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Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Bruce Springsteen: The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle


1) The E Street Shuffle; 2) 4th Of July, Asbury Park; 3) Kitty's Back; 4) Wild Billy's Circus Story; 5) Incident On 57th Street; 6) Rosalita (Come Out Tonight); 7) New York City Serenade.

Before there was Born To Run, an album that put it all on red and won, there was this thing — and I do wish I had the chance to judge it from the perspective of 1974, when nobody except Jon Landau had the prescience of seeing Bruce Springsteen as the sweaty sacred prophet of blue-collar stadium rock. Lyrically, blue-collar themes are, of course, prevailing on this record as well, but the soundtrack to which they are set is a different thing — for once, it seems as if the Boss took up a more active interest in music than usual, rather than in sheer power. I have seen some people twitch at this record's «jazzy flourishes», justly stating that «jazz» is not something they expect from Springsteen. But they are wrong, because Springsteen is a talented professional who could probably master anything if he wanted to — the «Springsteen formula» is narrow and occa­sionally stultifying because he intentionally made it so, not because he wasn't capable of making the E Street Band into a more aggressive version of Steely Dan.

As opposed to the debut album, there are but seven songs here, and four of them go over seven minutes — partly because the man has some long-winded street life stories to tell, but also partly because he wishes to showcase the instrumental skills of his E Street Band, especially on the energetic numbers ʽKitty's Backʼ and ʽRosalitaʼ. The «innocent» part of the record, allocated for sentimental, heart-wrenching gutter romantics (ʽ4th Of Julyʼ, ʽWild Billyʼ, ʽIncident On 57th Streetʼ, ʽNew York City Serenadeʼ), is primarily for personal fans of the big man, but the «wild» part of it really showcases the E Street Band at their absolute best — a grand-sounding, tightly coordinated, perfectly oiled machine for the production of... of...

...well, Landau and the rest of 'em would certainly say «rock and roll», but, as I already stated in the previous review, the E Street Band never played «rock and roll» in the sense that the Rolling Stones, or the Who, or even the Beatles played «rock and roll». It is hard to define this sound with one term, and it may be wrong to even try. ʽThe E Street Shuffleʼ begins with a brassy jazz intro (Blood, Sweat & Tears, anyone?), continues with a spritely, happy-sounding funk riff (Average White Band?), and finally merges jazz, funk, and folk in a democratic trinity that com­bines the freedom of the first one, the dynamics and vivaciousness of the second one, and the earnestness of the third one in a combination that could have very easily blown people's minds back in those days when you expected Thin Lizzy to be over here and David Bowie over there, rather than meld their minds in a brawny-brainy synthesis like this one.

The only song here that really tries to «rock» for a while is ʽKitty's Backʼ, opening with scorching blues-rock licks from the Boss himself (he is actually credited for all the guitar playing on the album) and later developing into a tight, fast jam with Bruce leading the band to the heights of an almost psychedelic crescendo. But it is merely one of the many different ways in which he ex­presses his feelings — and far from the most preferred one. ʽRosalitaʼ, for instance, is already a song that I would not define as «rock and roll», because behind all the fatness of the sound lies something like your average folk dance, devoid of the sharpness and rebelliousness of true rock and roll. Not that there's anything wrong with that: whoever said that energetic dance music must have the listener clenching his fists to be «great» or «artistically relevant»? But it is also impor­tant that we try to use different words to describe ʽJumping Jack Flashʼ and ʽRosalitaʼ, because the two songs go for completely different purposes and responses.

Now, naturally any long-winded review of any Springsteen album should normally mention the lyrics, or it would look really strange. But see, I don't like these lyrics — none at all. There is something horribly, off-puttingly inadequate about Bruce's «pseudo-working class poetry». In real life, his Little Angels and his Sandies and his Kitties and his Billies and his Spanish Jonnies and whoever the hell is else on here do not talk like this, and do not think like this, and do not get carried away so much by these romantic ideas or impulses. Maybe if the man took a more de­tached, third-person view of his characters (as Dylan does whenever he is telling one of these stories), it would have made more sense — but most of the time, he makes himself one with his characters, and this inevitably results in an atmosphere of fakery. Everything is too complex, too convoluted, too intellectualized, in a way: as a convincing lyricist, I will take the much more straightforward and much more verbally challenged Phil Lynott over Springsteen any time, and heck, I might even take Bon Scott over Springsteen. (And yes, for the record, I've never been a big fan of West Side Story, either).

This is why the best way for me to enjoy an album like this is to simply shut my brain off towards all of its «realistic» pretense, and to imagine that something like ʽNew York City Serenadeʼ takes place in an alternate reality — one where young ruffians walk the midnight streets actually thin­king of how to "shake away your street life, shake away your city life, and hook up to the night train". Then it works — the midnight lounge jazz piano rolls, the low-key strings, the vocals that gradually build up from barely audible sleepy soulful croon to the full-chest screaming when it comes to the "junk man" who is "singin', he's singin', all dressed up in satin, walkin' past the alley" (another detail for the parallel reality, where all junk men are jazz men and they tend to casually dress in satin because they happen to find it mucho poetic).

Sometimes even that doesn't help — like on the album's weakest track, ʽWild Billy's Circus Storyʼ, which fulfills the function of ʽMary Queen Of Arkansasʼ on this album. Not only are these circus metaphors older than the oldest circus performers, but the tuba-accordeon-acoustic arran­gement is cheesy and generic, and it is really no fun listening to The Boss on his own here when this is clearly an album that thrives on full band support.

Still, it has always been my belief that The Wild was one of the most open-minded and promi­sing records of the man's career. It isn't perfect, but it spreads out in many directions, and the only straightforward «populist» song here is ʽRosalitaʼ — no wonder that it became the regular show closer for years to come. It did not sell much, and it did not cement any stereotypical images of Springsteen — had he decided to come out with, say, an instrumental jazz-folk-fusion record after this one, nobody except for Landau would have pinned him down to the ground for such a sacrilege. The problem is, this whole approach was just too convoluted and messy to really click with those «blue collar folks» who were his main lyrical protagonists. An incoherence, yes, both for the critics (who could be pampered in retrospect) and the Billboard charts (who couldn't), that would be rectified with his next release. Unfortunately. Anyway, this is arguably the first and last time you get a chance to observe «Bruce the Musicmaker» — so hurry up and support me on this thumbs up before he turns into «Bruce the Superhero», once and for all.


  1. This is my favorite Springsteen album by a country mile. I'm surprised you didn't namedrop Van Morrison as an influence here, since he seems the most obvious one to me.

  2. Rock and roll must make listeners clench their fists? Seems like a narrow definition. Chuck Berry and Little Richard don't elicit that - they're more cathartic than polemic.

  3. I agree, this is the E Streeters' finest hour. If I had to put a label on this sound, I would call it "Thinking Man's Bar Room Boogie with a twist of Soul and a shot of Broadway." I can't say it's my favorite but I tend to prefer it to BTR or BITUSA because the latter have been pimped and pumped to death. Wild Billy puts me off too. It's way too gross in its imagery for the anthem-friendly Boss. Some of the silly chants (Everybody form a line, Here she comes, etc.) bug me a little, too, but they fit the role of a "chorus" to the poetic Hero, I suppose. When band shouts "Oy! Oy! OY!" at the end of Rosalita, I picture the Boss marching with his Tele across the stage like a drum major. Probably his most engaging record, for what it's worth.

  4. I find this review a little unfair at times. For example, to view these songs' lyrics as failed attempts at working-class poetry is to wrongly assume that they are supposed to be working-class poetry in the first place. They are not, and the clue is in the music, which is as lushly "unrealistic" as anything in Eno. This album, as you say, takes place in an alternative reality of sorts, and the songs have far more in common with "otherworldly" records like Astral Weeks than with the more "realistic" part of Springsteen's authorial identity, which was established later on (Darkness on the Edge of Town, Nebraska...). Here there are no realistic or sociological pretensions; these songs are fairy tales set to music. To complain that pimps and drug dealers don't talk like this in real life is (bear with me) tantamount to dissing Kafka because people don't really turn into bugs in their beds.

    1. But then, they aren't quite fairy tales. Fairy tales aren't bombastic. (Astral Weeks, on the other hand, really is fairy tales.)

  5. A belated defense: West Side Story has nothing to do with Springsteen. The music and lyrics never ascribe transcendent significance to the working class, for being the working class. (No "We may find it out ON THE STREET tonight, baby"; No "All the redemption I can offer, girl, is beneath this dirty hood.") The bombast is reserved for the themes of love and escape ("peace and quiet and open air / wait for us somewhere").

    And of course there's no comparison to be made between Leonard Bernstein's elaborate melodies and rhythmic and harmonic complexities and Bruce's souped up '50s pop clichés.

    1. Having made one late post, I might as well make two.

      On reflection, I guess "Somewhere" is actually the one point where West Side Story comes close to the Springsteen spirit. If escaping from the life of a working class kid in racially divided New York City is per se transcendent, then so is the life itself. On the other hand, I wasn't quite right to call "Somewhere" 'bombastic': it sentimentalizes its subjects not as heroes, but as essentially vulnerable innocents, made even more holy by the crimes committed against them by society.

  6. Just a note: 'The Wild, The Innocent...' was released in September, 1973 -- not in 1974, as George states.

    A typical George-review of Bruce, which is to say a long ramble with little about Bruce's fine music and a lot about George's near-apologetic defense of his aesthetic dislike of Springsteen (which is fine; we're not under the impression that George is objective).

    I like this album, basically.