I have a theory; it’s wild and innocent and just might earn a fella a beat down in New Jersey were he to propose it to the wrong party. My theory is this; Bruce Springsteen is the American Bowie. It works the other way too; David Bowie is the British Springsteen.
Ok, at this point, at least half of you have snorted with disgust and are getting ready to move on to saner reading elsewhere but please, hear me out.
Though it may appear that you couldn’t choose two more different artists to compare, the simple fact is there are way more similarities than might be apparent from just a cursory examination.
Both men were born to working class families (lower middle would, perhaps, be more accurate in Bowie’s case) in the late forties; David in ’47 and Bruce in ’49. For both boys, it was their mothers who bought them their first musical instrument; a plastic Alto sax in Bowie’s case and a guitar in Springsteen’s. Both then joined their first bands at age 16; David, The Konrads and Bruce, The Castiles and both were able to procure enthusiastic managers who were instrumental in getting them early gigs. Bowie was taken on by Leslie Conn and Springsteen by local couple, Tex and Marion Vinyard.
Through various band line-ups, both artists evolved. Bowie went from The Konrads to The King Bees and then, in quick succession, The Manish Boys, The Lower Third, The Buzz and Riot Squad. Springsteen meanwhile went from various incarnations of The Castiles to Earth. Then (with future E Streeters Vinnie Lopez and Danny Federici), Child – which became his most successful pre-E Street Band, Steel Mill (future E Street guitarist Van Zandt joined at this point). Then, after a brief moment as Dr Zoom and the Sonic Boom, He formed The Bruce Springsteen Band, the core members of which would later (with the addition of Clarence Clemons on saxophone and Springsteen regular Danny Federici on organ) become E Street.
Bruce Springsteen: guitar, vocals
Garry Tallent: bass
Vini Lopez: drums
Steve Van Zandt: guitar, vocals
David Sancious: keyboards
During these rapid evolutionary periods, both men also explored solo folk performance. This was to earn them comparisons to Dylan (an influence on both artists).
We can see here that they both shared a fairly similar pre-history in regards to their musical evolutions. I’m sure, though, that you’re probably thinking “yeah sure, but these guys are fundamentally so different!”
Are they, though? Sure, Springsteen is about as homespun and no-nonsense as they come. And Bowie is – well Bowie, but it’s worth pointing out that, though the styling may be different, both are playing roles.
There’s no doubt that Bowie chose a far more flamboyant, avant-garde approach to his many characters. It’s hard to imagine Bruce attempting a Ziggy or Aladdin Sane persona, but nonetheless, he has, throughout his career, chosen to use characters to portray his music. All one has to do is listen to his recordings from the early seventies to hear how very different his voice was then compared to the far more countrified version you most often hear today.
It’s not just his singing either; multiple live recordings reveal that he has changed the way he speaks and between the Springsteen of first album Greetings and the Springsteen of recent times there has been a multitude of – sometimes subtly and sometimes glaringly – different personas.
Just like Bowie, Springsteen’s albums and shows have been ‘themed’. Nebraska isn’t just an album, it’s a concept; as surely as is Diamond Dogs. Can anybody who has listened to both honestly say they see no similarities between Darkness on the Edge of Town and Low?
At the end of the day, both artists have taken as their central theme alienation and have chosen to tell their stories through the eyes of outliers and misfits.
I would argue that Springsteen’s recording career has many touchstones with Bowie’s. Just as Hunky Dory, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and Aladdin Sane all form a cohesive set, so too do Greetings from Asbury Park NJ, The Wild the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, and Born to Run*.
Young Americans was a massive departure from Bowie’s previous works when all expected that he would continue on in the vein that had brought him his long-sought success. After the huge explosion that was Born to Run, people expected the same from Springsteen. Instead, he gave us Darkness.
Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, and Nebraska form another set just as Bowie’s Berlin period albums Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger do.
In the eighties, both artists released huge breakthrough albums (Bowie’s Let’s Dance – 7 million sales worldwide and Springsteen’s Born in the USA – a staggering 30 million sales worldwide) which propelled them to new and slightly frightening heights**.
For both artists, this sudden ascent into the stratosphere led them to somewhat lose their compass’. This is reflected in Bowie’s case by the inferior output on Tonight and Never Let Me Down (an album which Bowie himself has described as his “nadir”, calling it “an awful album”). And in Springsteen’s case, Human Touch and – arguably – its sister album Lucky Town formed his creative low-point. He later acknowledged that the ‘90s were a “lost period” for him “I didn’t do a lot of work. Some people would say I didn’t do my best work”.
Both artists decided at that point to do something drastic to arrest their respective creative slides. Interestingly they chose to go in completely opposite directions. Springsteen who had already, broken with the E Street Band and worked for a time with other musicians, went fully solo acoustic. Bowie formed a band (Tin Machine) and refused to be billed for a time as David Bowie, preferring the anonymity of being a simple band member.
I believe for both artists, these ‘solutions’ were more of a palate cleanser, an attempt to get the taste of dissatisfaction off their tongues. The end result was that Bowie broke up Tin Machine after two albums and resumed his solo career and Springsteen – having shaken off his tick on his solo Ghost of Tom Joad tour – reformed the E Street Band.
In 2002, following the devastating events of September 2001, both artists released what have come to be known as their 9/11 albums. Springsteen released The Rising and Bowie released Heathen. Both are very much imbued with the grief and tension of those times and both capture the unease that the artists experienced at the paranoia that resulted.
Generous to a fault
Another similarity the two share is a willingness to almost cavalierly give away top shelf material to other acts. Bowie famously gifted All the Young Dudes to Mott the Hoople and completely revived their flagging career. Springsteen gave away Because the Night and Fire. The former gave Patti Smith her only chart success and the latter was eventually a hit for The Pointer Sisters.
Both have also patronised the careers of other bands and even produced albums for the likes of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop – in Bowie’s case – and Southside Johnny and the Asbury Dukes, Gary US Bonds, and Joe Grushecky & The Houserockers in Springsteen’s. As well as championing younger acts like The Gaslight Anthem and The Hold Steady (Springsteen) and Arcade fire and The Dandy Warhols (Bowie).
Now, these men are in their sixties and are, remarkably, still producing amazing, relevant music. Bowie surprised the world in 2013 with the excellent The Next Day album after a hiatus of nearly a decade and has another album Blackstar due for release on 8th January (his 68th birthday). Springsteen’s 2012 album Wrecking Ball was a minor revelation and his finest work since Magic.
The differences have grown less obvious as age has seasoned them; both stand out as consummate performers and thoughtful songwriters in a world grown ever more crass and disingenuous.
It’s hard to be a saint
So did they ever meet?
Yes, they did, in fact. For all I know, their paths have crossed many times in the intervening years, but I am personally aware of only two times that the two were ever in the same room together.
The first wasn’t an actual meeting, but it was to prove quite significant. Bowie went to Max’s Kansas City one night in 1974 to see his friend Biff Rose play. When he arrived, Springsteen was onstage doing a solo Piano performance. Bowie was unimpressed by what he termed “another Dylan clone”, but halfway through his set, Springsteen brought on the rest of his band and gave a performance that literally blew Bowie away.
Bowie was so impressed, in fact, that he got hold of a copy of Greetings and went so far as to cover Growin’ up. That cover didn’t immediately get an official release – finally appearing in about ’89 as a bonus track on a German reissue of Pinups.
The next time their paths crossed was a little more bizarre. The story has been recounted several times and goes something like this;
At Tony Visconti’s behest, local Philly DJ Ed Sciaky called Springsteen on 24 Nov 1974 and asked him to come to Philadelphia to meet Bowie. Bowie was in Philly recording Young Americans. Springsteen actually hitched into Asbury Park and then caught a bus to Philadelphia to spend a couple of days as Sciaky’s house-guest.
Bruce later reminisced: “That ride had a real cast of characters… every bus has a serviceman, an old lady in a brown coat with one of these little black things on her head, and the drunk who falls out next to you.”
After killing a couple of hours at Philly bus station with the local ‘wildlife’, Springsteen was finally picked up by Sciaky and they duly arrived around midnight at Sigma Sound Studios where they spent the early hours of 25 November with an extremely coked up Bowie. He’d just recorded a cover of Springsteen’s It’s hard to be a saint but apparently, it wasn’t finished (actually, Bowie later admitted he chickened out of playing it to him), so Bruce didn’t get to hear it.
The two artists sat out in the hallway together and tried to find common ground. It was fairly obvious the two were in very different head-spaces, but they eventually began to find their feet. Bowie told Bruce that he’d wanted to cover one of his songs since that night in MKC. Springsteen asked which other current American artists Bowie would consider covering and then let out a small grin when Bowie, after a moment’s consideration, replied, “there are none”.
The two then commiserated with each other over the unpredictable and sometimes scary nature of stage divers and after a time Bowie went back to finish recording and Bruce left and, to my knowledge, that was the last time they spoke (There actually is a photo circulating around the web of what appears to be Bowie visiting Springsteen backstage at one of The River shows, but frankly it looks ‘shopped’ to me – still it’s entirely possible that they’ve bumped into one another over the years, they both live in an extremely rarefied world after all and they also reside within the same 30 mile radius, so…).
And for the record, here’s how Bowie remembers the night in question: “Springsteen came down to hear what we were doing with his stuff. He was very shy. I remember sitting in the corridor with him, talking about his lifestyle, which was a very Dylanesque – you know, moving from town to town with a guitar on his back, all that kind of thing. Anyway, he didn’t like what we were doing, I remember that. At least, he didn’t express much enthusiasm. I guess he must have thought it was all kind of odd. I was in another universe at the time. I’ve got this extraordinarily strange photograph of us all – I look like I’m made out of wax.”
*Speaking of Born to Run, the other big commonality with these two is that both ended up in awful, career freezing, Lawsuits with their managers. Bowie had to sue Tony Defries to wrest back control of his music and career and Springsteen had to do the same with his manager and partner Mike Appel.
**I was just reading Clinton Heylin’s E Street Shuffle and came upon this passage. I thought it worth including here.
“Landau (Springsteen’s manager/producer) had learned well from recent history. If he had a campaign plan, it was closely modeled on the one another repeatedly inventive solo artist of the seventies, David Bowie, adhered to for his 1983 album/tour, Let’s Dance, which spawned three major hit singles and gained a whole new audience for an artist whose critical reputation Stateside had always exceeded his second-league album sales.” (page 316)
+Yet another Bowie/ Springsteen connection comes via Roy Bittan (Springsteen’s keyboardist since the Born to Run album) who played on two Bowie albums, Station to Station and the sublime Scary Monsters. Bittan is responsible for the eerie Piano riff on the amazing Ashes to Ashes as well as prominent piano on Teenage Wildlife, Up the Hill Backwards, and TVC15.