Even The Boss can’t explain some of the lyrics.
Yet in “Bruce Springsteen: The Stories Behind the Songs” Brian Hiatt tackles the songs many know by heart but don’t completely understand.
Seriously, what does Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out mean?
Sure, David Sancious, keyboardist for the E Street Band, lived near 10th Ave. in Asbury Park. And, Springsteen recorded most of “Born to Run” at the Record Plant, off 10th Ave. in Manhattan, so there are geographical links.
Springsteen though, “admitted to having no idea what a Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out might actually be beyond a cool-sounding phrase,” Hiatt writes. “The song’s narrative, however, is clear: It’s an origin story of sorts for the E Street Band.”
On this song, Steve Van Zandt, then known by his nickname Miami, officially became part of the core group. And, Clarence Clemons gets a shout-out with “When the big man joined the band.”
“You can try to explain it all,” Hiatt begins. “You can figure out the first two lines of ‘Badlands’ probably came from the 1977 New York City blackout; you can prove there were no fireworks in Asbury Park the year ‘4th of July’ (Asbury Park) emerged; you can find the precise book and newspaper passages quoted on ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad;’ you can trace songs from their earliest drafts; you can talk to people involved in every step of the music-making process. Nevertheless, the butterfly can’t quite be pinned down. How did Bruce Springsteen write and record all those songs? Thankfully, that question can’t be fully answered even by Bruce Springsteen.”
Still, Hiatt, a writer at Rolling Stone, comes close. He’s interviewed Springsteen five times over the years and drew from those interviews and 55 others, including with engineers and bandmates, to go deeper on 300 songs.
Even Springsteen fans, who can chart their lives by his tours, are bound to learn. After Springsteen’s autobiography two years ago, and the many books written about him, it’s understandable people might think there’s nothing left to say. They, though, would be wrong.
Any true fan always wants more. That’s why they cheer him on the fourth hour of a concert on a work night. Always more than a singer, larger than rock and roll, the scruffy perfectionist from down the shore has long been the poet of a generation.
Going back to 1972 when he was working on “Growin’ Up” Springsteen acknowledged how much Bob Dylan influenced him. “I said I’m going to be a poet,” Hiatt quotes. “I hadn’t read any poetry, but I’m going to be a poet!”
This dissects how songs that have become anthems could have gone very different ways. On “Thunder Road,” Mary wasn’t originally the vision dancing across the porch. He considered Angelina, Anne, Chrissie, and Christina. And, the harmonica of the intro was originally a sax.
Springsteen wrote most of the “Born to Run” album on the piano and knew “Thunder Road” was the opening.
“There is something about the melody that just suggests ‘new day’ it suggests morning,” Springsteen said.
The inspiration for “Prove it All Night” came from riding in a taxi. A cab driver was yammering on about his life, and Springsteen was a captive audience.
“He was just raving about how all day long you gotta prove it to your boss driving around in your cab, and all night you gotta go home and prove it to your kids. It never lets up, you know.”
Also relentless? How so many people insist that “Born in the U.S.A” is some sort of happy nationalistic jingle. Politicians who blare “Born in the USA” (without Springsteen’s permission) thinking it’s an upbeat song would do well to read the lyrics.
“The first chorus he wrote rhymed ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ with a soon-to-be-discarded line sardonically saluting ‘the American way’,” Hiatt writes. Earlier drafts included a line that President Nixon should have been castrated.
What becomes clear is how often songs were revised; words rewritten, instruments added then removed, all while Springsteen sought the perfect sound. Drummer Max Weinberg recalls working on “Born in the U.S.A.” through the night.
“Six hours later, Springsteen drove by Weinberg’s house with a boom box and a cassette of Toby Scott’s rough mix of the song. The engineer had applied gated reverb (using a broken reverb plate) to Weinberg’s snare, which, combined with the overloaded room microphones in Studio A’s ceiling, made it sound like heavy artillery going off at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.”
As they listened to this version, one the world would not hear for a couple of years, Springsteen told Weinberg: “The drums on this song are as important as the vocal. Because it sounds like confusion and bombs and you perfectly illustrated what I thought the song was about.”
Never shy about standing up to authority, by the time four NYPD cops shot Amadou Diallo 41 times on Wheeler Avenue in the Bronx in 1999, Springsteen already had lines in his notebook. Those snippets were for an unrelated piece, but worked in the haunting “American Skin (41 Shots).”
He debuted the song in concert in Atlanta, and it was instantly pirated. A recording wound up on the then-nascent Napster, Hiatt explains, ”and the New York Post began publishing story after story about the track. The song, as Springsteen later wrote, is about the effects of systemic racism — he shows the cops kneeling over Diallo’s body, ‘praying for his life’ — but that’s not how the NYPD heard it.”
It enraged some cops. Bob Lucente, then president of the New York chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, called Springsteen “a dirtbag” among other choice words and urged a boycott of his music.
Springsteen’s response was to play the song 10 consecutive nights at Madison Square Garden.
Many first responders, though, remained true fans, something proven after the 2001 terror attacks. Springsteen kept seeing his name referenced in the obits from 9/11.
“As a result of geography, demographics and the decades he had spent burrowing into American hearts, a remarkable number of the victims had been hardcore Bruce fans,” Hiatt writes. “He began making phone calls.”
One was to Stacey Farrelly, the widow of Joe Farrelly, a Staten Island firefighter, who ran into the towers. Springsteen listened to her recount their love story.
“Into the Fire” was the first song Springsteen wrote after 9/11 and the first recorded for “The Rising.”
Record producer Brendan O’Brien had Springsteen and the band record the song’s acoustic intro separately from the rest of the song, and he then edited the sections together — making the full band’s dramatic entrance something of a clever illusion (the producer wanted the song to skip a couple beats between sections, a transition Springsteen initially found uncomfortable).”
Over the decades, Springsteen has said he wrote some songs to hear arenas full of fans sing them back to him, yet he’s also acknowledged he often wanted to chuck those.
Anyone who blew their budget to see “Springsteen on Broadway” learned those singalongs were forbidden at the Walter Kerr Theatre. This book is for those true fans. They want to know how and why some favorites came about.