BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN once wrote a song called Two Faces. A raw account of private duplicity, the title also sums up the dual nature of his musical personality. The first Springsteen is the one who seemingly walked straight out of a John Steinbeck novel with the Woody Guthrie songbook under his hat; the one who made Nebraska and The Ghost Of Tom Joad and whispers soft, sad, modern-day fables of disillusion and disappointment. This is Dustbowl Bruce, the downbeat, meditative troubadour. We haven’t seen so much of him lately.
His other incarnation is The Boss, Springsteen’s brasher alter ego, the one who attacks the stage with a ferocious sense of drama, shaking off a fountain of sweat like a dog shaking rainwater from its coat. The one who literally steams. Dustbowl Bruce is a lone wolf; the Boss, on the other hand, is umbilically linked to his gang of New Jersey soul brothers, the E Street Band.
The E Street Band is the means by which Springsteen became a truly mythical figure, one of the great self-created characters of rockn’roll, a regular Joe who each night lives out his dream on the big stage, seizing the opportunity with every ounce of his being in a blur of passion. For, above all else, Springsteen is a ruthlessly effective showman.
“He was one of the first performers I saw live who completely blew me away,” says American singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams. “I was just completely mesmerised by his presence and his persona, jumping up, running all over the stage. He was so charismatic.”
Springsteen rarely fails to connect with diehard fans like Williams. More impressively, he has a knack of battering non-believers into submission. The Damascene conversion undergone in the early 1980s by Jesse Malin, the New York musician who duetted with Springsteen in 2007 on his single Broken Radio, is typical.
“I was a punk: The Clash, Dead Kennedys, Ramones,” Malin says. “I wasn’t into stuff with horns or pianos on it. But I saw the Rosalita video on some late-night TV show and Bruce was just going bananas. I thought, Wow, this guy breaks a sweat!’ It was really apparent that he just f***ing went for it from the heart. He was real. Then I went to see him live on the Born In The USA tour and it all made sense. He played the Telecaster like Joe Strummer, he gave so much for hours, and his band was a gang, a brotherhood.”
The E Street Band takes its name from the road in Belmar, New Jersey, where the mother of former keyboard player David Sancious lived and let the band rehearse. Following a few early line-up changes, the core of Springsteen, Roy Bittan (keyboards), Garry Tallent (bass), Max Weinberg (drums), Clarence Clemons (saxophone) and Steven Van Zandt (guitar) has been together since 1975. Within that unit, however, faces come and go. Springsteen’s wife, Patti Scialfa, arrived in 1984; organist Danny Federici died last year. And the music changes, too.
The first two records were wild, wordy, carnivalesque affairs, openly in thrall to Van Morrison. It wasn’t until the third, Born To Run, released in 1975, that the classic E Street Band sound began to coalesce: rampant saxophone, pounding piano, thrumming “fuel-injected” guitars and roaring vocals, a soul stew of R&B and classic rockn’roll, almost punkish in its energy and intensity. The trick was that every individual element sounded instantly familiar, yet the final result was utterly idiosyncratic.
“Bruce is a synthesiser as much as an innovator,” notes close friend Dave Marsh, the author of several books on Springsteen.
Born To Run defined the sound Springsteen makes with the E Street Band, but in reality very few of their records sound the same. The River (1980) had an off-the-cuff, garage band looseness entirely at odds with Born To Run’s precision; Born In The USA (1984) was given a glossy 1980s sheen, all cavernous drums and cheesy synthesizers; recent albums like The Rising (2002) and Magic (2007) have strived to sound like hip, snappy, modern rock records. His latest, Working On A Dream (2009) is elaborately arranged and melodically complex, nodding to classic US pop like The Beach Boys, Jimmy Webb and The Byrds.
Despite these surface differences, all his records are fundamentally connected through the manner in which they track the last four decades of American social history. Springsteen’s protagonists have experienced the aftermath of Vietnam, the economic fallout of the Ronald Reagan era, the shock of 9/11 and the hard lessons to be learned. On Magic, he obliquely dissected the shame inflicted on the country by the George W Bush administration.
It has all been documented at grassroots level. Contrary to some beliefs, Springsteen is not a man who bellows primitive political slogans. His words provide a surprisingly complex document of hope, loss and redemption, but it’s through the wide-open, democratic sound of the E Street Band that he is able to reach so deep into the heartlands. Perhaps Springsteen’s greatest achievement has been to give questioning voice to the vast majority of Americans who don’t spend their time in liberal bookstores dissecting the messages of left-leaning indie groups.
The E Street Band’s signature sound is the audience’s entry point, a way of getting Middle America to listen to a message it might otherwise not be receptive to hearing. “It’s the perfect balance between words and music,” says Malin. “The Clash were the only other band who could do that in a cool way, with a guitar and a good melody. He walks the line of being able to say something, but also it’s entertaining and fun.”
Walking such a line is not without its problems. Listeners have often confused the bombastic grandeur of the music with what Springsteen is actually saying. Born In The USA – a sad, furious tale of a Vietnam veteran let down by his country – famously fell foul of mass misinterpretation. Many listeners heard only the hollering chorus and that pounding drum tattoo and interpreted it as a song of tub-thumping patriotism. President Reagan eagerly embraced it as such; many others felt righteous disgust.
It’s the kind of contradiction that isn’t evident in his solo material, where form and content are more evenly matched. Some find it confusing. Some rather fascinating. Others simply frustrating. Springsteen himself seemed to feel the pinch after the colossal – and colossally misunderstood – success of Born In The USA. He scaled down his operation. The records became smaller, more intimate, and he put the E Street Band on ice for over a decade. During that time, the perception of Springsteen changed remarkably. “There was a time when it was kind of embarrassing to have his records in your collection,” says Malin. “All my friends were saying, Ugh, you’re into Bruce Springsteen?’ They thought it was like Rambo, rah, rah, rah. I said: Read the lyrics.’ It’s great to see that that has turned around with the younger kids and other artists.”
Springsteen reconvened the E Street Band in 1999. If anything, the last decade of their working relationship has been more intense than ever. “If you’re a great artist with a great vehicle and then you put it in the garage for the better part of a decade, both you and the vehicle are pretty happy when you wheel it out again,” says Marsh.
Since the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, Springsteen seems to have reassessed his relationship not just with the band, but also with his audience. His shows these days are musical mercy missions, rolling into town to lay down a few hard home truths before raising the roof and the spirits. This – rather than making records – has become the band’s true calling.
Perhaps that’s why the current tour bears little resemblance to the new record. Where Working On A Dream requires a degree of perseverance, the live show is utterly immediate and feels more like a career summation. Springsteen, always a highly self-conscious performer, appears as relaxed as he’s ever been. He seems to have accepted, in the words of Badlands, one of his most emblematic songs, that “it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive”.
“The difference between this tour and any Bruce tour I can ever remember is that this feels like a victory lap,” says Marsh. “It’s by no means glib, but it’s fun. There are some dark moments, but ultimately it’s about somebody who has discovered, to his surprise, that he’s very good at living life, which is something I honestly don’t think he thought he had in him. He’s been a good parent, a good husband, he’s been a good friend and band leader. He’s evolved into an A+, works well with others. That’s part of what this tour is all about.”
There’s also a clear political context. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame displays a poster for a show Springsteen played in 1972 for George McGovern, that year’s defeated Democratic presidential candidate; in 2004, he and the E Street Band campaigned hard for John Kerry on the Vote For Change tour. With Barack Obama, who adopted Springsteen’s The Rising as a campaign anthem, he has finally backed a winner. “We all went through this dark, cold period of thinking nothing was going to change, and now it’s all about hope and possibility,” says his friend Emmylou Harris. “Music is a way to shine a light on things that aren’t right, and he’s done that in the past, but music is also a way to be joyful and celebratory. Right now I think he’s taking a little time to celebrate. He rocks out with so much joy.”
It’s extraordinary that, at 59, Springsteen is still playing shows of almost three hours and imbuing each performance with such unbridled passion and athleticism. According to Marsh, he is literally driven by the E Street Band. “It’s like being handed the keys to a Ferrari, that’s the kind of imagery he’ll use.”
The responsibility he feels towards the music, the contract he has with his audience, has only grown over the years. “He’s serious about his responsibilities as an artist and as a world citizen,” says Williams. “He’s got ethics, and he sticks to them. The last time we were over in London we all went to dinner and Bruce talked about his kids, how he had to take the video games away from his son. He was worried about that. He’s a good role model, and we all need them.”
Springsteen has always built a mythology around the E Street Band. As early as 1975, Tenth Avenue Freeze Out glorified the band’s origins. Nowadays, he celebrates their longevity with a knowing wink, introducing them onstage as: “The heart-stopping, pants-dropping, house-rocking, earth-shaking, booty-quaking, Viagra-taking, love-making, Legendary E Street Band!”
The humour doesn’t dilute the pride. The story of Springsteen and the E Street Band has become a great fable. They’re much more than a backing band, and nearly 40 years down the line their very existence on stage each night has become emblematic of some hard-won triumph. And it’s not over yet.
“There was a moment when I understood what the band really meant to him,” says Marsh. “It was the end of the 1999 reunion tour, and the very last thing he did was a version of Blood Brothers, with a new verse. There were no dry eyes. That’s a song about endurance. The point being that it would shock me if this tour is the end. If you were this good at doing something, why would you stop? It would be interesting to see a rock band continue in a creative, high-energy way right to the end. If we’re going to get one that does, this band is it.”
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band play Hampden Park, Glasgow on Tuesday.