Bruce Springsteen: From the New Jersey Boardwalk to Broadway
“I’ve never held an honest job in my entire life,” Bruce Springsteen says in the openings moments his one-man show “Springsteen on Broadway.”
He goes on: “I’ve never done any hard labor. I’ve never worked nine to five. I’ve never worked five days a week until right now. I don’t like it. I’ve never seen the inside of a factory and yet it’s all I’ve ever written about. Standing before you is a man who has becoming wildly and absurdly successful writing about something of which he has had absolutely no personal experience.”
So how’d it happen?
The King Inspires the Future Boss
Along with 60 million other Americans, on Sept. 9, 1956, the Springsteen family of Freehold, N.J. tuned in to watch Elvis Presley on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
“I sat there transfixed in front of the television set, my mind on fire,” Springsteen wrote in “Born to Run.” “I had the same two arms, two legs, two eyes; I looked hideous but I’d figure that part out . . . so what was missing? THE GUITAR!!”
Shortly thereafter, he talked his mom, Adele Springsteen, a legal secretary at Lawyers Title Inc. and a dance-loving music fan herself, into using some of the family’s scarce funds to rent a guitar. (Springsteen’s father, Douglas, was less supportive, usually including an expletive when referring to his son’s instrument.)
And two weeks later, they took it back after Springsteen found it too hard to play. (Spoiler: A few years later, he tries it again.)
Live from the Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital, it’s Bruce Springsteen
By the time Springsteen was 20, “I’d been around a bit and without a doubt, I am definitely the best thing that I’ve ever seen” he said in “Springsteen on Broadway.”
With bands named The Castiles, Dr. Zoom & the Sonic Boom, Earth, Child, the Bruce Springsteen Band and Steel Mill, he’d honed his skills playing at venues like fireman’s fairs, midnight madness supermarket openings, drive-in movies (in front of the concession stands in between films), trailer parks, bar mitzvahs, Sing Sing prison and Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital.
Yet he remained unknown outside the New Jersey area and some small pockets of raving fandom elsewhere in the country, like Richmond, Va.
Why? In his Broadway show, Springsteen told audiences New Jersey was a backwater then. “There was no Jersey, Jersey, Jersey shore, Jersey almighty shit. I invented that.”
Springsteen Plays a Winning Hand
“I held four clean aces,” Springsteen says of his 1972 self in “Springsteen on Broadway.”
“I had youth, I had a decade of hardcore bar band experience already behind me, I had a great group of musicians and friends who really knew my playing style and I had a magic trick.”
That May Springsteen bussed up to New York City and showed those cards to Columbia Records producer John Hammond, who’d already signed Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin and Billie Holliday. He quickly inked Springsteen too.
The next year, Springsteen released his first two albums, “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.” and “The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle,” to critical acclaim but lackluster sales.
“Born to Run” Vaults Springsteen to Stardom
“Rock’s New Sensation” declared the Oct. 27, 1975 cover of “Time” magazine over a picture of Springsteen, while — on the same day — “Newsweek” ran a cover profile on him titled “Making of a Star.” It marked the first time both of America’s top news weeklies featured a rock star on the cover in the same week.
The attention was merited. Two months earlier, Springsteen had released “Born to Run.” With songs like “Thunder Road,” "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" and “Jungleland,” it garnered immediate critical praise and, unlike his first two albums, stellar sales figures too (which he needed to not get dumped by his record label).
Springsteen Grows Up on “Darkness on the Edge of Town”
A legal dispute with his manager kept Springsteen legally barred from the studio for 12 months. Springsteen spent much of that forced hiatus touring the United States and trying out new songs. But rather than the youthful bombast of his first three albums, when he returned to the studio, “Darkness on the Edge of Town’s” songs dealt with grown-up themes, such as on the soul-crushing grind of “Factory.”
“In ‘Racing in the Street,’” Springsteen wrote in “Born to Run,” “my street racers carried with them the years between the innocent car songs of the sixties and the realities of 1978 America.”
Generally considered his best album by his hardcore fans (no hate mail please!), the fist-pumping anthem “Badlands” and the coming-of-age “Promised Land” have been concert staples — and favorites — for decades.
“The River” Slows into “Nebraska”
After 1980’s double-album “The River” landed Springsteen his first top-10 hit with “Hungry Heart” and showcased the power of The E Street Band better than any of his previous records, Springsteen (with money to his name for the first time) was on the cusp of mega stardom.
Inspired by Flannery O’Connor, Hank Williams and Terrence Malick, after “The River” tour he wrote songs he described in “Born to Run” as “an unknowing meditation on my childhood and its mysteries.”
On Jan. 3, 1982, Springsteen retreated to the bedroom of Colts Neck, N.J. house with his guitar tech and a four-track Japanese tape machine and recorded demos of those songs in three or four takes each, “tapping into white gospel, early Appalachian music and the blues.”
“After that, I went into the studio, brought in the band, re-recorded and remixed everything,” Springsteen wrote in “Born to Run.” “On listening, I realized I’d succeeded in doing nothing but damaging what I’d created.”
So they cleaned up the demos on the cassette, which he’d been carrying around in his back pocket, and, in 1982 released the folk noir masterpiece “Nebraska.”
Springsteen Goes Global with “Born in the U.S.A.”
With seven top-10 singles (including “Dancing in the Dark” hitting number two, his best-ever showing on the singles chart); a 156-show four-continent tour with the band’s first stadium shows; and Rambo-sized biceps, Springsteen was at his biggest during the 1984–1985 “Born in the U.S.A.” era.
“Tunnel of Love” Turns Inward
In part because he knew trying to maintain his mega-stardom was a fool’s errand and in part because, newly married, it’s where he was in life, Springsteen scaled back and looked inward for “Born in the U.S.A.’s” follow-up.
“Tunnel of Love’s” songs focused on relationships, and, taken as a whole, the albums charts one’s beginning, middle and end. Springsteen recorded most of the songs over a three-week period, playing much of the instruments himself on the album.
Shortly after the “Tunnel of Love” tour ended, Springsteen disbanded the E Street Band.
“Streets of Philadelphia” Earns Springsteen an Oscar
The ‘90s are generally considered Springsteen’s lost decade. A new father, he released just three new studio albums over those 10 years — and with “Human Tough and “Lucky Town” dropping on the same day and the “Nebraska”-eque “Ghost of Tom Joad” a tough listen, it seemed like a lot less.
“Streets of Philadelphia,” written for Jonathan Demme’s film “Philadelphia,” however, did landed Springsteen in the charts with a top-10 single and on the stage at the 1994 Academy Awards to pick up an Oscar for best original song.
The E Street Band Unites
Short of turning up the amp to 11, there’s little in rock that’s more cliched than the band getting back together to tour behind old material.
The E Street Band’s renewed dedication coupled with ever-tighter musicianship, however, ensured its Reunion Tour didn’t descend into boozy nights of nostalgia for an aging fanbase. In total, the band played more than 110 different songs on the tour, which culminated in a 10-show stand at Madison Square Garden, parts of which were later released as the video and album “Live in New York City.”
Come On Up for “The Rising”
“The Rising” was Springsteen’s first studio album in seven years and first with the E Street Band in 18 years. Partially written in the aftermath of 9/11, songs like “Lonesome Day,” “Mary’s Place” and “The Rising” — which focus on loss, love, loss and resurrection — have become live staples ever since.
Loss Comes to E Street
In 2008, E Street Band organist and one of Springsteen’s oldest collaborators, Danny Federici, died from melanoma, marking the first time an E Streeter passed away in the band’s 36-year history.
Three years later, Springsteen’s on-stage foil, saxophonist Clarence “Big Man” Clemons, died after a stroke. While the E Street Band remains a touring entity, their loss has been evoked in almost every subsequent concert.
The Aughts Made Up for the ‘90s
“The Rising” opened the floodgates for a decade that was both Springsteen’s most prolific and varied, highlighted by another sparse solo album, “Devils & Dust;” the big-band cover of American folk music, “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions;” and “Magic,” a searing rebuke of Bush-era politics. Each release was followed by a lengthy tour.
“Born to Run”: The Book
Inspired to publish an essay for his website after performing at 2009’s Super Bowl XLIII halftime show, Springsteen expanded on those thoughts on and off over the next eight years. In 2017, he published resulting 528-page memoir “Born to Run.”
The third book to Springsteen’s credit (after 1998’s compilation of song lyrics and explanatory essays titled “Songs,” and a graphic novel based on his song “Outlaw Pete” released in 2015), probably the biggest surprise “Born to Run” contained for fans was the depth of Springsteen’s depression.
“Springsteen on Broadway” Brings Bruce’s Story to New York, Screens
Much as Lin–Manuel Miranda demoed tracks from an early “Hamilton” cut at President Barack Obama’s White House in 2009 before going on to major Broadway success, on Jan. 12, 2017, Springsteen played a private White House concert for Obama staffers who’d worked in the administration all eight years.
Nine months later, Springsteen debuted a revised version of that show as “Springsteen on Broadway” at the Walter Kerr theater, making his intimate acoustic set of 15 songs interspersed with spoken-word essays largely adapted from his memoir available to a wider audience.
With the face value for a ticket in the 960-seat theater averaging a Broadway record $511 (and $1,789 on the secondary market), it was both the most expensive and hardest ticket to land of any Springsteen tour. After 236 performances, $106.8 million in ticket sales and one special Tony Award, the show closed on Dec. 15, 2018.
About five hours after “Springsteen on Broadway” wrapped though, a film of the show (with the same name) premiered on Netflix. Streaming in more than 190 countries and available for free with a trial subscription, it’s a much easier ticket.