The Wild, The Innocent, & The E Street Shuffle: A Bruce Springsteen Deep Dive Retrospective
Listen to the playlist as you read along. Google Play & Spotify are album versions of songs. YouTube includes several live versions. This posting was updated in June 2019 after the release of the album, Western Stars.
In January 2018 I travelled to New York to see Bruce Springsteen’s one-man show on Broadway. There are very few artists I would go to such lengths to see, and as always the venerable performer delivered. So after that experience it is time to do a write-up on ‘The Boss,’ the living legend whose music I grew up with, whom I’ve now seen perform eleven times, and the only artist that competes with New Order for claim as my favourite artist.
Does this Bus Stop at 82nd Street?
It's Hard to Be A Saint in the City
4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)
Streets of Fire
I Wanna Marry You
The Price You Pay
I'm Goin' Down
I Wish I Were Blind
My Beautiful Reward
Long Time Comin'
You'll Be Comin' Down
Last to Die
Hurry Up Sundown
Springsteen is an artist that has travelled through many stages in his career, seen the highs and the lows, and developed many die-hard fans, casual followers, and detractors large and small. Depending on your perspective he can be everything that is great about rock n’ roll or just another aging dinosaur rocker who should be sent out to pasture. It’s my goal here to offer some argument as to why he is not just a good songwriter and musician, but why he’s worthy of the highest accolades and stature as one of the greatest performers in the history of rock n’ roll. And as I prefer for artists of this nature, I won’t focus on his best-known work since we all know that all too well, but do a 'deep dive' and use the lesser known tracks to highlight his talent and musical history.
I grew up listening to Springsteen’s music from when I was young since my brother played it all the time and talked about Bruce often. While he did this for many other artists of the 1960s and 1970s I didn’t grab onto them the same way I did Springsteen. It is a testament to his music that he broke through and imprinted on me an appreciation for his music and vision. My fandom has waned at times over the years, but otherwise has held on for almost forty years.
Bruce Springsteen was born in Freehold, New Jersey in 1949, a blue-collar town just in from the shore. Raised in an Irish-Catholic tradition, he watched his family struggle to make ends meet. Inspired by Elvis Presley, The Beatles, and the rise of rock n’ roll, he started playing the guitar and, after a false start or two, dedicated himself to a life of music. Amazingly, Springsteen has never held a job other than as a musician. It’s the only way he’s ever made a living, for better or worse. I find that fact alone rather amazing, especially when taking into account his parents moved to California when he was eighteen and he stayed in New Jersey, left to fend for himself. He did so by moving to Asbury Park and playing in bands, first The Castiles, then Steel Mill, and then eventually his own acts, Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom and then The Bruce Springsteen band. Travelling up and down the shore playing every bar along the way, he scraped enough money together to put food on the table, though sometimes had to sleep on the floor of a few places or on friend’s couches. As he entered his early twenties, he had established himself as a guitarist and singer of some repute in the Jersey shore scene, a notable performer of blues and rock offered up in a passionate display. He was also a forceful and committed leader, resulting in the nickname ‘The Boss,’ a moniker he has forever decried given his general disdain for authority. However, he knew he could only attain his musical vision by maintaining control over his songs and his career. It was a decision he made early and would hold to throughout his career. But in 1972 he was frustrated at not having been discovered despite knowing he was as good or better than those he was hearing on the radio. He determined the problem was that no one was going to discover him no matter how good he was if he stayed in Asbury Park, New Jersey. He had to get out while he was young.
Does this Bus Stop at 82nd Street?; It’s Hard to Be A Saint in the City \ Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ (1973)
Springsteen finally caught his break when he hooked up with Mike Appel as his manager, who finagled a meeting with John Hammond at Columbia Records in New York, famous for signing many great folk and blues artists including Bob Dylan. Bruce performed a few songs in Hammond’s office on his guitar, and the passion and lyrical depth of his songs excited the famous producer, who quickly got Bruce signed and into a studio to record his first album. Columbia thought they’d found the next Dylan, the next great poet-singer-songwriter. When Bruce showed up at the studio with a busload of musicians the label was taken aback – this was not what they had in mind.
Springsteen was a conundrum for his label and rock fans. He was a solo artist with a big band sound, one of the first to pack rock songs with a multitude of instruments. Until then most rock bands were four or five players and focused on guitar, bass, and drums. Piano was assurgent with the likes of Elton John and Billy Joel, but only served to replace the guitar as the lead instrument. Soul bands could be large because of the horns and backing singers, but again those elements were a focus. When Springsteen came out with multiple guitars, piano, organ, sax, bass and drums and none were dominant, it was a new direction for rock music.
The first album, with the apt title and postcard album cover, came straight from the Jersey shore and a musical heritage of blues, soul, jazz and swing. Many bands on the shore revelled in the ‘Jersey Swing’ sound, loving to take their blues and soul arrangements into long, extended jams with the full complement of an aggressive and energetic band. Bruce surrounded himself with a wonderful array of talent, all culled from his bands over the past few years: David Sancious on piano and organ, Garry W. Tallent on bass, and Vini ‘Mad Dog’ Lopez on drums. And yes, we hear the first contributions from Clarence ‘The Big Man’ Clemons, who had moved in the same Asbury Park circles for a while and was asked by Bruce to contribute to the songs “Blinded by the Light” and “Spirit in the Night.” In the fall of 1971 he agreed to leave his band and join Bruce’s permanently, a serendipitous decision that would create a sonic partnership that would define their brand of rock n’ roll for the next forty years.
The first thing to note on this album were the lyrics. The songs were packed with hundreds of words… per song. Extended ballads of colourful characters and inventive language make these songs like novels, each story its own. If there’s a reason alone to appreciate Springsteen, it’s his incredible way with words and the ability to paint a visceral scene of American life and the human condition. Overt politics would come later, but for his first effort Bruce was trying to capture the sights, sounds, and people of the towns in which he grew up. The Dylan comparisons are understandable, but no one has captured the perspective, struggle, lament, and small joys of the American small town. It’s because of this that Springsteen has been celebrated as a national icon, a poet laureate of rock and roll.
The first two albums musically were unlike anything else in his career, yet elements of what was to come were all present. “Mary Queen of Arkansas” and “The Angel” showed the Dylanesque folk singer, stripped down to a piano or guitar. “Blinded by the Light,” “For You,” and “Does this Bus Stop at 82nd Street?” showed the rocker with the full-on band sound. “Growin’ Up” was the first of his autobiographical, introspective songs that would cement the bond with his fans, mixing the personal with the universal, creating the framework for his on-stage stories about his childhood (“The flag of piracy flew from my mast, my sails were set wing to wing / I had a jukebox graduate for first mate, she couldn't sail but she sure could sing.” “I hid in the crowded wrath of the crowd, but when they said, ‘sit down,’ I stood up”). “Spirit in the Night” is similar, though less personal but as much about his life, hanging with friends at Greasy Lake (his characters were like a cast of some gangster film: Crazy Janey, Wild Billy, G-Man, Hazy Davy and Killer Joe) and making one’s way through adolescence – all wrapped around one of the jazziest, bluesiest, swingiest melodies you’ll ever come across.
And then there was “Lost in the Flood” and “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City,” two different songs but equally epic and emotionally draining in their scope. Anyone who didn’t see Born to Run coming didn’t listen to these songs. “Lost in the Flood” was simply breathtaking, full of lulls and crescendos, guitar solos, and a lyrical tableau both cryptic and vivid. This song alone puts Springsteen in the upper-echelons of song writers. “It’s Hard to Be A Saint in the City” was a sprint, pacing you through the challenges and fears of a young man from a small town trying to make his way in the big city. I used this song for a poetry assignment in grade eleven and was mesmerized by the lyrics, dense and descriptive, easy to digest yet inviting for exploration. These lines alone are beyond anything I got from Dylan: “The devil appeared like Jesus through the steam in the street / Showin' me a hand I knew even the cops couldn't beat / I felt his hot breath on my neck as I dove into the heat / It's so hard to be a saint when you're just a boy out on the street.” Add a jazzy piano/drums combo and this song announced Bruce as an important and exciting new presence in the rock world. The album would reach #60 in the US and #41 in the UK and be a critical success, but there was a way to go before Springsteen became a household name.
4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy); Kitty’s Back \ The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle (1973)
I will try to contain myself here, because this is my favourite Springsteen album and I believe one of the greatest rock albums ever recorded. If he had done two or three more albums in this style I would have been very happy. Alas, Bruce was on a mission and progress and change were the mantra. Still rooted in the R&B and jazz sounds of his upbringing, his next album was released the same year as the first, giving release to all his pent-up expression after years on the road cultivating his craft.
Touring the US to promote his first album he had assembled a band around his studio musicians and added his old friend Danny Federici on keyboards and accordion to help out David Sancious, because Bruce was a rare artist to combine piano and organ in his songs. It was this same line-up he’d take into the studio for the second album, with an eye to explore the grander, more ambitious reaches of his band’s capabilities. And thank the music gods for that.
Opening with horn blasts followed by the swinging melody of “The E Street Shuffle,” the first side of the album immediately revealed a more sophisticated sound from Bruce. The song closed with a jazz-soul jam full of energy and the feel of a late night, urban club. The next song was one of his most beautiful ballads, the tribute to the colourful scene on the boardwalk in Asbury Park. “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” was a rare rock song led by an accordion, and was again a beautiful, rich song full of colourful characters and poetic phrases, painting the life of a struggling artist trying to find a girl: “And me I just got tired of hangin' in them dusty arcades bangin' them pleasure machines / Chasin' the factory girls underneath the boardwalk where they all promise to unsnap their jeans;” but life didn’t come without setbacks, “Sandy that waitress I was seeing lost her desire for me / I spoke with her last night, she said she won't set herself on fire for me anymore.” So what to do other than hit the road, always the view of Bruce’s protagonists, “Did you hear the cops finally busted Madame Marie for tellin' fortunes better than they do / For me this boardwalk life is through, babe / You ought to quit this scene too.” This was a reference to the infamous Asbury boardwalk fortune teller, Madame Marie, who passed away in 2008,
Before side one concluded with the carnival atmosphere of “Wild Billy’s Circus Story,” Springsteen unleashed one of his most energetic, jazziest, and exhilarating songs of his career, the likes of which we’d never hear from him again. “Kitty’s Back” is a blast-and-a-half, propelled throughout by the stellar drumming of ‘Mad Dog’ who rightly earned the nickname (both on and off-stage). The finale was lifted by the distinctive, high-pitched wailing of Clarence on sax, as only the Big Man could do. Throughout the song the leads were handed between guitar, organ, bass, and drums like a jazz jam. The song was marked with a reckless abandon that would sadly be lost in future releases.
Side two though, actually stepped it up from the great first side. Three songs strung together took the listener on a thrilling and winding musical journey. It started with the lovely, piano-infused “Incident on 57th Street,” where again all the instruments of the band came together, though here in a perfectly controlled infusion. These early albums from Bruce had many of the elements of what made so many rock songs in the 70s great, especially when heard from today’s perspective. The analog recording, the thick, resonant drums, deep, natural bass lines and acoustic guitar give the songs a layered, almost-live feel that begged to be heard on a quality sound system. Like jazz, every instrument was doing its own thing but working together as a whole.
They just don’t make albums like this anymore; The Wild, The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle is excuse enough to revive vinyl.
Next up was “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight),” to become a signature song of Bruce’s live shows and that prophesied his stardom as he encouraged Rosalita to “cut loose her mama’s reins” and implored her daddy to let her go out with him since it’s “his last chance to get his daughter in a fine romance / Because the record company, Rosie, just gave me a big advance.” Amidst the pursuit of Rosalita is yet another colourful cast of characters, as we’re told about ‘Little Dynamite’ and ‘Little Gun,’ ‘Jack the Rabbit’ and ‘Weak Kneed Willie,’ and ‘Sloppy Sue’ and ‘Big Bone Billy,’ all made the song read like an adult, urbanized version of some psychedelic children’s story – Lewis Carroll comes to lower Manhattan. As Clarence punctuates the swing melody the song rises to a climax, and then a twinkling organ denouement settled the song into the opening of the album’s closing track.
“New York City Serenade” could very well be my favourite Springsteen song, perhaps as much because it’s so different from his others and counter to everything most people would assume about The Boss’ music. It also clocks in as his longest album track at just shy of ten minutes. The opening strums of piano strings led to a classical, dramatic piano intro which then blended into the clear picks of an acoustic guitar and the percussive notes of a conga, picking up a laid back groove that oozes gritty, New York cool. It’s always intrigued me that typical fans of classic rock, as I’ve come across them, are generally a less sophisticated looking crowd of dishevelled jeans, plaid shirts, Greb Kodiak boots (harkening back to my childhood, here) and unkempt hair – yet listen to rock music routinely drawn from the most sophisticated forms: classical and jazz. You can’t judge a book by it’s cover I guess, which at this point certainly applied to the scruffy songwriter from the Jersey shore. The rest of the song was carried on piano and strings, all courtesy of David Sancious in his last and most significant contribution to Bruce’s legacy. It is one of the most beautiful songs ever to grace the grooves of a rock record and concluded an album that should have cemented Bruce immediately as a legendary talent. Critics recognized this, but fans were still slow to catch on as the album sold about the same as his debut. I’ve seen Springsteen eleven times in concert and he has performed 126 different songs in those shows, but I’m yet to hear this song. Some day, some day…
Night \ Born to Run (1975)
Bruce and the band toured non-stop over the next three years slowly building an audience. Amidst those tours Bruce holed up in a small cottage in Long Branch, New Jersey, steps from the beach, to write the next album, a project he aspired to be the greatest rock album ever recorded. His lofty ambition led to a meticulous, arduous writing and recording process that would take two years and force several changes to his band. Lamentably, the first to go was ‘Mad Dog’ Lopez, whose drumming style was too free for the wall-of-sound production Bruce was seeking (and who was also causing more drama that Bruce was willing to tolerate). He was replaced by Ernest ‘Boom Boom’ Carter. It was this line-up that recorded the song “Born to Run,” which alone took more than six months to complete. Carter would soon leave with Sancious to create, not surprisingly, a jazz fusion band. This led to ‘The Professor’ Roy Bittan to be brought on for piano and ‘Mighty Max’ Weinberg to be added as drummer. These changes immediately altered the sound of Springsteen’s music and removed the loose, jazzy feel. Bittan is a less colourful player than Sancious, though his use of piano, almost like bells ringing in the background of songs, led to one of the signature sounds of the next three albums; while Max, who is a more powerful, disciplined and efficient drummer than Lopez or Carter, brought a larger and simpler foundation to the songs, helping Bruce achieve the denser sound he was pursuing – though Max acknowledges there’s a drum fill from Carter’s recording of “Born to Run” that he can’t replicate, so that song has been forever altered for live performances.
As the shows, song writing, and recording continued, Bruce found himself turning more to his old friend, ‘Miami’ Steve Van Zandt, who had played with him in the band, Steel Mill, and had recently formed Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes as well as The Miami Horns, paying tribute to his beloved soul music. ‘Little Steven’ would help with the guitar line in “Born to Run” and arrange the horns on “10th Avenue Freeze-Out,” and eventually agree to join the band full-time both on tour and in the studio in July 1975. This set the line-up that would complete the album and become known officially as ‘the E Street Band,’ which was what the band had been informally known to that point in lieu of the street in Belmar, New Jersey where they used to rehearse in Sancious’ mother’s garage. You may note this street also gave name to the song, “The E Street Shuffle” from the prior album. There is an actual intersection of E Street and 10th Avenue, which has a replica of Bruce’s guitar to commemorate the location of two of Bruce's most famed local references. To recap, he now had himself and Little Steven on guitar, Roy Bittan and Danny Federici on keyboards, Gary W. Tallent on bass, Max Weinberg on drums, and of course Clarence Clemons on sax.
Commensurate with its ambition, Born to Run was big, sweeping, and powerful in its energy and emotional resonance as every song evoked a powerful response. The grandiose tendencies of The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle were now front and centre, making each song on Born to Run like musical novellas, still packed with long and dense lyrics. The Jersey references were mostly dropped, hoping to relate to a wider audience. However, his themes were still intact of young men struggling to find their way in the world, stay out of trouble, find a girl, and hit the open road in a car in search of their dreams and the promise of a brighter future.
The album featured numerous classics of both Bruce’s and the rock genre. ‘Thunder Road,” probably the most poetic of his songs with his most sublime seduction and along with the title track his most ardent anthem for escape and the discovery of new possibilities, “Hey, what else can we do now? / Except roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair / Well, the night's busting open, these two lanes will take us anywhere / We got one last chance to make it real / To trade in these wings on some wheels / Climb in back, heaven's waiting on down the tracks”. “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” a horn-filled romp, chronicled the coming together of his band. “Backstreets” was the first introduction to the epic range of his new song writing. “She’s the One” harkened back to Bo Diddley. And “Jungleland” took the grandeur of this album to its ultimate conclusion, replete with Clarence’s most famous and equally epic sax solo. Some days it can’t be denied to me as his greatest song, while on other days it seems too much, just a little too epic for its own good, but regardless stands like a sentry daring all rockers thereafter to try and climb past its lofty heights. Amongst the classics there was the frenetic energy of “Night” and the subtle moodiness of “Meeting Across the River,” both of which in the third slots provided the set-up for the bombast of the finales of each album side, “Backstreets” and “Jungleland.”
And then there was the title track, the song that would forever define Bruce’s métier, the consummate product of his musical and lyrical vision and the desire to capture the spirit of his youth within the context of a tumultuous America, and simply one of the all-time greatest rock n’ roll songs on one of the greatest albums of all time. The song ran like the rumbling motorcycle of its lyrics with a steady pace from start to finish, propelling its protagonists and the listener to the open road, yet leaving the possibilities wide open and uncertain, “Someday girl I don't know when / We're gonna get to that place / Where we really wanna go / And we'll walk in the sun / But till then tramps like us / Baby we were born to run.”
The album had an iconic cover shot of Bruce and Clarence, symbolizing their musical partnership. The cover showed just Bruce, but when the gatefold was opened the full shot by Eric Meola was revealed. The white background and simple, block font set this album apart from the fun of the first album’s cover and the darkness of the second and signalled the new direction Bruce and the band had taken.
“Born to Run” was released as a single to radio stations early and the reaction led to increased anticipation of the album’s release. In August of 1975 the band did a five-night, ten show stand at The Bottom Line, the legendary Greenwich Village club. Rolling Stone magazine included these shows in its list of the '50 Moments that Changed Rock and Roll.’ Critics, fans, and musicians flocked to these shows to witness the force, energy, and magnificence of the E Street Band and the Born to Run songs in a small club, resulting in one of those ‘I was there’ mythologies. The album was released at the end of the month and cracked the top ten in the US on its second week, eventually peaking at #3. Its success was bolstered by a quote from Jon Landau, Springsteen’s new manager (taking over after Bruce had a falling out and legal battle with Mike Appel), who had written a review after first seeing Springsteen live and remarking, “I have seen the future of rock and roll and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” At the end of October Bruce was on the cover of both Time and Newsweek in the same week, vaulting him to international attention and driving the risk of over-hype. The band did their first tour of Europe and discovered passionate audiences waiting for them, despite Bruce running around the Hammersmith Odeon in London ripping down the ‘Future of Rock and Roll’ posters and buttons that had been put up. Regardless, the Springsteen legend had been established, even though in terms of singles and sales, he’d yet to top any charts.
Candy’s Room; Streets of Fire \ Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978)
Bruce once again sought to create a great rock album, but this time he wanted a leaner, more stripped-down sound. I don’t know if this was in response to some of the backlash of the Born to Run promotion or a response to the rise of punk and the criticism it offered towards grandiose rock compositions, but regardless the next album would have less musical scope and far fewer lyrics than the prior albums. The long ballads were replaced by traditional verse-chorus structures and the songs would all be under five minutes save for one.
The themes were also darker, though still focused on cars, women, and the trials of the working man. Speaking less as a youth and more as a man, the perspectives are now about family, hard work, and political overtures. Dreams are now less aspirational in place of the reckoning that they may not be met, and how to deal with the political and social forces that shape the prospects of those born to less advantage. This album obviously has meaning to Bruce, as to this day he reaches back to these songs in every set list and calls on songs like “The Promised Land” and “Badlands” for critical moments in his shows and for when he wants to reflect on the important things in his life and America, about the promise of its dreams and heartache of when these don’t come about. Take these lyrics from “The Promised Land: “I've done my best to live the right way / I get up every morning and go to work each day / But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold / Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode / Explode and tear this whole town apart / Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart / Find somebody itching for something to start.” In Badlands he reflects on the issues of authority, “Poor man wanna be rich / Rich man wanna be king / And a king ain't satisfied / 'til he rules everything / I wanna go out tonight / I wanna find out what I got.” He may have achieved success, but he is still grappling with his early struggles and the decline of his home towns of Freehold and Asbury Park. He is still searching for something.
The album is structured the same as Born to Run, with epic songs of escape opening each side in “Badlands” and “The Promised Land,” and then closed with songs of lament and lost hope in “Racing in the Street” and the title track. “Prove it All Night” and “Badlands” were released as singles, not quite equalling the #23 peak of “Born to Run” but helping to propel the album to #5 in the US and #16 in the UK.
The leaner sound provided great sock songs like “Adam Raised a Cain” and “Candy’s Room” as well as beautiful ballads, “Something in the Night” and “Factory.” This was the first album to be recorded by a stable line-up that participated throughout, and more notably by musicians that could translate his tighter vision into formidable recordings. There are no blues, jazz, swing, or classical elements. “Streets of Fire” is emblematic of this sound, with a tough R&B sound that alternates between subtle melodies and forceful, rock-infused choruses. Bruce had developed a brand sound that was his alone and would be emulated by many, most notably by John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band for the movie soundtrack, Eddie and the Cruisers (1983), which would produce a top ten song, “On the Dark Side” (there’s a pattern of others having greater success with The Boss’ sound than Bruce himself).
A long, worldwide tour would be undertaken to promote the album, the first formal tour for the band after years of off-and-on unstructured touring, mostly in North America. Over the course of the tour, now in arenas, Springsteen’s reputation as an outstanding performer would be established. His ability to translate the energy and passion of the smaller venues to the large halls won over more fans, awed by his and the E Street Band’s ability to put on long, high tempo shows with multiple highlights while also providing for intimacy and connection to Bruce and his music. Varied set lists, unreleased songs, and different takes on the album songs also made seeing them worthwhile over and over again, since each show had its own personality. Fans started touring with him, a practice continued to this day. It’s not unusual to come across fans that have seen multiple, even dozens, of his shows (my eleven shows pales to the many who have been seeing him since his early days).
Springsteen was a prolific song writer, usually writing and recording dozens of songs for each album. Over the years much of this material has been released on compilations we’ll cover later. He also gave away many songs leading to hits for others. During the Darkness sessions he gave Patti Smith the song, “Because the Night,” “Fire” went to the Pointer Sisters, “Rendezvous” to Greg Kihn, and “This Little Girl” to Gary US Bonds. He also had to witness Manfred Mann’s Earth Band cover “Blinded by the Light” in 1976, in which some of the lyrics were altered and a ‘chopsticks’ piano riff was added, go to #1 in the US and Canada. Amazingly, to this day this is the only Springsteen song to reach #1 since Bruce has never achieved it with any of his own recordings.
Jackson Cage; I Wanna Marry You; The Price You Pay \ The River (1980)
Much of the leftover material from the Darkness recordings found their way onto the next album, which was originally going to be a single album titled after the lead track, “The Ties that Bind.” As he once again wrote and recorded copious amounts of material and reflected on what he had learned and seen during his extensive travels while touring for the past many years, he decided he needed more room to explore his themes. Now a successful artist, though not quite stratospheric, but a leading name in the rock world nonetheless, Bruce could take a step back and reflect on the ideals and problems of American life. The result would be a double album that explored relationships, working life, and once again the struggles of the labouring class in a recessionary US.
The title track best encapsulates these themes, a song he wrote about the life of his sister, who got pregnant and married her high school sweetheart, settling into a life of having to work hard to make ends meet from a young age (they’re still married today). The lyrics of “The River” are some of Bruce’s most poignant: “Then I got Mary pregnant / and man that was all she wrote / And for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat,” which leads to the realities of a young family, “I got a job working construction for the Johnstown Company / But lately there ain't been much work on account of the economy / Now all them things that seemed so important / Well mister they vanished right into the air / Now I just act like I don't remember / Mary acts like she don't care.” While his prior albums had many great slow ballads, on The River the slow songs stood out to a greater degree and served to emphasize the depth and relevance of Bruce’s take on the American condition in the late 1970s. “I Wanna Marry You” and “The Price You Pay” are excellent examples of these, along with others such as “Independence Day,” “Fade Away,” “Drive all Night,” and “Wreck on the Highway.”
The album though was not all strife and seriousness, because indeed life isn’t always that way either. The River contains some of the most fun and energetic, straight up rock and roll Bruce had put out in his career. The loose sounds of the first two albums are a distant memory, as are the over-sized arrangements of Born to Run. The rawness and sharp edges of Darkness also don’t appear as much leaving unabashed pop-rock songs as invitations to dance and party, such as with “Sherry Darling,” “Two Hearts,” “Cadillac Ranch,” “I’m a Rocker,” and “Ramrod.”
The rock-and-pop spirit is best heard in the single from the album, “Hungry Heart,” Springsteen’s first bona fide hit song which reached #5 in the US and Canada. And it almost, once again, could have been a hit for someone else instead of Bruce. He wrote the song to give to The Ramones after Joey Ramone had asked for a song, but when he heard how good it was Jon Landau convinced Bruce to keep it. “Hungry Heart” and other singles, not to mention the accompanying massive tour and the large fan base originating from his prior two albums, propelled The River to #1 in the US and Canada and #2 in the UK. As Bruce noted in his recent 35th anniversary tour for the album, his fan base grew to include women for the first time in large numbers. Instead of seeing mostly men in his audiences he was seeing women laughing and dancing along to his new songs. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were now date friendly, and the singer couldn’t have been more thrilled.
It was this point that Bruce entered my life. I was ten and just starting to pay attention to music and establish my tastes. As I noted earlier, my brother was a huge fan and The River was played constantly in our house. I loved the album and remember hearing “Hungry Heart” on the radio daily. When the band came to town to play Maple Leaf Gardens my brother went and had an extra ticket, which I desperately wanted. Of course, my 20-year-old brother was not going to take his kid brother to a rock concert, and my mother wasn’t entertaining that idea either. But during a cross-border shopping trip that year she did buy my brother his copy of The River and, not wanting to leave me out, but also not seeing the logic in buying two of the same album, bought me Darkness on the Edge of Town (not realizing of course, that my brother had that album too - I would colour the corners of my copy with marker to make sure it was known which was mine). I was disappointed to not have my own copy of The River but was still thrilled to have my own Springsteen album, and probably the first record I ever had of my own that wasn’t a hand-me-down (my brother had offloaded some K-Tel records, Trooper's Hot Shots, and a couple BTO records to me so I had some music to play of my own and would stay out of his bedroom, all to no avail since I knew where the good music was). My infatuation with Bruce was born as I played Darkness constantly, memorizing the lyrics and putting on imaginary concerts in my bedroom using a wooden yard stick as a guitar.
Johnny 99 \ Nebraska (1982)
After three monumental albums and almost ten years of constant touring, Bruce took a needed change of pace, especially after recording acoustic demos for the next album on a 4-track cassette tape in his home. Feeling the songs were better in this format than with the full E Street Band treatment (though versions of the songs were recorded with the band before the final decision was made, leading to speculation on when those versions will surface; and a full-band version of “Reason to Believe” was a regular addition to the set list of his Magic tour of 2007-08 and boy, did it sound great.), Nebraska would be released as a solo, acoustic arrangement, fulfilling the poet-singer-songwriter image that John Hammond had originally imagined.
I think Bruce fans may tend to fall into two categories, at least in regard to his albums of this nature – what I call his ‘dust bowl’ albums. I like the full band sound and the energy of his larger compositions, even when it’s a slow tune. When he pulls it back to just him and a guitar or piano, the songs may still be great, but they don’t move me as much. I know many fans who adore these albums and even prefer them to his larger sound. Of course, to each one’s own and it’s a testament to Springsteen that he can bridge those two fan bases.
Nebraska is a great album, with many thoughtful and sombre songs. Law and order themes take hold as Bruce considers the plight of those who have made bad, and often desperate, decisions to find their way in the world outside the law. There is a song about his father, “My Father’s House,” and about growing up in Freehold as one of the disadvantaged compared to the well-to-do in the suburbs in “Mansion on the Hill” (which also referred to a relative’s house in that town). The album also had another minor hit with “Atlantic City,” which didn’t crack the mainstream charts but did reach the top ten of the US Rock chart.
I’m Goin’ Down \ Born in the USA (1984)
I’m not sure anyone would have predicted the success Bruce and the band would have with their next album, least of all Bruce. After the quiet reflection of Nebraska they were ready to let loose again, and this time produced a collection of unabashed pop-rock songs, tailor made for rip-roaring concerts and dancing. The 1980s allowed a last hurrah of many artists of the 1970s and in many respects, this would be the same for Springsteen, but other than perhaps David Bowie with Let’s Dance or Queen with The Works, none of those artists came close to equalling the success of Born in the USA, which spawned no less than seven top ten singles (but none that would reach #1!).
I was too limited in my musical appreciation to get into Nebraska (maybe I still am) and at the age of fourteen was primed to purchase my first Springsteen album with my own money. I recall going to the Yonge Eglinton Centre to buy a copy at Sam the Record Man. In addition to the album I bought the 45 rpm single of “Dancing in the Dark” because I wanted the B-side, “Pink Cadillac” (which I was annoyed was not on the album, and perhaps Bruce would be annoyed later when Natalie Cole did a version in 1988 that went to #5 on the chart and #1 on the Dance chart, yet another singer succeeding with his work. He also didn't think the song was appropriate for a female singer, having vetoed allowing Bette Midler to cover it in 1983 because yes, ‘Pink Cadillac’ is an anatomical innuendo.). I went home, listened to the album, and… hated it. I liked “Dancing in the Dark,” but the rest of the album was too country, too pop, and just lacked the greatness of the prior albums, which by then I’d explored fully (I recall encouraging a friend to buy Born to Run in grade five when he got his first record player). It took me years to learn to appreciate this album, and still only begrudgingly give it a listen, encouraged by the great live versions I’ve heard over the years at concerts. Ironically, I’ve only selected “I’m Goin’ Down” for this playlist by re-appreciating it after hearing a cover by Vampire Weekend in recent years.
In 1984 you could not get away from this album. “Dancing in the Dark” was one of the biggest songs of the year, not reaching #1 only because of an extended residency there by Prince’s “When Doves Cry.” The #1 album slot was dominated that year by three albums, Born in the USA, Purple Rain, and Michael Jackson's Thriller. The only other albums to steal a few weeks in the top spot were the Footloose soundtrack and Sports by Huey Lewis. At my cousin’s wedding in London, Ontario that year, much of Born in the USA was played over the course of the evening and his brother quoted “Dancing in the Dark” during his tribute speech to the newlyweds (“you can’t start a fire without a spark…”).
The success of the album was buoyed by the transition Springsteen and the band had made, evolving the pop-rock sound established on The River into a cleaner, tighter sound infused with country elements, which along with Nebraska likely opened a whole new audience for Bruce. It didn’t click for me. I didn’t like that it had the cheesy synthesizers that were dominant in 80s pop music. I didn’t like the cheesy video for “Dancing in the Dark” with Bruce’s coiffed hair, pressed shirt, and the obvious studio simulation of a concert (and of course the inclusion of a then unknown Courtney Cox as his dance partner). And then I didn’t like the attempt to capture the ‘real Bruce’ with the concert footage for “Born in the USA” video. I didn’t like the bandana and plaid shirts with cut-off sleeves he wore during that tour – it looked like a costume, which for all intents and purposes it was. I think to an extent Bruce regrets much of that too, because that image and that album have forever branded him in many ways for good and ill.
Along with his newfound stardom, there also grew the misconception that Bruce was a jingoistic, flag-waving patriot in love with the Stars ‘n Stripes. The flag on the cover of the album, the album’s title, the tributes to small town life and baseball all made it look like Bruce was the country’s number one cheerleader. The truth was, of course, more complicated. Bruce was undeniably proud of his country and of being an American, but he also lamented the many problems with race, inequality, and abuse of power that marked his country’s character. His songs reflected on this and the noble spirit with which many find a way within these difficult circumstances. “Born in the USA” was a criticism of the US’ war in Vietnam, “My Hometown” was a lament for the decline in small town livelihoods as factories and industries closed down and moved overseas, and “Glory Days” was about living in the past when hope for the future put a brighter sheen on one’s life. For as pop sounding and celebratory the music was on this album, the lyrics were pure Springsteen and consistent with what we’d heard from him over the course of his entire career. Unfortunately, the armies of new fans buying his music and attending his concerts didn’t glean onto all that.
I saw Bruce for the first time in 1984. He came to Toronto twice during the Born in the USA tour, first for three shows in 1984 at the CNE Grandstand, which referred to the venue that included only the covered section of the stands in Exhibition Stadium and was about 20,000 in attendance. He came again in 1985 for two shows but this time in the entire stadium, which would have been about 50,000 people per show. At the 1984 Grandstand show I witnessed my first 3-hour show, complete with intermission, and the exhilaration of hearing Bruce tell sweet stories from the stage about his childhood (in this case about a baseball game as a kid, as intro to “Glory Days”), and the epic encores which included huge versions of his ‘Detroit Medley’ (a Mitch Ryder cover that blends Motown songs) and Jungleland, accompanied by flashes from the baseball stadium lights in time to the beat. The Born in the USA tour was Springsteen’s biggest yet, spanning the world, lasting two years, and making him the biggest rock star in the world.
Two Faces \ Tunnel of Love (1987)
During the Born in the USA tour Springsteen’s personal life took a couple of awkward turns. He entered a relationship with actress Julianne Phillips, going on to marry her in 1985. He also had his future wife, Patti Scialfa, enter his life as a backing singer on the tour. She was from the same Jersey music scene as Bruce .
The band’s line-up also changed during this time, as Little Steven decided to take a break from E Street after the recording of Born in the USA, opting out of the tour and taking time to record and tour with his own band, The Disciples of Soul, which he’d ramped up during the Nebraska break. In 1985 he started Artists United Against Apartheid, which recorded a fundraising song, “Sun City,” by various artists (including Bruce) to support the fight against apartheid in South Africa. The song and associated pledge from the artists to not play in the country raised awareness and contributed to the successful effort to end Apartheid. That same year Bruce also participated in the recording of the USA for Africa fundraising song, “We Are the World,” but didn’t perform in the subsequent Live Aid concert. To replace Van Zandt on the tour Bruce called on the sensational Nils Lofgren, who would become a permanent member of the E Street Band. Nils had built a career playing with Neil Young and Crazy Horse (he played on the albums After the Gold Rush, Tonight’s the Night, and others), with his own fantastic band, Grin, and had also put out many solid solo albums. Rumour had it Nils had narrowly missed being a Rolling Stone in the 1970s when they decided to go with Ron Wood instead. Nils would make an indelible mark on the E Street band’s live sound though would not get to record much with Bruce until twenty years later.
Bruce also cashed in on his reputation as a performer, releasing in 1986 a five-record box set of live music titled Live/1975-85. For his fans this was a first opportunity to get copies of the many songs he performed live but had never put to album, such as the incredible acoustic version of “Thunder Road,” the instrumental “Paradise by the “C”,” his song “Seeds,” covers such as “War,” “Raise Your Hand” “Jersey Girl,” and “This Land Is Your Land,” and songs he’d given to others but often performed live, like “Fire” and “Because the Night.” It was a huge celebration of his career and a tribute to his excellence as an entertainer.
Looking ahead, Bruce found himself once again writing songs and working outside the participation of the E Street Band. The resulting album, Tunnel of Love, would only selectively use the band, resulting in something in between Nebraska and his E Street usual albums. Now as an unbelievably famous and wealthy man, Springsteen tried to come to terms with these conditions against the themes of his past and the ironic twist it would be for him to write about the struggles of the underprivileged. Instead he turned to relationships and the challenges of dealing with love and loss, giving insight to the issues he was having in his young marriage. The album is therefore more sparse, contemplative, and introspective, and musically continues with the country-tinged sounds developed over the prior two albums. Bruce even sings with a country twang on some songs.
I’m not a fan of country music and by this time had undergone a full indoctrination into New Wave and modern rock music and was even starting a slow turn to classic rock and the psychedelic era as I entered my last years of high school and tried my turn as a stoner. I listened to this album quite a bit and loved the title track and the single, “Brilliant Disguise” – two of the best pop songs he’s produced – but ultimately couldn’t get as engaged with it as his early albums. I had no thought to check out his tour and started a general detachment from my first artistic crush. However the album is critically acclaimed and did well, producing two top ten singles and going to #1 in the US and UK, making it his third #1 album in the US.
The songs on this album are different than much of what we’d heard before, being generally down tempo and bare, though not without sophistication. The polish on songs like “Tunnel of Love” and the complex arrangements and phrasing on “Brilliant Disguise” show Bruce, at age 38, at a high-level of execution in his career. Of course, lyrically he is once again showing an adroit hand with his topics, even if his perspective on relationships with women are now markedly different than his earlier songs of escape and seduction. From “One Step Up:” “We've given each other some hard lessons lately / But we ain't learnin' / We're the same sad story that's a fact / One step up and two steps back.” And from “Brilliant Disguise:” “I'm just a lonely pilgrim / I walk this world in wealth / I want to know if it's you I don't trust / 'Cause I damn sure don't trust myself” and “Tonight our bed is cold / Lost in the darkness of our love / God have mercy on the man / Who doubts what he's sure of.”
In “Two Faces” you can hear all the elements of the album. The lighter sonic base, the country flavour, and the themes of a relationship in trouble, “I met a girl and we ran away / I swore I'd make her happy every day / And how I made her cry / Two faces have I.” Bruce at the end of the 1980s is no less sure of who he is and what he’s trying to make of himself.
I Wish I Were Blind \ Human Touch (1992)
My Beautiful Reward \ Lucky Town (1992)
In 1988 Bruce split with Julianne Phillips, finalizing the divorce in 1989 while also deciding to disband the E Street Band and relocate to California with his band mate and now new love, Patti Scialfa (they were married in 1991). After headlining the Amnesty International ‘Human Rights Now!’ tour and performing for 300,000 people in East Germany in 1988, Bruce’s politics were also more front and centre. He had quietly declined requests from Republicans to use his music for their campaigns (did they really think he was one of them?), but now he was starting to lend his name to causes that helped those in need, consistent with everything he’d been singing about his entire career.
In 1992 Bruce released his first full-band albums without some combination of the E Street Band. He had two albums worth of material that he didn’t feel fit together in one package, so he broke them into two separate albums, Human Touch and Lucky Town, and released them on the same day. Like Born in the USA I didn’t like these albums but have come to appreciate them more over time, though still consider them two of his weakest efforts. The lead single, “57 Channels,” sounded like a lame commentary on contemporary society compared to his lyrical proficiency in the past. The albums are filled with keyboards that again sound cheesy to me and a weak fill for the full-band sound we’d come to expect from him. These only made fans like me pine for the rich tapestry of his 1970s albums with musical depth and colourful characters and descriptions.
There are some lovely ballads on these albums, and it’s from those that I select the songs for this playlist. Despite the sound change Bruce certainly hadn’t lost his knack for a lovely melody. But in 1992 grunge was the rage (literally) and Bruce was seen as a has-been from prior decades (it had been five years since his last album, the longest break in his career), and though he still had his die-hard fans who pushed these albums to top five chart positions, the albums failed to sustain Bruce at the upper echelons of the music world. As is so often the cruel fate of fame and success in the art world, Bruce had fallen unceremoniously from the heights to a purgatory position of being respected but treated indifferently as an artist. As he noted in his autobiography, he felt these albums hadn’t been criticized so much as ignored. He himself passed over this period in his life in the book with barely a mention of these albums.
The 1990s saw Bruce fall into a family lifestyle as he and Patti had three children, born in 1990, 1991, and 1994. Musically he continued on as always and not entirely without some success. In 1994 he provided a song to the movie, Philadelphia. The song, “Streets of Philadelphia,” would earn Bruce an Academy Award. He also brought the E Street Band together to assemble his first Greatest Hits album that would include four new recordings. These recording sessions would be the basis of a 1996 documentary, Blood Brothers. The four songs were strong, sounding fuller and tougher than anything heard since the early 80s, giving hope for a return to form for The Boss. The album would go to #1 showing he still had a strong following, especially for his back catalogue of hits.
In 1995 he would also release his next album, The Ghost of Tom Joad, another of his ‘dust bowl’ acoustic albums. Like Nebraska, it is filled with strong songs, but I just can’t buy into Bruce as the solo singer-songwriter. I find many of the songs plodding and his voice ill-suited to these sparse acoustic arrangements. He tends to speak or mumble many of the lyrics, which do little to support the substance of the words. Unlike a Bob Dylan or Neil Young, his voice lacks the distinctiveness to make the songs intriguing without instrumentation. When he would record a full-band version of the title track many years later, it showed how amazing these songs could be if given the help of his total sound. Again, Bruce has many fans of these albums, and I take nothing away from the critical and fan appreciation for these songs. They’re just not for me, and I don’t think I listened to this album until a full ten years after it was released. As always he toured to support it, this time around the world in small venues with just him on stage playing acoustic versions of his songs new and old. In Toronto it was the first chance to see him at a small venue, Massey Hall, since he played Seneca College in 1975.
While The Ghost of Tom Joad included contributions from Patti, Danny Federici, Gary W. Tallent, and violinist Suzie Tyrell who would become a near permanent guest of the E Street band later, it was still mostly a Bruce-only recording. The album wouldn’t crack the top ten, the first of his to not do so since his second album. However the nostalgia factor for his older material was sparked first by the 1988 release of a box set of outtake recordings and B-sides, Tracks, and then by a 1999 release of a an album of more outtake recordings, 18 Tracks. These gave fans new music and songs but from Bruce’s heyday, when he was recording his most beloved albums during the 70s and 80s. However these only sold moderately, drawing support only from the die-hard fans.
The Fuse \ The Rising (2002)
In 1999 Springsteen was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Bono of U2. As the century ended and rock was losing its place as a pre-eminent voice in music, respect and attention for older rockers grew and Springsteen’s reputation started to rise again. In the absence of any major American rock acts on the scene, Bruce took advantage of the opportunity (though I doubt he would position it that way) and reunited the E Street Band for a major, worldwide tour. While Bruce had toured constantly for all his albums, this would be the first with the full line-up since the Tunnel of Love Express Tour eleven years prior. Of note this time around would be the return of Little Steven, giving the band three very talented guitarists up front along with Bruce and Nils. The Reunion Tour would last two years and allow the band to explore the back catalogue quite fully, reinvigorating their fan base. My friend Gerald invited me to join him at one of the three shows at the Air Canada Centre, but I was broke at the time and hadn’t yet reinvigorated my own relationship with Springsteen.
The tour would produce two new songs which would quickly become staples and highlights of their shows and be included in a live video and album from the tour. The first, “Land of Hope and Dreams,” would return Bruce to his themes of lament and hope and was one of the first songs to introduce the gospel element to his shows, which would be an increasing vibe going forward. It’s a huge song, one of the most elegant and uplifting of his later career. It would not see a studio version until 2012’s Wrecking Ball album. The other song courted controversy, as Bruce sang about a cop shooting in New York of an unarmed black man. “American Skin (41 Shots)” is one of his most cutting social commentary songs and drew the ire of the New York City Police Union who called for a ban on Bruce’s shows. It’s a powerful song, and one in which Bruce often brings out in concert when the need to reflect on another such shooting arises.
The Reunion Tour would be followed by a recording session to release the first full album with the E Street Band in eighteen years. During the recording, in which the songs reflected on the continued decline of small town America, the September 11 attacks occurred in New York. Suddenly songs like “My City of Ruins,” written about Asbury Park, took on a whole new meaning and more songs were written to reflect on this sudden change in the atmosphere in the US. Songs like “Empty Sky,” “Worlds Apart,” “The Rising,” and “Into the Fire,” are direct reflections on the 9/11 tragedy.
The album was a return to the pure rock n’ roll sound for Springsteen, obviously reinvigorated by the reunion with his band and inspired by the deeply tragic and poignant times of the post-9/11 universe. Every song is blessed with melody and great instrumentation, and his voice is confident and balanced, providing lyrics of lament, hope, and reflection. It was The Rising tour and the album that reminded me, as it did for so many others, why we’d loved Springsteen in the first place. He was an important voice that many turned to at that time to reflect on the times.
I saw him twice on that tour in December 2002 at the Air Canada Centre and then the following summer at The Skydome, which was the first concert ever at that venue to perform with the roof open. He paid tribute to Warren Zevon that night, who had died that week, by opening with the Zevon song, “My Ride’s Here,” and then ran through a set list that included the band’s stupendous cover of Jimmy Cliff’s, “Trapped,” “Rosalita,” “Jungleland,” “Because the Night,” and “The Ties that Bind.” It was a night that had Bruce howling at the full moon above (which begs the question as to why he didn’t do “Werewolves of London” for Zevon instead?), hanging upside down from his mic stand, and running full tilt with a knee-slide across the stage. For a man turning 54 that year it was an incredible performance and one I will never forget. At that point it was clear, I was back on board and Springsteen was again and forever more a consuming fascination for my musical attention. And so were many others, as Bruce had his first #1 LP since Tunnel of Love.
Long Time Comin’ \ Devils and Dust (2005)
Since the resurgence of Springsteen on the music scene and his new role as an elder statesman and respected observer of American society, he has been relentless in releasing new material and touring. I have often wondered how it is that he constantly records and tours, as has for pretty much his entire career since he was eighteen years old. In his autobiography he confirmed what I had suspected – he doesn’t know what else to do to be happy. Despite all his fame and success, a happy marriage and three successfully raised children, a Bruce Springsteen sitting at home is an unhappy man, in need of therapy to make sense of his life. And while I’m sure he’s happy in the studio (though his reputation for perfection and exacting recordings suggests an agitation there too) there is simply no place he is happier than on the stage, singing and playing to thousands of people. And to see his show there is absolutely no doubt that is true. I have never seen Springsteen where there was a hint he didn’t want to be there or wasn’t having fun. Heck, there are times it looks like the band is happy to get off the stage and yet he lingers, sometimes even doing an extra acoustic song, or even coming out early and doing a quick acoustic set before the show as people file into the auditorium. It is why he is possibly unparalleled as rock performer, which is saying a lot given all the great ones past and present. If there’s any complaint it’s that his shows are too long, recently extending regularly up to or over the four-hour mark as he works tirelessly until he feels each show has achieved the desired threshold of passion, excitement, and emotion-draining jubilation (only the casual fan will really complain about the length of the shows, or maybe some aging attendees standing in the pit, as I’ve done for two shows now – it’s tough on the knees, back, and bladder). He regularly positions his shows as a church-like setting, the chapel of rock n’ roll where he must deliver all into the heavenly planes of rock exultation. Indeed, his music has also moved in this direction. It’s also a benefit to Bruce and the band in the age of music file sharing and streaming and in which live shows have become artists’ bread and butter, a situation which has not hurt Bruce’s career one iota.
As much as Bruce has had autobiographical elements in his music, it seems lately that he has shifted. As he approaches his seventies his career has had a more retrospective view, as if looking to tie up loose ends and document his career both in word and music in all its facets. Releasing old music, exploring the music styles he reveres as much as developing his own, and touring constantly that often includes full-album performances and copious cover songs from the 60s and 70s, it’s like Bruce is wringing every last drop out of his career.
In 2005 he released his next dust bowl album, Devils and Dust (yes, it’s this album that led me to label these albums as I do). It’s more listenable than Ghost of Tom Joad and maybe even Nebraska, though that one has had much longer to imprint on me. I don’t know how I missed it, but I had no idea this album came out nor that he did a tour for it across small venues in North America and Europe (though played the Air Canada Centre in Toronto). The shows were just him playing an add assortment of instruments and doing very different, sparse arrangements of songs from Devils and Dust but also many of his classics. This and the Tom Joad tours set him up well for his current run of Broadway shows.
You’ll Be Comin’ Down; Last to Die \ Magic (2007)
In 2006 Springsteen got in touch with his roots, assembling the ‘Seeger Sessions Band’ to record and tour the album, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. It was a collection of cover songs of Irish standards (originating from Ireland and America), played in a traditional style with banjos, accordion, violin, and horns including tuba. It was the first album issued by Springsteen in which he didn’t write a single song. The tour would include new songs “Long Walk Home” and “American Land” but they weren’t included on the album, waiting for later albums to make their debut. The album was also accompanied by a concert video.
The E Street Band was brought back into the studio for the next album, Magic, which was released in 2007 and again was followed by a long, worldwide tour. While The Rising gets more attention among his music of the new millennium, it’s this album that I think stands out and was his strongest album to be released since The River. Fuelled by his anger and dismay at American politics, it’s a polemic against the George W. Bush administration and, once again, the declining fortunes of working class people. The album opened with “Radio Nowhere,” his most rocking song since the likes of Darkness or The River. It’s followed by “You’ll be Coming Down,” a beautiful mid-tempo song that, when I listened to this album in the car for the first time on the way to hockey one night, brought tears to my eyes. It was Bruce and the E Street Band in all its splendour, full of energy and the big band sound in ways I hadn’t heard in so, so long. When Clarence blasts in just after the 2-minute mark, it’s like getting a big ol’ hug from a long-lost friend.
Some of the old Jersey swing sound returned a little in “Livin’ In the Future,” and then a mid-tempo lament followed with “Your own Worst Enemy,” which included an old-school harmony through the song. After another great rocker, “Gypsy Biker,” Bruce pulled out one of his most infectious songs ever written, “Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” which rode a mid-tempo Beach Boys pop-harmony style. This is just one of the most fun, pure pop songs he’d ever written. It was made for a convertible, driving in the sun with the breeze in your hair and big smile on your face. For all of his heavy lyrics and sombre takes on American life, “Summer Clothes” is Bruce simply letting the weight off his shoulders and reminding us all to have a little fun, remember the good things in life, and take a positive spin on life: “A breeze crosses the porch / Bicycle spokes spin 'round / Jacket's on, I'm out the door / Tonight I'm gonna burn this town down.” Geez, doesn’t that sound like something from Born to Run?
The album closes with reflections on the deceit of America’s leaders, and the losses and anguish of the prolonged wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Magic,” “Last to Die,” and “Long Walk Home” are an impressive trio of songs that reminded us that when Bruce has something to say, no one else can carry the message home quite like him. “Magic” describes the trickery of a magician, who deceives you while taking the things you cherish: “I'll cut you in half / While you're smilin' ear to ear / And the freedom that you sought's / Driftin' like a ghost amongst the trees / This is what will be.” In “Last to Die” he asked “Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake,” reflecting on the lost lives in Iraq. “Long Walk Home” picks up where “My Hometown,” the reflection on the plight of small towns from Born in the USA, left off as now the son walks through his town, reflecting on his father’s hope yet seeing that life is not as friendly or as hopeful, “In town I pass Sal's grocery / Barber shop on South Street / I looked in their faces / They're all rank strangers to me / Well Veteran's Hall high upon the hill / Stood silent and alone / The diner was shuttered and boarded / With a sign that just said "gone".” This album would not be the last Bruce would have to say on the political climate of the times, as he decided to get involved for the first time by performing on the campaign trail for Barack Obama and the Democrats during the 2008 election.
Magic didn’t have the sense of occasion that The Rising had, but it was an update on his lifelong themes both lyrically and musically, politically and socially. Yes, there’s a nostalgic element to it, but it’s also a modern, polished, strong rock album that showed Bruce could still do what he was best known. I saw him twice on that tour and the new songs fit in well with his old stuff, and their freshness and currency to the times often gave the shows more energy than the tried and true.
This Life \ Working on A Dream (2009)
This Depression \ Wrecking Ball (2012)
After Magic, Springsteen released three more albums and an EP over the next five years, all with the E Street Band, and all accompanied with full-blown tours. Working on a Dream and Wrecking Ball were decent albums but not quite as strong start to finish as Magic or The Rising. Working on a Dream had many good moments, “Queen of the Supermarket” tried, but didn’t quite make it, in replicating the beautiful sound of “Girls in their Summer Clothes.” “This Life,” Kingdom of Days,” the title track, and “The Wrestler,” which was in the movie of the same name, were all good tracks. However it also had “Outlaw Pete,” one of the most overblown and painful excursions Bruce has taken, and one of the biggest misses of his career. Even in concert I could see people running for the bathrooms and concessions during this too-long song with no engaging elements.
However, it was that tour that gave me one of the best weekends of my life. A bunch of us went to Buffalo for the weekend, visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘Martin House’ (I’m a big FLW fan), ate wings at the Anchor Bar, did some discount shopping, enjoyed drinks and laughs with friends and family, and then scored a spot in the pit for the show, which was the last of the tour. Standing twenty feet from Bruce in concert is simply unbelievable – a party, a chance to revel in his music and performance more directly than when you’re several hundred feet back. A sad note to that tour had been the absence of Danny Federici, who passed away in 2008 from melanoma, and when considered along with Nils having had both hips replaced and the obvious declining health and stamina of Clarence, not to mention Bruce and Little Stevie turning 60 that year (it was actually Steven’s birthday that night, and they brought out a cake for him and granted his request for a rare playing of “Restless Nights”), it was widely speculated it might be the very last show with the E Street Band. Bruce announced he’d be performing Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ in its entirety for the one and only time (the show was dubbed Greetings from Buffalo, NY), and the atmosphere in the place was electric.
Pics from the Buffalo show, November 22, 2009. These were taken with my Blackberry.
Bruce played for 3 hours and 45 minutes, played 34 songs including seven cover songs, called an audible during the encore to make sure “10th Ave Freeze-Out” and the history of the band was played, and left us thinking we’d seen an historic moment. Well, it wasn’t the final appearance of the E Street Band, but it was the last tour show for Clarence, who passed away in 2011. It was a concert I’ll never forget.
Wrecking Ball started with the title track, which was written for and debuted at Springsteen’s 5-show stand at Giants Stadium during the Working on a Dream tour. The song commemorated the imminent destruction of the venerable old stadium since Bruce would be, fittingly given his numerous performances there over the years, the last to perform there. The album was released in 2012 and included a single once again laden with political and social commentary, “We Take Care of Our Own,” with direct aim at Republican and conservative politics. The album was less rock ‘n roll and drew a little on the musical style of the Seeger Sessions LP. Indeed, the outtake from the Seeger Sessions tour, “American Land,” had its studio debut on the album after having been a concert staple for the past few tours (usually a big sing-a-long complete with karaoke style lyrics on the screens). It also had the first studio version of “Land of Hope and Dreams” and the last studio contributions from Clarence. The tour was a rolling tribute to ‘the big man,’ wherein each show included stirring renditions of “My City of Ruins” and “Spirit in the Night,” and “10th Ave Freeze-Out” included a long pause and standing ovation, with tears all ‘round, after the line “when the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band.” The difficult role of replacing Clarence fell to his nephew, Jake Clemons, who has gradually grown into the role and become a nice and bittersweet surprise to the E Street line-up. Once again I was privileged to see them perform from the pit, this time in Hamilton at Copps Coliseum. I was even closer this time around, getting right against the rail along with my brother-in-law, Pete. Below are pictures taken with my camera phone from that show.
Songs like “Shackled and Drawn,” “Jack of All Trades,” “This Depression,” “You’ve Got It,” and “Rocky Ground” see Bruce paying tribute to the blues, R&B and soul of his upbringing infused with the Celtic and acoustic spirit of his ancestors – “Rocky Ground” even has a rap interlude from singer Michelle Moore. The album was an interesting blend of all Bruce’s musical travels over the prior twenty years.
Heaven’s Wall \ High Hopes (2014)
Hurry Up Sundown \ American Beauty EP (2014)
2014 saw Bruce take the band on a tour of Australia and New Zealand to promote a new album that was essentially the re-packaging of songs he’d been doing live over the years or had recorded and never released. This was disappointing to some as it didn’t offer fresh music but was a welcome arrival into release of many songs that only few had heard or had never had a studio version. Tom Morello, guitarist from the band Rage Against the Machine, had been a regular guest of the band’s for their LA shows, usually doing a searing, full-band rendition of “Ghost of Tom Joad.” This version made its way onto the album and Morello also went on the Australian tour as a replacement for Little Steven, who was committed to filming his TV series, Lilyhammer, during that time.
The tour included cover versions of Australian artists at each show, paying homage to the rich rock n’ roll heritage of the land down under. These would include “Friday on My Mind” by The Easybeats, “Don’t Change” by INXS, “Royals” by Lorde (for the New Zealanders), “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC, “Just Like Fire Would” by The Saints (the only one of the covers that also appeared on the album), and the most incredible version of the Bee Gee’s “Stayin’ Alive.” It was a version that re-interpreted the song and allowed Bruce and his incredible band to display all their devices – jazz, folk, dance, soul, gospel, and good ole fashioned rock n’ roll. The band traded off each other in a free-flowing jam, and it had to be admitted having Morello in the band took them to another level since they’d never had a soloist of his calibre (which is more a comment on Morello’s talent given the presence of Nils, Bruce, and Little Steven in the band).
This provides a good opportunity to reflect on just how special the E Street Band is. Over the course of any tour the band will perform in excess of 200 songs, many taken by request during the show and done without rehearsal. Their ability to roll out three-hour shows one after another with energy, impeccable playing, and a breadth of content puts them in a category to themselves. As great a performer as Bruce is, it’s due to his band that his shows achieve unparalleled experiences. The E Street Band was rightfully inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014.
High Hopes also included the first studio versions of “American Skin (41 Shots),” the cover of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream,” which had featured heavily on the Devils and Dust tour, the title track “High Hopes,” and other songs that had been heard in concerts only, such as “Hunter of the Invisible Game,” and “The Wall.” “Heaven’s Wall” was a song written a decade prior and recorded for the first time and was a great example of the gospel sound the band regularly displayed during their church-revival-like concerts. High Hopes reached #1, the eleventh album of his to do so, putting him only behind The Beatles and Jay-Z to have achieved that feat.
For Record Day in April 2014, just three months after High Hopes was released, Springsteen released a limited-edition vinyl EP, American Beauty. It included four songs left over from the High Hopes’ recordings. It would be the last release of new music from Bruce for the next five years and included the fun, power-pop song “Hurry Up Sundown,” though it was the title track that was featured from the release.
As 2015 came to a close Bruce was getting prepared to release a 35th anniversary box set release for The River, same as he’d done for Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town. The compilation was called The Ties that Bind: The River Collection and was going to include many more outtakes from those recordings than had already been released on the likes of Tracks. I haven’t included such outtakes on this playlist since I don’t consider those songs part of a proper chronological representation of his career, often being released years or decades after being originally recorded. But there are many, many great songs in these albums. Check out “Stray Bullet” from the collection, which is just a beautiful, haunting ballad that’s hard to believe sat in a vault for 35 years before seeing the light of day – most artists would kill for a song like this on their album at any time in their career. There was also a great rocker in “Meet Me in the City,” which was used to promote the release and opened many shows on the tour.
Bruce also recorded a new solo record and was expected to release and tour that in the new year and was also putting the finishing touches on his autobiography, Born to Run. Yes, the man is a workaholic. The anniversary release of The River was not going to include a documentary the way the last two had, so he and Jon Landau were trying to figure out a way to promote it. The suggestion was to do a couple shows to perform the album, which appealed to Bruce. However, getting the band together for such a large project for just a couple shows seemed like a missed opportunity, so his own tour was jettisoned in place of The River Tour 2016. The band was given one week’s notice before the tour was announced, and Max, Nils, Gary, and others had to delay their own tours and plans to accommodate this unexpected schedule. Such is the power of Bruce – there’s no question this is his band and he is the boss. The tour included a full album performance of The River (recall it was a double album) in each show (which was abandoned after the first two legs, but having seen two of those shows, I can attest to what a treat it was) and lasted a full year, totalling 89 shows – just another year in the life of the E Street Band.
In addition to the tour in 2016 he also issued his autobiography, Born to Run, which was to be one of the better written books from a rock star. The man just has a way with words. He also issued Chapter and Verse, a companion album of greatest hits to listen to along with his autobiography (just like my blog!). He also played shows to support Hilary Clinton’s candidacy during the 2016 election.
As 2017 arrived there was still no word of when his solo record would be released, which was rumoured to not be an acoustic record but a full-band album though not with the E Street Band. So, it was a surprise when it was announced that Bruce would be doing a Broadway run at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Unlike his Tom Joad or Devils and Dust tours, this would be night after night at the same venue, doing the same shows, and telling the same stories. It gave people the exact same, scripted and choreographed show for weeks’ on end. It was very unlike Springsteen in that regard, but having seen the show I can say it was a new and intriguing way to engage with him as an artist and performer. A recording of the show was released on Netflix in December 2018 the same night he performed the last show of his residency.
Sundown \ Western Stars (2019)
As expected, not long after the close of his Broadway stint, Bruce released his long-awaited nineteenth album in the summer of 2019. As hinted, it was a full-band recording but without the E Street Band. It did feature, however, David Sancious, the fantastic piano player from his first two albums. I feared the LP would be a return to his stripped down ‘dustbowl’ style, and the first single, “Hello Sunshine,” hinted at an allegiance to that sound though with a strong country bent, including whisked drums and slide guitar. The song did, however, include sweeping string arrangements to fill out the sound, which was a sign of what was to come on the rest of the LP.
The album was an intriguing mix of the various facets of Bruce’s music, but with a new and welcome feature – those lush strings. His acoustic, western sounds of Nebraska, Ghost of Tom Joad, and Devils and Dust were now broadened in scope and feel, but not with the full-on instrumentation of the E Street Band, but with the easy listening and laid-back feel of the strings. The album also included pop-styled songs that did lean into his rock sound, but with the West Coast feel of prior tracks like, “Girls In their Summer Clothes,” or the smooth feel of “You’ll Be Comin’ Down,” both from the Magic LP - this is evident in a song like “Sundown.” Therefore, the album had a very familiar feel of twenty-first century Bruce, but with a fresh perspective.
The album was critically acclaimed as Springsteen’s best since Magic. At the time of this writing no tour plans were announced, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see live shows result, since we know Bruce just can’t stay off the stage and, after the lengthy Broadway stint, is likely itching to play with a full band again. Who that band will be remains to be seen.
Bruce Springsteen’s career can be broken down into four segments. You had the scruffy troubadour, setting out from the Jersey shore looking to infect the world with blues and soul. Then came the rock star, breaking ground and reaching the loftiest of heights as a musician over the course of five albums in a ten-year span. This was followed by fifteen years of experimentation, restlessness, and a struggle to identify his place in the musical firmament, his own persona, and how both fit into the world and especially the American story both political and social. Finally we have the elder statesmen, refining and exploring his legacy through both nostalgic and historical review as well as through the continued offering of new words, music, and wisdom. In the process he has given us a story of a driven, passionate, hardworking man who has built himself from nothing to riches and accomplishments almost unparalleled among American rock artists. The consistency of his view, his approach to his music and career, and his commitment to his craft and his fans are shining examples to anyone in any walk of life. His personal struggles with depression and managing a life away from the studio and stage have been an indirect blessing to all of us who love to watch him in concert, listen to his music, and draw on his inspiration for fighting the battles in our own lives. Bruce Springsteen was born to run, but it’s always the journey that is the more interesting part than the arriving; so to quote his contemporary, Neil Young, long may you run.