High Times Greats: Bruce Springsteen

Happy birthday to the Boss.
High Times Greats: Bruce Springsteen
3-D illustration of Bruce Springsteen by Wayne White.

In a piece for the November, 1984 issue of High Times magazine, John Swenson wrote about how “Springsteen brings it all back home.” In honor of Springsteen’s birthday September 23, we’re republishing it below.

The Story So Far. In the past decade Bruce Springsteen has gone from being a brilliant and eccentric songwriter/guitarist/vocalist with an avid cult following to becoming a legend in his own time. Springsteen is as much a mythic figure as rock ‘n’ roll has ever produced—he’s an American hero with the stature of Paul Bunyan or John Wayne. Widely viewed as a man of unshakable values and principles founded on the heart of rock ‘n’ roll, Springsteen fans have looked to Bruce for the kind of spiritual leadership usually associated with charismatic leaders like Meher Baba or David Bowie.

Early in his career Springsteen had been declared the future of rock ‘n’ roll, a prediction that was realized when he released his classic Born to Run LP, appeared on the cover of Time and Newsweek and went on endless concert tours that brought him to every comer of the nation. A big part of the magic of Springsteen’s live performances was that no two shows were the same. Fans would try to attend as many concerts as possible in order to see the widest range of material and to compare the differences in Springsteen’s renditions of individual songs from night to night.

At the turn of the ’80s Springsteen had become America’s biggest rock ‘n’ roll star, and he consolidated this position with the sprawling, ambitious two-record set The River and his longest, most demanding and exhaustive concert tour yet. That was four years ago, and in the ensuing time popular music has gone through fundamental changes that have brought it further away than ever from the standards that Springsteen has always championed. Fashion has taken an unprecedented advantage over musical content; the rise of the promotional video has created a new generation of performers more interested in proving their worth as actors in mini-features than on the rock ‘n’ roll stage or in recording studios.

The rock ‘n’ roll world has metamorphosed dramatically since Springsteen ended his River tour in ’81. Springsteen fans mostly feel those changes have been for the worse, and Bruce’s return to both the record charts and the concert stage is viewed by those fans as the antidote to the scene’s current malaise.

The Tour. Though the wait may have seemed like an eternity, Springsteen fans have not been disappointed. This past June 29, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band began their 1984 tour at the St. Paul, Minnesota, civic center. The tour continued through Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati, the site of the Who tragedy in which a number of fans were crushed to death a couple of years ago. Bruce went on to play Cleveland, Chicago, Montreal, Toronto, Saratoga Springs and Detroit before the tour reached its first climax with an unprecedented 10 straight shows through August at Brenden Byrne Arena in the Meadowlands complex in New Jersey. Springsteen was the first performer at that arena in July of 1981 at the close of the River tour—that was a six-day stint which sold out on Springsteen’s home turf in 36 hours. The Meadowlands was ecstatic over Springsteen’s decision to come back for 10 dates in a row. “Springsteen’s series of concerts will be the longest engagement of any performer in the history of the arena,” spokesman Stan Gorlick proudly announced. When the 200,000 seats for the Meadowlands shows were put on sale, the glut of callers to Ticketron offices caused a breakdown in the telephone system. Extra operators were hired, and the Springsteen fans persevered, some callers waiting as long as three hours. Every seat was sold out by the next day.

The Album. Born in the USA is Bruce Springsteen’s sixth album with the E Street Band, his seventh if you include the stark 1982 solo effort Nebraska. The record is self-consciously less ambitious than the double-disc sprawl of The River, almost as if Springsteen is trying hard not to detract attention from his live show. Columbia Records began an elaborate marketing campaign nearly a month before the record’s release. One major chain-store buyer called it “The most expensive, best organized prerelease campaign I’ve ever seen.” A single from the album, “Dancing in the Dark,” preceded the release of Born in the USA by several weeks. With the hot rocker “Pink Cadillac” as its flip-side, the single is a must for Springsteen fans because “Pink Cadillac” isn’t included on the album.

The Players. The E Street Band on Born in the USA is the same group that Bruce has played with since his fourth album, Darkness at the Edge of Town. One of the keys to this band’s sound is the dual keyboards of Roy Bittan and Danny Federici. Max Weinberg is the powerhouse drummer who keeps the train on the tracks. (Max has recently published a book of fascinating interviews with drummers.) Garry Tallent anchors the rhythm section with his swinging, supportive bass playing. The big-toned, R&B-style saxophone playing of Clarence Clemons is one of the most recognizable trademarks of Springsteen’s band. Bruce as the Boss and Clarence as the Big Man are both the main soloists and the frontmen of the live shows. Clarence’s Red Bank, New Jersey, club, Big Man’s East, is one of the hottest music spots on the Jersey-shore circuit that spawned Springsteen’s organization, and the E Street Band has been known to play unannounced gigs at Clemons’ club.

The Controversy. Born in the USA may also turn out to be the last time Bruce’s friend, partner and musical alter ego, Miami Steve Van Zandt, is part of the E Street Band. Miami Steve shared so much of the same vision as Springsteen over the years that it’s very hard to imagine him out of the group; he had always been a mainstay of the E Street sound and had even extended his reach into the Asbury Jukes, whom he produced and wrote for. Miami Steve played acoustic guitar and mandolin on the record, sang backing vocals and coproduced along with Springsteen, manager Jon Landau and Chuck Plotkin. Oddly enough, Steve played on the record but subsequently left the group and was not part of the tour. In his place, playing second guitar and some leads, was veteran Nils Lofgrin.

Just before Born in the USA was released, Van Zandt released his second album under the name Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul. Van Zandt has gone on record to say that he felt the time had come to front his own band on tour. His replacement for the Springsteen tour, Nils Lofgrin, is a solid choice who takes nothing away from the band’s sound. Lofgrin is not part of the New Jersey musical brotherhood that Springsteen has always drawn his groups from, hailing instead from Washington, D.C., where he got his start playing in a band called Grin and guesting with another D.C.-area legend, Roy Buchanan. In between recording some listenable but only modestly successful albums with Grin and under his own name, Lofgrin joined the original Crazy Horse Band and became a valued sidekick in some of Neil Young’s projects, particularly After the Gold Rush. Nils has also guested with Springsteen, and despite some of the fine work he’s done on his own, you have to conclude that Lofgrin works best as a featured sideman. The E Street Band will certainly miss the energy and spiritual leadership of Miami Steve Van Zandt, but with Lofgrin in the lineup they will not be hurt musically by Van Zandt’s absence.

The Songs. The album includes 12 songs, several of which are among the finest pieces of character sketching Springsteen has ever written. The album is not conceptual—each song stands on its own—but there is an overall feeling conveyed when the record is taken as a whole.

Born in the USA. The dramatic drums-and-vocals opening of this title track sets the stage for one of Springsteen’s most powerful songs, a tale told by a drifting Vietnam veteran with no job, no future and a past he’d rather forget. What makes the song so powerful is that the protagonist has the drive to keep going—though his situation is bleak, there’s life in his voice and hope in the line “I’m a cool rocking daddy in the USA.”

Cover Me. Here Springsteen’s reaction to the tough times and the rough world outside is to look for redemption through love. The track opens with a piercing guitar solo from the Boss and breaks to a chunky R&B beat for the rest of the song.

Darlington County. One of Springsteen’s joyful tunes about hitting the open road and going for broke. By the end of the song, however, there’s a surprise twist that turns the whole thing on its head when Bruce sees his road buddy handcuffed to the bumper of a state trooper’s car.

Working on the Highway. Like “Darlington County,” this is a joyous song with a grim bottom line. Springsteen creates another one of his downtrodden characters that won’t quit here, a man who goes from working on the highway to a brief moment of freedom before landing in the hands of the law and ending up being forced to work on the highway again.

Downbound Train. This time the grim message is not redeemed by joyous music, as the song is a hymn to depression, lost opportunities, an evocation of silent, screaming agony. Springsteen draws dreamlike, cinematic images of a man whose life is ruined by a crumbling economy when he loses his job and his woman ends up leaving him.

I’m on Fire. An understated but extremely powerful song, “I’m on Fire” is a rare glimpse at unbridled lust and passion from Springsteen, whose good times have usually been expressed in physical imagery rather than the potential orgone energy he reveals here.

No Surrender. Here’s an anthem in the “Born to Run” tradition. The exhilarating music underscores Springsteen’s message: “No retreat, baby no surrender.” Bruce is summoning back the spirit that got him started on his rock ‘n’ roll crusade in the first place, and even though the lyrics reveal some nagging doubts, there’s little question that the evocation of schoolboy promises is successful.

Bobby Jean. This is another song looking back to a simpler day when the first commitments to the rocker’s life were made. There’s an added poignance here and a dedication to shared experience that has led a lot of people to think this song is Springsteen’s final salute to Miami Steve Van Zandt. “I’m thinking of you and all the miles in between,” Springsteen sings toward the end.

I’m Goin’ Down. This hard-rocking, emotional release of a song capsulizes the feeling of freedom from a lover’s tyranny. The song is about a girl who’s putting her boyfriend down to the point where he’s so bummed out he gets disgusted. When Springsteen sings “I’m goin’ down down down down,” the excitement makes the song an anthem to freedom.

Glory Days. Here Springsteen dips into the memory bank once again to recall past moments of glory. The hard-hitting drive of the song makes the bittersweet message of lost opportunities and fading powers less tragic than ironic. Toward the end of the song he starts to vow that he’ll never look back on his past like that, but has to laugh at himself: “time slips away and leaves you with nothing mister but boring stories of glory days.”

Dancing in the Dark. The first single off of Born in the USA sounds like it was written with dance-oriented playlists in mind. The song is markedly different from the straight-ahead rockers that dominate the rest of the record, turning on a sequencing synthesizer riff that locks the drum pattern into that computer sound that characterizes disco programming. The melodic riff is haunting in Springsteen’s best romantic tradition, but the lack of freedom in the rhythm section makes the song stand out from the rest of the album like a sore thumb.

My Hometown. Springsteen closes the record with a stark, morose song of decay and death that is strongly reminiscent of Nebraska. Springsteen grew up in Freehold, New Jersey, a town which could certainly model for the forgotten, abandoned landscape that Bruce evokes in the song, but the hometown in question could be anybody’s because the song is really about changing times and the fact that childhood memories can’t keep the world from passing you by.

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