- The Washington Times - Friday, December 4, 2009

Bruce Springsteen, a scruffy, awkward, self-described “cosmic kid,” bet his life that rock ‘n’ roll could deliver him from a dysfunctional Irish-Italian ocean-side existence — that one day, he would “walk like Brando right into the sun.”

His gamble proved spectacularly correct.

At 60 years old, the Kennedy Center Honoree has delivered a finishing kick to a decade-long resurgence that has seen a flurry of ambitious recordings and an indefatigable stretch of live performances.

A “victory lap,” as Mr. Springsteen himself put it.

Yet the career of Bruce Frederick Springsteen of Freehold, N.J., almost never took off — despite his auspicious discovery by the same legendary talent scout (John Hammond) who signed Bob Dylan to Columbia Records.

Emerging from the ebullient, R&B-laden Jersey Shore music scene of the late 1960s, the young Mr. Springsteen, in retrospect, sounded distinctly different from his iconic label mate Mr. Dylan, to whom he was often compared and by whom he most certainly was influenced.

The voice was more akin to Van Morrison’s, for one. Also, the febrile wordplay of his early lyrics harbored neither the populist political sensibility for which he later would become renowned nor the “finger-pointing” topicality of Dylan-era folk. He was billed as a solo artist, a singer-songwriter, but he surrounded himself with a disheveled group of musicians — eventually known as the E Street Band — with comic, gashouse-gang nicknames: “Phantom Dan,” “Miami Steve,” “Mad Dog.”

The musical arrangements found on Mr. Springsteen’s first pair of albums, “Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.,” and “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle,” both released in 1973, were eccentric, often sprawling, never simple even when they seemed so, and punctuated by the altogether un-Dylanesque saxophone lines of Clarence Clemons.

Despite positive notices, they were flops.

Mr. Springsteen, on the cusp of being dropped by Columbia and returning to boardwalk refuse, persisted.

Rock ‘n’ roll may have been the stuff of romance and escape, but for the working-class Mr. Springsteen and his band mates, it also was a job — a job performed in front of young people who were peers, not adoring fanatics.

Mr. Springsteen’s beginnings as a teenage working musician were as humble as can be imagined: drive-in theaters, hospital benefits, shopping centers. By his early 20s, he was touring incessantly, vectoring out from the Jersey Shore to New York City nightclubs and college campuses throughout the Northeast, especially Philadelphia.

“I had never heard of him,” recalls Karla Andre, a Philadelphia-area native who lives in Nashville, Tenn., and first saw Mr. Springsteen in April 1974 at her alma mater, Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pa. “You don’t know a song or what to expect, and then you get a vibe. All of us walked away saying, ‘This is great.’”

Shows at West Chester College and Kutztown State College, both now universities, soon followed. “We became local followers,” Mrs. Andre says — a typical conversion experience for countless Springsteen fans.

“Our roots were pre-psychedelic,” Mr. Springsteen recently told the British magazine Q. “The bohemian approach of the Stones — which I love so much, and I am a huge fan of — didn’t make a lot of sense to the lives of the kids we started off playing to. What made sense was hardworkingsoul man, the aspirations of Motown — that if you found a way to find your place, you might be able to move up slightly. These were the things that got you through the night.”

“It’s kind of hazy, but I believe the first time I ran into him was in 1970 at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West [concert hall],” recalls Bethesda native Nils Lofgren, a longtime singer and performer in his own right who joined the E Street Band as a guitarist in 1984. “There was a famous audition night where 20 bands would play 15 minutes each for the locals for two bucks, hoping to get an opening-act slot from Bill Graham. My band Grin performed, and Steel Mill, one of Bruce’s early bands, performed that night, too.”

The two tromped the same club circuit and struck up an intermittent friendship. “In addition to his formidable gifts as a songwriter, bandleaderand singer, just the dedication to his craft, to me, set him apart from all of us,” Mr. Lofgren says. “Some nights, we’d be like, ‘Hey, let’s take a break, have a beer, kick back.’ Bruce’s idea of a party was writing the next 10 songs. I always admired him for that.”

The productivity and sonic obsessiveness paid off in the form of 1975’s landmark “Born to Run,” whose title track alone took six months to complete. The E Street Band had taken on two key new members — drummer Max Weinberg and pianist Roy Bittan, who replaced Vini Lopez and David Sancious, respectively. Mr. Springsteen also brought on as co-producer Jon Landau, a music journalist who eventually became the singer’s manager and remains an instrumental overall presence.

Steven Van Zandt, whom Mr. Springsteen had known since both were 16-year-old Asbury Park fixtures, contributed a seat-of-the-pants horn arrangement to the track “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” He soon would join the E Street Band full time as a second guitarist.

By the sessions’ end, Mr. Springsteen, at once mentally defeated and grandiosely confident (the album, he reflected, was his “shot at the title”), half-seriously threatened to scrap the recordings.

Mr. Springsteen compressed his songcraft while broadening its scope to include quintessential American themes — girls, cars, road trips, redemption. Gone, with the exception of the mesmerizing album-closing epic “Jungleland,” were the seven-plus-minute epics of “The Wild.” “Born to Run’s” classic title track, it was hoped, would maintain the exhilaration of earlier efforts like “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” — but at a more digestible, radio-friendly length.

The album, which dropped in late summer, garnered rave reviews; “Born to Run,” the single, cracked the Top 40. Mr. Springsteen commenced a galvanizing tour that included a three-night stand at the District’s Carter Barron Amphitheatre. By October of that year, he had landed on the covers of Newsweek and Time in the same week.

Mr. Landau’s famous 1974 dictum in Rolling Stone — “I saw rock and roll’s future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen” — sounded less like fan-boy hyperbole than a prescient statement of fact.

And yet, by the late ‘70s, Mr. Springsteen was projecting a dark, foreboding persona. Wrangling with producer Mike Appelover issues of musical direction and creative control kept Mr. Springsteen out of the studio for more than a year.

The resulting follow-up, “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” cemented the trend of compression and leanness that had begun with “Born to Run” and fleshed out the themes of working-class alienation and dispossession that Mr. Springsteen had begun exploring on the 1975 cut “Night.” The album is considered by many hard-core fans — and by the Boss himself — the spine of the Springsteen songbook.

In a provocative 2005 essay, Slate critic Stephen Metcalf fingered Mr. Landau as the primary source of Mr. Springsteen’s creative overhaul.

“Unlike the down-on-their-luck Springsteens of Freehold, N.J., Landau hailed from the well-appointed suburbs of Boston and had earned an honors degree in history from Brandeis. He filled his new protege’s head with an American Studies syllabus heavy on John Ford, Steinbeck and Flannery O’Connor,” Mr. Metcalf asserted. “At the same time that he intellectualized Bruce, he anti-intellectualized him. Rock music was transcendent, Landau believed, because it was primitive, not because it could be avant-garde. ‘The White Album’ and Hendrix and the Velvet Underground had robbed rock of its power, which lay buried in the pre-Beatles era with Del Shannon and the Ronettes. Bruce’s musical vocabulary accordingly shrank.”

Mr. Springsteen’s next two releases, in their different ways, pushed the envelope of primitivism. The double-LP “The River” (1980), co-produced by early-rock enthusiast Mr. Van Zandt, featured a slate of exuberant bare-bones rockers and frat-rock throwbacks, complemented by the singer’s most introspective acoustic ballads yet. The doo-wop-influenced “Hungry Heart” became Mr. Springsteen’s first Top 10 single.

On 1982’s “Nebraska,” he released a set of spare, often fuzzed-out demo-quality acoustic tracks that presaged Mr. Springsteen’s penchant for rounding out full-band efforts with startlingly intimate chamber pieces — from the Oscar-winning “Streets of Philadelphia” (1993) on to 2008’s“The Wrestler.”

Midway through the Reagan era came Mr. Springsteen’s biggest commercial triumph — 1984’s 15-million-selling “Born in the U.S.A.” The album’s flag-bedecked cover art (by acclaimed photographer Annie Leibovitz) and the anthemic chant of its title track concealed for many Americans — including, famously, conservative columnist George Will and the Reagan re-election campaign — its embittered antiwar message.

“Clearly, the key to the enormous explosion of Bruce’s popularity is the misunderstanding [of ‘Born in the U.S.A.’],” critic Greil Marcus remarked. “He is a tribute to the fact that people hear what they want.”

Perhaps.

But that doesn’t account for the other six of the album’s record-tying seven Top 10 singles, including the radio-friendly, synthesizer-driven pop smash “Dancing in the Dark.”

“A teen idol at 35?! I enjoyed it,” Mr. Springsteen observed in the liner notes to his 1995 “Greatest Hits” collection.

“Nobody could have predicted that kind of massive success,” Mr. Lofgren says. “As a human being, I’m sure that whole thing had to be overwhelming and sometimes ominous for him. It can’t be fun being that famous all the time. But I’ve always admired him for his ability to keep his eye on the prize: ‘Well, this has happened. I did want to share music with people — so now I’m sharing it with 20 million people.’ He handled it with a lot of class and dignity.”

And he would never again attempt to compete on such a level.

Before the megapopularity receded, Mr. Springsteen married actress Julianne Phillips.The demise of the couple’s relationship, stemming in no small part from Mr. Springsteen’s affair with backup singer and current wife Patti Scialfa, is chronicled on Mr. Springsteen’s somber, self-flagellating “Tunnel of Love” album (1987). Mr. Springsteen and Miss Scialfa married in 1991 and have three children.

Mr. Springsteen has referred to the 1990s as his “lost” decade; at its outset, he had made the momentous decision to dissolve the E Street Band. He also moved part timeto California, raising the ire of some overzealous fans, and recorded a pair of coolly received albums (“Human Touch,” “Lucky Town”) with various Los Angeles session musicians.

By his own admission, he began to lose confidence in his “rock voice.” He released a solo album of bleak Western songs (“The Ghost of Tom Joad”) in 1995 and briefly reunited the E Street Band to record an addendum to the “Greatest Hits” anthology.

Thereafter followed years of virtual silence. The Springsteen brood had returned to New Jersey to lead a quiet family life in idyllic horse country.

In 1998, however, Mr. Springsteen let loose a gusher (66 songs’ worth) of mostly unreleased material, much of it first-rate, with the boxed set “Tracks.” Impressed anew, perhaps, by the depth of his own catalog, Mr. Springsteen in 1999 gathered his E Street band mates in earnest for a full-blown reunion tour.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and their aftermath sent Mr. Springsteen into an eruption of songwriting. “The Rising” (2002), his first album with the E Street band since 1984, emerged quickly. The set (like three subsequent albums) was produced by Brendan O’Brien, arguably the most significant collaborator to join the Springsteen fold since the addition of Mr. Landau.

Over the past 10 years, Mr. Springsteen has appeared in the Washington area in multiple incarnations: outspoken advocate of Democratic presidential aspirations (Vote for Change tour, 2004; this year’s “We Are One” inaugural celebration at the Lincoln Memorial); solo acoustic troubadour (Patriot Center, 2005); big-band Americana revivalist (Nissan Pavilion, 2006); and, of course, the irrepressible frontman of one of rock music’s most celebrated acts.

At his most recent area performance — at Verizon Center last month — Mr. Springsteen unspooled the “Born to Run” album in its entirety. “This is the record that started a lifelong conversation between you and me,” he said by way of reintroduction to the throng in front of him, with whom he shares a bond, almost mystical, that none of his peers can match.

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