It was weird, loving this album and loving Bruce Springsteen in the mid-1980s. At that time, of course, I was fully ensconced with the alt/indie-rock aesthetic of KFSR, which automatically looked upon anything as massively popular as Springsteen (or Prince) (or Madonna) (or Michael Jackson) as suspicious. I got that: a lot of time what was popular was crap.
On the other hand, it was impossible for me to hate somebody simply because they were popular. That made no fucking sense: quality and popularity are not diametrically opposed. Not everything that is popular is crap. Never has been, never will be. It would be insane to ignore somebody simply because a lot of other folks whom maybe aren’t as snobby as I am like them.
I mean, the fact that The Kinks weren’t as popular as The Rolling Stones in 1969 didn’t mean that The Kinks were great and the Stones sucked, it meant that circumstances and market forces beyond either band’s control meant that Let it Bleed resonated while Arthur didn’t. In an ideal world, of course, both albums (to say nothing of The Velvet Underground) would have been massively popular.
In my ideal word, as a matter of fact, quality and popularity aren’t so much diametrically opposed as they are in lockstep. Which is, of course, equally insane. But I truly want as many people to hear as much great music as I can foist at them. What I consider great music, of course, heh-heh. Your mileage will vary.
Of course, in the mid-1980s, there was no need whatsoever for me to play Bruce Springsteen on the radio as a DJ at KFSR. At least not anything from Born in the U.S.A., which had seven Top Ten singles, and certainly didn’t need my help. Clearly Bruce had figured out how to take his music to the next level commercially while not sacrificing his artistic soul.
Which was fine: as far as I was concerned, it meant that I could instead play Husker Du and R.E.M. and The Replacements etc. while still totally enjoying Springsteen’s success. In fact, I even saw him in concert for the second time on that tour – at the Oakland Coliseum with Tim & Larry & Debbie (Tim & I also saw The Church put on a performance for the ages at Wolfgang’s in SF on that road trip) – where he always added extra heft to “Born in the U.S.A. by adding a killer guitar solo at the end.
Not that “Born in the U.S.A.” needed that extra heft. It sounded amazing. I have a simple rule: if a song sounds good enough, I really don’t give a fuck what the lyrics are. So even if the folks who have been willfully mishearing this song for 30 years happened to be correct – and they’re not, as even a cursory look at the verses would confirm – I’d still love it. I’d love it that big dumb beat. I’d love it for the even bigger and dumber keyboard hook. I’d love it for the utter passion that Bruce invests every single shout-sung “Born in the U.S.A.”
“Born in the U.S.A”. performed live in Paris, 1985
The River was a schizophrenic album, combining some of Springsteen’s deepest story songs with some of his stoopidest party anthems. Guess which ones I loved the most?
As played by the E Street Band, the party anthems are all forward momentum, and everywhere you listen you can hear a cool guitar lead or a backing vocal or a new organ sound or an awesome piano run, capturing the visceral thrill of great rock music, So if some of them weren’t tied to the greatest of lyrics, it didn’t really matter.
The reason I love “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” – especially the live version – most of all is Steven Van Zant’s backing vocals. Sure, they’re barely on tune, but that’s not even the point. His natural “aaaaahhhhhhh” adds a degree of extra grit and authenticity, so when he chimes in on “telephoooaaaonnnnnnnee” and “ahhhhhhlonnnnnnne”, in the last verse it makes the entire song for me.
I saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band for the very first time on this tour, in 1981, with Larry and Tim. Road trip! And, in fact I think it may have been one of those deals where we drove home after the show, because we were young and had unlimited time and energy. I have a vivid memory of listening to a cassette of Cosmos Factory on one of those trips – let’s just say it was this one – and just as “Ramble Tamble” hit its glorious midsection, the sun came up.
Or I could totally be mis-remembering that.
What I do remember that we were sitting at the very back of the Los Angeles Sports Arena, about as far back as you could possibly get from the band, and it was still utterly overpowering. To felt, it felt like Bruce cared about entertaining the back of the house as much as he cared about the front rows.
The thing I remember the most was the instrumental build-up that climaxes “Racing in the Street,” which was long, slow and utterly majestic. It completely changed how I thought about that song.
The rest of it is just a blur all these years later, but I do remember walking out and being fully and utterly convinced that I was going to follow what Bruce Springsteen did for the rest of our lives.
“You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” performed live in 1980
There was no doubt that Bruce Springsteen understood the power he was unleashing every single night on his 1978 tour. Compared to the relative dourness of Darkness on the Edge of Town, those 1978 shows were a celebration of everything great about rock ‘n’ roll, and maybe only Dylan’s UK ‘66 tour ranks higher in my personal pantheon.
I know that because Bruce was smart enough to allow several radio broadcasts of that tour, knowing that the resulting bootlegs would only increase his fanbase and – subsequently – his future sales. Those radio shows were what you kids today call “viral marketing.”
And I know damn sure it worked on me, via Larry’s tape of the Agora show in Cleveland.
As near was we can piece it together, Larry recorded the Cleveland show from the mighty KMET in Los Angeles while he was at UCLA. What I do remember is that he labeled “Bruce Springsteen Live in CLEVELAND?!?” because it somehow seemed so weird that something so potent came from Cleveland.
(Please note that I fact-checked the circumstances of that recording with Larry, because the 10 or so of you who will actually read this deserve to be told the truth. As does Larry. Though it’s actually a better story if I said he was there and bribed the soundboard guy with a bag of weed or something.)
That cassette was a key text in my burgeoning love of Bruce Springsteen, and we spent quite a lot of time over the next couple of years listening to it while driving around in his Dodge Colt, visiting other people we’d met on my first form of social media – the CB radio. And my favorite part of the whole cassette was the long story Bruce told in the middle of “Growin’ Up.”
On Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., “Growin’ Up” was a nice song, but a bit bloodless. In concert on the 1978 tour, while the details would change from show to show, it was essentially Bruce telling his own mythological origins. It’s keyed around his parents telling them that he need to stop playing music and do something with his life, and when they decide to consult a priest, they warn him:
“You tell him you want to be a lawyer. You tell him you want to be a author. But don’t you tell him nuthin about that god damn guitar!”
But the priest thinks it’s too big of a decision, and sends Bruce to talk to God. At that point, Bruce convinces Clarence to go see God with him. And so they do, after the priest gives him the same advice: “Don’t you tell him nuthin’ about this god damn guitar!”
It probably would have been insufferable had it not been so hilarious. All the way through, Bruce works in jokes, local references, self-mocking asides. So when he finally gets to talk to God, you’re fully invested in the outcome.
SPOILER ALERT For a 38-year-old song
“God, my father wants me to be a lawyer. My mother wants me to be an author. But I got this guitar, you see? And all of a sudden, I hear this thunder … I seen this lightning coming out of the sky.
It was real quiet for awhile. And then I heard just three words:
LET IT ROCK!!!!”
And led by Roy Bittan, the E Street Band comes crashing in and it is truly thrilling. Or at least it was for me.
It seems ridiculous nowadays since bands like The Arcade Fire waste their youth and influence by taking three years between albums, but the three-year gap between Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town felt like a big deal. So much time! Especially as the scruffy bohemian dude grinning holding his guitar on the former album was replaced by the clean-shaven dude staring you down.
When I first saw the magazine ads for Darkness, I couldn’t even believe it was the same guy. Which made thematic sense: if: Born to Run often felt like a huge party, then Darkness on the Edge of Town felt like the reason that people needed that party. And as such, it took a long time for me – a couple of decades, really – to fully grok how great it was.
The one Darkness song that I loved unreservedly from the start is easily the most unconventional song on the entire album. Neither a straight-out anthemic rocker nor a slowly-burning ballad, “Candy’s Room” starts quietly, and then suddenly explodes into a big Max Weinberg snare drum hook. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on it, it gets ripped in half by one of Bruce’s most out-front guitar solos, stopping the whole thing dead.
After that, everybody’s jostling each other trying to get to Candy’s room first. In the end, Max Weinberg wins by virtue of sliding on his snare drum hook while Bruce slows himself down by bouncing back-and-forth between the speakers.
Wiih its killer organ and secret basslines and big-ass drum fills, the Phil Spector-by-way-of Bo Diddley “She’s The One” packs a universe of epic grandness into just four-and-a-half minutes. And if the Born to Run version was all that we ever got, dayneu.
But it was just a fucking trailer compared to the live version. On that 1978 tour, over Max Weinberg’s kick drum, Bruce would reference other classic songs with the Bo Diddley beat: “Not Fade Away,” “Mona,” “Gloria” – whatever came to mind – setting up what was always an absolutely monster version of “She’s The One”
The the density of the sound of the E Street Band is absolutely breathtaking: how Roy Bittan’s piano & Danny Federici’s organ intertwine, how Garry Tallent’s bass and Max Weinberg’s drums drive everything, and oh yeah, here comes Clarence Clemons kicking out a sax solo while everybody is joyfully shouting “Whoa, she’s the one!”
And after that, they’re off to the races, pretty much leaving every other band ever in the dust.
The last two minutes of any live 1978 version of “She’s The One,” with all of the building and building and stopping and starting and crashing and moving ever forward with ever single member of the band playing within an inch of their lives, ranks with the greatest rock ‘n’ roll music by anybody in any context. It’s utterly thrilling every single time.
“She’s the One” performed live in Landover, MD, 1978
“She’s The One” performed live in Passiac, NJ, 1978