What is it about Bruce Springsteen? I mean, aside from the blinding raw talent, sexy voice, ability to reinvent a genre as he creates it and the cute little ass?
As there are about 67,000 ways to write about Bruce Springsteen, this will just focus on his first two albums. Perhaps I’ll talk about The Rising and Magic in another post.
I didn’t grow up with the Boss. Not really. I mean, I’m sure my dad played him every once in awhile, but my father isn’t really the grandiose rock & roll kind of guy. He likes jazz and bluegrass and early Rolling Stones records, so I was surprised (and I bet so was he!) when I came home from my first year of college (in the summer of 2001) toting a Born to Run CD and a brand new little crush and he proffered in return copies of The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle and Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ, Springsteen’s incredible first two albums. Thanks, Dad!
I don’t really remember when I started listening to the Boss. I have a sneaking suspicion that I decided, upon arriving at college, that Springsteen was the kind of artist I should listen to, and probably bought a used copy of Born to Run.
Of course then I realized that Brucey was the best thing that ever happened to music. Why? He’s someone we can all agree on, and that’s weirdly comforting. Have you ever met someone who professed to hate Bruce Springsteen? How could you? He makes great music, donates huge amounts to charity, occasionally veers off on interesting tracks like his tribute to Pete Seeger, is humble without being cloying about it, has never been involved in any scandals where he has been discovered “performing lewd acts” in a London park (*ahem George Michael ahem*) and genuinely seems like someone you’d want to have a beer with. And all of his E Street Bandmates are equally talented, normal, and genuine. He cheated on his wife, but married the woman he cheated on her with, so he can hardly be considered a Lothario. Bruce Springsteen is an all-around good dude.
The only reason I can think of to hate him is that nobody does, a fact which I’m sure some people find annoying. Now, I’m all for obscure, weird artists and strange modes of new music, but sometimes you just need the soothing balm of genuine rock music with identifiable lyrics, and it is of course Springsteen who delivers every time.
I want to talk a bit about those first two album, Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ and The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle because I think in order to really appreciate The Boss, you have to appreciate these albums. They are explosions of The Boss’ best talents combined with the grandiose posturing of a young, brilliant artists trying to get it all down. I call Greetings… his I-think-I’m-Bob-Dylan record. He mumbles through dense, dizzy lyrics like Dylan, but does it with a rootsy, earthy electric guitar behind him instead of an electric one. It was released in 1973, and my favorite song by far on the album is “Blinded by the Light” (covered in 1977 by Manfred Mann, a horrible, bastard version of the song with the wrong friggin’ lyrics). The lyrics are a free association description of hazy, confused nights out and about in New York City (“Lost in the Flood” from the same album has a similar, if slightly more sinister, sound/theme):
What I think is so great about this album is that Springsteen knows how to surround himself with talented musicians who don’t just play their instruments, they evoke mood and paint pictures with their instruments.
The haunting piano persists throughout the album is most acutely aching on the track “Growing Up,” which features one of my favorite lyrics ever (“I hid in the clouded warmth of the crowd / When they said ‘Come down’ I threw up / Growing up”):
(Incidentally, David Bowie did a cover of the above during the Diamond Dogs sessions which is almost a tribute to the original it’s so closely realted; it’s one of a very few Springsteen covers I can stand):
More use of instruments-as-paintbrushes: The gentle harmonica of “Mary Queen of Arkansas” evokes the lovelorn lyrics with perfect acuity, painting a heartbreaking portrait of a New Jersey boy under the oppressive spell of a hot and heavy southern belle:
Those songs above are flawed, unlike some of Springsteen’s later efforts (such as “Born in the U.S.A” or “Dancing in the Dark” which are, more than anything, perfect rock songs), but I like them for their enthusiastic flaws. Early Springsteen is an excited virtuoso and a little less-than-confident. An adolescent, eager to please. It’s lovely.
The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle – the first “official” E Street Band album – is a wild party of a thing, all blasting horns and electric riffs and throaty vocals and routinely cited as one of the best rock & roll albums ever. It’s a sexy, summer album, punctuated by songs like “4th of July Asbury Park (Sandy)” and “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” and “New York City Serenade” which are just perfect for the image I have in my mind about summers in 1970s New York. None of the songs are less than 4 minutes and “New York City Serenade” tops out at over 9, and in the hands of less capable musicians, that is the kind of thing that would make me want to yell about overstuffing songs. But like these songs are the slow burn of a hot and heavy East Coast summer, meant to be experienced with as little clothing and as much beer as possible. And they are simply perfect.
“Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”, which has the greatest break down of any rock song ever:
Whereas Greetings… is overstuffed with emotion and dense lyrics, The Wild, The Innocent… is overstuffed with feel-good horns. Somehow, in 1975, Springsteen brought it all together for Born to Run, which is just the perfect amount of dense lyrics and feel-good horns and riffs, but I think the first two Boss albums stand as a testament to an emerging genius, and show how the Boss got his groove.
So this is supposed to be a memoir. What did Bruce Springsteen teach me about life?
He taught me that Bruce Springsteen rocks. And that was a very important lesson to learn.