Important Questions: Is There Really An E Street? (A Springsteen Primer)
I love Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band in much the same way that a dog loves its master: unconditionally and with the kind of enthusiasm that makes gratuitous slobbering forgivable. The Boss is the patron saint of the Soniak family, one of the few things I have in common with my father that's not a genetic oddity (ask me about my crooked fingers sometime). I recently got tickets for the summer leg of the Magic Tour, and redemption after a disastrous attempt at seeing them last October (some punk from Jersey, of all places, sold me a fake ticket on ebay and PayPal refused to help me). To celebrate, here's a ton of Springsteen fanboy nerdery crammed into an FAQ for you.
1. When Bruce says that "they blew up the Chicken Man in Philly last night" in the song "Atlantic City," what the hell is he talking about?
The Chicken Man was Phil Testa, the underboss of the Philadelphia crime family under Angelo Bruno. Bruno was killed in 1980, and Testa, who got his nickname from his involvement in a poultry business, succeeded him as don of the family. His nine-month reign ended when conspirators in the family placed a nail bomb under his porch and detonated it when he walked out the front door.
2. Is There Really an E Street? Where?
E Street runs north east through the New Jersey shore town of Belmar. According to Springsteen lore, the band took its name from the street because original keyboard player David Sancious' mother lived there and allowed the band to rehearse in her house. The titular avenue of "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" is also in Belmar.
3. "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out"? I'm glad you brought that up. What's that song about?
"Tenth Avenue" tells the story of how the band was formed. The "Bad Scooter" that's searching for his groove is a young Springsteen in search of a new backing band. The "Big Man" in the third verse is saxophonist Clarence Clemons. Springsteen met him while playing in a club in Asbury Park. It was a stormy night with strong winds and when Clemons opened the door to the club, it flew off its hinges. Clemons has become a larger than life figure in the band, their personal Paul Bunyan, and Springsteen likes to use the story as proof that Clemons can blow the doors off any room he's in. The horn intro was proposed and arranged by guitarist Steven Van Zandt, and at several concerts it's been performed by the Miami Horns, a horn section that includes La Bamba and Pender from Late Night with Conan O'Brien.
4. It seems like the E Street Band has been around forever, but what did these guys do before the band formed, and during the decade between the break up and the reunion?
In the late 60s and early 70s, the Jersey Shore had a lively music scene, especially in Asbury Park, and almost all the E Street musicians got their start in various shore bands like Little Melvin & The Invaders, The Downtown Tangiers Band, The Jaywalkers, Steel Mill and Dr. Zoom & The Sonic Booms. Springsteen himself cut his teeth in The Castiles, Steel Mill and even played with Chuck Berry, who toured without a band in the early 70s to save money. He would pick up local musicians at each tour stop to do a show or two, and Springsteen performed with him when he came to New Jersey.
During lulls in E Street activity, and during the ten years between the band's dissolution and 1999 reunion, all the musicians kept themselves busy. Drummer Max Weinberg, of course, leads the Max Weinberg Seven, the house band on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. He was also a session drummer on Meat Loaf's Bat out of Hell (E Street pianist Roy Bittan also played on the album) and played on "Bat Out of Hell," "You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth" and "Paradise by the Dashboard Light," which gives him the honor of keeping the beat on two of the best selling rock albums of all time. He's also performed at the 1993 and 1997 Presidential Inauguration Galas, the 1995 Grammy Awards, the dedication of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and on albums by Sting, Paul McCartney, Peter Gabriel, Ringo Starr and Barbra Streisand.
Steven Van Zandt took the role of Silvio Dante on The Sopranos, released some solo albums, hosts the syndicated garage rock radio show Little Steven's Underground Garage and, in 2006, assembled and directed an all-star band to back Hank Williams, Jr. on recording of "All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight" for the season premiere of Monday Night Football that included Little Richard, Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen, Aerosmith's Joe Perry, The Roots' ?uestlove and Bootsy Collins. Van Zandt was also the director of the music selection committee that picked the songs for the video game Rock Band.
Clarence Clemons also made a brief foray into acting and appeared as one of the "Three Most Important People In The World" in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, and made a guest appearance on Diff'rent Strokes as a saxophonist who helps Arnold Jackson learn to play. He most recently appeared twice on The Wire as a Baltimore youth-program organizer. During the 80s, he also owned a Big Man's West, a nightclub in Red Bank, New Jersey.
5. Why do they call Springsteen "The Boss?"
We call him The Boss because we work for him. See you in 86 days, Bruce.
Matt Soniak is an intern for mental_floss. He also has his own blog, Bat Country, where he covers scientific oddities.