Bruce Springsteen – circa 1978
“So when you look at me / You better look hard and look twice / Is that me, baby / Or just a brilliant disguise?” – ‘Brilliant Disguise’ (Bruce Springsteen)
‘Born In The U.S.A.’ by Bruce Springsteen is one of the U.S. rock star’s most famous songs – but it’s also one of his most misinterpreted. It is ‘taken by millions of people for a jingoistic anthem.’ Included among those people is Ronald Reagan. During his 1984 bid to become President of the United States, ‘Born In The U.S.A.’ is briefly used as Reagan’s campaign song. Reagan says, “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside our hearts. It rests in the message of hope in the songs of a young man so many young American’s admire, New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen, and helping make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.” Springsteen is ‘a devout liberal’, whose personal politics are on the opposite side of the divide from Reagan’s conservatism. He has the Presidential hopeful (and future President) stop using his song. Springsteen later responds, “I think there’s a large group of people in this country whose dreams don’t mean that much to [Ronald Reagan], that just get indiscriminately swept aside.”
Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen is born 23 September 1949 in Monmouth Memorial Hospital in Long Branch, New Jersey, U.S.A. His father, Douglas Frederick ‘Dutch’ Springsteen, is a bus driver. Bruce’s mother, Adele Ann Springsteen (nee Zirelli) is a legal secretary turned housewife. Douglas Springsteen comes from Dutch and Irish ancestry. The name ‘Springsteen’ means ‘jumping stone’ in Dutch. Adele Springsteen is from an Italian background. “My mother…was an enormous, towering figure to me in the best possible way. I picked up a lot of things from her,” Bruce Springsteen claims. “I also picked up a lot of the failings of when your father doesn’t have those things and that results in a house that turns into a minefield.” Bruce has two sisters, Virginia and Pamela. “I grew up in a very big extended family, with a lot of aunts,” Bruce points out.
Bruce Springsteen is raised in Freehold, New Jersey. “I didn’t come out of a political household…I never had any real drug experience. I lived in a small town.”
It’s a Roman Catholic family in which Bruce Springsteen is brought up. He attends St Rose of Lima Catholic School but finds himself ‘at odds with the nuns.’ So, in the ninth grade, he is transferred to Freehold Regional High School. “I was…a smart young guy who didn’t do very well in school,” is Bruce’s assessment. His parents want him to become a lawyer. However, as Bruce puts it in later years, “I was real good at music and real bad at everything else.”
When Bruce Springsteen is 7 years old he sees Elvis Presley on television’s ‘Ed Sullivan Show’. It is this that inspires Springsteen to take up music. His respect for the 1950s’ biggest rock star, Elvis Presley, is plain in his assertion, “There is only one King…Elvis evoked a world, a time and a place that was a very specific world…I think [country music great] Hank Williams did the same, [folk music icon] Woody Guthrie did the same, [folk rock legend] Bob Dylan did the same, [1960s British rock bands] The Beatles, The Rolling Stones. These are people who created these very…complex…creative pictures. And I was interested in doing that in my own fashion, writing about myself and my own life.” Bruce Springsteen is 13 when his mother buys his first guitar. His mother takes out a loan to buy him a better quality guitar when he is 16. “When I was growing up, there were two things that were unpopular in my house. One was me. The other was my guitar,” he chuckles.
Bruce Springsteen gets his start as a performer at the local Elks club in Freehold on a Sunday afternoon. He sings ‘Twist And Shout’, a song recorded by The Isley Brothers in 1962 and popularised by The Beatles in 1963. Other acts play the venue. Most of them are purely instrumental bands based on The Shadows (from the U.K.) and The Ventures (from the U.S.). Bruce Springsteen becomes a guitarist in one of these local bands, The Castiles, in 1965. “I never felt I had enough personal style to pursue just being a guitarist,” he says ruefully. Fortunately, the era of instrumental groups is passing quickly and rock bands with vocals – in the manner of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones – are more popular. Springsteen becomes The Castiles lead singer. “In the early years, I found a voice that was my voice and also partly my father’s voice,” he says somewhat cryptically. The Castiles, featuring 16 year old Bruce Springsteen, enter the recording studio at Bricktown, New Jersey. On 22 May 1966 they cut two tracks: ‘That’s What You Get’ and ‘Baby I’. The projected single is never released. The Castiles soon fall apart.
Bruce Springsteen and another local guitar player, Steve Van Zandt, begin playing gigs at a venue called The Student Prince in Asbury Park, New Jersey. They start to build a following.
The rock music ambitions of Bruce Springsteen are put on hold for a while as he moves on from Freehold Regional High School to Ocean City Community College. He only attends briefly before dropping out. “I tried to go to college and I didn’t fit in. I went to a real narrow-minded school,” Springsteen claims. He considers becoming a baseball player before deciding to commit himself to music. “Basically, I was pretty ostracised in my hometown. Me and a few other guys were the town freaks.”
From 1969 to 1971 Bruce Springsteen goes through a number of different local bands. The first is a group called Child. In this outfit, he works with Steve Van Zandt (guitar), Danny Federici (organ) and Vini ‘Mad Dog’ Lopez (drums). When guitarist Robbin Thompson joins, the band is renamed Steel Mill. Then there is Dr Zoom And The Sonic Boom. “My original nickname was ‘The Doctor’ because I had a band called Dr Zoom And The Sonic Boom,” reminisces Springsteen. “And that basically was everyone in the local music scene and we got together and it was a combination of original music and…performance art…Steven [Van Zandt] was originally Miami Steve because he went to Miami [in Florida] once [which was pretty unusual for a Jersey boy] and he came back and he had on a Hawaiian shirt…The names came from anywhere. There was Big Tiny, there was Little Tiny…” The singer’s best known nickname is Bruce ‘The Boss’ Springsteen. “’The Boss’ was a result of me paying everybody at the end of the week in some kind of fashion. It was [a name that was] never meant for public dissemination and I would have preferred it remain private [but that didn’t happen]…I had a ten-piece band when I was 21 years old, The Bruce Springsteen Band.”
New Jersey has a reputation that is connected with its proximity to New York City. Denizens of that metropolis come to New Jersey for a break because New Jersey has a sea shore. Catering to these vacationers or short-term visitors, the New Jersey Shore becomes home to a boardwalk populated by funfairs, carnivals and other such leisure attractions. This includes an appetite for rock bands. “Anyone who’s grown up or lived on the Jersey Shore knows the place is unique,” says Bruce Springsteen.
By the early 1970s Bruce Springsteen is trying his hand as a solo act, an acoustic singer-songwriter. He visits Greenwich Village in New York and then relocates to the west coast of the U.S.A. After failing an audition with a record company, he returns to New Jersey. In 1972 he meets Mike Appel who becomes Springsteen’s manager and record producer. “I was living in Asbury [Park, New Jersey] above this little beauty salon,” says Springsteen. The aspiring singer-songwriter makes a demo tape of his material. “I brought it to Mike and he just talked his way into an audition with John Hammond,” the man who previously signed such artists as jazz singer Billie Holiday and Bob Dylan to Columbia Records. “I was 22 and walked into his office,” recalls Springsteen. “We had the audition. I played a couple of songs and he said, ‘You gotta be on Columbia Records.’” The contract is signed on 9 June 1972.
Bruce Springsteen’s music is most often described as heartland rock. Although he starts recording as an acoustic troubadour, he soon transitions into a more electric form of rock. Geographically, the heartland rock tag – associated with the central States of the U.S., the ‘heartland’ – appears ill-fitting since Springsteen is so closely identified with New Jersey on the east coast. However, it is the subject matter of his work that places him in this category. Springsteen writes about blue-collar workers, average Joes. “I always think you’re writing about yourself,” he says. “There’s gotta be some part of you in everything [you write].” Accordingly, Springsteen’s recurring imagery includes fathers, cars, Catholicism and the enduring power of rock ‘n’ roll.
Although he records some cover versions, Bruce Springsteen writes the vast majority of his songs himself. “I have to write and play,” he declares. “If I became an electrician tomorrow, I’d still come home at night and write songs.” ‘Springsteen’s core influences [are] the classic rock of the late 1950s and early 1960s…Elvis [Presley]…[fellow 1950s rock legend] Buddy Holly…[raucous party master of the early 1960s] Gary “U.S.” Bonds…[and the producer and pioneer of the “wall of sound”, the “tycoon of teen” of the1950s-1960s] Phil Spector.’ Bruce notes that, “All the music I loved as a child, people thought it was junk.”
Although he is signed as a solo act, Bruce Springsteen has spent too many years working with bands to feel entirely comfortable alone. He forms the first backing band of his mature career in October 1972. The line-up is: Bruce Springsteen (vocals, guitar), Danny Federici (organ), David Sancious (keyboards), Clarence ‘The Big Man’ Clemmons (saxophone), Gary Tallent (bass) and Vini ‘Mad Dog’ Lopez (drums).
‘Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.’ (1973) (US no. 60, UK no. 41, AUS no. 71) is Bruce Springsteen’s debut album. The album is co-produced by Springsteen’s manager, Mike Appel, and Jim Cretecos. This set is filled with rambling, wordy, story-songs peopled by colourful characters. Due to the John Hammond connection, a lot of early publicity casts Bruce Springsteen as ‘the new Bob Dylan.’ Time will show them to be quite different artists. The ‘new Dylan’ line is applied to many up-and-comers by over-enthusiastic journalists, but Springsteen is one of the few who comes close to deserving that description. “Madman drummers bummers and Indians in the summer with a teenage diplomat,” sings Springsteen on the introductory ‘Blinded By The Light’. The song is not a hit for Springsteen but, like Dylan’s early output, it does become a hit later for another artist. Manfred Mann’s Earth Band does well on the charts with their version of ‘Blinded By The Light’ in March 1977. On the free-wheeling, streetwise ‘It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City’, Springsteen gabbles, “The cripple on the corner cried out, ‘Nickels for your pity’ / Them downtown boys sure talk gritty / It’s so hard to be a saint in the city,” supplying an early religious image. ‘Growin’ Up’ threatens to explode with fireworks of youthful bravado. ‘Spirit In The Night’ is an almost story-book tale populated by Crazy Janey, Wild Billy, G-Man and Hazy Davey.
In 1973 Bruce Springsteen’s girlfriend is Diane Lozito.
Bruce Springsteen’s second album follows a mere eight months after his debut. September brings ‘The Wild, The Innocent And The E Street Shuffle’ (1973) (US no. 59, UK no. 33, AUS no. 60). Again, this disc is co-produced by Mike Appel and Jim Cretecos. The biggest difference between the two discs is that Springsteen makes more use of his own backing band here, shifting from poetic singer-songwriter to bar-band shouter. ‘4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)’ chronicles ‘the tawdry carnival atmosphere of the Jersey Shore resorts.’ The singer describes his group at this point as “a little carny band…Danny [Federici] had a lot to do with the boardwalk, the accordion…The atmosphere from the lyric that came out of that environment.” With a weary gust, Springsteen sings on this track, “This boardwalk life for me is through / You know you ought to quit this thing too.” Springsteen’s girlfriend, Diane Lozito, is the inspiration for ‘Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)’. Portraying himself as a cheeky Romeo, the singer assures, “The only lover I’m ever gonna need’s your soft, sweet little girl’s tongue” and “I ain’t here on business / I’m only here for fun.” Springsteen executes the song with great exuberance.
In February 1974 Ernest ‘Boom’ Carter replaces Vini ‘Mad Dog’ Lopez as the drummer in Bruce Springsteen’s band.
On 9 May 1974, a Bruce Springsteen show at Boston’s Harvard Square Theatre makes a very favourable impression on Jon Landau. An editor and critic for ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine, Landau describes Springsteen’s performance this way in Boston’s ‘Real Paper’: “I saw rock ‘n’ roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” This replaces the ‘new Dylan’ tag as an oft-repeated piece of hype that both burdens Springsteen and attracts curious new listeners.
In August 1974 Ernest ‘Boom’ Carter leaves Bruce Springsteen’s backing group, taking keyboardist David Sancious with him. Their replacements in the same month are Roy ‘The Professor’ Bittan (piano) and ‘Mighty’ Max Weinberg (drums). In September 1974 this aggregation is officially named The E Street Band. Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band gain a reputation for marathon-length live shows that often run around three hours or more.
From 1973 to 1977 Bruce Springsteen is romantically involved with Karen Darvin.
In July 1975 Bruce Springsteen’s long-time friend, guitarist Miami Steve Van Zandt joins The E Street Band.
‘Born To Run’ (1975) (US no. 3, UK no. 17, AUS no. 7), released in August, is Bruce Springsteen’s third album. It has a difficult gestation. Springsteen feels under pressure to create something to justify the claims made about him as ‘the future of rock ‘n’ roll.’ “The album became a monster. It just ate up everyone’s life,” sighs Springsteen. Ironically, he turns to Jon Landau, the author of that ‘future of rock ‘n’ roll’ boast, to co-produce the album with Mike Appel and Springsteen himself. Springsteen describes ‘Born To Run’ as “less eccentric” than his first two discs. “I went in to use the [recording] studio as a tool…Basically what Phil Spector did.” The title track, ‘Born To Run’ (US no. 23, UK no. 93, AUS no. 38), is Bruce Springsteen’s best individual song. He says the song is, “My shot at the title. A 24 year old kid aimin’ at ‘the greatest rock ‘n’ roll record ever.’” If it falls short of that ambition, it’s not for want of trying. His voice bleeding desperation, Springsteen’s narrator vows, “Together, Wendy, we can live with the sadness / I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul.” This is ringing, shimmering rock, arcing overhead. Here is Springsteen’s poetry bolted onto rock music that barrels toward the promise of redemption. These are the attributes that make this his definitive song. ‘Born To Run’ is also the oldest track on the album, featuring (now departed) David Sancious and Ernest ‘Boom’ Carter before Roy Bittan and Max Weinberg came on board. Similarly, it was recorded before Jon Landau was called in. (Note: Miami Steve Van Zandt is not on the album at all, having joined too late to play on the sessions.) The album’s opening track, ‘Thunder Road’, borrows its title from a 1958 movie starring Robert Mitchum. Its street opera throws Catholicism and rock into a blender as the singer’s object of affection, Mary, is told she can, “Make crosses from your lovers / Throw roses in the rain / Waste your summers praying in vain / For a saviour to rise from these streets.” ‘Backstreets’ and ‘Jungleland’, the sprawling songs that close (respectively) side one and side two, are agonised dramas, poetic mosaics. The bold and brassy ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze Out’ (US no. 83) has a shout-out to saxophonist Clarence Clemmons (“And The Big Man joined the band”) who appears on the cover with Springsteen and, in concert, is a ready foil. The album is rounded out by the pulsating ‘Night’, the sullen, explosive lust of ‘She’s The One’ and the hushed and jazzy ‘Meeting Across The River’.
On 27 October 1975 Bruce Springsteen appears on the covers of both ‘Time’ and ‘Newsweek’ magazines at the same time. He is the first person, aside from political leaders, to achieve that double.
On 29 April 1976 Bruce Springsteen makes an unsuccessful attempt to enter ‘Graceland’, the mansion of his idol, Elvis Presley. He is turned away by security guards.
On 27 July 1976 Bruce Springsteen sues his manager, Mike Appel, for ‘fraud and breach of trust.’ Appel countersues Springsteen. The singer wants to work with Jon Landau instead. The litigation drags on until 28 May 1977 when the claims are finally settled. While the case was on foot, an injunction prevented Springsteen from entering the recording studio with Landau.
‘Darkness On The Edge Of Town’ (1978) (US no. 5, UK no. 16, AUS no. 9), co-produced by Bruce Springsteen and Jon Landau, is released in June. Despite the delay, this is Bruce Springsteen’s finest album. “I figured out what I wanted to write about, the people that mattered to me, and who I wanted to be,” reports Springsteen. So from the florid prose of the first two albums to the more measured attack of the third, ‘The Boss’ now progresses to accounts of “an everyday kind of heroism.” ‘Prove It All Night’ (US no. 33, AUS no. 90) is a punchy vision of redemptive love. “I’ve been working real hard trying to get my hands clean,” the working-class narrator tells his woman before advising her, “Girl, you want it, you take it, you pay the price.” It’s plain spoken, but heartfelt and true. The fiery ‘Adam Raised A Cain’ pairs Springsteen’s motifs of fathers and Christianity to bloody-handed effect: “In the Bible Cain slew Abel / and east of Eden, momma, he was cast / You’re born into this life paying / For the sins of somebody else’s past.” Biblical imagery crops up again in the brooding ‘Badlands’ (US no. 42) and the more effusive ‘The Promised Land’, yet it is always held in balance with more secular concerns. ‘Racing In The Street’ starts out as an almost incomprehensible rev-head catalogue of car parts, but this sad piano ballad becomes so much more as it meditates on love and the passage of time. The trudging, soul-deadened ‘Factory’ paints a fearful picture of “the working life” but the album closes with the self-possessed sneering pride of ‘Darkness On The Edge Of Town’, a rejection of the “good life.” This is ‘a stark, haunted album’ and all the stronger for its unflinching focus.
The recording sessions for ‘Darkness On The Edge Of Town’ produces some material that Bruce Springsteen discards, not so much because it is substandard, but because it just doesn’t fit the mood of the album. One of those songs is ‘Because The Night’ which punk poet and priestess Patti Smith rewrites and reworks into the biggest commercial success of her career in 1978. Another reject is the twitchy sensuality of ‘Fire’. Springsteen wrote it with Elvis Presley in mind, but it is African-American vocal trio The Pointer Sisters who have a hit with the song in January 1979.
From 1978 to 1979 Bruce Springsteen is romantically involved with Lynn Goldsmith, a U.S. photographer best known for her shots of rock stars.
Beginning on 19 September 1979, Bruce Springsteen is one of the performers associated with a five-night series of shows at New York’s Madison Square Garden. These are benefit concerts for MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy). The ‘No Nukes’ cause is espoused mainly by Californian singer-songwriters like Crosby, Stills & Nash and Jackson Browne, so Springsteen adds some welcome street-level rock to the proceedings. Mind you, he refuses to participate ‘until he is assured that none of the money raised will go to any political candidate.’ Springsteen’s second show in the series is marred by an ugly incident. He spots Lynn Goldsmith in the audience and drags the unwilling photographer on stage. “This is my ex-girlfriend,” he tells the crowd, before picking up the humiliated Goldsmith, carrying her to the back of the stage and dumping her on the road crew.
From 1979 to 1984 Bruce Springsteen is romantically linked to actress Joyce Hyser.
‘The River’ (1980) (US no. 1, UK no. 2, AUS no. 8), released in October, is co-produced by Bruce Springsteen, his manager Jon Landau, and E Street Band guitarist Miami Steve Van Zandt. ‘The River’ is an expansive double album with twenty-one tracks. Broadly, it follows a path from the sparkling streams of side one to the oceanic majesty of side four, yet, along the way, there are balancing points. A slow song (‘Independence Day’) closes side one, and a jaunty rocker (‘Ramrod’) opens the final side. “I met [punk rock band] The Ramones in Asbury Park and [their vocalist] Joey [Ramone] asked me to write a song for ‘em,” explains Springsteen. “I went home that night and wrote [‘Hungry Heart’ (US no. 5, UK no. 44, AUS no. 33]. I played it for Jon Landau and, earning his money, he advised me to keep it [for myself].” It becomes “my first real top ten smash and I guess my real entrance into the pop mainstream.” With its honking saxophone, ‘Hungry Heart’ recalls 1950s pop, but it also sticks to the album’s motif: “Like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing / I took a wrong turn and I just kept going.” The title track, ‘The River’ (UK no. 35), is a sharp-edged folk song. The narrator gets his girlfriend, Mary (not the same girl from ‘Thunder Road’?) pregnant, and winds up in a construction job. “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 / And Mary acts like she don’t care.” In truth, he is haunted by thoughts of their youthful passion down at the river. There’s a lot to choose from here, but some of the other highlights are the jingling folk rock of ‘The Ties That Bind’, the headlong charge of ‘Two Hearts’, the dreamy naiveté of ‘I Wanna Marry You’, the car-crazy rocker ‘Cadillac Ranch’, the heart-rending ‘Fade Away’ (US no. 20) and the skeletal hopelessness of ‘Stolen Car’. “By the time we got to ‘The River’, I felt that adulthood was on the horizon, if not yet arrived,” claims Springsteen.
‘Nebraska’ (1982) (US no. 3, UK no. 3, AUS no. 8) begins life as demo tapes Bruce Springsteen records in his basement. For quite some time, ‘the whole thing was in the back pocket of his jeans on a five-dollar cassette tape.’ He tries to work up the songs with The E Street Band but feels the ‘studio recordings are losing the raw edge he intends.’ Steve Van Zandt convinces Springsteen to release the tapes in their rawest form. So the album is given to Columbia ‘as it is, straight from his back pocket.’ This gives ‘Nebraska’ a startling intimacy, an insight into the songwriter at his most unguarded. It is almost completely acoustic, just Springsteen and a guitar, no frills. Thematically, ‘Nebraska’ is filled with crime and criminals. The best known track is ‘Atlantic City’. It is named for a very poor city in New Jersey where gambling is legalised. Casinos built in the early 1980s are supposed to revitalise the city. “Well they blew up the chicken man in Philly last night / Now they blew up his house too,” sings Springsteen in ‘Atlantic City’. This is a reference to mob violence in Philadelphia where mafia boss Philip Testa was killed in March 1981 by a bomb planted in his home. The chilling title track, ‘Nebraska’, is based on a two month murder spree from December 1957 to January 1958 carried out by Charles Starkweather and his accomplice and girlfriend, 14 year old Caril Ann Fugate. The couple kill eleven people. This outlaw tale leads to the courtroom: “The judge and jury declared me unfit to live / Said into that great void my soul be hurled.” The album’s rogue’s gallery stretches through ‘Johnny 99’ (“Prison for 98 and a year / We’ll call it even Johnny 99”), the ‘Highway Patrolman’ Joe Roberts whose brother, Frank, is a hoodlum (“Sometimes when it’s your brother / You look the other way”) and the ne’er-do-well who offers pointed advice to a ‘State Trooper’ (“Maybe you got a kid, maybe you got a pretty wife / The only thing that I got’s been bothering me my whole life”).
In the early 1980s Bruce Springsteen meets singer Patti Scialfa and sees her perform at The Stone Poney, a bar in New Jersey. In June 1984 Patti Scialfa joins The E Street Band. At the same time, Nils Lofgren replaces Miami Steve Van Zandt on guitar in The E Street Band. Lofgren has already had a lengthy career in rock music, having started out in his late teens. He is not one of Springsteen’s buddies from New Jersey. His appointment is evidence of Bruce Springsteen’s stature now within the rock music industry. Neither Scialfa nor Lofgren appear on Springsteen’s next album since it is released the same month they join The E Street Band. They are both involved in the subsequent tours and promotion associated with the disc. In the lead up to his next recording, Bruce Springsteen has been ‘pumping his body up with weights’, so when he is next seen, the five foot ten (1.78 metres) singer is built like a brick outhouse.
‘Born In The U.S.A.’ (1984) (US no. 1, UK no. 1, AUS no. 1) is released in June. Production duties are shared by Bruce Springsteen, Jon Landau, Chuck Plotkin and Steve Van Zandt (who plays guitar on this album). Where ‘Nebraska’ was an introverted, acoustic recording, this album is ‘thematically more outward-looking and bigger sounding.’ The E Street Band are in full flight and, despite some thorny subject matter, the prevailing mood is bright and light. ‘Born In The U.S.A.’ becomes Bruce Springsteen’s biggest commercial success. ‘Dancing In The Dark’ (US no. 2, UK no. 4, AUS no. 5) is what Springsteen calls “my big smash!…I knew when we cut that song it was gonna capture people’s imagination.” Roy Bittan’s synthesiser gives this compulsive song a more modern edge. Springsteen’s restless narrator sings, “Radio’s on and I’m moving ‘round the place / I check my look in the mirror / I wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face.” In the video for the song, put together by famed movie director Brian De Palma, Springsteen pulls a girl out of the audience to dance with him on stage. That girl is actually starlet Courtney Cox who goes on to fame as one of the key cast members of the television comedy ‘Friends’ (1994-2004). It may all have been a set-up, but female fans of ‘The Boss’ everywhere are green with envy. The title track, ‘Born In The U.S.A.’, also has a Hollywood connection. Writer/director Paul Schrader asked Bruce Springsteen to write a song for his proposed film, ‘Born In The U.S.A.’ Springsteen complied, but then found he liked the song too much to give it away. Instead, he gave Schrader another song which provides the revised title for the movie, ‘Light Of Day’ (1987). The song ‘Born In The U.S.A.’ (US no. 9, UK no. 5, AUS no. 2) begins with Springsteen bellowing, “Born down in a dead man’s town / The first kick I took was when I hit the ground / You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much / Till you spend half your life just covering up.” The hard luck tale continues through a tour of duty in Vietnam and subsequent unemployment. So when Springsteen sings of being ‘Born In The U.S.A.’, it is in bitter irony. The most affluent nation on earth just gives the narrator a lifetime of pain and misery. It is this that Ronald Reagan so spectacularly gets wrong in using this song in his Presidential campaign. “There is a real patriotism underneath the best of my music,” Bruce Springsteen acknowledges, “but it is a critical, questioning, and often angry patriotism.” Referring specifically to the song ‘Born In The U.S.A.’, its author says it “had two things goin’. There was the lyrical content [of bitterness] and then there was a sense that the music was sort of martial and powerful,” thanks again to Roy Bittan’s soaring synthesiser notes. “There may be some misinterpretation of it out there, y’know,” says Springsteen, due to people hearing the music and chorus of ‘Born In The U.S.A.’ without really listening to the verses. Other well-known songs from this set include the romantic desperation of ‘Cover Me’ (US no. 7, UK no. 16, AUS no. 17), the febrile sensuousness of ‘I’m On Fire’ (US no. 6, UK no. 5, AUS no. 12), a song for the fed-up called ‘I’m Goin’ Down’ (US no. 9, AUS no. 41), the rose-tinted nostalgia of ‘Glory Days’ (US no. 5, UK no. 17, AUS no. 29) and, its opposite, the hollowed-out heartache behind ‘My Hometown’ (US no. 6, UK no. 9, AUS no. 47).
When ‘Dancing In The Dark’ is released as a single, the B side is ‘Pink Cadillac’, a track recorded at the ‘Born In The U.S.A.’ sessions but not used on the album. ‘Pink Cadillac’ becomes a hit for Natalie Cole in 1988.
The massive success of ‘Born In The U.S.A.’ puts Bruce Springsteen on a new level of celebrity. “You just ride, you just take the ride,” he says in astonishment. He begins to feel uneasy about it though. “I look back on it now…There was an enormous amount of exposure and that’s something you might feel uncomfortable with…You get out on the tightrope and you walk across.”
In October 1984 Bruce Springsteen begins romancing actress Julianne Phillips. The couple marry on 13 May 1985.
‘Bruce Springsteen And The E Street Band / Live 1975-1985’ (1986) (US no. 1, UK no. 4, AUS no. 3), a November release, buys some time. The pressure to follow ‘Born In The U.S.A.’ is heavy, so this massive five record (or three CD) set pacifies the record company and at least some of the fans. It contains the expected famous songs, some more obscure selections, and a clutch of cover versions. Springsteen’s hoarse shout of ‘War’ (US no. 8, UK no. 18, AUS no. 38), an Edwin Starr song from 1970, is the single.
‘Tunnel Of Love’ (1987) (US no. 1, UK no. 1, AUS no. 5) is the eventual new studio recording. Released in October, this set is co-produced by Bruce Springsteen, Jon Landau, Chuck Plotkin and E Street Band pianist Roy Bittan. The E Street Band – or at least various members of the group – appears on some cuts; other recordings are sparer. This is a semi-acoustic album, not as hushed as ‘Nebraska’, but not so rocking as ‘Born In the U.S.A.’ either. Because this is the first album of new material since his marriage, the expectation is for a loved-up suite of ballads from the newlywed singer. There are plenty of songs about love all right, but most of them betray a strangely conflicted attitude. Consider the following examples: ‘Spare Parts’ (UK no. 32, AUS no. 57) (“Spare parts and broken hearts / Keep the world turning around”); ‘Tunnel Of Love’ (US no. 9, UK no. 45, AUS no. 41) (“Then the lights go out and it’s just the three of us / You, me, and all that stuff we’re so scared of”); ‘Two Faces’ (“I met a little girl and we ran away / I swore I’d make her happy every day / And now I’ve made her cry / Two faces have I”); ‘One Step Up’ (US no. 13, AUS no. 67) (“Given each other some hard lessons lately / But we ain’t learnin’”); and ‘Brilliant Disguise’ (US no. 5, UK no. 20, AUS no. 17) (“Tonight our bed is cold / I’m lost in the darkness of our love / God have mercy on the man / Who doubts what he’s sure of”). ‘Valentine’s Day’ is one of the few songs that sound positive. Even the booming ‘Tougher Than The Rest’ (UK no. 13, AUS no. 35) is brooding and bruised in its boasting.
Bruce Springsteen releases the ‘Chimes Of Freedom’ EP in August 1988 in association with a tour for Amnesty International – Human Rights Now! This excursion, from 2 September 1988 to 15 October 1988, finds Springsteen in his most overtly political form yet.
The mixed messages of ‘Tunnel Of Love’ take on new meaning when Bruce Springsteen and Julianne Phillips split up in 1989. ‘The marriage helped boost her acting career, but his travelling took a toll on the marriage and the final blow came when she found out about his affair with Patti Scialfa [The E Street Band backing vocalist].’
Following the end of his marriage, Bruce Springsteen begins living with Patti Scialfa. Together, they have a son, Evan (born 25 July 1990). Bruce and Patti marry on 8 June 1991. They go on to have two more children: a daughter named Jessica (born 30 December 1991) and a son named Sam (born 5 January 1994).
The E Street Band is dissolved – or at least put on hiatus.
‘Human Touch’ (1992) (US no. 2, UK no. 1, AUS no. 3) and ‘Lucky Town’ (1992) (US no. 3, UK no. 2, AUS no. 6) are two separate albums released at the same time, March 1992. These albums are largely recorded with session musicians. The song ‘Human Touch’ (US no. 16, UK no. 11, AUS no. 17) has a tingling, charged atmosphere. Here, Bruce gruffly points out, “So you been broken and you been hurt / Show me somebody who ain’t / Yeah, I know I ain’t nobody’s bargain / But, hell, a little touch up and a little paint…” ‘Better Days’ (US no. 16, UK no. 34, AUS no. 75) from ‘Lucky Town’ is a portrait of rough-hewn happiness that also addresses one of the problems in the singer being the champion of the average Joe: “It’s a sad, funny ending to find yourself pretending / A rich man in a poor man’s shirt.”
In 1993 Bruce Springsteen contributes ‘The Streets Of Philadelphia’ (US no. 9, UK no. 2, AUS no. 4) to the movie ‘Philadelphia’ (1993). The film is about a lawyer suffering discrimination because he has contracted A.I.D.S. through homosexual intercourse. Springsteen’s pained vocals echo through a mechanical background of synthesisers as he sings, “I can feel myself fading away / So receive me brother with your faithless kiss.” The track earns the Academy Award for best song from that year’s motion pictures.
The E Street Band reassembles to record a few new tracks for Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Greatest Hits’ (1995) (US no. 1, UK no. 1, AUS no. 1) in January.
‘The Ghost Of Tom Joad’ (1995) (US no. 11, UK no. 16, AUS no. 27) in November is an acoustic folk music album. It is inspired by ‘Journey to Nowhere: the Saga of the New Underclass’ by Dale Maharidge. The name of Tom Joad comes from John Steinbeck’s novel ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ (1939) (made into a film in 1940) about a dispossessed man during ‘the Great Depression’, the 1930s economic hard-times.
‘Tracks’ (1998) (US no. 27, UK no. 50, AUS no. 97) is a four CD collection of previously unreleased songs Bruce Springsteen recorded over the span of his career.
Bruce Springsteen ‘admits to losing his way during the 1990s’.
Bruce Springsteen reunites with The E Street Band in more lasting fashion beginning in 2000.
‘The Rising’ (2002) (US no. 1, UK no. 1, AUS no. 1) ‘reflects on the tragedy’ of the terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001. The album features ‘My City Of Ruins’.
In 2004 Bruce Springsteen campaigns for Democratic Party Presidential candidate John Kerry – though Kerry loses the election.
‘Devils & Dust’ (2005) (US no. 1, UK no. 1, AUS no. 10) is a folk music album in the style of ‘Nebraska’ or ‘The Ghost Of Tom Joad’. ‘We Shall Overcome – The Seeger Sessions’ (2006) (US no. 3, UK no. 3, AUS no. 21) features ‘new arrangements of folk songs associated with Pete Seeger’, a well-known figure in that genre. ‘Magic’ (2007) (US no. 1, UK no. 1, AUS no. 2) returns to a rock orientation and includes ‘Radio Nowhere’ (US no. 102, UK no. 96) and ‘Girls In Their Summer Clothes’ (US no. 95).
Danny Federici of The E Street Band dies on 17 April 2008 as the result of a cancerous melanoma. Charles Giordano (keyboards) takes over Federici’s role in the band.
In 2008 Bruce Springsteen returns to the political campaign trail, playing several benefit shows in support of Senator Barack Obama. ‘Working On A Dream’ (2009) (US no. 1, UK no. 1, AUS no. 3) is released on 27 January, a week after Obama’s inauguration as President of the United States.
On 18 June 2011, Clarence Clemmons, the saxophone player from The E Street Band, passes away from complications following a stroke that laid ‘The Big Man’ low. From 2012 saxophone duties in The E Street Band are divided between Ed Manion and Jake Clemmons, the nephew of the late Clarence Clemmons.
Both Steve Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren have been contributing guitar to The E Street Band in the twenty-first century. The tour supporting ‘Wrecking Ball’ (2012) (US no. 1, UK no. 1, AUS no. 2) brings a change. On the last six months of that tour, Tom Morello from Rage Against The Machine replaces Van Zandt. He brings with him a more metallic edge. The single from ‘Wrecking Ball’ is ‘We Take Care Of Our Own’ (US no. 106, UK no. 111).
‘High Hopes’ (2014) (US no. 1, UK no. 1, AUS no. 1) mixes cover versions, unreleased material and songs Bruce Springsteen gave away to others. What distinguishes this grab-bag is Springsteen finding a new chemistry with guitarist Tom Morello, imbuing the whole thing with a sound that is heavier and a bit different for Springsteen.
The compilation album ‘Chapter And Verse’ (2016) (US no. 5, UK no. 2, AUS no. 2), issued on 23 September, is conceived as a companion piece to Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography ‘Born to Run’ (2016), published by Simon & Schuster four days later. The career-spanning ‘Chapter And Verse’ runs through the expected highlights of Springsteen’s career but the real prize for completists is five previously unavailable songs from the dawn of the singer’s recordings. There are two tracks by The Castiles, 1966’s ‘Baby I’ and a 1967 cover version of Bo Diddley’s 1962 song ‘You Can’t Judge A Book By Its Cover’. Steel Mill is represented by 1970’s ‘He’s Guilty (The Judge Song)’. ‘The Ballad Of Jesse James’ from 1972 is attributed to The Bruce Springsteen Band while ‘Henry Boy’, also from 1972, is just Bruce’s voice and guitar.
Generally, Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics are plain-spoken and rarely subject to misinterpretation. The Reagan campaign’s ill-considered use of ‘Born In The U.S.A.’ only caused trouble for themselves – particularly since Springsteen later publicly supported Democratic candidates John Kerry and Barack Obama. Politics were never really The Boss’ forte though. He remained the champion of the average, working-class man. Springsteen seemed largely immune to fads and trends, content to chart his own course. His best work was in the decade from ‘Born To Run’ (1975) to ‘Born In The U.S.A.’ (1984). ‘The heartland rocker known as “The Boss” more than fulfilled the…publicity he was initially burdened with.’ Bruce Springsteen ‘reached his goal of being a rock star by remaining streetwise and questioning.’
- ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘Bruce Springsteen’ by Anthony De Curtis (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 620, 621, 622
- neatorama.com – ‘The Most Misunderstood Political Campaign Song in History’ by Eddie Deezen (13 November 2012)
- ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine – Bruce Springsteen interview conducted by Kurt Loder (6 December 1984) (quoted in ‘Time’ magazine – ‘Fight Songs – Eleven Great Musician-Politician Campaign Feuds’ by Dan Fastenberg (17 August 2012) – newfeed.time.com)
- Notable names database – nndb.com – as at 24 March 2014
- Internet movie database imdb.com as at 13 May 2014
- ‘Rock Stars’ by Timothy White (Columbus Books, 1984) p. 261
- wikipedia.org as at 24 March 2014, 4 January 2017
- brainyquote.com as at 13 May 2014
- ‘Bruce Springsteen: A Secret History’ (U.K. television program – BBC Network) – Directed by Steven Goldman, Produced by Mark Hagen (1998)
- ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 116, 201, 228, 255, 258, 268, 302
- ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 215, 217
- allmusic.com, ‘Bruce Springsteen’ by William Ruhlmann as at 15 May 2001
- The History News Network, ‘The Ethnic Fork of Bruce Springsteen’ by Jim Cullen (2005?)
- ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 97
- lyricsfreak.com as at 10 May 2014
- ‘New York Daily News’ (New York, U.S.A newspaper) – Book excerpt: ‘Bruce Springsteen: From a “Tunnel of Love” with Julianne Phillips to “Dancing in the Dark” with Patti Scialfa’ by Peter Ames (21 October 2012) (reproduced on nydailynews.com)
- whosdatedwho.com as at 24 March 2014
- ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 38
- ‘Bruce Springsteen – Greatest Hits’ – Sleeve notes by Bruce Springsteen (Columbia, Sony Music Entertainment, Inc., 1995) p. 3, 4
- ‘Born To Run’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (Columbia, Sony Music Entertainment, Inc. 1975) p. 11
- ‘Bruce Springsteen on Tour: 1968-2003’ by Dave Marsh (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2006) p. 120, 121
- ‘The River’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (Columbia, Sony Music Entertainment, Inc. 1978) p. 23
- sputnikmusic.com – ‘Nebraska’ review by John Cruz (5 June 2006)
- ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 201
- songfacts.com as at 15 May 2014
- ‘Born In The U.S.A.’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (Columbia, Sony Music Entertainment, Inc. 1984) p. 15
- ‘Herald Sun’ (Melbourne, Australia newspaper) ‘Still The Boss’, ‘Kathy McCabe’s Top 5 Boss Moments’ and ‘American Dream’ – all by Kathy McCabe (15 December 2012) p. 60
- ‘The History of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p.175
- ‘Herald Sun’ (Melbourne, Australia newspaper) ‘The Boss Rages with Morello’ – review of ‘High Hopes’ by Cameron Adams (16 January 2014) p. 38
- ‘Herald Sun’ (Melbourne, Australia, newspaper) – ‘The Boss Raids his Vaults’ – review of ‘Chapter And Verse’ by Cameron Adams (22 September 2016) p. 38
Song lyrics copyright Rondor Music (Australia) P/L / Bruce Springsteen ASCAP
Last revised 12 January 2017