Is Bruce Springsteen better with the E Street Band, or better off without them?

I received a number of emails about my last column on rock frontmen going solo. Many who wrote in agreed that many rock vocalists have floundered after leaving their groups, but some pointed out examples of singers who flourished solo: Peter Gabriel (Genesis), Eric Clapton (Cream), Lou Reed (the Velvet Underground), and Neil Young (Buffalo Springfield/Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young). I should also mention that Aimee Mann (’Til Tuesday) and Gwen Stefani (No Doubt) have done pretty well as solo acts.

All of this got me thinking about one case that I passed over quickly: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. With a new album out, this is a good time to look at Springsteen’s relationship with his longtime band.

If you go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, you will find Springsteen has been inducted but his bandmates have not. I have long thought not including the band in the Rock Hall was a mistake. Springsteen’s nickname is “The Boss", but it should really be “The Employee"—in his lyrics, he has always displayed more of an affinity for the masses than for management. So it seems out of keeping with his artistic image that the Rock Hall has given him a promotion and his bandmates a pink slip.

The Boss is on: Bruce Springsteen (third from right) performs at Rockefeller Center.

“I didn’t trust any other people," Springsteen says in Greetings from E Street: The Story of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, by Robert Santelli. “Part of having the same people around me all the time was they were great people, and that’s what I liked and felt safe with. They were my homeboys."

The members of the band have changed over the years, but the current line-up consists of Roy Bittan (piano, organ), Clarence Clemons (saxophone, percussion), Danny Federici (keyboards), Nils Lofgren (guitars), Springsteen’s wife Patti Scialfa (vocals, guitar), Garry Tallent (bass), Steven Van Zandt (guitars) and Max Weinberg (drums).

When I was in high school, one of the things that attracted me most to Springsteen was the sense of camaraderie that came from his band-backed music. There is a sense of one for all and all for one that blasts through the speakers when you play his early material. He sings about characters they have all met, places they have all hung out, and about the band members themselves.

The cover of what I consider his best album, 1975’s Born to Run, captured some of the interplay. It features a black and white shot by Eric Meola of Springsteen leaning against the back of Clemons. The pose says it all: He is relying on his band’s support. In the photo, Springsteen has a look on his face that is equal parts bemusement and amazement as he watches Clemons blow. It is not a scene of rock-star drama, but a small moment of private affection. I also admired the photo’s vision of interracial cooperation. Interracial rock bands haven’t been the norm in rock, but Springsteen made crossing racial boundaries look natural (which it is) and easy (which it isn’t).

My favourite Springsteen albums are the early ones: Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and The River. Back then, his lyrics were loose and the band was too. Songs such as Rosalita (Come Out Tonight) seemed just a few bars away from bursting into a block party, and 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy) made me nostalgic for a Jersey boardwalk I had never seen and a Jersey girl I had never met.

Springsteen’s first major recording without his full band was 1982’s Nebraska, a 10-song album about hard luck and hard times. The cover of the album is as bleak as a Samuel Beckett play: a photo of an empty road seen through a car window. The songs are just as spare. Instead of fleshing out his compositions, the performances have limited instrumentation: acoustic or electric guitar, harmonica and vocals. The joy, jokes, lyrical and instrumental wanderlust that accompanied his work with the E Street Band were gone. These songs, like a switchblade, get straight to the point. The title track is about a serial killer; when asked why he committed his crimes, he replies, “Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world." The album was so focused and artful that one had to wonder: Was the E Street Band holding him back?

With his next release, Springsteen seemed to answer that question. Recording with the full band again, he scored his biggest album: Born in the U.S.A. But while many of that album’s songs were radio hits, they struck me as less imaginative than his earlier work. The tracks took on big subjects—the plight of war veterans, small-town life—and fit them into pop songs. He seemed to trade the wild poetry of his youth—lyrics that seemed to flow straight from his subconscious to his tongue—for the thematic and structural discipline of a mature artist. It is an exchange I will admit many listeners loved.

That was around the time I got off the Springsteen bandwagon. He began recording more without the E Street Band and released a string of albums (Tunnel of Love, Human Touch, and Lucky Town) that featured songs that were supposed to be introspective but struck me, at times, as narcissistic. Springsteen was a superstar now, and wrote about superstar issues—chief among them the difficulty of making honest connections with other people.

I checked back in when he released The Ghost of Tom Joad, which explored the lives of marginalized people living on the border between the US and Mexico and elsewhere. This 1995 album took him out of his mansions and his head to someplace real. I have always admired a couplet from a song off the album titled Sinaloa Cowboys, in which he manages to find something that rhymes with “methamphetamine". It is a line worthy of Biggie Smalls.

When Bruce got back together with the E Street Band for 2002’s The Rising, his first full studio album with his old running buddies since Born in the U.S.A., I was expecting something special. The songs dealt with such subjects as suicide bombers and firefighters lost in the collapse of the twin towers. But while many listeners thought The Rising was the album they needed after 9/11, none of the tracks entered the national songbook the way hits from Born in the U.S.A. had.

Now, Bruce is back with the band again, the new album titled Magic. The new songs address, as Springsteen puts it, “the events of the day", including the Iraq War. Most of them also feature big hooks—they are ringtones waiting to happen, with choruses that stick in your head. This is a retro album, unapologetically caught up in the power and romance of rock ‘n’ roll.

So, is Bruce better with the E Street Band, or better off without them? Certainly, the band is better off with him. All the members are well respected musicians, but none has become a solo superstar. Weinberg and Van Zandt have done the best for themselves—the former is the bandleader for Late Night With Conan O’Brien, while the latter became a surprise star on The Sopranos. Clemons has released a number of solo efforts, but none has become a blockbuster. Scialfa also has a solo career, though her albums are far from chart-toppers.

The band has gotten a little stiffer over the years; instead of enlivening songs, sometimes they enshrine them. When I saw them on the Today show, the songs they performed from Magic sounded pretty much like they do on the record. Which is fine, and sometimes even thrilling, but I would love to see Springsteen collaborate with a hungrier band, as Neil Young did with Pearl Jam a few years back. To hear what he might be missing, Springsteen might listen to Rage Against the Machine’s rap-metal cover version of The Ghost of Tom Joad, which unlocks the song’s inner fire.

In any case, the E Street Band helped put Springsteen on the map, and the exuberance they brought to those early albums still comes through more than 30 years later. It is more than a little crazy that they are all not in the Rock Hall. The band may not be what it was, but it helped Springsteen become who he is.

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