The E Street Band - What happened in 1995?

Greasy Lake, 1996, by: Karsten Stanley Andersen
The stage was set. Bruce had finished a succesful comeback recording session with the band most fans had been hoping to see again ever since the 1989 announcement that the members should "feel free to pursue other projects". Most fans thought this would be the beginning of a new E Street Band era, but it all came to nothing. Bruce instead embarked on his long solo acoustic tour, and now, three years later, an E Street Band reunion seems as far away as it did in 1989. This essay tries to find the answers to why the big Greatest Hits setup didn't result in anything and what the prospects are for the band now. It should be thoroughly noted that this is not necessarily based on facts, but rather guessing and opinion formed by a general knowledge of Bruce Springsteen from my 12 years as a fan.

But now let's go back to January 1995, to The Hit Factory in New York City. On a sudden impulse Bruce had decided to assemble the band to record bonus tracks for the upcoming Greatest Hits album. It was the first time since the Born in the USA sessions in 1984 that the band was in a studio together. Tunnel of Love in 1987 also had its E Street Band input, but at no point during those sessions were all the band members in the studio at the same time.

However, the fact that they hadn't recorded together in more than ten years, didn't mean that the individual members hadn't seen anything of each other after the last E Street Band tour, Human Rights Now!, ended in October 1988. Drummer Max Weinberg said on more than one occasion that he had never seen so much of Bruce as he'd done after the band broke up. And keyboardist Roy Bittan had become Bruce's new close collaborator, co-producing Human Touch and being the anchor of the new touring band. As for the rest of the E Street Band, during Bruce's tour in 1992-93 all of them with the exception of Nils Lofgren, made guest appearances with the new band. One of the final shows, the famous June 24 benefit at Brendan Byrne Arena in New Jersey, at one point saw almost more members of the E Street Band on stage than members of the new band.

Perhaps it was this show, along with a return guest appearance by Bruce at a Clarence Clemons gig at few days later, which was the first real indication that the E Street Band was not all history and which brought back hope to those who wanted the reunion. However, reports in 1994 suggested that Bruce was working on another solo project in the same vein as Tunnel of Love, only the musicians were not E Streeters, but members of the new band. The project that has become known as Bruce's Lost Relationship Album (but which may actually have had the working title Waiting for the End of the World) was very close to becoming a reality. At MTV's Video Music Awards in September of that year, Bruce said in an interview he only needed a couple of songs more before he could release it.

But a few months later the project was suddenly entirely scrapped. According to sources close to the sessions because Jon Landau didn't think it held together.

So more than two years after the release of Human Touch and Lucky Town Bruce found himself at scratch with no new album ready for release within the foreseeable future. That's why, in order to satisfy both the public and the record company's demand, it was decided to compile a greatest hits album instead.

The decision to bring in the E Street Band to do the bonus tracks was, according to all involved, a spur of the moment idea and not a carefully thought-out strategy. However, the move was perfectly logical, both from a commercial and historical point of view. The album was a look at Bruce's past, of which the E Street Band played such an important part that they deserved to be involved in the project as other than a liner note.

The session, by all accounts, went better than expected. It has been thoroughly documented by the Ernie Fritz documentary Blood Brothers which was shown on TV stations on all over the world and eventually released on a home video. The movie shows a loose atmosphere in the studio with lots of jokes flying around. The band members seem excited to be together again, and Bruce himself is his usual giddy self, a sure sign he's having a good time. Of course, a documentary of this kind wouldn't have shown the tension if there'd been any. It wouldn't have shown Bruce or band members expressing any serious negativity. However, no sources have given us any reason to think the session was other than a good experience for everyone involved.

On the musical side, the results have been of more debate. In interviews following the session, both Bruce and the band members expressed great satisfaction with the musical output. According to Bruce, they had all become better musicians and also worked better as an ensemble than ever before. Of course, if the opposite had been the case, he probably wouldn't have said it, but there's no reason to think he wasn't telling the truth. All the band members have been active musicians after the breakup and have tried many new things that have no doubt improved their skills and added new dimensions to their abilities. Clarence Clemons' album Peacemaker, for example, was technically demanding new age music and a long shot from his usual power solos.

Fans and critics have been divided in their reception of the new songs. No one has expressed much exhileration, but most thought the recordings passed the test and then not much more. The songs are not vintage E Street Band. The song selection itself prevents that. "Secret Garden", despite an excellent individual performance by Clarence, isn't an obvious E Street Band choice (it probably dates back to the Human Touch sessions and it was definitely recorded for the unreleased 1994 album), and "Blood Brothers" while written for and about the E Street Band, doesn't show the band's rock potential. At least, not in the originally released version. The bonus CD accompanying the Blood Brothers home video featured a totally different "Blood Brothers" with a heavy beat and the band at full blast, proving that they hadn't lost their ability to rock even though this arrangement wasn't entirely appropriate for the lyrics.

The last of the new recordings on the Greatest Hits disc was "This Hard Land" which was also recorded for Born in the USA. An outtake from back then has circulated for years, and the song therefore is the best comparason we have between the old and new E Street Band. While the old version seems a bit rougher and less polished (which in rock music is a good thing), the new one in return features a very "on" Bruce who with his voice and harmonica really carries the song on a somewhat anonymous arrangement.

The Greatest Hits session also saw Bruce's usual amount of songs recorded but not released. The Blood Brothers video verifies at least three such songs, of which "Without You" and "High Hopes" were later released on the aforementioned bonus CD. But the most interesting of them, "Back in Your Arms" is perhaps the song that most clearly characterizes the session. The song sounds like it was written for the E Street Band with its pathos and catchy melody that left plenty of opportunity for both some solos and the band's famous collective wall of sound. But the version we hear in the documentary, while still very beautiful, doesn't utilize this opportunity. Again we get a low-key arrangement with Bruce carrying the song with his vocal. Even the final sax solo by Clarence is drowned out by Bruce's howling.

The session only lasted a few days, but it constituted the beginning of the spring reunion. On two occasions in March and April the band was yet again assembled, first for the "Murder Incorporated" video shoot at Tramps in New York and a few weeks later for the Sony promotion show and Late Night with David Letterman. Ecstatic reports from those in attendance helped raise expectations that something bigger was imminent. The shows, while far from the best E Street Band performances the world has seen, still showed a band ten times tighter than the 92-93 band had ever been and fronted by the guitar power trio of Nils Lofgren, Little Steven and Bruce himself, which gave the band a whole new heavy sound, most imminent on songs like "Murder Incorporated" and "Prove It All Night". The fact that the Sony show still left an uneven impression, owed mostly to the fact that it was a TV shoot more than an E Street Band concert. The band had to conform to the producers and cameras, which meant lots of long breaks between the songs, preventing the flow and the climatic build-up we've been used to from a Bruce Springsteen show.

In the months following these E Street Band appearances, rumors of a real reunion started to circulate. In the begining Bruce himself mostly spoke in very diplomatic terms about the possibilities, saying that if everyone in the band felt like it, it might be a possibility. But little by little his statements started to be a bit more complying, and he went as far as saying that after he'd finished a current solo project, he'd make an album with the E Street Band. Meanwhile, rumors were heating up about an E Street Band tour in support of Greatest Hits. Or rather, a number of benefit shows. The rumors got so specific that at one point there was talk of eight benefit shows on both the East Coast and the West Coast. In Europe, fan clubs and concert travel agencies were already arranging trips to the States for the E Street Band summer, and the American scalpers were already collecting deposits for tickets. The news that Nils Lofgren and Clarence Clemons had cancelled their participation in Ringo Starr's allstar tour to Japan didn't exactly put a damper on the rumors. The only thing missing was the official announcement.

Of course, as we all know now, the official announcement never came. The question is, did these rumors just appear from out of the blue or were there indeed plans of some benefit shows? Plans that were cancelled. Bruce has denied that there were any talk of doing shows with the E Street Band in support of Greatest Hits, saying that it would take an album with all new material before he would even consider touring with the band. This makes sense. The fact is that Bruce hasn't toured without a new album since 1977.

However, even though the tour never materialized, the world had been closer to an E Street Band reunion than most people thought after the benefit rumors had come and gone without anything happening. Bruce and the E Street Band were in fact assembled in the studio after the Greatest Hits session. And they were recording material for a whole new E Street Band album. The January session and the following gigs must have given Bruce at least some urge to use the band for a bigger project, because he soon afterwards sat down and started to write songs specifically for a band album. That's how the song "The Ghost of Tom Joad" came to be. Bruce himself has said in interviews that this song was indeed written with the E Street Band in mind. He has also on a couple of occasions said that it was actually recorded by the band.

How much more of the album that became The Ghost of Tom Joad was recorded by the E Street Band is unknown, but it would be a good guess that at least half of that album exists in an E Street Band version. So what we have here is almost a repetition of what happened in 1982 when Bruce scrapped the electric version of Nebraska and released his acoustic demo.

At any rate, at some point during those Tom Joad sessions with the E Street Band, Bruce changed his mind and decided to abandon the idea of using the band. The official story is that Bruce was just not in a rock mood. This is supported by the fact that the Greatest Hits session showed a Bruce who was unwilling to give the band too much room, choosing instead to use them as a rather anonymous backing band on the released songs.

On the other hand, as late as a few weeks before the release of The Ghost of Tom Joad he was playing the most powerful rock guitar since the Darkness tour supporting Joe Grushecky at several gigs on his October Assault, just as he had produced Grushecky's very rocking album American Babylon. So while this doesn't say anything about what he felt like in his heart, at least there wasn't anything wrong with his ability to rock.

So in order to find a more likely explanation to the discontinued E Street Band sessions, we have to look at what Bruce chose to do instead of the E Street Band reunion:

Bruce had talked about going solo ever since before the Tunnel of Love Express Tour. He considered skipping the band for that tour, but apparently wasn't ready for such a big departure yet. The Christic shows in 1990 were Bruce's first real solo concerts since the early Seventies. By all accounts he enjoyed those shows so much that, from that day on, his mind was set on doing a whole tour like that at some point. In 1993 he opened his shows with a short acoustic set, as if he was testing the audience' reaction, and in interviews from that period he often spoke about his desire to do a theater tour.

Sometime during the summer of 1995 he finally made his decision. Instead of an E Street Band album, the world got an extremely downbeat folk album followed by a solo acoustic tour in small theatres. This was the complete opposite of what a new E Street Band era would have implied.

In this connection, an important fact should be noted: The Ghost of Tom Joad was the first Bruce Springsteen album in 20 years not to have been co-produced by Jon Landau. This might indicate a certain disagreement between the two friends as to what should happen next. Not that it would be fair to accuse Landau of overly commercialism. More than many other managers in the business, he has succeeded in finding a balance that has made both the artist and the record company happy. However, he is the one who draws Bruce in a more accesible and sellable direction, because that's his job. So he probably wouldn't exactly have minded a sure-hit E Street Band follow-up to Greatest Hits. It could even be suggested that that's what he'd had in mind ever since rejecting Bruce's 1994 album. That may have been the first step in trying to ease him into a more commercial direction, the second one being to convince him to use Greatest Hits as a catapult for an E Street Band comeback.

But Bruce wasn't ready for the pressure a new E Street Band album and tour would lay on him. Or rather, the pressure the audience would lay on him if the band returned. He has later said that he didn't feel he could have resisted the "trappings" of such a tour. What he meant was probably that if he did it, even with a new album to support, he wouldn't have been able to hold on to a new fresh concept. The audience wouldn't have allowed it. Instead he would digress to play his old hits and pretend to be the good, old Boss of the Eighties. Which was exactly what happened in '93 when, wearing a headband and showing his biceps, he ended up once again confessing to be "just a prisoner of rock 'n' roll" and relying more and more on his old Born in the USA hits.

Seeing himself back in that role, and perhaps the feeling of being lured into it by Landau, could have been what made him turn on a plate and send the band home again. That, rather than him being unsatisfied with the recordings or unable to get in a rock mood. Instead he chose the only thing that would make it impossible for him to fall in the trap. No band, no electric guitar, no big stage to run back and forth across. During the acoustic tour he said to everyone who cared to listen that this concept made him able to be himself rather than play himself. What he meant was that while he may have been the guy who sang and danced his way through 3 hour stadium extravagances, he wasn't that guy anymore. And that if he did it again, it would be an illusion and a self-deception to everyone, himself as well as the fans.

But where does this leave the possibilities of seeing the E Street Band together again? There's no doubt the acoustic tour was immensely important for Bruce to do. It sent a message to the fans (and Landau?) that he is his own master and that he's not the same person he used to be. If the message has been understood, the acoustic tour may have cleared the way for the E Street Band. Because no one who has paid any attention to Bruce the last three years would expect him to go back to play his old war horses. Not even with his trusty old band behind him. A tour with Clarence, Max, Danny, Little Steven would, and should, be entirely different than anything he's done before. If Bruce feels he has that freedom, there's a good chance we haven't seen the last of the E Street Band. If not, he has enough of other options to ignore the pressure.