Elvis Presley once attributed his success to the fortunate-for-him fact that he came along “when there was no trend” — when pop music was vapid, empty and bloodless. Shrewder than he looked, Elvis became a trend, combining gospel fervor, raw country sincerity and bold blues conviction into something new.
The Beatles were arguably beneficiaries of a similar vacuum, charging into it with voracious opportunism and an even more eclectic attack that added British skiffle and music hall sounds to the mix, as well as classical ambitions (and budgets).
Fast forward about 20 years from Elvis and about 10 from the Beatles, and then-rock-journalist Jon Landau proclaimed, “I have seen the future of rock ’n’ roll, and his name is Bruce Springsteen.” (Landau could also have said, ‘I have seen the future of my career,’ because he later became Springsteen’s manager.)
The stage wasn’t exactly empty when Springsteen earned Landau’s oracular pronouncement. There was punk, with its rejection of everything polished and packaged; and there was disco, with its rejection of the stage itself and its elevation of the producer into unseen creator of the music and of the audience into the performance itself, the people you watched.
To read Gazette music writer Michael Hochanadel’s review of the Springsteen show, click here.
But there was a vacuum of soul music.
Filling a vacuum
Punk was almost as white as Elvis-era pop, and disco’s faceless factory system ushered in tough times for artists and performers. Springsteen felt new initially because he made soul music — perhaps more stubbornly than skillfully at first. Hailed as the new Dylan, he was actually closer to the next Ben E. King. He got behind the wheel of Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez’s beats, David Sancious’s stuttering keyboard sizzle and the sexy King Curtis sax-blasts of Clarence “Big Nick” Clemons.
He and “Little Miami” Steve Van Zandt sprayed out short guitar riffs as bluntly beautiful as Jimmy Nolen’s in James Brown’s band, and the whole crew drove straight to the boardwalk to tell tales of romantic desperation and exaltation. They made a big sound — that engine was loud! — but Springsteen sang in the human scale of Smokey Robinson and Johnny Ace, rather than the hormones-on-steroids wrath of punk or disco’s oblivious narcissism.
He blew those trends off the stage and the dance floor because he sounded like a regular guy, telling regular stories — but really well. He grew into his talent and ambition, becoming both a larger-than-life, blue-collar bard onstage, a performer of volcanic projection, and the guy on the next barstool, somebody who knows how to fix your Holley four-barrel or listen to tales of your broken heart.
The first time I saw him — October 19, 1974 — he also blew away fusion (which was already fading, weighted down under its pompous virtuosity) by playing the same night as the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever at Albany’s Palace Theater.
What an odd double-header: late versions of two veteran virtuoso riff-killer bands at the Palace, then the New Jersey soul man fronting a band featuring everything from ass-in-space funk to strings used in the Phil Spector style.
They played mostly the songs from “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle,” and they were a wow and a wonder; so overwhelmingly good and joyously loose that I didn’t feel cheated at all by coming in at mid-show — when Union’s Memorial Chapel threatened to levitate from sheer sonic force, soul power and unanimous delight.
Signs of change
However, the soul music part, exemplified by “The Wild,” was also temporary, soon to be eclipsed.
“The Wild” was a great album steeped in street-corner soul, and “Born To Run” was both less convincing artistically and bigger commercially — a mainstream move as stylistically limited and limiting as “Born in the U.S.A.”
Since then, Springsteen has encapsulated rock ’n’ roll history in a career characterized by courageous detours. Once hailed for keeping his band on salary while he did other things, he disbanded them and formed a West Coast studio band — redeeming himself, street-cred-wise, by reuniting the E Streeters periodically. (During E Street band breaks, Clemons led his Red Bank Rockers at the great and long-vanished Albany club J.B. Scott’s and bassist Garry Tallent played the Metro with the Delevantes.)
Springsteen made quietly acoustic, “new-Dylan” personal folk music. He married an actress, then got divorced, married a Jersey girl and raised a family on a farm outside the City. He built a band even bigger than the E Streeters and played Pete Seeger’s march-in-the-streets folk music. He led them in the first transcendent moment, post-Katrina, that the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival delivered to the world — an epic “we’re-still-here-and-still-rocking” message.
As Springsteen leads the E Street Band onstage at Saratoga Performing Arts Center (in the Spa State Park, routes 9 and 50) on Tuesday, that may still be his most vital and compelling message. On his most recent album, he proclaims he’s “Working On a Dream” — but he has probably fulfilled by now the wildest possible dreams that a young Jersey rocker might ever have had, back when Elvis and the Beatles were the future of rock ‘n’ roll. He’s been rocking so long, and so well, that he’s become part of rock ’n’ roll history, so long that his drummer’s son sometimes plays with him.
Springsteen isn’t finished yet: He’s still rocking, still “Working On a Dream.” Since he started touring and recording, the music business has changed a great deal more than the music itself; fragmenting into mini-niches and fan markets no bigger than the e-mail lists on laptops running ProTools in millions of basements.
Stars of the Elvis/Beatles/Bruce magnitude may be a thing of the past, every bit as much as Woodstock. But people said the same thing about folk music when Bob Dylan plugged in his guitar.
Springsteen’s story sometimes makes me wonder, though: Who is the next future of rock ’n’ roll, the giant to fill the next trend vacuum?
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band play on Tuesday at SPAC, starting at 7:30 p.m. Admission is $104, $41 on the lawn. Phone 877-598-8694 or visit www.spac.org.
Reach Gazette Columnist Michael Hochanadel at mailto:[email protected]
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