The Ascension of Bruce Springsteen
from zero to sixty in five weeks flat with rock's newest superstar
Playboy , 1976-03
By James R. Petersen
In the night air above Sunset Strip, an 18-foot leather-jacketed Bruce Springsteen drapes an arm across the back of a 23-foot saxophone playing Clarence Clemons and tries to bury a three-foot grin behind his wrist. One block away, the cover photograph from Born to Run is seen on a small billboard in the parking lot of Tower Records. Handbills slapped onto every telephone pole and blank wall in the area proclaim that the rising young rock star-s four-day engagement at the Roxy is sold out. On the stage of L.A.'s top music showcase, an only slightly larger than life-size Bruce Springsteen hunkers over a microphone, delivering a monolog about the days when he and his good buddy Miami Steve Van Zandt were the helpless victims of immediate undying love, or, as they say in the papers, incurable romanticism. Miami Steve, resplendent in a white panama and pink three-piece suit with wide lapels that end somewhere in the wings, nods his head. It's all true. "Yeah. Every day, we would sit on the steps and watch this girl walk by. The mystery lady. She was beautiful. I mean, she was the kind of girl who made you feel dumb about stuff. We didn't know her name. Every day, we tried to make each other find out her name. It would be Steve's turn; he couldn't do it. It would be my turn; I couldn't do it. We tried to get the crazy kid on the block to go up and ask her name; he couldn't do it. Then we got guitars. Yeah, we got guitars and sat on the steps and watched this girl walk by. Finally, it got so bad we moved away."
Laughter. Miami Steve nods. It's all true. Springsteen pauses, tucks a thumb through his suspenders, eyeballs his rhythm-guitar player through the spotlights and smoke and brings the story up to date. "You know, there oughta be some way we could find out that girl's name. Maybe stroll down to Tower Records, pick up a copy of Born to Run and when she walks by, drop it casuallike on the sidewalk. 'Oops. My record.' Naw. That wouldn't work. I got it. We rent a car. Yeah. We rent a car and kinda ease past my billboard. That'll work. I just gotta find out who that girl is. I don't know her name, but... all the guys on my block call her Pretty Flamingo."
And the audience is there, back in the days when the whole world was in high school and the E Street Band was a bunch of rock 'n' roll rebels, playing for the door at some club in the swamps of Jersey, five sets a night, 12 songs a set. Here they are, pouring their hearts out on a Manfred Mann anthem to impossible beauty, still on fire with the feeling, the faith that caused them to pick up guitars and drumsticks in the first place. Old fans look at one another and smile. The ascension of Bruce Springsteen is under way and there's nothing to worry about. Springsteen may wake up in the morning and find his picture on the covers of both Time and Newsweek, but the craziness will never change the Kid. Inside, he's got everything straight.
Early September and something is happening on the East Coast: The rock grapevine is heavy with rumors of a great new act. Who is this Bruce Springsteen and why are all those people in New York raving about a one-week gig at the Bottom Line? Jesus, the reviews of his latest album, Born to Run, have most of the people in the Midwest convinced that the Columbia School of Journalism is a subsidiary of the record company.
The facts are that Springsteen's first album, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., sold about 120,000 copies. Critics had a hard time adjusting to the singer's metabolism; the record sounded like Highway 66 played at 78 rpm, and that was close enough to earn Springsteen the label of another new Dylan. Some said that he sang with the young Van Morrison's voice (he picked it up at the Berkeley flea market for a buck, fifty). The few people who listened found that the songwriter had re-created the Street. The Boardwalk. The Scene. Peopled with ragtag characters whose only code was style, the Scene was the place where you were known on sight or you weren't known at all. The street was the arena where you earned a name like Hazy Davy, Killer Joe, a name that couldn't be found in the phone book, because you wouldn't find that person at home. It was a seductive vision, developed on Springsteen's next album, The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, which sold 175,000 copies. Nothing to get excited about, unless you were one of the 175,000. They thought it was the best album of the century. Those numbers put Springsteen into the cult-artist category. For two years he played small clubs and concerts on the East Coast. He developed one of the best live acts in the business. He locked himself into a studio for almost a year, agonizing over the album that, according to the industry logic, was his last chance to be a star. Then Born to Run hit the racks, the band went on a nationwide tour and all hell broke loose. The writer receives an assignment: Hang out. See what's going on.
Springsteen sits quietly on a sofa in the middle of the lobby, flashing on the marble, the mirrors, the chandeliers and the people who make such rooms their scene. When you aren't the entertainment, sit back and watch what is. Springsteen is slight, unimposing, his tan- suede jacket subdued. Admittedly, the gold ring in his left ear seems out of place, but it is shielded from most of the room by a large person with the bulk and peripheral vision of a bodyguard. A friend from Asbury Park. One of the 22 people Springsteen keeps on the payroll. Introductions are made. ("Hi. I play the lead paragraph for Playboy magazine.")
The band begins to filter into the lobby. It is immediately evident where Springsteen got the inspiration for his characters; also, that there is no one left worth looking at on the streets of Asbury Park. Miami Steve is the epitome of lower-echelon Mafia Mod: a tailored leather jacket, a snazzy panama pulled low over his eyes. He constantly arches one eyebrow and vaults his glance over a nonexistent pair of sunglasses. Like Springsteen, he wears a gold ring in one ear. Having spent the past few years of his life backing groups such as the Dovells and Dion (you mean they're still working?) in out-of-the-way roadhouses and oldies bars, he is tough, well worn and yet easy to impress. A genuine find. Roy "The Professor" Bittan continues the gangster motif with crisp elegance. A white-felt fedora, pinstripe suit, goatee. Small hands that suggest he could be carrying a violin case on the running board of a 1932 Ford, instead of playing baroque barrel-house piano behind Springsteen. The Professor met the singer at Charley's in Cambridge, asked if he could sit in and hasn't gotten up since. Garry "U.S." Tallent puts his hands into his pockets, props one sneaker against a marble pillar and flashes an indecently healthy smile. Garry has been with Springsteen since the beginning. He owns a 1948 Rock Ola jukebox and over 3000 oldies. He once left his bass by the television set so he could learn the solo to Secret Agent Man. "Mighty" Max Weinberg has hands that could belong to a tail gunner on an old Liberator bomber; aviator glasses and a neatly trimmed beard complete the image of disciplined strength. He is a scholar of the drums. Danny "The Blond Bombshell" Federici is baby-faced and oblivious, decked out in a single-zipper leather jacket. He has played organ and accordion behind Springsteen for years. Exhausted by the effort, he drops himself into an overstuffed armchair and inadvertently brushes an ashtray off the table. Cockroach-sized glass fragments chatter across the floor. Not very high on the Richter scale of road madness, but it's still early in the tour. The band closes in : "God, we can't take you anywhere." The incident is taken care of, but a house manager decides to make it into a disturbance. Are you guests of the hotel? Are you waiting for someone? Would you please return to your rooms and wait there? We can't have people like you gathering in our lobby. The boys look to the Boss. He will wait for the saxophone player to arrive. When he does, the question is settled. Clarence "The Big Kahuna" Clemons is clad in a black-leather motorcycle jacket, black leather pants and a black padre hat with a silver band. An ex- linebacker, he has the massive calm of the man who found King Kong's stash. The boys in the band get high; Clarence gets serious.
Are you with the Columbia Record party? The waitress stresses the last word, her eyes alight with visions of decadence. Pizzas with grated cocaine on top. Kinky sex. Petty vandalism. She shows the group to a private room, trying to distinguish the genuine star from the media groupies and underassistant Midwest promo men. Some 17 people line the table, poking at the deep-fried Frisbees that pass for pizzas in Chicago. The waitress settles on one of the local rock critics, a tall, lanky, redhead decked out in a denim sailor suit complete with red neckerchief and Pinafore hat. He looks the part. Springsteen and the Professor take the far end of the table and start rapping about old bands. The conversation is animated, stopping only when a good tune, an old favorite, comes over the house sound system. Hey, catch that riff. Roy is a relative newcomer to E Street; he listens attentively as The Boss fills in its history: First was the Castiles, Steel Mill, The Rogues, Earth, Child, Doctor Zoom and the Sonic Boom. The names kept changing to protect the innocent, to keep them alive and part of the scene. The E Street Band is the process of natural selection. The musicians who believed in music, in Springsteen, stayed with the band through all the changes. The result is an organism with a collective musical experience of over 100 man-years. (Later, Garry explains the process: "A bunch of us used to get together at a club called the Upstage and jam for two hours on I'm a Man. We formed bands. We always thought Bruce was a good act. If there was a chance of any of us making a living through music, we figured it would have to happen through him.") With an endorsement like that, Springsteen doesn't need the hype.
The Boss is into the days when he didn't have a band, only friends he called up in emergencies. Or opportunities. "This club owner contacted me and said if I didn't show up at his place on Saturday night with a band, he'd kill me. Now, I played family clubs in New Jersey that were pretty rough, but this guy was serious. He knew where I lived. Yeah. Some of those club owners were crazy. There was one guy, pulled out a gun one night and shot an amplifier. Can you see it? Smoke curling up the ceiling. Absolute quiet. And he says, 'I told you guys to turn down.'"
The writer slides his chair back from the table and presents his question: He's had Born to Run on his turntable for about a week and he still doesn't know what to think about tit. It's obviously rock 'n' roll. At least, there are no songs on it in danger of becoming crossover country hits. But it's different from the second album. Something happened. What?
"E Street was a lazy hanging-out summer album. Davey Sancious, our piano player back the, was actually living on E Street. No. I don't know which came first - the or the band's name. It's all confused. That was the summer the band consciousness started to develop. We were just sitting there, flashing on everything that was happening. I was exactly where I wanted to be. I had a band. I knew who I was. We were getting work. The album reflects that. On the new record, I don't know who I am. You see, about five months after E Street came out, there was this big burst of attention from the press. Suddenly, I was the future of rock 'n' roll. That much attention pushed me back to the time when there wasn't any. Working on Born to Run was a very scary thing. I was born, grew old and died making that album. We knew what we wanted to do; it was just a very hard thing to do. We weren't making mistakes. The E Street Band doesn't make mistakes. Those guys are so good they're down to intangibles. At the Bottom Line, I climbed out across the tables, into the audience, and looked at those guys just standing there onstage doing their stuff. I almost didn't come back. We play the same notes every night, but sometimes something happens. Maybe it's a guy's face in the first row. Maybe it's something someone says. But it happens and it's what we play for. Some bands, something starts happening onstage, they fuck up. Not my guys. But working in a studio, none of that counts; it's a different thing. You get by on your ability to do the same thing 25 times in a row. It's not creative. You are what you know, what you've learned. It's almost impossible to get a spark going, 'cause the spark doesn't come from technique.
The official guide to blues in Chicago, the red-haired rock critic who won the heart of the waitress because he looked like the kid in the Buster Brown shoes, is lost. The caravan of rented cars cruises along a wide industrial boulevard, past a White Castle, a junk yard, through the maze of streets beneath the Skyway, the highway that passes above, but not through. Chicago's South Side. They guys in the E Street Band are beginning to eye the critic like this was the start of a Last Great Fiasco.
The Queen Bee finally turns up, a triangular bar attached to a larger building. The windows are painted over, the walls covered with Day-Glo posters of the sexual Zodiac. A dozen ways to Put Your Legs Against the Wall, Woman. The stage area, if that's what it can be called, looks like the corner of a church basement: a clutter of folding chairs, small tables, a set of drums, two amps, an electric piano, one spotlight. Mr. Junior Wells, a black blues singer whose name is on half of the records Miami Steve owns, sits alone in a booth, nursing a cold. Miami Steve falls out, makes the necessary introductions, pays the unnecessary respects. Wells asks where they playing. The Auditorium? That's nice. Springsteen takes a stool at the bar and puts his body on hold.
The house band starts to warm up for the set: Would Miami Steve like to sit in? Are you kidding? Are Chess Records round? Is Phil Spector the Pope? Miami takes up Muddy Waters' old guitar, settles into a half crouch so loose you wonder where the extra joints are and starts trucking in place. After a few measures, he plays against the harp, another pickup musician just sitting in , setting up textures, putting the man through his paces. Very nice. The bass player has a grin on that could power a small city.
Wells takes over the microphone and you can forget his cold, forget the lack of equipment. He's playing for musicians, a jury of his peers. He is Mr. Junior Wells. He can survive the setbacks, the minor indignities, and there are some. A large woman trundles toward the stage, steps over the bass player and through a green door that, it turns out, leads to the ladies room. She neglects to close the door behind her and the bass player, without losing a beat, kicks it shut. The guitar player's string breaks in the middle of a song. "Any of you guys got an E string? Fuck. I don't need it." The man counts down for the classic Got My Mojo Working. Two beats into the song, he holds up his hand. The band stops, starts again, stops. The piano player is a little fast: "Too bad you didn't have money on that boy; he was way out ahead." The band negotiates. The piano player defends himself. "This is the way the song starts." And sure enough, this time it is.
Springsteen and the writer are huddled in the back seat of another car. Both are silent. The intensity of the quiet might be mistaken for concern or worry; it is not that but something else. Preoccupation - the compression that precedes a performance. The writer is playing back the evening, cataloging the good parts for future reference. Springsteen is doing the same thing, maybe, for his own job. Roy is doing it, out loud, in the front seat. "Did you see that? Their whole P.A. was just that one Earth Amp. The bass player was sitting on the sound system." The Boss has already reviewed that detail, reached a decision: "It cut the room." Roy and the driver, a tall guy named Stretch, discuss tape recorders. The Professor is looking for a small portable: He has wanted one since the night he saw his namesake, Professor Longhair, a piano player from the days of Fats Domino. "That guy did things you wouldn't believe. I went home and stayed up all night trying to play everything I'd heard, but it just wasn't the same." Was the band planning to tape any of its concerts? "I think one of the shows at the Roxy is being recorded for a live album." Is that at the end of the tour? Springsteen answers, "I don't think this tour has an end."
The Auditorium is one of those artdeco rooms that make you wonder if turn-of-the-century architects were on to the drugs that the rest of the world discovered in the Sixties. Marble caverns and velvet corposa cavernosas waiting to be engorged with music. Chrome water fountains and friends at odd intervals in the lobby. More balconies than are considered safe or possible ascending toward a goldleaf ceiling strung with lights and tiny angels. The room has the reputation of being cold, rowdy, weird. Opening acts broken on the rumble of inattention. Headliners driven to despair by idiots asking to hear Whipping Post. It's a high-risk room, not unlike the Star Chamber of the Inquisition. Sitting in the tenth row, the writer is reminded of the story about South American soccer fans who wrap foil around their programs. If a referee makes a bad call, they focus beams of sunlight on the unfortunate official. The stadium becomes a parabolic mirror, the referee a cinder. In Chicago, the weapon is darkness, but the effect can be the same. The writer wonders what will happen next. He has come to the concert as unprepared as his local pharmacist can make him, but fragments of reviews still impinge, still try to structure his expectation. The future of rock 'n' roll? The writer is interested only in the immediate present. Is it now yet?
The boys come out in full force, looking like a piece of the Boardwalk lifted off the Jersey shore and laid down in Chicago, only more so. Springsteen, dead center in a shaft of green light, is The Boss. The Kid. Jeans, mirrored shades, sneakers, a classic black motorcycle jacket - the kind you have to kill for. After a high, bright lonely Thunder Road, Springsteen kicks out the chocks and sends the band screeching into Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, a low- rent R&B number that lets him romp over the stage, snapping his fingers, clapping his hands, establishing his turf with bursts of precise, exuberant energy. If he ever plays Madison Square Garden, he'll be running laps on the upper tiers. The song closes with Springsteen pounding on Miami Steve, an abrupt double shot, the last gesture in a pinball game. That's it. Check the score.
The audience is shattered with astonishment. The writer remembers a scene in Butch Cassidy where the two heroes apply for jobs a payroll guards. A mineowner asks Redford if he can shoot. You mean like this, just standing there? He fires, misses. The mineowner starts to walk away. Redford asks, an I move? I'm better when I move. Sure. the Kid whirls, fires and the target becomes sunlight. With complete authority, Springsteen gets the job. He carves the visual space, singing the body electric. Every gesture is or seems to be absolutely necessary. Littering the stage with clues, he stalks the world he creates, looking for pieces that fit, the details, the phrases that will make the song come alive. He doesn't offer solutions, just enough pieces to suggest that there is a mystery, that at least he is on to something. And with surprising frequency, there are connections, moments of recognition between the audience and the performer. The contact can be tentative, fleeting, a glimpse of what might have happened. Or it can be solid, a moment you build a life around.
Flashes: Miami Steve, Garry, Clarence and Roy all donning shades to do backup vocals on a few oldies: the Asbury Park equivalent of a Greek tragic chorus. They second the emotion. And, another: During Spirit in the Night, Springsteen plays with a floppy jockey's cap, nonchalantly tossing it over a microphone stand, shaking out some "dust that will show you where it's at or at least it will help let you really feel it." The song is an excursion into the night where gypsy angels go. The trip gets out of hand, the night becomes filled with hurt. The band plays silence. Springsteen sinks to the stage, taking the audience into the darkness of the night, into the pitch. He looks back over his shoulder at the microphone stand, tries to toss the hat over the isolated prop a second time. It is hopelessly out of reach. The hoarse voice takes forever to say the next line: "Hazy Davy got really hurt, he ran into the lake..."
The audience is there, wanting to help, reaching out to touch. Someone can't wait, completes the rhyme - "in just his socks and a shirt."
Springsteen darts his eyes in the direction of the voice. before the spell can be broken, before the panic sets in that some lunatic has abused this moment of complete, acknowledged vulnerability, he states softly, "That's my line." The bond restored, he continues. "Me and Crazy Janey was making love in the dirt, singing our birthday songs. Janey said it was time to go, so we closed our eyes and said goodbye..." His voice hangs on the precipice. Just when you think you know how small he feels, Springsteen rolls off the stage, into the pit. The bottom falls out of the Auditorium, the architecture permanently changed, in one terrible second. From out of the pit comes Springsteen's voice, filled with longing and reassurance: "To gypsy angel row. Felt so right. Together we moved like spirits in the night." And suddenly the singer is in the audience, moving along the front rows. The spotlights can't find him. The local guys who run the lights are civil-defense leftovers out looking for bombers. Fuck this. The singer turns around, jumps back into the pit, tosses the microphone up to Clarence, climbs out and up, skipping across the speaker columns, kicking over an amplifier that was worked on for three months to get it just right. All right. Spirits in the night. Stand up and let 'em shoot right through you.
The writer looks at his hand: Halfway through the saxophone break on Jungleland, his Bix PM 39 Deluxe Medium Point pen, the one that writes first time every time, erupted, spilling thick black ink over seat backs, journals and clothes. Moral: Thou shalt not take notes a rock 'n' roll concert.
Springsteen is upstairs under a full body massage, unwinding, trying to cope with the aftereffect of a concert. He plays for the adrenaline rush, the feeling of being possessed by the spirit of rock 'n' roll. Adrenaline is nature's way of getting you through extreme emergencies. If you're responsible, you can be a hero: Rip the roof off the overturned car and when you're finished, find the nearest hospital, give a quart of blood, and watch some old geezer get it up for the first time in years. Of course, you can also get caught out. Let the moment slip by, don't take control and the body goes into shock. Where's the accident? It becomes clear that Springsteen is not pleased with the concert. "For something to happen, you have to be loose. You have to take risks, be willing to make a fool of yourself. Then it flows. Tonight wasn't bad, but we can be twice that good. You should see us when we're hot." The writer, his synapses fused into a single mass of solid-state enthusiasm, is at a loss for words. It had been magic, the kind that's supposed to free your soul, but talking about it is like trying to tell a stranger, or a member of a band, about rock 'n' roll. Springsteen doesn't want to know what worked for you: He only knows what works for himself, and he doesn't know that until he's tried it. He keeps his options open. He keeps the vessel clean.
The Roxy is as weird in its own way as the Auditorium. Tables radiate from the bandstand across what used to be a dance floor. It will be one again before the night is over. The waitresses navigate the crowd with consummate skill; they are on the verge of being discovered. Each time a drink is brought to the table, the patron must initial the check beside the order. This is Hollywood. Autographs and credit are intertwined.
The lightning is incidental to the stage, which is to say, not at all. Picking up his vodka and tonic, the writer is unable to find by sight alone the surface of his table. Eying a particular pattern of light and shadow, he finally decides, sets his glass down and watches it disappear into blackness, thumping against the floor by his toes. Another reason to autograph each drink order.
A raised section of tables opposite the stage is occupied by the guests and employees of Columbia. Either they are genuinely enthusiastic about the show or the company hires PR people who suffer from St. Vitus' dance. Glen Brunman, an a&r man from New York, is standing on a chair, celebrating his 25th Springsteen concert. Aimee Simple, a lithe, lively girl who works in the West Coast office, leans against the rail that encloses the dance floor, doing a slow and sensuous shuffle to celebrate her first. Yes, it is nice, she says, when your job brings you places where your mind can make you happy.
Cher and Gregg Allman make an appearance, then a disappearance when it seems that there aren't any seats available, then a reappearance when it is found that there are. The white paster cast on Gregg's hand gleams in the dark, before disappearing into his leather jacket. It must be a full body cast. He does not move for the entire performance, not even when the band hits the chorus of Rosalita, which has an effect on the rest of the club similar to that of a fist slammed down on the table. Watch the salt shakers dance. Cher is only slightly more mobile, the fringe on her leather jacket shifting in a breeze from the air conditioning. She mistakes the intro of Jackie DeShannon's When You Walk in the Room for Needles and Pins and screams, "Sonny wrote that song!" He didn't. Later, Miami Steve will report that the couple liked the show: "Of course, by the time they got to the Roxy they were undoubtedly so full of whatever celebrities eat for breakfast they probably thought they were dancing."
The rest of the audience could be on Springsteen's payroll. Every night the show ends with the audience calling out, "Play everything you ever played," and the band obliges. The farther west the band travels, the more people they meet from New Jersey. The state's most important export is people. Asbury Park is in the middle of the state. Farther north, the natives think they're in New York. Farther south, they think they're in Alabama. The middle produces relatively sane people like Jack Nicholson. Nicholson and Garry went to the same high school. Neptune High School. They will spend three hours in the Rainbow Bar discussing the tedious fact that the whole fucking world is from New Jersey.
The morning after the last Roxy concert, the writer gets a call from Miami Steve, who is having brunch at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
"You've gotta come over and see this. Bruce's picture is on the cover of Time and Newsweek. We're stars!" When you get here, have the bell captain page me."
The bell captain is somewhat skeptical. Does the person perhaps have a last name? No, Miami is his first name, Steve is his last name. Any clue to what he looks like? Well, he was last seen wearing a silk race-track shirt with palm trees on it. Ask your gardener if one of his plants is having lunch on the patio.
The writer is led to Miami Steve's table and introduced to Jimmy Iovine, the 22-year-old electronic wizard who engineered Born to Run. His name is scratched in a sidewalk over by the bungalows, a souvenir of the time he worked on John Lennon's Rock and Roll Years. ("I saw this fresh cement. I'm from Brooklyn. I couldn't resist.")
Iovine explains the electronics of the show, specifically the echo in Backstreets, which holds a razor blade to the spinal cord of everyone in the audience. He thinks Springsteen's voice is one of the four great rock 'n' roll instruments of all time. Right up there with Lennon's, Rod Stewart's and Elvis'. "I like what it does to my dials. What did you think of the mix on Born to Run? Better than on Captain Fantastic? That's too bad. We were trying for Sgt. Pepper's. The next album, you're gonna put the needle in the groove and you won't be able to pick it up. The needle will be saying, 'I want to play this'."
Miami Steve discusses the craziness of the past few days. "It's been a ragged week. We're due for vacation. Bruce's time is totally accounted for with the morning interview, the afternoon interview. Now it's gonna get worse with these two stories. Everybody's gonna be asking us what it's like to be a phenomenon. I don't even know how to spell the word. Is that with a P or an F? There are journalists hanging around our home town interviewing our friends, record scouts hunting for the Asbury Park sound.We gotta live there, too, you know."
Iovine spots Dyan Cannon sitting at a table across the patio and goes nuts. "She is my mystery lady. My Pretty Flamingo." Miami Steve makes a suggestion. "Well, you could take this copy of Newsweek over to her table and ask her if she's like to meet one of the people in Bruce Springsteen's band, and then I could introduce you. That might work." The writer leaves them. They won't do it. And they'll never learn how.