Kingdom of Days
Roy Bittan's E Street pathos
By Raoul Hernandez, Fri., April 3, 2009
Beginning with Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run in 1975, Roy Bittan's piano playing finds perfect complement in one word supplied by an accordionist describing the emotional palette of his instrument: pathos. Bittan (pronounced "bitten") expresses more sympathetic compassion on 88 keys than 35 years of "Jungleland" crystallized by a Rockaway Beach comber in service of Springsteen's E Street Band.
"My sound is that of a little Jewish kid with an accordion," laughs the multi-instrumentalist by phone in Malibu, Calif., where he, his wife, and their two kids have resided for more than 20 years, while also maintaining a home in the Bittans' native New York.
From Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, and Born in the U.S.A. through foundational contributions to Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell and Dire Straits' Making Movies, Bittan's musical pathos matches a cinematographer's calibration of light and color. Celebrating 60 this summer in Munich, Germany, onstage with Jersey's finest, the pianist currently laces up Springsteen's Working on a Dream (see "Phases & Stages," Feb. 6), which tops the E Street Band's millennial rebirth. "Queen of the Supermarket" and "Kingdom of Days" move from tabloid to hymn.
"Yeah, they're really nice piano songs in a way," agrees Bittan. "It's really been a joy the last 10 years. There's more love among the band and Bruce than ever before. There's a true appreciation of the fact that there are only eight or nine people that have gone through what we've gone through. It's a blessing and a rarity, and we miss Danny [Federici] very much, and listen, we're not getting any younger, either. You go, 'Okay, well, this has been my adult life, this is what I've done, and how many more years can we continue on?'
"I think that's also spurring Bruce on. I think he realizes that we're all facing mortality, which was certainly brought to our attention in a most tragic way with Danny, and I think that he wants to move forward and keep moving forward 'til we can't move forward anymore."
Austin Chronicle: How did music enter your life initially?
Roy Bittan: Music entered my life when I saw an accordion player on The Ed Sullivan Show named Dick Contino, and I said, "I want to play that." He was pre-Elvis; from like 1949 to 1952, he was one of the biggest entertainers in the U.S. – very Italian-looking guy, muscular. Women in those days would throw their hotel room keys at him. I was too little to understand that part, but I loved the instrument, so I wanted to take accordion lessons, and my parents indulged me. I studied the accordion, and until Danny passed away, the E Street Band held the dubious distinction of probably being the only band in the world with three accordion players.
AC: The third one being?
RB: Nils [Lofgren]! We did the "Three Crazy Accordion Players" a few times in Europe – to riotous applause. We always try to play a song that people relate to, so we did a Swedish folk thing, and we did a polka in Germany, and we may have even done something in Italy. I don't remember.
AC: What is it about your sound that's so rich? Is that the accordion?
RB: That's an interesting question, because when you start out, you don't hear yourself really, and then as time progresses, you look backward, and you go, "Wow, I guess I kind of had a sound that's somewhat recognizable." So I think that playing the accordion, because of the melodic nature of the instrument ....
The two sides of the accordion are broken up, the right hand being the melody and the left hand being sort of chordal. I suppose you could say the same thing about the piano, but it's not really the same on the piano, because when you play the accordion, you tend to play melody with a harmony of thirds and maybe sixths, and it's a very, very melodically evocative instrument. The accordion also has a sense of pathos, as well as a sense of joy. I mean, it's a woodwind. It's wind blowing over a reed. And it can be very expressive when played properly. So I think the training I had on the accordion gave my playing an expressiveness.
Also, when I studied the accordion, I had a teacher who gave me the pop songs of the week to write out a chord chart, which is basically the melody of the song and then a symbol above it of what the chord is underneath it. You have to figure out how to play the song. So, that sort of extemporaneous, spontaneous training of taking a melody and then embellishing the accompaniment gave me a leg up on those who took piano lessons and maybe just studied classical music. I was trained early on in expressing myself and getting the most out of a particular piece of music.
AC: You met Bruce at Max's Kansas City in New York, 1974, where the E Street Band was sharing a bill with the group you were in at the time. How did he strike you?
RB: Like lightning! First of all, everybody in the club was mesmerized. There were two things about him that were astonishing to me: One was his charisma. He had incredible charisma. You felt he was your new best friend. He had that ability to become immediately intimate with you, incredibly charming. Then on top of that, there was the music. I related so heavily to the music because of Bruce's influences – the boardwalk.
I grew up in Rockaway, which had a boardwalk and a Playland. It was not unlike the Jersey Shore. I mean Asbury Park and Playland in Rockaway: Both have roller coasters and Ferris wheels. On the south shore of Long Island and Queens was Playland, and on Coney Island, obviously, there was the original amusement park. If you keep going around, down to the Jersey Shore, there's Asbury Park. So everyone he talked about, the boardwalk, the whole scene, it was like home for me. Then you add in the R&B influences and the great rock stuff, and I was like, "Oh man, this is fantastic."
So for a few nights, our bands would trade sets, and we would pass in the hall. I would go, "Ah, man, you're so great," and he would go, "Hey you played really great." We would pat each other on the back: "Hey, have a good set." There was no question in my mind that he was going to break through.
AC: You joined the E Street Band at a pivotal time. Piano drives Born to Run.
RB: The actual song, "Born to Run," [David Sancious] played on that. Davy was in the band at that time, so I was filling some big shoes. But yeah, the album was pretty much cut on piano, bass, and drums. Bruce would play some guitar, but it was about getting the piano, bass, and drums right, and once we had that, we added other stuff. I would do the organ overdubs, and Bruce would do guitars and finish the rest. The arrangements came about with rehearsal. I mean we spent a good bit of time working on the arrangements.
We would labor over, "Well, what do we do with the ending of 'Thunder Road'?" And "Jungleland," my God, it was like, "How do I connect all this stuff?" My classical training helped me connect all the sections and sort of make them flow together. Then we had to play it like it was a real piece of music. Bruce didn't want to just splice the song together; we would perform it from beginning to end and try to get one great take – not easy to do. So there was a lot of rehearsal involved, a lot of construction. The songs needed tight structure, and I think I was able to distill them and work up piano parts to highlight what he was doing. Using so much piano on the album gave it a certain gravitas rather than just maybe doing it all with guitars. It really put a spin on the record, if you'll pardon the pun.
AC: Was Born to Run piano-heavy compositionally speaking or because Bruce had a new instrument at his disposal, mainly you?
RB: My first response is that Bruce, being the incredibly astute individual that he is, recognized that I was able to take this stuff and run with it, that I could crystallize it in some way. He also wrote a lot of that stuff on piano, and I was then able to translate elements of his songs – the innocence and lost innocence and all the different elements. Maybe he heard that I was able to express those things that he himself probably could not when he was composing. We probably started working on a couple of things, and he was digging the way it was happening and said, "Wow, maybe this will be another eclectic record." It's funny because maybe it started out as an eclectic record, but it turned out to be a monumental rock album.
AC: Was Bruce's breaking up of the E Street Band after Born in the U.S.A. an inevitability?
RB: For me it was throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. I felt it when he was working on Tunnel of Love, which was sort of the last album before the breakup: He was doing it semi-by-himself. I worked on "Brilliant Disguise" and "Tunnel of Love" in his home studio with him, which was quite a departure from, "Okay, let's get the band in the studio and cut it live." There was something that made me very uneasy about the process. It was the impetus for me to move to California, because every time I wasn't working with Bruce, I was working on the West Coast with [Jimmy] Iovine and Stevie Nicks and all these different people. So I don't think it was an inevitability. I think it didn't have to happen.
But it did have to happen in the sense that I don't think he knew how to proceed with the band the way it was. He didn't have another method for recording the band other than the way we did it. I think he felt confined by that. I think he felt the need to detail more than just having us play. You also reach the point where there's personal baggage and there's stuff flying around the room that gets in the way of the creative process, too. I think he felt he needed to just break free. I wish we had put our heads together at that time and said: "Okay, wait. You want to try something different? Let's try this."
AC: This decade has been the most active for the E Street Band since the 1970s.
RB: It's really an amazing renaissance, I think.
AC: Would that have been the case had 9/11 not happened?
RB: Well, we did the reunion tour before that. And even before that we did Blood Brothers, for which we cut a couple of really great things, but I don't think he was ready to put the band back together. Then the reunion tour happened, and I think he recognized the rare chemistry. It's such rare chemistry to have a band that works, and I don't just mean gigs; I mean a band that's more than the sum of its parts. There aren't that many. You can count on two hands the great bands out there. So I think he rediscovered what we were and decided maybe this is something he should be able to utilize, to turn to, and that he can be incredibly creative within the framework of the E Street Band. I think this new record in particular is an extremely creative new record for him. I think that he went somewhere that he's only barely touched on in the past. I think he was incredibly successful in doing what he set out to do on this record.
AC: What did he tap into musically that he's only touched on in the past?
RB: There are pop music elements on this record that I don't think he explored very deeply. There's stuff that touches on the great music all of us love: the Beatles, the Beach Boys, even some great Phil Spector and Roy Orbison. One of the things I was saying to my wife the other night, because I was listening to a bit of it in my car – I said, "Do you believe how he's singing?!" Bruce's singing is spectacular. Above all else, that sets the album apart for me. When he sings "Tomorrow Never Knows," the tone of his voice slays me. It's Beatles-esque. And I love that he was able to express his vision with us and that we were able to do it with him, to make that thing work in our context. I think the band is capable of doing anything he might want. Wherever he wants to go, we can go.
AC: Keith Richards has said that if his moment at the firing squad came, his last request would be to play "Jumpin' Jack Flash" one final time. What song is that for you?
RB: That would be the longest song we ever recorded [laughs], which is "Jungleland."
AC: Thank you so much for your time today.
RB: I have one question for you: Is the Armadillo still there?
AC: No, they tore it down in 1980. Please tell me you remember playing the Armadillo?
RB: The Armadillo World Headquarters, the first real road trip I ever took with the E Street Band. We got in a motor home and drove from New Jersey to Austin, Texas. I remember we got out in the parking lot of the Armadillo, and they were cleaning up from the night before. There was nothing but Dixie Beer and paper cups on the floor. We played that night, packed house, and I remember during a song, Bruce turned around and kind of faced me. Then he turned back around, and as he turned around, somebody tossed a cowboy hat from out in the middle of the audience. They threw a cowboy hat, and the thing landed on the head of his guitar. And he looked at it, looked at the audience, took the cowboy hat, and put it on his head. It was just one of those moments. If you had to do it in a movie, you'd have to try like 40 times to get it. So there you have it, the Armadillo.
Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band's packed house at the Frank Erwin Center on Sunday, April 5, is sold out.