Bruce Springsteen Essay - Critical Essays

Springsteen, Bruce


Bruce Springsteen 1949–

American songwriter and musician.

To many critics and fans, Springsteen represents both the culmination of the best attributes of twenty years of rock and roll and the genre's brightest hope for the future. In many ways his words and music are a return to the basics of popular music, but Springsteen's understanding of the classic themes of rock and his dynamic stage presence have added a new dimension to the form.

Springsteen's lyrics are probably his most notable achievement. Not unlike short stories in their ability to evoke strong imagery, character, and setting in a limited space, they prompted critics to compare him with Bob Dylan. Initially a complimentary estimate, this statement became a drawback in Springsteen's early career, causing his struggle for recognition as a performer with an original approach. His first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, New Jersey, was especially criticized for its excessive wordplay. Some critics feel the lyrics, which often drew from personal sources, were contrived and lightweight, although as a whole the album was well received for its exuberance and imagination.

The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle is considered a more complete and serious album than its predecessor. Although the songs appear autobiographical, Springsteen universalizes places and people familiar to him from the small town of Asbury Park, New Jersey. His cast of characters risk everything for the chance to grab a moment, something that is truly their own. The album is most often faulted for its sentimental, romanticized portrayals of street punks and their lifestyles. However, its controlled passion and musical fusion of rock, folk, soul, and jazz were considered positive steps forward in Springsteen's artistic development.

Some critics have called Born to Run a perfect rock album due to its evocative imagery and powerful music, which was stylistically reminiscent of the best of Dylan, Van Morrison, Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story," and the Phil Spector sound. Although the themes of joy, frustration, and rebellion were sometimes thought to be over-developed, Springsteen's exhilarating style gave fresh new meaning to the often hackneyed subjects of teenage dilemma and release. An extensive advertising campaign was launched for the album's promotion which emphasized critic Jon Landau's statement in Boston's The Real Paper: "I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen." The forcefulness of the campaign prejudiced many people, some of whom had never heard Springsteen's songs, and Springsteen's reputation was considered overblown. It has only been recently that Springsteen has been accepted as a major artist.

Springsteen's recording career came to a standstill in 1976 when he and then-manager Mike Appel filed a series of lawsuits against each other. He did not release another album until 1978. The cathartic Darkness on the Edge of Town reflects the pain and bitterness Springsteen felt about these lawsuits. Darkness concentrates on more adult themes, such as despair and disillusionment, than did the earlier albums. It has been called strained and repetitive, lacking in the spontaneity that characterized those works. However, it is often considered Springsteen's most mature statement, one which dramatically shows his tenacity and strength.

Springsteen's greatest appeal to young people is perhaps his ability to relay accurately his understanding of their problems, dreams, and desires. His works also show his honest empathy with the young person's need for freedom; as a chronicler of their hopes and wishes he has become, for many of them, the symbol that these dreams can be realized.


Bruce Springsteen … has been hiding in New Jersey writing these incredible songs…. [He] can be easily dismissed as "justanotherDylanrip-off" if you're not really listening—but increasingly, as he begins a road he knows has done in fellow travellers, he is his own man and points invitingly to the road not taken…. (p. 31)

Bruce Springsteen's songs offer that wonderfully bewildering problem of how to keep up. Words tumble over one another, phrases mysteriously feel right and then disappear…. This was an entirely new perspective offered, like nothing I'd heard before. There was no given, no center I knew all these spokes were connected to. I was once again on my own with new eyes, and it was exhilarating! All of a sudden I remembered the lack! Patterns had developed, formulas into which songs and musicians and songwriters got routinely thrown, and where music had once inspired and been inspired by passion, things merged and distinctions were blurred and then obliterated. And here, one guy with a scratchy voice and some weird words made the angles sharp again. (p. 32)

I hadn't felt this kind of hard edge/intelligent/lunatic intensity since Blonde on Blonde. (p. 33)

Bruce Springsteen's record is Greetings from Asbury Park, and it's a delight. Completed last September, it offers a picture of the performer/creator as he was stepping out of one sense into another. It's the kind...

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Richard Williams

It could be ten summers ago, a sunny truant afternoon … transfixed by "Freewheelin'" marvelling that this guy named Dylan could articulate so brilliantly the most secret emotions.

But it's not: it's 1973,… and here I am with an album by a totally unfamiliar fellow called Springsteen, and I'm getting exactly the same feelings. Even now that I know most of the words [on "Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J."], and can sing along with the record, the adrenalin rushes so hard that its headiness makes writing difficult, and I just want to listen to the record again. And again….

I first heard of [Springsteen] a couple of weeks ago in an American magazine which printed some of his lyrics. Just reading his verses was a buzz: taking their cue from the image-spitting Dylan of "Subterranean Homesick Blues," they leapt off the printed page with a vivid attack which was wholly contemporary. And now this album….

In brief, Springsteen is an outlaw wordslinger with a familiar half-sneer in his voice and a taut, lean little band through which he refracts dazzling verbal images. Like Dylan, he's a rock and roll poet who fills both roles perfectly, like the two forms were born for each other. The comparisons with Dylan will be inevitable, may even hurt him, and there's no denying the influence—but Springsteen is to Dylan as the 1973 Ferrari Berlinetta Boxer is to the 1961 Ferrari 250GT. One is simply a...

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Ken Emerson

Greetings from Asbury Park, Bruce Springsteen's uproarious debut album, sounded like "Subterranean Homesick Blues" played at 78, a typical five-minute track bursting with more words than this review. Most of it didn't make much sense, but that was the point. Springsteen was rhyming and wailing for the sheer fun of it…. The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle takes itself more seriously. The songs are longer, more ambitious and more romantic; and yet, wonderfully, they lose little of Greetings' rollicking rush. Having released two fine albums in less than a year, Springsteen is obviously a considerable new talent.

Like Greetings, the new album is about the streets of New York and the tacky Jersey Shore, but the lyrics are no longer merely zany cut-ups. They're striking amalgams of romance and gritty realism: "And the boys from the casino dance with their shirts open like Latin lovers on the shore, / Chasin' all those silly New York virgins by the score." The loveliness of the first line, the punk savvy of the second, and the humor of the ensemble add up to Springsteen's characteristic ambivalence and a complex appeal reminiscent of the Shangri-Las. In the midst of a raucous celebration of desire, "Rosalita," he can suddenly turn around and sing, "Some day we'll look back on this and think we all seem funny." (p. 49)

"Incident on 57th Street" [is] the album's most stunning track, a virtual mini-opera about Johnny, a "romantic young boy" torn between Jane and the bright knives out on the street. Springsteen never resolves the conflict (if he ever does his music will probably become less interesting). Instead he milks it for all it's worth…. (p. 50)

Ken Emerson, "Springsteen Goes Gritty & Serious," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1974; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 153, January 31, 1974, pp. 49-50.

Greg Mitchell

Above easy classification and beyond casual comparison, [in The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle] Bruce Springsteen now clears his path with creations of his own device: electric mind music for the spine and body. Signed as a singer/songwriter and recorded first as a hesitant folk-rocker, Springsteen lets loose here with aural authority, apparently trading in his Divine Right to sit at the throne of Dylan for a less lyrically ambitious but more musically mature and eclectic rock 'n roll Boss sound. It's becoming apparent that Springsteen has been influenced as much by Gary U.S. Bonds and Wilson Pickett as by Bob Dylan and Van Morrison.

After an unevenly astounding debut album, Springsteen's almost entirely successful second shot somehow adds up to much more than the sum of its parts: not a conceptual album but a complete one….

For The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, Springsteen has taken some of the craziness but none of the tension out of the kind of lyrics that made Greetings From Asbury Park a frantic rush of manic intensity. The streetwise stories are now told from the cooled-out consciousness of someone who's realized that he will be given time to tell all his tales after all. Only one song remains provocatively obscure—it's the closing tune, the food for thought at the end of a sumptuous banquet—and none hold the eerie imagery that stands right up and shoots through you (as on the first album's classic "Spirit in...

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Jon Landau

Last Thursday, at the Harvard Square theatre, I saw my rock'n'roll past flash before my eyes. And I saw something else: 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.

When his two-hour set ended I could only think, can anyone really be this good; can anyone say this much to me, can rock'n'roll still speak with this kind of power and glory? And then I felt the sores on my thighs where I had been pounding my hands in time for the entire concert and knew that the answer was yes.

Springsteen does it all. He is a rock'n'roll punk, a Latin street poet, a ballet...

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Michael Watts

[Bruce Springsteen is] not just another good version of an old product, but a new genius in our midst, the artist we've been waiting for in these long doldrum years, who can promise us the world and then deliver it….

I think Springsteen is the most important performer to emerge since David Bowie, and maybe beyond, to the giants of the sixties….

What I see is a man who has married the spirit and musical orientations of [Phil] Spector's city rock and roll through a romantic language of street poetry, highly Latinate in its speed and flow and flash of imagery and with a balletic feel akin to [Van] Morrison's that has his words dancing tantalizingly on a thin wire inside your...

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John Rockwell

"Born to Run" gets us closer … to what Bruce Springsteen is all about [than either of his first two albums]. The range is as wide as either of the earlier albums, from poignancy to street-strutting cockiness to punk poetry to quasi-Broadway to surging rock anthems. But all of it (except "Meeting Across the River," which works superbly on its own terms) is solidly rock 'n' roll.

Mr. Springsteen's gifts are so powerful and so diverse that it's difficult even to try to describe them in a short space. Sometimes his lyrics still lapse too close to self-conscious myth making but generally they epitomize urban folk poetry at its best—overflowing with pungent detail and evocative metaphors, but never...

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Robert Ward

[Joy] is perhaps the real secret of Bruce Springsteen's art. Springsteen loves the world: the pimps, hustlers, humbug, tomfoolery, switchblade knives and kisses under the boardwalk. If American art is really made up of Redskins and Palefaces, as Philip Rahv once suggested, then Springsteen is the wildest new Indian around. He's the kind of artist Walt Whitman and Jack Kerouac and Otis Redding would have joined hands over. (p. 63)

Robert Ward, "The Night of the Punk," in New Times (copyright © 1975 by New Times Publishing Company), Vol. 5, No. 5, September 5, 1975, pp. 61-3.

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[Springsteen's] first two albums, "Greetings from Asbury Park" and "The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle" seemed to signal new life for rock music….

His poetry about growing up in Asbury Park, New Jersey, indicated that here was a man who understood growing up in America of the '70s in the same way that Dylan understood being young in the '60s. The albums had a number of flaws, loose ends, and generally messy production. But they were significant for what they promised. "Born to Run" was supposed to be fulfillment….

[This] isn't fulfillment. It's better, but not exactly red hot….

[Aside] from some excellent arrangement the music is not that...

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The music [of "Born To Run"] is urgent, full of abrupt stops and startling changes of tempo; the lyrics tell powerful stories of characters on the edge, living out rock and roll dreams….

[The] dreams of 1975 are bleaker than those of the past, as Springsteen's lyrics attest. Lines such as "You get up every morning at the sound of the bell / you go to work late and the boss man's giving you hell / till you're out on a midnight run / losing your heart to a beautiful one" depict a grim world far removed from [surfboard idylls]….

Springsteen's characters are "tramps … born to run" whose glory lies in a moment, not in a lifetime. Their dream is to flash just once; to chance...

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Henry Edwards

A good part of Springsteen's appeal stems from the words he sings. In his most recent engagements, he has commenced his shows with "Thunder Road," one of many Springsteen variations of those familiar rock'n' roll anthems of adolescence like the Animals' mid-1960's classic, "We Gotta Get Outta This Place"…. Such songs conjure one of rock'n' roll's most sentimentalized, romanticized and still-popular stereotypes: the outlaw-teen. The kid is lonely, lost, and desperate, and his only release is to toss a girl into a car and zoom down a highway to nowhere. As neatly structured as they are cliched, these anthems are nevertheless often lots of fun. Springsteen's "Thunder Road," however, is notable chiefly for its...

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Janet Maslin

[A] heightened intensity is what Born To Run is all about.

Springsteen's third album revamps his music as deliberately as it restyles his photographic image. The album has been designed to reach a mass audience—something its predecessor never could have accomplished—and the music has been honed accordingly. On both of these mesmerizing efforts, as well as on parts of Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., his first, Springsteen's seemingly boundless energy and his infectious exhilaration, even in moments of relative despair … are what hit you first and hardest. But if E Street Shuffle is wildly exciting, it's also a little wild; the arrangements hinge on constant surprises, the...

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Nik Cohn

Objectively, I know that Springsteen is faking. He is only striking postures, drumming up teen dreams by numbers, and his lyrics are quite absurdly inflated. But I fall for him just the same…. Above all, he is peddling a vision—mock-tragic runts on the skids—that I have always found irresistible, and though I know that I am being duped, the fraud still excites me, I cannot muster resentment.

In any case, it hardly matters. Whether Springsteen is good or bad, he is essentially irrelevant. The rock & roll dream that he so avidly celebrates is dead. Understandably, the people who have raised him to godhood find that hard to accept, for it means the death of their own youth. So they manage one...

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Jay Cocks

[Springsteen's] music is primal, directly in touch with all the impulses of wild humor and glancing melancholy, street tragedy and punk anarchy that have made rock the distinctive voice of a generation.

Springsteen's songs are full of echoes—of Sam Cooke and Elvis Presley, of Chuck Berry, Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly. You can also hear Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and the Band weaving among Springsteen's elaborate fantasias. The music is a synthesis, some Latin and soul, and some good jazz riffs too. The tunes are full of precipitate breaks and shifting harmonies, the lyrics often abstract, bizarre, wholly personal.

Springsteen makes demands. He figures that when he sings


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Lester Bangs

Bruce Springsteen is an American archetype, and Born to Run will probably be the finest record released this year.

Springsteen is not an innovator—his outlook is rooted in the Fifties; his music comes out of folk-rock and early rock 'n' roll, his lyrics from 1950s teenage rebellion movies and beat poetry as filtered through Sixties songs rather than read. Springsteen's gifts lie in the way he has rethought traditional sounds and stances, coming up with a synthesis fresh enough to constitute a minor renaissance….

Springsteen's landscapes of urban desolation are all heightened, on fire, alive. His characters act in symbolic gestures, bigger than life. Furthermore, there's...

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Jim Miller

Springsteen conveys a timeless world of perpetual youth, where all the archetypal characters of the rock 'n' roll world find a home. In the process, he makes that world seem vital again.

His lyrics are central to this conception. He works with a continuing cast that populates the same desolate streets of the "runaway American dream." It is a dream where escape comes hard, in cars and back streets, perhaps in a fleeting snatch of some half-forgotten rock song. There is much to say here, but little to talk about: Springsteen paints vivid characters, but the situations are stock, the action often stale; many songs suggest a soapy retread of West Side Story….

[There] is...

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Paul Williams

[Springsteen and the E Street Band] are doing for the seventies what Liverpool's Beatles did to the sixties: bringing rock and roll music back from the edge of oblivion, making it the leader again. (p. 74)

[The] music he makes and the adolescent world he evokes somehow belong to the '50's and the '60's and the present all at once, which may explain why Springsteen's popularity cuts across age barriers. He offers a totally mature, conscious adolescent energy (and humor, and sexuality) which appeals to the eternal rock 'n' roller in all of us. (pp. 74-5)

Bruce Springsteen the lyricist is a storyteller with a great comic gift and a unique sensibility: what he's into is life on the...

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Chris Brazier

Even if first impressions don't accord "Darkness On The Edge Of Town" (great title) the epic completeness of "Born To Run," this is still a convincing evocation of the beauty and power in Springsteen's world.

He is so important because he comes closer than anyone else to embodying in his work all the generative themes of rock 'n' roll, to fusing all its essential elements into a single potent mythology, at the same time infusing that mythology with a warmth and humanity that makes it (and him) irresistibly attractive.

His characters live out their fantasies and frustrations against the harsh and brooding backdrop of the city, desperately dreaming and forever aspiring with a spirit...

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M. Mark

It is clear now that the rock messiah of '75 … embodies neither the state nor the future of rock music. But he has brains, taste, extraordinary talent; and he's capable of making transcendent rock and roll. At its best, his new album … [Darkness on the Edge of Town could] almost be called Reborn to Run. At its worst, Born to Rerun would be more like it. But there's a lot more good than bad.

Springsteen is still the prototypical '60s-style punk, the rebel tearing up the highways in his '69 Chevy, the teenaged loner whose last chance for freedom is almost within his reach. But he's not a kid anymore…. Work is on his mind, numbing jobs that grind a man down, leave him empty...

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Paul Nelson

Many of the characters in the songs on Bruce Springsteen's [Darkness on the Edge of Town] appear to be trapped in a state of desperation so intense that they must either break through into something better (or at least into something ambiguous) or break down into madness, murder and worse. Darkness on the Edge of Town seems to be about the high cost of romantic obsession for adults, not teenagers ("Mister, I ain't a boy, no, I'm a man" instead of the wonderful but more sentimental "'Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run"), and while the LP offers hope, it's also Springsteen's blackest—though probably best—work. (p. 13)

Paul Nelson, "Springsteen Fever,"...

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Peter Knobler

You think of Bruce Springsteen as a guy who can take care of himself in a scuffle, who would intimidate his way out of a fight rather than duke it out. Just nobody messes with him.

Maybe, on his home ground. Apparently not always.

Bruce has been hurt. You can hear it all over Darkness on the Edge of Town: title, opening cut, vocals, lyrics, production. He's running scared. (p. 67)

On Born to Run, Bruce was flying down streets he knew, a flawless escape. On Darkness, he's being chased. It's not an easy album to listen to; Born to Run seems innocent beside it. This record is trouble.

I was disappointed when I first heard...

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Steve Simels

I am rather disappointed with Bruce Springsteen's long-awaited new album, "Darkness on the Edge of Town." And I am not even altogether sure why.

It's not that I don't think there's a lot of good music here. But it's my opinion that Springsteen's recorded output till now constitutes the finest body of work by any rock-and-roll musician in this decade, and I'm kind of bugged that his new album is unlikely to alter the contrary opinions of those cold-hearted folks not already on his side. There are a lot of reasons why it won't. For starters, "Darkness" is much more of a piece than one would have expected. It sounds very much like a live set, and the arrangements, as a result, have a certain sameness....

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Jim Miller

[It] is hard to believe that Darkness on the Edge of Town …, Bruce Springsteen's first album in almost three years, is as bad as it is….

In a certain sense, I suppose that Springsteen has succeeded. Darkness has all the earmarks of a "mature statement from a major voice." His new songs use a lean instrumentation, while his new lyrics add a tragic tint to his melodramatic romanticism. The album even opens on a reassuring note with "Badlands," a compact rerun of patented Springsteen riffs.

But by compressing all his favorite themes of frustration and hope, repression and rebellion, into one emblematic anthem like "Badlands," Springsteen unwittingly illuminates the...

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Mikal Gilmore

[Dreams] die hard, if really at all, and that, inevitably, is what Darkness On The Edge Of Town is all about. "I lost my money and I lost my wife," murmurs Bruce on the cathartic title track, "somehow them things don't seem to matter much to me now." But that's hardly an admission of failure, or even of retreat. He's merely measuring his losses, emotionally and morally, and raising the ante for the next round. "I'll be on that hill with everything I've got," he concludes in a roar. "I'll be there on time and I'll pay the cost." The implication, of course, is that Bruce has already paid the cost, but whatever the renewed price, it's still the only dream in town.


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Susan Hill

"Born To Run" isn't merely a nerveless fusion of the best pop tenor sax since Junior Walker, passionately penetrating lead, and some of rock's greatest anthems; it defines what sometimes makes rock magnificent. It wasn't just that it came on like a hurricane after the posturings of some and the quietism of others (Bruce whines, but he whines loud). Nor simply that it was proud ("At night we ride in mansions of glory"), sentimental ("Roy Orbison sings for the lonely/Hey, that's me and I want you only"), romantic ("My car's outside if you're ready to take that long walk"), and dangerous (27 "Backstreets" in a row).

It had something to do with the perfect theft of the best of Van Morrison, Spector,...

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Dave Marsh

Bruce Springsteen is the last of rock's great innocents. There can never be another quite like him. (pp. 6-7)

It was Bruce Springsteen's fate to become the key figure in the transition from hippie music and back toward a more naturalistic rock style. Springsteen writes of cars and girls, the key icons of this macho movement, the way the hippie writers wrote of drugs and universal peace/love—with commitment and passion…. In Springsteen's songs, a questing, romantic spirit is inevitably scorned and banished; he is torn between his own abandonment of the traditional values and his desire to seek them as a refuge. He is not a drop-out; he is an outlaw, in line with what Norman Mailer had written in...

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Ariel Swartley

I'm going to be a sucker for someone who takes rock and roll as a religion, and romanticizes the hell out of mundane details. For someone who says "Sparks fly on E Street when the boy-prophets walk it handsome and hot." Bruce Springsteen wins my heart with the first line of The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, wins it over and over again. Used to be only rock critics took lyrics that seriously and turned the romance of the streets so explicitly into myth. But while Springsteen's making his pronouncements the horns are waggling their hips and sassing him. And just when you think the song's going to collapse under the weight of its verses, the party-time chorus shouts the immortal instruction:...

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