Jimmy Cagney, hat brim low over his eyes, talking wise to Joan Blondell. Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall picking pockets in The Bowery. Platinum angels with arched, pencil-thin eyebrows, sipping bathtub gin and waiting in vain for their square-jawed mugs to return from the hoosegow. Sharpies named Ace and Lefty. Dames named Ruby and Peaches. Those were the cinematic heroes of my youth. So, it’s no surprise I’d fall hard for the denizens of Bruce Springsteen’s second LP, “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle.” To this day, it’s the most romantic life-on-the-street album I’ve ever heard.
The characters from Bruce’s 1973 LP sprang from the Hollywood-styled world of Hell’s Kitchen, Paradise Alley, and The Boulevard of Broken Dreams. They had nicknames like Spanish Johnny, Puerto Rican Jane, Little Angel, Sloppy Sue, Diamond Jackie, Easy Joe, Little Dynamite. Losers all, but lovable as only Bruce could draw them.
Those outsiders – with their bruised arms, broken rhythm and beat-up old Buicks – are so alive to me, the imagery so vivid – like this scenario from “Incident on 57nd Street,” my favorite Bruce song: Janey sleeps in sheets damp with sweat / Johnny sits up alone and watches her dream on, dream on / And the sister prays for lost souls / then breaks down in the chapel after everyone’s gone. Hokey and overly sentimental? Perhaps. But this is the stuff that makes my heart ache in a really wonderful way. Every lyric and every melody on this LP can still move me to tears. These are coming-of-age songs for me. For we early Springsteen fans, this era – this zeitgeist – is gone forever.
I was 16 years old when I spied a small poster in the window of a record store at the old Richland Mall near Johnstown, PA: “Bruce Springsteen and the East (sic) Street Band – Coming to the Cambria Country War Memorial Arena on April 12, 1976.” General admission: $5.50. I pleaded with my overly-protective mom that I needed to see “the future of rock-n-roll.” And miracle of miracles, she and my dad agreed to drive me to the show. (She must have had a sixth sense about “sure things,” having plopped me down in front of the television at age 4 to witness the Beatles’ debut on the Ed Sullivan show. “This will be important one day,” she said.)
That Johnstown show – my first rock concert – changed my life. I would never see another live event that would match the magic and intensity of that performance. Bruce and his band – which by this time included his lifelong rock-n-roll soul mate “Miami Steve” Van Zandt – entertained a crowd 4,000 early-believers for four hours. They played two encores, then charged back onto the stage for a third after the house lights came up. My jukebox-graduate friend Barb and I were on our feet from the opening machine-gun guitar fire of “Night” to the closing sax sirens of “Twist and Shout.” The interplay between 5-foot-9 Bruce (in black tux with no tie) and 6-foot-5 sax player Clarence “Big Man” Clemons (in Panama suit and hat) was brotherhood incarnate. When the concert was over, I (in my red fedora with feather) felt that God could take me any time he was ready. My rock-n-roll soul was completely satiated.
The rest, as they say, is history. By the end of the “Born to Run” tour, Bruce would belong to the rest of the world. (And I’d have to work really hard to get tickets!) He released his long-awaited “Darkness on the Edge of Town” LP to rave reviews. This hauntingly beautiful album – full of darkness and light, promise and doubt – is Bruce’s personal favorite and a top pick of many rock critics. The record depicts a man born into this life, paying for the sins of somebody else’s past. Bruce had left the boardwalk forever to enter those rusted factory gates. For me, these songs were just plain sad. The darkness on the edge of town was calling me, but the quirky street characters weren’t there to pull me in.
By 1984 Bruce had became an international superstar upon the release of his hit-filled album “Born in the USA.” The music execs prettied him up with dermabrasion and dental work. A buff Bruce with carefully-placed bandanas embarked on massive tours of 100,000-seat stadiums. He’d go on to sing soaring anthems and heartfelt ballads with serious social messages, helping to lift up Americans in troubled times. It is all good and necessary. Like any true artist, Bruce is constantly evolving. I deeply respect and admire his social consciousness. But still, deep inside, I miss the early days when Bruce sang I ain’t here on business baby, I’m only here for fun.
Springsteen is a true American working class hero. Bono said it best when he inducted Bruce into the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame in 1999: “We call him the Boss. Well that’s a bunch of crap. He’s not the boss. He works for us. More than a boss, he’s the owner, because more than anyone else, Bruce Springsteen owns America’s heart.”
I continue to see Bruce and the boys whenever and wherever I can (even if it means traveling to Germany to see him, as I did in 1999 with my fab friend and Backstreets sister Jane McCreery). I’m gearing up for my 25th concert on November 4, 2011. Because there is still nothing that can compare to the sheer joy and energy of a Springsteen show.
Here’s the masterpiece from “The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle,” and my personal favorite Springsteen song set: “Incident on 57th Street / Rosalita.” Goodnight, it’s alright, Jane.
© Dana Spiardi, Nov 2, 2011