Circus Story: Bruce Springsteen’s The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle at 50

Sparks fly on the Boss’s second album of 1973

The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle magazine ad (Image: eBay)

Over the course of six decades, Bruce Springsteen has released 21 studio albums and 23 live albums.

The number of unique songs on all those albums is a bit of a mystery: Vulture claims it’s 340 while calls it 337. Sorry, I’m not gonna cross-check the lists to see which three songs are at issue. The point, though: The Boss has a deep catalog.

That, plus Springsteen’s history of changing up his setlist from show to show, has prompted a lot of fan complaints about the relatively static setlists on his 2023 tour. Thing is, Bruce is playing fewer songs while telling a specific story on this tour, one that addresses issues of aging and mortality, that looks back on a life well-lived and looks ahead to how that life is likely to be remembered.

“The songs are not all from Letter to You but they take on that theme,” says Steven Van Zandt, referring to Springsteen and the E Street Band’s 2020 studio album. “It’s not exactly a linear, literal storyline from beginning to end, but it has that color of the theme that comes from the album.”

All of which makes it notable that the tour has prominently featured three of the seven songs from The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, Springsteen’s second album released September 11, 1973 (per his official site, though Wikipedia and others say it was released November 5 of that year). It’s a record that is ridiculously more sophisticated and innovative than anyone had a right to expect from a skinny 24-year-old New Jerseyan.

Bruce Springsteen The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, Columbia Records 1973

About a third of the way into the show we get “Kitty’s Back,” which (as of this writing) has been played in every single show this tour. Once a setlist rarity (on 12/17/2000, almost two years into the reunion tour, it was played live for the first time in 22 years), it gives the band a chance to stretch and show off their chops and gives the 73-year-old Boss a chance to catch his breath.

“’Kitty’s Back’ was a remnant of some of the jazz-tinged rock I occasionally played with a few of my earlier bands,” Springsteen wrote in Born to Run, his 2016 autobiography. “It was a twisted swing tune, a shuffle, a distorted piece of big band music.”

Though it’s been left out of a handful of shows, “The E Street Shuffle” typically turns up a few songs after Kitty. As Springsteen wrote, it’s “a reflection of a community that was partly imagined and partly real. Musically, I based the song on Major Lance’s sixties hit ‘The Monkey Time,’ a dance song.” Give that tune a listen; I bet you’ll hear “Mary’s Place” in there, too.

And while “Rosalita” wasn’t played at all on the 2023 European leg, the fratboy party anthem fan favorite that Bruce has called “my musical autobiography” has been an encore staple of every U.S. show so far. “I wrote ‘Rosalita’ as a kiss-off to everybody who counted you out, put you down or decided you weren’t good enough.”

Two other songs on the album are relatively well-known to even casual Springsteen fans. “Incident on 57th Street,” which flows into “Rosalita” (fortunate is the fan who has experienced that one-two combo in concert), is a rich slice of cinematic romanticism in the same vein as “Jungleland” or “Backstreets.” It’s as superb and sublime a lyric as anything he’s ever written. What a masterpiece to appear on just his second album.

For those who have visited Asbury Park once or often, “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” is the tune that is most evocative of summer on the boardwalk. This was a signature song for keyboardist Danny Federici, who died from melanoma on April 17, 2008. Danny broke out his accordion for his final interpretation of the tune on the Magic tour on March 20, 2008. The deep emotion in Bruce’s voice can be heard on the performance, which was released as part of the Magic Tour Highlights EP.

Of the remaining two songs on the album, “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” is surely the most obscure, though it has a soft spot in the heart of this writer, who spent a decade working with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. It’s a song about living on the margins of the conventional, and in retrospect takes on a possibly disturbing perspective with its last line: “All aboard, Nebraska’s our next stop.”


VIDEO: Bruce Springsteen “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight”

“New York City Serenade” closes the album, and was a staple of the final few months of the 2016 River tour: It opened the July 16 show at Circus Maximus in Rome and kicked off every show of the U.S. leg of the tour from August 23 through September 14. Like Incident, it’s a slice of urban romanticism, ending the album on a quieter note following the blistering raveup of “Rosalita.” Indeed, place the album on repeat and it’s a fine segueway back into the first cut on side one, “The E Street Shuffle.”

Looking back a half century, it’s clear that all the musical and lyrical elements that that helped catapult Springsteen into the upper stratosphere of rock and roll royalty are in ample evidence on this album. The pieces were all on the board, but they wouldn’t move into place and blast their way into the national consciousness until two years later when, in 1975, Springsteen released Born to Run and appeared on the covers of Time and Newsweek simultaneously.

But that’s another story for another time.



Craig Peters

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Craig Peters

Craig Peters has been writing about music, pro wrestling, pop culture and lots of other things since the Jimmy Carter administration. He shook Bruce Springsteen’s hand in 2013, once had Belinda Carlisle record the outgoing message on his answering machine, and wishes he hadn’t been so ignorant about the blues when he interviewed Stevie Ray Vaughan in 1983.

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