Article 1975-12-03 Boston, MA

After The Hype

BECOMING A Bruce Springsteen fan was comparatively easy. At the time his first album appeared three years ago, rock music had fallen into a state of premature senility, seemingly the victim of wastes accumulating within its vital organs, musical arterioscleroses. The new performers, almost universally terrible, offered no hope for salvation: the anonymous heavy metal shock troops were in the forefront of rock, along with glittery personalities from trendy London (or maybe L.A.) and, worst of all, the pre-teen baby rock groups. True, some of the trusted standbys (the Stones, the Dead, a few Beatles) were still alive and plugging away, churning out passable music, but each successive album sounded ever so much like the previous one, and the few before that. Even the live performances of the old favorites were growing stale: the effect of Mick slinking like a lynx and pouting like the original hermaphrodite had lost a good deal of its original charm, and the seemingly perpetual tours of all the possible combinations and permutations of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young began to evoke, just like they said in their song, a feeling of deja vu.
Then there was the problem of instant promotion. So many new stars were appearing, so quickly, and with so little justification. Grand Funk had put out six gold albums; David Cassidy and the Osmonds were being greeted by Beatles-sized crowds as they arrived at foreign airports; Elton John behind his $3000 Foster Grants seemed the last straw. In the sixties, the rise of Dylan, or the Beatles, or the Stones was attributable to something -social trends, or taste, or recognition of talent- but in the seventies little explaine the existence of the new stars except pure hype. And what's more, the stars all seemed to think they were so important: when David Bowie commanded an hour and a half alone on the Cavett Show, his stardom was infinitely more important than his particular brand of music. Rock seemed more and more the product of an industry that sold music to an inelastic market where quality did not affect demand, and that saw performers as an investment opportunity, like potato futures.

SPRINGSTEEN shuffled into this bleak landscape a few years ago and it was immediately clear that he was not just another pre-packaged rocker. His music simply did not sound like anything else being played at the time. Listening to his first two albums you wondered if Springsteen had slept through the Sixties, for his style owed almost nothing to recent groups: his music was influenced directly by rhythm and blues and early rock and roll, not rhythm and blues as the Rolling Stones played it and rock as handed down by the Beatles and the Grateful Dead. Springsteen managed to use the old rock idioms of '50s dance music in a style all his own.
His lyrics were also surprisingly different. He sang narratives, stories of a world peopled with semi-greaser kids not too far away from high school graduation who spent most of their time hanging out, trying to be cool, driving old cars down interstates late at night and making periodic stops at lovers' lanes. Even though the characters Springsteen sang about were a particular type (East Coast, specifically New Jersey urban; middle class; apolitical) he managed to convey something of the quality of American adolescence in general - the pain, the self-and-status consciousness, the particular tackiness of those years. His songs recognized the power of adolescent experiences, and acknowledged that some people spend their lives stuck in their teen-aged identities.
What set Springsteen's lyrics apart from the vast majority of rock songs was that they were worth listening to. Even though his imagery was accessible and his themes were easy to relate to, he successfully managed to avoid banality. Springsteen grasped one of the basic problems of rock and roll: as a mass-culture, relatively unsophisticated art form, it deals best with simple ideas and emotions, conveyed straightforwardly ("I wanna hold your hand", "I can't get no satisfaction"), and because of that, runs the risk of becoming mediocre. Springsteen doesn't try to be another Dylan (and he's not), but he is an insightful story teller and rock and roll balladeer, and that is more than can be said for all but a handful of rock singers.

AT THE MUSIC HALL last Wednesday Bruce Springsteen also proved he knows how to put on a show - playing his music and acting it out well. Springsteen's performances are an extension of his songs, and as he sings he is totally immersed in that world. On stage he is a teenage hood, but a likable one, a would-be hard guy who doesn't take himself all that seriously. Much of his act is calculated to produce this image. In his neo-greaser outfit - baggy pants, a workshirt with cut-off sleeves, a leather jacket, and a floppy, oversized woolen ski cap that he periodically pulls over his eyes, throws in the air, or loses among the tangle of amp and guitar cords on stage - he looks like a kid who has some inborn style but doesn't have the time or money or desire to get properly duded up. The lighting for the act also helps to create this image: during some songs, the stage is hazily backlit, giving the impression that Springsteen is hanging out on a corner under a street-lamp in the early morning, trying his best to be like Brando or James Dean; during others, garishly bright colored lights are used, lie at an amusement park along the Boardwalk.
During the show Springsteen was in almost perpetual motion. He danced a lot, doing a kind of loose-legged boogy (he called it the "Jersey Hustle") that was half funky and half funny, a far cry from the macho movements of Elvis Presley or the pretentious saunterings of Mick Jagger. When he wasn't dancing, he ran or shuffled around the stage, twitched spastically (like a less ferocious version of Joe Cocker), and clowned around with the other members of the group, especially saxophonist Clarence Clemmons and guitarist "Miami Steve" Van Zandt. Dressed in matching broad-lapelled white suits, black shirts, and white fedoras (the kind of outfits you see on men who wear ruby cluster pinky rings) Clemmons and Van Zandt looked like bouncers at an Atlantic City nightclub who wouldn't want to let the likes of Springsteen in. The energy level was high throughout the show: most of his songs are individual jewels of energetic rock and roll, and Springsteen kept them coming without a break. He played for almost two and a half hours without stopping more than a minute between songs.
The selection of songs in the concert was no surprise. They came about evenly from each of his three albums, and included all his best-known compositions - "Kitty's Back," "Spirit in the Night," "Born to Run," "Jungleland," "Thunder Road," and of course, "Rosalita," the song that may have the highest level of potential energy in the history of rock music. The only new song he played was "Flamingo," about a girl all the boys on his block used to watch walk down the street every day. They watched her pass by every day for two years, all wanting to ask her name, or ask her out, but none of them ever got up the nerve. Then she moved away. For an encore, Springsteen did a medley of old rock and roll tunes, including "Devil with the blue dress on", and, in keeping with the season, a cutesy Fifties rock version of "Santa Claus is coming to town." Also as an encore, Springsteen played a romantic, lyrical version of "For You," from his first album, accompanied only by his own piano playing, perhaps to prove he can do more than straight rock music.

A FEW MONTHS AGO, the hype machine started to go to work on Bruce Springsteen, putting his pictures on the covers of Time and Newsweek, marketing "Born to Run" novelties and spinning his records on the turntables of AM stations everywhere. From all observations, the damage has been negligible: he played the Music Hall almost exactly a year ago, and neither his image nor music have changed appreciably since then. How long he can last is another story. While Springsteen is threatened with destruction by publicity, there is also another problem: the question of how long he can keep singing about the same kids from Freehold, New Jersey, and if not, whether he could make a break from such a personalized, identifiable style and still retain his appeal. Maybe he'll last, maybe not. For now, Springsteen is one of the best we've got.

By James B. Witkin via Harvard Crimson on December 06, 1975.
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