Tuesday, October 27, 2015

A pivotal moment in pop culture: Bruce Springsteen on the covers of Time and Newsweek

By Jim Beckerman
October 25, 2015

Mr. and Mrs. America – meet Bruce Springsteen.

He's "small, tightly-muscled" (Time). "Scruffy" (Newsweek). "A glorified gutter rat from a dying New Jersey resort town who walks with an easy swagger that is part residual stage presence, part boardwalk braggadocio" (Time).

In the history of rock, there are a few legendary breakout moments. There's Elvis on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1956. There's the Beatles arriving at Kennedy Airport in 1964. And there's the amazing day, Oct. 27, 1975 — 40 years ago Tuesday – when Bruce Springsteen appeared simultaneously on the cover of both of the nation's top news magazines, Time and Newsweek.

Amazing, not least, for the members of Springsteen's E Street Band — who found themselves overnight in the world's hottest rock franchise.

"There aren't superlatives you can utilize to tell you what kind of feeling," recalls drummer Max Weinberg, who had joined the E Street Band only a year earlier. "We were young kids, we were in our 20s, it was no secret that [Springsteen's] first two records hadn't really sold. To see that coverage was very exciting."

It may also be the last time in rock history that a single performer galvanized an entire culture.

There would continue to be rock and pop superstars – Prince, Kurt Cobain, Lady Gaga – but their star shine would be diffused, broken up over an increasingly niche-oriented music landscape.

Lots of Americans didn't know who Kurt Cobain was until the day his death was announced: April 5, 1994. But after Oct. 27, 1975, everybody knew who Bruce Springsteen was.

"The Bruce covers were unique," says Robert Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum and the author of "Greetings From E Street: The Story of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band" (2006).

"There had been other pop acts on the cover of Time and Newsweek, but simultaneously?" Santelli says.

There is an inside story here, he says — harking back to the days when journalism, like the music industry, was a more robust institution.

Cultural impact

Time and Newsweek were in neck-and-neck competition for readers, and neither one wanted to miss the Bruce bandwagon – moving at breakneck pace ever since "Born to Run," released Aug. 25, 1975, and hugely hyped by Columbia Records, began climbing the Billboard charts, reaching No. 3 by the weeks of Oct. 11 and 18.

But rock aficionados are one thing, middle America another.

"Neither news magazine wanted to be out-scooped by the other," Santelli says. "The buzz on 'Born to Run' was so powerful, the record had such cultural impact, that both news magazines went out on a limb, putting this relatively unknown pop person on the cover. It was risky. Who knew Bruce Springsteen at that time?"

Some people did, of course. For several years Springsteen had been the darling of a coterie of critics, especially in New York and Boston ("I saw rock-and-roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen" – Jon Landau), despite the lackluster sales of his first two albums, "Greetings From Asbury Park" and "The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle," both released in 1973.

And there had long been a fraternity of diehard Springsteen fans – in New Jersey especially – who had been seeing Bruce in small clubs since the late 1960s and insisting to anyone who would listen that Bruce was the second coming of Dylan, Elvis and Mahatma Gandhi.

For many true believers, the week when the rest of America suddenly learned of their hero was a sublime told-you-so moment. Added to which was a huge dollop of Jersey pride.

"There was a tremendous sense of ownership," recalls Eileen Chapman, who lived in Asbury Park at the time (she's now the manager of the Bruce Springsteen Special Collection for Monmouth University).

"All of Bruce's fans and friends were running around showing each other the magazine covers," Chapman remembers. "Everybody was very proud of what Bruce had accomplished."

So who was this Bruce Springsteen that the folks in the dentist's office in Dubuque, and the magazine-browsers in the supermarket lines in Topeka, read about in 1975?

"Street smart but sentimental," proclaimed Time's article. "The wild onstage energy of a pinball rebounding off invisible flippers." "A dervish leaping on the tables, all arms and flailing dance steps, and a rock poet as well." A rocker who leaves audiences "exhausted and on fire at the end of a concert."

A rapturous article, as only Time could write them, "The Backstreet Phantom of Rock" (unsigned, but apparently written by Jay Cocks) captured the giddy excitement that Springsteen seemed to generate in his live appearances.

Newsweek's article, "The Making of a Rock Star" (by "Maureen Orth with Janet Huck in New York and Peter S. Greenberg in Los Angeles") was more cynical, using words like "hysteria" and "hype" and asking whether Springsteen wasn't, after all, a flash in the pan, another Gary Glitter or Barnaby Bye (who?) or Judi Pulver (who?).

Like Time, but more insistently, it talked about the massive publicity buildup around Springsteen's career and new album, propelled by "abrasive" manager Mike Appel (whom Springsteen was to break with shortly after) and the Columbia label.

"Some people are asking whether Bruce Springsteen will be the biggest superstar or the biggest hype of the '70s," Newsweek said.

Junk-food junkie

Hindsight is 20-20. But it has to be said that Springsteen's career over the last four decades has – ironically — been a lot healthier than Newsweek's. His next release, "The Ties That Bind: The River Collection," a four-CD set, is due out Dec. 4. Newsweek ceased print publication in 2012, and though it returned to the newsstands in 2014, it's hardly what it was 40 years ago.

Other fun facts we learned from the two national magazines? Springsteen was a junk-food junkie.

"Nicknamed 'the Gut Bomb King' because of his passion for junk food, he would show up at a Monopoly tourney with armfuls of Pepsi's and Drake's cakes" (Time). This was before the Gut Bomb King became The Boss — with a Gold's Gym body he's kept well into his 60s.

We learned that Springsteen's fans were "teeny boppers" (Newsweek) and "not teeny boppers" (Time). That the name "Springsteen" is "Dutch" (Time, correct) and "German" (Newsweek, incorrect). That he lives at the Jersey shore in "comfortable – but not lavish – quarters" (Time) and "it's likely he'll end up with a movie contract" (Newsweek).

Also, "a typical gig lasts over two hours" (Time). They of course couldn't have predicted the marathon Springsteen concerts to come – like the record-breaking four-hour-six-minute show Springsteen did, as part of his 2012 "Wrecking Ball" tour, in Helsinki.

"In summer [in Finland], darkness is, like, two hours," Weinberg recalls. "It was light when we started. It got dark, and then when we finished, it was light again."

There was one person who may not have been entirely happy about the Time and Newsweek coverage in 1975, Santelli says. That's Springsteen.

"He didn't think this was a beautiful thing that happened to him," Santelli says. "He thought wow, this is incredible pressure on me. Talk about the weight on his shoulders."

The Newsweek article, especially, had an emperor's-new-clothes undertone, for all the extravagant prose. In the months following "Born to Run" and the two magazine covers, there started to be a backlash to all of Columbia's promotional overkill. Some critics were throwing the term "new Dylan" in Springsteen's face.

Something to prove?

The beneficiaries of all this, Santelli says, were the fans. In his "Born to Run" era concerts, Springsteen went onstage like he had something to prove. The resulting performances, Santelli says, were some of his best ever.

"The greatest shows occurred immediately after that, in 1975, 1976," he says. "I walked out of there, it was like going to church."

The ultimate comment, however, came from the critic who was perhaps hardest to please. Douglas Frederick Springsteen would later become the subject of Springsteen's autobiographical song about fathers and sons, "Adam Raised a Cain." His response to the 1975 Time and Newsweek media blitz was laconic, Weinberg reports.

"His father had the best line of all," Weinberg says. "He said, 'Better you than another picture of the president.' Nixon was going through all his stuff at that point."

Email: beckerman@northjersey.com

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