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Bruce Springsteen: Streets of Fire by Eric Meola

Clio Award winning photographer Eric Meola captured Bruce and The Big Man on the Born to Run album cover, and he need never have clicked his shutter before or after to have etched his place in rock history.  Fortunately for us, that was not to be the case.  The images captured in Streets of Fire depict a look through the America the songwriter’s eyes observed in the years between 1977 and 1979, which produced the album Darkness On The Edge of Town.

Bruce Springsteen was fresh from hashing out a management break-up with Mike Appel, and had worked on many dozens of songs during the hiatus.  “The Boss” had approximately one hundred songs in unused stock, but no particular niche linking them into a clear style. The songs soon to be decided upon would produce the Darkness On The Edge of Town album, and the rest, as they say, is rock and roll history. Live For Live Music was fortunate enough to be able to speak with the author and photographer.

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Eric Meola recounts humbly how he was in the “right place at the right time”, to have photographed the cover shot for Born to Run.  Two days after the death of Elvis Presley, Meola left for a road trip to photographically document the days leading up to the end of Bruce’s exile on the way to fame street.  Deserts, highways, thunder, lightning, church houses, motorcycles, cars, trains, and open all night gas stations would fill much of the back-drop to the photos.

After being featured in the very same week on covers of both Time and Newsweek, Bruce had jumped the gates at Graceland in a thwarted attempt to meet Elvis.  He clearly did not want to die too young behind similar walls in New Jersey.  Meola pointed out how “Elvis had been given a gift”, a “voice and sensibility” regarding music.  Elvis’ gift, though it still left us with perhaps the most remarkable niche in modern American music, still was “squandered”, and left him dead at only 42 years old.  Unlike James Dean, Elvis did not leave us with a beautiful corpse, but one bloated, worn, and road weary.  Thoughts of this haunted the young Bruce Springsteen, and we cannot know for certain how much this year and a half of “isolation” prepared him to deal with the further experience of fame to this very day.

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Meola knew there would be a “big change from Born to Run”, but was not certain what that change would entail.  He describes the experience being “for me, an awkward period of time.”  The break-up with Appel and it’s sense of betrayal left an air of “dark brooding” in the air.  The trademark use of color in much of Meola’s work would be abandoned here for the creative use of shadows found in the black and white photography depicted in the books pages. To suggest atmosphere to Bruce, Meola brought works by photographers Robert Frank, and David Plowden.  They depict a black and white America, hoping to find the salvation of added color somewhere later in the journey.  The characters on the later album, Nebraska, were birthed from mental images that seem to have been fomented in the songwriter’s mind in leafing through the work of these artists.

It is a credit to Meola to have helped to suggest and develop the visual aspect to Woody Guthrie‘s music in Bruce’s mind.  Bruce had been living and working at a farmhouse in New Jersey, in a fashion that reminds one of Bob Dylan playing and recuperating from fame with The Band in Woodstock at Big Pink.  Dark themed posed photos of a lonely Bruce at his farmhouse cut a figure about to re-emerge to the world, and strike back like The Boxer, whose gloves adorn his bedpost.  His heart wounded by Appel’s betrayal, his fame not solidified yet by riches, Springsteen had something to prove, and he clearly was about to embark on doing so.

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In a 1965 Ford Galaxie XL, Bruce and Eric drove along the highways headed to the Great Salt Lake, and the Bonneville Salt Flats,with Bruce lamenting the death on August 16th, 1977 of Elvis Presley.  Bruce’s betrayal by his management was in many ways parallel to that Elvis experienced with Colonel Tom Parker and the Memphis Mafia.  Bruce was stunned, much like Presley was, to learn Marty Appel “owned all the music” he had written to that point.  And the aftershock was “eating him alive”.  Although Bruce had never done any drugs, which had destroyed Elvis Presley, he feared living in a dreamworld constructed of fame, while his very own “Memphis Mafia” merely watched their boss implode before their eyes.

After 30 years in storage, the photos herein were brought out for the reissue of the Darkness On The Edge Of Town compact disc.  Lyrics from the years 1977-1979 are interspersed between pictures, along with insights in written word by the author.  The only thing missing is the compact disc, but we should already have that.  So put it on, and enjoy this book as you listen.

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By Bob Wilson (Live for Live Music)

***All photographs © Eric Meola 2011, 2012***

– Eric Meola is a Clio Award winning photographer, and author of 5 books including another Springsteen work – Born To Run: The Unseen Photos (2006).  You can purchase Streets of Fire and check out other works by Meola here.