1949 to 1963
On September 23, 1949 Adele and Douglas Springsteen give birth to Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen. The first of three Irish-Italian children with Dutch heritage, Bruce might have immortalised Asbury Park but he is born in nearby, working-class Freehold, New Jersey. Factory work and bus driving give Douglas an occasional living but the Springsteens often have difficulty making ends meet, leading to tension within the household. Relations between a headstrong father and a rebellious, daydreaming son are particularly strained. Springsteen attends parochial schools and is often in trouble for his rebellious nature. "I lived half of my first 13 years in a trance,” he said. "I was thinking of things, but I was always on the outside looking in.” (Two Hearts, p.23) Something clicks for a nine-year-old Springsteen watching Elvis Presley appear on the Ed Sullivan Show. He gets so worked up, his mother buys him a guitar but his small hands discourage him and he puts it down for five years. (Two Hearts, p.27) Though fancying himself a drummer, Springsteen purchases an $18 guitar from a pawnshop in 1963 and soon catches Beatlemania. His cousin Frankie teaches him his first chords and the effect is powerful. "The first day I can remember looking in a mirror and being able to stand what I was seeing was the day I had a guitar in my hand,” he said. (Two Hearts, p. 28)
1964 to 1967
Springsteen buys few records but listens to the radio religiously. He’s first attracted to classic rockers like Presley and Chuck Berry, then the British invade him (i.e., the Rolling Stones, the Animals, the Who). Phil Spector’s production grabs his ear, as do the sounds of Motown and Gary "U.S.” Bonds. (Two Hearts, p.28) After playing briefly with an instrumental band called the Rogues, Springsteen hears about a group of 15-year-olds forming a band in Freehold called the Castiles. Led by rhythm guitarist George Theiss, they are managed by a 32-year-old, laid-off factory worker named Gordon "Tex” Vinyard. In need of another guitar player, Theiss recruits school friend (and older brother of Ginny, whom Theiss has a crush on) Springsteen for an audition. Eager to join a real band, Springsteen immediately heeds his new surrogate father Tex’s suggestion that he learn some songs, picking up just under ten lead guitar parts within a day by listening to the radio, and easily passes his audition. After 45 days of rehearsal, the cover band play their first gig at the West Haven Swim Club. (Two Hearts, p.29-30) Springsteen gains a rep as a great guitar player and, though he is seldom permitted to sing, his raw voice is deemed perfect for renditions of Van Morrison and Who songs. (Two Hearts, p.33). The Castiles gain local acclaim for their live show, their brand of street-rock (a harbinger of the garage and punk movements), and an original song "Sidewalk,” which they couldn’t afford to record. On May 22, 1966, they make it into a studio to cut songs that Theiss and Springsteen write together on the way there. The Beatle-y "That’s What You Get” and "Baby I” exist as acetates but are never released. Though he switches to public school in the ninth grade, music is Springsteen’s passion. "Music gave me something,” he would tell the Los Angeles Times. "It was never just a hobby — it was a reason to live.” (Two Hearts, p. 38) Sex and drugs don’t even register, which the ultra-driven Springsteen views as social distractions. In January 1967, the Castiles venture to New York and Tex lands them a slew of shows at Café Wha. Nothing really develops for the boys and, as the end of high school looms, so to does the end of the band.
1967 to 1969
After graduating, Springsteen finds a musical haven in deteriorating, beachfront community, Asbury Park, NJ and begins a short-lived stint playing with a Cream-influenced band called Earth. He becomes a regular at the infamous Upstage club, an all-night hangout for jamming musicians. It’s here where he begins to connect with future E Street Band members, drummer Vini "Mad Dog” Lopez and organist Danny Federici who are awestruck by how fast he plays guitar. (Two Hearts, p.42-44) Lopez and Federici convince Springsteen to form a band with them called Child but soon change their name to Steel Mill. "By most accounts, this was the premiere band of Springsteen’s youth,” wrote rock critic Dave Marsh in his seminal book, Born to Run. "It would eventually enhance his reputation, spreading it over the mid-Atlantic coast as far south as Virginia.”(p.44) Described as heavy metal, Steel Mill was actually more blues-based than any music that Springsteen would later play and tapes continue to circulate among fans. Springsteen attends and drops out of Ocean County Community College during this period as well, leaving school at the urging of a record executive who Springsteen never hears from again. (p.46) Before leaving, Springsteen has some poems published in the school’s literary magazine and, due to injuries suffered from a motorcycle accident and his erratic behaviour, successfully dodges the draft. "They gave me the forms and I checked everything,” he recalled. "Even said I was a homo and all that. Then this guy calls me into his office, talks to me for about three minutes and tells me to go home.”(Two Hearts, p.22) But in 1969, Douglas Springsteen decided to test California’s promise of employment and moved the family there, leaving Bruce behind to crash at musicians’ houses in Jersey. Steel Mill trek out to California themselves in January, 1970 for a string of shows, one of which gets a rave review from the San Francisco Examiner’s Philip Elwood who calls it "one of the most memorable evenings of rock in a long time,” and describes Springsteen as "an impressive composer.”(Racing in the Street, Chronology, p.ix). Soon after, "Miami” Steve Van Zandt becomes the band’s new bassist. On February 22, 1970, Steel Mill record three demo songs for celebrated Fillmore promoter Bill Graham but refuse his recording contract offer because his $1,000 advance is too low. (Racing in the Street, p.xx)
Tired of Steel Mill’s sound, Springsteen disbands the group and plots the formation of a ten-piece band. In the interim, he forms the ad-hoc Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom, consisting of Jersey musicians who weren’t already in another band. Essentially a joke, Sonic Boom plays three shows, one as an opener for the Allman Brothers Band. (Two Hearts, p.47) Asbury Park is adversely affected by race riots, bringing the musical community even closer together. After six months of rehearsals, the Bruce Springsteen Band, complete with a horn section, debuts in Richmond, Virginia and breaks up after their next gig. Unable to pay his band from show profits, Springsteen works as a solo artist but forges lasting bonds with Lopez, Federici, Van Zandt, pianist and guitarist David Sancious, bassist Garry Tallent, and saxophonist Clarence "Big Man” Clemons. Springsteen writes a batch of new songs in the back of a closed beauty salon beneath his apartment, and it’s the first and only time he ever writes lyrics first, adding music later (Songs, p.6). Springsteen soon meets Mike Appel and Jim Cretecos, a songwriting/production team working for a company supplying songs to the likes of the Partridge Family, and he auditions for a job himself. "He sang as if his life depended on it,” Appel recalled. "There was never any doubt in my mind that he was one of the greatest.”(Two Hearts p.51-52)
Springsteen and Appel lose touch when the former moves to California but reconnect months later when Springsteen returns to Jersey. Shortly after hiring Springsteen, Appel fatefully convinces him to sign a long-term recording, publishing, and management contract, which Springsteen does obligingly over the hood of a car in a dimly lit parking lot in March 1972. (Racing in the Street, p.xx) After failing to get a meeting with label head Clive Davis, Appel arranges one with Columbia Records (CBS) talent scout John Hammond, whose name Springsteen just comes across reading a biography of Bob Dylan. A gentle soul, Hammond is renowned for his artistic instincts, discovering and signing artists like Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Dylan. At their initial meeting in May 1972, Appel is inexplicably brash and rude to Hammond, making Springsteen especially nervous but the singer still plays one of his newer, folk songs, "It’s Hard To Be a Saint in the City.” "I couldn’t believe it,” Hammond recalled. "I reacted with a force I’ve felt maybe three times in my life. I knew at once he would last a generation.” (Two Hearts p.53) Hammond arranges for a live audition before his colleagues that same night at NYC’s Gaslight club, and then a demo recording session days later with Davis’ blessing. With Hammond producing, Springsteen records solo versions of most of what would become his first album. At Hammond’s request, an independent lawyer reviews Springsteen’s contract with Appel (and Cretecos, who incorporate their production company as Laurel Canyon) and calls it "a slavery deal” but Springsteen is unfazed and the two sign to CBS on June 9 for a $25,000 advance plus a $40,000 recording budget. Springsteen eagerly reunites with his old band mates for rehearsals to make his first record but he does so against the wishes of Hammond and Laurel Canyon who view him as a solo folk artist. Undeterred, Springsteen and the newly dubbed E Street Band play their first show in York, Pennsylvania on November 12, 1972 and enter the studio with Laurel Canyon producing.
Greetings From Asbury Park, New Jersey is finished in three weeks at a substandard recording facility (914 Studios in upstate New York) by an artist and production team who know next to nothing about making records. When CBS first hears it, they send it back saying it needs some singles and Springsteen responds with "Spirit in the Night” and "Blinded by the Light” (in 1976 the latter becomes a #1 hit for Manfred Mann, a British group Springsteen admires) to appease them. Despite its technical flaws, critics call Greetings a milestone recording upon its release in January, and place Springsteen’s wild imagery, vivid characters, and deft wordplay in the same realm as another Hammond find. "I heard all the ‘new Dylan’ comparisons, so I steered away from it,” Springsteen later writes in his autobiographical songbook, Songs. "But the lyrics and spirit of Greetings came from a very unselfconscious place. Your early songs come out of a moment when you’re writing with no sure prospect of ever being heard. Up until then, it’s just you and your music. That only happens once.” (Songs, p.7) His impassioned voice and ambitious song structures are unique, but the rawness of the album doesn’t capture the energy of Springsteen’s live show and is a commercial flop. Unsure how to market Springsteen in the face of the early-70s "soft-rock”/"singer-songwriter” craze, CBS sends him on a tour opening for the band Chicago, where Springsteen is booed frequently and performs a disastrous show in NYC at Madison Square Garden. Springsteen vows never to play large sports arenas again, nor to do anything less than his two-hour show. His bravado, coupled with Appel’s belligerent and offensive nature lead to tensions with CBS; Clive Davis is fired just as Springsteen prepares to write his next album. Springsteen is eager to take the recording process by the reins and make a more bar-band-oriented rock album. His live show—a broad sweep of many musical styles and endearing, theatrical storytelling—sustains interest from critics and a cult audience, and Springsteen strives to capture its breadth at 914 Studios. The Wild, The Innocent, & The E Street Shuffle is released on September 11 with little fanfare from CBS, aside from publicist Ron Oberman who makes it his highest priority. The record is remarkably ingenious for its crossing of musical and racial borders, and a sound delving from traditional folk, jazz, soul, and rock sources. It contains sprawling classics like "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” and "Incident on 57th Street,” as well as spirited character studies like "Kitty’s Back” and "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight).” It’s a breakthrough moment for Springsteen. "On the second album, I started to slowly find out who I am and where I wanted to be,” he said. "It was like coming out of the shadow of various influences and trying to be yourself.” (Two Hearts, p.85) Again, critics salivate at the ambition and promise within Springsteen but the public is mostly unfazed (the songs are simply too long for radio play) and, much to his label’s frustration, sales are poor. Blind in his dedication to Springsteen, Appel berates CBS employees and radio DJs he feels are hurting his charge. Undaunted, the E Street Band hit the road for sympathetic cities (New York, Boston and Philadelphia in particular), converting new audiences along the way.
After much agonizing, Lopez is replaced by drummer Ernest "Boom” Carter, perfecting the band’s often shaky rhythm section. The band plays their two hour shows in clubs where onlookers are mesmerized by Springsteen’s intense energy and agility. At the end of every show, his slight frame is sweat-soaked from performing his rock and roll revue. In April, Springsteen plays Charley’s Bar in Cambridge, Massachusetts and meets influential critic and Rolling Stone reviews editor, Jon Landau. The next month, Landau reviews an E Street Band show at Cambridge’s Harvard Square Theatre for his May 22 "Loose Ends” column in The Real Paper, a Boston weekly. In the review, an excited Landau proclaims, "I saw rock and roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” (Racing in the Street, xx) The line changes both men’s lives forever. "It gave me a lot of hope,” Springsteen said. "Landau’s quote helped me reaffirm a belief in myself. The band and I were making $50 a week. It helped me go on. I realized I was gettin’ through to somebody.” (Two Hearts, p.119) Subsequently, CBS renews their commitment to Springsteen and critics at the Village Voice, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times soon follow Landau’s enthusiastic trail, while a new audience develops. Springsteen and Landau become friends and chat about record production and music history. At the Harvard Square show, Springsteen debuts a new song called "Born to Run,” which takes him six months to write. Appel distributes a rough, four-and-a-half minute studio recording of the song to certain DJs, where it becomes an underground hit, infuriating CBS who have no tangible product to push. Springsteen’s perfectionism and frustration with 914’s antiquated studio stymie any progress towards making a new record, particularly since he’s haunted by the masterworks of studio innovators like the Beach Boys, Roy Orbison, and Phil Spector. He writes an entire album’s worth of songs on piano but cannot match them with his vision of the record. Impatient with the gruelling sessions, Sancious leaves the band in August for a solo deal and takes Carter with him, leaving the band without keyboards and drums. Refusing to use session musicians, Springsteen places an ad for replacements in the Village Voice; the next month, pianist Roy Bittan and drummer Max Weinberg join the E Street Band. (Racing in the Street, p. xx)
Springsteen and Appel make little progress in the studio and the singer courts Landau to assist him. Landau is initially hesitant but agrees to co-produce the record, swiftly moving the sessions from 914 to Manhattan’s sophisticated Record Plant and hires a young Jimmy Iovine to engineer the sessions. "When I visited 914 studio, they were working the same songs over and over and Bruce said, ‘What do you think,’” Landau recalled. "I said ‘You’re a big-league artist and you should be in a big-league studio.’ Next thing, we were in the Record Plant. One of my production ideas was that the sound would be tighter if we cut the record initially as a trio—bass, drums, and piano.” (Mojo, Jan. 2006, p.84) Landau arrives at the right time, as morale for the Born to Run sessions is low — from the musicians to the label. If the record is a flop, there is little doubt it will be Springsteen’s last for CBS. Unofficial E Streeter Steve Van Zandt hangs out at the studio, famously receiving an official band invitation after singing the respected Brecker Brothers horn section their parts for "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” "This was a disastrous moment in his career,” Van Zandt said of Springsteen. "It was over. He had seven gigs left and that was it, the end of the story.” (Uncut, November 2005, p.79) Arduous, repetitive sessions tax everyone, but Springsteen finally settles for a final, mixed version of the album right at CBS’ deadline. He rejects dozens of masters of the record, however, and tells Appel that he plans to scrap its release altogether. "Born to Run had become a monster,” Springsteen said. "It wanted everything. It just ate up everyone’s life. At the end, I hated it, I thought it was the worst piece of garbage I’d ever heard.”(Mojo, Jan. 2006, p.84) Landau convinces Springsteen he’s wrong, and the album is slated for an August release. CBS likes what it hears and allocates an unprecedented $250,000 to promote the record (Uncut, November 2005, p.79) and the E Street Band play a sold-out ten-night stand at the Bottom Line in NYC’s Greenwich Village. With its operatic scope, boundless imagination, and timeless collection of songs ("Thunder Road,” "Backstreets,” "Jungleland”), Born to Run is hailed as an instant masterpiece, sales go through the roof in each city the E Street Band play, and on October 27, much to his discomfort, Springsteen appears on the covers of Time and Newsweek simultaneously. "A moment came along when I said, ‘Gee, I’m not going to do these interviews,’ so I wouldn’t have been on those covers,” he recalled. "I had tremendous apprehension and a good deal of ambivalence about success and fame — although it was for something that I pursued very intensely. But it was: ‘I’m never gonna know unless I do this,’ you know?”(Mojo, January 2006, p.82) In November, the band travel to London to play the Hammersmith Odeon, and Springsteen angrily tears down any of CBS’ promotional "At Last London is Ready for Bruce Springsteen” posters he can find. The hype fosters a media backlash as well, which deeply affects Springsteen. "I remember during that period someone wrote ‘If Bruce Springsteen didn’t exist, rock critics would invent him.’ That bothered me a lot, being perceived as an invention, a ship passing by. I’d been playing for ten years. I knew where I came from, every inch of the way. I knew what I believed and what I wanted.” ("Out in the Streets,” by Robert Hilburn, Los Angeles Times, October 1980)
1976 to 1977
While Springsteen enjoys success, he is aware of tension between the E Street Band, its small crew, and Appel. No one trusts that Laurel Canyon is handling Springsteen’s finances properly but, loyal to a fault, Springsteen believes he owes his success to Appel. Looking to start his own booking agency, Appel convinces CBS to advance Laurel Canyon $500,000, which the label does happily due to the success of Born to Run. When Appel seeks to renegotiate their contract, Springsteen finally sees how lopsided their deal is; Laurel Canyon controls all of the publishing rights to his songs and earns approximately four times more than he does per record sold. On Landau’s advice, Springsteen retains a lawyer to re-negotiate his contract with Appel and has accountant Stephen Tenenbaum audit their business dealings since 1972 (Two Hearts, p.170-172).
Knowing Springsteen needs money to finance his upcoming tour, Appel tries to use the CBS advance as leverage to convince him to re-sign with Laurel Canyon. Springsteen instead receives an advance from his booking agency, William Morris. Tenenbaum’s audit reveals that Laurel Canyon has earned between one and two million dollars from Springsteen, while the singer’s total income in that four-year period was less than $100,000. In the accountant’s words, it was "a classic case of the unconscionable exploitation of an unsophisticated and unrepresented performer… for the manager’s primary economic benefit.” (Two Hearts, p.175) On July 2, Appel sends Springsteen a letter stating that he would not authorize Landau to produce his next record, as per a condition in their contract. On July 27, Springsteen fires Appel and files suit against him in a Manhattan federal courthouse for fraud and undue influence. Two days later, Appel counter-sues in New York Supreme Court. Judge Arnold L. Fein grants an injunction, effectively preventing Springsteen from entering a recording studio with his new manager Landau while the case is being pursued. The case drags on for ten months. (Racing in the Street, xxi) Beyond money, Springsteen sees the suit as a fight for his creative freedom and his depositions are rumoured to be as dramatic as any of his concerts. To earn money, Springsteen tours, including a date at the 7,500 seat Coliseum in Phoenix, AZ, and the Philadelphia Spectrum sports arena, which alter his derision of larger venues. He debuts new songs as well, such as "The Promise,” which some critics view as a metaphor for the current state of his business affairs. After further legal wrangling and emotional pronouncements from Springsteen, a settlement is reached in the early morning hours of May 28, 1977, freeing Landau and Springsteen to record together again, which they begin doing on June 1 at NYC’s Atlantic Studios. The sessions are unsatisfactory, both because of the studio and Springsteen’s desire for a more cohesive fourth record, and everything shifts back to the Record Plant. At 28, Springsteen can no longer identify with the restless innocence of Born to Run and strives for maturity instead. "I began to listen seriously to country music around this time,” he recalled. "I discovered Hank Williams. I liked the fact that country dealt with adult topics, and I wanted to write songs that would resonate down the road.” (Songs, p.66) Landau’s love of film noir also impacts Springsteen, who watches John Ford films like The Grapes of Wrath for the first time. "It was the feeling of men and women struggling against a world closing in that drew me to those films.” (Songs, p.66) He whittles 15 songs down to 10 for his leanest, most sombre record to date, Darkness on the Edge of Town. Among the casualties are "Fire” and "Because the Night,” which become hits for the Pointer Sisters and Patti Smith (who completed the lyrics) respectively.
1978 to 1979
Another key component to the Springsteen production team, Chuck Plotkin is brought onboard to assist with mixing the new album, and his appreciation of the dense rock sound Springsteen and Landau are after helps makes this process go smoothly. There’s a minor row over the cover art, but Springsteen simply wishes to assert full control of his career. Darkness on the Edge of Town is released on June 2, 1978 to a world of Born to Run pretenders (i.e. Thin Lizzy, John Cougar Mellencamp, Meatloaf, etc.), punk rockers, and disco dancers. Its working class stories ("Badlands,” "Factory”) and hard-edged rockers ("Adam Raised a Cain,” "Prove It All Night”) are praised by critics and fans pick it up in droves. Springsteen switches to the Premier Talent booking agency and the E Street Band embark on their longest tour, playing to over a million people over 150 shows. His business affairs in order, by March 1979, Springsteen begins rehearsing new songs with the band and they enter NYC’s Power Station Studio with Van Zandt joining the Landau-Springsteen production team. (Two Hearts, p.208) In mid-April, however, Springsteen suffers severe muscle damage to his leg in an off-road motorbike accident and is ordered off his feet for three weeks. Recording begins again, with Springsteen introducing new songs like "The Ties That Bind,” "Point Blank,” and a song he’d originally intended to give to the Ramones called "Hungry Heart.” The progress isn’t fast enough for some fans and bootlegging of Springsteen material — both live shows and stolen studio sketches — soon becomes an issue in the Springsteen camp. "Bruce spends a year of his life conceiving and executing an album so that it will perfectly reflect the musical statement he wants to make,” Landau told Rolling Stone. "Then these people come along and confiscate material that was never intended for release on an album, sell it and make a profit on it without ever paying anyone that’s involved. It’s just out-and-out theft.” (Two Hearts, p.211-212) In May, Springsteen meets antinuclear energy activist Tom Campbell. Deeply affected by the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor accident, Springsteen accepts Campbell’s request play two of a four-night benefit concert for MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy) at Madison Square Garden in September. It’s the overtly first political action Springsteen ever takes, though he never articulates his thoughts on the cause publicly. A month earlier, CBS and Springsteen file suit against five defendants in a federal district court in Los Angeles, asking for $1.75 million in damages on charges including copyright infringement and unauthorized use of name and likeness among others. (Two Hearts, p.212) For Springsteen, the suit is more about warding off further bootleggers but he is more conscious of what fans and his bandmates find so frustrating. "We’re slow — I’m slow in the studio. I take a long time,” he said. (Two Hearts, p.212)
1980 to 1981
Springsteen scraps different versions of his next album, accumulating 40 songs to choose from along the way. He plans to find a balance between the spirit of Born to Run and the weight of Darkness on the Edge of Town. Landau convinces CBS that a double record might be in order and the label agrees. The River is released on October 10, 1980 and Springsteen is pleased with the results. "This was the album where the E Street Band really came into its own in the studio,” he said. "We struck the right balance between a garage band and the professionalism required to make good records. Also, after the seriousness of Darkness, I wanted to give myself a lot more flexibility with the emotional range of the songs I chose. Our shows had always been filled with fun and I didn’t want to see that left out this time.” (Songs, p.98) While the album contains solemn classics like the Hank Williams-influenced title track, "Independence Day,” and "Wreck on the Highway,” these are matched by live staples like "Ramrod,” "Out on the Street” and "Cadillac Ranch.” On the strength of "Hungry Heart,” which reached the top five in November, The River becomes Springsteen’s first album to reach number one on the Billboard pop charts. The record and subsequent tour finds the band selling out massive arenas, not only in America, but Europe as well. On most nights their set stretches to almost four hours and Springsteen’s energy seems inexhaustible. Springsteen makes a rare admission at a show in Arizona on November 5th, the night after Ronald Reagan is elected President. "I don’t know what you thought about what happened last night,” he tells the crowd. "But I thought it was pretty terrifying.” That same night, Springsteen is given a copy of Joe Klein’s new book, Woody Guthrie: A Life, which has a profound affect on him. (Two Hearts, p. 276) Springsteen begins a full-fledged exploration of folk music and studies American history; his own interpretation of Guthrie’s "This Land is Your Land” enters the nightly set list. He also identifies with paraplegic Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic’s memoir, Born on the Fourth of July and organizes a benefit concert in Los Angeles for the Vietnam Veterans of America that September. "Without Bruce Springsteen, there would be no Vietnam veteran’s movement,” VVA President Bob Muller said. (Two Hearts, p.315)
During the latter part of touring The River, Springsteen writes "Mansion on the Hill,” and a tone for his next record, Nebraska, emerges. He is immersed in the sparse but vivid characters in Flannery O’Connor’s stories and Terence Malick’s film, Badlands, about the 1958 killing spree committed by Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate. He goes so far as to contact Ninette Beaver, author of the Starkweather account, Caril. (Two Hearts, p.336) Springsteen quickly writes a series of first-person narratives about criminals, misfits, and children who experience hopelessness and despair. "If there’s a theme that runs through the record, it’s the thin line between stability and that moment when time stops and everything goes to black,” Springsteen said. "When the things that connect you to your world—your job, your family, friends, your faith, the love and grace in your heart—fail you.” (Songs, p.139) Tired of expensive studios, Springsteen asks his guitar tech Mike Batlan to find him something suitable for home recording and Batlan returns with a Teac Tascam Series 144 4-track tape recorder. Springsteen begins recording the new songs in his bedroom with just an acoustic guitar on January 3rd. "I was trying to get them to sound right,” he said. "That’s what would deepen the images.” (Songs, p.138) Intended as demos for the band, Landau and Springsteen struggle with how to improve upon the soft arrangements of these songs and a few don’t quite fit. Director Paul Schrader asks Springsteen to star in and write the title song for his upcoming film and gives him a script entitled Born in the U.S.A. Springsteen passes on the role but records a version of the song for Nebraska, inspired more by Kovic’s Vietnam memoir than Schrader’s film (which is released as Light of Day in 1987, and features a Springsteen title song after all). (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093415/trivia) Progress on Nebraska pauses, as Springsteen gets caught up writing seven of 11 songs on the new Gary Bonds record, On the Line and writing and recording the song "Protection” for Donna Summer and Quincy Jones. (Two Hearts, p.344-345) That spring, Plotkin rejoins the production team to tinker with Nebraska. These songs do not improve and Springsteen puts them aside for newer E Street Band songs, quickly capturing "I’m on Fire” and then "Born in the U.S.A.” in two takes. In the next few weeks many songs, including "Glory Days,” and "Downbound Train,” are laid down effortlessly. (Two Hearts, p.350-353) Springsteen remains preoccupied with Nebraska, however. After Van Zandt, Landau seconds the idea of releasing Nebraska in its demo form, which relieves Springsteen. After some tape transfer headaches that Plotkin resolves, Landau and Springsteen convince CBS to release the home-recorded, haunting version of Nebraska on September 20. In the face of domineering synthesizer pop, the record does remarkably well, gaining critical acclaim and spawning Springsteen’s first video ("Atlantic City”) for MTV.
1983 to 1984
Springsteen finds it difficult to get back into the Born in the U.S.A. sessions so soon after Nebraska, and takes a road trip across America to clear his head. Holing up alone at his Los Angeles home, he records more home-rock. (Two Hearts, p.391-392) He returns to NYC to record "My Hometown” but heads back to L.A. immediately after. The sessions resume in May but without Van Zandt who plots his own solo career. Rumours swirl that the E Street Band has broken up, an idea Springsteen contemplates. "It looked for a long time like we could end up with Nebraska II,” Plotkin said. (Two Hearts, 396) Communication between Springsteen and Plotkin is tense, as the producer doesn’t feel the new sessions are yielding anything as extraordinary as the initial ones in 1982, whose songs Springsteen has scrapped. Springsteen responds by writing "Bobby Jean,” and snaps out of his malaise. "No Surrender” follows soon after, with both songs loosely dedicated to the departure of Van Zandt. Landau successfully suggests re-visiting the ’82 sessions and, upon the final mixing sessions for 14 of the 70 accumulated songs, he becomes more opinionated, telling Springsteen they’re missing a single. An enraged Springsteen channels his frustration into the personal "Dancing in the Dark,” which goes on to become a huge hit. (Two Hearts, p.410) "It went as far in the direction of pop music as I wanted to go—and probably a little farther,” Springsteen said. (Songs, p.166) Springsteen is conflicted about releasing the record, knowing full well that it has the potential to make him a megastar—a proposition he dreads. He comes around in the end and, as Van Zandt officially departs the band in May, guitarist Nils Lofgren and vocalist Patti Scialfa are hired to fill the void on-stage. Bossmania hits full stride for Born in the U.S.A.’s June 4th release, and the darkly spirited record goes on to sell 20 million copies. Brian DePalma directs a ridiculed video for "Dancing in the Dark,” which features a muscle-bound Springsteen lip-syncing and dancing with a then unknown Courtney Cox. As "Born in the U.S.A.” is misinterpreted as a patriotic anthem by fans, critics, and politicos of all stripes, Springsteen storms arenas and stadiums the world over. "Born in the U.S.A. changed my life and gave me my largest audience,” Springsteen said. "It forced me to question the way I presented my music and made me think harder about what I was doing.” (Songs, p.167) In Buffalo, NY, Springsteen donates $10,000 to the local food bank, and begins an effort to give similar donations to social-aid organizations, and meet with their representatives in every town he plays. During a seven-night stint in Los Angeles in October, Springsteen meets model/actress Julianne Philips and they begin seeing each other.
1985 to 1986
Springsteen’s efforts draw attention to failing food banks and clinics across North America and many thrive as a result. John Sayles directs a powerful clip for "Born in the U.S.A.” In February, Springsteen joins the "USA for Africa” campaign by participating in the star-studded single "We Are the World,” which raises $200 million for victims of the Ethiopian famine. (Racing in the Street, xxii/Two Hearts, p.521) Sayles directs a more cinematic video for the Johnny Cash-inspired "I’m on Fire,” which finds Springsteen playing a lustful mechanic, and the two collaborate once again for "Glory Days.” Guitar tech Mike Batlan and roadie Doug Sutphin quit and sue Springsteen for $6 million for punitive damages. A judge dismisses the case but they lodge further suits for alleged unpaid overtime and for being docked pay for losing Springsteen’s canoe in a storm. The case goes on for six years before a settlement is reached. After the E Street Band play their first stadium shows on their first trip to Australia, Philips flies to Japan to join Springsteen on tour and they vacation in Hawaii in April. On May 13, they marry in Lake Oswego, Oregon. (Racing in the Street, xxii) "Little Steven” Van Zandt joins the E Street Band for an Independence Day show at Wembley Stadium and the next month Springsteen contributes to his "Sun City” anti-apartheid album. In February 1986, Springsteen turns down Chrysler’s $12 million offer to use "Born in the U.S.A.” in a TV ad. He begins assembling a live retrospective and, joined by Federici and Lofgren, performs a rare acoustic set at Neil Young’s Bridge Benefit concert in California. (http://www.greasylake.org/frame_lost.htm) On November 10, the triple-record Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band Live/1975-85 becomes the first boxed set to reach number one. "After its release I felt I’d said what I had to say and did what recorded work I could with the band, for the moment,” Springsteen said. (Songs, p.189)
1987 to 1988
In January, Springsteen inducts his hero Roy Orbison into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That spring, Springsteen begins work on his next album in his upgraded home studio in Rumson, NJ. Using drum machines and synthesisers to augment sparse folk-rock, Springsteen writes songs rapidly. Members of the E Street Band make individual appearances throughout the sessions, but at no time is the band gathered in the studio together. On October 9, Tunnel of Love is released and powerful songs like "Brilliant Disguise,” "Two Faces,” and "Cautious Man” reveal a truly mature voice. "The passage of time was a subtext of my new stories,” Springsteen explained. "My characters were no longer kids. There was the possibility of life passing them by, of the things they needed — love, a home — rushing out the open window of all those cars I’d placed them in.” (Songs, p.191) In February, the E Street Band plus a horn section assembles for the worldwide Tunnel of Love Express tour. The on-stage sexual tension between Springsteen and Scialfa spills off-stage and the two fall in love; that May, he and Philips privately separate. The next month in Rome, paparazzi capture a barely clothed Springsteen and Scialfa necking on their hotel balcony, sullying his clean-cut image and casting her as a homewrecker. (Two Hearts, p.658) The tour ends in Barcelona in August, marking the first tour without a New Jersey date. Philips files for divorce, citing ‘irreconcilable differences.’(Racing in the Street, xxii) In the fall, the E Street Band headlines the Amnesty International Human Rights Now! Tour, which features Sting, Peter Gabriel, Youssou N’Dour and Tracy Chapman, and crosses five continents before ending in Buenos Aires on October 10.
1989 to 1991
Springsteen celebrates his 40th birthday at the Stone Pony club in Asbury Park where he dances with his mother and performs with most of the E Street Band. In October, he officially parts ways with the E Street Band, notifying each member individually and, reportedly, offers each $2 million in severance pay. (Mojo, January 2006, p.92) Preliminary work for a new album begins that winter with new musicians in Los Angeles. In February, Bittan is recruited to break Springsteen’s writing slump and get the sessions moving. It’s the first time Springsteen has collaborated with another writer. In April, Springsteen and Scialfa purchase a $14 million mansion in Beverly Hills — a move that concerns longtime fans. "I was worried about my real life, not how my image was,” Springsteen said. "I was trying to connect with somebody and get a family started and for somebody like me that was probably the hardest thing I ever had to do.” (Mojo, January 2006, p.92) On July 25 1990, Scialfa gives birth to Evan James Springsteen. The couple marry the following June and Springsteen completes work on Human Touch. Revitalized, Springsteen completes "Living Proof” and continues writing and recording a whole other album. The end result is Lucky Town. On December 30, 1991, Jessica Rae Springsteen is born.
1992 to 1993
The simultaneous release of Human Touch and Lucky Town on March 31 angers some fans, who feel forced to buy two full-priced albums. The records fall off the charts quickly and critics declare them to be the worst of Springsteen’s career. His dismissal of the E Street Band for Hollywood session musicians and gospel singers doesn’t help matters but Springsteen embraces this time of change. He makes his first ever appearance on live American television on May 9, as a guest on Saturday Night Live. The summer is dominated by a tour of Europe, which receives mixed reviews and, upon returning to Jersey for an 11-night stint at the Meadowlands Arena, the band plays older songs in place of new ones. Springsteen agrees to film an episode of MTV’s Unplugged series in September but brings an electric band with him and plays two previously unreleased songs, "Red Headed Woman” and "Light of Day.” The episode airs in November. For a 1993 European tour, Springsteen dusts off rarely performed and unreleased songs and adds an extended acoustic segment to his show. That June, he performs two "Concerts to Fight Hunger” and the Jersey edition features guest turns by most of the E Street Band. The next night, Springsteen makes a surprise appearance on David Letterman’s final NBC show and performs "Glory Days” with Paul Shaffer’s band. That fall, director Jonathan Demme commissions Springsteen to write a song for his new film, which confronts the AIDS epidemic, and the singer responds with "Streets of Philadelphia,” his biggest hit of the ‘90s. "[It] was a hit because of the film,” Springsteen said. "It addressed something that the country was attempting to come to grips with at that moment.” (Songs, p.262)
1994 to 1995
Sam Ryan Springsteen is born on January 5, 1994. "Streets of Philadelphia” is the song of the year, earning Springsteen his first Golden Globe and Oscar awards, and later winning four Grammys. (Racing in the Street, xxiii) He begins work on a new record but the results are never released. Instead, CBS places Greatest Hits on its 1995 release schedule and Springsteen plans to record two new songs for the collection. Springsteen invites the E Street Band — including Van Zandt — to participate in the January 9 session, marking their first studio gathering since 1984. "I wrote ‘Blood Brothers’ on the eve of recording with the E Street Band again,” Springsteen said. "The song is filled with ambivalence and deep affection of revisiting a relationship spanning 25-plus years.” "‘This Hard Land’ traces the search for ‘home’ against the restlessness and isolation that is at the heart of the American character. It’s about friendship and survival and ends the album with a shot of idealism.” (Songs, p.262-263) Featuring two additional bonus songs ("Secret Garden” and "Murder Incorporated”) Greatest Hits debuts at number one on March 18. In April, Springsteen performs with the E Street Band on Letterman, but the following month, he begins work on a solo acoustic album. The E Street Band joins Springsteen for the opening night of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, fuelling reunion tour rumours. Instead, on November 21, CBS releases The Ghost of Tom Joad, a dark, solo turn for Springsteen that fosters his first ever acoustic world tour.
1996 to 1997
Though unfair comparisons to Nebraska are imminent, critics rally around the bleak sound of Tom Joad. In Rolling Stone, Mikal Gilmore calls it "Springsteen’s best album in ten years,” but cautions readers, "make no mistake — what you are being drawn into are scenarios of hell. American hell.” (Rolling Stone, 724-725 December 28, 1995 - January 11, 1996) The album wins a Grammy for "Best Contemporary Folk Album.” (Racing in the Streets, xxiii) Sean Penn’s The Crossing Guard features the outtake "Missing” and Springsteen writes the Oscar nominated title track to Tim Robbins’ Dead Man Walking. In September Springsteen performs at a Woody Guthrie tribute and later a benefit for his hometown, performing a song called "Freehold” before a residents-only audience. In the fall of 1997, Springsteen finishes a rewarding world tour and preps another solo record but never completes it. He performs "One Headlight” with Jakob Dylan’s Wallflowers on the MTV Video Awards and "The Times They Are A-Changin’” before President Clinton at the Kennedy Centre Honours tribute to Bob Dylan. (HYPERLINK "%22"http://www.greasylake.org/frame_lost.htm)
On April 26, Douglas Springsteen passes away at 73. Though the overbearing father image is a frequent antagonist in Springsteen’s work, the singer is devastated. "My father and I had a very loving relationship,” he says in a statement. "I feel lucky to have been so close to my dad as I became a man and a father myself.” ("Father of Bruce Springsteen Dies at 73,” Asbury Park Press) Springsteen dedicates his candid autobiography/songbook Songs to his late father. He begins work on a comprehensive box set of rarities that is reduced from six to four CDs. Springsteen appears in a London courthouse for a copyright case against Masquerade Music, a U.K. company selling Before the Fame, an unauthorized compilation of ‘70s Springsteen rarities; he wins the case and Masquerade’s 2001 appeal also falls in his favour. (HYPERLINK "%22"http://music.yahoo.com/read/news/12031993?ev=25023071) In November, the 66-song Tracks box set is released and is a treasure trove for Springsteen fans wondering what mythical song sketches and the surplus of album outtakes sound like. "It’s the alternate route to some of the destinations I travelled on my records, an invitation into the studio on the many nights we spent making music in search of the records we presented to you,” Springsteen writes in the liner notes. On December 8, an E Street Band reunion tour is announced.
1999 to 2000
Weinberg and Van Zandt put their TV show commitments (Late Night with Conan O’Brien bandleader and Silvio Dante on The Sopranos respectively) on hold and the E Street Band begins rehearsing. The set is strong and Springsteen feels inspired to write new material. "The band has always given me confidence to tackle large themes,” he said. "Something about the size and sound of the music we make, the depth of the relationships, brings this out in my writing.” (Songs, p.296) Drawing form the folk spiritual, "This Train,” Springsteen writes the stirring anthem, "Land of Hope and Dreams.” Springsteen is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by U2’s Bono and the occasion marks the first public E Street Band performance in four years. Springsteen makes a cameo as a wise version of himself in the hit film, High Fidelity. The band tours the world extensively, playing to sold-out, appreciative audiences. On June 4, 2000 in Atlanta, GA, the band debuts "American Skin (41 Shots),” which is inspired by the barbaric shooting of African immigrant Amadou Diallo by undercover NYC cops who mistook his wallet for a gun. Perceived mistakenly as an anti-police song, mere reports of the song prompt a vitriolic reaction from NYC tabloids and mayor Rudy Giuliani; the NYPD call for a boycott and a police union spokesman calls Springsteen a "floating fag.” (Two Hearts, p.xx) "I worked hard for a balanced voice,” Springsteen said. "The idea was here: Here is what systematic racial injustice, fear, and paranoia do to our children, our loved ones, ourselves. Here is the price in blood.” (Songs, p.298) At the first of their 10-date tour finale at Madison Square Garden, Springsteen responds to the browbeating with a new song called "Code of Silence,” followed immediately by "American Skin (41 Shots).” In the audience, angry boos are matched by supportive cheers and song is included on the set list each night; the last two shows are filmed.
2001 to 2002
On March 27, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band – Live in New York City is released as a powerful double record. It precedes an unprecedented HBO special of the same name, which airs the following week, confirming reports that the E Street Band are as strong a live act as they’ve ever been. Like most Americans, Springsteen is deeply affected by September 11th. He writes two new songs in preparation for the America: A Tribute to Heroes telethon benefiting victims of the attack but, feeling unsure of them, he opts to perform "My City of Ruins” instead, a newer song about deteriorating Asbury Park that fits the occasion. Days after the attacks, a man drives by Springsteen on the beach, rolls his window down and yells, "We need you!” "I thought, well, I’ve probably been a part of this guy's life for a while, and people wanna see other people they know, they wanna be around things they're familiar with,” Springsteen told Rolling Stone. "That made me sense, like, ‘Oh, I have a job to do.’” (Rolling Stone, "Bruce Springsteen,” August 2002) Unhappy with the sound of preliminary E Street Band sessions, Springsteen meets with producer Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam, Rage Against The Machine) and the band relocate to his Southern Tracks studios in Atlanta in the spring of 2002. Springsteen writes songs like "Into the Fire,” "Empty Sky,” "You’re Missing,” and "The Rising,” as a direct response to the 9/11 tragedy, and these fit well with other songs which he’d written earlier. O’Brien’s production is perfect for the 21st Century E Street Band and the record is completed in a remarkable seven weeks. The Rising is released to rave reviews on July 30 and, as part of an unprecedented promotional blitz, Springsteen is an omnipresent figure on the television, driving the album to number one. (HYPERLINK "%22"http://www.greasylake.org/frame_lost.htm) The band tours across the world and end the year with a memorable appearance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, performing "Kitty’s Back” and "Merry Christmas Baby.”
2003 to 2004
The Rising tour continues with new and rare tour stops all over the world. Springsteen’s political persuasion has never been as clearly articulated as it is during his on-stage raps for this tour, which suggest that fans take a harder look at the Bush administration’s war in Iraq. "Our band was built well over many years, for difficult times,” Springsteen said. "When people wanted a dialog, a conversation of events, internal and external, we developed a language that suited those moments, a language I hoped would entertain, inspire, comfort, and reveal.” (Songs, p.307) In November, CBS releases The Essential Bruce Springsteen, a comprehensive collection of songs that includes a remarkable third disc of unreleased material. It’s baffling that Springsteen deemed songs like "From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)” and "Held Up Without A Gun” unfit for official release. A week after Essential, the raucous Live at Barcelona DVD is released, marking the first full-length concert film ever authorized by Springsteen. In April, he shares a Grammy for "Best Rock Performance By a Duo or Group With Vocal” with his late friend Warren Zevon for the song, "Disorder in the House.” (HYPERLINK "%22"http://www.warrenzevon.com/news/index.htm) In October 2004, Springsteen makes the most partisan political statement of his life, spearheading the Vote for Change swing-state tour, which supports Democrat John Kerry’s bid for President. Flanked each night by R.E.M. and John Fogerty and drop-in guests like Neil Young, Springsteen divides his loyal audience in two. At the end of the tour, he travels with Kerry and plays solo sets at his campaign stops. "There is a long tradition of the artist being involved in the life of the nation,” Springsteen tells Rolling Stone. "For me, it goes back to Woody Guthrie, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield and Bob Dylan. The artist is there to open up discourse, to get people thinking about American identity: Who are we? What do we fight for? What do we stand for? I view these things as a fundamental part of my job.” (Rolling Stone, "Springsteen Joins Kerry.” Oct. 26, 2004). Despite Springsteen’s efforts, George W. Bush is re-elected.
Springsteen re-visits the record he was writing in 1997 and completes his 14th album, Devils & Dust. Part acoustic folk, part electric rock, it is his most successful and satisfying album without the E Street Band. With O’Brien producing again and its mix of migrant tales, interpersonal connection, and jubilation, Devils meets Tom Joad and The Rising halfway. On the eve of its April release, Springsteen tells Rolling Stone he’s sitting on some E Street songs. "You've always got to hear them back to know if they're good or not,” he said. "I’m not sure if it’s the very next thing. But I certainly imagine we’ll be doing that sooner rather than later.” (http://www.rollingstone.com/artists/brucespringsteen/articles/story/7239798/bruce_kicks_up_dust) Earlier in the month, Springsteen tapes an episode of VH1Storytellers, providing revealing context for eight of his best-loved songs. His line-by-line explanations of songs are alternately fascinating and meandering but die-hards appreciate his insight. The Devils tour is a solo affair but is wholly unique, with Springsteen’s sense of purpose and humour intermingling wonderfully. He trades off on guitar, piano, pump organ, electric harp, and shows true command of his multi-faceted voice. He ends most shows with Suicide’s "Dream Baby Dream.” Storytellers is released on DVD with added features, including a Q&A with the audience. In November, CBS releases a breathtaking 30th anniversary edition of Born to Run, complete with a new, comprehensive making-of documentary and a previously unseen DVD film of the historic 1975 Hammersmith Odeon show in its entirety. Devils & Dust is nominated for five Grammys.
With the possible exception of Kanye West, Springsteen is the only worthwhile performer at February’s Grammy Awards and he wins one for "Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance” for "Devils & Dust.” In April, Springsteen releases We Shall Overcome The Seeger Sessions, his first all-covers album, featuring 13 interpretations of traditional songs associated with Seeger. The seeds of the project are planted in 1998, when Springsteen records the protest anthem "We Shall Overcome” with a 10-piece folk band for the Pete Seeger tribute album, Where Have All the Flowers Gone. As they did with the Born to Run reissue, CBS teams with Amazon.com to screen footage promoting the release. The clip shows Springsteen roaring through "John Henry” with a large, Jersey-based, folk band playing guitars, mandolins, banjos, upright bass, accordions, horns, fiddles, and shuffling drums. Springsteen announces European and American tour dates with a 17-piece band. "We Shall Overcome The Seeger Sessions has a lightness and ease to it, a sheer joyfulness, that makes it very special from top to bottom,” Landau said. "Bruce has taken a core group of classic American songs and transformed them into a high energy, modern and very personal statement.”