The Backstreet Phantom of Rock

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The rock-'n'-roll generation: everybody grows up by staying young.

Bruce Springsteen is onto this. In fact, he has written a song about it:

I pushed B-52 and bombed 'em with the blues

With my gear set stubborn on standing

I broke all the rules, strafed my old high school

Never once gave thought to landing,

I hid in the clouded warmth of the crowd,

But when they said, "Come down," I threw up,

Ooh .. .growin'up.

He has been called the "last innocent in rock," which is at best partly true, but that is how he appears to audiences who are exhausted and on fire at the end of a concert. Springsteen is not a golden California boy or a glitter queen from Britain. Dressed usually in leather jacket and shredded undershirt, he is a glorified gutter rat from a dying New Jersey resort town who walks with an easy swagger that is part residual stage presence, part boardwalk braggadocio. He nurtures the look of a lowlife romantic even though he does not smoke, scarcely drinks and disdains every kind of drug.

In all other ways, however, he is the dead-on image of a rock musician: street smart but sentimental, a little enigmatic, articulate mostly through his music. For 26 years Springsteen has known nothing but poverty and debt until, just in the past few weeks, the rock dream came true for him. ("Man, when I was nine I couldn't imagine anyone not wanting to be Elvis Presley.") But he is neither sentimental nor superficial. His music is primal, directly in touch with all the impulses of wild humor and glancing melancholy, street tragedy and punk anarchy that have made rock the distinctive voice of a generation.

Springsteen's songs are full of echoes—of Sam Cooke and Elvis Presley, of Chuck Berry, Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly. You can also hear Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and the Band weaving among Springsteen's elaborate fantasias. The music is a synthesis, some Latin and soul, and some good jazz riffs too. The tunes are full of precipitate breaks and shifting harmonies, the lyrics often abstract, bizarre, wholly personal.

Springsteen makes demands. He figures that when he sings

Baby this town rips the bones from your back

It's a death trap, it's a suicide rap

We gotta get out while we 're young

'Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run,

everybody is going to know where he's coming from and just where he's heading.

Springsteen first appeared in the mid-'60s for a handful of loy al fans from the scuzzy Jersey shore. Then, two record albums of wired brilliance (Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle) enlarged his audience to a cult. The albums had ecstatic reviews — there was continuing and talk of "a new Dylan" growing — but slim sales. Springsteen spent nearly two years working on his third album, Born to Run, and Columbia Records has already invested $150,000 in ensuring that this time around, everyone gets the message.

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