Last year was the fortieth anniversary of Greetings from Asbury Park, New Jersey - Bruce Springsteen’s first major-label record.
In those forty years, he’s released seventeen studio albums (#18 due in mere days), been bootlegged more than almost any other artist, written a staggering amount of material, developed a repuation as the best life performer in the business, and been recognized as the best American songwriter of a generation…
…and gone through some creative doldrums (1990-2000) that make even the unabashed fanboys (like yours truly) rub our heads and change the subject to Darkness on the Edge of Town.
And even for a committed fanboy, it’s hard to explain to a newbie exactly what it’s all about.
And I’m only going to quibble with Hyden on three of his ratings;
First: Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez was a lousy drummer. Listen to “Kitty’s Back” or “Incident on 57th Street” or even “Rosalita”, from The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle; the beat speeds up and slows down without warning, and that’s what they decided to put on a major-label release. How much worse were the out-takes?
Second? While “Fire” is a good song, and “Light of Day” is a great one, “Because The Night” is still the best Springsteen song not originally released by Springsteen: It’s just a fact.
And while Hyden and I agree – Darkness on the Edge of Town is both of our favorite Bruce album - Hyden focuses on its rock-critic-friendly cynicism and world-weariness. For me, it’s nearly the opposite; the record resonates for anyone who identifies with deep isolation, with a place outside the American mainstream, whether you’re across the river from Manhattan or across 100 miles of sod from a city that gets more than two TV channels.
(And while he’s right – Live from Hammersmith Odeon is far and away the best “official” live release of Bruce’s career, the very unofficial “Live at the Capitol Theater”, recently posted in its entirety on Youtube, may count as another essential, if lower-gloss, live recording worth listening to)
On the other hand, Hyden distilled perhaps the iconic image of the young, male, non-Jersey Springsteen fan in his review ofBorn to Run:
There’s a particular brand of vanity that exists in certain kinds of young men between the ages of 19 and 27 where it’s vitally important to present a façade that is equal parts masculine, feminine, tough, and sensitive. For instance (and this example is purely hypothetical and not at all autobiographical), this certain kind of young man may drive around alone late on rainy nights — he actually chooses to drive when it rains because it is appropriately evocative for his inner emotional geography — while listening to Clarence Clemons’s sax solo on “Jungleland.” And when he feels himself starting to cry, he will look in the rearview mirror in order to stare at his own tears. He knows he will never tell anyone that he cries alone to the sounds of the Big Man’s titanic blowing, but he guesses that strangers will sense it, and this will make him appear soulful. (Forgive him. He is a little naive and very silly.) It doesn’t matter that the lyrics of “Jungleland” have virtually nothing to do with his life — he’s pretty sure that the only people for whom “kids flash guitars just like switchblades” represents reality are Danny Zuko and Kenickie. But this song is still his avatar, and he’s confident it always will be.
And on some of those dark, rainy nights, he still just may.
Our government is doing its best to show you who serves who, here.
In a few years, the Chinese are going to be able to yank our nation’s chain and say “bark for your meal, bitch”.
Our state is run by bobbleheads, and the only pro sports team we have that isn’t a perennial embarassment is the WNBA team, which is itself a form of perennial embarassment.
But before you stick that .40 S&W in your mouth, just wait.
Because someone released the entire September 19, 1978 Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at the Capitol Theater in Passaic NJ concert – one of the greatest concerts ever recorded, ever, ever, in really really high quality audio.
I’m gonna give you a two-fer here. We’ll cover two of Andrew Sullivan’s definitions of what makes a conservative in one article, since they’re both just a tad thin.
The first of the two – “Conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism“? Gotta confess, that one’s pretty thin throughout the history of rock and roll. I’ll cop to it; other than “meeting beneath that giant Exxon sign”, or driving out to Greasy Lake, or meeting at Mary’s Place, it doesn’t pop up much.
We’ll let that one slide for now.
The other – “the Conservative recognizes the need for prudent restraint on power and passion?”
Well, there’s always “Roulette”, the often-bootlegged anti-nuke anthem:
Which isn’t really close, but it’s such a cool recording I don’t care much.
We’ll be back with the final parts of this series later in the week.
One of the fundamental tenets of the “classical liberalism” that is the basis of modern conservatism is the idea first recorded by John Locke – that men form governments to protect life, liberty and private property; that private property was in fact a cornerstone of real liberty, and that protecting it against the depredations of government and of other people is a key justification for having a government. To put it in Andrew Sullivan’s words – because it’s his definitions of “classical conservative” that I’m using as the basis for this exercise – “Conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked”.
If we have no property rights, then we have no rights.
Now, John Locke isn’t a common theme in the history of rock and roll. And private property has had a mixed history in popular music; it’s been a metaphor for rites of passage (Jan and Dean’s “409″), or the high life (“Baubles, Bangles and Beads” by everyone from Eartha Kitt to Frank Sinatra) and a yardstick for swagger (“Beamer, Benz or Bentley” by gangster-rapper Lloyd Banks), but also for evil (“I’d Love To Change The World” by Ten Years’ After’s called us to “Tax the rich, feed the poor, ’til there ain’t no rich no more”).
And you can look in vain for references to Locke or Payne or Franklin – in Springsteen’s catalog, and can find plenty on his later albums and his real life as re politics that contradicts them all.
But this series isn’t about proving Springsteen is, personally, a conservative (faith-based blogger Dog Gone’s endless repetitions notwithstanding); it’s about explaining why his music resonates with conservatives.
SIDE NOTE: It’s amazing how life can derail a guy’s plans. While – as is my wont with these long series – much of the rough material was put together in October and November, I held off on actually putting it into a written form, thinking it’d give me something to do during the two-month stretch between the election and the opening of the state legislature, when I’m usually too burned out on politics to care much.
Of course, this past eight weeks of battling for the Second Amendment has derailed a bit of that plan.
But while the battle against Barack Rex carries on, it’s time to make time for the fun stuff.
In “The Promised Land” – a song that constantly flits about the top of most hard-core Springsteen fans’ lists of favorite songs – paints a bleak picture for the everyday schlub:
I done my best to live the right way
I get up every morning and go to work each day.
But your eyes go blind, and your blood runs cold,
sometimes I feel so weak I just wanna explode
Explode and tear this old town apart,
take a knife and cut this pain from my heart,
find somebody itchin’ for something to start…
And then the last verse tees up:
Well, there’s a dark cloud rising, ‘cross the desert floor
I’ve packed my bags, and I’m headed straight into the storm
Gonna be a twister to blow everything down
that ain’t got the faith to stand its ground.
Blow away the dreams that break your heart.
Blow away the dreams that tear you apart
Blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted…
The song – which is on the surface about a young buck butting his head against a status quo leaving him, in the immortal words of Howard the Duck, “trapped in a world that he never made”. And beneath the surface? It’s about everyone trying to stake their claim in the world while they can, and railing against the petty and not-so-petty things that badger and hector you on the way there…
…and noting, obliquely, another of the key facets of what being a conservative really means: the idea that the only true forms of equality are equality at the Last Judgment and equality before a just court of law.
Humans and the societies they build are intensely imperfect, and that the only justice you’re ever going to see is from something – a higher power, in this case, in the metaphorical form of a tornado – that cares not for your specifics, or of that against which you’re banging your head.
The notion that there is an existing, higher moral order is easy; every political and cultural liberal believes it (although cultural liberals and conservative see the source of that order differently). The idea that we, petty humans that we are, stand on the shoulders of giants and can only rarely improve on them and their ideas is harder; the idea that we can change the world “for the better” is so wound up in the ideals of liberals that they call themselves “progressives”.
But the idea that absolute equality only exists (outside of the purely legalistic, and then only when everyone involves has a lot of integrity) above and beyond this world is the province of the cultural conservative.
In the world of Rock and Roll, in the words of Neil Young, “it’s better to burn out than fade away”.
In the world of Bruce Springsteen’s music, when characters screw up, they flame out big-time – and usually take other people down with ‘em.
In “Johnny 99″, from Nebraska, the protagonist – “Ralph” – gets laid off from a job at a car plant. He gets “too drunk from mixing Tangueray and Wine” – itself a major botch – and shoots a night clerk. It instantly changes his life; he goes from being a regular guy to a lifer overnight. His life is completely screwed, he declares as he’s sentenced.
Now judge I had debts no honest man could pay
The bank was holdin’ my mortgage and they were gonna take my house away
Now I ain’t sayin’ that makes me an innocent man
But it was more `n all this that put that gun in my hand
Well your honor I do believe I’d be better off dead
So if you can take a man’s life for the thoughts that’s in his head
Then sit back in that chair and think it over judge one more time
And let `em shave off my hair and put me on that killin’ line
Clearly, the character of Ralph/Johnny didn’t preconsider his actions according to the long-term consequences one might expect from them – but then if Mr. 99 had merely thrown up and gone to bed, the song would be a pretty mundane commentary on the human condition. People do act in ways that ignore their actions’ long-term consequences, in ways big and small, all the time.
And there’s the point.
Another of conservatism’s key tenets is the idea of prudence; a conservative measures actions against their likely long-term consequences, and tries to decide and act accordingly.
They also recognize – as Johnny 99 did not, until the end of the song – the consequences of failing at this.
And among the many reasons Springsteen’s music resonates with conservatives is that the characters, for decades, illustrated the princple, in ways positive and negative, in a way that sounds like…
Rock and roll has always been, ostensibly, about upsetting the existing order. In the beginning, its very existence upended what passed for “order” in popular culture, at least to the extent of helping create a “youth culture” – something that’d never existed before, and really started in America. As culture and the genre evolved through the sixties, pop music smeared itself in the “revolutionary” rhetoric of the rest fo the counterculture; in the seventies, the punk counter-counterculture (at least in the English art-school variety) flipped the hippies’ putative idealism on its head in an orgy of self-indulgent nihilism. Post-punks – U2 would be the most famous and enduring of the bunch) in turn, flipped that on its head in an welter of often self-righteous activism.
And against that backdrop, the music of Bruce Springsteen has always been refreshingly non-revolutionary. Continue reading →
It’s a little-noticed verse of a song buried in Bruce Springsteen’s biggest studio album:
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
It’s from “I Wanna Marry You”, from The River. It’s a nice, simple, romantic little trifle. Given Springsteen’s personal life over the past 25 years, it’d be easy to call it “ironic”…
…but again, the series isn’t about any artist’s personal life, or personal beliefs. It’s about the resonances his audience finds in the music.
The next tenet of conservatism we’re covering is that conservatives adhere to custom, convention, and continuity (provided ones customs and conventions continue things that are worth continuing – which we’ll get to later on in the series).
And shelve the past twenty-five years of history – because this is about as customary, conventional and continuous as one gets:
Little girl, I wanna marry you
Oh yeah, little girl, I wanna marry you
Yes I do, little girl, I wanna mary you.
My daddy said right before he died
that true, true love was just a lie.
He went to his grave a broken heart
An unfulfilled life, darlin’, makes a man hard
No apple-carts upset here, right?
Of course, there’s a lot more to custom and tradition than that.
In the song “Darlington County” (from Born in the USA), a couple of ne’er-do-wells drive south to find a little work and raise a little ruckus:
Hey little girl standing on the corner,
Todays your lucky day for sure, all right.
Me and my buddy we’re from New York City,
we got two hundred dollars, we want to rock all night.
Girl you’re looking at two big spenders,
Why the world don’t know what me and Wayne might do
Our pa’s each own one of the World Trade Centers,
For a kiss and a smile I’ll give mine all to you…
At the end of the song, we find out how it went:
Driving out of darlington county
My eyes seen the glory of the coming of the Lord
Driving out of darlington county
Seen Wayne handcuffed to the bumper of a state trooper’s Ford
It’s comic trifle – the whole song is, really. But it hints at a theme conservatives believe as a part of being conservative; that the world has an enduring moral order. That there is a battle between right and wrong, Yin and Yang, good and evil – and that right and good are better, and should be exalted, or at least striven for.
“Wayne” ran afoul that order – with comic results, unless you’re “Wayne”, I suppose.
Before I get into the beef of the series, it seems I need to do a little remedial art appreciation, logic and rhetoric.
For starters, my thesis, and the case I’m making, is “Why Bruce Springsteen is America’s Greatest Conservative Songwriter”. Not “Bruce Springsteen is a Conservative”. He’s not. That’s all duly noted and stipulated in advance.
Not “Everything Bruce Springsteen Has Ever Written Resonates with Conservatives”. It does not. Merely most of his best stuff.
But as Socrates showed us a few millennia back, the best way to teach is to ask and to answer. In other words, it’s time for one of my Frequently Asked Questions:
“But Springsteen is a teh liberal!”: It doesn’t matter even a little. The series isn’t about him or his personal politics. They are, in fact, utterly irrelevant. Art is in the eye of the beholder. Many conservatives find resonance, even inspiration, in his music, though; this series merely explains why.
“But what if Teh Boss himself were to tell you you were wrong?”: Again, doesn’t matter. It’s not about him. It’s about what he wrote.
“What does Nate Silver say?”: Nothing.
“Don’t be teh smartass. You know what I mean. How can you empirically prove your thesis?”: There is no “empiricism” in art criticism. It’s stating a critical case for a subjective point.
“You are just trying to make teh music fit your intellectual template”: Nope. I’m stating a case for why the music not only fits my worldview, but reinforces it.
“But did you ever REALLY listen to it?”: As we’ll see in coming days, clearly, more than you have. Whoever you are.
OK. Wednesday or Thursday, we’ll get into the fun stuff!
There may be no more politically-divisive figure in popular music today.
On the one hand, he openly campaigns for liberal Democrats, and against conservatism, every election cycle. This earns the ire and contempt of many conservatives. And with a net worth of $200 million – four times Michael Moore’s portfolio – he’s the very definition of a limo liberal, even if his limo is a ’32 Ford with a 318, fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor.
On the other hand, many of Springsteen’s highest-profile fans – Chris Christie, Tim Pawlenty, me, Laura Ingraham among many others – are one degree of conservative or another.
Now, part of that is no doubt purely visceral. Eddie Van Halen once said that rock and roll is supposed to make you feel something – angry, horny, lovelorn, whatever. And Springsteen is if nothing else an extremely gifted writer who has, for two generations now, had a gift for making people feel things – things that cross party lines, because they’re human reactions to art.
But many songwriters have that gift. And yet, in the face of perceived incongruity and even some muted, passive-aggressive hostility from the artist himself, conservatives soldier on as fans.
About a year ago a woman I know – a modestly prominent Democrat organizer – asked on Twitter “Don’t you Springsteen Republicans actually listen to his lyrics?”
To which I responded ”Yes. Do you really LISTEN to them?” And by that I meant “without slathering your own worldview and ex-post-facto knowledge of Springsteen’s life and activities outside his music over the past ten years?”
Because as I started arguing a few weeks ago in response to MPR’s question on the subject “what song sums up where this nation is at right now?” (I answered with Bruce’s This Hard Land), Springsteen’s music, especially throughout his peak creative years (which I’d argue started with his collaboration with Jon Landau on Born to Run and ran through Tunnel of Love, and rebounded on The Rising) was overflowing with themes and currents and messages that resonate with political and social conservatives. And, in fact, those themes, currents and messages were the most important ones in his repertoire.
“But wait, Berg – all you’re going to do is pound some isolated out-of-context odds and ends into a context you make up to define conservatism as conveniently as possible for your dubious premise! Right?”
Not even close.
I’ll be building this piece around a ten-point definition of conservatism from none other than that noted Paleocon tool, Andrew Sullivan who, back before his brain flitted away into Trig-Palin-triggered dementia, put together what I thought was a pretty good definition of a classical conservative:
According to Sullivan, the conservative…:
believes that an enduring moral order exists. Not an easy one, but an enduring one, anyway.
adheres to custom, convention, and continuity, barring any compelling reason to change.
believes in what may be called the principle of prescription – the idea that most of the great ideas on which our sociey was founded are good enough as is; improvement faces a steep curve.
are guided by their principle of prudence – we try to gauge actions against their probable long-term consequences.
believes that only true forms of equality are equality at the Last Judgment and equality before a just court of law.
believes human nature suffers irremediably from certain grave faults. Human nature is not inherently good.
believes that freedom and property are closely linked.
upholds voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism.
sees the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions.
knows permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society.
That’s a good definition of classical conservatism, from Hobbes and Hume all the way to Milton Friedman.
To that, I’d add some peculiarly American characteristics; here, a conservative believes…:
That while Humanity is not perfectable, and Americans – especially as acting through government – are far from perfect, America has coalesced into a nation around a set of ideals that are in themselves inherently noble and worth upholding.
That this nation – imperfect as it is – is a free association of equals, governed by mutual consent. Government is not a set of parents needed to discipline recalcitrant children.
I’ll be doing 2-3 of these a week for the next few weeks; showing in each case how and why Bruce Springsteen’s music (if not his personal politics, obviously) not only resonates with, but inspires, people who believe in all of the above.
So roll down the window and let the bracing wind of freedom blow back your hair! C’mon – rise up! We’ll meet beneath that giant “Friedman” sign that gives this shining city light!
Don’t end up like a dog that’s been beat too much, all you henpecked conservative Bruce fans; it’s a state full of lemmings, and we’re pulling outta here to win!
Among the Bruce Fan nation, among the most legendary concerts ever were the three night stand the E Street Band did at the Captol Theater in Passaic, New Jersey on September 19-21, 1978, deep in the middle of the Darkness on the Edge of Town tour.
It was, by all accounts, a very special engagement – it was right around Springsteen’s 29th birthday, it the midst of a “comeback” of sorts, as Springsteen celebrated both the critical and commercial triumph of Darkness, and a tour where he was finally being regarded on a national rather than regional stage as one of the best live performers of the day.
The series was broadcast live on the radio – leading to the concert being among the most bootlegged concerts in history, with examples of widely-varying quality surfacing all over the place for the past 33 years.
Anyway – through the miracle of Youtube, videotapes of the concerts have finally been popping up over the past year or so. I’ve been putting bits and pieces out there – but since the Springsteen fan/maniac community is so very thorough about keeping things like setlists and posting them online, I figured it was time to reconstruct these dates in all their original glory.
The concert is below the fold – the whole page takes some time to load, with all the separate video containers.
In the world of the Springsteen Fan, strewn as it is with legendary concerts (including everyone’s first Springsteen show, let’s be honest), there are a few shows that are regarded in the canon as legendary.
One of those is the series of concerts on September 19-20, 1979, at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, NJ. It was on Bruce’s home turf, as his commercial and critical rocket was starting to take off and the E Street Band was turning into one of the most legendary touring outfits in the history of the business. It also was part of a tour that followed three years of litigation that kept him from recording and performing much after his initial breakthrough with Born to Run.
The shows were broadcast on the radio – and are thus among the most bootlegged live performances in history.
And now, via the miracle of YouTube, all the songs from both nights – 25 on the 19th, 22 on the 20th – are available on video.
And tomorrow and Saturday nights, I’m going to run them both, in their original order, here on Shot In The Dark.
Springsteen’s early sound, heavily R ‘n B-based, leaned heavily on the sax; from the slinky uptown meandering of “Spirit In The Night” to Van Morrison-y raveup in “Blinded By The Light”, Clemons’ sound defined the first two albums, Greetings From Asbury Park and The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. As the band grew on Born to Run, Roy Bittan’s piano joined Clemons as the keystone of the band’s sound; Clemons became less a background instrument and more a soloist. His solo from Jungleland – a long, jazzy intermezzo between the thundering bridge (driven by Danny Federici’s Hammond B-3) and the exhausted-sounding “dawn” scene, taped here in 2009 – was one of his greatest:
Clemons was not a virtuoso musician, in the sense that Nils Lofgren or Roy Bittan were; he was compared to King Curtis, and with good reason, but mostly as an inspired imitator, rarely more inspired than on “She’s The One” (here from one of the greatest treasures of Springsteeniana on the web, the gloriously complete video record of the band’s two-night stand at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, New Jersey on the Darkness on the Edge of Town tour):
But he was a performer above all; for forty years, he was Springsteen’s foil, the Abbott to Bruce’s Costello.
Scooter and the Big Man, 1985
Few people explain Clemons better than David Remnick at the New Yorker,whose obit is here. Money quote:
Clemons, who died Saturday of complications from a stroke, was not an entirely original player—he was a vessel of many great soul, gospel, and R&B players who came before him—but he was an entirely sublime band member, an absolutely essential, and soulful, ingredient in both the sound of Springsteen and the spirit of the group. Clemons will be irreplaceable; Sonny Rollins could step in for him and never be able to provide the same sense of personality and camaraderie. His horn gave the band its sound of highway loneliness, its magnificent heart. And his huge presence on stage was an anchor for Springsteen, especially when Bruce was younger, scrawny, and so feral, so unleashed, that you thought that he could fall down dead in a pool of sweat at any moment. At the brink of exhaustion and collapse, Springsteen could always lean on his enormous and reliable friend—an emblematic image that is the cover of “Born to Run.”
On the band’s most recent tour, one that celebrated forty years of music-making, Clemons was clearly hurting: bad knees, bad hips, long shows. Backstage he was ferried around in a golf cart; onstage he played a lot of cowbell and, like Pavarotti in his later years, gave his aching joints breaks when he could. But he was still capable of playing, note for note, his signature solos.
He made a joyful noise. Musicians as various as Jackson Browne and Lady Gaga called on him to record, to lend them some of the largeness and warmth of his tone.
Later in the obit, Remnick refers to the band’s performance of Thunder Road, from the Capitol show, as the classic Clemons performance – the measure of Clemons’ vitality to the greatest band in American rock and roll history, the circa-1978 E Street Band.
Here it is – the sax part kicks in around 5:30, as Bruce is pulling outta here to win…:
In the first draft of this post, I left it right there. But I found this the other day – one of my favorite E Street Band moments, one of my favorite songs from that period of Springsteen’s, after megastardom and before his new, purposeful post-9/11 voice of “the Rising”, a song and a performance that captures, like Thunder Road, the essense of the band – but a different essence, and in some ways a different band, both of them with Clarence Clemons as their respective soul:
It’s everything the E Street Band at its best really meant; the pure joy of the purest strain of American rock and roll, straining to get out, finally overwhelming out.
It was sometime in early November, 1980. It was my senior year of high school. I was visiting friends in Watson Hall at Jamestown College – which, in a few years, would be my own home for three years.
I was keenly aware of a bunch of things; that I was on the brink of having to go out and take on the big world, on the one hand. On the other, I had no idea what I was going to do. Ideas swirled through my head – college, the Army, moving somewhere else and joining a band and playing guitar for a few years, the usual stuff…
…that’s faded with the years, of course; “what am I going to do with my life?” has pretty much answered itself over the past few decades.
What happened next hasn’t faded a bit over thirty years, though.
I was walking down a hall on the second floor, heading toward the bathroom. The place smelled like a guys’ dorm – dirty laundry and disinfectant. There was a low din of voices and TVs and boomboxes.
And echoing down the hall on someone’s stereo through an open dorm door came a sound that stopped me in my tracks; a howling, mournful harmonica over a foreboding, minor-key acoustic guitar part. I turned toward the sound as the vocal started:
I come from down in the valley, where mister when you’re young,
they bring you up to do like your daddy done.
Me ‘n Mary, we met in high school, when she was just seventeen.
We drove on out of the valley, out to where the fields grow green…
We’d go down to the River, and into the river we’d dive,
oh, down to the River we’d ride…
“Valley? Doing “what your daddy done?”
In that way that adolescents find to link everything to their own situation, I found resonance. Jamestown was a valley! Everyone expected I was going to be a high school English teacher, like Dad!
I leaned up against the wall and listened some more:
Then I got Mary pregnant, and man, that was all she wrote
and for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat.
We drove down to the courthouse, and the judge put it all to rest,
no wedding day smiles, no walk down the aisles, no flowers, no wedding dress.
That night we went down to the river,
and into the river we’d dive.
Oh down to the River we did drive.
This was…well, friends of mine, anyway.
I choked back my (believe it or not) crippling shyness and walked to the open door as the harmonica solo kicked in. “Er – ‘scuze me – sorry, but what’s this playing?”
“The new Springsteen!” said the guy (who in two years, it turned out, would be my next-door neighbor), hunched over a nursing textbook. “Great, ain’t it?”
He had no idea.
It was thirty years ago today that The River came out.
The last of what Springsteen fanatics call “The Holy Trinity” (along with Born to Run and Darkness On The Edge Of Town)
The lasting impression of The River for me, though? In some ways, it’s Bruce’s most satisfying album.
Greetings from Asbury Park and E Street Shuffle were both fun, funky, disjointed romps that swerved from Bleecker Street to the Jersey Shore, from Greasy Lake to Puerto Rico, all full of shadowy characters and inside jokes. Born to Run was a classic, of course – but in much the same way that the Beach Boys were classics, drenched in the culture of young lower-middle America; it raced at full throttle, but covered a small piece of turf. Darkness On The Edge Of Town, still and always my favorite Bruce record notwithstanding, is an album about finally growing up.
The River? It’s about being a grownup. It’s about ups and downs, joy and depression, faith and abandonment. It’s about pulling up your pants and moving on with your real life.
It’s a double-album – which, it occurs to me, means nothing today. Back in the seventies and eighties, when vinyl records were still king and were complex enough that their manufacture required the clout of a huge record company, complete with pressing factories and huge distribution operations, a single vinyl disc held about 30-40 minutes worth of music. The double album was the sign of huge commitment on the one hand, and huge motivation on the part of the artist.
And so it was with The River. Springsteen had grown over in the previous five years into an amazingly prolific songwriter. Steven Van Zandt told the story; when they recorded Born to Run, Springsteen had maybe one extra song written. By the time the legal wrangling with his previous management ended and he released Darkness on the Edge of Town three years later, he had dozens, including a couple of albums’ worth that were candidates for inclusion. He started giving music away; he gave Patty Smith his live staple “Because The Night”, recorded for Darkness but not included; it became her only Top Forty hit. Likewise “Fire” (Robert Gordon and the Pointer Sisters), “Hearts Of Stone” (Southside Johnny), “This Little Girl” (Gary “US” Bonds), and a slew of others.
And by 1980, when Springsteen had his legal, fiscal, artistic and personal houses in order for the next big step? He had hundreds of songs. It’d be more accurate to say he had hundreds and hundreds of pieces and clips and riffs and lines, which he’d combine and break apart and recombine with other riffs and lines and passages in various combinations, into songs where different lines would pop up over time in different songs. Listening to his four-CD box set “Tracks”, released in the late nineties, you can hear lines and passages in songs you’ve never heard, that popped up much later on other songs…
…and the sessions for The River (and for the next two albums, Nebraska and Born in the USA) were like tsunamis of music.
At any rate, torn between making an upbeat rocker about growing up and getting on with one’s life and a darker, harder “Son Of Darkness”, Bruce released both.
Disc one starts with the glorious, redemptive “The Ties That Bind”…:
…which is, truth be told, among my favorite Springsteen songs ever. Thirty years later, I’m not sure if I can even pin down why; “you walk cool, but darlin’ can you walk the line/to face the ties that bind/ you can’t break the ties that bind”; it’s a little bit of emotional tough love combined with the single most infectious chorus hook I had heard in my life to that point, and still one of the best.
There was also the joyous romp, “Two Hearts”…
…which has been a live, top-of-the-lineup staple at Bruce’s shows for most of the past thirty years,
Following closely, “Out In The Street” – the album’s homage to “Born To Run”…
…only for people who have to cut back on the “Suicide Machines” and keep their hands off other peoples’ engines because they’ve got to be at work in the morning.
And perhaps my favorite – at least at the moment – “Jackson Cage”, a dark-but-irresistably-danceable thrill ride about…well, growing up and watching doors starting to swing shut…
…albeit from a little bit of distance, yet.
Disc One was all about the hope and the joy – from the beach-bar singalong “Sherry Darling” to the gloriously cheery “I Wanna Marry You”, awash in faith in the whole boy meets girl thing.
It was on disk two that things start to unravel. ”Fade Away” (my favorite back then, and the followup to “Hungry Heart”, which became Bruce’s first Top Forty hit single), a song that actually sparked my push to learn how to play the organ – was the flip side of “I Wanna Marry You”. The “boy meets girl” thing has by this point gone terribly awry:
Dave Marsh once described The River as an album full of upbeat songs about death, and down-beat, “downer” songs about hope and redemption. The bookends, of course, are “Cadillac Ranch” – a four on the floor barroom singalong raveup about mortality..:
And of course, the title cut…
…about shelving your dreams but holding on anyway. It resonates with me, thirty years later, like few pieces of music ever.
And for me, it all leads up to “The Price You Pay” – the song that ties all those themes together, and sends them off with a hopeful nudge (this version has an out-take verse that’s not on the album)…:
…that, truth be told, has stuck with me during the hard times as much as anything else Bruce has written:
Little girl down on the strand
With that pretty little baby in your hands
Do you remember the story of the promised land
How he crossed the desert sands
And could not enter the chosen land
On the banks of the river he stayed
To face the price you pay
Pretty dismal, really; everything Moses hoped for got yanked away at the last moment. Just like the guy in The River. Just like the lady in Jackson Cage.
And yet we soldier on:
So let the game start, you better run you little wild heart
You can run through all the nights and all the days
But just across the county line, a stranger passing through put up a sign
That counts the men fallen away to the price you pay,
and girl before the end of the day,
I’m gonna tear it down and throw it away
And that may be the great life lesson, here – or as close to one as a pop album ever gets. Life’ll kill ya. Wear a helmet and get out there.
By one of those odd coincidences, today – the 30th anniversary of one of my favorite albums by a female singer, is also also the birthday of one of my favorite female singers. It’s Patti Scialfa’s birthday today.
Scialfa spent years as a journeywoman singer, writer and musician around the New York and New Jersey music scenes, recording with Southside Johnny and David Johannson (better known as Buster Poindexter, of “Hot Hot Hot” fame), before joining the E Street Band in 1984 on the virtual eve of the Born in the USA tour.
Which was where I saw her, unannounced, for the first time – on night two of the tour, turning The River’s “Out In The Street” into a virtual duet.
It wasn’t until 1993, with the release of her first of three solo albums, Rumble Doll, that Scialfa really stepped out on her own. And Rumble Doll is one of the most glorious overlooked gems of the 1990s:
The album has a lot of influences – and “Bruce Springsteen” is only obliquely and intermittently one of them:
Did I say “glorious gem?” Why, yes, I believe I did:
It’s Max Weinberg’s birthday today. The longtime drummer for Bruce Springsteen and Conan O’Brien is 59.
A native of Newark, Weinberg was a bit of a child prodigy as a drummer, playing with bar mitzvah bands from age seven, and performing with one of his early bands at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. He attended Adelphi and Seton Hall, with a vague notion of becoming a lawyer – but drums was always his bag. He played in a grab bag of bands in central and seaside New Jersey, before winning an audition to replace Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez (and his temporary replacement, Ernest “Boom” Carter, most famous for playing on the song “Born To Run”). It wasn’t hard to improve on Lopez’ legacy; “Mad Dog” may have been the worst drummer ever to record a major label album.
Indeed, that’s a great introduction to Weinberg’s power as a drummer; compare the sloppy, swooping changes in meter on Lopez’ part on ”Kitty’s Back”, on The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle to the metronomic steadiness on “Born In The USA” or The River’s “Jackson Cage”. The E Street Band with Vini Lopez was like an inspired garage band, with some great players (David Sancious was another charter member), but it always felt like Springsteen’s voice was the main rhythm instrument. With Weinberg, the band became professional, and very, very powerful.
Weinberg, with Springsteen and Tallent, on The River tour
Playing behind a band that’s ranged from seven to nine pieces over the years, the drummer’s key mission is to lock in the beat with the bass player and provide a stable beat for everything else to work over. And it’s there – as part of the E Street Band’s rhythm section with Garry Tallent, that Weinberg is most notable; he’s been called “The American Charlie Watts”, because whatever he might lack in pure flash, he makes up in rock-sold steadiness, enabling Tallent to stretch out and play, while still keeping a bedrock-solid foundation for the band as a whole.
This was cutting loose...
Which isn’t to say that Weinberg can’t rip it on the skins. Weinberg was an accomplished session man, playing on Ian Hunter’s You’re Never Alone With A Schizophrenic, Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell, and plenty of other records in the seventies and eighties (and touring with 10,000 Maniacs after the E Street Band broke up. But most of all, Max spent a whole second career, 16 years or so, as the leader of Conan O’Brien’s “Max Weinberg Seven”, playing to an audience that largely didn’t know Bruce Springsteen from Rick Springfield, playing a whole ‘nother style of music – jazzy jump blues slathered with barbecued R’nB.
Weinberg on the O'Brien set.
Weinberg was in effect the band’s front man; in a band that played mostly instrumentals, he was the band’s lead instrument. It was a side you could have gone his entire E Street career and scarcely seen. And it was a blast.
And it led to one of the more interesting show-biz compromises in history. Weinberg was justifiably wary of jeorpardizing his O’Brien gig to go back with Springsteen full-time, after Bruce had cut the whole band loose in 1989 without any warning. So Weinberg, Springsteen and NBC worked out an unprecedented schedule that allowed Weinberg a leave of absence from O’Brien’s show for E Street Band tours and, eventually, led to Weinberg’s son Jake serving essentially as an understudy drummer for the band.
Clemons, who’s been playing saxophone (and, briefly on the Rising tour, bagpipes) with Bruce Springsteen since 1981, is one of the great rock and roll stories. Son of a fish merchant from Norfolk, Virginia, grandson of a Baptists minister, Clemons went Maryland State College on music and football scholarships, and had a tryout with the Jim-Brown-era Cleveland Browns; an untimely car accident before his tryout sent him to Plan B, working as a social worker by day and a musician by night.
Over the years, Clemons was a reliable foil for Springsteen in concert…
He wasn’t the most flexible sax payer of all time – I think a guy could do serviceable impression learning three or four basic licks on the horn.
But what he may lack in major chops, he makes up in distinctiveness; there may not be a sax player anywhere in music with a more identifiable sound.
Of course, the story of the first meeting between Clemons and Springsteen is known to anyone who ever listened to Born to Run; it’s the story in “Tenth Avenue Freezeout” (here’s a particularly frenetic rave-up of a version):
In more prosaic form?
One night we were playing in Asbury Park. I’d heard The Bruce Springsteen Band was nearby at a club called The Student Prince and on a break between sets I walked over there. On-stage, Bruce used to tell different versions of this story but I’m a Baptist, remember, so this is the truth. A rainy, windy night it was, and when I opened the door the whole thing flew off its hinges and blew away down the street. The band were on-stage, but staring at me framed in the doorway. And maybe that did make Bruce a little nervous because I just said, “I want to play with your band,” and he said, “Sure, you do anything you want.” The first song we did was an early version of “Spirit In The Night“. Bruce and I looked at each other and didn’t say anything, we just knew. We knew we were the missing links in each other’s lives. He was what I’d been searching for. In one way he was just a scrawny little kid. But he was a visionary. He wanted to follow his dream. So from then on I was part of history.
As “Miami Steve”, Van Zandt has served for a couple of decades, with a break from 1984 through the mid-nineties, as Bruce Springsteen’s onstage foil – sort of the quiet anti-Clarence-Clemons of the band. And while a lot of Bruuuuce fans have an awful lot of great memories locked into the E Street Band’s, Van-Zandt-less incarnations – Nils Lofgren is no slouch, and the ’84 and ’88 tours were pretty amazing experiences – the Miami years had a chemistry and interplay that changed into something else – not better, not worse, but different – on later years. Something I missed:
Van Zandt had a knack for raw, on-the-sleeve background vocals that set off Springsteen’s throat-scraping roar, and a sloppy, leaky style on the Strat that, on a good night, sent songs like “Jungleland” into orbit.
Van Zandt the singer?
Men Without Women, 1982
Van Zandt’s solo debut, “Men Without Women”, was one of the ten best albums in the history of rock and roll. Van Zandt gathered a bunch of rock’s greatest journeymen – Max Weinberg and Dino Danelli on drums, the Plasmatics’ bassist Jean Bouvoir, Felix Cavaliere, Roy Bittan and Danny Federici on keyboards, and La Bamba’s Mambomen – better known today as most of “The Max Weinberg Seven’s horn section” – into a studio for a couple of frantic days, and ended up with an album that combined the raw emotion of Exile on Main Street, the style of the best Stax/Volt rock and soul, and the immediacy of a bunch of guys running on raw inspiration; most of the album was is first takes, all of it recorded “live” direct to tape (Van Zandt overdubbed only a few guitar parts; the rest of the album was recorded almost like a live album, with the band gathered in a big circle in the studio).
And what an album it was.
“Forever” was the song that intoduced me to the whole raw, passion-drenched world of Stax/Volt soul:
There wasn’t a weak cut on the album:
The album came and went pretty quickly in the eighties – although big chunks of it turned up in the first two seasons of “The Sopranos”.
He released four more albums – swerving through garage metal, dance music, worldbeat and fairly conventional rock, each louder and a little shriller and much more political; it seemed to me that he only had so many ideas that got more and more tapped out with repetition. But when they were all brand new? Men Without Women was one amazing album.
Steve the producer? Van Zandt was the brains behind the first several classic albums by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. You could see the Jukes as one of the great bar band in history…:
…or as a prototype for Men Without Women:
He also producer another of my favorite records of all time – the Iron City Houserockers’ Have A Good Time (But Get Out Alive), along with Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson.
Which is not to say he was King Midas. He also presided over the decline and fall of the magnificent Lone Justice, producing Shelter, perhaps the slumpiest sophomore effort of the eighties. Which isn’t to say it didn’t have redeeming value…
Steve the actor? Well, it’s been pretty much The Sopranos so far. But I thought he was a pretty convincing sleazeball cub owner/consiglieri.
The disc jockey? That may be his great contribution these days; Little Steven’s Underground Garage is the absolute last bastion of genuine cool rock and roll anywhere in radio today.
When you play bass, you’re rarely the focus of attention. The guitar is usually front and center; the drummer gets to smash things, at least by appearances. Not a lot of bass players get much attention, and when they do it’s usually because they sing lead (Rush’s Geddy Lee, the Grass Roots’ Rob Grill, Chicago’s Peter Cetera), or they’re comically inept (Sid Vicious), or they are standout musicians in bands that rely on the bass to hold the whole mess together (The Who’s late John Entwistle, the Clash’s Paul Simonon).
And the bigger the band, the farther in the background they get pushed – because the bass player’s job, along with the drummer, is to be the bedrock on which the rest of the band’s sound is built, and with big bands there’s a lot riding on that bedrock. Who was the most unprepossessing member of the Rolling Stones? Bill Wyman, of course – to the point that many people don’t know he’s gone. Duff McKagan was the beating heart behind Guns ‘n Roses’ Appetite for Destruction; Leon Wilkerson held Lynyrd Skynyrd together; who knew?
And the most in-the-background bassist from the biggest band of all?
And the more you listen for Tallent, the more of him there is to hear. Tallent, for a bit player in a big, big band, is an extraordinarily fluid, mobile bassist. In fact, it’s easy to miss how much of the band’s motion he provides.
Think about it. Max Weinberg, the band’s drummer, is a Charlie Watts-style human metronome; he has to be, to keep the whole nine-piece melange in time. You can count the times he’s gotten to cut loose in the past 35 years – “Born In The USA”, “Roulette”, “Candy’s Room”, “Jackson Cage” – on a hand, with a finger or so in change. The other key elements – Roy Bittan, the late Danny Federici (and his replacement, Charles Giordano), and the band’s guitar line, whether the classic Springsteen/Van Zandt pairing or today’s Bruce/Steve/Nils/Patti onslaught – and of course Clarence Clemons and Soozie Tyrell, are all layers piling on top of the whole mass of sound. Weinberg may as well be playing drums in a symphony orchestra, for the all the room he has to stretch out, beyond the occasional accent here and there.
But Tallent is a sly one, if you pay attention.
“Fire“? Well, that’s a no-brainer. The verses are pretty much bass solos.
Much more interesting, though, is last series of choruses in “Incident on 57th Street“; as the band builds momentum after the final verse, Tallent starts an increasingly aggressive bass line that sneaks up on you behind the wash of keyboards and backup vocals, until you realize that Tallent’s solo is driving the whole thing.
“Trapped” is even more clever, in its own way. One of Springsteen’s very few recorded cover songs (until the Seeger sessions, anyway), it’s an almost unrecognizably rock-y remake of a Jimmy Cliff reggae classic. The rest of the band bashes into it like it’s a Who cover – not that there’s anything wrong with that, per se. But it’s in Tallent’s bass line that you can hear a faint echo of the song’s roots, just a little zing of caribbean syncopation to counterpoint the rest of the version’s Jersey Shore rock’nroll brawn.
I’ve written about ”Backstreets“, of course, over and over again; it’s the best breakup song ever written, it’s one of Danny Federici and Roy Bittan’s best moments together. But throughout, especially in the song’s choruses, Tallent’s bass line takes what could easily have been a pretty blah mid-tempo ballad, a John Cafferty wham-bam one-to-minor-six etude, and adds an agitated pulse in the middle; it’s disquieting, and carries on the agitated theme that Bittan and Federici set up in the song’s intro.
Could I go on, sure.
But it’d be much better to go turn your internal equalizer way, way down and listen for yourself.
Anyway – happy birthday, Garry Tallent!
UPDATE: Wow – this is cool! Welcome, Backstreets readers! I remember when I was a kid, thinking “how cool would it be to get an article in Backstreets“? This is just about as fun! Thanks, all!
Wish I had a ticket to the Stone Pony tonight. Not to mention airfare to Newark…
And while Glory Days will indeed pass you by in the wink of a young girl’s eye, it’s good to remember what got a guy where he is.
Someone did the world the estimable service of posting videos shot at two concerts at the old Capitol Theater in Passaic, New Jersey – sorta Springsteen’s home turf in those years after he outgrew the clubs on the Shore, but before he could fill the Meadowlands. It was from two nights just a shade over 31 years ago, on the epic Darkness on the Edge of Town tour. Bruce and the band – a very young Max Weinberg, a very thin Miami Steve, a very skeezy-looking Gary Tallent, a very tough-looking Danny Federici, a very Scorsese-esque Roy Bittan, and a very fly Clarence “Big Man” Clemons - were in probably the best form ever, on home turf, playing as the rocket to “legend” was just blasting off from the station.
The concert shows sides of the band we’ve rarely seen since super-super-stardom hit in the eighties; Federici stepping out front with the accordion on “Sandy”; the whole band coming down front to sing along on “Not Fade Away”; Miami Steve taking as many solos as Bruce (“Jungleland”, “The Promised Land”); the Big Man and Roy singing lots and lots of background vocals back in the days before Patti Scialfa and Nils Lofgren took them over, Clelmons’ jungle sounds in “She’s The One”…
Check them out. I’ve thought about trying to put the links in concert order – but that’s a project that’s gonna have to wait.
Marie Castello – “Madame Marie” from the Asbury Park New Jersey boardwalk – died last Friday:
The psychic reader and adviser was in her mid-90s.
Castello told fortunes on the Asbury Park Boardwalk since the 1930s.
She became famous worldwide in 1973 when Bruce Springsteen paid homage to her in the song, “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy).”
Didja hear the cops finally busted Madame Marie
for telling fortunes better than they do?
For me this boardwalk life’s through, babe.
You oughtta quit this scene too…
The song – and her appearances in stories Springsteen would tell onstage (most notably during his extended band introduction during “Tenth Avenue Freezeout” over the decades) made her a bit of a celeb; she’s popped up in all sorts of other pop culture references (including an appearance on Chef Anthony Bourdain’s TV show).