Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen (September 23, 1949) is most widely known for his brand of heartland rock, rock and roll infused with Americana sentiments. His eloquence in expressing ordinary, every-day problems has earned him a huge fan base. His most famous albums, Born to Run and Born in the USA, epitomize his penchant for writing about the struggles of a young man growing up in the streets of New Jersey. Comparisons are inevitably made between him and Bob Dylan because of his folk rock roots. Springsteen, however has become popular in his own right because of the appeal of his songs.
Springsteen’s lyrics often concern men and women struggling to make ends meet, and frequently denounce the rich and greedy. He has gradually become identified with progressive politics. Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” was so popular that Ronald Reagan chose it to be the theme of his 1984 presidential campaign, misinterpreting it to be as a simply nationalistic song rather than one about the negative after-effects of the Vietnam War. Springsteen is also noted for his work for the relief effort after the September 11th attacks on which his album, The Rising, reflects.
Springsteen is nicknamed “The Boss”, a term of endearment by his fans which he was initially reported to dislike but now seems to have come to terms with.
Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen was born in Freehold Borough, New Jersey. His father, Douglas, was a bus driver of Dutch and Irish ancestry and his mother, Adele Zirilli Springsteen, an Italian-American legal secretary. He was inspired to become a musician when he saw Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan Show. At the age of thirteen, he bought his first guitar for $18. In 1965, he went to the house of Tex and Marion Vinyard, who sponsored young bands in his town. They helped him become the lead guitarist of the Castiles, and later became the lead singer of the group. The Castilles recorded two original songs at a public recording studio in Bricktown, New Jersey, and played a variety of venues, including Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village. Marion Vinyard said that even when Springsteen was a young man, she believed him when he said he was going to make it big.
He began performing in Richmond, Virginia, in late 1969 and through 1970 with singer Robbin Thompson in a band called Steel Mill. They went on to perform some memorable shows at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Before being discovered nationally, he returned to Asbury Park, New Jersey, and performed regularly at small nightclubs there and along the Jersey shore. His New Jersey shows quickly gathered cult-like appeal for their energy, passion and longevity, most lasting in excess of three hours.
Even after gaining international acclaim, Springsteen’s New Jersey roots would reverberate in his music, with him routinely praising “the great state of New Jersey” in his live shows. Drawing on his extensive local appeal, his appearances in major New Jersey and Philadelphia venues routinely would sell out for consecutive nights and, much like The Grateful Dead, his show’s song lists would vary significantly from night to night. He would also make many surprise appearances at The Stone Pony and other shore nightclubs over the years. He began his recording career with the E Street Band in 1973. He signed a solo record deal with Columbia Records in 1972 with the help of John A. Hammond, who signed Bob Dylan to the same record label. Springsteen brought many of his New Jersey-based musician friends, including guitarist Steven Van Zandt, into the studio with him, many of them forming The E Street Band. His debut album, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., from January 1973, established him as a critical favorite, though sales were slow. Manfred Mann’s Earth Band subsequently turned one song from the album, “Blinded by the Light”, into a number one hit. Later in 1973 his second album, The Wild, the Innocent, and The E Street Shuffle came out, again to critical acclaim but no commercial profit. The long, full-of-life “Rosalita” from this album would go on to become one of Springsteen’s most beloved concert numbers.
In Boston’s The Real Paper May 22, 1974, music critic Jon Landau wrote, “I saw rock and roll future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time”. (Landau subsequently became Springsteen’s manager and producer.) With the release of Born to Run in 1975, Springsteen made the covers of both Time Magazine and Newsweek the same week, on October 27 of that year. This was Springsteen’s last ditch effort to make a commercially viable album; its wall of sound production had an enormous budget. It succeeded: while there were no real hit singles, the title track, “Thunder Road”, and “Jungleland” all received massive FM radio airplay and remain perennial favorites on many classic rock stations to this day.
A legal battle with former manager Mike Appel kept Springsteen out of the studio for a while, and probably also contributed to the much more somber tone of his 1978 album, Darkness on the Edge of Town. Musically, this album was the turning point of Springsteen’s career. Gone were the rapid-fire lyrics, out-sized characters, and long, multi-part musical compositions of the first three albums; now the songs were leaner and more carefully drawn and began to reflect Springsteen’s growing intellectual and political awareness. Many fans consider Darkness Springsteen’s most consistent and best record; tracks such as “Badlands” and “The Promised Land” became concert staples for decades to come. Other fans would always like the adventurous early Springsteen best.
Springsteen continued to consolidate his thematic focus on working-class life with the double album, The River, in 1980, which yielded his first hit single, “Hungry Heart”.
He followed this with the stark solo acoustic Nebraska in 1982. According to the Marsh biographies, Springsteen was in a depressed state when he wrote this material, and the result is a brutal depiction of American life. While this album did not sell especially well, it garnered him widespread critical praise. Springsteen did not go on tour with the release of this album.
Springsteen is probably best known for the multi-million selling Born in the U.S.A. (1984), and the massively successful world tour that followed it. The title track was a tribute to Springsteen’s buddies that had experienced the Vietnam War, some of whom did not come back. The song was widely misinterpreted on release as nationalistic. In later years Springsteen performed the song accompanied only with acoustic guitar to restore the song’s original meaning. “Dancing in the Dark” was the biggest of seven hit singles from Born in the U.S.A., peaking at number two on the Billboard music charts.
The Born in the U.S.A. period represented the height of Springsteen’s visibility in popular culture and the broadest audience demographic he would ever reach (this was further helped by releasing dance mixes of three of the singles). The three-disc Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band Live/1975-85 summed up Springsteen’s career to this point, and displayed some of the elements that made Springsteen shows so powerful to his fans: the switching from mournful dirges to party rockers and back; the communal sense of purpose between artist and audience; the long emotionally intense spoken passages before songs, including those describing Springsteen’s difficult relationship with his father; and the instrumental prowess of The E Street Band, such as in the long coda to “Racing in the Street”. Some felt the song selection on this album could have been better, but in any case, Springsteen concerts are the subjects of frequent bootleg recording and trading among fans.
After this commercial peak, Springsteen released the much more sedate and contemplative Tunnel of Love (1987), a mature reflection on the many faces of love found, lost and squandered. Reflecting the challenges of love, on Tunnel of Love's title song, Springsteen famously sang:
"Ought to be easy, ought to be simple enough. Man meets woman, and they fall in love. But the house is haunted, and the ride gets rough. You got to learn to live with what you can't rise above."
In 1992, three years after breaking up with most of The E Street Band (Roy Bittan remained) and risking charges of “going Hollywood” by moving to Los Angeles (a radical move for someone so linked to the blue-collar life of the Jersey Shore), Springsteen released two albums simultaneously. Human Touch and Lucky Town were even more introspective than any of his previous work. Also different about these albums was the confidence he displayed. These albums saw a finally satisfied and mature Springsteen. However, most fans view these albums (especially Human Touch) and the “Other Ban”" tour that followed as the low point in Springsteen’s career; it was also during this tour that Springsteen first began using a teleprompter so as to not forget his lyrics, a practice he has continued with ever since. An abortive acoustic band appearance on the MTV Unplugged television program that was later released as In Concert/MTV Plugged further cemented fan dissatisfaction.
Springsteen seemed to realize this dissatisfaction a few years hence when he spoke humorously of his late father during his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame acceptance speech: “I've gotta thank him because - what would I conceivably have written about without him? I mean, you can imagine that if everything had gone great between us, we would have had disaster. I would have written just happy songs - and I tried it in the early ‘90s and it didn't work; the public didn't like it.”
A multiple Grammy Award winner, Springsteen also won an Academy Award in 1993 for his song “Streets of Philadelphia”, which appeared in the soundtrack to the film Philadelphia. The song, along with the film, was applauded by many for its sympathetic portrayal of a gay man dying of AIDS, especially coming from a mainstream, heterosexual musician. Unusually, the music video for the song shows Springsteen’s actual vocal performance, recorded using a hidden microphone, as he refused to lip-sync to a prerecorded vocal track.
In 1995, after temporarily re-organizing The E Street Band for a few new songs recorded for his first Greatest Hits album (a recording session that was chronicled in the documentary Blood Brothers), he released his second solo guitar album, The Ghost of Tom Joad. This was less well-received than the similar Nebraska, due to the minimal melody, twangy vocals, and didactic nature of most of the songs. The small-venue solo tour that followed successfully featured many of his older songs in drastically reshaped acoustic form, although Springsteen had to explicitly remind his audiences to be quiet during the performances.
In 1998, another precursor to The E Street Band's upcoming re-birth appeared in the form of a sprawling, four-disc box set of out-takes, Tracks.
In 1999, the E Street Band officially re-united and went on an extensive world tour, lasting over a year in length and finishing with ten sold out shows at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The E-United World Tour resulted in an HBO Concert, with corresponding DVD and album releases as Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band: Live In New York City.
Drawing on his strong fan base in Philadelphia, Springsteen chose to celebrate his 50th birthday in September 1999 with a live show at the Philadelphia Spectrum, which he opened with his hit “Growing Up”. Closing the song on that night, he quoted W. C. Fields: “All things being equal, I’d rather be in Philadelphia”. This fantastic show also included a rare performance of “The Fever”.
In 2002, Springsteen released his first studio effort with the full band in 18 years, The Rising, produced by Brendan O’Brien. The album, mostly a reflection on the September 11 attacks, was a critical and popular success, and hailed the return of “The Boss”. The title track gained airplay in several radio formats, and the record became Springsteen’s best-selling album of new material in fifteen years. A massive tour was made to promote The Rising. While Springsteen’s popularity has dipped over the years in some southern and midwestern regions of the U.S., it is still strong along the coasts, and he played an unprecedented ten nights in outdoor football Giants Stadium in New Jersey, a ticket-selling feat that no other musical act can come close to. During these shows Springsteen thanked those fans who were attending multiple shows and those who were coming from long distances or out of the country; the advent of robust Bruce-oriented online communities had made these practices easier. The final Giants Stadium show concluded with an even better thank you: a performance of “Jersey Girl”. The Rising tour would come to a final conclusion with three nights in Shea Stadium. Bruce Springsteen lost his police escort for the second night after performing “American Skin (41 shots)”, a song about the police shooting of Amadou Diallo. Bob Dylan was a surprise guest on the last night, the two performing “Highway 61 Revisited” together.
During the 2000s Springsteen has become a visible advocate for the revitalization of Asbury Park, and has played an annual series of winter holiday concerts there to benefit various local businesses, organizations, and causes. These shows are explicitly intended for the faithful, featuring numbers such as the unreleased (until Tracks) E Street Shuffle out-take “Thundercrack”, a rollicking group participation song that casual Springsteen fans would be mystified by. He also frequently rehearses for tours in Asbury Park; his most devoted followers stand outside the building to hear what fragments they can of the upcoming shows.
At the Grammy Awards of 2003, Springsteen performed the Clash's “London Calling”, along with Elvis Costello, E Streeter Steven van Zandt, and Dave Grohl in tribute to the late Joe Strummer; Springsteen and The Clash had once been considered multiple-album-dueling rivals at the time of the double The River and the triple Sandinista!.
Springsteen’s most recent album, Devils and Dust, was released on April 26, 2005 and was recorded without The E Street Band. It is a low-key, mostly acoustic album, in the same vein as Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad although with a little more instrumentation. Some of the material was written almost ten years earlier during or shortly after the Tom Joad tour, a couple of them being performed then but never released. The title track concerns an ordinary soldier’s feelings and fears during the Iraq War. Starbucks rejected a co-branding deal for the album, not only due to some sexually explicit content, but also because of Springsteen’s anti-corporate politics. Nonetheless, the album entered the album charts at number one in ten different countries (United States, Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, The United Kingdom, and Ireland).
Working on a Dream is the 2009 album by one of the finest American songwriters of his generation. The album was recorded with the E Street Band and features twelve new Springsteen compositions plus a bonus track, "The Wrestler". It is the fourth collaboration between Springsteen and Brendan O'Brien, who produced and mixed the album. Springsteen also wrote an eponymous song for Darren Aronofsky's 2008 film The Wrestler. The song, also titled 'The Wrestler' won the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song.
Marking his 17th studio album, Wrecking Ball (2012) features eleven new Springsteen recordings and was produced by Ron Aniello with Bruce Springsteen and executive producer Jon Landau.
Said long-time manager Jon Landau, “Bruce has dug down as deep as he can to come up with this vision of modern life. The lyrics tell a story you can’t hear anywhere else and the music is his most innovative of recent years. The writing is some of the best of his career and both veteran fans and those who are new to Bruce will find much to love on Wrecking Ball.”
Landau told Rolling Stone magazine that the record is an ambitious “big-picture piece of work. It’s a rock record that combines elements of both Bruce’s classic sound and his Seeger Sessions experience, with new textures and styles.” Members of the E Street Band play on the album - along with a variety of outside musicians, including Tom Morello. “Bruce and Ron used a wide variety of players to create something that both rocks and is very fresh.”