Written in 1985 while Bob was still working for the Los Angeles Times, “Springsteen” was one in a brief series of Rolling Stone-commissioned books which offered overviews of the life of great figures in rock, including Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Built around nearly 200 photos, “Springsteen” was an intimate look at Bruce and his music, including how he give us a grand, socially conscious rock vision, both sonically and lyrically, that elevated him from American rock hero to international superstar.
Intro to "Springsteen"
Creative reigns in rock & roll are notoriously brief. Elvis Presley’s most influential records were all made in the three years that ended with the release of “Jailhouse Rock” in 1956. Though he continued to exercise his questioning spirit, Bob Dylan never regained his hold on the rock audience after his motorcycle accident in 1966. The Beatles burned out before the start of the 1970s.
A decade after he was featured on the covers of Time and Newsweek in 1975, Bruce Springsteen was still reaching for his artistic and commercial peak. The most acclaimed figure in American rock by the time his album The River was released in 1980, Springsteen has added to both his art and his audience with two subsequent LPs. Nebraska, a stark, compassionate look at the loss of hope in America, dazzled critics and listeners in 1982. Born in the U.S.A. spread Springsteen’s hard-times portraits and personal celebrations to a huge new audience.
By the time he and the E Street Band reached Greensboro, North Carolina in January 1985, Springsteen was half way through an international tour that would be seen by an estimated four million people. Born in the U.S.A. had sold five million copies—almost double his previous high Born to Run—and had just regained the Number One position on the national sales charts.
It was Springsteen’s first local appearance in four years, and tickets for both shows at the 15,500-seat Greensboro Coliseum had sold out as fast as the box office could collect the money. Fans draped welcoming banners over the balcony rails (“Ooh, ooh, we gotta crush on you”) and shouted his name after almost every song.
For more than three hours, Springsteen performed with an intensity that challenged both his stamina and the audience’s ability to absorb. Rather than the narrow range offered in most pop music performances, Springsteen’s embraced many styles and emotions—from the youthful exhilaration of his Born to Run days to the darker social realism of his recent work.
His fans have always been thrilled by Springsteen’s energy and drive, and the Greensboro concert was no exception. But now what they seem to treasure most is his emotional honesty and integrity.
“You can’t live on what you did yesterday or what’s going to happen tomorrow,” he told me in 1980. “If you fall into that trap, you don’t belong on stage. That’s what rock & roll is: a promise, an oath. It’s about being as true as you can at any particular moment.”
Springsteen’s biggest triumph is that he has lived up to his own oath. In an age that has taught us to expect corruption and compromise, he invites trust. He has made it possible once again to put faith in a rock & roll singer.
It’s dangerous to attribute anything as complex as Springsteen’s motivation to a single incident or person, but there’s reason to believe that much of what makes Springsteen run is based on his perception of his first and greatest hero, Elvis Presley. After his split from Mike Appel, the aggressive ex-Marine who managed his career for the four years climaxed by the release of Born to Run, Springsteen addressed the dangers of fame in these terms: Mike Appel thought he would be Colonel Parker and I’d be Elvis. Only he wasn’t Colonel Parker and I wasn’t Elvis.”
Elvis played an important part in the conversation the first time I met Springsteen, in 1974. Though he had built a reputation around his native New Jersey, Springsteen was largely unknown on the West Coast at the time of the interview. He and the E Street Band weren’t even headliners yet. They had opened that night at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium for Dr. John, the growly-voiced rock & blues piano player from
New Orleans. But you could see that things were beginning to change for Springsteen, and he was trying to figure out how to adjust. His two Columbia albums were critically acclaimed, and his record company was promoting him aggressively.On this evening, he was uncomfortable talking about himself. The only time he relaxed was when he spoke about Elvis.
“Before rock & roll, I didn’t have any purpose. I tried to play football and baseball and all those things…and I just didn’t fit in. I was running through as maze. Music was never a hobby. It was a reason to live. It was the only one I had. It was kind of life or death.”
Bruce was eight years old when he saw Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1957, and Elvis became a symbol of freedom and future to a youngster from a New Jersey town that seemed a storage house for compromise and failure. When he saw Elvis, Bruce decided that’s what he would be when he grew up.
In the Greensboro Coliseum in 1985, Springsteen was still talking about Elvis. Only this time his tone was different. Early in the concert, he told of driving by Graceland in 1976. Springsteen laughed as he recalled how he climbed the wall and raced to Elvis’ front door, hoping to get a chance to meet him. He was turned away by the guards with no sight of Elvis.
He then described his feelings when he learned that Elvis had died. “It was hard to understand how somebody whose music took away so many people’s loneliness could have ended up as lonely as he did.” Springsteen began singing, “Bye, Bye Johnny,” a song he wrote shortly after Presley’s death. It’s a mournful tune that ends, “You didn’t have to die, you didn’t have to die.”
Presley’s death in some ways made an even stronger impression than the rock star’s music had. Elvis’ decline was a warning and a challenge. If the young Elvis was a compelling symbol of the possible, the older Elvis was a sign of the tragedy that could accompany the realization of your dreams.
This posed some real questions for Bruce: What if you remained true to the rock & roll ideal? How far could you take it? Was it possible to avoid the indifference and indulgence that eventually sabotaged the artistic vision of so many other rock heroes?
When he returned later for an encore, Springsteen performed a tender, acoustic version of “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” one of Elvis’ trademark ballads. Springsteen’s voice doesn’t have the purity of Presley’s but there was a touching sweetness in his rendition. Before the applause died, the rest of the E Street Band moved into place, and Springsteen tore into the most rousing version of “Born to Run” I’ve heard in the dozens of times I’ve seen him perform. The song is Springsteen’s greatest expression of determination and hope. But on this night, it seemed to have an undercurrent of rage, as if Springsteen were reminding himself and everyone present that what happened to Elvis wasn’t inevitable.
In the dressing room after the Greensboro concert, Springsteen reflected on maintaining balance in a field littered with failures.
“The casualty rate in this business is real high,” he acknowledged. “But life is A struggle for most people. It’s a thin line between surviving and not making it. It’s like people with their finger in the dike, trying to hold back the flood all the time. That’s what our band is about.
“The shows aren’t a casual thing, even though they are filled with fun and wildness. There should be beauty, but there’s also got to be ugliness and brutality. If you turn way, that’s the beginning of the end. That’s what you spend your time doing—trying not to turn away.”