In Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we focus on Bruce Springsteen‘s second album ‘The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle,’ the album that gave his backing band their name and which yielded ‘Rosalita (Come Out Tonight).’ The album turns 40 this week.
“Someday we’ll look back on this, and it will all seem funny!”
In the canon of great Springsteen lyrics, that has to be one of the best. And 40 years after “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” was released it still resonates. Whenever it makes the setlist, thousands of his fans sing along, loudly, at his sold-out arena and stadium concerts, around the country and the world. That song, and the album it came from, told tales of colorful characters from the New Jersey Shore and New York City: Little Dynamite, Little Gun, Sloppy Sue, Big Balls Billy, Little Angel, Sandy, Kitty and Wild Billy. And if those characters aren’t recognizable south of the Mason Dixon or west of the Great Lakes, much less across oceans in Europe or Australia, everyone can relate to the universality of that lyric. It works when you’re 20, and it works when you’re 60.
E Street Band alum David Sancious played keyboards on The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, and he still marvels at that phrase. “That’s one of my favorite lines he’s ever written,” he tells Radio.com. “He’s a deep guy; there’s not a lot of 20-year-olds who would have the insight to come up with something like that, but that’s one of his gifts, he’s a very deep person.” But that insight and depth didn’t come at the expense of a good time. Observe this late-’70s live performance of the song, which made a night out a story of operatic proportions. Yes, one day it might seem funny, but Springsteen & The E Street Band were dead serious about giving their fans a live show to remember.
Coming less than a year after his debut, Greetings From Asbury Park, New Jersey (released in January of 1973) The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle showed great musical development. At that point, he reunited with former bandmate Danny Federici (whom he’d played with in former groups Child and Steel Mill) giving his backing band two keyboardists. Sancious explains, “For the majority Danny played organ and I played piano, he played accordion on some things,” notably “4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy).” In his acceptance speech after being inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, Springsteen noted, “I love you, Danny. Your organ and accordion playing brought the boardwalks of Central and South Jersey alive in my music.” That was never more true than on “Sandy,” which was one of the last songs Federici performed with the E Street Band before succumbing to melanoma in 2008; watch the performance below.
Mike Appel, Springsteen’s manager and producer at the time, tells Radio.com, “As a song, it’s like him — he’s all about hitting the mainstream, the stadiums — that’s what ‘Rosalita’ is. He takes a story about a girl and a guy, and meeting the parents — which is universal for anyone who’s dated someone — and extrapolated it musically. It’s romance that didn’t rest upon the tired structures of pop music at the time.”
You might argue that The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle is the most musically complex album in Springsteen’s repertoire. The horns kick tail, the strings on “New York City Serenade” (arranged by Sancious) are epic, and Springsteen’s guitar playing is so on-point and economical, it’s hard to believe that, these days, he has up to five guitarists on stage at his concerts. And four of the seven songs break the seven-minute mark.
“He writes completely differently now,” Sancious says. “He composes music in a very different way than he used to back in those days. That was part of his own natural evolution as a songwriter. I think it’s a conscious decision on his part to evolve and try some different techniques.”
Appel concurs: “As time has gone on, Bruce has not been writing the kind of lyrics he wrote in those first three albums. Even though he’s produced a lot of great songs and albums since then.”
Sancious: “[Today] his composing sometimes is more harmonically simple. ‘Kitty’s Back’ is kind of complex, but you look at later songs like ‘Streets Of Philadelphia’ or ‘Lonesome Day,’ they’re more simple harmonically, but he always hits the bullseye with the melody and the lyrics and the passion he puts into his performance.”
And, of course, the performances that he inspires out of his backing musicians. Circa 1973, that was a pretty diverse bunch, who did not fit in next to most of the all-white bands on rock radio. There were white guys (Springsteen, Federici and perennial bass player Garry Tallent), black guys (Sancious, iconic saxophonist Clarence Clemons) and a Latino (drummer Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez”). Sancious stresses that their diversity was not by design.
“Well, people ask about that a lot, and I just have to say that we were just about doing what we wanted to do,” he says. “Which was just playing music. We just wanted to make a living playing music. So the fact that we were racially integrated as a band, it wasn’t anybody’s clever plan. Circumstances and fate brought us together. At the same time, we realized it, of course: we were integrated when most bands weren’t. It was important in that it was a visual example of people of different races getting along and playing music together. On a small scale, you could say that it’s an example of people living together and working together without conflict, for whatever that was, or is, worth.”
That group of musicians would soon, of course, be dubbed the E Street Band, so named after the house where Sancious lived at the time: “1105 E Street, in Belmar, New Jersey, that’s where I grew up. The house is still there, it was bought years ago, they turned it into two homes, it doesn’t look like it did when I lived there.” Which isn’t where the band were photographed for the album’s back cover. “That’s in Long Branch,” he points out, “right near the beach, about a block from the ocean.”
Insomuch as anything Springsteen has done can be referred to as “underrated” (he’s enjoyed critical praise for most of his career), The Wild, The Innocent And The E Street Shuffle might be accurately described that way. For decades, if any songs from the album made the setlist, it would usually be “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight).” However, at the end of his Working On A Dream tour, on November 7, 2009, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performed the entire record, accompanied by a horn section, a string section and Richard Blackwell (the percussionist who played on the original album). On his next tour for Wrecking Ball, with full horn section and a percussionist in tow, he began revisiting more of the album than he had in a long time with “Kitty’s Back” and “The E Street Shuffle” making occasional appearances. The Roots joining Bruce for a particularly rousing version of the latter song at Denmark’s Roskilde Festival in the summer of 2012. Watch that performance below:
Sancious says that he recently met up with his former “boss” in Europe this past summer (the keyboard player has occupied much of his time in the past few years playing in both Sting and Peter Gabriel’s bands — “Luckily, they never seem to tour at the same time, but it’s like Russian Roulette,” he says). Springsteen went to Sting’s show and invited the Police-man and his band out after the show. Sancious has enjoyed a good relationship with Bruce over the years – Springsteen was supportive of him leaving the band to pursue his own music, and invited him to play on his 1992 solo album Human Touch. So, did the two talk about working together again?
“We did. Not about [re-]joining, [though] I’d be happy to play with him again at the drop of the hat. It seems that when he’s on the road, I’m on the road with someone else, Sting or Peter. But we did talk about playing together again. And at some point in the future we will work on something again. I’ve been working on a solo album between tours for quite a while now, and I asked if he could come down and lend me a hand and he said, ‘Absolutely just give me a call.’ We talked about playing some music again before we pass away, so it’s gonna happen.”
It’s always a bit dicey to throw an artist’s lyrics back at them. But the question begged to be asked: Did they “look back” on those days?
“Yes,” Sancious laughs, “And it is funny now. There we were, having a couple of drinks, and it was funny as hell. We were laughing our heads off, talking about certain gigs, and how we used to tour, six people in a station wagon. It was truly funny, in the most beautiful way.”
(Additional reporting by Sarah Grant)