Springsteen & Us


photo © Richard Hurley, 1973

I guess every early fan of an artist can be accused of believing that the early days were the best and I am afraid this post may fall into that category. But I have another theme here which is the powerful influence of those things that strike us in our youth to shape our lives and careers.

Bruce fandom -- is it a religion? Bruce-byterianism perhaps? Maybe Roman Bruce-o-licism. In any case it supplanted my own slightly evangelical "Presbyterianism" as I moved from suburbs and church group in the late 60s to college dorm and "big city" in the early 70s. When Bruce came along, he was more interesting to me as a provider of a world-view than what my church had to offer. And like many of Bruce's other early disciples, I proselytized. And those I introduced witnessed to others. Until finally we had done what we set out to do -- help make his religion a success -- thus losing our hero to the wider world.

Bruce's success was slow to blossom and not destined to reach full flower until his mid-late 70s and early 80s records -- Born the Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River and Born in the USA. It took time for Bruce to develop a musical style and a "spiritual doctrine" with a mass appeal, one which took Bruce on a journey of both expansion and connection that is one of the biggest popular culture stories of the last half-century. But in the process, for many of us the intimate connection was lost. Sour Grapes!

My first blog post here was the story of how my interview with Bruce when he appeared at Brown University in 1974 figured into Columbia Records' re-commitment to his career development after a slow start in record sales. (here.) I didn't find out for 35 years that my published interview with Bruce, in which he complained of a lack of support from Columbia Records, actually came to influence the record label's decision to back him more strongly. The many comments I got on my piece encouraged me to want to do a follow up that included some of my readers' memories. Here we go!

I was not alone among early converts who canvassed for Bruce. Says my high school friend Spencer Warncke, commenting on Bruce's show at Brown the night I interviewed him, "I remember that show well... I knew of Bruce but I had not yet seen him perform live. That was the first time I ever did, but far from the last... I ended up at Columbia, where I became a Bruce evangelist, largely as a result of that show. I would corner my friends and make them listen to Greetings from Asbury Park and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle until they were willing to admit that they had just had a transcendental experience. Some of them would have said anything to get out of my clutches, but I'm pretty sure I converted a few..."

My brother Mark joined the fan club shortly after I did. He took the photo that accompanies my first blog on the subject. "I dug through some more old stuff and found my ticket stubs and a promotional flyer from my first Springsteen concert -- Wednesday, August 14 1974 at the Monmouth Arts Center, formerly the Carlton Theater. Steve Lebowitz and I met Jim Lola down there. The Incredible String Band opened and pretty much got "Bruuuuced" off the stage. We saw the first show and wanted more. Denny Waters was ushering and let us in a side door, but we got busted and sent back outside. While I.S.B. was playing their second set, Bruce wandered out of the alley eating an apple. Not knowing what to say to this new rock god I had just been blown away by, I brought up your having interviewed him in Providence. He stroked his beard and said something like 'Yeah.... I really like it up there.' The second show was even more amazing than the first and I was pretty much hooked. Pretty funny that the first time I saw him, I actually got to meet him."

In the wake of the British Invasion, we Jersey kids were all trying hard to make our musical dreams a reality. Talent was rampant around the scene in Monmouth and Ocean Counties and Bruce was only one, although probably already the most celebrated, of a large class of fellow travelers. One such fellow traveler of mine is singer/composer Patrick Regan. He split the bill with me at the Off Broad Street Coffee House the night some of the audience left to see Bruce across town. If they did, they may have missed Pat's convincing evocation of the Animals and the Doors. Patrick and I both drank the Bruce juice as early as those '67 Castiles shows at Le Teendezvous and started working our tails off to get something going with the impact of what Bruce was doing. We continued to do this as we went on to study literature, poetry and theater in elite private colleges. In addition to Bruce we studied the poetry of John Berryman and Galway Kinnell and the writings of Shakespeare, Eliot, Pound and Rilke.

But all this collegiate indulgence seemed a distraction from the pure rock dream we saw in Bruce. We were desperate to find a way of putting on the "working-class" coat that Bruce wore so effortlessly. Says Patrick, "I used to think the main reason I failed at music was because I imagined I had something to lose by pursuing it whole-heartedly, the way Bruce did, not only skipping college but even avoiding ever having an actual job. Now I think my biggest mistake was responding incorrectly to the Bruce phenomenon. Watching him gave me lots of happiness and made me a better bandleader, absolutely. But trying to become, first, some kind of psychedelic blues boy and later, some kind of Jersey guy -- all that threw off my writing and singing, not to mention my life, for years and years." Patrick and I watched Bruce from our traditional and safe collegiate worlds. I wanted to scream to my professors "But don't you see what's happening in the REAL WORLD? It's Bruce Springsteen!"

The photo in this article was taken by my pal Richard Hurley at his first Bruce show -- the 1973 show at Providence, RI's Palace Concert Theater (later renamed the Ocean State Theater) when Bruce opened for Lou Reed. Although we all respected him mightily as a songwriter and dug the Velvet Underground, Reed in 1973, in the wake of his hit with "Walk on the Wild Side", was a screwed-up, out of touch performer who pretty much put the audience to sleep that night. For Richard (a BIG Lou fan!), Bruce's opening set that night began two years of seriously following Springsteen. Says Richard, "I remember when you and I discovered we'd both been to the same shows -- Lou Reed at the Palace, the Bristol Motor Lodge, Alumni Hall, etc. I think back fondly on those early years. I knew he'd been playing Jersey, of course, but when he got up here it felt like a special secret we knew was soon to get out. I was a great Lou Reed fan, but, oh, that night -- "Thundercrack", indeed. I really loved that band -- especially David Sancious."

Keyboardist David Sancious took the playing to another level, helping Bruce to merge folk, jazz and rock'n'roll and pushing the musical envelope in ways which Bruce somewhat backed off from after his departure. That's what the '73-74 period was about -- the great stylistic combination of that original touring version of the E Street Band. I remember introducing my buddy Jonathan Fink to The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle. As "Kitty's Back "ended, his only comment was "Wow, this guy is going to be playing for the masses." There was the sense at that point that Bruce was summing up everything he ever liked or had ever tried to play into one amazing composite musical style representing the entire history of rock'n'roll on through to folk rock, jazz/rock and beyond.

Another friend, Mike Goldstein, comments on those early shows. "I saw that Lou Reed concert (did we go together?). So true that Bruce wiped the floor with him. Did Lou know? That Brown spring weekend show was outstanding!!! The Providence College Spring Weekend show the following year was the high point of my rock and roll life...I remember it was a Sunday evening concert, and Bruce was hours late. There were an endless series of bands and they were all just AWFUL. The evening started with perhaps a couple of hundred folks in a huge gym, and by the time Bruce showed up (around 10PM, I think), the awfulness had driven almost everyone away and we were down to about 10 people." And that performance to a handful of people Mike calls "the high point of my rock and roll life"!

But then for many of us, something changed. "By the end of 1974 it had already gotten so big, I was jumping ship," said Richard Hurley. "The last time I saw him was at the Ocean State in 1975." By that point Bruce was well into the recording of the Born to Run album and was playing dates with a band in transition. "Miami Steve" added on guitar, as well as Roy Bittan on piano and Max Weinberg on drums. That band finally gelled to produce the E Street Band most people know. They eventually incorporated the best of "Bruce Past" with a vision of "Bruce Future", but it took a long time, perhaps all the way to "Born in the USA" in 1984 to really be a band we could believe in again, although not exactly the band we remembered and pined for.

I remember reading where Roger McGuinn of the Byrds said that, as a young musician, he was blown away by the Beatles and set out to compete. Competition drove much of what happened musically in the 60s. It caused compromise in many individual visions but it also helped focus the creativity of the era into a popular movement. The era of Bruce's early albums was by contrast somewhat of a musical wasteland. The energy of the 60s had given way to the bloat of prog-rock and fusion and the half-hour drum solo. By joining the Bruce club you were not signing on to be part of a new movement on a scale of the British invasion. You were signing on to be part of a tiny troop of true believers. It presaged the return to rock'n'roll roots of the punk and new wave era.

So let's go back to the discussion of the religion of Bruce. Is it good or bad for you? I think whether it's good or bad for you depends on what you do with it and what you allow it to do to you. Artists as powerful as Renoir, Picasso, Gershwin, Ellington, Armstrong, Parker, Berry, Little Richard, Elvis, The Beatles, Warhol, Sondheim, Joni Mitchell, Lou Reed, Costello, Prince, Madonna,The Clash, Nirvana and Bruce distort the creative landscape with the power of their creation. The emotional rush of imitating them successfully is even more intoxicating than the satisfaction of creating something new. When the influence hits you in youth, it provides a useful guide but often overwhelms the individual creative spirit.

So that's the answer for me. Imitate if you must. But don't get addicted. The point of great art is to inspire us in our lives, not to let it take control of our lives and cheat us of really living them.

Now to grant less than equal time to the opposition. My brother turned up an article by critic Henry Edwards from right after "Born to Run" came out that pretty much says Springsteen is all hype. Edwards doesn't see what the big deal is. He ends his review "But those not infected with rock music nostalgia may be forgiven if, after the first 10 minutes of hearing Springsteen sing, they find the hoopla tiresome and the performer vacuous." And that pretty much sums up the reaction of the many, many music fans who never got Bruce!