Thursday, June 23, 2011

Deconstructing the Cover of "Born to Run"

“Ever conscious of iconography, especially on Born to Run, the album that was to be his unabashed, arduously recorded attempt at rock greatness, Mr. Springsteen didn’t lightly choose its cover image. It shows him leaning on a shoulder that, when the album is unfolded, belongs to Mr. Clemons. (Mr. Springsteen was standing on something, since Mr. Clemons was a head taller.)"   - Jon Pareles, writer, N.Y. Times

“When you look at just the cover of Born to Run, you see a charming photo, a good album cover, but when you open it up and see Clarence and me together, the album begins to work its magic.” – Bruce Springsteen in the foreword to Clarence Clemons’s book Big Man

“I’m on the back”  -  Clarence Clemons in his book Big Man

The recent passing of Clarence Clemons has resulted in a number of articles, eulogies and appreciations which have touched not only on his musicianship, but on his relationship with Bruce Springsteen.  Many of the articles have referenced the cover photograph on the album Born to Run as a summation and a symbol of their friendship.  I have received so many inquiries about the photo session for the cover and there have been so many misconceptions about it that I felt compelled to address them.  Thirty-six years have passed, but if there is one day in my life I remember clearly, it is that one.

In 2005, writer Daniel Wolff interviewed art director John Berg about the creation of the cover for Bruce Springsteen’s album Born to Run.  Berg related that he had to convince Springsteen not to go with a “serious artist” look.  Although Berg does not recall which image appealed to Bruce, it wasn’t the image that finally appeared on the album.

The "serious artist" look?                                                                                                      © Eric Meola

When I first heard about the album it was called Between Flesh and Fantasy.  Recently discovered notes from one of Bruce’s notebooks, owned by Springsteen archivist and collector Michael Crane, outline one possible idea for the cover:

Cover-  Flesh- city street in day
           Fantasy on golf bench in back of
           Madam Maries with big moon
           over the ocean + clarence in
Detail of a page from a Springsteen notebook outlining a cover idea for Born to Run
reproduced courtesy of Michael Crane

So at least one of Bruce’s ideas involved the duality of “flesh and fantasy,” and the contrast between day and night—a theme echoed in the first lines of the song “Born to Run”:
In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American Dream,
At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines…

The image that was finally chosen for the cover also emphasized a duality, but one far removed from benches, moonlight and Asbury Park fortuneteller Madam Marie.  Importantly, Bruce indicated in the notes that he envisioned “clarence in background.”  These notes were written at a point where drummer Ernest “Boom” Carter and pianist David Sancious had just left the band, and they would soon be followed by violinist Suki Lahav.  Bruce was writing the lyrics and the music for Born to Run, holding auditions for a drummer and pianist, playing gigs, as well as making notes about ideas for the album’s cover.

But part of the cover design for Born to Run was the result of a decision that Bruce made with regard to his second album The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle.  On September 11, 1973, a few days before his 24th birthday, it was released.  A sprawling tone poem that echoes Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, it is one of his most romantic albums, and it moves Springsteen’s world back and forth from the New Jersey shore to New York’s streets, in songs as varied as “4th of July, Asbury Park,” and “Incident on 57th Street.”  Yet for the small group of fans that was beginning to form, and who were captivated by Bruce’s every word, it contained a glaring omission—none of the lyrics were reproduced on the album’s jacket as they were on his first album Greetings from Asbury Park.

Recently, I ran into Bruce’s first manager, Mike Appel, and I took the opportunity to query him about the omission of lyrics. Appel stated that “That was Bruce’s decision, that was what he wanted.”  I later queried Bruce about whose decision it was to leave the lyrics off the second album, and he answered “It was mine and it was an experiment.”  But was it deliberate?  “Yes.”  

The last time I asked Bruce about the lyrics for The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, was on August 3, 1974—thirty-seven years earlier.  It was also the first time I met him.  We ran into each other on the steps of the Plaza Hotel, as he was about do a concert in Central Park.  Apparently I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t hear or understand some of the lyrics, as Mike Appel had to mimeograph them for the press.

In contrast, one thing was certain about the album design for Born to Run—the lyrics would be included, as this was a set of words that Bruce had labored over for more than a year.  As well, to the credit of Columbia and Bruce, nearly every single person who had any major part in the album’s creation was given credit on the album’s jacket.  This included departing band members who were on some of the tracks, along with the new band members, and session musicians such as the Brecker brothers, Dave Sanborn and Wayne Andre, Springsteen’s manager and producers (Appel and Jon Landau), art directors John Berg and Andy Engel, and myself, among others.  The need to include the lyrics and a lot of credits was something foremost in my mind when I chose to shoot against a white background.
The opened cover of Born to Run, front and back                                                                © Eric Meola

Jon Pareles was right when he wrote in the New York Times that Bruce was very conscious of iconography, and he was right when he mentions that Bruce was standing on a box.  Bruce had prepared for the shoot, and brought along his ripped T-shirt and various props and talismans—an Elvis button, a pair of sneakers, his then-signature newsboy cap, and a radio.  The black leather jacket he is wearing in the photograph was given to him by Mike Appel.  I had also prepared, going so far as to scout an outdoor setting—a fire escape on the corner of Sixth Avenue near my studio—as I wanted to give John Berg as many alternates as possible.

Around 10 or 11AM on June 20th, 1975, Bruce and Clarence walked into my studio on the fourth floor at 134 Fifth Avenue, carrying their instruments and a few changes of clothing.  I had the Rolling Stones album December’s Children playing.  The strobe lights were set up.  It was just us—no stylist, no hair and makeup, no assistant.  There was a six to seven inch difference in their height, depending on what statistics you reference, and Clarence wore a tall black fedora during much of the shoot.  I kept several wooden boxes around the studio to adjust for height discrepancies, though for much of the shooting I did not use them.  As Clarence riffed on several sequences of notes, I began shooting.  We made quick changes of clothing and in the space of an hour and a half I shot almost 600 images (I shot another few rolls under the aforementioned fire escape.) As we walked back to the studio, I glanced at my watch.  It had been just two hours.
Under a fire escape NYC June 20, 1975                                                                           © Eric Meola

I did not have an assistant and because I processed the film immediately after the shoot, the sequence in which the rolls were shot has been lost; the sequence within a roll still remains, however, and from that it is obvious that the interaction between Bruce and Clarence which resulted in the cover image lasted for about half a roll, or 18 frames. Of these, there are only two where his face is turned to Clarence and he is grinning in only one of them.  Clearly, it was an instinctual moment, and one which was brought on as much by practicality, as intent.  Standing on a box, he was suddenly several inches taller; Clarence’s crouch hides this and makes the height difference disappear.
  Alternate sequence #1                                                                                                        © Eric Meola

After a number of images in which they stood back to back and a few in which Bruce leaned on Clarence’s shoulder looking out at the camera, for perhaps 3 seconds he looked beatifically straight at Clarence as I shot two frames.  Other than his standing on the box, there was no “setup” for this, no premeditation—and, his guitar was not plugged in.  We were shooting fast, and if Bruce was after a particular image, he placed a lot of faith in me that in those few brief seconds I had captured the one that became famous.  It happened as much because of the moment, as whatever chord progression Clarence was playing that caught Bruce’s attention.
Alternate sequence #2                                                                                                        © Eric Meola

Springsteen biographers and hagiographers as diverse as Dave Marsh and Louis P. Masur have made much of that moment and proclaimed that the cover signals an epic journey, even comparing it to Huck and Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones.
Clarence & Bruce "outtake" from the Born to Run cover session                                          © Eric Meola

The mysteries of the Born to Run cover have assumed a mythical status that did not, of course, exist at the moment the album first appeared.  The initial misspelling of Jon Landau’s name, the alternate cover with its sepia blacks and jagged type, the mystery of where Bruce obtained a membership-only Elvis button, and the herculean effort on Bruce’s part in the studio have long since magnified a sense that every last aspect of the album and its design were planned from the very beginning. My photograph of him on the album jacket, leaning on Clarence Clemons’ shoulder, would forever become part of the vernacular of American pop culture, and over the years the pose was imitated by other recording artists, including Sesame Street’s “Muppets” and  NPR’s “Car Talk”  hosts Tom and Ray Magliozzi.

When I delivered a large stack of prints and contacts to John Berg at Columbia, I did not envision what he saw instantly—in Berg’s eyes, the most important part of the image was the space between their two faces, because it provided the perfect place to split the image.  Folded open so that both the front and back show, Clarence becomes the center of a riveting line of body movement along with the line-of-sight of Bruce’s magnetic gaze.  Yes, Clarence was right, he is on the back; but for Berg he provided the link to the album’s front.  He then extended the white space to the left to accommodate the long list of credits.  In its original incarnation, as 288 square inches of area, it is as much a greeting card as an announcement, as much a billboard as an album cover.
The full frame shot delivered to Columbia art director John Berg                                      © Eric Meola

Is it, as so many writers have stated, a declaration of the friendship and camaraderie between the two men?  Yes. Was it a deliberate, premeditated statement by Bruce about race relations?  Probably not.  Yet it became that, and by including Clarence from the beginning, Bruce chose not only the one remaining band member he most identified with, but the one who happened to be black.  In an album of saxophone solos, from “Thunder Road” to “Jungleland,” it seems an obvious choice. And, a brilliant one which came to symbolize far more than any of us could have envisioned.  
An "outtake" from the Born to Run shoot                                                                            © Eric Meola

Bruce and Clarence walked into my studio that morning, exhausted from marathon around-the-clock recording sessions at The Record Plant studios in New York. The number of frames where they are yawning attests to that. Bruce had put some very serious thought and preparation into those two hours.  Yet as he took his hat and jacket off and held the radio to his ear, and as I moved from close-ups to full torso shots of the two of them, the operative word of the day was “shoot.” Shoot lots of variations, change poses, try different things.  

When he finally heard the mastered version of Born to Run, Springsteen's reaction was that it was "The worst piece of garbage I'd ever heard."  Eventually, he came to embrace it the way we all did.  And the cover?

At one point Bruce stood on a four inch tall box, back-to-back with Clarence.  Then, he leaned on Clarence and looked soulfully at the man with the golden horn.  If it was a pose, he held it for a few brief seconds and two frames, and at the time I think Clarence, Bruce and I realized instinctively that there was something magical about that moment.

So would much of the rest of the world.   Blessings, Big Man.