Bruce Springsteen For Beginners
I wrote this piece back in 1999, during the Reunion tour, when I found myself having too many discussions with music fans in their 20s who just refused to tolerate the very idea of Bruce Springsteen. It has been revised and updated.
I am often asked by music fans where they should start if they wanted to acquaint themselves with Bruce Springsteen’s catalog. This is not an easy question to answer. If your entree into Springsteen was your parents’ copy of Nebraska, I will tell you to go to the very beginning, because you won’t be surprised by the quieter, acoustic numbers (but you may feel alienated by the copious amounts of words and rhymes used). If you know Born To Run, get Darkness and then the Live box set, If you came in on The Rising, start at the beginning because you need to know the whole story.
I will also suggest that if you are seriously interested, that in addition to listening to the music, you need to get ahold of a book, preferably Dave Marsh’s Born To Run and Glory Days because they give you the best sense of what it was like in real time. They’re all a buck or two used, and available in libraries, so there’s no excuse. Yes, they are flawed, but they are also full of passion and enthusiasm, which any of their competitors lack.
1973: GREETINGS FROM ASBURY PARK, NJ Bruce was signed to Columbia as a “new Dylan,” a folky singer-songwriter type, despite the fact that he’d been playing with a band for most of his history.
SONGS YOU KNOW: Blinded By The Light (yes, he wrote it), Growin’ Up, Spirit In The Night
SONGS YOU SHOULD KNOW: Lost In The Flood, For You, It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City
RANDOM FACT: how many other rockers start their career with the first song on their first record being a tale of teenage masturbation?
1973: THE WILD, THE INNOCENT AND THE E STREET SHUFFLE
More rockin’ than ‘Greetings’ because this time, he brought the band along. Yay! A continuation of the characters and the Jersey Shore legends begun with the first album.
SONGS YOU KNOW: 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy), Rosalita
SONGS YOU SHOULD KNOW: Kitty’s Back, Incident on 57th Street, New York City Serenade
RANDOM FACT: How many rock songs have a tuba in them? (see: Wild Billy’s Circus Story)
1975: BORN TO RUN
This record was described by Greil Marcus as “a 57 Chevy running on melted-down Crystals 45′s” and it is one of the most perfect rock and roll records ever made.
SONGS YOU KNOW: Born To Run, Thunder Road, Jungleland
SONGS YOU SHOULD KNOW: Everything else on the album
RANDOM FACT: Steve Van Zandt gets put on the payroll when Bruce asks him for help with the horn arrangements, and Stevie walked over to the horn section and sang them their parts. (Bruce: “He’s hired”). [You can now see and hear more about this relationship in the Darkness box set The Promise. It is worth it to buy the deluxe version.]
1978: DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN
This is my album. I was 14 when this came out and it spoke to every raw exposed nerve end in my psyche. I played it over and over and over and over. Now, you’ll notice the three years between BTR and Darkness, right? “Wasn’t BTR the album that made Bruce a superstar,” you ask? “Why did it take him so long to release a follow up?” Can you say, “litigation with former managers who get you to sign contracts on a hood of a car in a dark parking lot?” His former manager enjoined him from recording unless he was under his management, and the court ruled in his manager’s favor, so Bruce couldn’t record. He ciykd play live, though, and he did, constantly. BTR marked the lineup of the E Street Band which is the one for the history books.
SONGS YOU KNOW: Prove It All Night, Badlands, Promised Land
SONGS YOU SHOULD KNOW: Adam Raised A Cain, Candy’s Room
RANDOM FACT: Bruce was so obsessed with this album that he rejected the album cover several times over, and the night before it was due to be printed, he was at the printing plant because he didn’t like the way the cover looked, asking for changes to the ink at 2 in the morning. [This is the kind of stuff you learn from the Marsh books.]
UPDATE: In 2009, an extensive box set was released which documented the recording of and around this record. It is worth every penny.
1980: THE RIVER
While this record gives you a “Sherry Darling” and “Ramrod,” it also gives you “Stolen Car” and “Wreck On The Highway”. You will be surprised how many of these songs you know, and how many are still live staples.
SONGS YOU KNOW: Hungry Heart, Cadillac Ranch, Two Hearts, Out In The Street
SONGS YOU SHOULD KNOW: Independence Day, Point Blank, Ramrod, The River, Drive All Night
RANDOM FACT: “The River” was about Bruce’s sister
1982: NEBRASKA Bruce recorded these songs in his kitchen and sent them to his manager. (When this came out on CD in the early days of that format, we would ask “What’s the point, do you need to hear what was going on in the living room?” [okay. it was really funny at the time.]) He tried working on them with the full band but he couldn’t quite get it right, and then manager Jon Landau suggested they just release the original recording. It worked. Gritty, black and white tales of urban angst, the sound of driving alone on the Jersey Turnpike at 3am.
SONGS YOU KNOW: Atlantic City. [Also one of the most beautiful music videos ever made.]
SONGS YOU SHOULD KNOW: Johnny 99, Open All Night, Reason To Believe
RANDOM FACT: Bruce uses the term “wee wee hours” 7 times on this record
1984: BORN IN THE USA
This is probably where most of you come in, or where most people struggle or give up, because of a bunch of synthesizers and bad 80′s production. You know what? Everybody had synthesizers and bad production in the 80s, but that doesn’t mean that the songs aren’t great. This is where Bruce became one of the biggest acts in the world, playing stadiums and bringing down phone lines every time tickets went on sale. This is where Steve Van Zandt becomes Little Steven and leaves the band. Enter Nils Lofgren, the only possible choice, on guitar.
SONGS YOU KNOW: Dancing In The Dark, Born In The USA, Glory Days, I’m On Fire
SONGS YOU SHOULD KNOW: No Surrender, Bobby Jean, My Hometown
RANDOM FACT(S): The video for “Glory Days” was filmed at my old watering hole and second home, Maxwell’s, in Hoboken, NJ (I was allowed in as far as the corner); Patti Scialfa joined the band right before the tour started.
historical note: Bruce marries model/actress Julianne Phillips. Fans everywhere express their outrage that he didn’t marry some truckstop waitress.
1986: LIVE 1975-1985
For years, everyone had clamored for Bruce to put out a live record, and when he finally did, all we did was bemoan the lost opportunity. Instead of putting out one show, no matter how flawed (which is ridiculous to consider because the bootlegs prove that to be untrue), he put out a spotty and uneven mish-mash representing the middle of his career which did not capture the essence of live Springsteen and leaves out essential tracks like “Jungleland.”
1987: TUNNEL OF LOVE
People tend to refer to this as “the divorce album.” I find it fascinating that he wrote an entire album about how his marriage was falling apart and didn’t realize he had until it was done. (This is why Bruce started going to therapy.)
SONGS YOU KNOW: Brilliant Disguise
SONGS YOU SHOULD KNOW: Spare Parts, Tunnel of Love, One Step Up
RANDOM FACT: This tour was legendary for the horn section and the fact that the band all moved around and stood in different spots. (No, seriously, this was a big deal.)
historical notes: Bruce and Patti get caught by paparazzi on a in Rome (“Photographed in my jockey shorts,” as Bruce put it at his RRHOF induction), Bruce’s marriage formally ends, The E Street Band is dissolved, Bruce sells the house in Jersey and moves to California.
1992: LUCKY TOWN/HUMAN TOUCH
These albums, recorded without the E Street Band (although various members did appear on some tracks), were released on the same day, an unnecessary gimmick which completely and utterly backfired. The songs would have made a great single album, but no one wanted to hear solo Springsteen.
SONGS YOU KNOW: Lucky Town, 57 Channels
SONGS YOU SHOULD KNOW: If I Should Fall Behind, Leap of Faith, Better Days, Roll of the Dice, Souls of the Departed
Despite being someone who would have shone in an acoustic format, Bruce brings along the “Human Touch”/”Lucky Town” band. It’s an interesting artifact of the time. The CD and DVD are different.
1995: THE GHOST OF TOM JOAD
Bruce lets his inner Woody Guthrie have full rein on this solo acoustic outing.
SONGS YOU KNOW: Ghost of Tom Joad, Youngstown
SONGS YOU SHOULD KNOW: Sinaloa Cowboys
1995: GREATEST HITS
I’ll just quote what I wrote about this record for brucespringsteen.net: “Bruce’s first compilation album incorporates 14 of his best-known songs, along with his recent hit “Streets of Philadelphia,” from the film Philadelphia, which won multiple Grammys and an Academy Award. Also included is fan-favorite outtake “Murder Incorporated” and three more songs newly recorded with a reunited E Street Band in January 1995.”
1995: BLOOD BROTHERS (DVD)
I will again quote what I wrote for brucespringsteen.net: “In 1995, Bruce decided to invite the then-disbanded E Street Band back into the studio to record new songs for his upcoming Greatest Hits album. This documentary captures the recording sessions, the live video shoot for “Murder Incorporated,” and priceless insights into the band’s relationships with each other at the time.”
1998: TRACKS and 18 TRACKS
Bruce goes into the vaults and digs out 4 CD’s worth of outtakes and rarities. 18 Tracks is the one-disc version, with the addition of “The Promise,” which, for reasons that still fail me, was left off of the box set. (When Charlie Rose asks you why a song was left off your box set, you know something is seriously wrong.) This will be worthwhile to you once you’ve dug into everything else and have a sense of the live show over the years, otherwise the songs will just be out of context and make no sense to you.
2001: LIVE IN NEW YORK CITY
It remains astounding that Bruce still struggles so hard with putting out a satisfying live product. While closer to giving you a live show end-to-end, it still has some continuity issues and sloppy editing. It is nice to have a soundboard-quality show, but this feels like a lost opportunity every time I listen to it. For a lot of people, this defines their vision of what Bruce is like live.
I am not going to cover The Rising or any of the records afterwards in this version of this guide because they are recent enough that you don’t need anyone to explain them to you (or you can just go to the official site. The site was relaunched in 2012, with writing from Chris Phillips, myself and other writers who are also fans. There are capsule descriptions of every single release ever, all of which I trust and endorse 100%.
LIVE RECORINGS/ROIOs [RECORDINGS OF ILLEGAL ORIGIN]
We are blessed that Bruce Springsteen is one of the most bootlegged artists of all time. Due to the amazing live shows, people were taping live Springsteen back in the very early days, and back then, Bruce encouraged it (see the Roxy 78 and the legendary “Bootleggers, roll them tapes!” exhortation). In 2012, you do not need to pay for bootlegs, and you do not need to haunt tiny dusty record stores in Greenwich Village (or your city’s equivalent) to find recordings of live shows.
Let me say that again: YOU DO NOT NEED TO PAY FOR BOOTLEGS AND IF YOU DO YOU ARE JUST STUPID AND LAZY.
The fan community is incredibly generous and if you join one of them, you will find people who are willing to help you, just by sending them blank CD’s and return postage. (I need to point out here that I no longer trade because I do not have time, so please do not write me asking for help with this.) Now you’re going to ask “Where are the fan communities” and here’s where you have to go some work and use the Google to find them. I am not going to tell you where to go. Yes, it takes some effort, but it should take some effort. If you aren’t willing to work at it, you don’t deserve it.