Bruce Springsteen - Musician (Born in the USA - Present)
Created | Updated May 13, 2013
To sum up the story so far: Bruce Springsteen was a New Jersey nobody until he strapped on a guitar and became a big name on the Asbury Park scene. A loud-mouthed man called Appel became his manager, helping him sign up with CBS music. First two albums bombed, then the next one was a huge hit. Bruce was the talk of the country. When he found out that Appel was taking most of his money, Bruce disappeared for a few years, returning to the music scene more sulky. Later he turned acoustic - then ultra-commercial, and got married in 1985.
Ain't Got You
Even when you seem to be on top of the world, you will always find somebody wanting more. Two criticisms of Born In The USA were its overt commercialism and, like many of Bruce's previous works, its rather one dimensional objectification of women. Both of these were addressed in 1987's Tunnel of Love1.
So tell me what I see when I look in your eyes
Is that you baby or just a brilliant disguise?
Bathed in self-reflection, the album saw a much more mature Springsteen singing poetic accounts based on the struggles of married life. It was a much more minimal record: Springsteen and Roy Bittan recorded the vocals, guitar, bass and synths in a makeshift studio in New Jersey. Other musicians were overdubbed later, but it was obviously not an E Street record. Clemons for instance only featured on vocals on one track, and his sax was absent.
When he wrote the songs, Springsteen thought they were the about the struggles of keeping a marriage intact. It turned out all too soon that these songs were cataloguing a failing marriage. Although the critics loved the album, it didn't sell in anywhere near the numbers that Born In The USA did, which is hardly a surprise.
Come the tour for the album and it was obvious that there was a new figure in Bruce's life, both personally and musically. The Clemons-Springsteen partnership, which had been the centrepiece of the energetic stage-show, was being eclipsed by the interaction of Scialfa and Springsteen. Just as she was becoming central to the band, she was becoming central to Bruce. He divorced his wife Julianne in 1989 to start a relationship with Patti Scialfa. The union of two New Jersey singer-songwriters pleased many of the hardcore fans.
Now look at me baby struggling to do everything right
And then it all falls apart when out go the lights
The couple moved about a bit to find a place to start their home life. In New York, Bruce couldn't go out and aimlessly drive around. In New Jersey, they couldn't escape the fans who thought that the stories of a young Bruce trying to break into Graceland were justification to visit their hero night and day. In LA, where everybody was a celebrity anyway, the couple felt anonymous and so set up home there.
Just as Springsteen songs draw from all aspects of American culture, Springsteen began to feature in other people's work. Randy Newman wrote a song where Springsteen asked for people to take over being him for a day. Comics ranging from Robin Williams to Cheech Marin included their takes on Springsteen songs in their acts.
In 1988, a band that contained two of Springsteen's biggest musical heroes, Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison, released a pastiche Springsteen song. The Travelling Wilburys' 'Tweeter and the Monkeyman', penned by Dylan, was littered with Springsteen clichés: there were strangely-named people on the run from the law, they were Vietnam veterans, and it was set in New Jersey.
Now the town of Jersey City is quieting down again
I'm sitting in a gambling club called the Lion's Den
The TV set been blown up, every bit of it is gone
Ever since the nightly news show that the Monkey Man was on
The Chimes of Freedom EP was released in 1988. It featured four live tracks of Bruce and the E Street Band. It included a version of 'Born To Run' and Bob Dylan's 'Chimes of Freedom'.
In 1989 Bruce made his most dramatic musical decision; he disbanded the E Street Band. He was fed up of playing the same songs, the same way every night and wanted to try something else. The members of the band received a large payout and were asked not to give interviews about his personal life. He toured on behalf of Amnesty International, sharing the stage with stars such as Sting and Peter Gabriel.
All or Nothin' At All
Consumed by loneliness, Springsteen all but vanished from public life, and, supported by Scialfa, he entered therapy.
Among his public concerts were his first acoustic gigs from two decades when he played a couple of nights for a central American solitary movement in Washington. He also turned up to help Van Zandt and Southside Johnny who were producing an album along the lines of previous Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes records that Van Zandt had featured on and Springsteen had written for.
Bruce and Patti decided to start a family - Evan James Springsteen was born in July 1990, and his parents got married on 8 June, 1991. Jessica Ray was born in December 1991 and Sam Ryan in January 1994. The arrival of grandchildren gave Douglas2 the opportunity to try and repair his relationship with his son.
Tell me, in a world without pity
Do you think what I'm askin's too much
I just want something to hold on to
Recording began on the next Bruce Springsteen album in 1990. Stuck for inspiration, Springsteen was resorting to writing exercises and playing around with pop song structures to make up some material. The making of the new album was a long process. Most Springsteen albums involved choosing which tracks should go onto the album; for Human Touch there were just not enough good songs. It even featured a few songs co-written by Roy Bittan, one using lyrics from Sonny Boy Williamson and one traditional song.
Then, driving one day, Bruce heard Dylan's 'Series of Dreams'3 which inspired him to write more songs. In eight weeks he had written and recorded another album of ten songs: Lucky Town.
These days I'm feeling all right
'cept I can't tell my courage from my desperation
Both albums were released on the same day, and sold quickly. Human Touch was obviously scraping the barrel, and encouraged questions as to whether he had lost his direction after sacking the E Street band, and also whether he really was the New Dylan4! Lucky Town was a much better album. Springsteen saw the pair as the fall of man then his redemption.
While initial sales were good, the albums soon sank down the charts. One major problem was that Bruce was no longer cool. Everybody from NWA to Nirvana were singing about teen oppression, meanwhile Springsteen was saying that these were in fact 'Better Days'.
But it's a sad man my friend who's livin' in his own skin
And can't stand the company
Occasionally Springsteen would unexpectedly appear in public. He'd play at private parties or join the house band at a Blues club. At a booksellers convention, a number of authors including Steven King and Matt Groening had formed a band to play a couple of songs. Springsteen wandered up to them and asked if he could join in!
Ain't no kindness in the face of strangers
Ain't gonna find no miracles here
Even though he witnessed racial violence growing up, Springsteen had never been too self-conscious about race in his music. The E Street band was multi-ethnic, as was the music they had grown up with. The live shows included covers from people as diverse as Sam Cooke and Manfred Mann. Without the E Street Band, Springsteen added more soul sounds into his touring band. It's been reported that somewhere in the archives there is an, as yet unreleased, Springsteen album of hip-hop inspired songs.
Springsteen was invited to do a MTV Unplugged session for the American music television station. During rehearsals with his band, he was not happy with any of the acoustic arrangements for his songs. The programme started out with him playing one acoustic song, before the band joined in with a fully electric set. This was released as In Concert/MTV Plugged.
But the stars are burnin' bright like some mystery uncovered
I'll keep movin' through the dark with you in my heart my Blood Brother
If Human Touch marked a creative slump, it wasn't a slump that Springsteen was going to stay in for long. He was recruited to write the theme song for a Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington film dealing with a man dismissed from his job for having contracted HIV. 'Streets Of Philadelphia' was one of the first songs in which a homosexual man was sung about by a heterosexual. The song dealt with two familiar themes, loneliness and isolation, this time felt by an AIDS suffer. The song and the film broke down barriers put up by ignorance and intolerance. Once again, 'The Boss' was standing up for the little man. Met with critical success, the song did well at both the Grammies and the Oscars.
I heard the voices of friends vanished and gone
At night I could hear the blood in my veins
Spurred on by this, Springsteen put in a call to The E Street Band and Steve Van Zandt, asking if they wanted to get back into the studio.
Bruce and the band got back together to record four new tracks for the Greatest Hits album. The album didn't include all the biggest sellers, for instance 'I'm On Fire' and 'Cover Me' were dropped in favour of 'Born in the USA' and 'Thunder Road' - which wasn't even a single.
'Secret Garden', was originally destined for another Tunnel Of Love-style album that didn't appear, although it did become another Top 40 single. 'This Hard Land' was originally left off Born In The USA. 'Murder Incorporated' was originally destined for the same album. Even though it was never been released, or even played at a gig, a guy came to loads of concerts and held up a sign asking for it. This had always amused Bruce and he decided to include the song on the album for him!
When your walkin' down the streets you won't need nowhere there to hide
Now the cops reported you as just another homicide
The final new song was 'Blood Brothers' which was basically an admittance by Springsteen that he could have handled the dissolution of the E Street Band with more sensitivity.
Many fans had hoped that this was going to be the return to Bruce touring with the E Street Band, but they would be disappointed. Aside from a few private gigs and one gig where they had to support Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry, this wasn't going to happen. Instead, Springsteen joined up as a guitarist with Pittsburgh-based rocker, Joe Grushecky, and tried to help him get his career back on track.
One side effect of Bruce's willingness to help out his friends was Springsteen fans travelling around the country to watch bands hoping their hero would turn up. Like Southside Johnny, Gary 'US' Bonds, Steve Earle, Steve Van Zandt, Clarence Clemons and Beaver Brown before him, fans would turn up to Grushecky gigs on a tip-off and then boo the band when Bruce didn't appear.
Across the Border
The highway is alive tonight but nobody's kiddin' nobody about where it goes
I'm sittin' down here in the campfire light waitin' on the ghost of Tom Joad
After reuniting with the E Street Band, the most obvious thing to do would be release another rock album with the full band. Instead, the 1995 The Ghost of Tom Joad was an acoustic album, very much the spiritual successor to Nebraska. Taking its name from a character in John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, Springsteen was inspired by John Ford's film of the book. The album concentrated on the plight of the Mexican immigrants and the poor Americans who lived along the Mexican border. Probably the most political of The Boss's albums, this was much bleaker than even Nebraska as everybody's hopes had been destroyed.
Set in the face of Bill Clinton's 'prosperous' America, this showed the effect of welfare reform, as money was diverted away from some of the poorest members of society. By humanising the drug mules and people forced to work in drug factories, he asked the American people to look at the enemies in their country's drugs war.
With the hustlers and smugglers he hung out with
He swallowed their balloons of cocaine
Brought them across to the 12th Street strip
In one way, he out-Dylaned Bob Dylan. When Dylan started out, he was seen as a carbon copy of Woody Guthrie5. The Ghost of Tom Joad recalled Woody Guthrie's songs about the people ruined by the dustbowl and depression of the 1930s.
Instrumentally, it was not quite the guitar-and-harmonica-only job that Nebraska was. Among the musicians; E Street band members Danny Federici, Garry Tallent and Soozie Tyrell featured, as did Patti Scialfa, who provided some background vocals.
The album6 picked up a Grammy for 'Best Contemporary Folk album'. Even though the critics loved it, and Columbia advertised it (trying to ignore its dour content), it only sold a couple of million copies. Springsteen was pleased with it though, thinking it was a good example of what he did best.
The tour that accompanied the album was generally conducted in total audience silence. Springsteen discouraged anybody from singing along, saying that the silence was part of the show.
In the late 1990s, Springsteen returned to New Jersey so that his kids could grow up near their extended family. He started supporting moves to redevelop Asbury Park. In January 1998 he joined forces with Van Zandt, Southside Johnny and Jon Bon Jovi to play a fundraising concert for a murdered New Jersey policeman.
In 1998 a box-set of out-takes in the form of Tracks, which was joined in 1999 by a condensed single disc: 18 Tracks. Tracks was released to mark his eligibility to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Previously he'd made induction speeches on Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
His own induction into the Hall of Fame was in 1999, and he played songs with the E Street Band and Wilson Pickett. Even Mike Appel turned up to make a speech. Later that year saw the E Street band, compete with Van Zandt, hitting the road again for another tour. Ticket demand was massive, with 15 nights at New Jersey's Meadowlands sold out within 13 hours. A Live at Barcelona DVD was made from this tour.
41 shots, I got my boots caked in this mud
We're baptized in these waters
And in each other's blood
The E Street band reunion tour lasted almost two years. In Madison Square Gardens, New York, Springsteen introduced a new song, 'American Skin (41 Shots)'. It was written about Amadou Diallo, a street vendor from the African nation of Guinea-Bissau, who although unarmed was shot 41 times, unprovoked, by New York Police Officers. The backlash from this song was massive.
One member of the Police Department accused Springsteen of fattening his wallet on the tragedy. This was a rather ignorant statement to make, not only because all the tickets for his concerts were sold out months beforehand, the song was never going to be recorded and Bruce didn't have any records to promote, but that Diallo was reaching to show his wallet when he was killed. Another policeman called Springsteen a 'dirtbag' and a 'floating fag'.
With the fundraising that he did for the New Jersey policeman a distant memory, he was being attacked by the right wing press for being a liberal or believing himself to be the new US Appeals court. One journalist even said that Frank Sinatra would never resort to doing a song like that, obviously neglecting to mention that Sinatra had never written his own songs, and was allegedly heavily involved with organised crime.
Since this song was only played at a couple of gigs, it was doubtful whether any of the people who attacked him for it had ever heard it.
Amadou's parents asked to come along to one of the Madison Square Gardens concerts to offer their thanks to Springsteen for keeping the memory of their son alive.
My city of ruins
Come on rise up!
11 September, 2001: Terrorists murdered thousands of innocent people in New York and Arlington, Virginia. In July 2002, the first full studio album by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band for nearly 20 years was released. Mostly written as a reflection on the terrorist attacks7 this was another massive hit for The Boss.
God's drifting in heaven, devil's in the mailbox
I got dust on my shoes, nothing but teardrops
Instead of joining in with the feeling of loss, anger and revenge that drove the country into the War on Terror, this was an album about looking on the bright side. This was the encouragement to focus on the heroism of the people caught up and, on understanding. The Rising as its title suggests is an album about coming out of a tragedy bigger and stronger. Here was the working class hero calling on his brothers to unite and not give into the fear and the violence.
The sky was falling and streaked with blood
I heard you calling me, then you disappeared into the dust
Up the stairs, into the fire
The album was not just a commercial hit, it was a critical success as well. It not only featured the E Street band, but also Pakistani musician, Asuf Ali Khan.
Vote For Change
When Texas Bluegrass group the Dixie Chicks spoke out against US President George Bush, saying they were ashamed to be from the same state as him8 they drew massive criticism from the right wing press and the public. Springsteen spoke out in support of the girls.
While Springsteen had supported various causes such as Amnesty International and the Vietnam Veterans, he was very careful to avoid supporting a political candidate. The prospect of another four years of George Bush brought Springsteen out onto the campaign trail. He joined the Vote for Change tour that also featured REM, The Dixie Chicks and John 'Cougar' Mellencamp. He even appeared at some of John Kerry's later rallies.
While the Vote for Change tour encouraged lots of young Democrats to vote, it also stirred a backlash among Republicans who gave Bush a narrow victory.
All The Way Home
I got my finger on the trigger
But I don't know who to trust
When I look into your eyes
There's just devils and dust
Springsteen must have been on a roll, it was only three years between studio albums. Devils & Dust saw Springsteen return to his folk persona. The album started with the title song about an American solider fighting in Iraq. It went on, as did his other folk albums, to tell tales of other American lost souls. The theme of a Mexican immigrant trying to cross the border appeared again in 'Matamoros Banks'. 'Reno' was a controversial song as it featured a sexually explicit story of a man who'd recently lost his wife, and his encounter with a prostitute.
'Two hundred dollars straight in two-fifty up the ass' she smiled and said
She unbuckled my belt, pulled back her hair and sat in front of me on the bed
Most of the songs were new, but 'Devils + Dust9' was featured in sound checks for the Vote for Change tour. 'All The Way Home' was originally written for Southside Johnny for his Better Days album.
The album heavily featured Brendan O'Brien. He contributed by playing a number of the instruments as well as producing or co-producing all the tracks. The only E Street Band members to feature were Soozie Tyrell and Patti Scialfa, who provided backing vocals. Soozie also played violin on some of the tracks.
The album was released as a double disc set. There was a CD and a DVD featuring Bruce sat in a ramshackle house talking about his music and playing five of the tracks. Starbucks were originally going to co-release the album, but they objected to the content of songs like 'Reno' and Springsteen didn't want the Starbucks label on his album.
Devils & Dust was a big success in comparison with his other acoustic works.
Said 'here's to the best you ever had'
We laughed and made a toast
It wasn't the best I ever had
Not even close
The resulting tour had Springsteen playing a variety of instruments including piano and autoharp on stage. Again it was a low-key acoustic affair with some drums and backing musicians hidden off-stage.
The year 2005 also saw the US senate try and pass a motion to honour Bruce Springsteen 30 years after Born To Run. It was a measure of how upset some members of Congress, presumably the Republicans, were with Springsteen that instead of just being a simple vote, the Bill vanished while in committee.
The following year saw the release of a DVD of concert footage from The Hammersmith Odeon from 1975.
How Can I Keep From Singing
Springsteen went even further into his folksinger role with the release of We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. This was a CD of 13 songs 'made famous10' by legendary folksinger Pete Seeger. Some of the tracks were Irish folk songs like 'Mrs McGrath', and some were minstrel songs like 'Old Dan Tucker'. There were American folk songs like 'Shenandoah' as well as work songs such as 'John Henry' - which was a Blues-standard previously sung by artists from Leadbelly to Mississippi John Hurt, Johnny Cash and Harry Belafonte.
Mirroring Bob Dylan's two albums of folk covers, Springsteen included the classic 'Froggie Went A-Courting'. Like Devils & Dust this was released as a dual-disc set, with a DVD featuring two extra songs also included.