“We're just prisoners of rock ‘n'roll... and we 've all been sentenced to life. "
It was the third hour and the third delirious encore of the Bruce Springsteen concert last month in Toronto. It was hard to believe that the small man up on stage with his guitar cocked at the audience and a diamond-shaped rip in the thigh of his jeans was going to repeat this baptism of energy for 25 more nights, up and down the continent, before his North American tour of 120 concerts—none less than galvanic, the best of them almost Mählerian—comes to an end in January.
Springsteen’s answer to skeptics is his song, Prove It All Night, and his motto, “never surrender.” Darkness on the Edge of Town, his fourth album, has gone platinum in both Canada and the U.S. After a Springsteen show at L.A.’s Roxy Club, singer-songwriter Jackson Browne said, “How can I play again after seeing that performance?” After the Toronto concert, recórd producer
Bob Ezrin who has worked with Alice Cooper and Tim Curry was uncharacteristically carried away: “The best stage presence since Jagger. He’s phenomenal ... the best.”
A Springsteen concert is a barrage of visual drama, musical dialogue and seething emotions. “I like to work real hard and feel finished when we get off stage,” he says. In concert, he brings back echoes of Dylan’s vision, Roy Orbison’s power and Hendrix’s anguished physical contortions. The stage show is shaped and lit like a movie: Cut to Springsteen prowling through the jungle, stroking wails from his guitar, lodged firmly in his groin. Cut to his audience in a rock ’n’ roll swoon. Cut to his musicians, the E Street Band, led by the serene black giant Clarence Clemons, who plays his sax with fire. Springsteen calls his band “the great ground, the guys who keep the floor here.”
Although his movements are chosen as sparely as punctuation, in motion Springsteen is a whirling dervish, letting go totally and fearlessly. Something astonishing happens—Springsteen leaps off the stage and wades into the audience, beyond that peculiar imaginary moat that separates the performer from his adoring fans. He marches into the sea of people and the waves part in stunned, almost religious respect. And the bond of trust remains intact as his audience, delirious inmates in the same chimerical cell, offers him back unscathed. It’s easy to understand how a “rock messiah” myth got started, since he is all humility on stage—
with a sensuality that crosses genders.
Backstage, after the Toronto show, Springsteen looks blown away. His thin, taut body is drained and he looks like he could use something. But he sips a soda; no booze or drugs before a show—“it’s like coming on stage on crutches”—and no bring-me-down afterward, either. With his hair slicked back, a black leather jacket, stove-pipe jeans and pointed shoes, he looks more ’50s than the ’50s ever were. He could be in the movies.
Whispering, his words come out inarticulately but honestly. Music is his language. “When I got into music, I didn’t believe, love or trust anything. Everything let me down. Music was and is the only compelling thing in my life; it became a sort of refuge.”
The streets of Freehold, New Jersey, spawned this working-class hero who wrote about teen-age angst, cars and girls, and who played his electronic axe with an unbridled passion and as a “tool to bust open doors” into his own personal dream. “I spent a lot of time by myself,” he says. “I preferred to be alone with my music.” But a major legal and psychological storm loomed, one that would shake the precarious hold on his newfound dream.
Rock in the early ’70s was going through a crisis: it was becoming a toothless old woman. The search was on to find someone to save the music and Springsteen, who, in his Catholic schooldays had once drawn Christ cru-
cified on a guitar, was the perfect redeemer candidate, with his passion and his innocence.
The media gorge began and peaked with Springsteen on the covers of both Time and Newsweek in 1975. Then the man who was born to run came to a grinding halt, tripped up by legal problems between Springsteen and his manager at the time, Mike Appel. While Springsteen sued for breach of contract, Appel won a temporary injunction barring the singer from recording. Almost three years of legal hassles ensued, during which he did “small tours to stay alive ... The road crew loaned me money, everyone helped and we kept cranking away.” The runaway American dream had become a nightmare. “I bundled all the attention together and labelled the experience bad,” Springsteen sums it up now. “I was naïve about business, but I didn’t get into this to be a
businessman. Then I got to thinking that I’d never be worse off than before, and I wasn’t gonna go away.” During the exile, he never lost contact with the street or his audience. “I like to think I was off three years, and they were off three years. They’d come up to me in the streets and say ‘we’re still with you.’ ” Now the legal chains are off; he has his own publishing rights. Backstage, tired but still spellbindingly engaging, he explains “it feels so great to get out to the people and to have it happen like tonight...” This time around the press isn’t going to get to him like before. All he wants to do is “to make records and go out and play.” Refusing to don the mantle of rock messiah again, he personifies the street survivor, stripped bare, asking only that you join him on a window ledge. “Rock . . . it’s the best because it puts your world right into your face. It’s impossible not to feel it
and not have it connect within ... sure, it’s an escape.”
What he does is revive rock by rediscovering the wild, crazy excitement of its past. His songs still paint pictures of “Chevys,” of racing in streets of fire, of making love in the fields. His vulnerability and strength is his sincere candor.
The illusion that rock ’n’ roll is a liberating force that keeps all involved young by taking them back to a more carefree time may one day shatter; but he keeps running, because “rock ’n’ roll is never about giving up.”
“If I live,” says Springsteen, who is 29, “I’m going to play rock ’n’ roll.” The music continues on like a candle in the wind as he sings: “I believe in the love that you gave me ... I believe in the faith and I pray, that someday it may raise me above these badlands.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.