s voice / To  say Johnny don’t go.” It’s plaintive and aching, and when Johnny assures us “It’s all right, Jane,” we sadly know that this “cruel Romeo” won’t deliver in the end. After all, “The cops have found the van.” It’s film noir come to rock’n’roll. It’s easy money leading all the romantic boys astray. It’s James Dean and Cagney and Bogart and Brando. It means that “I’ll meet you tomorrow night on lovers’ lane” is an empty promise, but still a promise from the heart. 

I won’t run down the full playlist. I’ll trust every reader who knows the album to love the party of “Kitty’s Back,” and those who don’t get a rush from “Rosalita” are probably beyond my reach anyway. But let’s take time to see that Bruce brought the tuba to rock with the great arrangement on “Wild Billy’s Circus Story.” Don’t forget that maracas and congas and celeste and Clarence’s tenor and even David Sancious’s brief soprano sax take their place on the album. It’s a record full of young Springsteen’s excitement, curiosity, and need — real need — to see that he has everything to express himself is available and beautifully deployed. It’s an explosive album.

And there is also the masterpiece. “New York City Serenade.” It opens with Bruce’s strummed mandolin, and then David Sancious on piano comes in with classical mastery that slides into jbluesy bluesy jazz before the melodic entry into the essential song. Bruce’s guitar comes in, then bass, and then Bruce’s vocal begins to tell the story of Willy, 

down by the railroad tracks, / sitting low in the back seat of his Cadillac. / Diamont Jackie, she’s so intact / as she falls so softly beneath him / …It’s midnight in Manhattan. This is no time to get cute.

The story isn’t over, but the setup is complete and thorough, and David Sancious’s string arrangement swells and sobs. (Sancious left the band after E-Street Shuffle, and I’ve missed him ever since.)

I’ve seen Bruce live only two more times. One was at SUNY Oneonta in ‘75 or ‘76, where a drunken crowd voiced their enthusiasm by singing drunkenly along with the songs. At the end — when Bruce came out for an encore, alone at the piano, to sing a sweetly melancholy version of “Growing Up” off his first album — they booed and jeered, calling out for “Rock and Roll!”   Many years later, I went to see him at Nassau Coliseum, a hockey arena in which the acoustics made every mix muddy. 

Both events were irritating, but nothing has made me lose respect for Bruce. If I’m less excited by his much later work, that may say more about my aging than about his. Nothing that came later could erase my love of his solo album, Nebraska, his commitment to The Ghost of Tom Joad, or his tribute to Pete Seeger.  Whenever I see him interviewed, I pay close attention and feel full of thanks.

He has evolved. He has remained committed to his art and to social justice. He has paid respects to his roots and to all who inspired him. I have no more to ask of Springsteen, even as I remain devoted to the early, full-blooded, full-throated anthems that he gave us.  

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