Bruce Springsteen Day 1: Introduction
"Mad man, drummers, bummers, and Indians in the summer with the teenage diplomat … "
“Rosalita, jump a little lighter / Señorita, come sit by my fire … “
“The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves … “
“The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive … “
“The dogs on Main Street howl, ‘cause they understand … “
“Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack … “
“Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact / But maybe everything that dies someday comes back … “
“I check my look in the mirror, wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face … “
“So tell me what I see when I look in your eyes / Is that you, baby, or just a brilliant disguise?”
Now that I’ve teased with some of the best known, most indelible lines of this week’s subject, prepare to disregard them. Here is the first of Three Unusual Features of
OneWeek // One Band, Bruce Springsteen Edition:
Unusual Feature #1: After today, we are done with the hits.
Those Springsteen songs that you’ve heard hundreds, maybe thousands of times? We’re not talking about those, so take a last look at the lyrics above, throw on Born to Run or Nebraska or The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle as you read along, and get ready for a perversely non-iconic look at New Jersey’s most iconic rock’n’roll son. Except for today’s introductory posts and in relation to their lesser-known brethren and incarnations, this week will feature minimal coverage of the familiar Bruce. We’ll be interpreting the footnotes and apocrypha of the Book of Springsteen, reconstructing his career from his cast-offs, and seeing what you get when you separate the songwriter/musician from his self-consciously cultivated official canon1.
Unusual Feature #2: I’m not doing this alone.
That “we” above isn’t a carelessly flung first-person plural. This week, I’ve rounded up a group of Springsteen fans—a veritable OW // OB Street Band (pronounced “Oh Double-You Oh Bee Street Band” to avoid redundancy)—to tackle Bruce from the margins. Since “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” “Rosalita,” and Springsteen’s other familiar ‘band intro’ songs are off the table, I’ll forego the traditional musical vamping and nicknaming here and introduce the crew in the next post. I think you’ll agree it’s quite an impressive bunch.
Unusual Feature #3: Whenever I use the term “this week,” interpret it as “these weeks.”
Due to the number of contributors and the scope of the project, Hendrik has graciously granted us an extended stay—you’re stuck with us and Bruce for two weeks. Think of it as an approximation of the Springsteen concert experience.
Artists as prolific as Springsteen have the choice, recording contract permitting, to bombard their fanbases with releases or to strategically withhold good songs in pursuit of the perfect LP. Even moreso than fellow prolific songwriters like Neil Young, Prince, and Bob Dylan, Springsteen has often been extraordinarily picky about the internal logic of his releases. Scarcely a Springsteen album makes it to the public without a unified sound (the brooding rock of Darkness on the Edge of Town), thematic cohesiveness (the post-9/11 elegies and positivity of The Rising) or set of preoccupations meant to represent Bruce in the Moment (social concerns set against friendship, disillusionment, and romance on Born in the U.S.A.). But in most instances, there were countless alternate paths. Darkness on the Edge of Town may portray a soul fighting its way out of despair, but the lighthearted love songs Bruce wrote during the same period show an indomitable joy fueled by ’60s radio pop. The Rising was interpreted as panacea for a post-9/11 nation, but many of its songs were written long before the towers fell. Born in the U.S.A., despite a wealth of hits, was a chimera formed from a largely-failed attempt at full-band takes of Nebraska songs and unrelated demos.
Since his career began, Springsteen and others, most notably manager Jon Landau (from mid-’70s to present), have meticulously controlled the public-facing side of Springsteen’s work—in crass terms, his “brand,” although I think this too cynically sums up the process. Yet there’s a layer between Bruce Springsteen the public persona (what we know from official output and interviews) and Bruce Springsteen the human being (known only to himself and, perhaps, close friends) that, thanks to archival releases and a dedicated fanbase of bootleggers and traders, we can catch a glimpse. This is Bruce Springsteen the songwriter/recording artist—a creative talent less encumbered by fan and market expectations and unconcerned with the eventual need to shelve the great song for the great album (or, as has sometimes been the case, the great song for the pretty good album). It’s in the gap between the songs he’s recorded and the comparatively small number of them on his albums that we find our guiding questions for the week. When evaluating an artist’s output, should we limit ourselves to what’s released? What can we learn from what’s held back? As contributor Travis Harrison put it as we discussed over e-mail the decisions Springsteen and Landau have made over the years: “Would Bruce Springsteen still be Bruce Springsteen if they didn’t make the choices they did?”
Today is introductory—information about the contributors and Springsteen’s canonical output, capped off with a foreword of sorts by Jon Blistein, who manages to tie his own conversion to Springsteen fandom to a lesser-known song, largely forgotten Michael J. Fox movies, and the power and limitations of rock’n’roll.
Tomorrow, we’ll work backwards from Springsteen’s official debut through his pre-canonical work. After that, coverage will take a chronological turn, mirroring Springsteen’s official releases with some detours. Contributors will trickle in over the first few days, and we’ll hit peak "million different voice speaking in tongues" mode as we make our way into the mid-’70s, coincidentally just around the time that the longest-running incarnation of the E Street Band began to take shape. We’ll wrap up with a day on the nearly 30 years of Springsteen’s career between Born in the U.S.A. and the present (primarily because outtakes and rarities become scarce after ‘84). At least that’s what’s currently scheduled; stay tuned for an announcement at the end of the next post.
1 A note on canonicity: the two main commercial sources of Springsteen rarities, Tracks and The Promise may technically be no less “albums” than Born in the U.S.A. Springsteen didn’t just unload his cast-offs, but spent years sorting through his archives, recording new parts for many songs, and even re-recording some songs in full. However, as chronology is key for this week (specifically, ‘what does this song have to say about Springsteen at a particular moment in time?’), songs included on Tracks and The Promise will be considered non-canonical in the sense that they became canon years after the fact. This is a debatable point, since the release of Tracks and The Promise arguably have as much to say about Bruce in those respective moments as his writing and recording those songs have to say about Bruce at those times (to say nothing of the fact that Springsteen has regularly played unreleased songs live). But I contend that it’s more compelling to consider Springsteen’s creative process behind recording “Zero and Blind Terry” in 1973 than his motivation in making it one of 66 archival songs to be released in 1998.