Trying To Get To You

Thursday, March 12, 2009

What Artists Can Really Learn From Springsteen

I have to admit that I find it vaguely surreal to encounter Hangin’ On E Street, a horribly named, but sort of cool page on Bruce Springsteen’s website that has several videos of indie artists talking about Springsteen’s influence. As a long time Springsteen freak whose teenage years coincided with Born In The U.S.A. mania, I remember a time, basically from about 1985-2000, that loving Bruce as I did could not have been considered more uncool, especially in the alt/indie leaning circles that I was traveling in. I guess the memories of those dumb bandannas have faded, and enough people now know that “Born In The U.S.A.” isn’t a jingoistic anthem.

Most of the artists on the page talk about Bruce’s songwriting, his live shows and some allusions to his “authenticity.” Fair enough. But what new and developing artists would do well to know about and take from Bruce is the keen critical eye he took to his own material and performances in the early years - continually reshaping his songs and performances, taking them up several levels in the process. It was this restless spirit applied to his own work, that more than anything else, separated Springsteen from almost every other rocker of his time - and led to him being who he became as a singer, songwriter, recording artist and performer.

Springsteen’s debut, Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ, released in January of 1973 was a good but not great album. A compromise between his rock roots and the singer/songwriter he had been signed as by John Hammond, the album was poorly recorded, and did not adequately capture Springsteen’s roots as a rocker. The songs tumbled in a torrent of imagery, and while many of the songs were great, the tepid arrangements didn't adequately reveal the quality of the songs.

In 1973, Springsteen’s shows with the band (they weren’t officially the E Street Band yet – that came in 1974) were good and sometimes excellent, but not nearly at the level he would soon reach. Springsteen was finding his way – figuring out what worked and what didn’t. Songs stayed close to their recorded versions, but Springsteen experimented by dropping unreleased songs into his set to gauge audience reaction, an almost unheard of practice in rock. (The great exception to this would be the Grateful Dead, but once their songs debuted live, they rarely altered.)

Download: "Spirit In The Night" 1/31/73, New York, NY
Download: "Blinded By The Light"
3/2/73, Berkeley, CA
Download: "You Mean So Much To Me" 7/31/73, Roslyn, NY
Download: "Santa Ana" 4/24/73 Philadelphia, PA


In 1974, Bruce Springsteen transformed as a live performer. The first key step was the firing of drummer Vini Lopez in February, and the substitution of Ernest "Boom" Carter in his place. Carter brought both power and a funky, syncopated groove to the drumming stool, and the power of the songs began to shine. Given a solid rhythmic foundation, Springsteen now felt comfortable to play with his own arrangements, elasticizing them and altering them. In that process, he made his live experience unique every single night - and began to create the enormous groundswell of fan and critical momentum that led to Born To Run.

(Compare the two versions of "Walking The Dog," one recorded with Lopez in January of 1974, and one with Carter, recorded about five weeks later in early March, 1974. The difference is staggering.)

Download: "Walking The Dog" (w/Vini Lopez) 1/29/74, Nashville, TN
Download: "Walking The Dog" (w/Boom Carter) 3/3/74, Washington, DC

Download: "Spirit In The Night" 6/3/74, Cleveland, OH
Download: "Kitty's Back" 7/14/74, New York, NY
Download: "Lost In The Flood" 10/19/74, Schnectady, NY (w/Roy Bittan & Max Weinberg)

Springsteen was not content to simply write a song or play a performance. His obsessive drive caused him to write and re-write lyrics, tweak arrangements and continually look for what he could put in the songs and the shows to take them to the next level. Versions of "Born To Run," "She's The One," "Jungleland" and in early 1975, "Thunder Road" debuted, all in either slightly ("Born To Run") or vastly different ("Jungleland," "Thunder Road") form then how they would be released a year later on Born To Run.

Download: "Born To Run" 7/13/74, New York, NY
Download: "Jungleland" 7/14/74, New York, NY
Download: "Wings For Wheels (Thunder Road)" 2/5/75, Bryn Mawr, PA


Most artists would have been content with those three songs - all were good, and "Born To Run" was already great. But Springsteen was unsparing of himself and so dedicated to the vision in his head that he wouldn't compromise. Draft after draft of lyrics were written until, as Springsteen said later, "they were stripped of cliche." Arrangements were re-thought and re-shaped until their power was maximized.

I've worked with more than a few artists, and I've never encountered any that were willing to be that unsparing with their own work, and it's that element of his greatness that I would advise developing artists to take on. It's also the most difficult one to emulate - but that's what separates the merely good from the great. And now more than ever, if you're going to have a possibility for being a lasting musician, you've got to be great.

(Thanks to Brucebase for the photos.)

11 comments:

ADz said...

"But what new and developing artists would do well to know about and take from Bruce is the keen critical eye he took to his own material and performances in the early years" - I agree - but unfortunately, I think that present-day Bruce could also learn the same thing...

Ben Lazar said...

If you're referring to Working On A Dream, I agree with you.

Paul Kent said...

The continuous tweaking of his repetoire continues to this day - everything from overt re-works (The River from the reunion tour to the Seeger Sessions adaptations of his catalog) to subtle things like key changes or acoustic treatments of his songs. I love how he interprets others songs as well - my favorite being the performances of 'It's My Life' from the mid 70's. Following Bruce' music is to watch everything about him be in a state of constant evolution.

Great article, Ben. Thanks!

Keith said...

Great article. Have a wonderful weekend. Cheers!

Paul said...

Great analysis. The early version of Thunder Road is really interesting. You can hear how the songwriting happened as your mind edits with an imaginary red pen.

Rosalie said...

Hi Ben, Thanks for the post. Do you know what song Bruce was introducing after the performance of Santa Ana in 1973. There's a spoken intro about the characters at the gas station next door. I'm wondering what song it is leading into. Thanks!

Ben Lazar said...

Rosalie,

The song he was prefacing with a story was an unreleased song called "Tokyo," which the band played in 1973 and the first half of 1974.

Rosalie said...

Hi Ben,
Thanks! I've always wanted to hear Tokyo. Read the lyrics and was intrigued.

Ben Lazar said...

Rosalie,

If you go to BTX (the message board) on Backstreets.com, there's an mp3 page where you can get pretty much any Springsteen mp3 you want. The show is from 4/24/73.

Rosalie said...

awesome!

Micky said...

"It was this restless spirit applied to his own work, that more than anything else, separated Springsteen from almost every other rocker of his time" - I cannot agree more - Bruce did it his way and did not care about the latest music fad, the latest look or the latest sound. He was just a rocker and his name will live forever in rock music history!

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