Born to Run
A brief history of the author as a Springsteen fan: In 1987, I was fifteen years old and a novice rock and roller. Rolling Stone celebrated its 20th anniversary of publication by compiling a list of the 100 greatest albums of those 20 years. Looking back, I find the list rather unbalanced, but back then I thought it would be a great guide to starting a record collection that included something other than the Beatles (I was just emerging from my “all Beatles all the time” phase). So off I went to the local used record shop, list in hand (over the years, I managed to acquire about 2/3 of the titles, but I never did find Trout Mask Replica. Thank God.) The list included no less than five Bruce Springsteen titles. I knew him from the big hits of 1984-1985, but I wasn’t aware that he had such a large catalog of widely-acclaimed records. I found Born to Run, took it home and eagerly played it. And hated it.
About a year later I gave it another spin, on the principle that everybody deserves a second chance. It spoke deep truths to me. Over the next few years I managed to gather up almost everything Bruce had released, including 45s, read endless tomes on his career, and generally worshipped the guy. As a freshman in college, I was asked to name my hero. As classmates spoke out with politicians, scientists, religious figures, I stuck with Bruce Springsteen. His songs helped my life make sense.
I breathlessly awaited his 1992 albums, and even attended a concert with his crappy band that summer. My faith was slightly diminished, but I stuck by his older albums. As he turned into a money-grubber in the 90’s, I did my little part to remind him what he meant to me. (When he came to town in 1996 on a solo tour, I held a one-man protest against his ticket prices $35! standing outside the concert hall with a placard comparing him unfavorably to “Weird Al” Yankovic, who played the week before for only $12.50. Somebody slipped me a ticket, and it was the best show I’ve ever seen.)
My ambivalence about Bruce is still pretty strong; I love what he has to say, but I think he’s gouging us with his ticket prices. I wasn’t prepared to spend any money on his 2002 album, but my wife was kind enough to surprise me with it. And there are still those moments when the one thing I need is some Springsteen; nothing else will do.
So just what happened in that crucial teenage year, between hating Born to Run and finding myself transported?
I got my driver’s license.
In the mid-sized burgs of America where Springsteen ruled, life feels different once you can drive. For big-city kids, it’s just a hop on the subway to a different neighborhood, a different world. But as long as mom and dad are driving you around, the only freedom a little-town kid knows is when he locks his bedroom door. But when you get in that car and start tooling around town even if you don’t go anywhere new it’s a whole new world of possibility. And that world is where Born to Run takes place.
The thing about the possibility of escape is that it puts your confinement into stark contrast. What once seemed perfect pleasant becomes an emotional burden, a sap into your very self. And Bruce Springsteen, small-town New Jersey boy, knows that too well (none of this accounts for his immense popularity in New York City, but I’ve never understood much about New Yorkers.) Born to Run summed up everything I felt about my town when I was seventeen, and that’s why I’ve loved Bruce’s music ever since.
As always, Bruce is a great musical synthesist there’s nothing profoundly new on the album, but he gloms together the fundamental organic drive of soul music with a heavy dose of the verbal and structural complexity of singer-songwriters in a way that achieves the best of both worlds: musical rapture and emotional catharsis. “Backstreets” starts with an off-kilter piano line and a forceful image of that small-town trap: “Trying in vain to breathe the fire we was born in.” But as the tension mounts, it all explodes into a rolling coda and a thousand variations on the title phrase. If you’ve lived it, this perfectly describes that last summer after high school down to the exhausted sigh of the drums in the last beat.
Elsewhere, there are hooks a-plenty that suit the lyrics brilliantly: imagine the triumph at the end of “Thunder Road” without that sax/guitar/glockenspiel line, or the sweaty bedroom of “Jungleland” without the simmering sax solo that precedes it. The band is hard at work. I could do with a little more restraint in the vocals; it practically sounds like he’s on Broadway. But you know he means it.
Bruce is no better than any of the rest of us at finding out how to escape these places without destroying our roots but he balances perfectly that mood of escape and the consequences of doing so. It’s no coincidence that the first song ends with “It's a town full of losers / And I'm pulling out of here to win” but the last song starts with a homecoming. For a long time I took the first to heart, but as I’ve aged the second is getting to mean more. God bless Bruce Springsteen for giving them both to me.
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Darkness on the Edge of Town
Squirm factor: 3
It's like they decided to make a Bruce Springsteen album just for me, leaving out the parts of his act I don't like (the monotone ballads, the "I wish I were Steinbeck" lyrics) and emphasizing his qualities that appeal most to me: his rocking attitude, his killer band, and his way with a hook.
For example, Bruce is one of my all-time favorite lead guitarists not for fluidity or grace, but for concision and power (check out "Cover Me" from Born in the USA for the best guitar solo ever recorded) and he plays a lot on this album. His guitar tone is marvelously ropy, with a thick fuzzy midrange and a cutting but not irritating treble edge, and there's a lot of fury and energy in his licks, like the winding intro to "Badlands", the long notes in the bridge of "Candy's Room", or the sputtering solo in "Prove It All Night."
The E Street Band is featured to wonderful effect here as well. For some reason, later albums, presumably recorded with more sophisticated equipment, don't capture the sound of the band as well as Darkness does. Max Weinberg's kick drum alone sounds three feet wide, and the bottom end is an aural brownie, rich and thick and satisfying. Have I mentioned what good bass licks Garry Tallent provides? He's a very smooth player, with a round attack, but the way all the chords get just a bit of syncopation from beneath is one of the keys to the ensemble sound. I've always been a sucker for a piano and organ played together: it makes the Band's records a joy, and it sounds great here, too. Roy Bittan for once gives up on his damned arpeggios and instead plays modified boogie-woogie on "Badlands", Floyd Cramer-style Nashville licks on "Factory", and a stately accompaniment on "Racing in the Street." Danny Federici's organ provides one of the record's many cathartic moments, as it gently sobs through the fadeout of "Racing." What's most impressive is the group dynamics throughout the band is able to build up crescendos, hit gigantic accents, or subtly weave a backdrop with impressive cohesion.
But the real heart of the album is in the songwriting. Although this record is not known for it, Bruce piles on the hooks: I can sing along with more songs on this album than any of his others. The choruses of "Badlands", "The Promised Land", "Prove It All Night", and "Darkness on the Edge of Town" are sunk so deeply into my brain I'll be humming them long after I succumb to Alzheimer's, and there are parts of "Racing in the Street", "Candy's Room", and "Something in the Night" that are so pretty, and sung with such conviction, that they move me to tears.
And of course, there are the lyrics. Readers familiar with my Ghost of Tom Joad review will wonder why I like Darkness, which deals with many similar topics, but disliked Tom Joad. I'll just say this: Tom Joad had an agenda, but Darkness has a point of view. And that makes all the difference. In these songs, Springsteen's not out to prove a point through parables he's plunging you into the thoughts of his characters, and pouring out well-articulated emotion instead of observation. It's impressive how many of these songs start in media res: "On a rattlesnake speedway in a Utah desert", "I'm riding down Kingsley", "Tonight we'll drive that dusty road from Monroe to Angeline". None of this "My name is Joe Roberts" phony short story business just pure characterization, and lots of well-turned phrases that are built into the hooks so you'll be shouting along with him before you know it ("Poor man wanna be rich! Rich man wanna be king!") After a few dozen listens (I can't ever play this album just once the music is so rewarding that I keep turning it over) Bruce's philosophy of life starts to sink in; you may disagree with him, but it's hard to deny that he's encapsulated it most efficiently in these concise verses.
Bruce's long slide into musical dullness and lyrical obviousness may have been inevitable after Darkness, for it's hard to imagine a better rock album, and you can't blame a guy for not re-creating the best work of his life. If you only buy one Springsteen album if you hate everything you've ever heard from the man you owe it to yourself to listen to Darkness on the Edge of Town; it's as powerful as rock music gets.
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Dreams what would life be without them? People persist against all odds, chasing dreams, and create art, history, new nations, even new religions. Yet, we live in a world of broken dreams. Who, after all, dreams of growing up to be a divorced software sales representative? Or perishing in a 110-story inferno as the victim of an obscure sociopolitical grudge? Even George W. Bush is a disappointed man; his father’s wealth and influence could get him the presidency, but not what he really wanted a career in the big leagues.
Bruce Springsteen is a man whose dreams came true (he is, indeed, a rock star), but it’s not how he imagined it. His life, and the lives of those around him, are still haunted by memories of what might have been. The River is haunted, too, with dreams both sleeping and waking.
Critics have claimed The River lacks the thematic focus of his other albums, with its scattershot approach of rockers mixing with ballads, seemingly light-hearted numbers next to sober meditations on fate. These critics have apparently never grappled with their own consciences, because this album is one of the finest concept albums ever created. Musically, Bruce’s critics have him dead to rights: his tunes are basic, his band is tight but not innovative, his harmonic framework relies on standard changes. But Springsteen’s not interested in innovation his use of these tropes opens our minds to channeling deeper emotions, as they touch on the music embedded in our memories and move us to a familiar place, a place where our hopes, dreams, and ultimate disappointments are close to the surface.
The E Street Band is in fine form, whether laying down funky soul tracks, complete with baritone sax, or working up a dreamscape sound picture, like the bass glissando and loosened floor tom rumbling like far-off thunder in “Stolen Car.” Many of the ballads have glockenspiel or organ playing lullaby melodies to fade out, evoking the weariness of a hard day’s struggle. “Drive All Night” is an exhausted fever dream, with a slow heartbeat and musical sweat dripping from the spare guitar licks.
Even when Bruce is springing cheerful anthems, they’re more about braggadocio and wishful thinking than anything else. “I’m a Rocker” is a daydream of spy derring-do, and “Crush on You” never gets past staring across the room. “Cadillac Ranch,” for all its surreal joy, is ultimately about facing death. “Sherry Darling” is humorous, but not without a dark edge of compromise: “My love for you is real, but I didn’t count on this package deal.”
The haunting feeling of living in a dream hangs over the album: “Stolen Car” has a nighttime mysteriousness that underlies the narrator’s inexplicable motivations, and “Fade Away” is filled with fear of “vanishing into the night.” Elsewhere, Springsteen sings thoughtfully of the struggle to cope with disappointments: “there's nights when I dream of a better world/ But I wake up so downhearted girl” in “Jackson Cage”, and one of the man’s most eloquent lines, “Is a dream a lie if it don't come true/ Or is it something worse?” in “The River.” The two streams of thought combine in “Point Blank,” in which the narrator dreams of a past in which his lover’s aspirations hadn’t yet been crushed. It’s brutal.
But negativity is not Bruce’s only point of view. There are dreams and hopes, tempered by a refreshing honesty about the consequences of pursuing them, that still gleam in the future for his subjects. “I Wanna Marry You,” complete with soul-group backing vocals, is stunning in its beauty, but may be the best song ever written on the subject. A good listen will suffice for a hundred Dr. Laura Schlessinger broadcasts: “Now honey, I don't wanna clip your wings/ But a time comes when two people should think of these things/ Having a home and a family/ Facing up to their responsibilities/ They say in the end true love prevails/ But in the end true love can't be no fairytale/ To say I'll make your dreams come true would be wrong/ But maybe, darlin', I could help them along.” “Independence Day” holds a deeper feeling, a mixture of spite and hope, as the narrator sends his broken-spirited father away but proclaims, “They ain't gonna do to me/ What I watched them do to you.”
The big hit is “Hungry Heart”, and it’s hard to pin down what’s happening in this song. The sprightly melody (it was originally written for the Ramones) is a fun blast, but the lyrics, starting with the infamous “Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack/ I went out for a ride and I never went back”, should be thoroughly dispiriting. They’re not, though, and I think it has something to do with the longing for a home the American dream that the narrator nonetheless continues to destroy.
Springsteen is not averse to plumbing our cultural memories either, as he addresses the ancient story of the children of Israel and their frustrated dreams in “The Price You Pay,” or paraphrases St. Paul in “Two Hearts”: “Someday these childish dreams must end/ To become a man and grow up to dream again.” The River is the end of childish dreams for fame, fortune, freedom and poses a challenge for Bruce and for the listener: to dream new dreams worthy of the wisdom and experience we’ve gained through having our dreams crushed or dissipated.
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The Chinese had a notion called the “Mandate of Heaven.” When the gods had turned their favor away from the ruling dynasty, the signs would be manifest in natural disasters and war. Well, it hasn’t been a great month for the old U.S. of A., what with all the spacecraft explosions, nightclub stampedes, roof-collapsing blizzards, rock concert fires, and imminent wars. Are the gods trying to tell us something, particularly in light of our administration’s almost scoffing attitude toward traditional principles of equitable distribution of the burdens and benefits of government? Why support fire inspectors when there are taxes to cut?
I mention this apropos of Nebraska because Springsteen wrote these songs in a time of similar governmental attitude, and I think he got Reagan all wrong, just like I’m probably getting Bush all wrong. Taken at face value, the songs are moderately interesting tales of the unlucky and the ill-prepared, coping with life’s adversity. But Springsteen, in interviews and onstage announcements, and his apologists, particularly Dave Marsh (who’s my favorite rock writer but who sure has a blind spot when it comes to Bruce), have presented them as more than that.
Bruce claims the songs on Nebraska are the true unwritten story of America, revealing the untold, inescapable effects of poverty brought about by governmental policies on American life. And it would be that if John Steinbeck had never written a book, if Franklin Roosevelt had never given a speech, if there hadn’t been dozens of rock songs during Springsteen’s lifetime that dealt with the issue. The reason that poverty doesn’t stick in the American mind as an important theme is that it’s not an important part of our national life.
Governments come and go, from the reckless laissez-faire of Grover Cleveland to the reckless spending of Lyndon Johnson, and people feel the changes; sometimes people are out of work for a few years. But endemic unemployment, like that known in many parts of the world, is virtually unknown in the United States. The American economy is the single greatest tool for lifting people out of poverty ever invented. Families start at the bottom, but rarely do they remain there. When Grant Knowlton set out from upstate New York to homestead in western Minnesota, he had nothing. When Michael Ciarlino got off the boat one step ahead of the law, he had nothing. Now their grandchildren (my parents) regularly jet off to sunny climes for vacations three or four times a year.
You might say, well, things are different now. You’re right things are easier. I don’t know of many poor families who are fending off wolves from their livestock, or picking rags from the garbage.
Don’t get me wrong I think the government has an important positive role to play in making sure corporations play fair and workers are safe, and in supporting those things that make life better, like public safety and education. And certain idiotic moves, like legalizing gambling, can certainly harm society. But I’m not convinced a few years of ridiculous hostility toward the common man by any particular administration is going to result in the creation of a permanent underclass, much less strip people of their moral foundations (as I understand it, Charlie Starkweather killed all those people to impress his girlfriend, not express outrage at the Eisenhower administration). Just ask those families who were struggling when Nebraska came out and are now sending their kids to college.
I guess I’m just too interested in Bruce Springsteen, and know too much about him. You see, if I were a casual fan and just listened to the album, I’d find a lot to like. His eye for detail is as sharp as ever, from the caliber of shotgun to the brand of road map he’s wiping his fingers on. When he tries, he can achieve ironic poignancy of great depth, as in the narrator “Highway Patrolman” fondly reminiscing over a song about natural disaster, or the last verse of “Reason to Believe” telescoping a baptism and funeral while the river rolls on. And “Atlantic City” remains one of his finest creations, with a rousing melody and a furious chorus that spits out a refusal to accept foregone conclusions. But for every nice moment like that, there’s a dull tune with uninspired guitar picking, or mush-mouthed singing. And when you’ve got to put up with that kind of presentation, you start thinking about interviews or articles you’ve read, and then you come up with this kind of political spiel instead of a record review. There you have it: don’t blame me, blame Bruce for not bringing in the band. And blame Bush for invoking the wrath of the gods.
Born in the U.S.A.
One of the interesting thing about being a parent is hearing phrases come out of your mouth that sound like you’re playing Mad Libs. For example, “Don’t lick the bathtub,” or “Be careful with the guitar, it’s covered in cheese.”
Oddly enough, that last phrase was probably also uttered in the studio when Bruce was making this album. Well, not necessarily the guitar, but the keyboards, and definitely the lyric sheet. It’s probably less ironic than simply pathetic that Bruce became a megastar by completely abandoning his critical faculties when it comes to picking songs and arrangements, but a lot of these numbers practically define “cheesy”.
For example, that synthesizer on “Dancing in the Dark” sounds like they flew in the whole Flock of Seagulls. And that’s a clever enough lick on “Working on the Highway” the first few dozen times you hear it, but it starts to grate around the time you notice it has the same effect on your brain as the narrator’s jackhammer would.
It’s the lyrics that really show Bruce at his worst, though. “No Surrender” and “Bobby Jean” sound like they came from the pen of Bob Seger, with their cringe-inducing nostalgia for teenage years (and even Bob never phrased anything as awkwardly as “talking about the pain that from the world we hid”). “Downbound Train” sounds like a parody of a Bruce Springsteen song (and a better one than “Tweeter and the Monkey Man”): the character’s wife leaves him after he loses his job (hint for Bruce: if you’re working at a lumberyard, your wife didn’t marry you for your money), then takes up a job at the car wash for no reason other than Bruce wants to fit in the (admittedly powerful) phrase, “all it ever does is rain.” Later, he gets yet another job laying down railroad ties in the rain, apparently because Bruce can’t think of another rhyme for “train.” It does have a great guitar lick, though.
Another terrific riff with questionable lyrics is “Born in the U.S.A.” This recording is amazingly powerful, with a strong synth voice working against a rumbling piano and slashing guitars (notice the acoustic hidden in the mix) and that groaning bass line, topped off by one of Bruce’s finest vocals that welds rage and bewilderment into that trailing groan of a chorus. But this song, along with the Born on the Fourth of July movie, has helped to perpetuate an unfortunate stereotype of Vietnam veterans as maladjusted losers who can’t catch a break. Sure, some are, but think about all the veterans you know: aren’t most of them pretty well-adjusted family men, even some successful in their careers? For example, John McCain. Sure, Vietnam veterans got the shaft, but so did the veterans of the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, the Korean War and the Gulf War. Bruce’s song is, of course, just one man’s story, but some of the public stands he took at the time have helped to give a false impression about these brave men.
Of course, even when his bullshit meter is on the fritz, Bruce is a powerful songwriter, and he delivers four doozies on this album. “Cover Me” is about the funkiest thing he’s ever done, and you can thank Steve Van Zandt’s disco rhythm guitar for it. Bruce contributes a wonderful lead line, too, soaring in the introduction, and delivering a rhythmic wallop during the solo. “I’m on Fire” is Bruce showing his sexy side, and you can tell why he became a teen idol for a couple years. Just thinking about those big arms and the sultry way he sings “I got a bad desire” and I’m getting sweaty. Imagine if I thought his ass on the album cover looked good!
“Glory Days” seems to be more Seger-style claptrap, but it’s got an undeniable riff and a wry sense of humor in the last verse. It does feature the world’s most pointless fadeout, though, as it goes on long enough that the band finishes the song before the sound drops out. “My Hometown” is simply brilliant, and almost redeems the lameness of so much of the record. Bruce modifies his typical ballad beat to a slightly more danceable feel and restrains the synths to hummable three-note riff. His story boils down all the melodrama of his earlier “life with father” epics (“Adam Raised a Cain”, “Independence Day”) into one vignette of driving around town with his dad, and then zips through all the destruction that twenty years of racial tension and economic depression can wreak (he’s talking about Asbury Park, but he could be talking about Detroit). There are no fingers pointed, no solutions offered, just the flat statement, “this is my hometown.”
What’s especially sad about this record is its unfulfilled promise. Bruce wrote 90 songs and picked these twelve, leaving out gems like “Pink Cadillac”, “Frankie” and “Man at the Top.” For those of us who find Bruce, at his best moments, capable of stirring our deepest souls, it’s terribly frustrating to realize that most people know his work through this thoroughly mediocre album. The good parts are often on the radio, so keep an ear open for them.
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Tunnel of Love
In which Bruce discovers the maracas. Hey, I like a little “shicka-shicka” as much as the next guy, but on eight songs?
Seriously, that fact is indicative of Bruce trying out successfully a new production approach. Previously he had recorded “live in the studio” with the whole band going at once, or done his “Wall of Sound” imitation on Born to Run. For Tunnel of Love he takes on the famous “layered” approach popularized by the Beatles and used on lots of pop records since. It involves gradually adding or dropping elements from the mix at different points in the song, to generate sonic interest as the texture changes. The opening cut, “Ain’t Got You” demonstrates it well, as Bruce kicks off with an unaccompanied vocal, and gradually brings on various percussion and guitar parts. But the approach works throughout the album.
Taking the one-man-band approach allows Springsteen a lot of music freedom, which he exploits well. He brings in members of the E Street Band when their presence can add to a track (the piano on “Brilliant Disguise”, Max Weinberg’s subtle percussion throughout) but is free to explore some rhythms his band doesn’t do, like the Cuban-styled “Brilliant Disguise” (dig that loping bass line) or the light rockabilly (reminiscent of Buddy Holly) “All That Heaven Will Allow.” Bruce himself plays a lot of synthesizers (much more tastefully than Roy Bittan did on his early ‘90s work) and bass quite adeptly, and his vocal work more measured than on some past work. A Bruce Springsteen pop record seems like a bad idea, but Bruce’s melodic ideas and attention to detail make it all pay off.
It seems Springsteen decided to tone down his sound in reaction to his previous album having attracted a lot of less-than-introspective fans (as demonstrated by the idiotic hooting throughout Bruce’s thoughtful introduction to “Born to Run” on the Chimes of Freedom EP.) Eschewing the big guitar hooks and snare-drum-the-size-of-a-truck-tire sound of his big hits meant that the focus would be back on the songwriting, not the mass appeal of his biceps. And what songwriting!
Our man Bruce decided it was time to settle down and write some adult relationship songs, rather than the teenage lust anthems he’d delivered previously (although it’s hard to beat “I Wanna Marry You” or “Wreck on the Highway” as serious looks at grown-up love). His experience, unfortunately, seems to have been unhappy in this regard. Relationship experts will tell you that keeping a marriage going requires a lot of “hard work.” Well, maybe. But if you’re married to the right person a person whose company you enjoy, whose judgement you respect, who you think is sexy (and vice versa) then the “work” involved (namely, paying attention, being respectful, and trying to behave yourself) become the things you want to do anyway. But once the relationship degrades, you get what Bruce is worried about all through the second half of the album.
Taking first things first, though, we get some lovely looks at that feeling of new love, as “Rain and storm and dark skies, well, now they don't mean a thing / If you got a girl that loves you and who wants to wear your ring” with a bubbly melody and a light-hearted vocal. A stately beat under sober synths announces “Tougher Than the Rest” which stakes a claim for love as a redemptive force: “Well there's another dance, all you gotta do is say yes / And if you're rough and ready for love honey I'm tougher than the rest.” On paper, it’s not so impressive, but the way Bruce delivers these lines make them stand out as a durable pledge of fidelity.
The album slips a little as Bruce issues what may be the oddest opening line ever written for a rock and roll song: “Bobby said he'd pull out, Bobby stayed in, Janey had a baby, it wasn't any sin”. “Spare Parts” has an excellent groove, with Garry Tallent’s driving bass working against a bluesy harmonica, but the melody doesn’t go anywhere particular and the lyric doesn’t know what it wants to say. “Spare parts and broken hearts keep the world turning”? Is the accidental baby a “spare part” in its parents’ lives? Why does his mother want to drown him and then choose not to? Bruce is stretching a little too far on this one.
It’s all redeemed by the next pair of songs, two of the strongest in Springsteen’s career. “Cautious Man” is a spare arrangement, mostly acoustic guitar and light keyboards, but Springsteen doesn’t mumble and the melody is lovely. For years, his songs have been about hitting the road, finding something to move toward, but now he’s exploring a character who finds a reason to stay where he is: “in a restless heart the seed of betrayal lay”. The last verse is a masterpiece: the melody arches to a peak as “Billy awoke to a terrible dream” and swoops sadly down with “calling his wife’s name” and Springsteen delivers a sleepy lingering tone on “a peaceful sleep a thousand miles away.” Billy walks to the road and finds himself confronted with dread, and walks back into Bruce’s incredible image: “At their bedside he brushed the hair from his wife's face as the moon shone on her skin so white / Filling their room with the beauty of God's fallen light.”
As I’ve listened to this album over and over the last couple weeks, I kept thinking “Walk Like a Man” may be the most profound song Springsteen ever wrote. No element of life is ever removed from its context, and Bruce rolls childhood memories, adolescent angst, male bonding, wedding-day anxiety and sadness over lost opportunity into three simple verses. Over a gently falling chord sequence, he sings in a wistful tone about how his father’s touch reminds him of all the things he did as a child, from walking in the sand to hustling down the street with his mother to watch a wedding, and it’s a bolt of emotion, like a rock and roll version of Proust’s cookie. Unlike Marcel, Bruce finds something to do beside ruminate, though, and while he grieves that “I was young and I didn't know what to do / When I saw your best steps stolen away from you”, he makes the pledge to “keep on walking.” The metaphor is a powerful turn on the old cliche, and the emotions are true. It’s a shame this song hasn’t become a classic like “Independence Day,” because it addresses the same issues with greater understanding and compassion, and stands as the finest testament to Bruce’s depth of feeling; it’s hard to imagine The Rising without this song paving the way.
Side two find Bruce exploring love gone bad, but doing it eloquently. “Tunnel of Love” captures that moment early in a relationship when things stand on a tipping point: “I can feel the soft silk of your blouse / And them soft thrills in our little fun house / Then the lights go out and it's just the three of us / You me and all that stuff we're so scared of.” Nils Lofgren contributes a guitar solo that captures that amusement park vibe with its topsy-turvy note bending and rollercoaster intervals, and the whole arrangement reeks of nervous tension.
Some gentle ruminations on the sadness of love gone bad fill out side two, as “Two Faces” rides a taut acoustic guitar strum and “One Step Up” finds the narrator admitting the most dispiriting feeling: “When I look at myself I don't see the man I wanted to be.” Between these lies “Brilliant Disguise.” Bruce has a great melody here, in the best Four Seasons/Lou Christie tradition, as he stretches the title phrase over a long melisma (notice how each time he sings it, the break between the words comes at a different point), and the keyboard duet brings to mind the classic E Street sound while the rhythm section explores a revival of early 60s latin grooves. Bruce’s impassioned vocal on the bridge (“Now look at me baby, struggling to do everything right”) settles into a doubtful wariness (“I want to know if it's you I don't trust 'cause I damn sure don't trust myself”) in a tour de force of rock singing.
There’s a friendly tone to “When You’re Alone”, especially in the vocals (“It ain't hard feelings or nothin' sugar”), but a bewildered lyric, that sets up the closer, “Valentine’s Day.” Once again, the narrator’s in a car, but this time he’s heading home. The chords reverse the pattern of “Walk Like a Man”, as the narrator isn’t looking back, or making a promise; he’s reveling in his condition now, taking in all the details of his environment (“the skies and the rivers the timberwolf in the pines and that great jukebox out on Route 39”), concentrating on his emotional sustenance: his love. As images of doom (“last night I dreamed my eyes rolled straight back in my head”) surround him, he’s “born anew” with the comfort of a single “lonely valentine.” Bruce would later write a great anthem (“Land of Hope and Dreams”) that culminates with the line “faith will be rewarded”, but on “Valentine’s Day” it doesn’t need to be said. The movement from “Tougher Than the Rest” through the betrayals and cheap lies of side two, and finally to “God's light come shining on through...baby, it was you” demonstrates what love can do when its participants stick to it.
For all the dreams he’s explored, and visions he’s shared with his listeners, Bruce Springsteen is no romantic fool. Tunnel of Love is a musical treat with its inventive production, but more than that, it’s a deeply emotional tour through the vagaries of love and family and one of the most compelling statements about the power of faith ever recorded.
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This guy sounds like he’s been listening to Bruce Springsteen too much. He’s got the superficial resemblance down, but the details are off. If you’re going to do a big mushy mid-tempo song, it’s got to have that E Street swing in the rhythm, and a little soul in the keyboards, instead of the stiff slickness found here. And what’s with the chorus effect all over the guitars? Bruce would never use a chorus effect It sounds like Enuf Z’nuff!
But wait, this record label says it’s Bruce Springsteen himself at work. I can only surmise some sort of doppelgänger worked his way into the studio and laid down a set of tracks with the quasi-Springsteen sound but none of the real Bruce’s attention to feel and detail.
The vocals sound like Bruce at his most raging moments, but doppelBruce sings at full roar throughout every song, as though there’s no other way to sing. And the words often don’t match the melody, forcing our imposter to make awkward pauses or repeat unnecessary words, like “steal what we can from the treasures, treasures of the Lord.” And drawing extra attention to these lyrics is definitely a mistake.
The real Bruce Springsteen resonates so deeply with his listeners because he pays attention to places, people, and things. Stories involve Wendy in ’69 Chevies with a Hurst on the floor driving through Darlington County, not in a lucky town across the flood line. Beyond the vagueness of detail, fake Bruce seems to be reaching for some sort of mystical American folklore full of gypsies and weird imagery like “crying like he swallowed the fiery moon” and “Jesus' son sanctified.” Aside from the blasphemy involved, what the hell does it mean?
Luckily, the real Bruce seems to have found out about the skuldugerry in time to put together the last two songs, which are both terrific. “Souls of the Departed” gets down to some gritty details for once the road to Basra, East Compton and has a pounding riff that underscores the despair of the verses. “My Beautiful Reward” is simply gorgeous with a lilting melody and the stunning image of the narrator imagining himself as a bird, seeking that elusive substance called satisfaction. I remember the end of a long drive from central Michigan to Chicago, which consumed the entire Springsteen oeuvre, listening to this song as I drove up Lakeshore Drive toward my first day living away from home, as one of the most cathartic moments of my life. I’m not entirely sure how I made it from the car into the house.
That’s the power of Bruce at his best. Too bad he let some other twerp record a bunch of pleasant but mediocre songs on the rest of this disc.
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Bruce seems to have begun his serious “gouge the fans” campaign around this time. See, first he released two separate albums on the same day. (He could have saved us money by making it a double album, but he insisted on taking the extra dollars out of our wallets.) Then he went on MTV and played a concert to promote his tour. I watched in rapt adoration, and hoped for a soundtrack album. To my delight, he released one but only in Europe! So naturally I plunked down my twenty bucks to the import record dealer and took it home, only to have Bruce release it domestically a few months later. The outrages continued with confiscatory ticket prices for his solo tour, the 18 Tracks scam, and finally the sell-your-blood-to-see Bruce ticket prices of the E Street reunion tour. But I’m not bitter; in fact, I’m going to say a lot of nice things about this album.
This record illuminates, to my ears, what happened to Bruce’s music in the early 90’s. It turns out he wanted to be slick. Now Bruce made his reputation as the opposite of slick and the E Street Band was pretty clearly holding him back from indulging in pure lacquer. So he hooked up with L.A. studio cats (will some please tell me how a man as soulless as Jeff Porcaro made his living as a drummer?) and dumbed down his lyrics for maximum mainstream appeal, and promptly fell on his face.
However, this tour and band were already in the works, so we get a glimpse of Bruce’s prodigious gifts working in an inappropriate context. In a lot of places, the new line-up actually shows off his material in a good light, and when it doesn’t, it still affirms the quality of his songwriting.
The advantage of live Springsteen is that he gets to show off his sense of humor, which is mostly missing from his albums. “Red Headed Woman,” which also features some nice yodeling, is a hoot (“I don’t care how many women you’ve tasted, you ain’t lived ‘til you had your tires rotated... by a red-headed woman”), and his exhortation for the audience to put down their popcorn and take off all their clothes provokes a smile. Also, Bruce gets to show off his guitar skills, which always livens up a set. Listen to “I Wish I Were Blind” as the middle section swells into a growling, snarling guitar duet, or the way the guitar leads through “Light of Day” with a charging velocity. Of course, “Human Touch” has one of his worst performances ever, with a solo resembling drunken humming.
The very professional backing vocalists are a nice contrast to the E Street Band’s usual frat-boy yelling. “Man’s Job” is simply luscious, with a jangly guitar hook contrasting with a gospelly chorus, and “My Beautiful Reward” hums nicely over mellow oohs and aahs.
Of course, when it’s not saving him, Bruce’s newfound slickness is sinking him. The squishy synth pads suck all the passion and energy out of “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and “Thunder Road” (it sounds like Bruce doesn’t even like the song, with his resentful delivery). It’s particularly aggravating on “Human Touch” as those three chords keep repeating for six minutes with nothing interesting happening, except when the drummer kicks into some clever fills during the coda.
And Bruce’s songwriting from this era was rather hit-or-miss. Notable offenders include “Living Proof” (overblown imagery, dull tune), “Lucky Town” (who are all these gypsys and why are they bothering Bruce?) and “If I Should Fall Behind” (lovely sentiment, I wish he had written a melody). Still, the best of the new material “Man’s Job”, “My Beautiful Reward”, “I Wish I Were Blind” stand up well, and since Bruce has largely turned his back on his part of his catalog, are not likely to be found in future set lists.
Now that Bruce has returned to his senses (hopefully) and realized that neither slick pop nor boring balladry are his forte, we’ll probably be spared from too many rehashes of this performance; however, even at his most befuddled, Bruce still did some fine singing and playing.
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The Ghost of Tom Joad
Bruce Springsteen seems to think that the worst thing that could happen to a person is to be poor, and he has spent much of his career writing about the terrible lives poor people lead. But I can think of a lot worse things to be - for example, a smug hypocrite.
After he released this album, Bruce came on tour to our town, and he gave an interview to the local paper saying he wanted to be a spokesman for the working man. Then he charged $35 for tickets - to a solo show! Exactly which working men did he expect to attend this show? (Contrast this to "Weird Al" Yankovic, who played the same auditorium the week before, with a full band, light show, costume changes, and multimedia presentation - for $12).
If I seem a little bitter, it's just that for a long time I really admired Bruce for his championing of the little person, and now that I find that I am one, I can't go to his shows (last summer's tickets started at $72 - tack on "service fees" and it's literally cheaper to buy every album he's made than to take my wife to a show.) And don't get me started on 18 Tracks: hey, fans, buy my four-disk set, and then go and buy fifteen of the songs again 'cause I played you for a sucker and left out the most-requested outtake of my career and saved it for this "compilation."
Anyway, The Ghost of Tom Joad is the Bossman's latest chronicle of the poor man's life, and boy does it stink. He decided to really focus the album on the lyrics - the melodies are even closer to monotone than usual, and the arrangements are paper-thin - and then he goes and mumbles all the way through the album. Great! An album full of words you can't understand and music you can't hear!
I've got to say, sometimes when Bruce tries too hard with his lyrics, they fall flat. I prefer the more relaxed style of Born in the USA to the studied poeticisms here. Try the title track: "The highway is alive tonight…nobody's kidding nobody about where it goes." Huh? Unless you're Bruce Springsteen and have devoted the last twenty years to explicating the metaphor of the road as personal freedom and escape, a road is just sort of a means of travel that's easier than going through the woods with a machete. And if you're one of the homeless people Bruce is romanticizing in this song, you've presumably not spent a lot of time boning up on the collected works of Mr. Springsteen.
Or in "Dry Lightning," when he starts off with a "piss-yellow sun" that distracts you into thinking about exactly what shade piss-yellow is. Like, when you're a little dehydrated and it's that strong orangey-yellow? Or when you've eaten asparagus and it's kind of greenish? Or you've just had three glasses of water and it's a barely noticeable tinge of yellow? And before you know it the song's over and you don't know what he was getting at. (It turns out, nothing in particular. This song really rambles.)
Anyway, there is one good tune here: "Youngstown" has a good melody, a powerful yet restrained rhythm section for once, and a point of view that's neither condescending nor pat. And yet…he brings up James and Dan Heaton, sending me, at least, scrambling for the encyclopedia, just when I should be paying attention.
Don't let this review turn you off the man completely. Bruce Springsteen has turned out a lot of good music - but this album doesn't include much of it. He's at his best when rocking, and at his dullest in Woody Guthrie mode.
In the 70's and 80's he took a few famous stands for his fans and others who weren't enjoying the fruits of Cold War prosperity. Unfortunately, he's turned on his fans in the '90s and now seems to view us as merely cash cows. For him to put out this album while engaged in those predatory practices is reprehensible.
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You're right, Steve. "The Ghost of Tom Joad" was a HORRIBLE album. I'm a huge Springsteen fan, but even getting this album for less than five dollars was no bargain. I was so disappointed with this pathetic collection of mumbled, wannabe folk songs performed by a man who should be writing rock anthems, that I had to get rid of it. When it came time to make room for some new CDs, guess which one I gave away first? I'm just hoping that my future father-in-law, a huge Dylan fan, will enjoy this album more than I did (which isn't saying much).
P.S. Who are you guys?? Should I know you? Have you ever done anything that anyone would or could appreciate?
Live in New York City
Rating: 7 (library disc)
If you want proof that Bruce is now officially old, check out this credit in the liner notes: "Michael Brevetz: Physical Therapy."
Fortunately, the p.t. seems to be working, as Bruce and band kick all sorts of ass on this album, which is blemished only by Bruce forgetting the melody of "The River" and choosing "Ramrod", of all songs, to include in the set.
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There is sobbing of the strong,
And a pall upon the land;
But the People in their weeping
Bare the iron hand:
Beware the People weeping
When they bare the iron hand.
Jim DeRogatis is an ass. Greil Marcus is a genius. I’m sure most of their readers already knew this, but a glimpse at their reviews of Bruce Springsteen’s finest album, The Rising, will confirm this. Anyone with a smidgen of feeling for his fellow man, and with a patriotic bone in his body, will see the endless depth of Springsteen’s new work, will feel it resonate with the deepest works of American art. Those who don’t are presumably also immune to the poetic strains of Whitman’s elegies on Lincoln or Kennedy’s Inaugural. Springsteen is not, and neither are most discerning listeners.
The human capacity to absorb loss and regroup is astounding. How does a person work through the gaping hole facing them every day when a spouse or a child is gone? How can you take it when every time you turn around to share a thought with the person who’s been by your side as long as you remember, and there’s no one there? What stops you from abandoning all your civilized impulses and running through the streets naked and hitting strangers in the face? And yet, it’s done every day by millions of widows and orphans.
Bruce Springsteen is a man of deep talent and well-practiced craft, yet he’s never been detached from his emotions or the feelings of those around him. The Rising is an album-length meditation, not on death as some critics would have it, but on grief. It’s been attached through circumstances to (and it may have been inspired by) the late attacks in New York, but it’s far more than that; it’s a lasting testament to the power of the human spirit to overcome the unimaginable.
The pseuds and hipsters are criticizing Bruce Springsteen for playing Springsteen-style music, but that hardly seems to be the point. If he’s still making music in a style that disappeared from the charts fifteen years ago, and he’s still got a fanatical fan base, it must mean something namely, that he’s a master of the form. He and the E Street Band makes this kind of music so effortlessly and gracefully that it transcends the concerns of execution, and the only issue is resonance.
When plumbing the depths of emotion, it actually works to the artist’s advantage to retread familiar territory; is Yeat’s “The Second Coming” a lesser work because of its sonnet form? No, indeed, it strikes to the heart because the reader is freed by form to take in its expression. Springsteen’s commanding grasp of bar-band rock (it sounds familiar but never trite) works the same way; in every subtle shading of a vocal, or gnarled guitar lead, emotions are freed.
It’s not remarked upon often, but Bruce Springsteen is a great singer. Years of marathon gigs have given him incredible control of his attack and tone. Just the first song, “Lonesome Day” finds him ranging from a resigned sigh to an angry clipped tone, with a sad yodel at the end, and every song has a similar vocal extravaganza, yet it’s always appropriate to the tune and the lyric. And the band is excellent throughout; despite DeRogatis’s odd claims that he sounds “lost”, Danny Federici shines on organ, as he lifts “You’re Missing” with a throbbing coda, and soars in “My City of Ruins” with a gospel-tinged solo. Nils Lofgren as always is a master of supportive guitar lines, from the weeping slide guitar in “Into the Fire” to the roaring breaks in “Further On” and “The Fuse.” It’s also good to hear Clarence Clemons, whose solo ventures into New Age music have tempered his roadhouse sax into a sweetly singing instrumental voice, bust open “Mary’s Place” with a rousing solo and then take the last verse into a contemplative mood with his countermelody.
With musicians of this caliber at work (disproving, incidentally, the notion that rock musicians lose their touch with age), Springsteen can create one of the more daring thematic albums in the history of rock and roll; not an album about one person’s feeling of loss (like Lou Reed) but encompassing the various reactions to loss: grief, disbelief, unworthiness, vengeance. And in the end, he affirms the collective wisdom of the American story: that loss channeled to a greater purpose can be a powerful force.
Some of the lesser songs seem to be off-track, but are redeemed in the context of the other songs. “Let’s Be Friends” seems an exceedingly dopey song about conning a women into bed on the premise that life is too short not to make whoopee. But, if you’ll recall, that’s exactly what a lot of New Yorkers found themselves doing after September 11. “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” may be full of clichés, but that’s what suffices when the brain is fogged by loss.
Bruce takes on some of the less appealing emotions of loss, as well. “Empty Sky” finds the narrator crying out for an “eye for an eye”, and “Nothing Man” finds the contrast between his personal emptiness and the conviviality of those around him to be too disturbing for him to face anymore (he considers suicide to be the ultimate act of courage.)
The most powerful songs, though, combine loss and faith. “Mary’s Place” is hardly the brainless rocker it’s been accused of being: a narrator’s “heart is dark” and is wondering “how do you live broken-hearted?”; but the pounding music a specialty of the E Street Band heats all the emotions to the boiling point, and catharsis is achieved as Bruce sings “let it rain, let rain” into the coda.
”Into the Fire” is no less than the Gettysburg Address of rock and roll. Springsteen rolls all the doubt and anger of grief into a dedication: “May your strength give us strength, may your faith give us faith, may your hope give us hope, may your love give us love.” It’s the most uncynical sentiment I’ve ever heard, and Springsteen’s faith gives me faith.
”The Rising” is the song Bruce spent his entire career aiming toward. An individual of remarkable courage and commitment (to his sense of duty and to his community) narrates his blind grope toward danger and then the song explodes with percussion, a chorus of dozens and ringing guitars as he invites us to “come on up for the rising.” The rising of a raging fire? The rising of his soul to heaven? The rising of the depressed spirits of the family and friends he left behind? The rising of the bile to seek revenge? As the group sings an aggressive “li-li-li” all these possibilities seem true. The unity found in grief is terrifying in its power. "The Rising" is a song of imponderable depth that encompasses everything the album has addressed so far.
The album coasts gently down from this peak with “Paradise,” which succumbs to Bruce’s unfortunately folky tendencies but neatly kaleidoscopes the certainly of the rightous killer with the restlessness of the grief-stricken, and “My City of Ruins,” another work of genius. As the band hits a gospel groove, Bruce declaims the destruction of his community (another type of loss) over gently weeping guitars. Then he digs in and calls out “rise up!”; not in instruction, but in prayer. Faced with all the energy mustered in “The Rising”, Bruce lays out what to do with it. Bruce heeds Melville's warning, and seeks a different sort of solidarity. Lincoln would sympathize.
Whether your loss was spectacular (100-story building collapsing) or mundane (41,730 Americans died in traffic accidents last year), Bruce has got your song. The depth of emotion, and the brilliant music he deploys, make these classics of the genre. In future decades, as the terrorists get smarter, we will no doubt see many more senseless slaughters, and The Rising will there to get us through them all. God bless Bruce Springsteen, and God bless America.
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My biggest gripe with The Rising is that it is somewhat artistically lazy. The vocal intros to “Countin' On A Miracle” and “Mary's Place” sound alike (and very similar to the intro to “Atlantic City”). “My City Of Ruins” is an incredibly emotional song with an original vocal melody, but the riff is straight out of The Band's “The Weight.” “Waitin' On A Sunny Day” (one of my favorite songs on the album) is based on a single great riff. I love songs like “Countin' On A Miracle” but in a sense they seem like factory-issue Great Springsteen Anthems (I guess I should remember that most people fall flat when it comes to making the kind of powerful, resonant rock music he pumps out so easily on this album). Or maybe I'm wondering how after a decade of music that most people describe as mediocre (and that I haven't heard), Bruce could find his muse again so easily. That's why I'm suspicious of artistic shortcuts like using such an obvious riff in “My City Of Ruins.”
I don't know why this album confuses me so much! I am honestly interested in seeing how history judges it. I never got a sense that the hipsters of the world were criticizing Bruce out loud; rather, I thought they were kowtowing to public opinion and praising an album that they'd never praise out of the 9/11 context because it is cheesy and unironic and not detached in any way. Bruce's sentimentality seems to hit you without any suspicion on your part. So where do you draw the line between intelligent music that makes you cry, and purposely sentimental music that makes you cry? Is it all a matter of execution and melody? The chorus to “Into The Fire” comforts me and DOES sound like something Lincoln would have said, but in today's world it seems cheesy and easy to write if Bruce knows people will take this 9/11 album seriously. And I cringe when he says "You can call me Joe" in “Nothing Man.” When is Bruce being honest, when is he being honest but cheesy, and when is he blatantly pandering to Average American Working-Class Joe behind a wall of critical and popular untouchability (given his reputation and the 9/11 aura behind the album)?
I hope you can decode this e-mail. I am glad that the album means so much to you, especially given that I was trying to sell it to you a while back. It is one of my favorite albums and I think that whatever shortcuts he used, he has created an album that is powerful, resonant, melodic, and passionately-sung -- namely, the things that I need in my favorite rock music. On the other hand, I don't think it's his best album -- something like Born To Run, for all its pretensions, is more fresh and original. In twenty years I predict that I will love and listen to “Lonesome Day” but I will still be absolutely floored by the thumping crescendo of “She's The One.”
One final question that you don't have to answer. I read a disturbing Pro-South website that offered a very interesting perspective on the Civil War that I've never thought about before (although it's probably common among CW buffs). He pointed out that the South had legally seceded and that instead of a Civil War, Lincoln had ordered an invasion of a sovereign country under the context of preserving a Union that technically didn't exist anymore. He ordered his troops to ravage the South, rape women, burn things, etc. Yes, there is the slavery issue. But did Lincoln have the right to intrude in the South's business, as awful as that business may have been? Do you think the Civil War was justified from the perspective of the North? How do you view Lincoln's role? I'm interested in your expert opinion on this. I can't stand when the things I learned in 5th-grade history are called into serious question.
I hope you and your family are doing well. Thanks for wading through this letter. Take care, and I'll talk to you soon. I'm sorry if this was rambling and used the word "I" a lot. The album confuses me and I'm interested in sharing ideas on it. I thought your review was excellent, even if from my perspective you engage in some hyperbole that is totally valid if you love the album that much. As always, I value your perspective even if I don't completely agree with things like the Gettysburg Address comparison.
Complaints, criticisms, or bribery reviews: Contact me!