Single Review: Retro Tracks- "Incident on 57th Street"
On top of reviewing a number of new tracks and albums, I want to toss the old retro track into the mix. Most of these will be deep cuts from classic artists, and I felt that this track was an absolutely legendary addition to a review list.
This song, "Incident on 57th Street," is from one of my favorite albums outright: The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle (or WIESS.) It has been important to me, helping me to start exploring music in a greater sense and to finally take the dive into the blues. I wish I could have heard more of this sort of Springsteen, but it would have meant sacrificing what we got of "The Boss."
I also decided to choose this track because it is my favorite Springsteen song, bar none, and one of my favorite songs outright. There’s something about it that hooks me in tight and never lets me go. I have heard it an immeasurable number of times, and I will continue to carry it with me. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were populated at that point by David Sancious on piano, Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez on drums, the stalwart trio of Springsteen-Federici-Clemons, as well as Suki Lahav on violin (and vocals) and her then-husband Louis as sound engineer.
Each member of this group comes together to create a different sort of magic that sets early Springsteen apart from everything that comes next. From Lopez’s steady, reassuring beat, to the guitar playing that made Bruce famous, each member comes together to create what I would regard as one of The Boss’s finest masterpieces.
The song starts quietly, almost evoking this sort of secrecy that comes between the two lovers of the song. Centered around “Spanish Johnny” and “Puerto Rican Jane,” these characters are lost in a world all their own. Johnny, a male escort, established with a lack of fidelity and the sort of bruises befitting someone who’s worn out his New York welcome, is thrown a sort of lifeline by Miss Jane. He gives her a flimsy assurance in the first chorus, but heads off after the final interlude before the closing triple chorus.
Jane is left echoing the vocals of Johnny’s final assurance to the young woman by the end of the song, suggesting he’s been lured away by the uncertain promises of money and a steady gig: “Good night, it's all right Jane / I'll meet you tomorrow night on Lover's Lane / We may find it out on the street tonight baby / Or we may walk until the daylight maybe.” A hopeful promise, but one that can be interpreted as empty. Another heart that’s been hardened by a young man built on easily broken promises.
It feels like young Springsteen himself, who is perhaps built on just the promises that he can provide as a young musician trying to make his breakthrough, channeling himself through the character of Johnny. The song comes together beautifully, and I say that it requires multiple listens.
The instrumentation is so lush and multi-faceted that I can have multiple listens just taking in the breathtaking sound. Federici’s organ fills the song with a new kind of life in the first pre-chorus. Clemons serves a more quiet, understated role as Springsteen’s lieutenant, not having that solo characteristic of many of the band’s more iconic tracks. Suki Lahav’s choir-like vocals, echoing in tandem with Springsteen’s in the chorus lines and then all alone to end out the song, serve as a highlight counterpointed by Sancious’ light, twinkling piano keys. Long after I first listened to the song, I can still find more and more in each successive listen.
The tumult that would come at the end of this album, and throughout all of Born to Run, would fundamentally define the sound of the E Street Band in the years to come. Instead of the jazzy-rock fusion that comes in full force on WIESS, and the previous Dylan-esque folk of Greetings, "Born to Run" would see the transition between a jazz-and-R&B-fueled past to a harder, more refined future, as reflected in Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River. This was an important part of the journey to Springsteen finding his footing, and this song is one that made "Born to Run" possible.
Listen to Fluffy Cat's favorite song "Incident on 57th Street" here!