The long-awaited induction of Bruce Springsteen’s veteran sidemen, the E Street Band, took place at the 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The bandleader himself inducted his bandmates past and present, taking the crowd through the long history of friendship and comradeship, hard times and good times, success and failure, triumphs and trials. Forty years is a long time, and there were a lot of stories to be told this time, including one that no one expected to hear.
Original keyboardist David Sancious would be praised for having clean socks back “in my two-guys-to-one-six-dollar-hotel-room years of the E Street Band,” and would be noted as being the only one who actually ever lived on E Street. The meeting with bass player Garry Tallent ended up being a challenge, as the new kid on the block “burnt their house down.” The tale of meeting guitarist Steven Van Zandt was notable not because of the encounter between the musicians, but rather the precision with which he remembered the requirements to play the teen Hullabaloo Clubs in Jersey: “You played 55 minutes on and five minutes off, and if there was a fight, you had to rush back onstage and start playing again!”
Each one of the 10 members of the E Street Band, both past and present, was the recipient of their own carefully thought-out tribute, the stories relayed like Springsteen was speaking to a few friends rather than sharing the thoughts with an arena of 20,000. (To anyone who’s ever seen him tell stories in concert, this will not seem particularly exceptional, but despite the large contingent of Springsteen fans representing, this was not entirely his house tonight, which would be obvious later when Springsteen would tell the crowd “That sucked!” after an initial call-and-response during one of the performances.)
The absence of Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons was felt, and recognized — and recognized again — as Springsteen as well as family members acknowledged the absence and the lost opportunity. This tied into the most dramatic moment of the evening, when Springsteen revealed a story about Steve Van Zandt lobbying him to insist that the E Street Band be included when Springsteen was inducted, and how he wasn’t quite yet willing to listen. “I have one regret, and that’s that Danny and Clarence aren’t here with us tonight,” Springsteen reiterated, before telling a story from 1999—”16 years ago, a few days before my own induction,” and how Steve Van Zandt was exhorting him to insist that the band enter the Hall of Fame alongside Springsteen.
“And I listened, and the Hall of Fame had its rules, and I was proud of my independence, we hadn’t played together in ten years, we were somewhat estranged, we were taking the first small steps of performing and we didn’t know what the future would bring, and perhaps the shadow of the old grudges still held some sway. It was the conundrum, because we’d never been quite fish nor fowl and Steve was quiet, persistent, and at the end of our conversation, he said, yeah, yeah, but Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, that’s the legend.” (Van Zandt would be visibly moved by this revelation during the acceptance speeches, with Springsteen comforting him, and later relating, “I was rather surprised that he brought that up. It was a very personal conversation.”)
At some point someone at the Rock Hall must have done the math and realized that if 10 people were getting statues, 10 people would be speaking, and (at least according to Patti Scialfa), they were asked to keep their speeches to 30 seconds. This did not end up being the case, and the entire E Street acceptance portion of the evening took about 50 minutes, with the teleprompter flashing “PLEASE WRAP IT UP” more than once. The only real surprise during the speeches was from Victoria Clemens, wife of the late Clarence Clemons, who played a voice memo from her husband through the microphone for the entire audience to hear, bringing the Big Man to the ceremony in the only way she knew how.
Once the last acceptance speech was finished, the band strode to center stage and picked up their instruments. Accompanied by the current-day E Street Horns, David Sancious on organ, and both original drummer Vini Lopez and Max Weinberg playing drums, the E Street Band had a chance to show the audience why they were there. “E Street Shuffle,” from 1973’s “The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle,” paying tribute to the early days of E Street. This would be followed by the title track from 1980’s “The River,” Van Zandt on 12 string opening the song alongside Springsteen’s forlorn harmonica, showcasing the E Street Band at its best, and playing that song about as well as it’s ever been played.
The night would end for E Street with the 16-minute improvisational jazz-like exploration otherwise known as “Kitty’s Back.” The latter featured solos from Jake Clemons (the late Clarence Clemons’ nephew) as well as from both keyboard players and all three guitar players. Springsteen visibly exhorted and conducted David Sancious, and the grin on his face matched the one on Roy Bittan’s during his round. Steve Van Zandt peeled off some hot guitar licks, followed by a trademark Nils Lofgren solo, with the Gunslinger of Central New Jersey (as Springsteen was once known in the early days) closing the round, and ending E Street’s salute to itself.