In the two months since Springsteen released his first new albums in almost five years, the eagerly awaited Human Touch and Lucky Town have gone cold on the charts. One small, sure sign comes from the Rhino Records store in Westwood, Calif. When the albums first came out, they were put on the top of the new releases rack with this sign: ”Bruce is loose. Has he still got the juice? (Ah-oh, I smell trouble.).” True, Rhino caters to a distinctly we’re-smarter-than-the-mainstream clientele. But the warning proved prophetic. A few weeks later, the albums, along with the smart-ass sign, had moved to the dead bottom of the rack.
The second Bruce Springsteen story we could tell is about personal happiness. The man who was born to run has settled down in L.A. with his former backup singer, Patti Scialfa. They had a boy, Evan James, nearly two years ago, got married last June, and had a girl, Jessica Rae, last New Year’s Eve. His new records bear witness to his new contentment, with what sounds like his awed relief. In ”Living Proof,” an especially thankful song on Lucky Town — which is dedicated to his family — he sings, surely to Patti:
You shot through my anger and rage
To show me my prison was just an open cage
There were no keys no guards
Just one frightened man and some old shadows
We have to be happy for the man, but we still have to ask a troubling question: Why is an artist still widely regarded as the chief rock & roll hero of our time not selling more albums? Two weeks after their March 31 release by Sony Music, Human Touch and Lucky Town debuted at No. 2 and No. 3 respectively — a strong start, though a notch behind Def Leppard’s Adrenalize, which went on sale the same day. Fine, said many pundits. Def Leppard, like all popular hard-rock bands, has young fans who buy albums the moment they’re out. Springsteen’s older audience is taking its time.
Instead there came a downward slide. Kris Kross, a novelty rap act, leapfrogged Springsteen to grab No. 2, then No. 1; Human Touch dropped out of the top 10 while Lucky Town fell all the way to No. 31. Then came Springsteen’s network-TV debut, his much-hyped May 9 appearance on Saturday Night Live. Was that, as many people in the music business assumed, an emergency move, designed to boost sales of the albums? Not at all, insist both Springsteen’s exasperated publicist, Marilyn Laverty, and SNL’s producer, Lorne Michaels, who says he got encouraging signs that Bruce might be available even before the new records came out. But if the SNL performance was designed to trigger sales, it didn’t work. In the two weeks following the broadcast, Human Touch has fallen from No. 15 to No. 24 to No. 33 this week. And the slower-selling Lucky Town is now down to No. 44.
Is Bruce in real trouble? Laverty denies it, citing sales abroad of 5 million copies — five times the sales here. ”Everybody’s really confident about his overall performance,” she reports, ”short- and long-term, both in the U.S. and abroad.”
But international sales often stay strong for artists who no longer rule at home: See Michael Jackson for a striking recent example. And what good would any international silver lining on the Springsteen cloud do for retailers here? They think they have reason to be worried. Record buyers, they report, were excited the first week Human Touch and Lucky Town were out. Now, reports Michael McKiernan, manager of Mushroom Records in New Orleans, customers feel only ”a lot of apathy,” in part because word quickly spread that ”the albums weren’t as good as people expected.” Scott Johnson, pop CD buyer for one of the two Tower Record stores in Phoenix, thinks he’ll be returning lots of new Springsteen to Sony. ”We ordered all this product,” he says, ”and now it’s sitting there.”
There might still be long-range hope. The albums could get a boost from Bruce’s new single, ”57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)” (though the first singles were disappointing: ”Better Days” nosedived almost immediately, and ”Human Touch” peaked at No. 16). Sales might revive when the last rehearsal for Springsteen’s upcoming tour, to be staged before an invited audience at an as yet undisclosed location, is syndicated live on nationwide radio June 5. Or they might jump when the tour, which begins in Stockholm on June 15, first comes home with at least five concerts at New Jersey’s Brendan Byrne Arena starting July 23.
And anyway, asks a member of the Springsteen camp who doesn’t want to be named, why can’t we remember that for much of his career Bruce didn’t dominate the charts? And it’s true that, though his album sales were hardly weak — four of his last five went to No. 1 — Springsteen was much more famous for his art and above all for his unyielding integrity, his determination to make music he cared about no matter how it fared commercially. He did burst into the treacherous arena of mass acclaim with 1984’s Born in the U.S.A., but why insist that he stay there? ”That heat of intensity is really not something anybody ever maintains,” the insider insists. ”It was an anomaly in his career.”
Besides, the charts aren’t what they were during Bruce’s heyday in the ’80s. Back then, they were manipulated by record companies and influenced by expectations based on an artist’s fame. But now they’re compiled from the bubbling lava of volatile record sales, and boil each time there’s a tremor in fashion. So, Springsteen’s fans might argue, why expect an honest rock & roll hero to shoot to No. 1? What’s so terrible about dropping to No. 31, then holding on honorably for months on end, selling millions of records while forgettable top 10 pop sensations rise and just as quickly fall above him?
One part of that proposition makes perfect sense: its picture of Springsteen’s retreat from the extremes of commercial hype. He never sought those extremes, and maybe he would be happy to fade from the white-hot spotlight they placed him in. So maybe the two Bruce Springsteen stories of 1992 will turn out to be two sides of the same tale, the ballad of a restless man who, while the world changed all around him, at last fulfilled himself with a calmer, more introspective way of life — one that, no matter how deeply anyone admires it, could never inspire his fans with the old wild excitement.
Now 42, Springsteen was once a man with a special quest, a seemingly bottomless thirst to find more in life than his working-class New Jersey background had taught him to expect. He wasn’t the only one with yearnings like that, and he began to find fans who felt he sang their own secret hopes. The mere sound of his hurtling rock & roll made them believe they could break through the chains of their own lives to find some kind of liberation. Meanwhile, in songs like ”My Hometown,” his lyrics talked about why liberation could be hard to achieve — how, as working-class communities eroded in the ’80s, even something as basic as a job could be hard to come by.