Sunday, March 27, 2016

My Back Pages, Vol. 8: Bruce Springsteen - The Wild, The Innocent, The E Street Shuffle

Welcome to My Back Pages, a collaborative staff feature that will survey a landscape of renowned classics and unheralded gems alike, most of which no one around here ever writes a word about. The rules are simple and loose: we won’t cover anything from this millennium and we will avoid all or most favorites—though we might make an exception if something is nearing a milestone anniversary. Beyond that though, anything is fair game. So if you have an album, artist, or genre you would like to see discussed in this feature, feel free to throw us a few recs.

This week we have a double feature on deck for you, and yes we're talking about Springsteen--if you know anything about either of us you knew it was coming eventually. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the release of Springsteen's first two albums, which both came out in 1973, yesterday we discussed
Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ, his debut, and today we're taking on The Wild, the Innocent, the E Street Shuffle. As always, there's a full Rdio stream of the record below, as well as a link to check it out on Spotify. Enjoy!

Craig Manning: I graduate from college tomorrow. I finished classes yesterday afternoon and started packing up my room last night. And on Sunday, I’ll move out of my apartment, drive away from this town, and close up this chapter of my life for good. As a guy who constantly finds new ways to soundtrack his life, there are a lot of albums that are going to be a part of that. The new Jimmy Eat World, for one, is connecting in all the right ways at the perfect time; Japandroids’ Celebration Rock, too, because there’s nothing like screaming along to “The House That Heaven Built” as the world begins to shift around you. But when I leave this town in my rearview on Sunday afternoon, my buddy Bruce is probably going to be my most significant companion. One of the reasons for that, obviously, is Born to Run, my favorite album of all time and a record that’s been there for a lot of major changes in my life over the past few years. Hell, that’s the album that was playing as I drove to my high school graduation four years ago. But the other is the album we’re talking about today, and you can rest assured there’s a reason Bruce came up this week: I wanted to write about this record at this moment in my life, and I’m gracious to get the opportunity.

One of my best friends on the forums, the other Chris (cshadows, raise your hand, I know you’re reading) wrote a pretty remarkable blurb about this particular Springsteen record a few years ago, when he and a bunch of us in the General Forum put together a list of albums that needed to be heard, and I’m going to quote that now because I think it perfectly captures what The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle, as an album,is all about:

“The Boss hit his first stroke of genius on this jazz-infused, street-poet block party of a record,” Chris wrote. “The joy and danger every teenager hopes awaits them each Saturday night have never been better captured than in Springsteen’s portraits of small-town Jersey, just before the darkness appeared on the edge of town. The characters love, fight, joke and live like they have only that one night, and the listener gets a front-row seat. The closing three-song suite is perfection, with especially “Incident on 57th Street” being as much cinematic (i.e. West Side Story) as musical.”

What Chris didn’t include in that lovely paragraph, though, is the bit that he mentioned to me in one of our first Springsteen conversations, the bit that has stuck with me through every listen I’ve given this record since. For a long time, I had some trouble getting into this one, in the same way that I struggle to hold Greetings in the high esteem that I hold the rest of Bruce’s heyday work. As I noted in yesterday’s write-up, the production here is already a massive step up from where it was just eight months prior (Greetings dropped in January of 1973, while Wild released in September), and the E Street sound has exhibited remarkable evolution as well. But for a guy like me, a guy who built his Springsteen love on the anthemic pillars of Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge, Wild felt almost alien on first listen. The song structures are longer, more meandering, and far more freewheeling than anything Springsteen did on his debut or anything he’s done since. Just listen to late-record shape-shifters like “New York City Serenade” or “Incident on 57th Street,” and you’ll see that Bruce was writing songs here in a way that, beyond a few exceptions, he never would again. But then I met Chris (cshadows, not Collum; I can already see how this is going to be confusing), and he told me that The Wild, The Innocent was one of his five favorite albums of all time and that it was tied with Born to Run at the top of Springsteen’s oeuvre, and I was probably shaking my head at my computer screen until he delivered the key words that changed my perception of the album forever.

“Dude, it’s the perfect record to inaugurate summer.”

Well hot damn, he was right. And just like that, the album clicked. I saw these songs in a new light. I heard the groovy synth beeps at the top of “The E Street Shuffle” and saw a thousand booze-fueled barbeques; I heard the line “Hey little heroes, summer’s hot but I guess it ain’t very sweet around here anymore” on “Incident” and it sounded like gospel; and when I finally listened to “Sandy” on a sweltering, muggy summer night...well, I don’t think I have to explain that one. Of course, when Chris actually told me this, it already was summer, and I had already inaugurated the season (memorably, I might add, with Jack’s Mannequin’s Everything in Transit), but blaring songs like “Rosalita” as I drove around my hometown was still nothing short of transcendent. In fact, I probably would have gotten noise complaints for how loud I played this record in my car on late night drives back to my house, but of course, I was driving much too fast for anyone to pin me down. Born to Run may have nailed the redemptive escapism of youth, but this is a record for the moment before that escapism feels necessary; it’s for that time in your life when nothing sounds better than bumming around with your friends on the same old beachside streets you grew up on, or courting that girl from high school who you missed your chance with the first time around. And since I was in that exact moment during the summer in question, this album became my Bible.

Every year since then, the first day the sun breaks through and the temperatures go above 50 (which, since I live in Michigan, might never happen again), I roll down my car windows and take this thing for a ride. And in that moment, it feels like nothing has ever sounded better. Springsteen fans may consider Born to Run as the quantum leap forward, but I think the jump had already happened here. Just listen to Greetings and Wild back to back: where most of Greetings sounds like a demo tape, Wild is crisp, clean, and explosive; where the first record couldn’t quite capture the electricity of a Springsteen live show, the second one does arguably the best job of any entry in Springsteen’s catalog at doing just that. Born to Run sounds grander, but it was really a piece of studio audio art. We’ve all heard the tales of all the overdubs that went into “Born to Run,” or of how Clarence would work meticulously on the “Jungleland” solo for hours on end—sometimes straight through the night. But on songs like “"The E Street Shuffle” or “Kitty’s Back,” it sounds like the band could be improvising their parts right on the other side of the stereo. And if “Born to Run” is Springsteen’s most potent anthem, then “Rosalita” is his most spontaneous, a rock ‘n’ roll rave-up that builds to a loose and irresistible climax section. If you’re not shouting along by the end of that song, you might not have a pulse.

The other big thing about The Wild, The Innocent is that, where Greetings sounded like an artist who didn’t quite know who he wanted to be (or, as I mentioned yesterday, one who’s label wasn’t quite on the right page yet), this one is about as distinctive and directional as sophomore albums come. The fact that this set of songs even exists blows my mind, because today, if an act sold as poorly their first time out the gate as Springsteen did with Greetings (that album peaked at 60 on the Billboard 200), they would be lucky to even still be on the major label circuit, let alone making the most adventurous album of their career. But the last three songs of this record—which may constitute the single greatest side of any record ever pressed on vinyl—display just how much faith label president Clive Davis and manager Mike Appel had in Bruce. Not only do all three songs stretch on for more than seven minutes (“Rosalita,” the album’s only prayer at landing anything on the radio waves, was the shortest at 7:04), they also largely eschew the standard verse-chorus dynamic. Again, “Rosalita” is the closest, with its shout-along chorus and romantic sweep. “I'm coming to liberate you, to confiscate you, I want to be your man!” Springsteen bellows to the title character, telling her to forget about her disapproving parents and just escape with him: for the night, maybe even forever. And the thing is, it's impossible to imagine her saying no. One listen to the song’s blistering, climactic breakdown and it’s not hard to see why this was the de-facto Springsteen show closer for a long, long time.

“Incident on 57th Street” has, over time, wormed its way into my top five Bruce songs (seeing it live last spring certainly didn’t hurt). Chris mentioned yesterday that the characters on Greetings weren’t yet fully formed, but in this song, they spring from the texture like operatic heroes. On both “Incident” and grand finale “New York City Serenade,” Springsteen dabbles in the realms of extended track lengths and fully-formed story worlds that he first visited on “Spirit in the Night” and “Lost in the Flood.” “Serenade” isn’t even a cohesive narrative—Springsteen pieced it together from shards of earlier songs—but it still works as a collision of lovely vignettes. And when set against a backdrop of glorious strings and Clarence’s virtuosic sax (not to mention the song’s near-baroque intro, courtesy of pianist David Sancious), it becomes staggering: equal parts “Jungleland” and “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Bruce would perfect the epic story song with Born to Run—“Jungleland,” in essence, was the realization of everything the E Street Band tried to achieve across their first three records—but he hasn’t really gone back to that style of songwriting since. We’ve gotten long songs (“Drive All Night”) and plenty of story songs (pretty much everything on the three acoustic records), but the one time Bruce seemed to really attempt a return to this form—on Working on a Dream’s “Outlaw Pete”—it came across almost like self-parody, like his heart wasn’t in it. I don’t need him to get back to that either, since I’d rank Wrecking Ball in my top five Springsteen albums and since The Rising and Magic are both unqualified successes in my book, but you have to wonder what happened within the arc of The Wild, The Innocent, Born to Run, and Darkness on the Edge of Town that completely changed the way he wrote songs.

In our first installment of this feature, we discussed Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs, and I concluded that part of the reason for the album’s classic status was its ability to construct a complete world around its listeners. The Wild, The Innocent does the same, building a luminous environment of innocence, love, and riotous nights out on the town, a world where summer lasts forever and outfits like the E Street Band play at boardwalk bars for a two buck cover charge. When I get in my car on Sunday and hit the highway, college will be just a memory. I’ll be driving away from the last bastion of my youth and into the great unknown. But albums like this one, they endure. They’re comfortable reminders of where we came from and of what life can look like on those summer evenings when you’re young and in love and you’ve got the whole night ahead of you and it feels like anything could happen. And albums like that, they keep you young, no matter where you go in life.

Chris Collum: Much like Craig, despite being a lifelong Springsteen fan, I too am a latecomer to this record. In fact, I don’t believe I heard the thing all the way through until four or five years ago, although I’ve been familiar with most of the songs on it for ages. And when I first heard The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle I must admit that it didn’t really blow me away. Sure songs like “Sandy,” “Rosalita” and “Incident” are all top-notch, but most of the songs on here were far too long for my tastes, and some of them didn’t really do much for me at all.

I expressed these misgivings about the album in a Springsteen thread on this site a few years ago, and mentioned that it’s probably my least favorite of his first eight records and well…”other” Chris went off, I backed down, and we went our separate ways. One of my chief complaints about this album was the closer, “New York City Serenade,” which I said dragged on and on and on and was actually kind of boring.

I regret that now, and I stand before you today a changed man. “Serenade” is perfect; it’s a marvelous way to end this record. It’s a masterful study in gradual build-up, release and catharsis, and it needs all of the nine minutes and fifty-five seconds that it gets to do that. It also is the final farewell for jazz-trained pianist David Sancious, who would leave the E Street family after this record.

In fact, the last three songs on this album (the B side in other words) comprise twenty-five of the best minutes in popular music history. From “Incident” through “Rosalita” on to “Serenade,” this is, in my opinion, the beginning of Bruce Springsteen the master storyteller. And oh my how he tells these stories. The imagery is unparalleled: “Spanish Johnny drove in from the underworld last night / With bruised arms and broken rhythm / In a beat-up old Buick / But dressed just like dynamite,” or “Well my tires were slashed and I almost crashed but the Lord had mercy / My machine she’s a dud, she’s stuck out in the mud / Somewhere in the swamps of Jersey.” One of my beefs with Greetings was that the songwriting was not quite on the same level as Bruce’s later work; on the last three songs of this record, that could not be farther from the truth.

The record sounds great as well, not only due to a higher production quality but also because--appropriately enough, given the album’s title—this is the first true E Street record. And they bring down the house, all the way through. Also, this features some incredible lead guitar work from Bruce—I’m not a big fan of “Kitty’s Back” (I’ll get to that soon), but the solo that starts that song is absolutely blistering. Same goes for his lead work on “Incident,” and finally, I’ve been playing guitar for fourteen years but I have no idea how somebody puts so much into and gets so much emotion out of the instrument like Bruce does in the acoustic bit that starts about a minute and a half into “Serenade.”

The E Street Band is remarkable for their musical skill certainly, but they also were remarkable in 1973 for another reason. Rock ‘n roll was becoming an increasingly segregated world in the early 70s, but the band that Bruce assembled on this record included two African-Americans (and actually would later include three for a brief period when Ernest “Boom” Carter replaced Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez). We don’t even think about a musician’s race today, but back in the 70s, race was a very real factor in the music industry, and I’m sure Springsteen pissed some very important white people off at Columbia with the band he assembled. God bless him.

You might notice that so far I have really only talked about the last three songs on this album. There’s a reason for that, and it’s why this album will forever remain somewhere in the middle of Bruce’s discography in terms of quality, at least in my mind: the A side is not that remarkable. The bustling title track kicks the record off well enough, but in my opinion, the version of “Sandy” that’s on this album feels neutered and lifeless compared with the way Bruce has performed it live in the forty years since. That being said, it is a fantastic song even if the performance isn’t my favorite.

However, next after “Sandy” are my least-favorite twelve minutes of music on any Bruce album up through Tunnel of Love. “Kitty’s Back” drags on and never catches my attention, and “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” calls to mind The Beatles’ “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” in the worst of ways. Sure it’s well worth it to sit through these songs just to get to the pure bliss that is the B side, but much like with my criticisms of Greetings, I expect more from Bruce.

With time I have grown to love the good parts of this record more and more, and while I initially viewed it simply as a primer for what was to come in 1975, I now think the B side stands out in its own right as some of the finest music Bruce has ever recorded. As Craig alluded to in his piece, it is simply not fair nor accurate to regard Born to Run as the quantum leap forward. With Greetings we got our first glimpse into the world of Bruce Springsteen, but with the latter half of The Wild Bruce truly came into his own, and made us fall headfirst into his world and never want to leave, even more so a few years later when a certain screen door slammed and a dress swayed to the tune of Roy Orbison singing for the lonely…

PS--Craig, you're wrong. "Outlaw Pete" rules.

No comments:

Post a Comment