By Rush Evans
It starts with a chaos of horns warming up, quickly supported by the jangliest of guitars, and a musical sense of urgency building to what is perhaps the coolest opening line ever sung: “Sparks fly on E Street when the boy prophets walk it handsome and hot. Teenage tramps in skintight pants wander the street, feel its heartbeat, and avoid the heat (cops) in a world all their one, as a girl called Little Angel elicits a full and gloriously sloppy chorus, ‘Everybody form a line!’” Welcome to Bruce Springsteen’s mystical, romantic, dangerous, wild, and innocent land of hope and dreams.
To a kid growing up in Jersey, rock and roll was all about escape, release, and finding joy in a dreary world. But Chuck Berry and Elvis had only taken the imagery so far. It took a bunch of hippies to take the art form in its second decade into trippier, weirder, more impressionistic territory, both lyrically and musically. Bruce Springsteen was a teenager in the ‘60s, the perfect age for the groovier “Sgt. Pepper” experimentations, but he would favor that earlier stuff that rocked.
In Roy Orbison, he heard a sense of drama and depth in rock. It was the difference between fantasy and reality.
They say you have 20 years to make your first album and less than a year to make your second. The sophomore slump has killed many a promising artist’s career; the great ones make it to that third album and their own destiny.
There is no better example of this than Bruce Springsteen. His first album had created a world of madman drummers, bummers, Indians in the summer and teenage diplomats, setting the stage for a vast body of work unlike any other before or since. His third album would land him on the covers of Time and Newsweek, with a title track that captured all the aspirations of every young person dreaming of a meaningful life ahead. “Born to Run” is still recognized, rightly so, as one of rock’s most successfully ambitious statements.
But it was that unsung second album, released just eight months after “Greetings from Asbury Park, New Jersey,” that masterfully gave rock and roll its most cinematic experience. “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle” is to this day Springsteen’s most overlooked album, but to those who know its seven richly vivid songs, it is recognized as an innovative masterpiece.
From the character-driven rocker, “The E Street Shuffle,” we ease into the romantic beauty of “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” powered by accordion, acoustic guitar and the vulnerably fragile voice of a tough guy in a tender moment, tired of hanging in them dusty arcades, banging them pleasure machines. “Kitty’s Back” expands the cast in a barn-burning rocker that celebrates one irresistible bad-ass chick.
“Wild Billy’s Circus Story,” the best Tom Waits song Bruce ever wrote, sounds exactly like the traveling circus that moves in and out of the darkness on the edge of every town. Its migratory carnies and freaks are afforded respect by way of the most appropriate use of a tuba that rock music has ever known.
Side Two (for the vinyl lovers among us) is a Gershwinesque suite of three lengthy songs, starting with “Incident on 57th Street,” a New York City story brought to dramatic life, a full-length movie in eight minutes, unfolding with lyrics painting the characters and landscape while instruments set the tone.
“Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” is pure celebration of a defiant forbidden love, capturing its passionate feeling so effectively that it landed on Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “500 Songs That Shaped Rock And Roll.”
The climactic “New York City Serenade” takes rock and roll closer to both classical and jazz than any more ambitious rock opera ever has, doing so with strings and even more characters from the seedier underworld of urban life. If “Incident on 57th Street” was “West Side Story” in eight minutes, this was “Midnight Cowboy” in 10.
Perhaps those trippy ’60s records had, indeed, inspired what was his most ambitious and experimental production work, but Bruce Springsteen’s Jersey and New York remained spiritually far away from Pepperland.
Bruce never returned to such grand pieces, but that was only appropriate to the story he was telling: As life got tougher for his protagonists, so did their stories, their songs. He would continue bringing Sandy and Rosalita to life hundreds of times on stage, making those two girls the most enduring elements of this album. He would also name his band after the album’s opening track (ironically, it was this album’s keyboardist, David Sancious, whose mother lived on the real E Street in Belmar, N.J., though Sancious would not become a true E Street band member).
With his next album, Bruce Springsteen would conquer the world, and he has been telling America’s story with vision and humanity ever since. But once upon a time, that story was told through the wide-eyed perspective of a 23-year-old kid with a dream and an innate understanding of the hugeness of life’s daily experiences, like the passion of young love, the celebration of relationships, the struggle for survival, and the fireworks on the fourth of July.
For related items in our Goldmine store: