Bruce Springsteen's "Incident on 57th Street": The Wild, The Innocent, and The Boss's Becoming
by Stephen Nathans

"Children by the millions scream for Alex Chilton when he comes 'round
They say, 'I'm in love what's that song? I'm in love with that song.'"
The Replacements

Is love ever quite like rock 'n' roll promised it would be? As much as any fan who's ever fallen in love with a song before daring to love another person, Bruce Springsteen believed every promise rock 'n' roll ever made. From "Rosalita" forward he made an oath dead-serious though rarely solemn that he'd be the one to keep those promises. A tall order, to be sure, since Bruce knew every one of those promises like he knew the Moonglows' "Ten Commandments of Love." Just as he knew that the song itself tells you only nine commandments therein lies the Covenant and you've got to figure out the last one for yourself.

But that's only the price of belief. The rewards are a whole different story. From the early days of Elvis and Buddy Holly whose passion for black music made them freaks in the '50s redneck South rock promised any outcast with a guitar and a dream the keys to the kingdom (or at least social acceptance and a date for Saturday night). It was no different three decades later for the Replacements' Paul Westerberg, who knew that a world where millions of kids screamed for lifelong fringe-rocker Alex Chilton was a world where a repentant punk nihilist like himself could truly be heard.

Beyond acceptance and fame and glory, rock 'n' roll promised the transforming experience of love that knocks you silly that hits you in a blinding flash and sustains you in that moment forever. Like the freefall ride at a water park that nearly approximates the breathtaking experience of hearing the chorus of Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'" for the first time, rock 'n' roll promised you that falling in love would make you feel like the lovers feel in your favorite song or even better, the way you feel when you hear it, like when Smokey Robinson injects that heart-stopping pause between the last two babys in the Miracles' "Ooh Baby Baby." And by extension, you'd feel that your own experiences with rejection and pain would be just as intense and heroic as Jimmy Ruffin's "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted" and the Beatles' version of "Anna." I don't know whether it's the words or John Lennon's singing, but in the end it doesn't matter; I doubt there's a more viscerally overpowering experience than hearing or living this line: "All of my life, I've been searching for a girrrl, to love me like I-I love you-ou-ou."

John Lennon probably cringed at some point when he heard the emotion and sensitivity in his voice on that record; sweet and loving and feminist as he became in his later marriage to Yoko Ono, he still hated sensitive songs like "Woman" (Double Fantasy producer Jack Douglas really had to prod him to record it). And he never reconciled the fact that he loved Rosie & the Originals' "Angel Baby" more than Jerry Lee Lewis' "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On"; Rosie simply stirred something in him that it took him half a lifetime to find in a real relationship.

It's funny how the first intimations of feelings often hit us more intensely than the feelings themselves. This phenomenon may apply to writers in particular. If you're one of those sensitive souls cursed to bear the burden of feeling every emotion at telescopic magnification especially in those adolescent and teenage years when "real life" no longer seems remote but mere inches beyond your grasp. If you were the type who could offer remarkable advice to the lovelorn long before you'd been there yourself, and oddly haven't gotten much better at it since you've supplemented your keen observations with the lessons of real experience. And you probably know what it's like to shy away from such real experiences because the world's already too much with you and you doubt you could take much more.

All the same I bet you envied the guys who got all the girls in high school, the toughs and jocks and pretty boys and the country-club kids who just seemed to glide, and you marvelled at how easy their unexamined life must be. But could those guys see a universe in a blade of grass, as Blake said? No way, whereas you would someday see a universe in what they'd call a piece of ass if you ever got one. Eons before you ever found love or made love, such thoughts hardly made you happy, but they were enough to get you by, if only because taking it all in, every minute, every single day as you might never again, with the splendor and newness of it all, was just so fascinating.

I recently read an interview with Bruce Springsteen in which he admitted where he stood in the intricate high school hierarchy that's being so morbidly dissected these days. Never the guy with the prettiest date, the sharpest clothes, the smoothest talk, or the best moves at high school dances, Bruce said, "I was the kid who spent the whole dance in front of the stage, my eyes glued to the guitarist's fingers." And when he wasn't there, he was working on his own guitar, his singing, and most of all, his writing. Like Van Morrison in "Wild Night" the song from which Bruce's signature "Thunder Road" derives much of its structure and drive Bruce wasn't the slick-walking greaser the chicks dress up for. He was the skinny, scraggly Lou Christie fan hiding in the shadows writing poetry about the titanic figures he saw parading before him. Like Bruce biographer Dave Marsh, a midwest flatlander who grew up believing surfers were supermen walking on water, Bruce saw the cool-walking kids as something they themselves had no idea that they were: spotlight players in the magnificent street opera of American urban youth.

But everyone knows Bruce came from Jersey, not the City, and that his own youth was anything but urban. As such his early writing documents almost block-by-block a searcher's ardent quest for city-like intensity. One friend of mine, a first-generation product of white flight, identifies in particular with Bruce's meticulous attention to city detail, his repeated cataloging of the street corner coordinates where his back-alley arias unfold. Bruce like anyone (more than anyone, maybe) spent a lot of time wondering how he ended up where he was put, and in his own writing elevated the Jersey kid's peculiar city envy to mythic status. Bruce's chapter and verse location recitations epitomize that suburban kid's passionate connection to the city, a romantic yearning for the every-moment-matters feverishness of city life, where 57th Street at any moment may take on the epochal eminence of Troy or Trieste.

Perhaps the height of Bruce's early romanticism is the warm and wandering "Incident on 57th Street." It's not altogether clear what the incident is, or why it has to happen at 57th Street, but our hero Spanish Johnny and the other characters are wonderfully vivid, and Bruce's over-the-top depictions reveal a man overflowing with feeling for these ill-fated kids. The song teems with unforgettable lines, from the Dylan-derived but utterly Springsteenian "bruised arms and broken rhythm" to Bruce's first mission statement as modern urban street-bard:

"I wanna drive you down to the other side of town
Where paradise ain't so crowded
There'll be action going down on shanty lane tonight
All the golden-heeled fairies in a real bitch fight
Pull 38s and kiss the girls goodnight."

Here Bruce declares his commitment to being the poet, the celebrant of urban street youth. And the world of arms and men he sings is Romantic with a capital "R" he's swept away in the romance of a life that constantly cuts close to the bone. It's neither of Bruce's lives not the life of the rock 'n' roll star he'll become nor the dead-end factory town he left behind. But it's a world he can see with astonishing clarity probably the kind of clarity only poets can have, since they can feel things without muddling that feeling with actual experience. It's just a matter of finding the things you can feel in that particular way. As a poet's vision, "57th Street" doesn't so much celebrate the grace and majesty of street fighting as the invigoration of vividly imagining how life must feel on the edge of love and violence and danger. It is the joy of the true poet and the true Romantic to have the talent to give such vitality its due.

"Incident on 57th Street" tells the story of Spanish Johnny, a gang-banging kid who returns home weary and wounded but "dressed like dynamite," and finds love among the city's ruins with an unnamed girl he calls "Puerto Rican Jane." He promises her hard-won action and romance in his street-fighting world, and as they come together for a minute she thinks she's almost tamed him, as she makes him promise not to leave her alone. But the choice isn't his "word is down the cops have found the vein" and he knows the switchblade street life she thinks he's chosen has actually chosen him, just as he sees it choosing the "kids playing down the street." As Jane "moves over to share her pillow" and sees Johnny dressing to leave her, she and Bruce sigh sadly but admiringly, "Those romantic young boys all they ever want to do is fight."

Bruce used to take this song on tour with a violin player and the same kind of orchestral feel that dominates its album-mate, "New York City Serenade"; it's the epic opener to a remarkable bootleg recorded in Boston in October '74. But there's also an "official" live version, released as the B-side of the "Fire" single and recorded much later, during the '84-'85 Born in the U.S.A. tour. A decade on, "57th Street" is a changed song recorded by a changed man. It's no less powerful, but demonstrably different. The '80s rendition recalls wistfully not the edgy street life the song describes but the moment of the song's creation. It hearkens back to an early triumph of mind and muse and band, one of the first moments when Bruce's muse moved him so and his passion made the band catch fire and such beauty was born, beauty that transcended predictable moralizing and traditional modes of rock song structure and meter.

The new version still captures the odd visionary quality of the intensely feeling twenty-something young man whose engagement with pure observation had yet to be tainted with real experience, when life was all moments and no liminality. But the thirty-something singer and band fill out the song with a self-assurance that undercuts the wise naivete, and even the words are less out there the "it's all tights" changed to "it's all rights," the "golden-heeled fairies" changed to "barefoot boys," and the "bitch fight" changed to a "street fight." It was OK for Whitman and Blake and the Beats to see men fighting men and men loving men as all part of the same ineffably gorgeous parade of heroic humanity. For the Boss and the world's best band on the world's biggest rock 'n' roll tour, however, such wild flights of fancy didn't really fit.

Forget for the moment how those poetic flights "fit" in his short-lived teen-idol stadium show days. And forget any notions of Bruce cuffing his vision to Top 40 specs, because even when he sold all those records he never sold out. Bruce grew up a lot between 1973 and 1984, through Darkness and The River and Nebraska. He'd thought long and hard about growing up and the price you pay to survive in a society where work defines you and youthful dreams haunt you like curses. The 'bout-to-burst feelings that inspired "57th Street" were long behind him by the U.S.A. tour. Great as it was to be heard and loved by millions, the world didn't look that open anymore.

But Bruce still felt the pull of his magical beginnings. Looking back with him, we see a young man suspended in an indelible moment, fully aware that "the diamond-hard look of a cobra" is an unsaintly city kid's badge that he'll never wear. But he's also discovered that the characters who do wear it belong only to him. And they're his because he's so sublimely captivated by their every movement, their iconic resonance, and because he's entirely unashamed of the delicate, dreamy cascade of words their image inspires. In this moment, Bruce brings to full bloom the odd contradiction of tender artistry and forbidding machismo so rarely acknowledged by rock's guitar heroes before or since (the "November Rain" Axl Rose a valid but less idiosyncratic example; the phony heart-on-sleeve power balladeer the formulaic antithesis of Bruce's wild, ecstatic musing). Jock-rock aside, practicing music just isn't the same as practicing football, and writing words and music is an artsy pursuit, much more an exercise of mind than muscle.

The self-conscious poetics of later songs like "Jungleland" ("They wind up wounded, not even dead") find Bruce certainly working the same ambitious vein, but somehow they're all more guarded after "57th Street." Early '70s contemporaries like James Taylor and Cat Stevens styled themselves "confessional" songwriters and acted like they were inviting you into their living rooms, but their emotional depth was kiddie pool compared to Bruce's. Dylan never got so sentimental and exposed himself this nakedly to ridicule in his word-wizard days; he even made "Mr. Tambourine Man," his purest paean to his eternal muse, sound like a drug song. Bob always cast a colder eye on record (the bootleg-only "I'm Not There" a notable exception), at least until he revoked his visionary muse and settled for sappy certainties like "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight."

Even at his most emotionally revealing, Bob only conceded such heroic sentiments as bitterness and regret, but he never confessed to, say, intoxication with the swagger and sexual confidence of non-white young men as Bruce did in "57th Street." From Spanish Johnny to the "black boys" who "light the soul fire," all Bruce's heroes are Latino or black. I doubt Bruce ever read Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice or plowed through that confessed rapist's suspect self-absolutions to the chapter on the Beatles, whose approximation of soul, Cleaver wrote, helped white men compensate for their "alienation from their bodies." Though much less racially delineated than Cleaver's thesis (this race emphasis shows up few other places in Bruce's work), Bruce's song reveals an unmistakable fascination with people whose lives seem more physical than his. That they're Latino and black may be only coincidental, maybe not. But unlike other writers who succumb to fascination with the "natural man" Joyce and Lawrence come to mind Bruce is entirely admiring and anything but envious. In "57th Street," in fact, he's deliriously happy simply to anoint himself their poet, to write and sing the words that prove how richly their story deserves telling.

But as Bruce well knows, rock 'n' roll from "Train Kept A-Rollin'" on down must roar on. Inseparable from the dreamy poetic wishing of "57th Street" is its immediate segue into "Rosalita," in which Bruce and band fulfill their vision and all the rock 'n' romance that have come before them, and the world is never quite the same again. Neither is Boss-to-be Bruce, since his days of becoming are over. Much artistic growth lies ahead of him, but he's fully realized as a rocker and a man now, and the distinct insatiability of his poetic muse outsider to love and sex and real life becomes a masterfully managed part of the whole. Though the rest of his career hardly feels like an afterthought countless masterworks, hard choices, and show after show after show of proving it all night lay ahead the album's closer, the lovely "New York City Serenade," does. One chapter is closed, and the wild and innocent romanticism of Bruce-before-he-arrived has become a wonderful memory.

Yet somehow it is the memory-driven live version that retains the most visceral punch today, partly because the reined-in romanticism (thank God that faceless studio chorus is gone) is a little easier to take, and partly because it's a little easier to relate to Bruce's nostalgia for his early muse than the naked dreaminess it inspired. But I always come back to that sugary E Street Shuffle version anyway, because like no other rock 'n' roll song it evokes for the romantic in me a time when moments were milestones, summers were sanctuaries, and when I was the most myself, alive with wanting and wondering and wishing, long before the world I thought I saw gave way to the world I came to know. But the memory, however distant, is still intoxicating. It's a portal back to a time when it all lay in front of you, and though nothing had really happened to you yet, deep inside you knew you weren't in this world on business, only here for fun even if someday only remembering that time would remind you how it felt.

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