The back cover of Bruce Springsteens The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle (WIESS) reveals a motley crew. Not a single E Street Band member is standing up straight, two sport provocatively unbuttoned blouses, and their footwear ranges from Cuban heeled boots to scruffy Hi Tops and dusty bare feet. Theres a pair of pasty caucasians, two beefy black guys, a lanky latino, and a scrawny, bronzed, struggling singer-songwriter that couldnt be called The Boss without a healthy dose of irony.
Not only does this snapshot capture the band at their most rowdy and jocular, its also their pinnacle of ethnic and racial diversity. The impending departures of frenetic drummer Vini Mad Dog Lopez and piano man David Sancious rendered the ragamuffin sextet roughly two shades whiter, while the 14-month recording cycle of Born to Run traded youthful recklessness for seasoned precision. WIESS, which turns 40 this week, is the E Street bands most visceral and eclectic offering, and its no coincidence that the LP coincides with the band’s high water marks of spontaneity and heterogeneity. Its this haphazard blend of Black and White; freewheeling riffs and deft arrangements; naÃ¯veté and weltschmerz; that drives Springsteens poignant portrait of escapades beneath the Jersey boardwalk and escapes to parts unknown.
At its core, Springsteens sophomore offering is a vibrant tribute to the thrilling possibilities of youth, tempered by sadness that our days of wild innocence are inevitably fleeting and finite. For Bruce, this tension breeds an urgent and desperate need to seek salvation in escape; a motif first explored in Sandy and Rosalita, and further developed throughout Born to Run.
WIESS champions two distinct character types. Theres the passionate, hyperactive, low class delinquents living their Jersey Shore lives to the fullest; and those seeking to avoid a claustrophobic hometown future through exodus and cunning. The former comprises Bruces buddies and flames. Theyre the colorful, carefree kids that Springsteen loves with all his heart, but ultimately sees as doomed by socioeconomic shackles and the fast approaching burdens of adulthood. Springsteen, though cherishing his last lazy days with these childhood chums, is confronted by sadness and bittersweet nostalgia. He knows the fun cant last, and, more importantly, that unless he acts fast hell end up a shell working double shifts at the Shell off Route 72.
On opening cut The E Street Shuffle”, Springsteen recalls the jaunty and waggish scenes of his youth. Leading with a jazzy New Orleans coronet and Gary Tallents funky bass, Springsteen populates the track with teenage tramps in skin-tight pants; boy-prophets walking handsome and hot; and blonde girls pledged sweet 16. Congregations of miscreants hoot and holler in the background, as the E Street Band rises above the din alongside Bruces scorching guitar riffs and Clarence Clemens naughty saxophone. After eliciting a boisterous call-and-response from the grandstands (everybody form a line!/ airy body forma lieee-ahnnn!), Bruce lets loose a cracking, pitchy yelp, “doin that E street shuuuuhfuhhhaallll! The scenes bumping, the crowd’s young, and everyones all smiles.
But nothing lasts forever. Amorous ballad 4th of July Asbury Park (Sandy) has Springsteen vying to reconcile the transience of interpersonal connection (Love me tonight/ For I may never see you again”), with a yearning for elusive permanence (Love me tonight/ I swear I will love you fuh-eh-eh-vahhh). Suki Lahavs overdubbed falsetto ushers the track to a haunting climax, as Bruce softly whispers that a new dawn means leaving behind his little Eden on the Jersey Shore: The aurora is risin’ behind us This boardwalk life for me is through/ You know you oughta quit this scene too.
Channeling this theme of ephemeral love, Spanish Johnny learns a painful lesson in Incident on 57th Street. As Johnny patrols the underworld streets with “Porto Rico Jane” on his mind, the hard girls over on Easy Street unflinchingly deliver some rotten news. According to these ladies of the night, even love isnt built to last, It falls apart so easy/ And you know hearts these days are cheap.
Transitioning starkly, jubilant Rosalita chronicles a forbidden love between the singer and his saucy senorita, Rosie. Here, Bruce finally succeeds in balancing his present infatuation with credible prospects for future happiness. Even though Rosalitas parents disapprove of the songs protagonist because he plays in a rock band and hasnt got a dime to his name, the singer urges Rosie to cut loose her mamas reins and drive off with him into the night. He boldly declares an intention to liberate young Rosie to the tune of triumphant horns and Lopezs piercing drums. The E Street Bands instrumental barrage drowns out Rosies uncertainly and her parents cries of protest, enabling the singer and his sweetheart to escape to a pretty little place in southern California. The ticket to salvation is of course rock music, as he boasts: A record company, Rosie, just gave me a big advanccccccce!” For Springsteen, its all or nothing. Play your heart out and escape with love on your arm, or bust .
Kittys Back shows what happens when escape doesnt pan out. Atop Danny Federicis pulsating organ and Clarence Clemens lascivious sax, Springsteen sings of an aspirating social climber called Kitty thats dumped her local boy for a NYC top cat. But, rebuffed by the city dude that stole her away, Kittys forced to slum it back to Jersey. Though her hometown ex has every reason to feel bitter and vindictive, he hasn’t even a tinge of ill-will. The track is all triumph and reconciliation, as Kitty’s ex shamelessly admits hes powerless to hold a grudge. Fawning over Kittys soft skin and sad eyes, the singer playfully groans while warmly receiving her back into his arms: “Oooooooh, what can I do/ Oooooooh, what can I do.”
Despite winning critical acclaim, WIESS was a commercial dud. It didnt yield any singles. It failed to make noise on the charts. And notwithstanding the bands reputation for impassioned live sets, album sales were sluggish. Were at the lowest weve ever been right now, Springsteen lamented after his 73 tour, guys are getting thrown out of our houses. Though this financial miscarriage can partially be attributed to song length – all tracks are over four and a half minutes long, and most clock in at over seven minutes – Springsteen was also swimming against the cultural currents of the 1970s.
“White music was becoming softer and paler, with all-caucasian rock outfits like Boston, Journey, and The Eagles achieving massive commercial success. Bruce and his E Street Band, on the other hand, sought to integrate Clemens funky saxophone solos, Sancious electric piano lines, and the feverish rhythmic punch of Vini Lopez into their eclectic arrangements. The E Street Bands capacity to marshal and synthesize these diverse components explains why folks still wax poetic about this album four decades after its release, while at the same time hinting at why it flopped in 73.