If you grew up in the Midwest in the late 1970’s and 1980’s, Bruce Springsteen probably spoke to you. He came roaring out of Asbury Park, New Jersey in the mid-1970’s with a rather large band, the E Street Band, backing him up.
Springsteen and E Street started out in the early seventies as one of those bands that would backup the great Chuck Berry as he barnstormed across America. They eventually put out their own album, Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ, an earthy, back-to-basics recording. Springsteen had put E Street together over the course of the 1960’s working in such bands as Earth (not to be confused with the early version of Black Sabbath) and Steel Mill. All that was missing from this line-up was the Big Man, sax player Clarence Clemons.
But it wasn’t until the epic Born to Run that they broke out. America was ready. Disco was encroaching on rock’s territory, and rock itself had gotten bloated and pompous by the mid-seventies. Since America lacked Britain’s anarchistic bent, some plain, blue collar rock was in order in lieu of punk. Springsteen delivered.
Born to Run is an epic. “Tenth Avenue Freezeout,” “Thunder Road,” and the title track all hark more to Tom Waits with a bigger vocal range, a lot more volume, and a harder edge. And possibly the album’s most powerful track, “Jungleland,” is the song that launched a thousand crime short stories, not to mention a few novels, and quite likely, The Sopranos. (Doesn’t hurt that E Street’s “Miami Steve” Van Zandt, aka Little Steven, was a cast member of The Sopranos.) They were here to stay, especially with the more socially aware Darkness at the Edge of Town.
The live shows were and still are a carnival. Springsteen would jam for four hours straight, testing the audience’s, the band’s, and his own endurance. You knew the show was over when he struck a chord and sang, “That’s all I can stand!” He’d strike the same chord once more and sing, “I can’t stand no more!” Then he’d collapse. Yes, other bands like Van Halen and even KISS brought a party. Springsteeen brought a SHOW, and one not even Pink Floyd could top. (Though I suspect Messrs. Gilmour, Wright, and Mason wished Mr. Waters would have stopped trying.)
It’s the eighties, though, that made Springsteen the standard bearer for a working class groaning under the weight of industrial decline. Beginning with The River in 1980. The track “Hungry Heart” begins, “Got a wife and kid in Baltimore, Jack/I went out for a drive, and I never went back/Like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing/I took a ride, and I just kept going.” Just a stark slice of life of what people struggling to survive were going through. In this song, the character tries to run away from his problems. But if you didn’t get the message on The River or pick up on it on the acoustic Nebraska, Bruce got in your face with 1984’s Born in the USA.
“Born down in a dead man town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
End up like a dog that’s been beat too much
‘Til you spend half your life just coverin’ up”
That is what it was like for a lot of us coming of age in the mid-eighties in the Midwest and the Mid-Atlantic. The jobs we had counted on as kids – US Steel and General Motors and Goodyear Tire & Rubber – evaporated. It was a strange, new world. It might have been morning in America, but man, were we hungover. (Kinda like 2012, eh?)
I saw Bruce and E Street perform during the Super Bowl halftime show a few years ago. It was a refreshing change from “wardrobe malfunctions,” not as painful to watch as Black Eyed Peas trying to perform live (They should follow Steely Dan’s example from the 70’s and just stay in the studio), or as disappointing as The Who. Springsteen live is still a carnival, and on the cusp of 60, Bruce was still working the stage like an amped-up kid just out of high school. It brought back memories of WMMS playing all his albums in their entirety, before Clear Channel wrecked radio.