Bruce Springsteen, live at the Main Point, Feb. 5, 1975.
About a year after I received that album for my 9th birthday, Bruce released a grandiose followup--"Live 1975-85," a 5-LP set of live performances. I remember being simultaneously excited about it and totally aware that I would never own the thing. It retailed for $35, after all. I would never be able to save up that much money with my allowance holding steady at $1.25 (the lowest of anyone I knew at my school), and no one would give it to me for my birthday either. But for whatever reason, the local AOR station started playing a few different tracks from it in regular rotation. The one that made the biggest impression on me was the live version of "Growing Up," which started with Bruce telling a 5 minute story about his teenage years, about fighting with his father and wrecking his motorcycle and just generally getting in trouble. As a 10 year old kid, this connected with me; maybe some people started having trouble getting along with their parents around when they hit puberty, but for me it started way earlier. I can remember horrible knockdown-dragout fights with my parents when I was 6 or 7 years old, so by the time I was 10, fighting with my parents was a regular part of my life, for better or for worse. When Bruce Springsteen released a record on which he told a story about having trouble getting along with his parents, it was a huge boost for me. I felt like maybe I'd be all right; after all, Bruce didn't get along with his parents either. It's funny--as a 10 year old, I related most to the stuff about his dad yelling at him to turn down his stereo. Now that I'm 33 and actually have the 5-LP live set (bought it for $10 at a flea market--it was damn near in mint condition, too), the part of this story that I relate to most is when Bruce talks about how, every time he goes to visit his parents, they give him shit about how it's not too late, he can still go back to college. God, if I had a dollar for every time I've had that conversation.
Anyway, I got older, hit my teenage years, and everything suddenly had to be punk as fuck or I wasn't gonna keep it around. My copy of "Born In The USA" was a casualty of that era--probably sold it to buy a Minor Threat album or something--and I didn't get back into Bruce Springsteen until I was in my early 20s and started loosening up again about the whole punk thing. I think it happened because I randomly decided to buy "The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle" at a sidewalk sale for a quarter, but whatever the reason, I came to realize that, despite "Born In the USA" having been overproduced 80s crap, all of Bruce's pre-"Born In The USA" albums were outstanding. Furthermore, the "Live 1975-85" set was every bit as awesome as I'd thought it would be as a child, hearing that version of "Growing Up" on the radio. And around this time was when Bruce released "The Ghost Of Tom Joad," his first really great album in over a decade. At that point, it was easy to declare myself a Bruce Springsteen fan, and to write off his mid-80s low points as a mere bump in the road in an otherwise great career.
I was given cause to reconsider all of this recently, though. Bruce Springsteen played on the halftime show of the Super Bowl last week, which seemed like a cool enough thing to me; after all, I like football, and I like Bruce, and I figured it'd be fun to see him do a few songs at halftime. It was enjoyable enough, though really not anything great; at least, that's how I felt at the time. But then, a few days later, a political columnist I like to read linked to an article by another writer at his paper, Liz Clarke. She was apparently outraged by the idea of Bruce playing the Super Bowl halftime show. I didn't think it was really anything to get worked up about, but I read the article anyway, and by the end of it, I found myself converted at least partially to her way of thinking. More importantly, though, I was reminded of just how transcendent and important a lot of Bruce fans found his live shows to be. That was captured for me, even as a child, by the performances on "Live 1975-85", but as Liz Clarke reminded me, there were tons of bootlegs out there of other live performances, and the ones from the 70s in particular were supposed to be outstanding. All of which explains why I downloaded a Springsteen bootleg from 1975 the other day.
I know that not everyone out there loves Bruce Springsteen as much as I do, and I know that a lot of the haters see his live shows completely differently than I do. They think he's melodramatic and overblown live, that he tries to turn a rock n' roll show into a Broadway musical or something. As Liz Clarke mentioned in her article, the lower points in Bruce's career have indeed come close to that sort of thing. But when the man is on, when he's at his peak, that's not what his shows are about at all. Sure, there are elements of Broadway musicals, as well as of a 60s era soul revue, thrown into his performances. But as I've always seen it, what Bruce is trying to do with his three-hour nonstop rollercoaster live performances is to take the working class folks who at least were his original audience (even if they aren't a big part of it now) out of their humdrum everyday lives and give them a transcendent experience that reminds them of how alive they still are, that serves as a contrast to their jobs at the gas station or the factory and in turn helps them get through their days at those jobs once they have to go back to them. At the bottom of it all, it's not that different from the emotional experience that kids like me have gotten for decades from going to punk shows in basements and tiny bars. Sure, the punk and hardcore bands express themselves differently and play different styles of music, but the feeling is the same, right? I certainly think so.
The show I downloaded was recorded February 5, 1975, at the Main Point in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. It was originally broadcast over the radio, on WMMR, an FM station in the Philadelphia area, which I assume is how such a great-quality recording of the set has come to exist. The quality really is great, too. This bootleg sounds like it could have been a legitimately-released live album. I'm glad, too, because it's an incredible performance. It dates from about 6 months before the release of "Born To Run," and a couple of the songs from "Born To Run" that appear here are obviously not finished. "Thunder Road" shows up under the name "Wings For Wheels", with very different lyrics and a completely different ending. "Jungleland" has about 60% of the lines that appear in the album version, but switches randomly from these lines to obviously off-the-cuff lyrics that seem more like placeholders than anything. On the other hand, "Born To Run" and "She's the One" are obviously finished, which makes sense considering the fact that some of the songs from the "Born To Run" LP had to have been recorded already by the time of this gig.
The set begins with a version of "Incident On 57th St," a song Liz Clarke talked about in her story. When I bought "The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle," I expected to be most into the songs I already knew--"4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" and "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)," the two I've been hearing on classic rock radio for pretty much my entire life. "Incident On 57th Street" surprised me by becoming one of my favorite songs on the album, surpassing "4th of July, Asbury Park" and becoming equal to "Rosalita" in my estimation. I was excited to hear the version on this live recording, expecting it to start the show with a bang, to have the same driving energy that the version on the album had. Imagine my surprise when it turns out that the version on this live bootleg is just Bruce singing over a piano and a violin. It brings out the darker side of the song's lyrics, emphasizing the elegaic quality of lines like "Janie sleeps in sheets damp with sweat, Johnny sits up alone and watches her dream on, and his sister prays for lost souls and breaks down in the chapel after everyone's gone." This version of "Incident On 57th Street" is completely different from what I expected, but it's just as amazing as the album version. In fact, it's a shame that there isn't a legitimate release of this particular arrangement of the song.
Bruce obviously doesn't want us to get too bummed out by this quiet, mournful version of "Incident On 57th Street," though, as he follows it with a raved-up version of Harold Dorman's 1960 hit "Mountain Of Love." "Don't worry, this is a really noisy song," he says by way of introduction. This song is one of four covers on this bootleg, all of which come from very different sources. A few songs later, Bruce covers "I Want You" by Bob Dylan, perhaps the least surprising of the four considering the obvious Bob Dylan influence on his early material especially. Critics who reviewed his debut album, "Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ," sometimes said that it was a Dylan ripoff, and while I think that's a bit rich, I can certainly see the influence, especially in the lyrics he was writing at that point in his career. Don't get me wrong, some of them are great, but they sure are verbose. Not that that's a quality I have any room to criticize.
After "Mountain Of Love," Bruce and the E Street Band run through a very solid version of "Born To Run" that sounds pretty much like the one on the album. It's good, but it's nothing revelatory. What is a revelation for me is the next song. "The E Street Shuffle," which acts as a sort of title track to Bruce's second album and leads that album off, has always been one of my least favorite 70s-era Bruce tracks. Seeing that it was next on the setlist after "Born To Run," and furthermore that the version on the bootleg is all of 13 minutes long, I was looking forward to a too-long, uninteresting funk workout that would have me reaching for the skip button every time I listened to this recording. That's not at all what I got. The song began with a quiet, slow beat tapped out by Max Weinberg on the drums, and instead of the rest of the band coming in, Bruce began telling a story. He tells us that he was walking down the street in Asbury Park not too long ago, by himself, at 4 in the morning. Way off in the distance he could see a man coming in his direction. Just to be safe, he figured he'd cross the street to avoid the man, but the man crossed the street too. Pretty soon, Bruce realizes that he's going to have to walk past the man. When he and the man are about half a block apart from each other, Bruce ducks into a doorway, hoping the guy will just pass him by. Instead, the guy comes and stands in the doorway facing Bruce, and holds out his hand to him. Bruce tries to give the guy his money, but the guy just lets it fall to the ground, and keeps holding out his hand. Bruce figures that the guy wants to shake his hand, so he hesitantly reaches out towards him, and just as their hands touch... "Sparks!" Bruce whispers into the mic. Then: "...fly on E street, when the boy prophets walk it handsome and hot." I suddenly realized that he's gone into the lyrics to "The E Street Shuffle." The band is playing behind him quietly now, still at the slow tempo that Max set out as Bruce's story began. There's no climax to the story, really--it was all just an elaborate setup for the beginning of the actual song "The E Street Shuffle." It's a bit melodramatic, sure, but it works. To devastating effect, in fact. As I said, I've never liked "The E Street Shuffle," but I think this version is great. It helps that the band continues to play it at a slow tempo throughout, only about half the speed of the album version. It also helps that it starts out quietly, building throughout the song to a loud but still slowed-down climax. It's pretty much a completely different song from the one on the album. And let me tell you, I like it a lot better. I wish this version could have been the one on the album instead of the one that made it on there.
The version of "Thunder Road" that appears here, in its unfinished form, is noticeably inferior to the version that appears on "Born To Run." But that's OK, because it's interesting. I'm the type of person who loves anything that gives me insight into an artist's creative process, and especially that of an artist I really like. There are decisions that Bruce obviously made about "Thunder Road" after this version was recorded, and some of them seem really important to me. For example, in this version, Clarence Clemons' ending saxophone solo is done over an upbeat, almost calypso-sounding version of the song's main verse riff. The half-speed coda on the album version that Clarence plays over is so much of a better fit for the song, it's not even worth debating. The ending on this version is jaunty, and "Thunder Road" should not have a jaunty ending. That said, there are some interesting lyrical turns of phrase in this version that were ultimately left on the cutting room floor. "This 442 is gonna overheat," Bruce sings at one point. "Make up your mind, girl, I've got to get it back on the street." The bit in the last verse of the album version about the ghosts of Mary's ex-boyfriends haunting her as she travels through the streets of her hometown isn't here, though, and considering the emotional wallop that that particular verse gives to the finished version of the song, it's ultimately worth it that Bruce sacrificed the earlier lyrics that didn't make it.
The rest of the first disc of this bootleg is uniformly excellent, but perhaps not as worthy of detailed discussion as the first few songs are. Bruce's cover of Bob Dylan's "I Want You," here reimagined as an emotional, accordion and violin driven ballad, is probably the most purely interesting thing on the remainder of disc 1. It's excellent, and Bruce puts his personal stamp on this Dylan tune, a feat that's often hard to achieve. After that song, he goes through four different songs from his first three albums in relatively quick succession (it takes about 20 minutes, total). "Spirit In The Night" and "She's The One" are pretty similar to their album versions, if a bit longer; "Growing Up" doesn't have any long stories attached to it like the other live version of it that I know, and therefore only takes about three minutes; and "It's Hard To Be A Saint In The City" is more vehemently delivered than the album version, and really makes me want to get up and dance, but again, is not especially revelatory. "Jungleland" ends the first disc and while, as I mentioned before, it's not quite the version that ended up on "Born To Run," it's a lot closer to its finished version than "Thunder Road" was, with most of the lyrics intact and all but a couple of the changes played the way they would appear on the album version.
Disc two begins with a couple of lengthy versions of songs from "The Wild, The Innocent, and The E Street Shuffle" that I've never been particularly fond of. "Kitty's Back" is 12 minutes long here, and "New York City Serenade" is nearly 20. If the songs on that album had been as long as they are in this live performance, "The Wild, The Innocent, and The E Street Shuffle" would have been a double LP. Considering how much better I like the version of "The E Street Shuffle" that's on this bootleg, I'm not sure that would have been a bad thing. "Kitty's Back" is an extended bluesy workout that doesn't do that much for me--it's perhaps the only song on this entire 160-minute bootleg that I don't unreservedly love. However, the version of "New York City Serenade" that appears here just blows my mind completely. On record, coming as it does after both "Incident On 57th Street" and "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)," this long, quiet song tends to fade into the background when I listen to that album. Here, though, it shines. This live version is all about atmosphere, and its subdued feel, rather than making it fade into the background, just increases its ability to create an atmosphere around itself. The song begins with several minutes of slow buildup, Bruce crooning wordlessly over cymbal washes and trilling runs of notes up and down the piano before finally counting the band into the main riff of the song, which sounds like a wave breaking over you, the listener, in the most beautiful way possible. The first verse is a short story about hoods plotting to make a score of some kind. Bruce and the band play it slowly and quietly, but as it reaches the last line of the verse, and Bruce sings, "This is midnight in Manhattan, it's no time to get cute," the band rises up behind him and swings into the chorus, which again washes over you, the listener, like a wave. In fact, that's what this entire song is like--a succession of musical slow-motion waves breaking over you. It never gets loud, but sometimes when those waves break, it feels like the most intense thing in the world. I can tell now, from listening to it, that a lot of these parts are on the studio version of the song, and I don't know why they don't work in such an exquisite, powerful manner on that version, but the fact is that they don't. I've always felt like the 10 minute studio version was a bit too long, and I was afraid that this version of the song would really test my patience, but instead I just find myself sinking further and further into it as it goes along. In fact, I'm glad that Bruce adds at least one more verse onto the end of the song that isn't on the album version. It seems like something he's making up as he goes along, talking about walking down the streets of New York city, having girls walk up to him and ask, "Hey mister, you, uh, you got a girlfriend? You uh, wanna go out tonight?" As a kid, I probably would have thought that this bit was about how easy it is to meet girls in New York City. Now I know--he's talking about getting propositioned by hookers. I've been thinking a lot lately about what New York was like 30 or 40 years ago. Even though I've never been there, I've always been curious about that city, based on the way it's depicted in popular media. I've been keeping up with what first Giuliani and then Bloomberg did to the city, though, and I get the idea that the New York city I'd want to visit doesn't even exist anymore. I really would have liked to go there 30 or 40 years ago, and that version of the city is gone, gone, gone. That's the version of New York that Bruce is singing about on "New York City Serenade," though, the version that's gone now but was very much alive 34 years ago when this CD was recorded. 34 years ago last night, in fact. Wow, that's kind of weird to realize.
There are a bunch of other songs left on this bootleg after "New York City Serenade" ends. "4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" and "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)" are still left, and both of them are awesome, as are Bruce's covers of The Chiffons' "A Love So Fine" and Chuck Berry's "Back In The USA," which end the CD, along with an eight-minute version of "For You" that mirrors the quiet, contemplative treatment given to "Incident On 57th Street" at the beginning of the set. But really, I've talked long enough about all of this. Maybe too long. At this point, I have about an hour to take a shower and make some lunch before I have to go to work. I don't regret it, though. This bootleg deserves to be talked about at this length. At least, that's how it seems to me. I'm a huge Springsteen fan, and this recording is one of his all-time shining moments. I sort of feel like I should just post the entire thing at the end of this entry, but even though it's a bootleg and not some official release I'm posting, I still don't feel quite right going that far. But hey, I can at least do this much, right? Here are three songs from it, which total about 45 minutes of music. I hope you enjoy this as much as I have. Me, I'm gonna start "New York City Serenade" over again.
Bruce Springsteen - Incident On 57th Street
Bruce Springsteen - The E Street Shuffle
Bruce Springsteen - New York City Serenade