- 23 Sep 20
The Promise: Springsteen as Pied Piper, leading Pat Carty away over the hill with The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle
When I was a young lad I wanted to run away with the circus. Or, failing that, become some sort of cowboy/pirate hybrid. The circus dream stayed with me, to be replaced, in time, by the dream of being in a rock n’ roll band. Not the reality of it, mind. I experienced that in my own small way. I’m talking here about the glorious dream that rock n’ roll sells you. Eternal youth, free booze, and constant favours from whatever sexual partner(s) is/are of interest to you are all part of it, sure, but what really interested me was the promise of freedom. To never grow up, to stay in a gang with your friends, to be constantly on the move from place to place, to live a life devoted to the arts, to never sit at a desk unless you choose to, to never even consider purchasing an alarm clock: Who wouldn’t want that?
Of all the records that beckon you into this golden Avalon of the heart and mind, there are few, if any, that do it with such a joie de vivre grin on its face as the second Bruce Springsteen album, The Wild, The Innocent, & The E Street Shuffle. Later on, as things got more serious for The Boss, he would sing in ‘Badlands’ that “it ain’t no sin to be glad your alive.” He has made many, many great records, and he’s still making them, but he never made one that sang more about the joy of living than this; the joy of living, the dream of freedom.
As everybody knows, Springsteen came from a working class background in New Jersey. His father suffered from his own demons, exacerbated by drinking, so Springsteen turned his love on his mother, who rented a guitar for her young lad after he saw Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show when he was still only about 7. It didn’t take, but when The Beatles played the same TV show in 1964, Springsteen was lost forever. His mother took out a loan to buy him a better guitar and he never, despite plenty of indications that he should have at least thought about it, looked back.
With The Castilles, Earth, and – marginally more successfully – Steel Mill, a band which counted amongst its number Danny Federici, Vini Lopez, and Steve Van Zandt, Springsteen slowly but surely learned his trade. He earned a local reputation. He got management. That management got him in front of Columbia Records’s John Hammond for an audition in 1972.
Hammond was serious – this is the man who had organised Billie Holiday’s first recording session, the man who had signed Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, the man who arranged for the issue of Robert Johnson’s King Of The Delta Blues Singers in 1961, thereby changing the course of rock n’ roll history – but Springsteen was serious too. He turned up on May 2nd and played ‘Growin’ Up’, ‘It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City’, ‘Mary Queen Of Arkansas’ and ‘If I Were A Priest’ – a re-recorded version of which showed up on Letter To You. Hammond heard something and, after seeing Springsteen perform in The Gaslight in Greenwich Village, produced some demos at the CBS Studios. It’s these tapes that open Springsteen’s vault-raiding Tracks box set (Springsteen has revealed he’s working on volume two), proving beyond doubt that Hammond knew about his onions. Clive Davis was persuaded and Springsteen’s name was typed on a Columbia contract.
Springsteen’s debut album, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., hit the racks to a fairly resounding “so what?” on January 5, 1973. The critics at Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy liked it, but that and a quarter will get you a ride on the subway. Few bought it, which is hard to fathom in retrospect, because it’s marvellous. Of course it is, with ‘Lost In The Flood’, ‘Blinded By The Light’ ‘Spirit In The Night’ – both written quickly when Davis didn’t hear a hit single - on it, not to mention ‘Growing Up’ and ‘It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City’, two songs that would catch the ear of one D. Bowie, who would go on to record versions of both tunes.
Whatever about the folkie who rocked up that audition in Hammond’s office, Springsteen had, and continues to have, as former Rolling Stone man Eric Alterman put it, an “almost mystical relationship to the secret language of rock n’ roll” and with his second record, he was going to holler it from the rooftops. “It was time to bring the rock n’ roll,” he remembered years later in his Born To Run autobiography, and that is exactly what he did.
They were back in the studio in May for this second bite at the cherry. In one of the first sessions, the band, with future heroes like Clarence Clemons, David Sancious, Federicia, and Garry Tallent all present and correct, recorded ‘The Fever’ in one take, and then Springsteen threw it away. This great song, mystifyingly discarded, became one of the Boss’ most legendary outtakes. When Tracks was released without it, the fans were in uproar, which is why it appears on the after-thought 18 Tracks collection. Other numbers hit the cutting room floor too – ‘Santa Ana’, ‘Seaside Bar Song’, ‘Zero and Blind Terry’ and the mighty ‘Thundercrack’ – all songs that lesser talents would sell their Ma for, but Springsteen didn’t need them.
They worked around the clock and the album finally came blinking out into the light in November of 1973, and again, the world, for the most part, shrugged. The critics loved it, but because Hammond and Davis were now gone from Columbia, it received no support at all. In fact, some of the Columbia staff actively opposed it. Charles Koppelman, the new head of A & R, told Springsteen he couldn’t release it because the musicianship wasn’t good enough, and when The Boss was on the campaign trail in Texas, he heard at one radio station of how a record company rep had actually told them to remove Springsteen songs from the playlist because they were too long. Any wonder it died a death? The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle wouldn’t hit the British charts until the rising tide of Born In The U.S.A. lifted all Springsteen’s boats in 1985. The album has gone on to be included in all iterations of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time list, although it has slipped down in the latest version, published only this week. That, frankly, is unforgivable.
If Springsteen had been called the new Dylan after the first record, he threw it off here, leading his band through a heaven-sent amalgam of a soul revival, a rock n’ roll hoedown, and a boogaloo blues preacher testifying that yes, it surely ain't no sin to be glad you’re alive. The horns warm up before “everybody forms a line” and Springsteen invents “a dance with no exact steps, the dance you did every day and every night to get back.” The music of the opening 'E Street Shuffle' certainly owes a debt to Major Lance’s ‘The Money Time’, the kind of thing that Bruce and the band must have played a thousand times, in a thousand bars, but the lyrics introduce a kind of dream New Jersey. Years later again, when he played his one man show on Broadway, Springsteen would say how he invented all that, the Jersey Shore and everything that went with it, he was that good, and he was. This is the kind of drop out, beatnik, chancer-ridden locale that any rock n’ roller would want to run away to, to join up with “the boy prophets, handsome and hot “ and to hang out at Easy Joe’s if the circus wasn’t an option. The call-and-response vocals are pure Sam And Dave, the rhythm changes a gear as all the kids are dancin’, Springsteen’s guitar steps to the front, and then it changes again, heading to the Latin part of town, before finally calling time. You can’t sit still.
‘4th Of July, Asbury Park’ was written, according to the man himself, as “a good-bye to my adopted hometown and the life I’d lived there.” It’s an elegiac take on the boardwalk, but the place still sounds attractive to outsiders with Latin lovers, New York virgins, and Madame Maria, who tells fortunes better than the cops can. The accordion at the song’s end, as Springsteen repeats his promises, is as a Proustian tea cake to anyone who’s ever danced to the end of a summer.
‘Kitty’s Back’ is an R&B blast, custom built to capture an audience’s attention, loaded as it is with highs and lows as the tempo changes back and forth. “Well you better live and move fast when you’re young” but here she comes, she’s back in town, so what can you do? Springsteen, certainly in this incarnation, has been accused of borrowing from Van Morrison, not least by Van himself, and he’s thrown his hands up and admitted it too, but Van never stepped like this, with a grin like that. You might achieve enlightenment with Van, but you wanted to grab your jacket and run away with Springsteen.
There’s an unwritten rule in rock n’ roll that all great albums must have one track that’s not quite as good as the others, but works as part of the whole and, without which, the record wouldn’t be the same; ‘Sloop John B’, ‘Yellow Submarine’, that kind of thing. I wouldn’t quite put ‘Wild Billy’s Circus Story’ in that bracket, but it does stick out a bit here with its parping Tuba and Springsteen’s dragged acoustic chords. It's the song that Springsteen should have traded with Tom Waits in exchange for ‘Jersey Girl’. Still, it’s about a circus, so my initial assertion is holding up.
A Saint In The City
Side two might be, depending on the day you ask, Springsteen’s crowning glory. Both ‘Incident On 57th Street’ and ‘New York City Serenade’ present an idealised vision of the big city, and a hopelessly romantic vision at that. Spanish Johnny watching Puerto Rican Jane dream on, Billy and Diamond Jackie boogalooing down Broadway, there’s a romanticism here that would become more tarnished by reality in Springsteen’s later work. By the time he even got as far as ‘Meeting Across The River’ something had to be stuffed in the pocket so “it’ll look like you’re carrying a friend”. The backing vocals in ‘Incident’ sooth the city urchins while the piano on ‘Serenade’ is straight out of Bernstein, framing Springsteen’s own West Side Story; “hey vibes man, hey jazz man, play me a serenade, any deeper blue, you’ll be playin’ in your grave.”
For years afterwards, as the shows became bigger and even more legendary, Springsteen and his E Street shufflers would close every night out with the same song, ‘Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)’. On record, the opening guitar chords are ridiculously exciting, live, with the power of The E Street Band behind them, the feeling is hard to put into words. I’ve been lucky enough to see Springsteen many times – hell, I even saw him control the Dublin weather with a wave of his hand one night in the R.D.S. – and this is one of those songs the faithful wait for, an excuse, for ten minutes or so at least, to join up with The Boss’ circus and leave the chains of the everyday on the floor. Springsteen says he wrote the song “as a kiss-off to everybody who counted you out, put you down or decided you weren’t good enough.” What better soundtrack then to turn up to ten as you’re leaving town, hitched up to the wagon of chance, headed for something better? “Someday we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny” but in the meantime pass me some of that wine that we bought with the big record company advance. Let’s head for that café where they play guitars all night and all day. There's nowhere else in the world I'd rather be. If this album wears a grin and a smile, this song is showing more teeth than a school of sharks.
Against all odds, Springsteen was given a third shot, and he took it, and the world, with Born To Run, but he would never really again capture the wild abandon of rushing youth like he did on this record. I’m not knocking the records he would go onto make, as far as I’m concerned he wouldn’t put a foot wrong until Lucky Town/Human Touch in 1992, and even those records have songs to recommend them, but if I want to beam like an idiot and remember why I fell in love with music in the first place, this is the Springsteen record I put on and, for forty-five odd minutes, I’m that young lad, heading away over the hill with the circus, waving good-bye to the everyday.