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The '57 Chevy of Rock 'n' Roll

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Bruce Springsteen called up the guys in the E Street Band a couple of months ago and invited them over to listen to some music. Naturally, they all showed up. “We’re like a brotherhood,” says pianist Roy Bittan. It’s a short drive down the back streets of the Jersey Shore towns where they still live to Springsteen’s home in Rumson. Up in his workroom they sprawled across the couch, hard by a brimming laundry basket and a round oak table covered with cassettes, 45s and notebooks filled with unfinished lyrics in Springsteen’s spidery hand. The atmosphere was so casual they might have been, as drummer Max Weinberg puts it, “a bunch of guys watching a football game.”

Then Springsteen pressed “PLAY” on his tape deck and turned the volume way up. For the next 3½ hours grins, shouts and a good deal of stunned head-snaking and reminiscing broke out as Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Live/1975-85poured from the speakers. “Everyone was ecstatic with how it sounded,” says bassist Garry Tallent. “It’s the high point of our careers. Every version right down the line is better than on the original.” No one was more proud than the notoriously self-critical Boss himself, who had never before released a live album, let alone a five-LP set. Says Weinberg: “It was great to see him so happy.”

The rumpus in Rumson swelled to a national deluge last month when 1.5 million boxed sets of Live/1975-85—the biggest advance order in the history of Columbia Records—reached stores. “Everybody form a line!” Springsteen once sang in The E Street Shuffle, and at cash registers across the country that’s what everybody did. Within four days retailers had ordered 1.5 million more sets. Live/1975-85 quickly became only the second record in the past 10 years, after Stevie Wonder’s 1976 Songs in the Key of Life, to enter the Billboard album chart at No. 1.

Springsteen spent the days before the set was released in Paris, where his wife, Julianne Phillips, was acting in a movie called Sweet Lies. He and Bob Geldof ran onstage to join Huey Lewis and the News for a bonus encore. Introduced only as Bruce, the Boss went unrecognized by many in the audience. No one who heard the boxed set, however, could fail to recognize that this was the long-awaited genuine article.

What Dylan was to the ’60s, Springsteen has been to the 70s and ’80s. “He’s the closest thing we have to a national troubadour, in the spirit of a Jimmie Rodgers or a Woody Guthrie,” says Chet Flippo, biographer of Hank Williams. He has also succeeded Dylan as the artist who seems to have the most bootleg concert tapes in circulation. “He’s the most giving, energetic performer there ever was,” says New York Times critic Stephen Holden. “No other performer has ever developed the kind of relationship Bruce has with his audience. Four-hour concerts were unheard of before Bruce.” In the 40 songs of Live/1975-85, he adds, “You hear the freedom of Bruce onstage rather than the perfectionist you hear in his studio work.” Says Joyce Mill-man, a critic for the Boston Phoenix: “It’s going to set the standard for live albums. Because it’s not just a live show, but an encapsulation of what a performer’s whole career has been.”

Like other successful groups, Springsteen and the E Street Band periodically record their concerts. Unlike other artists, he has never shown much interest in releasing these tapes or even in listening to them. But after 15 triumphant months on the road and the sale of more than 15 million albums, he emerged from the Born in the U.S.A. tour last year with a new outlook. “He was not as doubting and worried as to whether he was living up to his talent,” says a close friend. “He was more relaxed with his success than probably ever before, and that allowed him to contemplate a record like this.”

Last fall manager Jon Landau sent Springsteen a cassette containing the songs Born in the U.S.A., Seeds, The River and War. The sequence was significant. Springsteen had been irked by people, notably President Reagan, responding to Born in the U.S.A. (a Vietnam veteran’s embittered view of society as take and no give) as if it were a jingoistic anthem. But put in the context of Seeds, a hard-bitten tale of unemployed oil workers, the coming-of-age song The Riverand a scalding version of Edwin Starr’s War (“What is it good for/ Absolutely nothing”), Born reclaimed its identity. In the cassette Springsteen saw the possibility that a live album could do more than repeat the message of his studio LPs.

So Springsteen started listening, first to the tapes of the Born tour, then to everything. The universe comprised about 30 complete concerts that he and Landau considered first-rate throughout—about 100 hours in all. The tapes were rough-mixed down to cassettes so that Springsteen could listen at home and in his car. He decided to make 1975 the opening date because the few recordings made earlier often had poor sound quality, and because a stripped-down, piano-and-harmonica version of his classic Thunder Road, recorded at the Roxy in Los Angeles in 1975, caught his fancy. “This sounds like the beginning of something,” he told Landau. The live set opens with this song.

By January 1986 the idea of a 10-year retrospective had crystallized in Springsteen’s mind. The next task was to map out a sequence. That took two more months. Springsteen then spent another two months in the studio listening to the master tapes, fine-tuning his choices. Finally in June the project was ready to be entrusted to Bob Clearmountain, the virtuoso sound mixer whose painstaking work all summer largely accounts for Live/1975-85 being the clearest, most vivid live recording ever. “After hearing it for the first time,” says Newsweek critic Jim Miller, “I felt like I’d just witnessed the rock ‘n’ roll equivalent of the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty.”

For the E Street Band, listening to the albums brought back a flood of memories. Though you can’t hear it, they were nervous the night Thunder Road was recorded 11 years ago. The Roxy had been studded with celebrities—Nicholson, Beatty, Cher, Ryan O’Neal, Carole King. “It put extra pressure on us kids from New Jersey,” recalls bassist Tallent. But the kids prevailed. Nicholson, Beatty and Michelle Phillips came backstage to say hello.

Springsteen fans are legion, but no one admires him more than those who know him best. “I’m a Bruce watcher,” says Weinberg, the drummer. “I’ve seen him fly across the stage from the organ to the drum riser to the bass amp to the top of the piano without ever touching the ground. I’ve seen him dive off the piano without breaking his fall, land flat on his face and leap up still playing his guitar.” One Halloween in L.A., the roadies dressed up as ghouls and carried the Boss onstage in a rented coffin, which they placed upright in the spotlight. The door creaked open and Bruce, guitar at the ready, leaped out and launched into a wake-the-dead version of Jumpin’ Gene Simmons’ Haunted House.

“Everybody has always said the band is better live, and I believe it’s true,” says Tallent. What has kept them together with Bruce for 12 years and more is not just a keen appreciation of Springsteen’s ability but a shared belief that a band is a team and being in a good one is its own reward.

Some of the experiences that turned a bunch of scraggly musicians into the indivisible E Street Band are sweet and comic. In 1974 they toured—and lived—for a while in a small camper. One October morning they woke to find themselves parked on a scenic shoulder overlooking Reading, Pa. In the valley below lay a complicated quilt of smokestacks, residential streets and autumn foliage. In the camper, saxophonist Clarence demons, a soulful cook, was whipping up a staggering breakfast of pancakes, eggs, sausages and beans. The meal, like the setting, soothed the weary vagabonds. Even better, Bruce did the dishes. But as the camper pulled out, the Bossenheimer, as band members sometimes call him, left the water running. Pretty soon the septic tank filled, overflowed through the shower and sluiced the camper floor with a redolent slop that threatened to make breakfast reappear.

“If we had tremendous success at an earlier age, there’s no telling how we would have corrupted ourselves,” says Roy Bittan. “We might not be around today. We had critical success, but there were still many pockets of the country that never heard of us. So we had a lot of work to do.” After a four-hour show, they’d chow down at a truckstop before hitting the road at 4 a.m. for a five-or six-hour drive to the next city.

The River tour of 1980-81 was a watershed. In terms of musicianship, “in the early days it was sort of reckless abandon,” says Tallent. “Back then we’d have a good night and a not-so-good night. But as you get older you pare it down to the heart of what you’re trying to do. The River tour is when it became real consistent every night.” Says Weinberg: “The lesson is that if you stay with what you’re into, you can accomplish anything.”

The big question now is, after a monument like Live/1975-85, what is left for Springsteen to accomplish? “He has an instinct for what the implications are of what he has done,” says a friend. “But he is a remarkably un-calculating person. He has not been an artist of radical twists and turns. He thrives on continuity and growth through evolution. That’s one of the reasons the record works.”

Whenever the Boss is ready to come out swinging again, the boys in the band will know first. The tip-off: one of those unannounced appearances at a club on the Jersey shore. “We’ll get itchy and just walk in on a local band and ask them if we can borrow their bandstand for a couple hours and play,” says Tallent. “You want to be proficient, but you want to avoid getting too studied and losing what you started playing rock ‘n’ roll for in the first place. And that is, when you first picked up that guitar and bashed out a few chords and just felt it with all your heart and soul.”

It’s the same feeling Springsteen and the E Street Band strive for on the new album. “At the end of every hard-earned day,” he sings at one point, “people find some reason to believe.” Live/1975-85 is enough to give even highbrow skeptics reason to believe in the unquantifiable but uplifting effect of good rock ‘n’ roll.