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The Tribute

Mr Bruce Springsteen

A new book uncovers intimate unseen photographs of rock‘n’roll’s most cherished artist

  • Mr Bruce Springsteen shot at Ms Barbara Pyle’s studio in New York, 1975

After four days trapped within the claustrophobic walls of New York’s Record Plant studio in July 1975, time had long since blurred. For Mr Bruce Springsteen, an environment that should have symbolised creative freedom had become a prison. Sleep deprived and driven by perfectionist zeal, he was being pulled between two irreconcilable forces: an album that he was simply unable to finish to his own satisfaction, even after more than a year of labour and sweat, and the sell-out audience that was waiting for him that night in Providence, Rhode Island. But as sound engineer Mr Jimmy Iovine described the tortured creation of “Born to Run”, “he had a picture in his head and, as tired as he was, he wouldn’t let go of that picture”.

Mr Springsteen remembered feeling that last morning as if not only his personality but his body had been broken into fragments: “I was singing “She’s the One” at the same time as I was mixing “Jungleland” in another studio downstairs. At the same time, I was in another studio, rehearsing the band for the gig that night. That’s the truth. I almost died.”

  • “Barbara by Bruce, Bruce by Barbara” taken in McDonalds, Canal Street, New Orleans, 1975

It was a moment so traumatic, he said a few months later, that no one might have believed it was real, were it not for the documentary evidence of a photograph taken by someone Mr Springsteen identified only as “this girl Barbara”.

“It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever seen,” he said. “You have to see the band. It should be on the cover of that album… You ain’t never seen faces like that in your life… We were there for four days, and every single minute is on everybody’s face. The light comes through the window, it’s like ten in the morning; we’ve been up for days. We got a gig that night, we’re rehearsing, and what’s worse is, I can’t even sing!”

“This girl Barbara” was Ms Barbara Pyle and the photograph was “Dawn Rehearsal”.

Two months later, Ms Pyle met Mr Springsteen and the E Street Band in New Orleans and ended up in her native Oklahoma. She took them to the house she grew up in for some home-cooked barbecue. It was that very same night that all that tension began to dissolve. The Born to Run album that he had poured his heart and soul into for more than a year to translate musical fantasy into physical sound and fury had just entered the US Top 10 Songs Chart.

“There was an innocence to Mr Springteen’s first two albums, filled with an exuberance and passion,” Ms Pyle reflects today. “But Born to Run was a different story altogether – for Mr Springsteen, this was the album. It was his major statement. It needed to be a hit because Columbia Records really had the heat turned up on him to come up with a commercial success.

“So in the studio, not surprisingly, he became obsessed with details. He was hands on with everything; every part the band played. They were all great musicians in their own right and each made their own contribution to the music. He couldn’t have done it without them. But Mr Springsteen always knew in his head what he wanted to hear.”

  • Mr Springsteen and the E Street Band hang out at Lee Dorsey’s Ya Ya Lounge, New Orleans during a break from rehearsals, 1975

When Born to Run was a hit, the record company, who had planned to dump Mr Springsteen if sales of his third album did not match his critical reputation, relaxed in the knowledge that they had rock’s hottest new property under contract.

Yet success would carry its own burden. Mr Springsteen would soon be immersed in a potentially catastrophic legal dispute with his old manager. He also discovered that fame could become a curse; that his responsibilities were no longer to himself and his muse, or even his friends and band mates, but to a worldwide public who imagined that they knew him as a brother or lover. 

“I felt bad for two, three, maybe four months,” he admitted later. “Before that, it had been me and the band, and we’d go out and play. We’d sleep where we could and drive to the next show. 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.”

cBorn to Run, as Mr Springsteen later reflected, was the “dividing line” in his career. The album not only transformed him from cult attraction into international superstar, but it symbolised his journey into adulthood. Growing up in New Jersey, rock ‘n’ roll – hearing it, playing it and living within its ecstatic frontiers – offered a form of salvation from the petty confines of family life and school assignments. He imbibed its mythologies like nectar and fuelled himself on its promise of liberation. At 15, Mr Springsteen was in his first band, The Rogues; by 16 he was gigging regularly with Freehold’s local heroes, The Castiles. Over the next eight years, he moved through a series of different line-ups and identities, quickly realising that musical creativity and control would follow only if he could dictate his own course. Gradually he assembled a body of like-minded musicians who were sometimes band mates, sometimes rivals, but who shared his tireless enthusiasm for the magical power of rock ‘n’ roll.

This was the E Street Band; perhaps the only musical amalgam in America that was equal to the challenge of responding to all of Mr Springsteen’s musical inspirations – blues, country, R&B, rock, jazz, folk, pop and soul – and translating them into an utterly distinctive brand of rock ‘n’ roll music. By 1974, Mr Springsteen and his cohorts were delivering incendiary shows in clubs and halls across the nation, rekindling every fantasy that rock had incited in the 1950s and 1960s.

Mr Springsteen himself succeeded in the rare circus trick of combining classic rock ‘n’ roll myth-making with personal authenticity – an iconic blend that commanded total belief from everyone who experienced it. As Ms Pyle reflects today, “Mr Springsteen packaged himself, not in a cynical, manipulative way, but in terms of creating an image that would be true to himself and appealing to his fans. He had decided what and who Mr Bruce Springsteen was going to be, and what he would represent. He planned to make it happen and he did.”

  • Mr Springsteen captured in McDonalds, Canal Street, New Orleans, 1975

In August 1974, Mr Springsteen and the E Street Band were back in the familiar, slightly seedy surroundings of 914 Sound Studios in Blauvelt, New York. He knew that despite the freewheeling energy of his music, both on stage and on his second album, he had to carry a more profound creative responsibility into the sessions for his next record. 

“As a songwriter, I always felt one of my jobs was to face the questions that evolve out of the music, and search for the answers as best as I could,” he explained many years later. “For me, the primary questions I’d be writing about for the rest of my work life first took form in the songs on Born to Run (‘I want to know if love is wild … I want to know if love is real.’) It was the album where I left behind my adolescent definitions of love and freedom.”

Between sessions, the E Street Band had a steady stream of live performances. On the afternoon of 3 August 1974, they were the opening act at the Schaefer Music Festival in Central Park, delivering a set so intense that most of the ecstatic audience left before the headliner could even take the stage. Among the crowd was photographer and music-lover Ms Pyle, who was there on a freelance assignment shooting for Schaefer Beer.

“That was the first time I’d seen Mr Springsteen and the band perform,” she remembers today, “and I was completely blown away. I instantly became a huge fan. After the concert, I was raving about the show to photographer Mr Eric Meola. Mr Meola already had both of Springsteen’s albums. A week or so later, we drove to a show in Red Bank at the Carlton Theater and went backstage, which in those days was as easy as walking through the open door. There was no security or mystique.”

She quickly ran into a familiar face: “I’d met Mr Roy Bittan, Mr Springsteen’s keyboardist, years earlier, long before he joined the E Street Band. So when he saw me, he asked, ‘Aren’t you Kitty Pyle’s sister?’ Wow. Small world. I loved the music so much that I began to go to every concert they played within driving distance of New York City.” She struck up individual friendships with the band.

  • “Dawn Rehearsal”: Ms Barbara Pyle captured Mr Springsteen and the E Street Band during rehearsals for their Born To Run tour, 1975

As Mr Springsteen’s reputation grew, so did the band’s touring schedule, and they spent less time on the East Coast. But by the summer of 1975, their third album was still incomplete and they had moved from 914 to Record Plant on West 44th Street at 8th Avenue, near Times Square in Manhattan; another seedy neighbourhood populated with characters right out of Mr Springsteen’s lyrics. His new ethos and approach to the album was challenging to reproduce in the studio. The Record Plant sessions were descending into marathons of repetition and self doubt.

One night, Ms Pyle dropped by the studio to visit her friends. “He was stuck”, she recalls. “When I turned up at Record Plant something shifted: Mr Springsteen was suddenly unstuck. I was already a full-on studio rat from all the days and nights I spent in recording studios in New Orleans. I became sort of a fixture and was expected to be there almost every night.”

The Born to Run sessions ended in the exhaustion so visible in “Dawn Rehearsal”. “Photographing Mr Springsteen and the E Street Band on their ascent to superstardom was a hobby,” Ms Pyle reflects, “but after those last four days and nights in the studio, it became a mission. As the only photographer who was there just about full-time, I considered it my duty to document what was happening.”

Ms Pyle then met the E Street Band in New Orleans as they promoted the album that had driven them to the edge and was transforming their lives. An aficionado of New Orleans music since her college days, she went down to show them her New Orleans, but was then asked to join them on the road in Texas and then on to Oklahoma City in their bus, where they received the news that Born to Run had exceeded even the record company’s wildest commercial expectations.

Ahead lay some of the most difficult years of Mr Springsteen’s career, as he adjusted to the responsibilities of his fame while being stymied by a bitter legal battle with his early manager, Mr Mike Appel. Yet the musician and artist who emerged from this trial of endurance was clear-sighted, driven and focused, not just as a remarkable songwriter, producer and peerless entertainer, but as someone who would later become a committed social activist.

  • Mr Springsteen and the E Street Band played at Houston Music Hall, Houston, Texas, on 13 September, 1975

Ms Pyle remembers, “There was an honesty between us that can only come from endless hours locked in the studio, hours that bled into days, weeks, months. It is that honesty that you can see in the photos of Mr Springsteen’s face. I respected him and he knew that. So he trusted me.”

“I adore these pictures,” Ms Pyle says today. “That’s why I’ve always been very protective of them. They were taken with passion and belief, not for money. I wasn’t under contract to anyone. In fact, the only time I got paid was when I took the band’s passport pictures! Looking back at them now, they’re touching and honest. My gut instinct was that there was something important about that unique moment in the lives of Mr Springsteen and the E Street Band. I am grateful to be the one who gets to tell that story.”

All images © Barbara Pyle/ Reel Art Press

This intro to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band 1975: Photographs by Barbara Pyle, published 30 October 2015, has been edited by Mr Peter Doggett.

The release coincides with an exhibition at Snap Galleries in London, 13 October to 28 November 2015

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