The news that Bruce Springsteen had fired his E Street Band--maybe permanently--set his fans scrambling for information this week.
"We have a hot line and it's been ringing off the hook," said Erik Flannigan, associate editor of the Springsteen-oriented Backstreets magazine, estimating more than 800 people this week have called the taped message at his Seattle office since Monday. "There's a little bit of panic going on."
But little concrete information has been available. Items in this week's issues of People and Newsweek reported that Springsteen called the band members and told them he planned to use other musicians on his next album and that they should feel free to "pursue other projects." Springsteen's always-tight-lipped management is staying mum on the subject, as is his record company, Columbia Records.
Reached at his New York home, Max Weinberg, the E Street drummer for the last 16 years, was reticent.
"I read the newspapers and watch the TV with great interest," he said, refusing even to acknowledge that Springsteen had called him to discuss the future. "There's nothing I can tell you that would be fitting to the situation."
E Street bassist Garry Tallent, though, said on a New York radio interview this week that future projects together were a possibility, and several acquaintances of E Streeters say that they've been told that fired is too strong a word for what's happened.
"I called Max and Garry and they said it was an exaggerated rumor," said Billy Smith, a restaurateur in Springsteen's home town of Asbury Park, N.J., who until last year ran a local rock 'n' roll museum and still does mail-order business in items relating to Springsteen and other Asbury rockers. "They were told by Bruce that they would not be on the next album, but that they would work with him in the future. They basically said it was Bruce's prerogative. They didn't seem too upset."
But another person who has worked close to the Springsteen camp suggested that it seemed unlikely that Springsteen would record with new musicians and then hire the E Street Band back to play the music live.
The lack of any definitive statement has heightened the speculation among Boss followers as to the implications of the reports and what this means for the future of Springsteen's music.
To Springsteen fans, the E Street Band has always been much more than just a backing group--though the band stands among the best rock 'n' roll ensembles of the last two decades. It's more a matter of mystique: Bruce and the band, pals forever, all-for-one and one-for-all.
"If Bruce is dumping the E Street Band, he's making a big mistake," said Charles Cross, the editor of Backstreets and the author of the just-published book, "Backstreets, Springsteen: The Man and His Music."
"These guys have been with him forever," Cross said. "They are not just his band, but his musical soul, his backbone. . . . I'll still be interested in his records and what he does, but he couldn't find a better band."
But Cross added, "It doesn't surprise any Springsteen fan in the least. This is clearly the direction he's been going, where he's less of a unit with the band and more an individual."
Of the four studio albums Springsteen has released in the '80s, only two ("The River" and "Born in the U.S.A.") were recorded with the E Street Band. The other two ("Nebraska" and "Tunnel of Love") were essentially solo efforts in which Springsteen was clearly experimenting with different musical contexts than he could get with the band.
The decade also saw several changes in the band: Before the record-breaking 1984-85 "Born in the U.S.A." tour, guitarist Nils Lofgren replaced Steven Van Zandt--a friend and partner of Springsteen since the two were teens in Asbury Park--and Patti Scialfa was brought into what had been a men's club to sing background vocals. Insiders also speculate that while on the 1988 Amnesty International tour, Springsteen saw what Peter Gabriel and Sting have been able to accomplish by assembling bands based on their current musical needs.
And fans point to non-musical signs of restlessness, primarily Springsteen's ill-fated marriage to Julianne Phillips and his subsequent relationship with Scialfa, which made the Boss regular tabloid fodder.
"I think his personal life is adrift," Cross said. "To go through those things in the public spotlight would confuse me too. Will that confuse him musically? We don't know."
Still, the news is seen by some fans as a milestone.
"I can tell you the exact time and what corner I was standing on when I heard the news," said David DuBois of Los Angeles, telling how a friend of his filled him in. "I was crossing the street at Romaine and Highland and my friend said, 'Oh yeah! The big news is Bruce fired the band.' I almost got hit by a car."
But the truth is, the fans--even the most informed--don't know what the real situation is with the band. Several sources confirm that Springsteen recently recorded a version of Elvis Presley's "Viva Las Vegas" for a planned Presley tribute charity album. Reportedly, the song was recorded in Los Angeles using L.A.-based musicians.
Curiously, the fans in Asbury Park--who watched Springsteen and the E Street Band grow from a bunch of scruffy kids to a world-class phenomenon--are particularly easygoing about the potential end of that era.
"It's pretty quiet here," said Asbury Park's Billy Smith. "(Springsteen) pretty much does what he wants to do."
And at his heart, Smith refuses to believe that when Springsteen and the E Street Band--with Van Zandt--jammed at the Rum Runners club near Asbury Park on the Boss' 40th birthday Sept. 23 it was the last time the group would play together.
"I just can't imagine him touring without them."
LIVE ACTION: Tickets on sale Sunday for the Psychedelic Furs at the Pantages Theatre, Dec. 29 and 30. . . . Soundgarden will be at the Whisky on Dec. 7 and 10 and at the Marquis in Anaheim on Dec. 8. Tickets for all three shows on sale Sunday. . . . Also on sale Sunday are tickets for Testament, leading a four-band speed-metal bill set for Dec. 16 at the Santa Monica Civic, and for Ireland's Black Velvet Band at the Roxy, Dec. 18. . . . Former Cream bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker will team up at the Palace on Dec. 21.