Near the end of last year I spent a whole column on Japandroids’ “Celebration Rock”, an album of wild, romantic impulses exhorting youth and recklessness as virtues in equal measure. Its hard-living characters are mostly reductive; burnouts cast as heroes hollering nonsense like “adrenaline nightshift” because that kind of thing is really fun. It wasn’t the best record I heard in 2012 but it was sure as hell my favorite.
That “Celebration Rock” ethos of young love striving for immortality in the mundane is near and dear to the heart and history of rock and roll, and nobody cast it in a more vivid, fantastic light than Bruce Springsteen, whose second album “The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle” hit shelves precisely 40 years ago this week.
“The Wild”’s legacy is a curious one. You’d be hard-pressed to find anybody arguing that it’s Springsteen’s best or most widely influential record, or even that it’s the most pivotal one in his canon — and absolutely nobody then or now would recommend it or any of his albums ahead of seeing the E Street Band in person— and yet it’s the most romantic, mythic and impulsive: His wannabe-Dylan poet chucking a bottle of wine at the stars. Where most would see some losers twiddling joysticks in an arcade a 23-year-old Bruce has the gall to say he’s “bangin’ them pleasure machines” on “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)”. “The Wild” is where he and the band nailed the ethos of “Born to Run”, the album that thrust him into the level of fame he still occupies nearly four decades later.
By 1973 Springsteen’s hero Bob Dylan was 33 and longhaired men from across the pond in bands with names like Slade, Deep Purple and Thin Lizzy were hitting on the rock charts with sleazier, heavier fare. His work was nearly a decade away from incorporating politics and David Bowie and Elton John were defining the glamorous and mysterious sides of rock stardom. The thought of an earnest, naïve kid from Jersey hardly revved anybody’s engines. Springsteen’s debut “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.” yielded Columbia Records just 25,000 sales that year, prompting the company to cut the marketing budget for his next record, set for a September release, in half. Coupled with Columbia firing Springsteen’s strongest ally Clive Davis, the setbacks were too great for all the world’s wildcat rhymes and mythic nonsense to overcome, according to biographer Clinton Heylin.
But for every studio session the band seemed to play 10 shows, winning over fans by the score with their perilously tight rhythms and high-octane, no-frills showmanship. Columbia pressured Springsteen for a single, so he responded by heightening the drama of these performances and badmouthed Irwin Siegelstein (then the head of NBC Television while also running Columbia), who eventually sponsored the studio time needed to cut the record in exchange for a moratorium on his public whining.
The result was 47 minutes of vibrant characters and loose, shifty, joyful music drawing from traditional Italian and Spanish styles, as well as free jazz. The melodies squiggle and mutate in stark contrast to the big, steady mid-tempo ones the band would later favor on bigger releases like "Born in the U.S.A.". There’s also an intense focus on texture, best evident in the hyperactive lite-funk guitars that run crazy on opener “The E Street Shuffle”. And five of the seven songs here stretch well beyond five minutes in length, which is probably why I never heard any of them on the classic rock radio I was tuned to growing up.
“The Wild” transformed a trashy New Jersey shore setting into an mythic wonderland the same way “Astral Weeks” did for forests in Belfast five years earlier. But it didn’t sell well -which further irked Columbia and almost smothered “Born to Run” in its cradle- and isn’t without its imperfections. Many of the transitions are clumsy and forced, and Springsteen’s voice wasn’t yet the bellowing, enormous instrument that “Backstreets” and stadium shows would eventually require.
But the feel was there, and just enough to tantalize those looking for a new American rock star. “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” is still one of the most exhilarating songs the band would ever compose (though for a real thrill the version on the five-disc “Live 1975-85” compilation is embedded below) and compared to the life-and-death drama of later songs like “Jungleland” its characters face refreshingly low stakes.
“The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle” meant a lot to me as a teenager (and still does), as it was the first time I filled in the rock radio rotation with deep cuts. Maybe I choose to see more in it than most, but then again, there’s a whole mess of myth here to see.