Two years ago, hardly anyone at Columbia knew how to spell his name, but now his new album, “Born to Run,” due out within the week, is all they can talk about up there. Hope of the future. Big star. Gold record. The works. Across the land, corporate drums are making sure everybody gets the message. A new savior is at hand. The ’70s are being primed for a media killing to the nth degree. Pressing plants work long into the night. The time, as they say in the business, is right.
In Asbury Park, New Jersey, the blood of the poet must be running both hot and cold about this. In the summer of ’72, Bruce Springsteen, winless after half a decade of bar-band wars, had just written several long, very unusual songs — yet another new beginning for him — and was reading Anthony Scaduto’s biography of Bob Dylan. He’d Just finished the part where Dylan goes up to Columbia, auditions for the legendary John Hammond, walks out with a record contract. One day later, Springsteen and guitar were in Hammond’s office, and history, sensing the chance to live up to its reputation, did indeed repeat itself.
Two LPs later, Bruce could boast moderate album sales, a small but rabid concert audience, and a critical reputation which was fast snowballing. Earlier incomprehension over his music — he was immediately labeled the new Dylan, the new Van Morrison — gradually gave way to cult pandemonium. When the eminent Jon Landau saw the singer perform in Boston and wrote, “I have seen rock ‘n’ roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen,” the careers of both men soon became intertwined.
Springsteen was having major problems recording a third LP. He and producer-manager Mike Appel had been working for eight months in a Long Island studio: the results were one completed song, “Born to Run,” and such incredible frustration Bruce at times threatened to give up making records altogether. Although “Greetings from Asbury Park N.J.” and “The Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle” were highly regarded, almost no one, record company and critics alike, thought they were produced well: and many suspected that it was Springsteen himself who was responsible for the technical agony and ecstasy. Such assumptions were more than partly correct. In the studio, Bruce was astigmatic and shortsighted, a perfectionist who frequently took the long way around simply because he didn’t know the short one. That depression had set in would be an understatement.
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Landau, who had once produced the MC-5 and Livingston Taylor, seemed the perfect solution. He loved the music, understood it, and, equally important, could offer an analytic and pragmatic approach as a logical balance to Springsteen’s mercurial naivete. They liked each other personally. If Landau was somewhat in awe of the kind of instinctual genius who could resolve aesthetic problems by compounding them, Bruce had no less respect for someone who invariably got to 10 by counting out nine individual numbers, one at a time. It was the ideal artistic marriage of creative madness and controlling method.
Together they cut “Thunder Road,” and when Springsteen discovered he could write a song one night and successfully record it within the next few days, he was so astonished he began writing and rewriting the rest of the album with renewed intensity. Why hadn’t someone told him it could be this easy? The word easy, however, can have pejorative overtones; and with Bruce, one is never talking about an economy of mood. The singer was convinced he had to deliver a masterpiece, and since nothing is ever perfect, especially to someone whose art is based on volatility, it became difficult to decide the exact degree of near-greatness attainable: once he and Landau had started a song off on the right road, Springsteen, out of uncertainty and the increasing pressures of oncoming and perhaps unwanted fame, didn’t know when to stop. Or didn’t dare. After all, it could always be better, couldn’t it? People are going to expect so much. Let’s just take a few more weeks because…
“Outside the street’s on fire/In a real death waltz/Between what’s flesh and what’s fantasy/And the poets down here don’t write nothing at all/They just stand back and let it all be/And in the quick of the night/They reach for their moment/And try to make an honest stand/But they wind up wounded/Not even dead/Tonight in Jungleland.”
At the Bottom Line. Wednesday. Springsteen begins the first show in almost total darkness, a single blue spotlight faintly limning the singer at the piano during the quiet opening minutes of “Thunder Road.” It is a magic moment, avoiding pretentiousness only because of works, for Bruce has carefully cultivated the late James Dean’s idiosyncratic timing, added a professional street character’s sense of the dramatic, a dancer’s knack for picaresque tableau, and wrapped the whole package with explosive vulnerability and the practiced pose of a tender hood. Thus the upcoming, split-second move from singular near-silence into vehement, resounding rock ‘n’ roll as the band comes onstage — a trick picked up from r&b groups and one which Springsteen will repeat all night — is a surprise only to the uninitiated, a delicious treat to the aficionado. The house has gone wild.
The night has an air of expectancy — one may even say privilege: there is an intensity present, a premonition that this is where the best music in America might well be happening in the next few hours, and the hope that it may be true. All 10 shows, Wednesday through Sunday, have been sold out for weeks, but at two o’clock this afternoon, a line began to form at Mercer and Fourth. By seven, several hundred kids were milling about in a pouring rain, gambling at long odds on the chance to buy one of the 36 standing-room only tickets. Inside the club, every other person is carrying either a notebook or camera to certify the event. Both Springsteen and the band seem aware of threat and promise, and try too hard. A bunch of South Shore street punks all sharped up for a big night in New York town, they are so charged with energy and good humor they push right past the audience, pointlessly sending the lost wail of barrio serenades all the way up to Eighth Avenue, surely one of Bruce’s spiritual homes.
If the street’s on fire outside, inside so are we, the singer seems to be saying from the secret heart of those small-town rock ‘n’ rollers set loose for the first time with booze and cars in Neon City. Hey, man, did you see that? Sexy innocents hang out on corners, soaking up urban vignettes, and striving in vain for the obscene loveliness of the true street hustler. From the cheap seats in Jersey, “Thunder Road” is Springsteen’s recurrent American dream, yet another incarnation of the run away and his woman — gimme my girl and let us outa here! — trying for the ultimate escape, no questions asked, no promises given: “Hey, what else can we do now?/…Well, the night’s busting open/…We got one last chance to make it real.”
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One last chance to make it real is the way Bruce approaches his concerts, too. Everything must get crammed in, whether it fits or not, the story lines accelerating until both singer and band reach bursting point so often that what is at first exhilarating and climactic later become mere hysterical redundancy. Too many times, one 20-minute song will follow another, their formats so similar the mind begs for brevity or at least a different set of reflexes with which to respond. Happily, Springsteen has dropped completely what appeared to be a creeping narcissism in many of last year’s concerts — in comparison, he is naturalness personified now — but he still has not learned that less can be more, that one well-aimed bullet can create just the kind of impact he wants while a dozen random shots may do nothing so much as bum out an audience before their time has come. Granted, he is a master at those small bits of stage business that can suddenly illuminate occasional dark alleys, but why he chooses to walk such mean streets at all remains a mystery.
Actually, Sunday night’s initial show makes practically any criticism obsolete. For the first time all week, the singer seems flexible and relaxed — Chaplin’s mobile tramp and Valentino’s slippery lover playfully filling the air with smoky mise-en-scene from an antic ’40s film noire, then delivering a Bogart, brass-knuckled haymaker that puts everyone away. It’s “Casablanca” all over again, with a gaucho Groucho in the lead. The pacing is much improved, the set structure faultless. Nothing gets repetitious. From a near-perfect mixture of bright talk (the introduction to “E Street Shuffle”), fast ones (“Born to Run”), oldies (the Searchers’ “When You Walk in the Room”), palpably intimate slow songs (in the middle of the set, “Thunder Road,” done strictly solo), and raging rockers (the best “Rosalita” yet), Springsteen fashions the kind of seamless, 150-minute performance that most artists can only dream about, never realize. On my feet, clapping, never wanting it to end, I ask myself when I’ve ever been so moved by a concert.
Four times: Dylan doing “Like a Rolling Stone” anywhere in ’65 or ’66, the Rolling Stones at the Garden in ’72, Jackson Browne in Toronto in ’73, and a few of the New York Dolls’ late shows at the Mercer Art Center that same year.
All of the above, of course, indicates that even Springsteen’s weaknesses stem from too much talent, not too little. When you can achieve just about anything you want onstage it’s hard not to stay there until you’ve rung all the bells; and one often gets the feeling that Bruce is having so much fun he’d gladly pay the crowd to let him do just that. Ironically, if he weren’t as good as he is — and he is close to being the best we have — no one would be concerned with such minor issues as pace and overreach. In the long run, the stamina and purity of personal vision should be applauded. To be tenaciously naive is far preferable to following the safe, downhill path which leads straight into the formulaic nowhere of much of today’s music business. Small wonder he wants to keep clear of that and case the promised land on his own.
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Yet there it is, out there like an anxious Jack the Ripper, eagerly awaiting to confer the bloody award. In the East, Springsteen is already a legend — in Washington, D.C., advance orders on his new album already outnumber those for Elton John’s — and he has made great inroads in Texas, and parts of the Midwest. The South and the Far West remain question marks, but the smart money is betting there’ll be a new star in rock ‘n’ roll heaven when “Born to Run” is released.
I wouldn’t doubt it. For me, it’s his best record, curbing most of the excess but none of the force of the only artist I know who could combine the sound of Phil Spector with the singing of Roy Orbison. (The names come from Bruce.) “Born to Run” lists three producers — Springsteen, Landau, Appel — but Landau freely acknowledges that “Bruce made every important artistic decision on the LP. The biggest thing I learned from him was the ability to concentrate on the big picture. ‘Hey, wait a second,’ he would say, ‘The release date is just one day, but the record is forever.” Mike’s great strength in the studio was his energy, his ability to keep everybody’s spirit together. No matter how bad it got, he could always get things going again.”
Out front, fame is at the door and knocking loudly. There’s too much light out there, and the countdown has begun. In the back, under the haze of a romantic’s moon, maybe no one will notice two figures on a fire escape jump down and run hand-in-hand through tenement backstreets toward Spanish Harlem. On Broadway, it’s midnight in Manhattan, so walk tall, somebody says. Walk tall or, baby, don’t walk at all.
Everything is quiet. Only a whisper.
“Sandy, the aurora is risin’ behind us/Those pier lights, our carnival life forever/Oh, love me tonight for I may never see you again/Hey, Sandy girl, my baby.”
Quieter. But if we’re lucky, Bruce sighs,
“Maybe we could slip away/Maybe we could steal away /Maybe we could slip away/Just for a second.”