Happy Birthday Bruce.

When I was in high school, maybe junior year, a new kid named Robert Ellis moved to town from Cherry Hill New Jersey. I guess we shared a class and became friendly, and one day he came over my house and we spent hours arguing whether Springsteen or the New York Dolls were better. It accrues good will to us that we weren’t arguing between Foghat and REO Speedwagon, these are two of the greatest rock artists of all time in their infancy, but I still remember him saying that the Dolls didn’t even play their own instruments, as if they were the Monkees or something. I loved the Monkees.

Robert was right, the Boss was boss, and I in fact had no problem with Greetings from Asbury Park or the Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, except they weren’t the Dolls.

Today, or maybe yesterday, is the Boss’s birthday, and there is a post on Gothamist ranking all of his records. I’m so over that, I didn’t even open it, but it did make me think about the songs that speak to me. Top of the list is Rosalita, which should probably be everybody’s favorite song and lets be done with it. Then these two came to mind:

This is a really early version I’d never seen before!

Totally frightening, never old.


7 thoughts on “Happy Birthday Bruce.

  1. He never did much for me, maybe because I never saw him live. Most of his songs make me snicker, what with the overripe romanticizing of teen drama. The first two albums don’t usually go too far, and I don’t turn Rosalita off the radio or the one about the 4th of July, or Growing Up (Bowie did an OK cover). But I mean, I lived this shit and I never once said “this guy gets it just right.” The Dolls did, song after song and to this day too. If there is anything in the later Springsteen catalog that’s really good I’d like to hear it, but so far I haven’t. I’ll give you an example of Bruce getting it wrong, a little thing maybe but then it is the title of the song. I speak of Backstreets, which happens to be my fave Springsteen because for once (OK, two or three times) the music and emotion connect with me.

    But here’s the thing and take it from a guy who did some hiding: you can’t hide on backstreets. If you must be on the street at all you can only hide on big streets. So I just change the word from “back” to “big.” Peter’s post made me go back and listen again and I’m glad I did. The music is a heavier on Blonde on Blonde, always a great idea and the band nails it, plus his singing really pours it out:

    • Wow. I think you’re dead right about the Backstreets as an image. But I have a story.

      My buddy Russell and I were hitchiking from Denver to the Grand Canyon over the Fourth of July weekend in 1973 (already like a Springsteen song), and we had some adventures. I could write a book, but on the drive into the canyon, because of the gas crisis, our benefactors (the ones with the car) bailed, and decided to retreat. They offered to take us with them, but we decided to stand at the side of the road into park after dark, hitchhiking when there were no cars going in (everyone knows you have to get in early).

      We stood and sat for a long time in the pitch blackness, and that night we made a pledge–no matter what might happen, no matter where the wind might blow us–to meet again at the Grand Ol’ Opry on the Fourth of July in 1996, the year we would turn 40 years old. It was dark, we felt doomed, it was a plan. We also specified where at the Grand Ol’ Opry we would meet: On the loading dock. No Nora Ephron hugs in the lobby, we would seal our pact on the loading dock, and that was that.

      I think Bruce chose the word backstreets for the same reason. It just sounds better than hiding on Broadway! But it’s good to call that out.

      Backstreets is one of many Bruce songs to have too many words. But it does sound great. I agree that the Dolls get almost of all of much more right, and the later Boss songbook is crowned by his Seeger Sessions cover album, which is great fun, but his most atypical elpee. By far. I did see him live, at Madison Garden for the Tunnel of Love tour. I had tickets from Rolling Stone magazine (my wife worked there) in the 20th or so row on the Madison Square Garden floor. It was a great show, but it was like Broadway. Great amazing performances, but with no apparent spontaneity. Not a bad script, but something kept me asking why I was there.

      Writing about Bruce earlier today I was a little haunted by that same feeling, but I think he deserves credit for his craft and artistry. He couldn’t be the Dolls, he wanted something perhaps equally grand but something also he could achieve by shaping his visions to what the audience wanted. It’s a little difference, at least while you’re living it, and immaterial to the millions of people who would choose the Boss over everyone.

      I’m carefully saying, he didn’t sell out, but he chose one way. The Dolls chose, perhaps not always intentionally, another.

  2. No, I don’t think Bruce ever sold out, I think he believed all that stuff.

    I hitched across the country with my friend Dollar Bill Cullen. It was early spring 1975, so we were both 19. We made it to Rock Springs, WY, a mining town where we were looking for work but they weren’t hiring (or weren’t hiring US anyway). So we backed up to Denver and hitched into the mountains of Breckenridge and Leadville. No work there either. We were down to our last ten bucks and were seriously thinking about going on to San Francisco and joining the Navy, but I wasn’t too thrilled with that. Bill’s mom wired him $100 and we hitched back. A biker couple with a toddler picked us up on the Colorado plains – after a cop told us we were going to walk to New York, and followed us for an hour driving at 2 mph. Until a savior appeared, bless him, driving by at 100 mph and the cop took off after him. We caught a ride quickly which was lucky. The man driving had just escaped from prison, or so he told us – people tell you things like that when you’re hitching and I never knew whether to believe them or not. They may have been telling us to back off in case we had wicked designs on them, I don’t know. Anyway, we hung out in the back of their big Ford station wagon and listened to Top 40 in Kansas. Philadelphia Freedom and Jackie Blue and It’s a Miracle by Barry Manilow, almost all dreck but every now and then this one would come on and we took it to heart, singing it on the highway with our thumbs out. I don’t know, is it a great one or is it just me?

    See, the main reason I left was because I was falling in love with another good friend’s girlfriend. I didn’t think it was right to steal her, or try to, but on the road I decided fuck it, I want her. When we got back they had broken up anyway and I got my wish. For a few weeks. The song was my plan – Bill’s too, he was having girl trouble of another kind and it fit right in.

  3. I saw Bruce at MSG too, invited by a friend who had an extra ticket. It was maybe 1996 or 1997. I came away with a similar feeling as you too, Peter, in that maybe this was really exciting back at the Stone Pony, but not all that exciting anymore.

    Kind of like the way I felt about seeing my first (and only) NHL game after people had told me all my life that you don’t get the thrill of hockey until you see it live.

  4. Wow.

    So many buttons.

    Hitch hiking. Grand Canyon. And, Rock Springs, where I got a speeding ticket in 1978 driving across Wyoming in my yellow Porsche 914 (you know, the mid engine ones folks called a souped up VW, but which would do 140, unlike any VW).

    My story involves my very first serious gf, Cindy Graham, with whom i lived in 71-72, and with whom i reconnected after i moved down to the bay area in 1977. one thing Cindy and i had in common was music. We saw Elton John (first US tour, tho my tix were comped since i was a writer so I didn’t have to pay), Pink Floyd, Traffic, The Who (Who’s Next tour) among others together.

    By ’78, we had enough distance so we were just friends, and in the last days of Winterland, which was my fave venue at the time, was closing. For the final shows were a couple of nights of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, a couple of nights of Bruce and the E Streets, and then a couple of nights of the Dead to close out Winterland and the year.

    I had already seen Petty four times by then and was crazy for them, even though the band was not that well known by the main stream, so, i bought tix to them for that show for a bunch of my friends and loved ones.

    Cindy was on that last, but we made an agreement that she would come down, spend the weekend, and that i would supply the Petty tix and she the Springsteen tix. i judiciously went to get the Pettys right away, called her the next morning when she said she had not gotten around to the Boss yet. in the interim, it had sold out. Pissing me off, since i could have gotten both at the same time and she could have paid me back. (but, nooooooo.)

    I made arrangements for her to get her ticket to Petty, but told her I was going with a buddy instead. Her response (“I hope you become a statistic”) explains our break-up.

    I did not get to see the Boss till the River tour, and….

    he was fantastic. Everything i was told, including commitment to performance.

    I get Gene’s note on the scope of Bruce’s tunes, but he makes it work in a Carl Sandberg kind of way for me. Plus, he is a clever songwriter, lyrically, IMHO. My favorite albums of his are Darkness, Nebraska, and the Woody Guthrie tribute.

    Seen him four times since–Born in the USA tour, Lucky Town tour, Tunnel of Love, and then solo acoustic at The Bridge–and he always brings that commitment. Bruce is not my fave, but he is very very good. And, as authentic a human as i think a rock star can be?

    BTW, a few years ago i got an email from Cindy, noting that our last words were admittedly harsh, but that she had two sons and they were impressed to know she had a passing relationship with one of the Touts. She wanted to get back in touch. As if. (i think that is why my cousin Richard says i am not sentimental.)

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