November 5, 1973—Bruce Springsteen’s second album, The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, featured rambling song structures and sometimes ragged sounds that at first didn’t attract enough buyers, putting him on the brink with label Columbia Records. But the LP from the New Jersey rocker generated adherents over the years, especially for tunes that became showcases for all-stops-out interplay with his backup group, the E Street Band.
Springsteen and his musicians trooped up to 914 Studios in Blauvelt, NY, a good ride up from their Jersey Shore homes. Recording often took place after midnight, when it could be done for free, when the studio owner was asleep (a particular brainstorm of chief engineer Louis Lahav). The hope was that the album would fulfill the promise of the rookie effort by The Boss, Greetings From Asbury Park.
In some ways, it did. The new album (which took the first two-thirds of its long name from a 1959 Audie Murphy western) was more of a straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll LP than its predecessor (which, beneath the veneer of its rhythm section, evinced its acoustic folk origins). The songs Springsteen brought into the studio were already, to some extent, road-tested, as he had tried them out on audiences. The style of the new work was richly idiosyncratic, too, with lyrics rooted in Springsteen’s Jersey Shore milieu and musicians who could be jazzy (pianist David Sancious) or just listening to their own drummer (the appropriately named Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez).
Problems remained, however:
*Not one of the songs was single-ready: The shortest, “The E Street Shuffle,” was four and a half minutes, and four of the remaining six songs ran over seven minutes.
*Springsteen continued to be painstaking in the studio: A perfectionist, he tossed aside entirely serviceable tunes (notably “Thundercrack,” later to show up on Tracks in 1998) because they did not fit with his concept for the album: what Peter Ames Carlin, in his biography Bruce, termed “a series of songs about liberation: through music, through friends, through lovers.” Just when it seemed finished, he’d want to make more changes.
*Springsteen refused to print the lyrics to the LP: Eric Alterman, in It Ain’t No Sin To Be Glad You’re Alive, ascribed it to “a fit of ‘stop comparing me to Dylan’ pique." Whatever. It still left many listeners scratching their heads over what he was singing.
*Springsteen lost his biggest boosters: Legendary talent scout John Hammond had reached retirement age, and Columbia President Clive Davis lost a power struggle over allegations of financial wrongdoing.
Sales continued to be lackluster, then, and now Springsteen would be placed in a position vis-à-vis Columbia where his next LP had to be a homer, or he would be dropped by the label. The following year would witness the departures of Lopez (who tangled one too many times with saxophonist, Springsteen foil and “Big Man” Clarence Clemons), Sancious (who preferred jazz to rock ‘n’ roll), and Jim Cretecos, the producer partner of Springsteen’s bulldog manager, Mike Appel (for reasons never really explained). They were replaced, respectively, by Max Weinberg, Roy Bittan, and when Springsteen and Appel found themselves making little progress in the studio on what came to be Born To Run, Jon Landau.
But we come back to the crux, and the glory, of the matter in regard to The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle: those songs. Two were recognized as classics, by his growing fan cohort, as soon as they were heard: “Fourth of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” a kaleidoscopic valentine and farewell to his boardwalk life, and “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight),” which Springsteen has viewed as a kind of musical autobiography (not to mention a rejoinder to anyone who tries to step on someone else’s dreams).
In a way, the musical textures from The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle found their way onto the tighter Born To Run (e.g., when she briefly joined the band in the fall of 1974, violinist Suki Lahav’s lyrical work on “Incident on 57th Street” would be echoed in the opening of “Jungleland”).
The rest of the LP has remained, over the years, like buried treasure, delighting anyone who rediscovers it, either on CD or in concert, when The Boss brings it to the surface again, all fresh and new.
I was reminded of this in the last year, when he and the E Street Band—now enlarged with a full horn section—played a blistering version of “Kitty’s Back” on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. (You can get a rough approximation of the full-bodied sound in this clip from 2012.) In Ireland this summer, he even played perhaps the most obscure cut from the LP, “Wild Billy’s Circus Song.”
In recent years, Springsteen and his band of brothers have even taken to playing the whole album through. In one of the first times he did this, he announced: “This was the second record that I made. It didn't do that well, but it was an interesting record. Half of the songs are set in New Jersey, around our little street corner. The other half was sort of my romantic ideas and fantasies of New York City."
“An interesting record.” Many fans have thought it’s a whole lot more.