AS REEL Art Press releases a limited, numbered, signed poster of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band from their first-ever passport photo sessions, 45 years after the release of Born to Run, we take another look at photographer Barbara Pyle’s photojournal Bruce Springsteen And The E Street Band 1975.
Let’s play a game of Boss Bingo – cross off the buzzwords that have been cropping up in encomia to Bruce Springsteen since the early ‘70s. Ready?
Trapped. Desperate. Escape. Redemption. Liberation. Salvation. Deliverance. Dreams. Drive.
Most of these are words Springsteen himself has used in a range of contexts – his recent autobiography, his live shows, his album liner notes. Which suggests one of two things: either the Boss has been immensely successful at shaping his own public narrative, or the public narrative has successfully shaped him.
Springsteen in 1975
Or a bit of both, of course. Like all major artists, Springsteen began cultivating a projected persona early. Barbara Pyle, in her latest compendium of photos, Bruce Springsteen And The E Street Band 1975, points out: “Bruce looked like his lyrics, a working guy from the Jersey shore, just struggling to make it. Of course, this was true. … He had perfected that faded jeans, leather jacket look. It took him about as long to look that way as it would have taken some other guy to put on a suit and tie. He had it down.”
Yet 1975 was a turning point for Springsteen’s image. On the brink of being dropped by Columbia Records after two LPs whose critical hype and heavy marketing campaigns failed to translate into sales, he gave all he had to his third album, Born to Run, which ended up making the US Top Five on a wave of Columbia-driven publicity. Having built up a legendary reputation as a nonpareil showman on the live circuit, Springsteen became a household name across the nation when his face made the covers of Time and Newsweek in the same week – a feat no other musician had ever accomplished.
The Time illustrator used Pyle’s photo as a guide
It was also a feat that incensed Springsteen, who regarded it as a triumph more of marketing than of music, as well a daunting, externally imposed bar he’d have to spend his whole life clearing. Before his 18 November gig at London’s Hammersmith Odeon, he reportedly ran around ripping down any poster that said, “Finally, London is ready for Bruce Springsteen”.
No surprise, then, that the man behind the Time/Newsweek coup, Bruce’s manager and producer Mike Appel, soon became his enemy – for a few years, at least. Even at 26, Springsteen was too instinctive, too desperately genuine, not to see what such third-party harnessing of his image could do to his career, not to mention his relationship with his own muse.
“It had [just] been me and the band and we’d go out and play. We’d sleep where we could and drive to the next show,” Springsteen later said of the time he and the band were living on $50 a week. “All of a sudden I became a person who could make money for other people, and that brings new forces and distractions into your life.” So Pyle’s book of photographs captures a major youth at a pivotal moment, a moment heightened by the intrinsic poignancy of photography’s supposed ephemerality.
She shows us a Springsteen not yet aware of these forces and distractions – often off guard, his narrative not yet ossified, playing pool or buying newsboy caps or slurping cola or fooling around in passport photoshoots, yet to leave the US for the first time.
One of several shots of Springsteen in a fast food joint
His and the band’s vulnerability are supposedly best showcased in Pyle’s black and white photo “Dawn Rehearsal”, the subject of some hype in the book. The second paragraph of the introduction quotes Springsteen himself: “It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever seen… You ain’t never seen faces like that in your life. The light comes through the window, it’s like ten in the morning, we’ve been up for days, and every single minute is on everybody’s face. We got a gig that night, we’re rehearsing, and what’s worse is, I can’t even sing!”
It’s unclear if the photo itself makes it into the book – Pyle donated it in 2009 to benefit the New Jersey Food Bank – but the closest candidate, in which only Springsteen, guitarist Steve van Zandt and pianist Roy Bittan’s faces are visible, doesn’t quite capture the band at the spiritual nadir described, despite a wilting van Zandt and a clearly exhausted Springsteen.
Not that there’s any shortage of vulnerable Bruce among Pyle’s shots: he is frequently seen at a low ebb. Except, of course, in the concert photos.
Possibly the original Dawn Rehearsal photo, which only makes it
into the book in cropped form
Other than the Concerts in Color chapter, almost all the book’s photos are in black and white, a colour scheme we associate with Born to Run thanks to Eric Meola’s iconic album cover photo. Naturally, the monochrome imbues Pyle’s shots with the hue of history, which has an unintentional distancing effect over the course of several chapters. The band’s stops in New Orleans, Texas and Pyle’s home state of Oklahoma get a chapter each, around 90 pages in total, yet not a single photo is in colour – not even in the riotously colourful Big Easy.
This is a missed opportunity to fully capture the band’s vibrancy, though there are some startling juxtapositions. Several bright pages of van Zandt and bassist Garry Tallent hanging out and second-lining in the streets of New Orleans (where the band hung out with Louisiana legend Lee Dorsey) suddenly yield to a shot of Sprinsteen engulfed in two pages of blackness.
After an extended chromatic drought, the Concerts in Color chapter is something to behold, especially given that Pyle was also experimenting with different cameras at the time, the results of which are thoughtfully curated. There’s also a touching photo of Springsteen sitting in Pyle’s family home, in her father’s favourite chair, flicking through Time with no idea that his face would grace its cover mere months later.
Bruce in performance
Pyle’s book is quite a different account to photojournals whose contents capture post-Born to Run Springsteen. Streets of Fire, by Born to Run photographer Meola, charts 1977-’79, the years after Bruce’s bitter court battle with Mike Appel; already Bruce seems to be possessed, even weighed down, by a sense of significance, captured visually by Meola and aurally in 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town.
Streets of Fire sees him gazing darkly into the camera, lit very deliberately, riding motorbikes, leaning pensively on cars, brooding in the middle of endless highways – songbook Bruce, melding into a narrative that was shaping him as much as he was shaping it. Like Darkness on the Edge of Town, it’s no fun.
Meanwhile, Days of Hope and Dreams by Frank Stefanko, Springsteen’s longest-serving official photographer, has an intro by the Boss himself, and charts 1978-’82, capturing Springsteen when he was lightening up a bit. There are few worthwhile snaps, but the ratio of photoshoot snaps to candids is pretty high, there are only 88 images in total, and many of them are variations of more famous shots. It, too, falls victim to merely reflecting Bruce’s desired self-image: Springsteen himself said that the photos “were what I wanted for my music at that time”.
So that leaves the best and most comprehensive of the bunch: legendary rock photographer David Gahr’s From Asbury Park, To Born to Run, To Born in the USA, which spans 1973-1986, the 15-year period in which Springsteen became the world’s biggest white rockstar. By far the most illustrious of the photographers mentioned here, Gahr is noted for iconic shots that went on to be used by the US Postal Service for its commemorative Miles Davis and Janis Joplin stamps, of which many tens of millions were printed.
As well as fun outtakes from assorted shoots and some revealing one-offs, the book features some fantastic concert photography, including a gravity-defying leap off an amplifier at Springsteen’s legendary Bottom Line shows in 1975. There is a kineticism in these images that Pyle’s concert shots lack, beautiful though they are.
Unlike Meola, Stefanko and Gahr, Pyle is not best known as a snapper of rockstars, and was only ever – in her own words – the band’s “official unofficial photographer”. Indeed, photography, as chronicled in the early pages of Bruce Springsteen And The E Street Band 1975, was merely one aspect of her illustrious career. Back in 1971, the 23-year-old Pyle co-opened and ran New York City’s Center for Reproductive And Sexual Health (CRASH), the world’s largest freestanding abortion clinic at the time.
In 1980, media mogul Ted Turner created the groundbreaking position of Vice President of Environmental Policy at TBS with her in mind. She was there for 20 years, and executive produced a range of influential shows: CNN’s World Report, Earth Matters, the Jane Fonda-hosted People Count, and the iconic children’s show Captain Planet and the Planeteers.
From all this it’s clear that Pyle had a knack for being in the right place at the right time, with no small amount of media savvy. Ingratiating herself with all members of the band (there’s a lovely shot of her taken by Springsteen himself), she spent weeks with no pay capturing them in various configurations.
No doubt fans will cherish all the shots of Clemons – perhaps even the one where he’s holding a sign that reads, “GIRL WANTED: No Experience Necessary”. (Pyle disclaims: “Clarence was a chick magnet and a massive flirt. Girls loved him and he loved them back.”)
Not a Pyle photo, but a beautiful one
Indeed, as might be predicted, the Big Man is at the heart of the book’s warmth. As towering physically as he was musically, the late Clemons cuts an eye-stopping figure throughout the collection, whether he’s posing in an all-white suit straight out of a blaxploitation flick, gazing handsomely into the camera across a diner table, clowning around with Pyle, or, in one poignant shot, lying draped in the American flag he “took with him everywhere”. Beneath his playful exterior is a rock-solid tranquillity that Pyle, who was enormously fond and in awe of him, captures beautifully.
The prominence of the whole E Street band in Pyle’s account was a deliberate decision on her part. “There have been a number of runs at making this book over the decades,” she recounts, “but I would always bail out when I found myself writing endless pages of notes to publishers explaining why the band needed to be included in the story.” Unquestionably, the book would be a far duller and less honest book without them.
The band near Pyle’s hometown in Oklahoma
Many major singer-songwriters – particularly male ones; think Cohen, Zevon, Simon – have discographies that begin with simple, earnest efforts and culminate in meditations on mortality. Along the way, though, their trajectory is far from predictable: they might take any number of detours, from God to disco. What makes Springsteen’s oeuvre so remarkable is that from 1973 to 2001 it charted, in near Bildungsroman fashion, the maturation of the everyman. We listened to him grow from wild romantic kid to adult with responsibilities to family, community and country.
Along the way we heard the ambitious yet sensitive young adult; the working guy alternating between Friday-night jubilation and spiritual and economic depression; the man growing disillusioned with not only capitalism but circular histories, media narratives and the justice system; the grown-ass adult now fully wise to America yet able to love its communities and life’s lasting joys; the stand-up guy struggling with love’s tribulations; and, in his least exciting but no less heartfelt phase, the average dad.
Wandering through these waystations, he evinced – lyrically, formally, meta-musically – the small-c conservative values to which people of all stripes aspire: discipline, diligence, loyalty, work-life balance, and making a temple of both mind and body.
All this comprises his great ur-narrative, and is what makes him the world’s most relatable rocker. Knowing the path he would take, and what lay in store for him, fans will find Pyle’s intimate 1975 snapshots valuable. There are no photos in which Bruce might pass for a character from one of his songs; no shots of him driving in cars, staring down highways, playing palimpsest for American archetypes.
Such absences are key to the book’s usefulness: a document of a time when Bruce Springsteen was not The Boss but an ambitious, desperate, hyper-talented scruffball from coastal New Jersey, more accustomed to treading the boardwalk than treading the boards.
From Bruce’s passport photoshoot
by Arjun Sajip