Bruce Springsteen, The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle
Humanity is ultimately summarized by two themes: life and death. The rest is just drapery. What else is there? Even heavy metals like Eros and Ploutos eventually melt into Zoe and Thanatos. What is it that we fear if not death, the fear behind other fears, and what fuels our deepest hopes and laments besides, irreducibly, life? Nothing against Eros, Ploutos, or drapery, but art that doesn’t get around to grappling with death and life is sooner or later unsatisfying. That’s why I love Bruce Springsteen music. It’s death and life, all the time.
Which is also why some people hate the Boss. The Bruce haters, even ones that agree with his politics, will cite his grim determination to continually address Big Themes, give a state-of-the-union address with every album, and play working man blues despite his millions as reasons to respect Springsteen (at best) more than enjoy him. Case in point was the 12.12.12. Sandy benefit last week; aside from a closing “Born to Run” singalong with a Bon Jovi lookalike, Bruce’s setlist consisted of topically appropriate but less well known tunes all drawn from the past ten years. Surely casual fans were yelling for “Freebird” instead, but the Boss had work to do. “Heavy lies the crown on Bruce Springsteen’s head,” a music critic has recently opined.
My 20 gigs of Bruce on my iPad notwithstanding, I’ll grant the premise that sometimes the Boss can turn unenjoyably dour. Springsteen’s six studio albums of the last decade have brilliant moments—and at least Magic and We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions stand nearly side by side with “classic” Bruce albums—but they also have their share of clunky moments. For example, on the Rising, the 2002 meditation upon 9/11, it’s fine for Springsteen to commemorate the sacrifices of NYFD firefighters, but when he sings about their going up the stairs “into their smokey graves,” one wishes for less literalism and more metaphor. It’s life and death, sure, but the song doesn’t need to scream, “This is about life and death!” (And the less one says about Working on a Dream, the better. I’m still waiting for Bruce to fess up and tell a reporter, “That song was the centerpiece of a nursery rhyme project that went horribly, horribly wrong. I trashed the album and told Columbia that it was ‘in the can,’ but the label thought I was telling them to release the thing. Then Obama started asking me to play the song at his rallies, and I knew I was screwed.”)
Those that may be interested in hearing a Bruce Springsteen whose crown weighs less heavy should check out his second album, 1972’s The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle. It’s all life and death, but all of it obliquely.
It’s impossible for a pop singer to be totally unselfconscious—the ego thing—but there’s still a difference in musical writing and execution when an artist believes she’s making a record that will be heard by hundreds of people versus by millions. With the former, you’ll hear an unvarnished earnestness (despite however much irony may stick to the ribs) that sales success will erase. The Wild, the Innocent is the audience’s last chance to hear Bruce Springsteen before he became BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN. His next record, Born to Run, drove him to the top of the charts, as he knew it would. But what Born to Run gains in breadth of vision, it loses in intimacy. Nick Hornby once remarked about “Thunder Road,” the lead track to Born to Run, that redemption songs shouldn’t include the word “redemption” in them. He’s probably right. The Wild, the Innocent, on the other hand, finds a young artist swinging for the fences without thinking anyone was taking notice. The result is a record at once looser and more ruminative than anything Springsteen has released subsequently, save perhaps Nebraska, which not coincidentally was recorded as a set of demos not intended for public release. I think of how Greil Marcus described The Basement Tapes, and how his words apply here: “So much of the basement tapes are the purest form of speech: simple free speech, ordinary free speech, nonsensical free speech, not heroic free speech. Cryptic free speech, a voice that can say almost anything while seeming to say almost nothing, in secret, with music that as it was made presumed no audience but its players and perhaps its ancestors, a secret public.” Such is The Wild, the Innocent, as we hear free speech about boardwalks, alley fights, street urchins, hustling musicians, and circuses. It’s an album that’s found its secret public who happens to hear Zoe and Thanatos whisper through its grooves. Big themes are always best left buried in the details.
Personal aside: I discovered The Wild, the Innocent in high school and loved it without quite knowing why. While my friends were going whole hog into grunge—not that there’s anything wrong with that—I was checking out older music. My brother-in-law went to college in the 1970’s and had Bruce’s first four albums on vinyl. I liked The Wild, the Innocent’s LP cover the best, so I asked him to dub that record onto cassette. For the first half of 10th grade, I listened to two thirds of The Wild, the Innocent every day driving to and from school, picking up where I’d left off each morning. I memorized not only the songs but also the from-vinyl skips and pops on my taped copy; my clean CD version doesn’t sound the same without them. You only listen to music in high school once, kids.
The two best known songs on The Wild, the Innocent are “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” and “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy).” They may also be the two least resonant tracks on the album for me. That’s not to argue the party anthem par excellence, “Rosalita,” is a bad song, however. It’s an “Only the Good Die Young”-style plea for the girl to come out of the house and go out with the guy, complete with enough guitars, horns, fist pumps, and interesting turns that it’s 7:05 running time feels too short. Bruce used it for years as a set closer for good reason. Then again, party anthems will only ever be party anthems. “Sandy” is “Rosalita’s” quiet counterpart, all acoustic guitars, tremolo leads, droopy accordions, and strings. Thematically, it slows down “Born to Run” to 33 r.p.m. The guy wants the girl to cut her losses, quit the local scene, and hop in the car toward something better. (Later on into The Wild, the Innocent, the elegiac “Incident on 57th Street” strikes a similar pose.) What makes Sandy strange and compelling, though, is that Springsteen is far more romantically inclined toward the beach town he’s leaving behind than the girl he’s taking with him. Listeners learn very little about Sandy but lots about Asbury Park—fireworks over “little Eden,” fast “switchblade lovers,” boys “from the casino dancing with their shirts open,” fortune tellers, a waitress “bopping down the beach with the radio,” and so on. Ostensibly a love song, the more deeply one listens to “Sandy,” the less clear it is that the singer is pulling out of town to win. Born to run bleeds into born to lose, and things start to get interesting.
“Kitty’s Back” is all Van Morrison via the Jersey Shore. The early 1970’s were possibly the best time to listen to the radio, when stations would play rock back to back with funk, then soul, then pop, then back again. Individual songs were also elastic enough to capture various genres without sounding contrived, and “Kitty’s Back” is one of the best style-benders. Anyone whining that all Bruce Springsteen songs sound alike should listen to this track. It begins with a bluesy, languid guitar line with some lazy horns that sound like they’d protest if pressed to played any faster. The first verse begins with Bruce painting an alley rat street scene against funk organ before the music breaks into an uptown shuffle. The song stays all over the map for the duration, including a long instrumental break that owes more than a little debt to “Moondance.” “Kitty’s” lyrics are also worth more than a glance; the titular character has burned out on her hometown and instead hooked up with a “city dude,” only to come back again. The song finishes with a slow build as Springsteen keeps looking down the alley, wondering if Kitty will come back to town. The high point musically is when she does, while the singer sits back and sighs, “What can I do?” The horns lift up one last time before “Kitty’s Back” comes to a climax with a concert ending.
It would be easy enough to write off “Kitty’s Back” as an early ‘70’s pastiche with its influences too overt and the story off Broadway, but such a criticism misunderstands why we listen to pop music in the first place, namely that the small stuff matters and is even beautiful. (Greil Marcus once located the power of Otis Redding’s “Respect”—the original version, equaled by Aretha’s stratospheric interpretation but not necessarily bettered—in its earthiness. Otis isn’t asking for the stars, just a little respect when he gets home.) The fact that Kitty’s come back isn’t really anything in itself and not a story worth telling, but the fact that someone is singing triumphally about it makes it so, and it becomes beautiful. Kitty’s departure was Thanatos, and her return Zoe.
The end of side one of The Wild, the Innocent supplies the album’s weirdest track, and the one that had left me cold for years, “Wild Billy’s Circus Story.” If the calliope organ of a Mississippi steamer were divided into three equal parts and moved to Jersey, it would be the acoustic guitar, tuba, and accordion of this song. The title isn’t a lark, either: this really is a song about a kid named Billy joining the circus. His “Circus Story” is stuffed with characters; in five minutes, the listener meets the machinist, the fire eater, the sword swallower, the fat lady Missy Bimbo, and many others. Billy enters this self-contained world with a sense of haunted wonder, and as he’s finally asked by the circus manager if he wants to “try the big top,” it’s a question full of love and fear. Billy becomes an Ichabod Gatsby.
It’s taken a long time, but “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” strikes me now as the truest song on the album, as the crazy carnival characters become somehow more recognizable to me as my friends, neighbors, and myself. Long before Springsteen’s populist commitments became explicit in his songs, “Wild Billy’s Circus Song” is populist and American in the best but most terrifying sense. Springsteen confronts us with the notion that our community is irreducibly strange but for that same reason altogether lovely. (I nominate “Kitty’s Back” to be the official song of Collingswood.) A line in the middle of the song gives both the contradiction and the promise of the American (and human) endeavor: “The highway’s haunted by carnival sounds.” It’s not a poetic statement, but it’s profound in its fusing of our desire to ramble off alone (the highway) and the conviction that we can never be alone, nor should we be (the carnival). The road leads us into the circus, even if the last line, “All aboard, Nebraska’s our next stop,” suggests that the circus leads us back to the road. Properly living out the script of this song means not that we resolve this tension but find joy and discover beauty in its dialectic.
The bookends to The Wild, the Innocent tie all of this life and death together. The album kicks off with “The E Street Shuffle,” which Springsteen wrote as a semi-autobiography of his band. (Yes, Bruce’s group takes its name from the location of an old garage where they rehearsed: E St. in Belmar.) After a discordant horn-tuning that attempts to show that Springsteen isn’t taking himself too seriously, the musicians snap into an uptempo funk groove, and Bruce is all swagger up through the soul freakout coda. If lifted from the context of the entire record, though, “The E Street Shuffle” is little more than six (or a hundred) characters in search of an author; Power Thirteen, Little Angel, Easy Joe are only the beginning of an endless stream of street people to come and go, aimlessly gravitating to a party. But the first half of the first line sets up the drama of everything to follow, as Springsteen exclaims, “Sparks fly on E Street.” That’s life, but it’s not just that there’s some kind of light on E Street; sparks are light that come from friction or collision. Sparks are both life and death. Same with the song’s conclusion, when melancholy intrudes on the party as we’re told that “sweet summer nights turn into summer dreams.” You can’t have the dreams without the details to seed and ground them, but the dreams themselves gain both beauty and fragility in their transformation. Summer’s over before you know it.
“New York City Serenade” ends everything. In an album of long songs, it’s the longest at 10 minutes, in part due to David Sancious’ piano introduction that’s reflective but also much more sad and less romantic than the previous songs. That extended opening lends a depth to the two young lovers that promenade around the Big Apple. Clarence Clemons’ saxophone imparts some jaunt to their journey, and strings sweetness, although in oblique language the pair separates, and the guy remarks, “Sometimes you just gotta walk on.” After all of the strange community encountered in The Wild, the Innocent, that particular line would at best be a false victory. The urban cowboy may ride into the sunset, but he’s alone. Midway through “New York City Serenade,” it sounds as if this couple were dancing on graves, but then it seems that at least one of them is going there. We’ve heard sound and fury, it may have signified something, but in the end death wins.
Original versions of “New York City Serenade” halted there, but deep into the recording process for The Wild, the Innocent Springsteen appended another song to it, a slightly obtuse piece about a jazz crooner busking on the corner. All the character does is sing, over and over again. However, when placed at the end of “Serenade” (and the album as a whole), the singing jazz man is the counter to the broken community just before (i.e., the lover just walking on). Unlike just about everyone else in The Wild, the Innocent, this jazz singer isn’t named. As the album’s camera pans across the city one last time, it’s the one completely at the edge of the frame who receives the final close up and gets in the last word. The music lulls one last time, and then Springsteen proclaims that his final protagonist is “singing, singing,” and he repeats the line countless times as the music swells.
Why does he sing? Because as humans we want life to win, and that’s part of the victory. (This is also why I’m a Christian: Jesus, eternally whole yet broken for us, sings our broken songs to life.) “New York City Serenade” (and The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle with it) fittingly and finally closes, after the singer keeps singing, with a gentle violin and piano coda that properly gathers the album into rest. By some inspiration, over the fading strains Springsteen does something remarkable: he whispers. There are a handful of notions that I’d defend at great cost, and one of them is that the last two minutes of “New York City Serenade” are the best 120 seconds of recorded music in the history of the world. Aside from a couple of phrases, you won’t be able to make out what Bruce is saying (and believe me, I’ve tried). I think that the secret of the universe is in those raspings, but the key wouldn’t be to decipher the words. It’s instead that through the whispers comes the intimation that after all that there is, there is still something worth saying, and it’s a song. That it’s indecipherable also makes sense, if you think about it, and that’s about as far as we can go. Although indecipherable doesn’t mean the same thing as unknowable: what if there is an author to the song, and a singer who will one day make the secret known? What if the song has already begun?