The Backstreet Phantom of Rock

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He once cautioned in a song that you can "waste your summer prayin' in vain for a savior to rise from these streets," but right now Springsteen represents a regeneration, a renewal of rock. He has gone back to the sources, rediscovered the wild excitement that rock has lost over the past few years. Things had settled down in the '70s: with a few exceptions, like Paul Simon, Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt, there was an excess of showmanship, too much din substituting for true power, repetition—as in this past summer's Rolling Stones tour—for lack of any new directions. Springsteen has taken rock forward by taking it back, keeping it young. He uses and embellishes the myths of the '50s pop culture: his songs are populated by bad-ass loners, wiped-out heroes, bikers, hot-rodders, women of soulful mystery. Springsteen conjures up a whole half-world of shattered sunlight and fractured neon, where his characters re-enact little pageants of challenge and desperation.

The Born to Run album is so powerful, and Springsteen's presence so prevalent at the moment, that before the phenomenon has had a chance to settle, a reaction is already setting in. He is being typed as a '50s hood in the James Dean mold, defused for being a hype, put down as a product of the Columbia promo "fog machine," condemned for slicking up and recycling a few old rock-'n'-roll riffs. Even Springsteen remains healthily skeptical. "I don't understand what all the commotion is about," he told TIME Correspondent James Willwerth. "I feel like I'm on the outside of all this, even though I know I'm on the inside. It's like you want attention, but sometimes you can't relate to it."

Springsteen defies classification. This is one reason recognition was so long in coming. There is nothing simple to hold on to. He was discovered by Columbia Records Vice President of Talent Acquisition John Hammond, who also found Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman and Bob Dylan, among others. Hammond knew "at once that Bruce would last a generation" but thought of him first as a folk musician.

Casting Springsteen as a rebel in a motorcycle jacket is easy enough—it makes a neat fit for the character he adopted in Born to Run—but it ignores a whole other side of his importance and of his music.

Born to Run is a bridge between Springsteen the raffish rocker and the more ragged, introverted street poet of the first two albums. Although he maintains that he "hit the right spot" on Born to Run, it is the second album, The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, that seems to go deepest. A sort of free-association autobiography, it comes closest to the wild fun-house refractions of Springsteen's imagination. In Wild Billy's Circus Song, when he sings, "He's gonna miss his fall, oh God save the human cannonball," Springsteen could be anticipating and describing his own current, perhaps perilous trajectory. In case of danger, however, Springsteen will be rescued by the music itself, just as he has always been. "Music saved me," he says. "From the beginning, my guitar was something I could go to. If I hadn't found music, I don't know what I would have done."

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