Wednesday, September 19, 2007
Trading Wings for Wheels
Whenever one of my most reverently-loved artists (Stones, Dylan, Springsteen) is set to release a new album, I find myself obsessing about the past, going back to the recordings I love best, reacquainting, preparing, reliving.
With Bruce Springsteen’s Magic due to land on October 2 (more on it later), I have delved into the past of rock and roll’s future, and I can’t stop listening. And it’s not Born to Run or Darkness on the Edge of Town that has me rapt. It’s an artifact simple, fascinating, commercially unavailable, and for me, completely mesmerizing.
Live at The Main Point, February 5, 1975.
The hard core fans, I’m sure, have been listening to this show for years. But I’m not much into bootlegs, and I became aware of it only a few weeks ago thanks to Heather at I am Fuel . . . who posted it in a zip file (go here to get it for yourself). Though there are a few of the audio problems inherent in recordings of dubious provenance (an otherwise hypnotic eighteen-minute “New York City Serenade” suffers), for the most part the sound (taken from a Philadelphia radio broadcast) is terrific, and the show can be enjoyed on its own as a kick-ass rock concert by a hungry band on the precipice of stardom, a two-and-a-half hour high wire act that can provide chills more than three decades later.
But it’s also a glimpse into the creative process. Born to Run, the album that changed everything for Springsteen, was more than six months from release, and its songs were incubating on stage that night. A perusal of old set lists suggests that four songs that would appear on the album made their live debut, including the title track, in its definitive form, having already been recorded with an E Street Band that included keyboardist David Sancious and drummer Ernest “Boom” Carter, who departed the previous August. But that song, a perfect studio creation, is rarely a revelation live, its dense construction not made for spontaneity. “Jungleland” and “She’s the One,” on the other hand, each presented as nearly complete works in progress, offer the band room to move. Still, undoubtedly, the real treasure here is the first performance of “Wings for Wheels,” which over the next few weeks would rather dramatically transform into “Thunder Road,” one of the Boss’s best-loved songs. In the documentary that accompanied the 30th anniversary edition of Born to Run, it’s striking just how hard the young Springsteen strives to create a monument massive and timeless. And that striving is on display with “Wings for Wheels,” which is brilliant as is. Only the rarest artist would take something so good and dismantle it hoping to achieve something better. But that’s exactly what Springsteen is in the process of doing here. (As an added bonus, “A Love So Fine,” a precursor to the treasured rarity “So Young and So in Love” also appears).
The most fascinating thing about the recording, though, may be the transformation happening within the band. Roy Bittan and Max Weinberg had joined just a few months earlier, violinist/vocalist Suki Lahav was nearing the end of her brief tenure, and Steven Van Zandt had not yet joined. The band was completing a shift from the soaring, jazzy sound propelled by Sancious and original drummer Vini Lopez, to a hard, grounded R&B that was all open road and Detroit muscle. Nowhere is the transformation more apparent than on “E Street Shuffle,” a signature song for the previously-configured band. On The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, Springsteen’s second album, the song swings and dances, feinting and charging like a fit welterweight over the band’s polyrhythms and Springsteen’s playful approach. At the Main Point, though, the song spins around the Bittan/Weinberg axis and turns slow and serious as Springsteen quotes Sam Cooke and the band channels Van Morrison, the Impressions and Booker T & the MGs, trading speed for power, wings for wheels. This is the band we know best, the one we seem to have known forever. But to hear them in this context is to hear the Beatles at the Cavern Club or Elvis at Sun Studios. It is to hear sparks fly on E Street.