Jersey boy by Sean Howe

Categories: Music
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This has been a season of almost disconcerting visual evidence of rock's mythmaking flashpoints. No Direction Home offered a rare glimpse of Dylan's confrontational first electric performance, and Born to Run: The 30th Anniversary Edition's documentary footage, including a complete November 1975 concert, charts the quicksilver rise to fame of Bruce Springsteen.


Springsteen has described Born to Run as about escape, which makes perfect sense for a guy laying all bets on his music to get him out of New Jersey. The music constantly pushes and pulls between the promise of release and the threat of resignation. "Thunder Road" (the first of nine songs that take place in "the early cool before dawn") begins with a harmonica, evoking the open vistas and endless possibilities of a western. The night is young, and a ride is waiting. But more often--in "Backstreets," in "She's the One," in "Meeting Across the River"--repeated piano figures sound like cul-de-sacs, rendering any acceleration futile. Just as the heart-thump opening of "Be My Baby" gave voice to Harvey Keitel's Catholic anxiety in Mean Streets, here Phil Spector's wall of sound gives Springsteen's own violent urban drama ("some hurt bad, some really dying") an operatic claustrophobia. Still, Born to Run's New York retains romance and hope where Mean Streets' does not; maybe the grass just looked greener on the other side of the Lincoln Tunnel.

Black-and-white video shows the 25-year-old Springsteen, a despondent prisoner in the studio, worrying over every note on Born to Run, and it's revelatory to see him shaking off the perfectionism at the Hammersmith Odeon. It takes him all of fifteen minutes to somersault off the side of the stage, and that's just a prelude to two hours of stomping, crawling, shouting, and dancing. But the obsessive work ethic and career self-consciousness that brought him here can no longer be disguised by his Brando-as-rube persona. Having spent the day of the concert tearing down "Is London Ready for Bruce Springsteen?" posters, he's caught at the exact moment between hungry ambition and weary celebrity.


The E Street Band, hustling strivers themselves, sport butterfly collars and fedoras that are so pimp-of-the-year that you keep looking for goldfish in the heels of their shoes. (Little Steven: "Johnny Boy in Mean Streets reminds me of a dozen guys I've met." Maybe he was thinking of his bandmates, bathed here in the red-tinted lights of Scorcese's film) The Armageddon-in-lockstep force of their backing makes every song feel like a rumble they're going to win. The Bo Diddley-inspired guitar repetitions of "She's the One" finally overpower pianist Roy Bittan's fugal patterns, which give way to exuberant pounding. In a full-speed-ahead "Born to Run," victory now sounds like a foregone conclusion. Escape, struggled for in the lyrics, then attained through record sales, has finally transformed the music.


The performance finally becomes an acknowledgment of leaving things behind, just as Born to Run was a goodbye to the madcap Jersey denizens that Springsteen would soon forsake for Steinbeck characters. He'd already started to leave them behind on The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, notably in a song that would be played only a few more times before a quarter-century retirement. On the album, "Little Angel picks up Power and he slips on his jeans/They move on out down to the scene" is a triumphant crane-shot ending, two heroes disappearing into a party on the street. At the Hammersmith, "The E Street Shuffle" is refigured into a slow, soulful, crawl. The street now must be left behind for a different kind of scene--Springsteen's busting out for good, but not without regrets:

He steps outside and looks up and down the street because pretty soon it's all gonna be gone
And he moves on down to the scene
All by himself
All by himself
All by himself

And here the look on his face is a little strange, both terrified and resolved, like a young man leaving home and headed out into the world.



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