Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen, 23 September 1949, Freehold NJ) Rock singer, songwriter, guitarist, bandleader; first a cult figure, then by 1985 the biggest rock star on the planet, aka 'the Boss'. Scrupulous attention to recording and performance, generous live sets, obvious loyalty to and identification with audience got fanatical loyalty from them. The only son of a working-class family living in and around Asbury Park NJ, he worked in a number of local bands; in Steel Mill 1969-71 a firm relationship was established with guitarist 'Miami' Steve Van Zandt and the foundations of the E Street Band were formed. He was brought to the attention of John Hammond, who signed him to CBS; Greetings From Asbury Park N.J. '73 was a brash, invigorating debut, with eye-catching postcard-art cover, but almost swamped by the press's effort to make him the new Bob Dylan, as it had tried to do to Steve Goodman, John Prine, Loudon Wainwright and many others.

A gig opening for Chicago was chastening, and he began honing his stagecraft. The Wild, The Innocent And The E Street Shuffle '74 was a more mature effort, with showstopper 'Rosalita', jazzy 'New York Street Serenade', epic 'Incident On 57th Street', beguiling 'Sandy (Asbury Park, 4th Of July)'. Critic Jon Landau, later his manager, saw a Springsteen gig '74 and famously if ungrammatically proclaimed 'I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.' Springsteen agonized over Born To Run '75, hailed as an instant classic, a key album of the decade: Time and Newsweek put him on their covers the same week; hype affected his European tour dates '75 (he did not play there again for five years). In 1975 the first two LPs finally charted, with Born To Run at no. 3: the title track, 'Thunder Road', 'Jungleland' and 'Night' were classic rock songs in an era desperately short of them.

Springsteen's manager Mike Appell had obtained the audition with Hammond, but the contract was a typical rock-biz one at a time when the business was changing: Appell and his associates were managers, producers and publishers, which meant conflicts of interest; they handled all the money while Springsteen got a new guitar. For a long time he didn't care, not even listening to Hammond's warnings; but when he suddenly realized that with three albums in the charts he had no money, the writing was on the wall: Appell had seen 'rock and roll future' before Landau, but intended to use Springsteen as a surfboard to power in the industry, and eventually lost. (Fred Goodman's excellent Mansion On The Hill '97 is a history of the whole era.) Management problems were eventually sorted out, but Springsteen was forbidden to enter a recording studio for three years; heavy touring made legendary shows, starting a process which saw him become one of the most widely bootlegged of artists: in three- and four-hour marathon concerts he carried the flame for rock'n'roll with loving covers of Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Mitch Ryder, Gary 'U.S.' Bonds and the Searchers as well as his own material; unable to record, he saw to it that others had hits with 'Because The Night' (Patti Smith) and 'The Fever' (Southside Johnny); he wrote 'Fire' for Elvis Presley, who did not live to record it; Robert Palmer and the Pointer Sisters did. Finally recording again, Darkness On The Edge Of Town '78 was a starker, more sombre album, which did not diminish its success: the no. 5 album stayed in the charts for 97 weeks; the title track, 'Badlands' and 'The Promised Land' were already concert favourites. As a favour to Jackson Browne he guested on the three-disc anti-nuclear No Nukes '79, no doubt its highlight. A two-disc set The River '80 was his first no. 1 album, demonstrated his mastery so far as fans were concerned; 20 tracks included 'Hungry Heart', his first top ten single. A world tour '80-81 saw an international bandwagon gathering steam; he was joined onstage by Pete Townshend, Link Wray, performing songs by Woody Guthrie, John Fogerty.

To everyone's consternation, Nebraska '82 was a solo acoustic LP made at home on a cassette deck, a pensive consideration of the state of the nation (obliquely, not overtly political) in the spirit of Guthrie and Hank Williams; it reached no. 3, stayed only 29 weeks in the chart, a function of his determination to do as he thought necessary, in turn part of his populist appeal. Johnny Cash covered 'Johnny 99' and 'Highway Patrolman'; Ronald Reagan quoted from the LP on the campaign trail, to Springsteen's disgust, but he was too smart to react negatively. Born In The USA '84 was no. 1 for seven weeks; though not his best, it included four hit singles, 'Dancing In The Dark' at no. 2 one of his best. It also saw him the darling of the year (along with Madonna) in the world's media; despite his success, he still popped up in Asbury Park to sit in with local bands like Cats on a Smooth Surface. Reagan tried to use 'Born In The USA' in his second presidential campaign, completely missing the heartache in the song.

He helped promote Southside Johnny, produced Gary Bonds LPs (excellent Dedication '81, not-so-good Back On The Line '82); his songs were recorded by Donna Summer, Warren Zevon, Big Daddy, Dave Edmunds, Emmylou Harris, many others; he guested on USA for Africa's 'We Are The World' single '85. The E Street Band were in demand for sessions: pianist Roy Bittan played on LPs by Dire Straits, David Bowie, Bob Seger, Meat Loaf; saxophonist Clarence Clemons with Joan Armatrading and Carlene Carter.

Clarence Clemons (b 11 January 1942, Norfolk VA; d 18 June 2011) met Springsteen one night in a bar in Asbury Park when they were both unknowns, and they had been together ever since. Clemens and his Red Bank Rockers made Rescue '83, then Clemons' solo Hero '87 was slicker, with a hit vocal duet with Browne on a single, 'You're A Friend Of Mine'. Also known as The Big Man, Clemons also acted on TV. 

Springsteen's long-overdue live set turned out to be the five-disc retrospective Bruce Springsteen And The E Street Band: Live, 1975-1985, including Springsteen songs not commercially released before, as well as live versions of his best-known work, and a cover of Edwin Starr's 'War', a world-wide hit single '86 (the song by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong had been a no. 1 '70 for soul singer Starr, b Charles Hatcher, 21 January 1942, Nashville; d 2 April 2003). It must have been the only five-disc set to enter charts at no. 1 on day of release, earning him perhaps $10m; later it suddenly ran out of steam as fans all had copies and dealers were left with the inventory. Tunnel Of Love '87 moved away from stadium-filling hard rock back to home-made simplicity and the concerns of ordinary lives, including single 'Brilliant Disguise'; it was his fourth no. 1 album in a row (not counting Nebraska). After a hiatus Human Touch and Lucky Town '92 were released at the same time, both went top three; critics agreed that they should have been edited to one album. Greatest Hits early '95 was no. 1 for two weeks; he reassembled the E Street Band on short notice that year, chronicled by a limited edition video Blood Brothers including a five-track CD; The Ghost Of Tom Joad late '95 was a heartfelt acoustic album, seven solo tracks and five with members of E Street plus fiddler Soosie Tyrell.

In the contradictory position of a superstar with populist appeal, Springsteen's innate honesty allowed him to handle it without fumbling; that honesty was displayed on the Tom Joad tour: he played and sang solo, threw in wry anecdotes and even comedy, and converted 'Born In The USA' from stadium rock to a dustbowl blues, taking it back forever from the populist politicians. But the tour was an interesting one. In The Nation, Gene Santoro wrote about the Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford, Connecticut, remodelled from a supper club to a 5,000-seater, halfway between a club and an arena: 'Like politicians and everybody else in showbiz, its owners are trying to cobble up several audiences, chasing the vanishing masses in the age of fractionation [...] No more do subcultures meet at the mainstream [...] Consensus is a box of jigsaw puzzle pieces that don't fit back together.' Springsteen's two-and-a- half-hour show was sold out and satisfying, his stardom so secure. But he might be the last of his kind, superstardom itself a thing of the past.