Those of us who have spent the best part of 50 years surfing the mighty swells of Bruce Springsteen’s music – or, just occasionally, sitting disconsolately on the edge of a stagnant pool, wondering if there was anything still alive in there – could not for a moment have imagined that a dozen seconds of Charlie Giordano would summon all the memories in a flood tide: the joy and the anguish, the thrill and the ache, the togetherness and the lonesomeness, the devotion to an idea of what rock ’n’ roll could be, should be, has to be.
Charlie Giordano? Say it ain’t so. The guy certainly knows his way around the keys, but let’s be frank: he’s more Johnny Come Lately than Johnny 99. First studio album with the E Streeters? Wrecking Ball, that blast of solidarity-soaked, sweat-of-the-brow fighting talk from 2012, which, in the great scheme of things, feels like yesterday.
If we’re heading out along the boardwalk of nostalgia, true indispensables of long standing such as Roy Bittan and Max Weinberg would be far more obvious candidates to set us on our way with some trademark sidemanship. Either them or the remaining ‘originals’, Gary Tallent and Steve Van Zandt, who have been with Bruce a few days longer than forever? They could capture the sound of Springsteen on a penny whistle.
But no, it is low-profile Charlie from the heart of Brooklyn who turns out to be the man who grabs us by our throats and drags us back in time, and while no self-respecting musician appreciates being celebrated for sounding like somebody else, he will surely make allowances on this occasion. When Springsteen decided not only to unearth an unrecorded treasure from the early 1970s and send it out into the world, but also to make it as organ-driven as the rip-roaring knockabout Kitty’s Back and the mighty edifice that is Backstreets, it was Giordano’s task – correction: his duty – to raise the ghost of Danny Federici and let his spirit loose upon the Hammond.
It is worth suggesting at this point, before countless thousands of serious Springsteen scholars fall over each other in the race to point out that the organ solo on the studio version of Kitty’s Back was down to David Sancious (crikey, what a terrific piece of work he was) and that Bittan has the credits for both piano and organ on the initial recording of Backsteets, that we step back, take a breath and reflect on the fact that in live performances over donkey’s years, Danny was The Man on these songs. So stick that in your B3 and smoke it.
The opening notes of Janey Needs A Shooter, to my ears the strongest of the front-rank songs gracing the Letter To You album released in October to well-merited acclaim, are the essence of Federici, who died in 2008 following an association with Springsteen stretching across five decades. And when you hear playing that is pure Danny down to its skin, pips and core, you can be forgiven for believing that the mid-1970s never ended.
Those years were pretty good ones, looking back, and not simply because they were post-Nixon and pre-Thatcher. Most people continue to venerate the music that hit them hard in their mid-teens, but if you were lucky enough to be 16 or so when Station To Station, Blood On The Tracks, Physical Graffiti, the great Bob Marley live recording from the Lyceum Theatre and, most blissful of all, Born To Run hit the streets in the space of 12 months, you were truly blessed. There are golden years, as David Bowie mentioned at the time. And then there are years more valuable than rhodium.
Uncool to the point of cryotherapy as it may sound, my head was full of the recently-released Relayer, the last of the really bold and adventurous prog-rock offerings by Yes, when the bass player in my school band introduced me to Springsteen. ‘Forget the arty-farty stuff just for a moment and listen to me,’ he said as we sipped tea in the cold basement of his grandmother’s slightly worse-for-wear townhouse in the middle of Bath. ‘Better still, listen to this.’ The this was the first side of Born To Run, starting with Thunder Road and ending with Backstreets. I did as he asked and listened, which wasn’t hard to do from the get-go and grew steadily easier as the music unfolded. I’ve been listening ever since.
Under different circumstances, Janey could have been a part of that ground-shifting musical statement. It seems Springsteen wrote it in 1972 or 1973, lifting the melody from a very early song called Talking About My Baby but darkening the lyrics way past the point of even the most fleeting recognition. He toyed with the idea of including it on The Wild, The Innocent And The E Street Shuffle, his second release, but left it to stew on the reserve list. The same happened when it came to piecing together Born To Run. Poor Janey had to make do with a prominent place among what might be called Bruce’s On The Waterfront numbers. Which is to say, it could have been a contender.
It’s certainly a contender now, if not a title-holding champion, with that vintage organ-piano duet underpinning a wall of sound-style production, a molten-hot harmonica rip after the second stanza and an anthem of a chorus that is certain to be a centrepiece of whatever live shows a man in his 70s is either able or willing to perform once Covid stops having its wicked way with us.
Among the chief glories of Letter To You are the harkings back to Springsteen’s early-phase triumphs. If I Was The Priest has the debut release Greetings From Asbury Park NJ running right down its middle; Song For Orphans shares the sound world of Darkness On The Edge Of Town; Ghosts and the title track would have sat easily anywhere on The River; One Minute You’re Here could have held its head high on the wonderful Tunnel Of Love. (Mind you, there is a flipside: House Of A Thousand Guitars is comfortably bad enough to have made it on to Working On A Dream.)
Janey is the first among equals in the list of reference points. Like Backstreets, it is a mid-tempo tour de force of around six and a half minutes; like Backstreets, the singing drawls and seethes in equal measure. There is not much of a contest when it comes to the wordsmithery – the more familiar song wins hands down on the street poetry front, which is probably why it made the cut in ’75 – but if mean-streak swaggering Springsteen suits your mood better than the regret-soaked yearning version, this old-new offering is a stone-cold winner.
‘Well Janey’s got a doctor who tears apart her insides.’ The opening line does not offer us much in the way of romance: certainly, we’re a very long way from the ‘soft infested summer’ of Backstreets, when ‘me and Terry became friends’. Yet Springsteen always had a killer line or two up his sleeve. The insidious medic’s hands are cold and his body old, so ‘Janey turns him down like dope’.
There are dark portraits of a predatory priest and a stalking cop to add insult to the sense of emotional injury and the E Streeters respond in pitch-perfect unity: Weinberg in particular, his thunderclap drumming at the front of the mix as we build towards the close. What closure we receive. Quite how Springsteen generates such tension when everyone knows precisely what is coming is one of the enduring mysteries of this rock ’n’ roll life, but long may the mystery continue.
And long may Danny Federici smile down on us, no doubt from a familiar vantage point to the left of the celestial stage.