Mum, Dad, this is Bruce

Bruce Springsteen has often felt like a member of my family. Born seven years before me, he was the older brother I never had. My encounter with Bruce’s music was simply a consequence of my search for Bob Dylan, the legendary uncle who everyone told stories about, but who very few people seemed to have actually seen.

What follows is about how a Bruce Springsteen album sneaked its way into my home in Harlow, Essex. The story starts in early 1973.

An advert in Melody Maker

Like many of my peers in the early 70s UK who were also music fans, I had discovered that reading the music press gave a little boost to what I could glean from radio, hanging out in record shops and what we saw happening at rock concerts locally.

We were regular readers of Melody Maker which we would pass around at school on Thursdays. My copy hit the family doormat before breakfast. I would first flick through mine before leaving home in the morning to get any important items for sharing on arrival at school, then we’d give it another read collectively at lunchtime, and I would finally take a closer personal read back home after school.

In early 1973, an advert for a new artist caught my eye in the paper because it proclaimed in large letters : “This man puts more thoughts, more ideas and more images into one song than most people put into an album.” That could have been something written about Bob Dylan and the songs on that album I was wearing out.

I should say at this point that, having read the Scaduto biography of Dylan over Christmas 72, a present from my older sister, I had recently set out looking for Bob. All I had been able to find were traces of his glorious past. He seemed to have retired or simply vanished into thin air in his early thirties, job done, which was about right for pop stars back then. The Beatles had split a while before, so Dylan retiring seemed feasible.

In view of Uncle Bob’s absence, I had to find a replacement, and the quote from the Melody Maker ad just about described a young artist with the promising profile I was looking for.

What’s in a name?

What was that name again? Bruce Springsteen? Hmm. Didn’t know too many Bruces myself back then, outside of the Monty Python sketch about Australian philosophers. But it was his surname that seemed more intriguing.

Monty Python introducing Bruce

I had just started A-level English and was being encouraged to use onomastics, the science of names and naming, to think about why authors gave specific names to their characters and what they revealed. The idea was that family names, like nicknames, were never random.

Bruce was my first Springsteen, and his name resonated into the Spring of new growth. Sure enough, according to House of Names, this was the sort of name that ancient societies would give to “a young or very active individual”, then adding “This nickname surname was used to describe the original bearers’ character as it related to the young shoots in the ground when they would rise from the earth in the spring.”

Greetings From Asbury Park NJ

Bruce Springsteen – that name is going to take some remembering, I told myself – had apparently just released his debut album Greetings From Asbury Park NJ.

Blinded By The LIght, Bruce Springsteen, 1972

The ad carried excerpts from a song called Blinded By The Light: Some silicone sister with her manager’s mister told me I got what it takes / She said I’ll turn you on sonny to something strong if you’ll play that song with the funky breaks. The poetic density of the lyrics reminded me of Dylan songs I had just discovered, like Subterranean Homesick Blues: Johnny’s in the basement mixin’ up the medicine / I’m on the pavement thinkin’ ’bout the government. Or I Want You: The guilty undertaker sighs, the lonesome organ-grinder cries / The silver saxophones say I should refuse you.

The songlines in the album ad came interspersed with snippets from reviewers of Springsteen’s music, and one in particular sparked a new possibility : “Springsteen sings with a freshness and urgency that I haven’t heard since I was rocked by Like A Rolling Stone.” Okay, I told myself, so there really was a Dylan connection.

Bruce, a bleep on my radar

I only recall seeing one review of Greetings From Asbury Park which was called A Dylan for the 70s ? The journalist, Richard Williams, was only one voice speaking about an artist whose name had landed in my life from nowhere, but he confirmed what I’d gleaned from the advert. It would be some time later when I would finally read the story of Springsteen’s signing to Columbia Records by John Hammond Jr, who also signed Dylan to the label. Anyway, for now Bruce was certainly a bleep on my radar.

And my radar was definitely switched on to music. 1973 was also the year I discovered that you didn’t have to wait for rock concerts to come to you, and that the music press could help you sniff them out so you could go to them. I had become a regular visitor to the Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park, which was a major venue about an hour away. I had also made it to Reading Festival 73 in August with some friends for 3 days of only live music, most of which was unkown to me.

Musical energy in a winter of power cuts

News documentary on the UK power cuts 1972-73

This was just as well, because the winter of 1973 in Britain was a chilly one, made even chillier by the electricity power cuts which had been a regular part of our lives since 1972. This meant keeping on coats indoors at school and at home as government and miners’ unions struggled trying to prove who was in charge of the heating. Then, in the dark days of November, I was suddenly blinded by the light coming from an ad for a second Bruce Springsteen album in Melody Maker. Two albums in 10 months? Was I impressed by his productivity the way I am today? That didn’t even cross my mind. What I saw was Bruce Springsteen again, and that familiar name warmed the cockles of my cold, cold soul.

Second time lucky

The CBS promotion people had decided that quotes were still the best way to sell Springsteen: “(He) speaks from new-mown experience and can still touch his songs with hands of one who lives them … for everyone who wondered what Bruce Springsteen could do to top his first album.”

Here was something promising for a grey British November – and it reminded me of what had been said about that first album which I had, of course, still not even heard. I can see now that I was a perfect pigeon for this pitch. But these scattered clues from two ads and an album review were all I knew about Springsteen, the only proof I had of his existence.

The news of the new LP certainly brightened up my day but, that very same evening, something else happened. It could have been divine intervention or just plain serendipity – take your pick. I had started listening to Nicky Horne‘s Your Mother Wouldn’t Like It, on London’s recently launched Capital Radio, a show which was always based on a very personal choice of new music you wouldn’t hear elsewhere.

Your Mother Wouldn’t Like It, Nicky Horne, Capital Radio 1976

Suddenly the gleeful presenter announced a track “from the new Springsteen album” I’d seen advertised that very morning ! There was Bruce with The E Street Shuffle : the horns gliding into harmony on the introduction then the funk of the band joined by that voice and that guitar. Now I had found living proof.

The E Street Shuffle, Bruce Springsteen, 1973

Just to check that this memory was not just some personal fantasy, in October 2022, I contacted Nicky Horne, who still has an online radio show on Boom Radio UK. Asked for confirmation on this event, he was kind enough to answer: “You are right, I can’t remember the exact date, but I do remember getting that album from the plugger and playing it that night. Roger Scott and I shared an office, and he was on the air when the album came in, so I got to play it before him, which he never really forgave me for!” So that really was where I heard Springsteen for the first time.

Not the sound I was expecting

But once I had come to terms with who I was hearing, I realised that it wasn’t anything like what I was expecting. Was this a Bob Dylan for the seventies? The singer may have piled on the poetry like Dylan, but his voice had the swagger of Wilson Pickett and the inflections of Don Covay.

And when the guitar solo came, crowded in by the horns and keyboards, it really became “that song with the funky break”.

This sounded like black music. This was fine by me, because I had also become a secret fan of the BBC Radio One Dave Simmons R&B Show on Saturday evenings, and was beginning to learn a little about the soul and R&B which had clearly influenced Springsteen in The E Street Shuffle. In fact, the guitar line following the intro to the song had the same vibe as the Isley Brothers‘ recent 1973 hit, That Lady.

That Lady, The Isley Brothers, 1973

I loved both songs, but the horns definitely made Springsteen sound funkier to me.

The Melody Maker ad also said “the clods will next call Springsteen a Van Morrison copyist.” I had no idea who Van Morrison was at that point, and would only grasp years later how much of the warmth of Van’s early 70s gems, such as I’ve Been Working and Jackie Wilson Said had been mixed into the recipe for Bruce’s first two albums. All I knew was that I needed this music.

Miraculously, the advert in the paper gave the catalogue number, which I duly noted down along with the full title ready to place my order for the new Bruce Springsteen album.

After school the next day, I dropped into the Harlow branch of WH Smiths in Broadwalk . What follows is a conversation which could only happen in Britain.

I wanted to order a record, please. Was I sure they didn’t already have on display ? I was pretty sure. It was called The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle by Bruce Springsteen. You could be right, young man. So you wanted to order ? I did.

Now from the title and the artist – you were sure of those ? I was certain. Fine, then we would have to wait until we get the new edition of order catalogue next month to get the references and place the order. If I had the information now, would it be possible to order it today ? You would need all the details – artist, full title, label and catalogue number. I had those. Great.

You’re sure of the spelling ? I was. Yes, it was a long title. And yes, it was Springsteen and not Springstein. Should take about ten days.

Finally taking Brother Bruce home

Ten days later, my album arrived. I collected it, walked it home, carried the record player upstairs to my bedroom. I paused over the front cover photo, contemplating the long title on the album cover that I was holding in my hands. I slipped the record out of its cover, out of its inner sleeve and onto the deck, which I then set in motion before dropping the needle.

The E Street Shuffle began. It was no longer the disembodied song on the radio, but tangible in all its funky detail. What were the lyrics about about? It was difficult to say. It was an atmosphere, a family of people, a cast of characters, who lived miles from my daily reality. The song took you to a place you flashed through at speed, unable to take everything in. I couldn’t catch half of what he was saying. In fact, understanding the words Bruce was singing would be something I’d have to work on over time.

I spent a while looking at the back cover as the record played, reading through the names of the musicians. I hadn’t heard of any of them. They looked like a gang of some sort. Or beach bums. But they were musicians, and we were already into the second track.

4th July Asbury Park (Sandy) had more of a pop texture to it, with that Springsteen rasp and whisper that would be so characteristic of his early recordings. The melody was nice, but a little artificial on first hearing. I wasn’t too much of a fan of the sugary backing vocals and the recorders, even though the accordion and the saxophone did work. I smiled at the lyrics, especially in the passage about that waitress I was seeing lost her desire for me. Beautiful story telling with a touch of irony.

Kitty’s Back, Bruce Springsteen, 1973

Kitty’s Back opened with a guitar hero intro sounding like part two of the opening track, but then in came a keyboard which reminded of something from the only jazz rock record I ever possessed, purchased earlier that year from a need to push myself a little. Although I listened hard to the lyrics when the voice came in, I had no idea what it was about on first listening. But there was an animal quality to the playing and an undeniable swing to the whole thing which appealed. It was never boring.

Wild Billy’s Circus Story, Bruce Springsteen, 1973

Wild Billy’s Circus Story was a total contrast in mood. A great story, reminding me of George and Lennie in the Steinbeck we were reading at school. This was America. That tuba changed everything, like somebody switching on a light which revealed the elephants, circus crowd, and big top in the lyrics. It all fittted together naturally. So different from the previous song. Like when Rory Gallagher sang an acoustic blues or two midset.

Rory Gallagher contrasting moods in concert

A whole unexplored continent was opening up. And there was more on Side Two.

Incident on 57th Street made me realise how many of these were night-time stories, way outside my experience. Maybe impressions from a film set came closest, as I could visualise camera shots and characters. West Side Story occured to me as the song faded and jumped into the next one. I liked that transition.

Rosalita (Come Out Tonight, Bruce Springsteen, 1973

Rosalita (Come Out Tonight) had a Latino sound from the brass – and that sax! I can follow the lyrics on this one : the triumph and the comedy of romance in the face of insuperable odds. Now I know your momma she don’t like me cos I play in a rock n roll band, and I know your daddy don’t dig me but he never did understand … coming to liberate you, confiscate you, I want to be your man. Some day we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny … I would have loved to see that come out as a single and climb the charts, but it was 7 minutes long. The live version of Rosalita from 1978 was a long way off.

New York City Serenade was the final song. It opened with what I thought was the strumming of guitar strings, but which turned out to be piano strings played with a guitar plectrum, followed by a big piano piece which could be jazz, and could be classical – all played by David Sancious, who would sadly soon leave the band. Springsteen’s voice came in as if he really had just sung the whole album, and that he only had barely enough energy left to give us another song about Billy. The same Billy from the Circus Story on Side One? The whole piece built beautifully. Then that line – Walk tall or baby don’t walk at all – such great advice. What was all that stuff repeated at the end about the junkman? Troubling. Save that question for another time.

It was over. I put the record back in the sleeve, then the sleeve back in the cover, took the record player back downstairs, and came back to family life.

This didn’t sound like the new Bob Dylan to me. But what did I know? I knew that I had managed to find a record unlike anything else I had listened to before. It was like being let in on some great secret. The thought occurred that maybe I was the only person in Harlow listening to this music tonight. I lay awake that night planning how I was going to pass on the good word about this great album I had stumbled upon.

Only The Strong Survive

And that’s how a Bruce Springsteen album first sneaked its way into my home. His music has survived and evolved over the ages. His most recent album, Only The Strong Survive, confirms the soul influence in his work.

Only The Strong Survive, Bruce Springsteen, 2022

And Bruce is still working hard. Thanks to the Moreau family in Toulouse for the photo from his Barcelona concert this week!

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