On “Frankie” and When Live Performances Can’t Beat the Studio Version

More than “Jungleland,” the thing that really caught my eye in the Gothenburg show (and pre-show soundcheck) was that Bruce was giving another try to “Frankie.”

He’s had a complicated history with the song ever since it debuted on the final leg of the Born to Run tour in 1976. It was recorded during the Darkness sessions but went unused, having much more in common with the lost fourth album than the released version of Darkness. Rerecorded in its definitive form during the Born in the USA sessions, it remained in the vault until the release of “Tracks,” although being considered (losing out to “Murder Incorporated”) as an option for the “Greatest Hits” album.

These series of events (the song being considered for three different albums) certainly suggests an affinity towards the song from Bruce, but sadly, its live performance history has been somewhat checkered.

It was tried live for the first time in years during the Reunion tour in New Jersey: it was night 13 (August 9, 1999) of the 15-night stand, played in the wildcard spot in the setlist in the show, after “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” Things started out promisingly but by the time the band reached the bridge, the playing was a bit heavy handed, and descended into trainwreck territory by the time they reached the instrumental coda. Reports from the show indicated that the crowd, save the hardcore fans, were lost to the significance of the song’s reappearance in the set. Audio can be heard here: (link to YouTube).

After exactly one performance on the Reunion tour, “Frankie” returned for exactly one performance on the Rising tour. Its second appearance, on September 7, 2003 at Fenway Park went a bit better, helped in part by several soundcheck performances. Things still weren’t quite right, however, as the band notably flubbed the opening, with Bruce and Danny not playing in sync with each other for the introductory organ/guitar line. Bruce’s vocal delivery wasn’t the greatest here, and I think Bruce oversang it. The instrumental coda flowed pretty well but Clarence’s solo wasn’t his finest moment. Bringing the song back to the introductory riff gave it a clean ending but also truncated the best part of the song.

Bruce tried the song on piano a few times during the Devils and Dust tour, and in its solo-piano debut in Milwaukee on August 7, 2005, Bruce provided probably his best vocal and harmonica performance of the song. His piano skills were sufficient only to get through the verses, though, and he ended things quickly, rather than including the instrumental portion at the end. Bruce even commented that “I can’t guarantee I get through it without any mistakes, so any mistakes are intentional.” A subsequent performance, captured on video (link) from the Meadowlands on November 17, 2005 shows him rushing through the performance, and singing it in what I’d call a lackadaisical manner. Whether disinterest or self-consciousness of his piano skills, this performance could charitably be described as “not very fulfilling.”

Almost seven years later, “Frankie” reappeared on Saturday night in Gothenburg. Video can be seen here: (link). It was soundchecked again before the show, and this time Bruce tried a rearrangement, adding a violin part for Soozie at the beginning of the song. The mid-song story telling was distracting in my opinion, but save that, there’s no denying that from the beginning to the end, this was the best performance in totality.

Unfortunately, neither Gothenburg nor any of the other performances can compare to the studio version. The last two minutes of that song, with the interplay between the piano, guitar, drums and saxophone is, according to a description I once read, “the E Street Band playing like an orchestra.” The precision of the solo has never been effectively replicated live (even when Bruce tried omitting the sax part altogether, as he did in Gothenburg, replacing it with a guitar part). Perhaps it’s just not meant to be. This doesn’t mean I don’t want Bruce to keep trying though.

For me, “Frankie” is the clear #1 on the list of songs that have never been able to be performed live better than they were in their studio incarnation. The balance of the list:

#5: Jackson Cage
I never understood why he dropped the harmonica part from the bridge.

#4: Magic
In fairness, Bruce never tried to perform a version in the album arrangement, with the organ line and percussion that added the mystical effect to the song. There was definitely power in the acoustic duet between Bruce and Patti but that was something he’d tried the two tours previous (“Mansion on the Hill,” “Empty Sky”) and seemed like taking the easy way out in 2007. With a little more rehearsal, the album arrangement could’ve worked live.

#3: Worlds Apart
On the studio cut, the drum machine kept the tempo moving. Live performances of the song were great in their own way but the piped-in vocals were troublesome and the various different parts played by the band didn’t coalesce as well as they should have.

#2: Pink Cadillac
A casualty of the size of the band, unfortunately. The dirty groove captured when just Bruce, Garry and Max were playing is lost with all of the extra players.

One comment on “On “Frankie” and When Live Performances Can’t Beat the Studio Version

  1. L says:

    I have always loved Frankie and being in the audience that evening it is my opinion that the storytelling added to the experience. There were magic as well as fireflies in the night that Saturday in Gothenburg.

    I agree with you re Magic and Ties but I have never liked the studio Pink Cadillac.

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