Springsteen: Point Blank

Springsteen: Point Blank

by Chris Sandford



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780306809217
Publisher: Da Capo Press
Publication date: 10/28/1999
Pages: 480
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 1.00(h) x 10.00(d)

About the Author

Christopher Sandford, the biographer of Mick Jagger, Kurt Cobain, and Sting, is also the author of Bowie: Loving the Alien and Clapton: Edge of Darkness. He has reviewed and written about rock music for more than twenty years, for theTimes of London and other publications, and his books have been published in more than a dozen countries.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Across The Border

New York, September 1979

The last word on Bruce Springsteen should start as follows. Most critics, whether yea or nay, devote as much space to the myth as they do to the man. Not that the man's ignored. In 1978 Darkness on the Edge of Town (probably the most craved LP ever) brought Springsteen to the peak of his fame as a blue-collar star who wrote joyous yet grown-up songs full of 'real dudes you run into' — or at least down the Jersey turnpike and the badlands. And if they were edgy flops, so were many Americans in the late 1970s; the ones, anyway, who felt embittered and shut out in the face of a slumped economy and frayed society. This was Springsteen's power base. Add the regular-guy roots, rock-till-you-drop gigs and the fuzzy but right-on politics, and it's easy to see why he was one of the most sainted icons of pop's first thirty years. Springsteen's albums gave a glimpse of life and morality among hordes of 'real dudes' and showed the potential of an artiste engagé. He could turn a lyric with the best of them, weaving and spinning yarns over a booming backbeat; a hybrid god who sounded like Elvis casually colluding with Dylan in an echo-chamber. Millions responded to his farrago. They were his constituency; that, his legend.

    Mythology, as usual, exalts reality. But in the man, too, there was a rare breadth. The real Springsteen was at heart a total conformist. His war with his father represents his sole tack from a course of teenage submission to petty, small-town convention.From youth through Born to Run-era breakthrough, his act was more prosaic than avant-garde, a notebook and thesaurus his constant companions, the guitar his most loyal friend. He neither smoked nor doped. News of Springsteen's post-Pill, pre-Aids social life — whether goosing both sexes or jittering in the klieg lights — would be tales of incongruity. In a world of foot-wide lapels and spandex, he clung to the work-shirt and Levi's. Amidst disco's and punk's dire season, he covered Mitch Ryder and Little Richard hits. His manner was to watch change and wonder why, ever worried at chaos. He was a champion brooder: cars, jobs, original sin, all were equal when it came to Darkness's themes. More pertinently, in May 1979 Springsteen fretted over the near-cataclysm at the Three Mile Island reactor. Within months, he'd put down a rare political marker. That autumn, he headlined at two of the five galas, hosted by Jackson Browne and his avocado mafia, hyped as 'America's starspangled series of gigs for a responsible future', and more popularly touted as No Nukes.

    Springsteen coasted through the first night. The lights flared, the band ran on, bowing in turn, the draw with his wrangler's boots and jeans, tall, wan and bow-legged like John Wayne. When he spoke he panted as though in a state of dramatic crisis. The eighty-minute set didn't give him time to dig into subtext; the appeal had to be instant, and was. 'The response he got ... was the most frenzied I've ever heard,' wrote the Boston stringer; 'the crowd was a Springsteen one', the New Yorker. After generous slabs of Born and Darkness, and a duet with Browne, the gig ended in a Gary Bonds knees-up as a chant, compounded of 20,000 voices, rang from the rafters. It was the urgent, force-fed lowing of an abattoir. 'Br-ooose,' it went. Then they put some lung into it. 'Br-ooooose.' Springsteen himself turned to the band, all of them doing their own horselaugh. 'Man,' he said, 'makes you feel like a million, don't it?' He used the word 'million' the way some people pronounce 'chump change'. Then he was off. There'd been no layers to peel back, no hint of artistic renewal or rebirth. It was classic, grainy rock, and Springsteen wiped the floor with it.

    All the good vibes were reversed in the Saturday show. Both the Boss and band were uptight, as evidenced by their eyes-to-the-deck performance style. The singing was short of breath, and a screech of feedback reinforced the ugly mood. In short, things were tense. Springsteen, still in his composite cowboy-biker's garb, brought down the house with 'Thunder Road', ground through 'The Promised Land', then uttered the (normally) dread intro, 'Here's one off the new album.' As 'The River' expired in a crash of breakneck harp and mangled hi-hats — Springsteen's drummer was on probation at the time — a woman in the crowd handed up a box. Via the organ and sax, her love-gift duly hit centre stage. It was a cake. 'Well. Fuck,' said Springsteen. With a cartoon pitcher's windup, he zeroed back in on the stalls. Springsteen's aim was true. In one creamy swoop he wiped out the woman's hair and cheeks, the icing hanging there like fluffy earmuffs. The sobbing fan later called herself 'the most dumbstruck person in New York'. If so, Springsteen, who'd sounded winded all night, could have made a bid for runner-up. 'Send. Me. The. Bill,' he rasped, scowling, then cued in the riff of 'Rosalita'.

    Things went downhill from there. As wailing guitar parts faded in honks of thunderous sax, and a harp also sailed into the crowd, Springsteen began jabbing wildly at the tenth row. Next, turning, he signalled to the back-line roadies. This went on over a long, clattering drum roll. The whole saga became a protracted hassle for the band, vamping away as their boss wove to and fro. Eventually Springsteen was so worked up that he slung down his Fender, cut the juice, and jumped into the pit. As he waded through the aisle he was clapped by most — save two, who never acknowledged him, leaving Springsteen still waving and yelling, 'Hey. You!' The smeared, crying fan he ignored. The other one he grabbed.

    She was his ex-flame, the photographer Lynn Goldsmith. Various rationalizations for Springsteen's fit were later put forward. For one, Goldsmith (who was actually co-ordinating shots of the event) was there in apparent breach of a verbal deal. If so, that would have tapped into a moral keynote of Springsteen's life and art: the sanctity of trust and dread of deceit — a core theme for one who'd held ideals in such awe. There was the professional angle. As a friend says, 'He's superfocused on those front rows, and she was distracting him incredibly.' His own take on the scene, played out to raving, big-fun crowds, took a disarming, hurt line. 'It was just between her and me, boyfriend and girlfriend,' he said. 'She was doin' something she said she wouldn't do. I tried to handle it in other ways, but she avoided them. So I had to do it myself.'

    Whatever the cause, the effect was that Springsteen (after hissing 'You had to dick me' in her ear) hauled Goldsmith back on stage. He twisted her arm so hard, she says, she thought it would break. They stood there on the lip, he hugging the mike, she blinking in the spot. There were, undeniably, a lot of cameras round her neck: a Canon; a Nikon; a lens; and a brown shoulder-bag of the kind where film's kept, stuck with a badge: 'Access All Areas. MSG. 9/23/79.' Behind this edifice of gear, Goldsmith looked strikingly glum. 'This,' Springsteen snarled, 'Is. My. Ex.' At that he whirled her into the wings. 'We're done,' he said. Goldsmith left open the odds that they'd meet in court. Roadies then hustled her to the exit. In Rolling Stone's words, 'After the show, a clutch of them could be heard shouting "macho Boss!" Several women standing backstage were shocked. Goldsmith was intensely humiliated by the experience ... for Bruce, though, it was just one of those things.'

    That day, Springsteen hit thirty.

Seattle, October 1996

Of course, rock stars aren't ever normal. Someone with antisocial personality disorder, as we know it, shows a cool ability to split word and deed, fluid sexual mores, an always or usually charming front, all fuelled by a manic drive. In Springsteen's case, a strict diagnosis doesn't hold, but gives a clue to other major trends of his life: his loneliness, distrustfulness and fear of the jilt, his idealistic civics and narcissism. But along with the darker sides there was also the evolution of a soul millions loved: the arch punk, the bard, the Byronesque goods. The husbandry of this image was the nub of his fame. So, too, was the very real sweat that he brought to his work. And overriding all others was the theme of honesty, the focal point of his life. He was the sunny face of the American psyche.

    For any analysis of Springsteen's CV, his thirties were the crux. He began them in a public row with one of his long list of exes; by forty he was divorced, a semi-recluse, mellow, well-read, filled with erudite goods off the national stockpile. Culturally, from 1979 to 1989 Springsteen was in chrysalis. They were busy years.

    Springsteen's relations with women became 'almost normal' during the decade, and his second marriage (and fatherhood) was a hit. Musically, too, he grew without swelling. Springsteen came to a new, 'gaunt' sound, which he fought at first, then realized was him, trying to ram through. He did some of his best work. And he delved in local and state politics, donating funds, speaking out, and losing his native coyness from the days of No Nukes (when his was the sole name not to flog the shows' manifesto). Springsteen's liberal bias contained more the gist of populism than of the pristine ideological left. His goal was less one of national causes than of rooting out cases of wrong. In the face of welfare cuts, for instance, Springsteen quietly and generously gave cash to community food banks. Along with his practical activism went a matching personal growth. No longer would the Boss be the hard-eyed capo who flouted his moll. Springsteen's pay-back for the 'crapola road' shifted from vengeance to a pity for those he saw as fellow-travellers. 'I'll never put someone in the position of being humiliated,' he said. 'It happened to me for too long.'

    Just as 1955 belonged to Elvis, 1965 to Dylan, so 1975 was Springsteen's year. Cynics would say this progression stood as a powerful rebuttal of Darwin's theory. But by the mid-1980s such sneers were either too obscurely positioned or came too late to halt the celestial trajectory of Born in the USA. The hype mill, in the peculiarly American sense of it, fired up. Rash claims were made on Springsteen's behalf. His cover of the hoary Motown hit 'War' was 'the one song that [can] make every implication of US policy explicit', wrote Dave Marsh. According to Father Andrew Greeley, 'Tunnel of Love may be a more important Catholic event [in America] than the visit of the Pope.' Springsteen's deft but trite 'If I Should Fall Behind' was compared to Rousseau (Marsh again). This was surreal. However much he'd learned on the way up, on the streets of Jersey — no mean Ph.D. itself — Springsteen was poorly tutored, a pedestrian, essentially shy type for whose every entrance fans waited and on whose every word they devotedly hung. Pundits loved him. 'Real dudes', too. His lyrics were pondered in the New York Times, and his postman had a nervous rupture from having to haul so many bags of mail to Springsteen's door.

    All this fed a critical orgasm that Springsteen, to his credit, largely ignored. He dared buck a formula. Thus the '70s street-poet became the '80s vexed soul and the '90s new man. Male bonding was junked for the less vagarious world of hearth and home. (Aptly, it was the same woman who joined Springsteen's boys-only band and then married him.) Macho posturing gave way to ruminations on wives and kids. In 1993 Springsteen's notion of brotherhood yielded the wry, haunting 'Streets Of Philadelphia', a marked artistic leap from 'Rosalita' into something more dextrous. Meanwhile, an Oedipal rage at his father blew out; anti-clericalism veered into a secularized view of redemption; even Springsteen's TV fixation was set on its ear in '57 Channels (And Nothin' On)'. Through it all, he moved one dollar's width to the left with every dollar earned. A rich and fulfilled man, he constantly probed the failed and fed-up, writing with a compassion that seemed real, witty, radiant, humane, on a par with Guthrie and Rodgers, if not Gandhi and Rousseau.

    This is the Springsteen who arrives at the Paramount Theatre, Seattle, in a bus.

    He looks completely changed. Springsteen semi-lopes through the black side door, a chunky, rolling-legged man with chunky, turquoise gypsy beads, the kind often linked with New Agers. His hair is swept back. He wears a full moustache and a half-beard, restored after his clean-shaven interlude, flecked with grey. Above the jeans is a lumberjack's shirt; to find such dire togs must have taken work. With his bristly-cut sideburns and slit mouth, Springsteen looks like someone on parole. He has convict's eyes. Instead of the stealth wisecrack, his only aside is a muffled grunt to the fans. When they speak, it's a throwback.


    'You the man!'


    'Yeah — awesome!'

    Springsteen shrugs. Then he bobs in, and up comes his head, up comes a smile. Now he's the boss. As usual, he changes — if that word conveys reincarnation — once he lays hands on a guitar. Onstage, he's by turns ornery, fey and warm when the lyrics warrant it. He has the habit of getting in part for his songs. 'Don't clap,' he snaps at one point (earning it the tag 'Bruce's shut-the-fuck-up tour'). The intros to 'Pilgrim' and 'Red Headed Woman', by contrast, are downright bawdy. A few of the latter are allowed up to lean on the stage, still clutching their handbags. 'Sometimes you find what makes you feel alive is killin' you,' he tells them, before 'Straight Time'. 'Sometimes the old answers run out and you have to find out how to be new.'

    It's the kind of unforced yet moving set that gets folk-rock a good name. In the 1940s, Hank Williams sang with just such a pity for the beaten and broke, though in a band. Springsteen works solo. He wraps his rough, full-bodied rasp around sagas full of share-croppers, Okies, doomed refugees and vets. The new wrinkle is the stark, guitar-and-harp arrangements and the neatly judged tales about migrants, notably Chicanos flooding over the California border. Springsteen brings a homespun sense and bitter wit to tunes like 'Sinaloa Cowboys' and 'The Line'. This isn't the stuff of most rich and stellar pop idols. Fellow-feeling, of course, has been in Springsteen's line-up from the off. By 1979, he'd worked it into an art form: most of Darkness and the new cuts from The River loomed as gripes on the American Dream gone awry. In those days, though, Springsteen used to be a cross, somewhere in the chasm between Pete Seeger and Mick Jagger's manic derangement. Tonight, there's John Steinbeck with a guitar. If he's the quintessential self-made man, the real 'boss' is revealed as a hyper-sensitive, easily moved soul who's hid himself behind a mask — as he did in all those soc-hop raves about cars — and learned some mint-new things in his forties, with the gratifying self-insight: 'Right now, I don't need records that are number one ... I need to do [what's] central, vital, that sets me in the present, where I don't have to come out and count on my history or a hit I wrote twenty years ago.'

    After a six-song encore, including a wiggily-done 'Blinded By The Light' (1972), Springsteen is off. He doesn't, however, leave the building. In a kind of vaulted alcove, a grey, ugly den the tone of wet cement, he signs books and albums. On one he scrawls, 'We're getting there — thanx.' He poses for amateur snaps. To a gofer he gives orders on meeting those who'd plugged the show one way or another, from wizened hacks to various DJs and movers in local clubs. One of the last calls Springsteen the 'most down to earth guy ever'. Short of having the words 'Real Dude' tattooed across his forehead, it's hard to see how much more clearly he could prove it.

    First in to his dressing-room are the party from Northwest Harvest, a Seattle food-bank. They spend half an hour there, during which Springsteen soars high above the seigneurial rites of charity. He thanks them. One of the group, Jean Allenbach, remembers him as 'just supremely nice ... talk[ing] about how he tried to boost causes wherever he went, instead of just writing a cheque. He wanted others to sign up in the days and weeks ahead. They'd make a difference.'

    Behind this hope lies Springsteen's yen to move on, happier in a sea of anonymous faces than one-on-one. It also speaks to his genuine concern and acquired charm, even as his aide waves in his next date. Springsteen poses for more shots and signs posters for Allenbach to raffle. He donates the total proceeds from his T-shirt sales. When all the figures are added up, Northwest Harvest reaps $7,000.

    Next in are four fans from another group, Dalmatian Dreams. One of them, a young man named Jamie, is battling cancer. A second source there calls Springsteen 'riveting'. He moves them deeply, less for the contents of his speech (mainly the commonplace of gawky clichés) than his gift to forge belief, not so much in theories, a programme or plan, as in themselves. His social analysis has a rough pragmatic note of reality. They, too, attest to Springsteen's raw humanity.

    The vehicle of this power, and of his motivational nous, is his true decency, different in kind from mere do-goodery. In fact, judged by lofty political standards, Springsteen has obvious flaws as a radical. His key aesthetic is a maudlin hunger for pre-Grapes of Wrath America. It's nostalgia that stirs his dust-bowl reveries on The Ghost of Tom Joad. But that pales beside the fire and immediacy of his passions, his charisma and a style, sometimes taken for reticence, actually concealing will, a quiet nerve, guts and grit that constantly wrong-foot others: '"can-do" as well as candour', wags a friend. It's hard to read Springsteen's three decades' fame as the track record of a wimp. When a final backstage caller cites a licensing hassle going back twelve years, touching on Born in the USA, he 'prints' the man with a startling, cold glare. 'I'll fix it,' he says. He does.

    Springsteen ducks outside to Ninth Avenue, works the line, mute again, his fleshy underlip with the hint of a curl, waves and takes off. His shoulders seem broader than ever, his dark head partly sunk between them. He wears shades against the Northwest sky. The night quickly becomes wrapped in anecdotal fable. To the loyal ones he's still the hero; to others, the latest in a firmament of rock gods to preach down. Anomalies are made to surface between the old Springsteen and the new. Quirks are seen, oddities aired. And that's the final irony of all, since neither myth nor legend can ever match the truth of the caged, wild life.

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