40 years at Columbia Records: Bruce Springsteen
For anyone approaching 63 years, doctors say your bones start to creak a little more, the hair gets whiter and eyeglass prescriptions grow stronger.
What’s not supposed to happen is that you play four-hour concerts in packed football stadiums, with nary a sign of slowing down anytime soon. And yet, this reversal of the aging process is being documented night after night in countries all over the world. It’s happening to Bruce Springsteen, who has long held the mantle of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest showman.
Only a few weeks ago in Helsinki, during the European leg of his “Wrecking Ball” tour, Springsteen — already known for his marathon shows — hit the four-hour mark on stage for the first time ever. In a career that dates back to when iconic talent scout John Hammond asked Springsteen to audition in his office in 1972 and quickly signed the young singer-songwriter to Columbia Records, this monumental event represented another milestone that only added to a legacy filled with concerts that have achieved legendary status over time.
My Springsteen fanaticism doesn’t reach all the way back to the early ’70s, but I still vividly remember hearing “Born to Run” later on in the decade — I was a little late for the Newsweek and Time magazine covers — and understanding that the Bob Dylan comparisons were apt, but not entirely true. Dylan started out addressing political change for a war-torn generation while Springsteen was singing about the breezy life on the Jersey Shore.
Springsteen, however, would soon harness the power of his lyrics to tackle huge issues — presidential elections, Amnesty, poverty and the squeezing of the middle class, among several topics that would resonate with him — and use his star wattage to give them light.
But while Springsteen’s influence clearly reaches the masses, his appeal to me has always been personal. Whether it’s digesting the theme of a new album in the solitude of a quiet room or being pressed against the stage at a concert that had the potential to be among his greatest, his impact on my life has been undeniable.
I’ve met lifelong friends at Springsteen-related events 30 years ago who are as close to me now as ever. Babies were born from couples who once bonded over “Thunder Road” or “Rosalita.”
Having attended 100-plus shows in cities strewn across the country, I can tell you I get as excited now in those anxious moments before Springsteen and his reconstituted E Street Band hit the stage as much as I did before that first show way back when.
My friends and colleagues are separated into two categories: Those who understand and tolerate my obsession and those who view me as hopelessly mired in the past.
But, as the recent shows at the Los Angeles Sports Arena proved, those who attend a Springsteen concert gain an understanding of what draws the diehards in. It’s Springsteen’s on-stage camaraderie with his band and the audience — the playfulness, storytelling and boundless energy that never seem to evaporate, even when Father Time says the clock is ticking.
How long will the carnival continue? It’s impossible to say. I remember the Who, who famously proclaimed “hope I die before I get old,” announcing its farewell tour about 25 years ago and now they’re hitting the road again in support of “Quadrophenia.”
Springsteen is returning to Southern California on Dec. 4, at the Honda Center in Anaheim. There will be some who will be seeing him for the first time, and others for the 500th.
That common bond runs deep. It may only be rock ‘n’ roll, but it matters in ways we can never imagine.
Variety’s Stuart Levine can recite the words to “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle” in his sleep.
• 1972: Bruce Springsteen auditions at the offices of Columbia Records exec John Hammond Sr. on May 3. Springsteen performs 12 of his compositions, and is signed to the label soon after.
• 1973: Springsteen’s first album, “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.,” is released Jan. 5.
• 1975: Springsteen’s third release, “Born to Run,” becomes his first Gold record.
• 1975: On Oct. 27, Springsteen simultaneously appears on the covers of both Time and Newsweek magazines, the first musician ever to do so.
• 1977: Manfred Mann’s cover of Springsteen’s “Blinded by the Light” hits No. 1 on the U.S. singles chart. It is the first — and to date only — Springsteen-penned song to top the chart.
1977 Springsteen hires music journalist Jon Landau to serve as his manager, a position he retains to this day.
• 1978: “Darkness on the Edge of Town” becomes Springsteen’s first Platinum record.
1980 Double LP “The River,” released in October, is the first Springsteen album to reach No. 1 on the U.S. album chart.
• 1982: “Atlantic City,” Springsteen’s first music video, debuts on MTV.
• 1984: “Dancing in the Dark” earns Springsteen his first Grammy Award, for best male rock vocal performance. He will go on to win 19 more.
• 1985: “Born in the U.S.A.” is certified 10x Platinum by the RIAA, after less than a year and a half in release. It has since been certified 15x Platinum, and stands as the biggest-selling album in Columbia Records history.
• 1985: The “Born” tour concludes with four sold-out nights at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum that attract a total audience of 330,000.
• 1986: The five-LP package “Live/1975-85” debuts at No. 1 on the album chart, the first box set ever to do so. A record-breaking 1.5 million copies are pre-ordered prior to the release date.
• 1995: At the 1994 Academy Awards, Springsteen wins his first Oscar, for the “Philadelphia” track “Streets of Philadelphia.” It is also the first original song Oscar for a rock performer.
• 1999: The E Street Band, which Springsteen dissolved in 1989, reunites and tours, ending with a 10-night sellout of Madison Square Garden.
• 1999: Springsteen receives a trio of lifetime honors, as he is inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame . Furthermore, a minor planet in orbit between Mars and Jupiter is officially dubbed Springsteen in his honor by New Zealand astronomers.
• 2003: Springsteen sells out 10 nights at Giants Stadium, grossing $34.5 million in less than two weeks.
• 2009: Springsteen is honored by the Kennedy Center.
• 2012: “Wrecking Ball,” released just months before the 40th anniversary of Springsteen’s signing to Columbia, debuts at No. 1, marking his 10th chart-topper.
– Andrew Barker
Sources: RIAA, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Brucespringsteen.net, Grammy.net, Pollstar, Billboard, IAU Minor Planet Center.