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"Born to Run:" Opening the Cover

 

Who is this guy?

We know he plays music. The signals are everywhere: not just the Fender slung at his waist but the black leather jacket, the scraggly hair. This is what a rock&roller is supposed to look like.

Where is he? No clue. Unless the brilliant white background–the absolute absence of clues–means that he’s in a photography studio. A controlled environment with a stark light that lets us see every fret on the guitar, every crease on his face.

What’s he doing? Well, he’s leaning on someone. He’s got his arm on that someone’s shoulder, and he’s smiling at that person. He’s amused. And bemused. The only way to figure out who he’s looking at is to open the folded image.

It’s a black man playing a saxophone. Crouched slightly to get a note, the saxophonist stares just past us from beneath a broad-brimmed black hat. The whole revealed image is an interplay of various blacks and whites, from the men’s skins to their clothes to their instruments.

The composition — which appeared complete when we could only see the guitar player — has grown larger and stabilized. Where it had been one man, leaning off the page, only the counter-weight of the Fender keeping him in balance, now it’s two guys supporting each other.

They’re friends; we can see that, now. The sax player’s expression may be all business, but the guitar player’s looking at a buddy. And we’re invited into that friendship.

Why? Behind the guitar player’s shoulders, in clean block print, it reads, “Bruce Springsteen.” And below that, “Born To Run.” Next to the sax player, there’s a list of eight songs. We’re being invited to hear what the friendship’s based on, what this photograph can’t show: the music.

The picture is, unapologetically, an ad. What is an invitation, after all–even the most intimate–but a kind of ad? “There’s something I want you to try here; give it a chance.” This is a particular sort of come-on because the two guys don’t seem to be addressing us. The guitar player’s focused on the sax guy who’s focused on the music. We’re drawn in because it looks like fun. And because–as relaxed as these two men appear–there’s also something dangerous about this photograph.

For Springsteen today, thirty years later: “It was one of those covers where, if you saw it, if you didn’t hear any of the music or know who we were at all, you just wanted the record. You wanted to know: what’s inside of this? What are these two guys up to?”

The young man who made the picture, Eric Meola, was an aspiring commercial photographer. He spent his days showing his portfolio around and his nights–at least, some of them–listening to music. He’d liked Springsteen’s first two records, but, despite good reviews, they’d barely sold; the rock&roller’s reputation was largely based on his stage show. One night in November of 1973, Meola caught the band playing a local New York City bar, Max’s Kansas City. “That was it,” the photographer remembers. “From that moment on.”

The performance was a larger-than-life, sweat-soaked drama. Springsteen directed operations: the scruffy, inexhaustible, street poet. Behind him, the band was symmetrically integrated: black drummer and pianist, white bass player and organist. Beside him, the sax player, Clarence Clemons, acted as Springsteen’s sidekick and counterbalance. “There was something in the chemistry between us,” Springsteen recalls, “some juxtaposition.” Still, on the small club stage, the show was mostly Bruce. He jumped up on the speakers, threw himself into the audience, crawled amongst the other band members, rasping and pleading for the music to give up its meaning.

By the time Meola saw them again, in July 1974 at the Bottom Line, Springsteen was trying out material for his make-it-or-break-it third album: “Jungleland,” a rambling epic about gang fights, and this rave-up manifesto Bruce was calling, “Born to Run.” Along with the new music, there was also a new stage dynamic. Where the sax had once “just kinda pumped along,” as Springsteen says, it was now “set like a diamond. It entered at a particular moment, and it played a very composed solo. That meant every time a solo came up, bang! Clarence was in the spotlight.” At some point in the band’s development, Springsteen recalls, he’d turned to the sax player and said, “Look, it’s me and you–and we gotta bring this thing.”

A month later, Meola caught a Central Park concert, and, ten days after that, a little obsessed, he rented a car and drove down to Red Bank, New Jersey. He took some photographs of the show there but, more importantly, he struck up a friendship with Clemons. Through the sax player, he got to know Springsteen’s manager, Mike Appel. In Appel’s words, Meola became the group’s “omniscient observer.” And the kind of fan who buttonholed strangers: “Hey! You really got to listen to this guy.” In late June of 1975, when he was offered a chance to shoot the cover for the new record, that was the message he set out to convey.

Though he normally worked in color, Meola wanted a grittier image here. The two musicians arrived wearing all black-and-white. “The looseness, the casualness,” Springsteen says, “that was something I was comfortable with. And,” he adds, laughing, “had planned out.” Carrying their instruments, the two men stepped into the pure white environment Meola had created and began posing under the flash of strobe lights.

It wasn’t a new technique: fashion photographer Richard Avedon had helped establish it decades before. The white emptiness, in Avedon’s estimation, gave everyone a “hard, unyielding edge” which potentially turned them into caricatures. You had to use that super-reality. “If you can make it work successfully,” Avedon wrote, “a white background permits people to become symbolic of themselves.”

The whiteness, in other words, called for a performance. And Meola’s subjects knew about that. Over time, Bruce and Clarence had developed a repertory of stances and gestures. “When he slid across the stage to me on his knees,” Clemons says, recalling one of the best known, “and I leaned over–and I kissed him — it was like, wow! This is great theater!”

Now, with music playing in the background — Van Morrison, some Manfred Mann — Bruce and Clarence began to run through their moves. “Fooling around,” as Clemons puts it. It was mid-day at the end of another week of recording, and both were wiped out (check the headshot of Springsteen inside the record cover). But the “dance” was second nature to them: the two men back to back, Clarence supporting Bruce, Clarence pretending to blow the sax while Bruce turns, looks at the camera, and then loses it, laughing at the sheer goofiness of acting out their stage act.

“My main thought in the entire thing, “Springsteen says, “was to have Clarence in the photo with me.” But that didn’t necessarily mean it would make a good cover. So, Meola also got Bruce alone, using his sneakers as props, with the guitar, without, drawing attention to his Elvis Presley pin. Towards the end of the two hour session, they moved outside and took some under the shadow of a fire escape.

Are the resulting photos the “real” Bruce before he got famous? No. This is, after all, a controlled session for a desired outcome, a record cover. Instead of innocence, what Meola captures is more like a revised self. Up till now, Springsteen’s covers and publicity shots had been pursuing that street poet look: the underdog out of New Jersey. That was the first idea for the Born to Run cover, too: maybe one of the fire escape shots — what John Berg, Columbia Records’ art director, calls the “serious author” look. But when Berg flipped through the “big fat package of contacts” (Meola had made hundreds of images), he says the shot of Bruce and Clarence “just jumped out” at him. “Berg was the guy,” says Springsteen, “who decided let’s do the fold-out with Clarence on one side and me on the other.” Appel’s reaction? “Oh, Jesus. Boy, if that ain’t it!”

What was inside the cover — the music–borrowed from classic Roy Orbison and Phil Spector, producing original tracks that were also somehow familiar. Here, Springsteen’s image does much the same. Consciously, ambitiously, and with what he calls “a wink,” he takes the leather jacket off of James Dean, Marlon Brando’s ripped t-shirt and, as a kind of in-joke, the Elvis pin. The end result is a more simplified, more direct look, easier to digest. It steps out of the backstreets and into the mainstream. It proclaims, “I’m ready for the big time.” Or, more to the point, “Born to run.”

That’s one of the dangers being danced with here: not just that this tribute to rock&roll verges on being derivative, but how openly ambitious it is. Whether or not his career really would have been over if Born to Run hadn’t hit, Springsteen wanted the stakes that high. He announced it in the music, and he announced it by how he appeared on the cover.

The other dangerous aspect is in how he announces it. Again, these out-takes help us understand. When we see only Clemons’ arm holding Springsteen up — or Bruce’s pose happens to obscure Clarence’s face — it isn’t just the balanced composition in black and white that’s disrupted; it’s the racial statement.

Springsteen and his band had come out of a city long divided by race. Local soul bands didn’t play the boardwalk clubs that Bruce sang about, and white kids, for the most part, didn’t play west of the Asbury Park railroad tracks. But when putting together what would become his E Street Band, Springsteen was looking for a sound he called “more in the rhythm and blues vein” and that meant crossing those social barriers. On the song “Born to Run,” we hear the group at its most integrated. By the time the rest of the record had been cut, both the drummer and pianist had departed, leaving Clemons the remaining symbol of the band’s racial idealism.

The world the band created on stage was a promised land of justice, something like equality, and funky good times. When Bruce slid across the stage to kiss Clarence, the audience cheered the sheer rock&roll of it — not just the open show of affection, but that it defiantly cut across the nation’s racial divide. For Springsteen to bring the one black member of the band to the photo session, to re-enact their stage chemistry, and then to have that image be the cover was to underline what the music was saying. The “freeze out” was over–they were going to “bust the city in half”–because the Big Man had joined the band.

Meola’s photographs let us see Springsteen’s charm, his massive ambition, his willingness to risk, and his almost obsessive dedication. He was shaping an image, “putting thought into it,” as he says, “the same way I put enormous thought into what the music was about.” To watch Springsteen trying on these various selves is to watch him figuring out how to stand for the best part of that music: the hopefulness, the promise of community that the E Street Band represented.

And that, finally, is the pay-off from the long-delayed publication of these images. The job, in Meola’s words, was to produce “a picture that said who this guy was … real quickly.” You would think the cover of Bruce alone with his Fender could do that — or some of these other photographs of the solo warrior in semi-profile. But they don’t. As we examine the out-takes and alternatives, it’s like opening the record cover: we realize the larger story. Who the guy is depends on others. We’re in this together.

This essay is from the introduction to The Unseen Springsteen by Eric Meola.

DANIEL WOLFF is a poet and author of the excellent biography of the great Sam Cooke, You Send Me, as well as the recent collection of Ernest Withers’ photographs The Memphis Blues Again. Wolff’s Grammy-nominated essay on Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers is one of the highlights of CounterPunch’s collection on art, music and sex: Serpents in the Garden. Most recently, Wolff wrote the text for the collection of Ernest Wither’s photographs in Negro League Baseball. His latest book is 4th of July/Asbury Park: A History of the Promised Land (Bloomsbury USA) He can be reached at: ziwolff@optonline.net

 

 

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