Listening to the new Bruce Springsteen album, Magic - which is topping the US charts and rightly being hailed as something of a return to form - I started thinking about the days when Bruce really did make magical music.
Early Springsteen, and we're talking more than 30 years ago here, was sheer exuberance - unpredictable, romantic, adventurous and life-affirming.
The songs on his first three albums were peopled by preachers and circus acts, bikers, bus-drivers and fortune-tellers, hesitant girlfriends and unattainable beauties, losers resigned to the working life and heroes busting to break free of poverty and convention.
He'd polished those songs in small New Jersey clubs before fans who knew he was special, unveiling them with rambling, purportedly autobiographical introductions, the background rhythms throbbing louder as some improbable saga of frustrated romance or domestic rebellion culminated and the urgently whispered narrative gave way to musical liberation.
His stage shows were rightly legendary - three hours and more of free-flowing, sweat-dripping rock'n'roll theater.
And the music...the music drew on every influence - classical fragility and black soul passion and pounding rock discipline and much more besides, brought forth by a band of musicians who so plainly revelled, like no other band before or since, in the sheer joy of being up on stage together, their harmony exemplified by the partnership at their core: Working class white boy Bruce on guitar and vocals and big black Clarence Clemons alongside him on the saxophone.
But for a few months, between late 1974 and early 1975, there was also a violin, in the darkness on the edge, adding heartrending poignancy to ballads like the debut album's sparse "Lost in the Flood," the sprawling "Incident on 57th Street," the gangland drama "Jungleland," and the ever-mutating take-a-chance-on-me saga that became "Thunder Road."
It was a violin played by Suki Lahav, a young girl in a flowing white dress from Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar in the Upper Galilee, barely out of the army, barely married.
"Yes, I went from kibbutz harvest music to rocking with Bruce," Suki Tzruya-Lahav reflects wryly now, from a 32-year distance, from the Germany Colony in Jerusalem, where she's since raised her two sons, written several acclaimed books, taught creative writing and penned lyrics for much of Israel's musical big league - Rita and Yehuda Poliker and Gidi Gov and Rami Kleinstein and Ricky Gal and Yehudit Ravitz.
Though she's broken a tooth on the day we meet, and looks a little fragile, life after Springsteen has plainly been fulfilling for Lahav. She says it took her a long time to find out what she really wanted to do: the writing. And she loves it.
Springsteen has recently brought a violinist back into his band but Lahav, the original, never touches the instrument anymore. Never. "It's not like a piano, which sounds fine even if you really can't play. The violin played badly sounds awful. They were doing a show of my songs three years ago in Tel Aviv, and I thought 'wouldn't it be great if I picked up the violin again and played on a couple of them.' So I took it out at home, and it was awful. My husband pretended he was asleep. My older son, who's a musician" - a jazz guitarist - said, 'Go for it.' My younger son said, 'Stop, it's painful.'"
The Springsteen period was a brief, extraordinary interlude a long, long time ago. But she's happy to talk about it, feels incredibly fortunate to have been part of it, and is relieved, she says, to have been gone by the time Springsteen became "The Boss" and went global.
Her first husband, Louis, she recalls, switching sunglasses for spectacles with pretty floral frames, was the sound engineer at 914 Sound Studios in Blauvelt, New York, favored by the likes of Blood, Sweat & Tears, Melanie, Janis Ian and Springsteen's early '70s manager Mike Appel. So Bruce and the band recorded their first album there and were working on the second. "They worked nights; they were the main event in our musical lives. We were all young. He wasn't the big star. Not yet. Just a unique artist."
Springsteen had hired a church children's choir for a song called "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)," but they didn't show. "And I was around. And I had this high, pure clear voice. So that was my first time," says Lahav - singing, uncredited, on the track that appears on the second album, The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle.
Then Springsteen decided he wanted a violinist on stage with him, to complement the guitars, the sax and the keyboards. "Louis sent me along to audition. There were others. Surprisingly, he took me." Surprisingly because, she says disarmingly, "I didn't think I was very good... You have to practice for hours a day. I was never a big practicer. But maybe," she allows, "maybe I did have my own thing..."
Others in the band were changing too. She auditioned with Max Weinberg and Roy Bittan, drummer and pianist with Springsteen to this day. And there then unfolded seven glorious months on the road and in the studio with "Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band" as his career ascended from small clubs to stadia, en route to what would become, a few months after Lahav left, his grandiose heralding as "the future of rock and roll" with simultaneous cover stories in Time and Newsweek on October 27, 1975.
Maybe because we're speaking English, perhaps because it was all so long ago, or most probably because she was the classical musician at the edge of the rocking rapture, Lahav is not notably articulate in describing the rush it must have been to play with Springsteen in that headiest of times. "The music was incredible," she sighs. "The lyrics were so rich; some of the most beautiful lyrics didn't ever make it onto record." She says "everybody knew that he was going to be this big artist. But we were all poor. Bruce was poor. We were all just completely into this thing" - the music.
Then she asks me, "Did you see him live?"
I tell her that yes, but much later, in 1981, when the concerts were still extravagant, exhausting epics, but the clubs had long since given way to the arenas and the new music was structured and disciplined, verse-verse-chorus; freewheeling no more.
"But still," she says, "you saw him. So you understand how good he was."
WHEN LAHAV, who speaks softly, somewhat hesitantly, and has a certain gentle grace, says she is glad she didn't stay with Springsteen into superstardom, it's easy to believe her. She remembers one of the bigger concerts - thousands in a stadium somewhere in New York (probably Westbury in February 1975) - and says the roar of the crowd as the band made its way to the stage was terrifying.
"Of course I hid behind Clarence; held onto him; he was always big enough to hide behind."
The stage at this auditorium actually revolved, she remembers in horror. "You know, the violin is this delicate instrument. I'm playing and all of a sudden, 'Whoa, the floor's moving!'"
The odyssey ended as the breakthrough album, Born to Run, was being recorded. Lahav played on "Jungleland," credited on the cover this time. But Springsteen and manager Appel were in the process of falling out, a new manager, Jon Landau, was taking over, and "we were really Mike's people," she says simply.
She came back to Israel soon after, began the rest of her life, and is more polite than effusive about most of the music Springsteen's made in more recent years. "He is a lovely man," she says of the former band leader she hasn't seen since 1976, "and he wanted to become The Boss, to conquer the world." Matter of fact, rather than critical, she adds, "You can't conquer the world with the poetry of that early music."
Well, Dylan did.
"Dylan was a phenomenon. The time was right, and he wouldn't change."
Springsteen simplified his music, she acknowledges. The songs became more formal, less adventurous, less vivid, less wild - and, lately, much more political. "Artists change," she says a touch wistfully.
What does she listen to now? "I've gone back to my classical music," she begins.
But does she ever listen to the early Springsteen albums she played on?
"Of course," she says with real joy in her voice. "It's not the main thing in my life, but it's a part of me that will never fade."
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