Clinton Heylin pores through Springsteen discog in 'E Street Shuffle'
English author Clinton Heylin has written numerous books on Robert Zimmerman—including Behind the Shades and Revolution in the Air: The Songs of Bob Dylan 1957-1973—so who better to analyze the music of Bruce Springsteen, who in the early seventies was hailed as America’s “new Dylan?”
The Boss himself has been the subject of myriad biographies, including two by Dave Marsh (Glory Days and Born to Run) and one by Peter Ames Carlin (Bruce). But Heylin isn’t interested in rehashing Springsteen’s personal history. Rather, he devotes the new E Street Shuffle: The Glory Days of Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band almost entirely to the man’s music—official and unofficial.
Utilizing the same research methods applied to Dylan’s prolific catalog, Heylin not only pored through Springsteen’s official canon but conducted painstaking research of record studio logbooks and the musician’s own notes to create a comprehensive—and at times exhausting—survey of Bruce music during his E Street years, circa 1972 through 1987. Heylin is far less concerned here with what songs appear on which Bruce albums than how and why certain tunes made the cut while others were either gifted away or relegated to later “lost hits” albums like Tracks and The Promise.
His study paints the portrait of an obsessive, demanding, and controlling artist whose narrative brilliance and onstage prowess are matched only by his inability to liberate his musical creations from the studio at the most optimal times. Turns out for every other Springsteen LP there’s a handful of other tunes—if not several albums’ worth—that were nudged aside or trumped by other choices during sequencing and mixing. Casual listeners may be surprised to learn that the title tracks for such now-classic albums such as Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town nearly weren’t included on said discs. They’ll also be surprised to read that many familiar tunes were written years before their release, during the writing and recording phases for previous albums: “Born in the USA” originated in sessions for 1982’s lo-fi offering, Nebraska.
Heylin’s introduction and “Prehistory” walk readers through Springsteen’s upbringing, touching only upon those people, places, and events that would inform his music. We learn of Bruce’s Catholic school oppression, his ostracism in high school as a long-hair, his 4-F exclusion from the draft, and his love for Chuck Berry, Roy Orbison, and (young) Elvis), whose songs he heard on his mother’s AM radio. Instead of retracing each step in the evolution of the E Street band in detail (as do most biographies) Heylin cuts to the quick by zipping through the formation (and breakup) of early Bruce bands like The Rogues, The Castilles, Child, Earth, Dr. Zoom and Steel Mill in a single section. We visit the Jersey Shore and peek in on old haunts like The Upstage, but by Page 60 Springsteen’s assembled his Asbury Park players (Danny Federici, Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez, Gary Tallent, David Sancious, and Clarence Clemons) and is ready to sign with CBS Records.
E Street Shuffle introduces a large cast of extras—producers, promoters, critics, etc.—who influenced Springsteen one way or another. Indeed, the volume of text Heylin quotes from early reviews, show write-ups, and interviews is exceeded only by the reproduction of several wordy (but insightful) in-concert “rants” wherein Bruce explains the impetus for certain tunes. Two key characters include Mike Appel and Jim Cretecos, who champion young Springsteen and convince CBS man John Hammond (and later Clive Davis himself) of the songwriter’s talent. Hammond, who “discovered” Dylan, promotes Bruce as his latest wunderkind—but Springsteen doesn’t appreciate the hype.
Heylin’s meticulous dissection of debut album Greetings from Asbury Park, New Jersey and The Wild, The Innocent, and The E Street Shuffle features commentary on nearly every tune (“Growin’ Up,” “Lost in the Flood,” “Spirit in the Night,” “Kitty’s Back,” etc.) and the personnel involved in bringing them to life at 914 Sound Studios in Blauvelt, New York. Heylin explains how the bearded, scraggy-haired troubadour’s “Blinded by the Light” was converted into a #1 hit for British pop-rockers Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, and how “For You” began as a valentine for then-girlfriend Diane Lozito. We also see early signs of Bruce over-thinking the recording process and retouching music at the eleventh hour, to the consternation of his band, producer, and record executives waiting for a product to push.
Heylin juxtaposes analysis of Springsteen’s labor in studio with discussion of the band’s incendiary performances on the accompanying tours. He notes that the first two records were regarded as failures, citing numerous rock journalists who felt the thin-sounding Greetings and E Street Shuffle failed to capture the energy and passion Bruce and his cohorts generated in a live setting. Determined to rectify the issue for his make-or-break third album, Springsteen brought writer Jon Landau onboard to assist Appel (and old friend “Miam” Steven Van Zandt) in creating the huge cinematic sound he’d been hearing in his head. Gone also was drummer Lopez, who’d gotten in a money-related scrap with Appel’s brother. Enter Ernest “Boom” Carter, whose tenure would be short-lived—and who took Sancious with him when he left.
Sessions for Born to Run were strained in part because of Bruce’s stubbornness, but also because—despite rave live reviews—the band was broke, and overtime in the studio only exacerbated the hand-to-mouth living conditions. Heylin tiptoes through Springsteen’s mounting legal troubles with Appel, who’d signed his young star to a devil’s deal wherein Bruce naively relinquished his publishing, studio control, and hefty profits to the producer. However inequitable the contract, Heylin observes, Springsteen had signed it, and the oft-vilified Appel had no compelling reason to modify the bargain when it was he who’d turned the musician from street bard to superstar.
Trading “wings for wheels” Bruce went mainstream with the painstakingly produced Born to Run and conquered the world’s clubs, theatres, and even arenas—which he’d sworn off early on for their lack of intimacy. But the lawsuit left a bad taste in Springsteen’s mouth and colored the writing and production of the next project, Darkness on the Edge of Town, which was delayed because Appel’s attorneys filed an injunction preventing Bruce from working with others. Landau and others encouraged their employer to reconsider issuing a live album to appease fans who’d love the FM broadcasts of his shows and beat the bootleggers who were sating that demand instead. The Boss scoffed and withdrew, leaving his band to wonder whether they should return home for good. Had it not been for “donated” tunes like “Because the Night” (turned into gold by Patti Smith), Springsteen and co. would have run out of money.
Looking back on his former employer’s inability to just let go, Appel quoted Duke Ellington: “I don’t need more time, I need a deadline.”
“You’d be surprised how quick it can go with a gun to your head,” Appel said. Trouble was, nobody dared impose such constraints on taskmaster-tinker Springsteen.
After resolving things with Appel (at least to the extent that he kept his publishing and was allowed to collaborate with others), Bruce forged ahead with Darkness in 1978 and double-LP The River in 1980. Heylin comments on how Springsteen’s mental fatigue began tainting his lyrics: His characters became increasingly shady, corrupt, or unrepentant, and the stories sometimes lacked happy endings. Where Born to Run idealized escape (or searching, as Bruce insists), these albums explored the relationships between ordinary people in Nowheresville and versified their often dead-end quests for salvation. Critics and fans took to the material—but Heylin and others agreed The River felt padded and could’ve been condensed to a single LP. Like any opinionated fan, the author isn’t shy about saying when he thinks a track like “Cadillac Ranch” doesn’t belong.
Ah, but hindsight’s 20/20. And while there are actual paper trails documenting early album sequences and rehearsals, it’s still difficult to pick the brains of a mercurial artist some thirty years on and offer conjecture on why he pursued a particular path. It’s easy to speculate that a band shoulda, coulda done something when one is decades removed from the situation and didn’t personally stand to gain or lose from the outcome anyway. Heylin recognizes this element of risk in the art form and uses kid gloves when reviewing the band’s concerts, wherein it’s a little clearer which tunes worked and which didn’t (by virtue of their inclusion in or absence from the sets). Sancious replacement Roy Bittan added jazz piano stylings to the mix, while Carter’s replacement—Max Weinberg—had to learn to be “metronomic” before loosening up (and building confidence) enough to create a rhythmic pocket with Tallent.
The book navigates Springsteen’s isolated, stripped-down Nebraska project, on which The Boss captured songs like “Johnny 99,” “Reason to Believe,” and “Highway Patrolman” on a portable multi-track tape recorder. With the right amount of echo, those drafts would become the actual album—although Bruce insisted on trying the material with his band later (The Electric Nebraska). Then of course there’s the mega-platinum Born in the USA, that entry that galvanized the N.J. rocker as a bona fide global superstar—but which started as a grab-bag of tunes that weren’t thematically related (“Dancing With the Dark” was another one of The Boss’ last minute additions).
Bigger Bruce fans than I can pore over E Street Shuffle and tick off any glaring mistakes, unintentional inaccuracies, or patent falsehoods (if any). But we’ve no reason to doubt the results of Heylin’s audio archeology or question his chronology. Most of this stuff is readily available to the public on the official albums, between the roars of applause on well-circulated boots, published in trade periodicals, or included on documentary DVDs (like 2010’s magnificent Darkness on the Edge of Town set). Which means most of the facts presented here could be verified by any similarly scrupulous fans.
Heylin’s picture of Springsteen is one of an inspired, hardworking but bullheaded artist who was as gifted a storyteller as he was un-savvy a businessman (at least early on). His no-stone-unturned study of every Bruce song and their final destinations provides a clearer understanding of the man’s muse, vision, and—as it happens—inner torture. Between 1971-1987 Springsteen was rock’s heir apparent to folk icons like Dylan and Van Morrisson, and yet he wasn’t satisfied until backed his stories with the sonic strength of a crack bar band—his E Streeters. And even then he wasn’t always pleased with the results.
Other commentary comes by way of chats with marketing manager Dick Wingate, promotion expert Paul “Rap” Rappaport, Village Voice scribe Paul Nelson, Crawdaddy editor Paul Williams, Thunder Road fanzine writer Ken Viola, journalist (turned guitarist) Lenny Kaye, photographer Joel Bernstein, and Creem’s Lester Bangs. Heylin’s acknowledgements also give nods to Sony librarian Glenn Korman—who opened the vaults for scrutiny—and Springsteen archivists Scott Curran, Nick Carruthers, Steve Shepherd, and Ken Avery.
The “Selected Bibliography” credits writers and interviewers past, while Heylin’s “Selected Bootleg CD Discography” lists unofficial vinyl-to-CD releases like Fire on the Fingertips, E Ticket, and Forgotten Songs as “splendid,” but warns fans to avoid Son You May Kiss the Bride because of its poor transfer from vinyl to disc. Several of Bruce’s countless live bootleg collections are also audited, with praise being reserved for titles like Max’s Kansas City Night (NYC, January 1973), My Father’s Place (NYC, July 1973), A Star is Born (Providence, July 1975), London Calling (London, November 1975), Runners in the Night (Cleveland, April 1976), and Follow That Dream (Stockholm (May 1981).
The index lists key people and bands, along with all song and album titles. It deserves mentioning, however, that Viking has issued the e-guidebook Bruce Springsteen: Song by Song (also by Heylin) in conjunction with E Street Shuffle.