Learning how to make his guitar talk

By Sergio Ariza

Bruce Springsteen is one of the most important figures in rock history, someone who connects his persona to many of the best things in this marvelous music. He is known as described in one of his most popular songs, Born to Run, as if it were written by Dylan, sung by Roy Orbison and produced by Phil Spector. But the Boss forgot something else, before he could write like Dylan, sing like Orbison and produce like Spector, this kid from Asbury Park had already learned how to make his guitar talk. Something that few people know is that before becoming the “future of rock and roll”, Springsteen had already been the most important guitarist in New Jersey for several years. 

Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen Zirilli came into the world on September 23, 1949 in Freehold N.J., and had his first revelation at 7 when he saw Elvis Presley play on The Ed Sullivan Show. Ever since that moment he always saw himself with a guitar hanging around his neck, but it wasn’t until the advent of the Beatles that he sprang into action, forming his first group called The Castiles, with their bangs cut like the Fab Four. The band broke up in 1967, when they were  graduating from high school, but by then Springsteen had already made a name for himself as a guitarist. At the time, his big influences were Cream, and The Yardbirds, and began to find himself a place in the clubs of Asbury Park playing a wicked guitar in a ‘power trio’ called Earth. Then came Child, soon to be called Steel Mill, another hard rock group made up of Danny Federici on keyboards, Vini Lopez on drums and bass man Vinnie Roslin, who would later be replaced by a Springsteen friend, Steve Van Zant.  Back then he was already known as ‘the Boss’, being the one in charge of getting gigs and making sure the band got paid and he played a Gibson Les Paul for long solos. The band began to open for groups like Iron Butterfly, Black Sabbath, Grand Funk Railroad and even Grin, a band whose leader would many years later become part of his story, Nils Lofgren.

Nonetheless, Steel Mill split up in 1971, and after a fruitless attempt with Dr. Zoom & The Cosmic Boom and the Bruce Springsteen Band (which would become the E Street Band), Bruce threw in the towel and began a folk singer career in the bars of Greenwich Village. Behind the inspiration of one of his idols, Bob Dylan, he started focussing on song composition and lyrics. He no longer  wanted to be just a ‘guitar hero’, now he wanted to be big for real and to get there he needed high quality songs. That’s when he met Mike Appel, his first manager, and got him an audition for the legendary John Hammond of Columbia Records, the very guy who had discovered Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan himself. Hammond signed him up on the spot, believing he’d found the heir to Dylan but Springsteen had a secret weapon. As he well pointed out years later, “they put me into the ‘new Dylan’ package, but I was able to turn it around, plug in my Telecaster and bring down the house”.     

So Springsteen took his band to the recording studio, but Columbia wanted just the singer/songwriter. They finally got it sorted and in the end, they did 5 songs with the band, and 5 with him alone. Among those affected was Van Zant who didn’t get to record the album. In the end, the company boss liked the accompanied copy better and asked for a single, Springsteen came up with Blinded by the Light and Spirit in the Night, but finally, they cut 3 songs with him alone, and the record was released in January of 1973.  The startwas spectacular and couldn’t be funkier, close to Steve Cropper, with a short solo; Springsteen had found his new sound.

And while he was recording his debut album, Greetings From Asbury Park, Springsteen met a friend for life. Given that his music was going towards   a more soulful place, a strange cross between James Brown and Dylan, he figured his Les Paul wasn’t right for the job any more so he followed the path of his favourite guitarists like Cropper, James Burton and Jeff Beck, the New Jersey kid chose a Telecaster. His was certainly going to be special though, one he would be faithful to the rest of his career. Springsteen found his guitar in Phil Petillo’s shop, it was a hybrid model, like Clapton’s ‘Blackie’, made from the pieces of different guitars, with a Telecaster body and an Esquire body from 1952. It cost him $185, and today fetches something close to $5 million.  Quite possibly, there has never been an electric guitar and an artist so united as one as these two.

Success would come all at once, behind a great 2nd record, The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, that again received critical acclaim but very little commercial repercussion, at Columbia they were thinking of rescinding his contract, but then an article appeared where someone wrote prophetically, “I have seen the future of rock and roll and its name is Bruce Springsteen”. That was the critic Jon Landau who would be signed up as producer on his 3rd record. Columbia gave him another chance, and this time he took it. His expectations were high, not surprisingly he would state he wanted to sound like, “Roy Orbison singing like Bob Dylan produced by Phil Spector”, this time he had the songs that could live up to these expectations, Born to Run, Thunder Road, Jungleland, Backstreets, Tenth Avenue Freeze Out...The cherry on top were those two heroes who accompanied him on the album cover, the great sax man Clarence Clemons, and his trusty Telecaster/Esquire, a guitar he learned how to make talk. Although he’s not an especially technical player, Springsteen is pure fire and passion, and he has the know-how to round off a song, as in Jungleland, although Clemons is the band’s great soloist.

Born to Run turned him into a star, and Darkness of the Edge of Town into the hero of the working middle class. Instead of  going down the same path made by the Wall of Sound on Born to Run, this time Springsteen made a  much darker and more serious record, but brilliant just the same. During the recording, they managed to cut over 60 songs, as the remarkable The Promise shows, until the Boss picked the 10 that made up the album. It’s one of his most spartan efforts, and one where his legendary guitar shines, with dirty, brutal solos like those in Adam Raised a Cain, Candy’s Room and Prove it all Night. On the promotional tour the E Street Band prove to be the most spectacular live band with performances more than three hours long. In these shows is where Springsteen regains his days as a ‘guitar hero’ in Steel Mill, fighting in duels with Van Zandt or the great Clemons. 

The ‘Boss’ began the 80s with the  first double album of his career. An album in which full-blooded rock and roll is mixed with his singer/songwriter side. The River is like two records at odds, yet, it’s a very good mix. For his next record, his ability as singer/songwriter emerges completely. The songs on Nebraska were initially recorded as demos for the E Street Band to learn and record. But  since they didn’t like the outcome, they chose to release them like they were on the demos. Some of his best and most pessimistic lyrics are in these songs. Just like the band, the Esquire was parked and replaced with a 1958 Gibson J 200.

The silver lining of Nebraska was Born in the U.S.A., the great pop success of his career. Ronald Reagan himself tried to appropriate the title song for his campaign that year. Springsteen always showed his disgust with this, making clear that this song was going down a different road, and was far from being an ode to patriotism. His strength and that of the band is etched on the whole album, a kind of greatest hits, it became one of the best rock records of the 80s, with a reinvigorated E Street Band.  

The tour brought traumatic moments to the band when Steve Van Zandt decided to jump ship and chase a solo career. His substitute was Nils Lofgren, a real ace of a guitarist. On the next record, almost without the band, Lofgren would prove his worth with the great solo on Tunnel of Love, although Springsteen wasn’t left behind, with him on Tougher Than the Rest, a big wink to James Burton.  

The 90s weren’t the best of times for the ’Boss’, despite that apparent Nebraska 2 which was The Ghost of Tom Joad, but  The Rising is seen as a real comeback for his career. In spite of being entirely focussed on the time right after 9/11, The Rising is one of his most optimistic records. Infused with a celebration of life, the fact that it was so good is due to the fact that it brought the reunion of the E Street Band after 15 years, this time with Lofgren and Van Zandt.  

The 21st century has him filling stadiums all over the world, it has also seen some of his friends left behind, Clarence Clemons, Danny Federici and even his beloved Esquire which he had to retire from the road, but he still uses it on his records. Undoubtedly , on certain occasions Springsteen doesn’t hesitate in reaching for the instrument he made talk , and which he claims is a part of him- An example of this is the amazing performance he gave during the Super Bowl in 2009, an extraordinary document where you can see Springsteen and the boys in their best element, live in front of thousands of ecstatic fans, attaining a strange communion between the public and the artist that shows once again the incredible power of rock and roll. 


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