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Time Capsule: Bruce Springsteen, The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle

Every Saturday, Paste will be revisiting albums that came out before the magazine was founded in July 2002 and assessing its current cultural relevance. This week, we’re looking at the record Bruce Springsteen made as his opus was knocking on the door of his imagination—an album full of ghosts, summer memories and characters forced to grow up and out of innocent love in the sweaty, damning New Jersey and New York heat.

Music Reviews Bruce Springsteen
Time Capsule: Bruce Springsteen, The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle

Bruce Springsteen played, by my estimation, about 210 shows in 1973 (the only time he ever came close to that number again was in 2018, when he played around 175 shows). It was his busiest year by far, as he released two albums—his debut, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., and its quick follow-up, The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle—in 11 months, transforming from a bright-eyed Jersey kid in a band called Steel Mill to a leather-clad, blue-collar hero commanding the stage all on his own. If Dylan was the voice of a generation, then Springsteen was the voice of everything else.

Bruce had not yet stepped into Born to Run by this point (though he had apparently come up with the title around then)—he wasn’t yet consumed by the towering haunts of memory and regret and fleeting innocence. No, he was 24 years old and infatuated with the summer vibrancy of the nearby Jersey boardwalk, singing about Rosalita and Sandy and Billy and Jackie and Kitty and Spanish Johnny and Puerto Rican Jane and Power 13 and Little Angel. The streets were filled with pleasure machines and fortune tellers and strongmen and alley rats. For 47 minutes on The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, there is hope despite a finite amount of life left to live. There are boys dancing with their shirts open; an aurora is rising behind lovers. It sounds like a promise, like someplace you wouldn’t mind falling in love and dying in. You’re not running away from the populous; you’re a cog in its imperfect beauty.

The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle was recorded between May and September 1973 at 914 Sound in Blauvelt, New York. Mike Appel and Jim Cretecos oversaw production, while Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, Danny Federici, Garry Tallent, David Sancious, “Mad Dog” Lopez and Suki Lahav descended upon the studio and banged out seven tracks—none of which clock in shorter than four-and-a-half minutes. There is something about the attitude of The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle that harkens back to jazz, be it the genre’s long-standing gestures of improvisation or its firestorm romance with the Big Band era during the Great Depression.

The E Street Band could rattle off a meticulous, five-steps-ahead composition and a sprawling, 15-minute rendition of a once-four-minute classic all in one breath—dedicating song intervals to letting each member solo and shine. Every section is built through the emphasis of painstaking attentiveness, the energy flowing through them a mark of shared communion and talent that becomes a singular spirit stitched together. Bruce Springsteen’s biographer, Peter Ames Carlin, wrote that The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle marked a “renewed passion for full-band rock ‘n’ roll” for he and the E Street Band, and it’s a declaration that shows. It doesn’t matter how good that run from Born to Run through Tunnel of Love was—it all starts with The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle 50 years ago.

The album begins with a mirage of saxophone, tuba, cornet and clavinet from Clemons, Tallent, Sancious, Lopez and Al Tellone. “The E Street Shuffle” is theme music for the tightest band in America, and Bruce ringing out “Sparks fly on E Street when the boy prophets walk in handsome and hot” is a call to action. You better quit what you’re doing and get some eyes on this, these are phantoms of the alleyways and the backstreets, strutting in their skin-tight leather and ready to make a scene. The weather is hot but everyone’s dancing. This is where we meet Power 13 and Little Angel, who have cheap hustles and parade across Lover’s Lane.

When the band chimes in and howls “Oh, everybody form a line!,” it’s theatrical. Never before had a rock ‘n’ roll album opened with a short story as vibrant as “The E Street Shuffle”; never before had rock ‘n’ roll known the beauty of Detroit muscle and teenage tramps and E Street brats and riot squads. But at the 3:37-mark, Bruce’s guitar solo ruptures into a full-band brass breakdown. He picks up some maracas and begs Clemons, Tallent, Sancious, Lopez and Tellone to drown out the keys and Richard Blackwell’s percussion. It’s not a cheeky name-drop for a backing band. It’s an introduction to a world that, even as it’s dying, has got a date with forever. It’s at the 3:37-mark when The Wild, the Innocent & The E Street Shuffle becomes, as Bruce calls it, “sweet summer nights turn into summer dreams.”

And that’s what The Wild, the Innocent & The E Street Shuffle is—a summer album, maybe the greatest one ever written. Bruce drops us into Independence Day immediately on “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” a ballad that remains a picture-perfect, arresting arrangement of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it boardwalk memories. It’s not just a love song; it’s a love song about somebody you know you won’t love forever. Sandy is The Wild, the Innocent & The E Street Shuffle’s Wendy, a near-mythical character not placed on a pedestal by our narrator. No, he sees Sandy as someone to long for as the depressions of Jersey grow thicker. Maybe she’s just that night’s beach-bopper dressed like a 10-cent star; maybe she’s one of those locals who’ll never make it across the Hudson.

“I just got tired of hangin’ in them dusty arcades bangin’ them pleasure machines, chasin’ the factory girls underneath the boardwalk, where they all promise to unsnap their jeans,” Bruce admits, straddling the line between putting Sandy on for the sake of a good fuck and being earnestly infatuated with her. Federici’s accordion swallows the foreground melodies while Sancious’ piano and Springsteen’s guitar duet in the background. Bruce’s narrator wants to settle down. The waitress he was going steady with “won’t set herself on fire for me anymore” because she was “parked with lover boy out on the Kokomo.”

I return to “Sandy” often, and not just because it contains one of Bruce’s cleverest lyrics (“Did you hear the cops finally busted Madame Marie for tellin’ fortunes better than they do?”), but because it’s full of now-empty promises that, when they were made, felt as sure as anything in the whole wide world. When Bruce sings “love me tonight and I promise I’ll love you forever,” it’s to the chagrin of a destiny not in his corner. But the laughter underneath the boardwalk, the fireworks over Little Eden, the carnival life and pier lights on the water—you’ve felt all of it, too, be it at a county fair or an amusement park or beneath the metallic bleachers of a high school football game. You remember that feeling like it was yesterday because it was. The genius of “Sandy” is that it’s a time machine.

“Kitty’s Back” is the E Street Band’s big, jazzy brilliance. There’s a reason why it’s the centerpiece of any Bruce Springsteen show in 2024—no song can better showcase just how talented and virtuosic Bruce and his backing band are. It’s one of the few moments in any night’s setlist where the song’s DNA changes in a flash, depending on the ensemble’s energy and mood at that given moment. On The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, “Kitty’s Back” is an instant change-of-pace from “Sandy,” as screaming guitars converge with the E Street Band’s brass section like a runaway train. Sancious pulls out an organ solo pillowed by Clemons’ tenor saxophone. Springsteen tested the waters with long-winded vamping like this a few years prior on the Steel Mill track “Garden State Parkway Blues,” which would sometimes last 30 minutes before closing and boast slight parallels to what would eventually turn into “Kitty’s Back” in 1973. What I adore most about the song is that it’s practically unfinished—as any great jazz song really is—and could go on for hours beyond the seven-minute runtime we get on The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle.

A song that flourishes through intervals, “Kitty’s Back” crosses the Hudson and finds something to yap about in the 90-degree heat of Bleecker Street. “Well, Jack Knife cries ‘cause baby’s in a bundle,” Bruce sings. “She goes running nightly, lightly through the jungle.” It’s the only part of The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle where Springsteen’s lyricism is weaker than the sound of the ensemble noodling behind him. “So get right, get tight, get down” doesn’t sound like Springsteen, but I’d argue that the messy story serves the track pretty well. It’s loose and feels unrehearsed—exactly how you would describe “Kitty’s Back” at any show, even now. And that’s where the charm endures. “Now, cat knows his kitty’s been untrue and that she left him for a city dude” just sounds cool, even if the street-life picture Bruce is taking registers a bit blurry by the time the E Street Band is done harmonizing a long cycle of scat-like “Whoa, oh, oh, oh, oh, all right, whoa, all right”s.

Side one closes with “Wild Billy’s Circus Story,” a surface-level low-point for the record that I’ll argue is much stronger than you might remember, even when it flirts with being a caricature. Bruce breaks out his mandolin and harmonica (and a little bit of twang), harmonizing his vocals with Federici’s accordion and Tallent’s tuba and telling stories about a circus town “on the shortwave” somewhere between Jersey and Hollywood. It’s a set-piece that plugs in a cast of misfit characters and foreshadows a trip to the state Springsteen would try to make an album about for nearly 10 years. There’s Missy Bimbo, a barker romancing a junkie, strongman Simpson, Tiny Tim and the Flying Zambinis. “And the highway’s haunted by the carnival sounds / They dance like a great greasepaint ghost on the wind / A man in baggy pants, a lonely face, a crazy grin / Runnin’ home to some small Ohio town / Jesus, send some good women to save all your clowns” remains one of Bruce’s best line runs on the entire album.

No matter which way you flip it, side two of The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle is the best side two in all of the band’s catalog. Kicking up with “Incident on 57th Street,” it marks a distinct turn in Bruce Springsteen’s songwriting chops. “Spanish Johnny drove in from the underworld last night, with bruised arms and broken rhythm in a beat-up old Buick but dressed just like dynamite,” he sings, “He tried sellin’ his heart to the hard girls over on Easy Street, but they sighed ‘Johnny, it falls apart so easy and you know hearts these days are cheap.’” Vaulted by Suki Lahav’s tonic, dominant and subdominant choir harmonies and Sancious’ quiet piano melody flushed with Bruce’s Telecaster, Tallent’s bass solo and “hiccuping” percussion from Lopez, it’s one of the most ornate songs in all of the E Street Band’s catalogue.

“Incident on 57th Street” was the last track the E Street Band recorded for the album, initially conceived under the title “Puerto Rican Jane” and written, according to Springsteen, from the perspective of an observer rather than something much more intimate and personal. It’s a song of redemption, arriving as Springsteen’s take on Romeo and Juliet, told through that of Hispanic protagonists in conversational verses that are much closer to the soul of West Side Story than Shakespeare’s source material. “All them barefoot boys, they left their homes for the woods,” Bruce sings in the second pre-chorus. “Them little barefoot street boys, they say homes ain’t no good. They left the corners, threw away all their switchblade knives and kissed each other goodbye.”

Once Sancious’ piano solo at the end of “Incident on 57th Street” turns into the pushing guitars of “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight),” the final act of The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle’s kicks into gear. While “Rosalita” has become the E Street Band’s most-used set closer since the Born in the U.S.A. tour (though there is a great story about it getting dropped from the setlist at a show in Tacoma in 1984, to “disrupt the ritual experience of the fanatic fans” by “establishing” a “burst of creativity just who was boss”), it’s the centerpiece of Springsteen’s second album even if it was never a single and never found significant radio play until advance copies of “Born to Run” were given to stations. A song about forbidden love, “Rosalita” sees the titular desire’s parents disapproving of Bruce’s narrator’s life in a rock band. “Oh, your papa says he knows that I don’t have any money,” he sings in a clap-along harmony with the rest of the band. The arrangement

“Rosalita” will give you your money’s worth, as Springsteen dolls out flamboyant showmanship with ease. They sneak out together and catch a breeze west, hellbent on being lovers warmed by their own flame. “By the time we meet the morning light, I will hold you in my arms,” he sings. “I know a pretty little place in Southern California, down San Diego way. There’s a little cafe where they play guitars all night and all day. You can hear them in the back room strummin’, so hold tight, baby, ‘cause don’t you know daddy’s comin’!”

Despite the tapestry of earworm language that Bruce employs all across “Rosalita” (“Dynamite’s in the belfry, baby, playin’ with the bats / Little gun’s downtown in front of Woolworth’s tryin’ out his attitude on all the cats”) nothing compares to the five words he repeats throughout: “Rosalita, you’re my stone desire.” As the band cuts it up together—especially Springsteen, Clemons and Sancious—it’s like you’re hearing a group of people rebel against dissatisfactions and dead-end destinies. “Rosalita” is the American Dream. Like Bruce sings, “Someday, we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny.”

But The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle concludes in the only place it ever could, in a cloud of pimps, sex workers and drugs. While much of the record exhumes what innocence Springsteen had left, “New York City Serenade” is a damning finale that, in gnarly terms, forces its characters to grow up and do it quickly (“walk tall or, baby, don’t walk at all”). Billy and Diamond Jackie—lovers and thieves flirting with doomed tomorrows—“boogaloo down Broadway and come back home with the loot” during a “mad dog’s promenade.” Fish lady is on the street saying no to the penniless corner boys, while the vibes man plays a serenade, flirts with the grave and tells the narrator to “save your notes, don’t spend ‘em on the darlin’ yearlin’ sharp boy.”

“New York City Serenade” culminates in a beautiful string arrangement from Sancious that’s adorned with rips from Clemons’ saxophone. Springsteen was still living in Jersey at time, but he often crossed the Hudson for gigs and nightlife. The imagery that shows up in “New York City Serenade”—and much of The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle—holds a distant perspective, which widens the space for nuance. For a song so deeply embedded with borough particulars, “New York City Serenade” aches with a certain kind of detachment that only an outsider could conjure. And, in Springsteen’s world, all the love and dreams in the world can’t outrun the inevitable violence waiting for you beneath the beauty.

Last April, just months before The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle turned 50, I found myself in Cleveland, Ohio watching Bruce and the E Street Band play a gig in a basketball arena that, even in its skyscraping massiveness, felt far too small to hold all of that music, all of that talent, all of that chemistry. If you’re reading this, you’ve likely seen Bruce perform at least once—or, at the very least, you’ve watched him perform somewhere, someplace, sometime, somehow. The band played nearly half of The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, each passing track more engulfed in a half-century of magic than the last. And, like always, the world feels and tastes a lot different when Bruce Springteen is on a stage, that much is true.

I’d grown up on rock radio passed down by my folks, so I was all too familiar with the pleasures of Born to Run and Born in the U.S.A. and, because of my dad’s infatuation with post-9/11 patriotism, The Rising. I remember, once upon a time, Dad saying “this is real music” and then promptly playing “The Rising” on our living room stereo. But I didn’t truly hear music for the first time until I was 17 and flipping through vinyls at a dying record store in Niles, Ohio. In came an aching, threadbare guitar riff and a windswept, whispering voice through the ceiling stereo. “Sandy, the fireworks are hailing over Little Eden tonight,” a hushed voice sang, “forcing a light into all those stony faces left stranded on this warm July.” To me then, it sounded like divinity, like an album that couldn’t possibly conceive a future without first celebrating the romances of its fleeting, love-lorn present. To me now, it sounds like an album full of ghosts. I guess, depending on how close you are to death at this very moment, maybe it all sounds the same.

Listen to Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band play songs from The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle at a gig in Berkeley in March 1973 below.


Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

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