The most important rock figure to emerge during the 1970s, Bruce Springsteen (b. Sept. 23, 1949, Freehold, New Jersey) borrowed from all the best sources in rock, folk, and rhythm & blues and created a style that has become uniquely his own--and itself widely imitated. A greatly admired and charismatic performer, Springsteen is renowned for his devotion to his fans, and has built a career pleasing them with three- and four-hour marathon shows that leave no doubt he has given his all. Since his 1973 debut album Greetings From Asbury Park, New Jersey, his music has shifted from Dylanesque, wordy prose, to Phil Spector-influenced pop, to hard-driving rock 'n' roll, to its current, often deliberately threadbare lyrical style. The epitome of a musical perfectionist, Springsteen is well-known for laboring intensely on each of his albums; the dual result has been infrequent releases and a wide supply of officially unreleased tracks often bootlegged and circulated among fans. Indeed, Bruce Springsteen's many fans are among the most fanatical in all of rock 'n' roll.
His father, Douglas, was a bus driver of Dutch and Irish ancestry and his mother, Adele Zirilli Springsteen, was an Italian-American legal secretary. Spending his early years in New Jersey-based bands such as the Castiles, Earth, Child, Steel Mill, and Dr. Zoom & the Sonic Boom--who collectively played a mixture of rock 'n' roll, R&B, and hard rock--Springsteen was one of the last major talents to be signed to Columbia Records by distinguished producer/A&R man John Hammond. His first album, 1973's Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., arrived in time for the singer to be pushed by his label and perceived by the press as one of the era's most prominent "new Dylan" types; it was an inaccurate tag that in some ways (in terms of galvanizing a generation) would later actually not be totally off-base. Still, the verbal overload of Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" was indeed recalled by early Springsteen songs such as album opener "Blinded By The Light": "Madman drummers bummers and Indians in the summer with a teenage diplomat," he sang, "In the dumps with the mumps as the adolescent pumps his way into his hat."
But the decade's superstar-to-be created little stir with his first album: Both it and its late-1973 follow-up, The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, would not even enter the charts until the summer of 1975. Regardless, the artistic transformation that had taken place between those two albums was apparent. While Greetings... had almost seemed a stripped-down singer/songwriter demo, E Street Shuffle sounded very much the work of a fully cohesive band, playing rock arrangements midway between the work of Van Morrison and the Paul Butterfield's Blues Band. And though Springsteen was only slightly less wordy, his lyrics seemed more focused, and filled with a noticeable romantic imagery that seemed slightly nostalgic and at times recalled West Side Story.
At the same time, Springsteen's reputation as a live performer was growing by leaps and bounds. Critic Jon Landau, who would later become the singer's producer and business associate, penned a review containing the infamous snippet, "I saw rock 'n' roll's future and its name is Bruce Springsteen." He was right, though, and by 1975, the New Jersey rocker was simultaneously on the cover of both Time and Newsweek, and a top 5 star with his classic album Born To Run. While its Phil Spector-influenced title track climbed into the top 30, Springsteen and his superb backing group the E Street Band toured and began accumulating what would soon become a massive base of fanatical fans convinced the singer was the most electrifying live performer since Elvis Presley.
Legal problems with manager Mike Appel eventually resulted in an injunction that delayed Springsteen's next album until 1978. In the interim, his following swiftly grew--mostly due to extensive touring, growing agreement among journalists that the singer was an important figure, and cover versions of his songs by such artists as the Hollies (1975's "Sandy"), Manfred Mann's Earth Band("Blinded By The Light," a No. 1 hit in 1977, and "Spirit In The Night"), Robert Gordon and the Pointer Sisters (both covered "Fire," with the Pointers' version a No. 2 hit in 1979), and Patti Smith (who co-wrote 1978's top 20 hit "Because The Night").
When Springsteen returned with 1978's Darkness On The Edge Of Town there was a new depth to his music that might have reflected the preceding legal unpleasantness; many of the characters in such songs as "Racing In The Streets," "Something In The Night," and the title track seemed without hope or were regretful about some sort of profound loss. "Some folks are born into a good life," Springsteen sang in the latter song, "Other folks get it anyway, anyhow/I lost my money and I lost my wife/Them things don't seem to matter much to me now." It was a considerable step away from the joyfulness that populated earlier songs such as "Kitty's Back" or "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)" from E Street Shuffle, and in some ways a preview of many similarly downbeat songs to come from the singer.
Springsteen's first No. 1 album was the 1980's ambitious two-LP The River, which spent four weeks at the top of the charts pushed by his bouncy top 5 single "Hungry Heart" and the top 20 hit "Fade Away." A sprawling set, the album clearly delineated the two separate sides of Springsteen's musical persona: The upbeat rocker whose "Hungry Heart" and "Sherry Darling" were concert crowd-pleasers, and the moody, soul-searching writer of the album's title track and the haunting "Wreck On The Highway." Discussing the album in a 1980 interview, Springsteen called The River a "romantic" album. "To me, 'romantic' is when you see the realities, and when you understand the realities, but you also see the possibilities," Springsteen said. "And sometimes you write about things as they are, and sometimes you write about them as they should be, as they could be, maybe. And that's basically what I wanted to do, you know? And you can't say no to either thing. If you say no, you're cheating yourself out of feelings that are important and should be a part of you."
Springsteen's darkest album ever came via the home-recorded Nebraska, an acoustic set that was filled with songs about both urban and moral decay, including "Atlantic City," "Highway Patrolman," and the intense, mesmerizing "State Trooper." The album's title track, about a murderer facing the electric chair, was a clear indication the singer had weighty matters on his mind. "They declared me unfit to live, said into that great void my soul'd be hurled," the song's character says, "They wanted to know why I did what I did/Well sir I guess there's just a meanness in this world."
The singer's greatest commercial success came with 1984's Born In The U.S.A., which contained an unprecedented series of seven top 10 singles, including "Dancing In The Dark," "Cover Me," "Born In The U.S.A.," "I'm On Fire," "Glory Days," "I'm Going Down," and "My Hometown." The album, which went platinum seven times over, in part marked a return to the uplifting rock style of "Hungry Heart," but also bore its share of darker material. Ironically, one of the darkest was the album's title track--which many at the time mistakenly took to be an expression of blind, my-country-right-or-wrong patriotism, when it was anything but. Springsteen, who wed actress Julianne Phillips in 1985, then followed the massively popular disc with a long-awaited live album, the 40-song Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band Live 1975-1985, which hit No. 1 and likewise went multi-platinum.
Tunnel Of Love, perhaps the singer's most underrated album, followed in 1987, and marked a return to the quiet, profound emotionalism to be found on the best songs from Darkness and The River. The album's title reflected its contents, and the songs themselves were an introspective lot dealing with human relationships and their frailties. When Springsteen divorced actress Phillips in 1989 and became romantically linked with his backing singer Patty Scialfa, many saw Tunnel Of Love in retrospect as his most disarmingly autobiographical work to date.
Five years after the release of Tunnel Of Love, Springsteen--by then a father of two children with Scialfa, and no longer with the E Street Band--returned with two albums at once, Human Touch and Lucky Town. The first was the more polished; the second, reportedly recorded quickly by Springsteen after he felt uneasy about the first, was the more informal. Both were superb, and both reflected the changes that Springsteen had undergone in five years' time: "Living Proof" was a moving song about being a first-time father, and "57 Channels (And Nothin' On)" touched on his move to the west coast ("I bought a bourgeois house in the Hollywood Hills," he sang, "with a trunkload of hundred thousand dollar bills"). For the first time, however, critics began conspicuously picking at him--suggesting that the singer had "gone Hollywood" or had made a mistake by splitting with the E Street Band. The albums nonetheless entered the top 5 and went platinum, which was no mean feat for any artist following a five-year absence.
Three years later, Springsteen's haunting The Ghost Of Tom Joad--like Nebraska, another stripped-down effort, this time very much in the American folk tradition of artists such as Woody Guthrie--would win him a Grammy for the year's best folk album. It was a fascinating move that seemed less a career strategy than a genuine artistic expression--and its very release was admirable. Indeed, in the 25 years since his debut album, Springsteen's lyrical style has taken a noticeable turn toward the less-clever, more direct approach. It has worked very much in his favor. The seeming simplicity of such songs as his "I Wish I Were Blind" gives them more of a timeless feel than the word-heavy likes of "Blinded By The Light" carry; one can imagine Springsteen singing the newer song in 20 years' time without it seeming the slightest bit dated. In 1999, Bruce Springsteen was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, at which time he and the E Street Band performed to much acclaim. The event served as a prelude to a full-fledged band reunion tour, a two-year long intercontinental jaunt that won critical raves and resulted in 2001's Live In New York City, a live album recorded during the tour's close at Madison Square Garden. The same reunited band performed on 2002's The Rising, a widely praised studio set that showed Springsteen's stature as a songwriter still on the rise. Again, a massively successful tour would follow. Like all the best artists in pop music, Bruce Springsteen continues moving forward, approaching his craft with an intelligence and desire for improvement that puts all of his contemporaries to shame. "You make your record like it's the last record you'll ever make," he said in 1980. "[When I] go out and play at night, I don't think, 'If I don't play good tonight, at least I played good last night.' It's like there are no tomorrows or yesterdays. There's only right now." He is still extremely popular in Philadelphia, where the people consider him a hometown hero.