Tuesday, December 1, 2009

SONG #1-- Incident On 57th Street


Also available on The Wild, The Innocent, & The E Street Shuffle (1973)

A great place to start-- with an obscure bootleg track.  Now you know I mean business.

I first heard this version in 1991-- I ordered the bootleg from a shady Miami company I found in an ad in the back of ICE magazine based on a top 10 Springsteen bootleg list I'd seen somewhere.  It took four months to arrive, but it did finally come.  I was a first year teacher with no money, and when I came home on Friday night exhausted and saw it leaning against my door, I almost cried with gratitutde.  I hadn't bought a record or seen a movie in like six weeks, and I played the show non-stop for the whole weekend.  It was better than Christmas.

Bruce Springsteen is, for me, an example of an artist who faced Robert Frost's two paths in a yellow wood, and chose the more-traveled one.  It was a good walk, and sometimes quite impressive, but he gave up the wild undergrowth of the less-traveled path, and in so doing, walked away from what could have been a visionary and groundbreaking body of work and turned out instead to be predictably excellent.  You know you're great when people wonder what you could have done even though what you actually did was so successful.

If your knowledge of Bruce begins with Born In The USA, then he's one of the most predictable, big-gesture artists of his generation.  I admire the hell out of him-- I think he's a great performer, generous with his audience, admirable as a person (great bandleader, great husband, great father, smart, thoughtful, etc etc) and I always pay attention when he releases new music.  But I can't say I've been greatly moved by much of his music of the last twenty years.  It lacks intimacy for me-- I feel like I'm being yelled at most of the time.  I do have to acknowledge that the Live In Dublin album he did with the Seeger Session Band in 2007 was outstanding-- best thing he's released since 1984.

On the Wild & Innocent album, Incident is track six, the last mid-tempo story-ballad before Rosalita closes out the record.  It's a good performance, but a little shambolic and disjointed.  The drums are distractingly inconsistent-- the beat is really floaty, and the two piano tracks (one in each speaker) never dig in because they're on top of each other.  I like the organ in the pre-choruses, but it feels throughout that the band is fighting with the vocal.  Things never coalesce, and the story doesn't come through.

On the night of the 5th in the tiny Main Point in Bryn Mawr, Incident opens the show.  Ed Schiaky of WMMR introduces, saying that Bruce is playing his last show at the tiny club as a benefit (it closed soon after, only to re-open recently), and is off "to conquer America and the world."  You can hear the sadness in the audience-- their indie artist is about to break big and they're going to lose him.  Unlike the cluttered arrangement on album, here it's just piano, Bruce's vocal, and the violin playing of short-term member Suki Lahav.             

The band comes on and warms up a bit, checking levels, and in fact it's hard to tell when the warmup starts and the tune begins. But then it's just piano and the plaintive violin until 2:37, when Bruce's voice enters: "Spanish Johnny drove in from the underworld last night / with bruised arms and broken rhythm in a beat up old Buick, but dressed just like dynamite."  On album, the words go by with little impact, like a sound poem.  Here, Bruce is whispering, drawing out syllables, creating a character who matters.  It's immediately arresting.  

The tape is of excellent quality-- you can feel yourself sitting in a car somewhere in Philly, listening to the radio, and hearing a little life story turned into grandiose, universal truth.  The violin kicks in when Johnny says "Puerto Rican Jane / won't you tell me what's your name?"  I love that line-- it doesn't make much sense, and it's also pretty ridiculously West Side Story, but it works because it's so confessional.  Even the line "Good night, it's alright Jane / I'll let the black boys in to light the soul flame" works.  On album, the words "black boys" jump out awkwardly and make one wonder what the hell Bruce means.  Here, the voice he's constructed wraps around those words completely naturally.

As can be expected, things take a turn for the worse for Johnny-- the cops are coming, and the net is closing in.  By the seven minute mark, Bruce is talk-singing, more storyteller than singer.  Just when it seems like we've abandoned the melody for good, Jane's voice comes back in, and Bruce gives his all to the lines "that romantic young boy," and Lahav's voice echoes him out of nowhere, and it's all about the music and melody again, only to have Johnny make that tragic last mistake: "You wanna make a little easy money tonight?"  And though it ends with piano and violin, it's clear that Johnny's had his moment.  Finally, in an amazing moment of deus ex machina, a police car goes flying past the Main Point, sirens blaring, at the perfect time, and art imitates life.  It feels like they're coming for Johnny himself.

By the end of the eleven minute performance, you've already had your money's worth.  And how does Bruce follow up one of the most powerful, naked performances of his career?  He absolutely burns the joint down with a ferocious cover of Harold Dorman's "Mountain Of Love."  The whole show is over 2 1/2 glorious hours, but that's a whole 'nother entry.

Springsteen's second record is an example of fantastic songs with the wrong band.  By February of '75, he had the players assembled, and those same songs explode in a live setting.  (The live album from the Hammersmith Odeon '75 show that came out a few years ago is an essential document.)  But I still prefer this show.  In fact, it's my all-time favorite bootleg by anyone.  It's what you hope for from a bootleg-- it captures a moment too small for very many people to be there, and shows us where Springsteen could have headed.  His next album could have continued to push the boundaries and connections among rock n roll and poetry, primalism and complexity.  Instead, he filtered and re-filtered his visions until he had the polished Born To Run.  That album is wonderful (his best in fact) but it also marks the moment when Bruce shed the wonderful weirdness in his musical and lyrical visions for perfect but less-inspiring clarity.  I love that he's been revisiting his old stuff on this most recent tour.  Perhaps he's learned to look back more fondly on his youthful ambitions.  I sure do.

LINK: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Jy6H8DqTg8


  1. Jeff! I love the idea for this blog, and I've already bookmarked it because I'm sure I'll be a frequent visitor.

    This post (a home run, right out of the box) has got me reconsidering a lot of Springsteen's early work. I haven't listened to the Main Point bootleg, but I did go and listen to the version of "Incident," which, as you rightly point out, packs a wallop. What jumps out at me is the huge Dylan influence (made even more obvious by the reverential cover of "I Want You" during the same set).

    I think one of the things you miss from the early Springsteen tracks is the storytelling; lots of words to describe what happens to specific characters. From Born to Run on, most of the songs are sparse, slice-of-life snapshots that seem to apply to any blue-collar everyman. The wordy poems are a lot of fun (not only on Greetings and Wild, Innocent, but also the early stuff on Tracks like "Santa Ana" and "Thundercrack"), but sometimes the lyrics could use a good editor.

    But now that you've got me listening, the thematic, John Ford-inspired shift in the songwriting isn't the only reason for the change of direction. The addition of Max Weinberg really altered the entire sound.

    You're right, the studio version of "Incident" is a shambles. But a glorious shambles! Yes, the beat floats, but it also breathes. I really like Vini "Mad Dog" Lopez's shuffling beats, and the loose, laid-back vibe they give the first two albums.

    For all of his strengths (and I love Max's driving, rigid, booming style; the opening of "Badlands" still gives me goose bumps), he can't really do mellow very well. Listen how stiff he sounds on "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out," the funkiest, grooviest song on BtR. There are times with Max that I just want to yell, "For the love of God, get off the high hat and the snare and use the ride cymbal!"

    As for Springsteen's output over the last 20 years, I commend The Rising to your attention. He really uses the Verse=Blues Chorus=Gospel format to magnificent effect, creating many intimate, gut-wrenching moments, but that may be my 9/11 talking.

    Anyway, I can't wait to see where your guided tour takes us next!

  2. Great thoughts! I'll give The Rising another shot. Re: the Dylan comparison: what Springsteen had that Dylan never did was a complexity in his musical approach-- I wish that when Springsteen went to sparser lyrics that the song structures hadn't become so simplified as well.