Listening to one of a number of Bruce Springsteen concerts on my way south to Asbury Park over the weekend, I continued to ponder just how he made the leap from wholesale imitation of other performers as he did during the Steel Mill days to his emergence as a fresh and innovative voice with the release of his first album with the e-street band.
Music reviewers and biographers have been kind to him in saying that he was in this or that performance mood when writing songs, when in some cases, Springsteen’s bands simply changed lyrics and aped other people’s performance nearly note for note. Some performances were so close to the originals, it amazes me that the bands he imitated didn’t take note. Despite his early success with the public, Springsteen sounded like the bands that he was influenced by, often adding his own lyrics to other people’s productions and coming away with a reputation as a prolific song writer.
Bruce actually followed a well-established pattern traced back to countless eventually great song writers before him, including Bob Dylan, who spent a good portion of his early career aping Woody Guthrie.
It was clear that Bruce struggled to find a voice of his own, and clearly saw the limitations of Steel Mill, using the incident at the swim club as an excuse to seek a new direction, despite the overwhelming musical prowess he and the other members displayed.
Graham’s offer to back the band during their trip to
Francisco combined with Steel Mill’s popularity must
have put a real scare into Bruce and motivated him to look beyond Steel Mill.
While kinder biographers claimed Bruce risked losing the rights to his songs if
he went with Graham, in truth, these largely weren’t his songs to sell, and a
national spotlight at that time would have exposed that fact, even if the
audience was willing to ignore how familiar these tunes were.
The question for me was how did Bruce manage to transition from a song writer that basically revamped other people’s tunes to become one of the great song writers of our generation.
In fact, it appears, he never did. He simply got better at disguising the root of his music.
This is not to say that all of Springsteen’s music came from already existing songs, but rather that his tunes appear to take off of what he heard, especially as a backup way of writing new songs when he could not come up with a hook of his own. But he never did this so obviously as he did during Dr. Zoom or even the Bruce Springsteen Band – such as with the Stone’s song Happy, that the band played as original.
Part of the disguise had to do with production. Steel Mill for all its incredible musical ability was way too raw, exposed by its straight forward approach with little place to disguise the roots of music so when they played a Cream-like song, it sounded like Cream or a number of other lesser known bands Bruce was enamored with.
But remember, this is nothing new for rock and roll. Nearly all emerging bands sound like their predecessors. Even some of the root bands of the 1960s like The Beatles, the Stones, The Who or the Kinks, owed their sound to Elvis, Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison and others. And until that ludicrous lawsuit filed against George Harrison over “My Sweet Lord,” it was an accepted practice. Even later, some bands such as Abba depended on other people’s songs for their own hits. It is hard to tell the difference between “
its predecessor, “Build me up Buttercup.”
But one huge difference between Springsteen and all the other was Bruce’s ability to imitate whatever he heard.
He is a musical chameleon. He becomes what he hears.
Even after he broke up Steel Mill, he continued to sound like his root material, although his sound softened and became more defuse. Instead of sounding like Cream, Santana, Allman Brothers as he did with Steel Mill, he began to sound like Bob Dylan and especially Van Morrison – someone he clearly modeled his new persona on. But it was clear from this point, Springsteen’s lyrics were not yet as good as those of those he imitated.
Seeking out more complex production such as he discovered with Joe Cocker and James Brown, Bruce was able to better disguise his root material, and at the same time, took one giant step closer to finding his own authentic voice. Of course, he still hadn’t brought together the right combination of musicians either and the horn player for Dr. Zoom – a more or less temporary band – lacked the soul he needed to equal the kind of musical models he was drawing from. Clemons’s arrival on the scene gave the suburban Bruce what he most lacked at that point, real and legitimate soul that rivaled people like Van Morrison and James Brown, and did something that helped draw attention away from Springsteen weak point: original tunes.
Again, this is not to say Springsteen lacked original tunes. But he seems to have fallen back on old habits of adapting other tunes by older or contemporary artist. So that some songs played during his late 1980s tour hinted or even more openly showed the influence. One appears to be a tune developed out of Satisfaction by the Rolling Stones, only without the hook. “Ties that Bind” and at least one other song seemed derivative of Joe Jackson’s “Is she really going out with him,” while “Raise the Cain” echoes Tom Petty’s “Refugee” (though it is hard to tell which of these came first), and there are even some hints of “Eve of Destruction,” in Springsteen’s “Badlands.”
To be fair, other bands also borrowed from Springsteen such as Thin Lizzy in their big hit, “The boys are back in town.”
Despite all of the accolades Springsteen received early and even later in his career for his song-writing, his music doesn’t seem particularly original, and his real innovation came with production and his eventual brilliance at writing lyrics.
Clearly influenced by Bob Dylan, Springsteen’s early efforts were extremely weak, pale imitations of what Dylan did.
Dylan had a knack for hitting a nerve and somehow finding depth in even the most simplistic surface lyrics. Springsteen didn’t achieve this until he started writing songs about his own life and what went on around him, as he became the herald for the unsung suburban generation, the way Dylan had for the urban hipster.
Springsteen captured our angst in a way no one had before or since, part of the reason we still cling to him even as the suburban existence we lived comes to an end.
Like Woody Guthrie, Springsteen has captured and immortalized a place and a way of life that is bound to fade, kept alive only in his songs and poetry, which will allow us and future generations to look back at what transpired – even those people whose lack the suburban experience. His
Asbury Park will remain alive
and vibrant long after the developers have plowed down the working class Asbury
Park and short-sighted politicians turn it into a
playground for the rich.