Last song composed in 1973 to enter The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, Incident On 57th Street is a gorgeous rock ballad with a chorus so catchy and beautiful that, had the song been shorter, it would have had the potential of a hit . But Bruce Springsteen, right from the choice of the title, probably wanted to take away emphasis from that refrain. Titles like Goodnight, It’s All Right or It’s All Right, Jane, would perhaps have increased its popularity. Instead Bruce curiously titled it Incident On 57th Street, referring to a mysterious incident, not explicitly described in the lyrics, but left to the listener’s intuition. The very real reference is to 57th Street, a central street in New York City, which contrasts with the imaginative Easy Street, Shanty Lane and Lover’s Lane, mentioned in the song.
UNCERTAIN LOVE, UNCERTAIN LIFE
The lyrics of Incident On 57th Street represents one of the best compositions of young Springsteen. It tells about the love stories that start and finish in the metropolitan slums. Spanish Johnny and Puerto Rican Jane, the protagonists, seem to come out of a film by the greatest noir directors of the 70s. Romantic guys who seek love and (vain) glory amid poverty, despair and the underworld. Women are fickle and hard and hearts are worth very little, compared to the call of the alleys. Prospects of a brighter future are deceptive. There is no search for eternal love, the dreamy love of fairytales or romantic films. These Romeo and Juliet of the slums are looking for one night love. Johnny doesn’t want to give himself up to prostitutes; Jane knows that the boy will probably disappear the very next day, but asks him not to leave her alone that night. Tomorrow will bring something o someone else. The success of that love is uncertain, like their future. They will be able to find the answer in the streets during the night or, at most, walk together until dawn aimlessly.
THE CALL OF THE BACKSTREETS
Springsteen, already a very fine songwriter, with Incident On 57th Street only lets us guess something about how the plot of this one-night-long act will end. After making love, Jane is sleeping, but opens her eyes just when Johnny is getting dressed to throw himself back into the night. He’s called by a fate that wants him to seek his fortune on the street, even at the cost of his life. On leaving, he tells Jane that everything is all right and gives her a date for the next night. But, just in the following hours, the incident mentioned in the title could take place. It is possible, but not sure, that Johnny was injured (or possibly killed) on that incident on 57th Street. Or maybe the incident is just referred to that casual and almost accidental love story. We, as listeners, can decide the ending, just like in some great movies. Hence the choice of that title: the ending of the whole story is hidden there.
THE QUADRILOGY OF THE SUBURBAN EPIC
Incident On 57th Street is part of a quadrilogy that also includes New York City Serenade, Kitty’s Back and Jungleland and which we could define as a suburban epic. If It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City and Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street, included in Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., have their setting in the metropolis but tells in first person the individual experience of a young kid coming from the country, it is with the songs mentioned above that Springsteen describes love stories who are born and die (often together with their protagonists) in New York suburban neighborhoods. Unlike much of his subsequent discography, in these songs Springsteen narrates in the third person, as if to better observe the details of the story without excessive identification with the characters, just like an expert film director would do.
AN ALMOST ROOKIE BAND IS ALREADY BIG
Incident On 57th Street is a beautiful mid-tempo rock ballad, supported by the unmistakable rhythmic base of Vini Lopez and Garry Tallent and enhanced by David Sancious‘ and Danny Federici‘s excellent work on piano and organ. Tallent, in particular, finds his top expression on the bass guitar in this song (and more generally in this album), proving to be far more talented than the modest credit that music critics have attributed to him over the years. This emerges not only in the beautiful interweaving of cymbals and bass in the middle, but throughout the song, when Tallent travels on the fretboard of his bass, free to express himself at his levels of excellence. The final crescendo of vocals and guitars is to be savoured, just as the final fading is truly distinctive, a work of “pure mixing”, which leads towards Rosalita (Come Out Tonight). Incident On 57th Street would have deserved better success and circulation for its value, but Springsteen fans have held onto it for decades, especially after it has been revived frequently since the Reunion Tour. Springsteen has also performed some live versions on piano alone.
In the original recording Suki Lahav, Israeli violinist, is also credited, who in some songs of The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, and in particular in Incident On 57th Street, sang backing vocals. She later reached her greatest popularity as a musician when she recorded the intro violin of Jungleland, Springsteen‘s masterpiece included in the famous Born To Run.
Read Also: The E Street Shuffle, 4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)
Next Review: 2 October 2023 – Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
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