Born to Run (2016)
BORN TO RUN
After a solid year of endless studio hours, many sleepless nights in my shoe box of a room at the midtown Navarro Hotel and a city in darkness (the great NYC blackout of 1977 found me in Times Square, the world’s biggest pinball machine; when the lights exploded back on, whoa!), my first record in three years was complete. It would be Steve Van Zandt’s first record as an E Street Band member. It would be the beginning of a long and wonderful relationship with producer Chuck Plotkin and the end of a short but fruitful one with my good friend Jimmy Iovine. It would be the first record on which we recorded our tracks live in studio, as a full band, and my first without Mike. Jon and I were at the production helm and this record continued and deepened our work and friendship. All we needed was an album cover.
I’d gotten to know Patti Smith a little through our work together on “Because the Night.” When I visited her during one of her performances at the Bottom Line, she gave me the name of a South Jersey photographer and said, “You should let this guy take your picture.” One winter afternoon I drove south to Haddonfield, New Jersey, and met Frank Stefanko. Frank had photographed Patti at the beginning of her career. He worked a day job at a local meatpacking plant and continued to practice his craft in his spare time. Frank was a rough-edged but easygoing kind of guy. My recollection is he borrowed a camera for the day, called a teenage kid from next door to come over and hold up his one light and started shooting. I stood against some flowery wallpaper in Frank and his wife’s bedroom, looked straight into the camera, gave him my best “troubled young man,” and he did the rest. One of these photos ended up on the cover of Darkness on the Edge of Town.
Frank’s photographs were stark. His talent was he managed to strip away your celebrity, your artifice, and get to the raw you. His photos had a purity and a street poetry to them. They were lovely and true, but they weren’t slick. Frank looked for your true grit and he naturally intuited the conflicts I was struggling to come to terms with. His pictures captured the people I was writing about in my songs and showed me the part of me that was still one of them. We had other cover options but they didn’t have the hungriness of Frank’s pictures.
When Darkness was released it was not an instant success and few made it out for the fan favorite it would become. Gun-shy to the max from my Born to Run experience, I actually started out insisting there be no advertising for my new record at all. Jon explained, “No one will know the record exists,” and said we needed to at least have the cover photo, album title and release date advertised in the papers. Well, okay. I caught on quick. I wasn’t ready to disappear. I’d just recently vanished for three years, had felt barely visible most of my life, and if I could help it, I wasn’t going back. Without some promotion, folks wouldn’t have a clue as to what the fuck we’d been doing. This music held everything I had, so pronto I started to glad-hand and make nice with every deejay from the East to the West Coast in hopes of getting what was proving to be a tough record for my fans on the radio. Then we played our ace.
With the burden of proving I wasn’t a has-been at twenty-eight, I headed out on the road performing long, sweat-drenched rock shows featuring the new album. These were the first shows where the night was split by a brief intermission into two halves. It allowed us to play the favorites we knew our fans wanted to hear and the new music we were haughty enough to believe they needed to hear. We did a variety of radio broadcasts from clubs in Los Angeles, New Jersey, San Francisco and Atlanta. Anything to get heard. Show after show we drove hard, expanding our new songs to their limits until they hit home, until the audience recognized them as their own. Again, the live power, the strength, of the E Street Band proved invaluable and night after night, we sent our listeners away, back to the recorded versions of this music, newly able to hear their beauty and restrained power.
The songs from Darkness on the Edge of Town remain at the core of our live performances today and are perhaps the purest distillation of what I wanted my rock ’n’ roll music to be about. We remained in North America for the entire tour and finished in Cleveland on New Year’s Eve, where an exploding firecracker tossed by an inebriated “fan” opened up a small slash underneath my eye. A little blood’d been drawn, but we were back.
After years of reading “flash in the pan,” “Whatever happened to …” articles, I began to read reviews in city after city about how we delivered. No, you can’t tell people anything, you’ve got to show ’em.