Born to Run (2016)
BORN TO RUN
THE E STREET BAND
With your first success, an image you’ll be shadowboxing with for the rest of your life embeds itself in the consciousness of your fans. You’ve left your fingerprints on your audience’s imagination . . . and they stick. That first moment, along with its freedoms and confinements, will remain indelible. That “you,” that distinct creative identity you’ve been searching for? Your audience has just told you you’ve found it. I suddenly slipped from being “the new Dylan” into being . . . “Bruce Springsteen.” And my musicians grew from well-appointed sidemen into the E Street Band.
In the beginning I knew I wanted something more than a solo act and less than a one-man-one-vote democratic band. I’d been there and it didn’t fit me. Democracy in rock bands, with very few exceptions, is often a ticking time bomb. The examples are many, beginning and ending with the Beatles. Still, I wanted good musicians, friends and personalities I could bounce off of. I wanted the neighborhood, the block. That’s where all the great rock bands came from and there’s something about that common blood or even just the image, the dream of it, that stirs emotion and camaraderie amongst your audience. You’re not looking for the best players. You’re looking for the right players who click into something unique. The Beatles, the Stones, the Sex Pistols, the New York Dolls, the Clash and U2 are all groups whose limitations became the seed for spectacular style and musical frontiersmanship.
I wanted the singular creative and decision-making power of a solo artist but I also wanted the live, rambunctious gang feeling only a real rock ’n’ roll band can deliver. I felt there was no reason you couldn’t have the best of both worlds, so I signed as a solo artist and hired my longtime neighborhood running pack as my band. Not my backing band, not a band, my band. There was a difference. They wouldn’t be a group of anonymous sidemen but central characters and personalities in their own right, each a featured performer. James Brown had Maceo and Bo Diddley had his right-hand man, Jerome, accompanied by the Duchess and Lady Bo (two guitar-slinging women!). These musicians gave my heroes a backstory and made them more interesting. (I always imagined these are the folks James and Bo hung with, sang about, who came from the world they came from and were filled with the mystery of the overpowering music I was hearing. Bo had decided that Jerome, shaking the maracas, was more essential to his world, his sound, than a bass player—of which he had NONE. Understand, on 99.9 percent of all the records you’ve heard for the past fifty years, there’s a BASS! But Bo said, “Fuck that, I got all the bass I want here in my right, thunder-makin’, guitar-strummin’ hand. But what I really need is my man JEROME to shake his maracas!” Ergo: Jerome was important.) That’s what I wanted.
I was signed to Columbia Records as a solo artist, so the band performed on Bruce Springsteen records. But live, I wanted the collective identity and living representations of the characters who populated my songs. It was James Brown and His Famous Flames, Buddy Holly and the Crickets—that “and” was really important. It said there was a party going on, a meeting taking place, a congregation being called forth, YOU WERE BRINGING YOUR GANG! So, live we would be Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. That sounded exciting; that was a world I’d want to see. I always felt the audience should look at the stage and see a reflection of themselves, their town, and their friends. That takes a band.
We don’t hide our cards. We don’t play it cool. We lay ourselves out in clear view. While I love a hidden quality in other performers, as a group we aren’t figures unduly shrouded in mystery or mystique. We aspire to be understood and accessible, a little of your local bar band blown up to big-time scale. A real rock ’n’ roll band evolves out of a common place and time. It’s all about what occurs when musicians of similar background come together in a local gumbo that mixes into something greater than the sum of its parts.
1 + 1 = 3
The primary math of the real world is one and one equals two. The layman (as, often, do I) swings that every day. He goes to the job, does his work, pays his bills and comes home. One plus one equals two. It keeps the world spinning. But artists, musicians, con men, poets, mystics and such are paid to turn that math on its head, to rub two sticks together and bring forth fire. Everybody performs this alchemy somewhere in their life, but it’s hard to hold on to and easy to forget. People don’t come to rock shows to learn something. They come to be reminded of something they already know and feel deep down in their gut. That when the world is at its best, when we are at our best, when life feels fullest, one and one equals three. It’s the essential equation of love, art, rock ’n’ roll and rock ’n’ roll bands. It’s the reason the universe will never be fully comprehensible, love will continue to be ecstatic, confounding, and true rock ’n’ roll will never die.
It’s also the equation you’re searching for a trace of while you’re putting your band together.
When the E Street Band initially gathered I had no idea, personally, who my members were. Many of us had just met. It’s only after the bandleader utters the incantation “One, two, three, four!” that it begins, the gris-gris is summoned and all is revealed. In Asbury Park our garden wasn’t seeded. The bounty of musicians grew wild and you picked ’em where you found ’em. There was no master plan guiding band selection beyond instinct, geography and the power of the music once we began to play. If you’re lucky and have chosen well, in the end, that’s all it takes.
Max Weinberg, Garry Tallent, Steve Van Zandt, Danny Federici, Roy Bittan, Clarence Clemons. This was the core of the group that over the next forty years would evolve into the hard-rockin’, history-makin’, earth-shakin’, booty-quakin’, lovemakin’ and, yes, eventually, Viagra-takin’ legendary E Street Band.
ON BASS: Garry Tallent, Southern man, rock ’n’ roll aficionado. Garry was one of the guys I met my first night at the Upstage Club. He was the club’s go-to bass man and a creature of rare stability amongst the woolly outsiders who patronized our Asbury hideaway. His quiet dignity and low-maintenance personality have graced my life and my band from the beginning. Garry’s playing shares a little common ground with Bill Wyman, the Stones’ original bassist. His playing can seem invisible, transparent, rising up out of your dreams, creating a bed for them to lie on rather than intruding upon them. Then, when you go to the bottom, he’s always there. No show pony, he’s in the great tradition of silent men drawn to the bass guitar.
ON ORGAN: Danny “the Phantom” Federici, another “first nighter” at Upstage. We went through it all. Danny sought trouble and usually found it. For a long while it was drugs, bills, booze and a soft-spoken gentleness covering a heart and soul of confusion. But the playing, the playing made up for a lot. The personal burdens Danny carried disappeared once he was behind the organ. When you listened to Danny play you heard . . . freedom. Most musicians are constrained by what they know. They may play beautifully but somewhere down in their core you hear the shade of what they know, studied, learned, and it just slightly, naggingly, dines on the elegance of what they do. Such is the way for us mortals. Danny didn’t know what he knew. He didn’t know your songs, the chord sequences, the arrangement, the key, the lyrics, the what-the-fuck-you-were-ass-in-over-your-head trying to talk about. He just knew how to play! If you questioned him about a piece of music before you played it, he often couldn’t answer your most basic queries. (“Danny, how does this start?” A shrug.) But once you counted off, he was more than fine. He accessed whatever remote part of his brain he kept the essential information in and lit up. He was free behind that organ . . . but just behind that organ. The real world doesn’t cotton much to freedom but the artist’s world breathes and bleeds it. This was the world where Danny’s beauty flowed forth, where he flew, and like a lot of us he struggled in the other world that waited at the bottom of those stage steps. My departed friend remains to me a barrel of puzzlement and human frailty that was presided over by a mystical, intuitive musicianship like no other.
ON GUITAR: Steve “Little Steven” Van Zandt, my Soul Brother No. 1, Mr. All-or-Nothing-at-All, Dr. Ninety-Nine-and-a-Half-Won’t-Do, my absolutist, my comedic foil, my devil’s advocate and my A-class rock ’n’ roll conspirator. We battled it out together, dueling Telecasters in the teen clubs of the Jersey Shore. Steve’s a great bandleader, songwriter and arranger in his own right, and a fierce, slashing guitarist. If I want to raise the rock ’n’ roll, I hand Steve his guitar, point him toward the studio and leave. It’ll be there when I come back. He’s my onstage right-hand man, my great friend, without whom my band and my life would be—and were, in his absence—never the same.
ON DRUMS: Max “the Mighty Max” Weinberg. A bundle of drive, neurosis and wily suburban street smarts, and source of great humor, Max found a place where Bernard Purdie, Buddy Rich and Keith Moon intersected and made it his own. The soul of dedication and commitment, each night in the midst of the continuous hurricane our sets are designed to be, the sheer physical pressure of three hours of nonstop, steamrolling rock music lies upon his shoulders more heavily than anyone else’s. Onstage, Max goes beyond listening to what I’m saying, signaling; he “hears” what I’m thinking, feeling. He anticipates my thoughts as they come rolling full bore toward the drum riser. It’s a near telepathy that comes from years of playing and living together. It’s a real-world miracle and it’s why people love musicians. They show us how deeply we can experience one another’s minds and hearts, and how perfectly we can work in congress. With Max at my back, the questions are answered before they’re asked.
There are twenty thousand people, all about to take a breath; we’re moving in for the kill, the band, all steel wheels on iron track, and that snare shot, the one I’m just thinking about but haven’t told or signaled anyone outside of this on-fire little corner of my mind about, the one I want right . . . and there it is! Rumble, young man, rumble!
ON PIANO: “Professor” Roy Bittan. The only member of the E Street Band with a college education! (Actually, now there’s one more; Max finished in 1989!) I’ve long counted on my good friend Roy when I need something very specific, something exactly as I’m hearing it, to bring whatever I’m imagining on the keyboards to life. Roy’s ten fingers do the work of thirty. Eighty-eight keys for the Professor are just not enough. His playing forms the signature sound of my greatest records. His piano arpeggios and music box voicings are as identifiably E Street as Clarence’s sax. His performance ability spans jazz, classical, rock and all musics known to man! The joke in the band was that if we tracked with piano, bass and drums, we’d be dead in the water because once Roy was on, you were fully orchestrated. Nothing else needed. Roy brought so much music with him, Steve and I would be scratching to find room for our guitars. We had to make him stop that. If Liberace and Jerry Lee Lewis had a baby, and that baby was born in Rockaway Beach, Long Island, its name would be “Professor” Roy Bittan.
This was the group, the powerhouse, I would make my initial mark with. No member, however, captured my audience’s imagination, the idealism and deeply felt comradeship associated with our band, more than the big black man playing the saxophone.