Bruce Springsteen Is America’s Greatest Conservative Songwriter, Part I: Telling Fortunes Better Than You Do

Bruce Springsteen.

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.

Why?

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!

Meeting Across The River – Night One

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.

Enjoy.

Continue reading

A Ticket To Passaic

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.

Because I’m in the mood to go see Springsteen.

RIP Big Man

Clarence Clemons died on Saturday, of complications from a stroke.

It’s impossible to overstate how important Clemons was to Springsteen’s early mystique – and Bruce knew it; on a stage full of scrawny white guys (and, during David Sanscious’ two years on keyboards, one scrawny black guy), Clemons was a 250 pound former lineman; he’d played at Maryland State, and gotten signed by the Cleveland Browns before an injury from a car accident sidelined him.

Clemons' annual photo at U of Maryland

He spent a few years working as a social worker, moonlighting as a musician until his fabled meeting with Springsteen, almost forty years ago.

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.

And now, the E Street Band is busted in half.

You Better Run, You Little Wild Heart

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)

Fade Away

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.

Patti Scialfa

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:

Anyway – happy birthday!

Happy Birthday, Max Weinberg!

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

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...

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 OBrien set.

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.

Jacob Weinberg with Nils Lofgren and Springsteen

Jacob Weinberg with Nils Lofgren and Springsteen

Anyway – happy birthday, Max Weinberg!

The Big Man Busts The City In Half

Clarence “The Big Man” Clemons turns 68 today.

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.

Happy Birthday, Big Man – and many more!

Happy Birthday, Miami Steve

It’s Steve Van Zandt’s 59th birthday today.

So which Steve Van Zandt do you like best?

The guitar player?

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

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.

Anyway – happy birthday, Steve Van Zandt!

Happy Birthday, Garry Tallent

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?

It’s Garry Tallent’s sixtieth birthday today.

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!

And if you like this, I’ll direct you to my tribute to Darkness on the Edge of Town, and my memorial to Danny.

And my thirtieth anniversary of The River?  Oh, yeah.  Wrote it six months ago!

Thanks for stopping by!

Bruuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuce

It’s Bruce Springsteen’s sixtieth birthday today.

Yeah, you read that right.

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.

Anyway – happy sixtieth, Bruce!

Cops Bust Madame Marie: Police Deny Competitive Retaliation

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).

And Happy Birthday, Nils Lofgren

And it’s a double-shot of musical birthdays, today; I had no idea until I started writing this. Anyway – today is also Nils Lofgren’s birthday. He’s 57, not that you could tell.

He’s most famous, at least among the latest generation or two of music fans, as the virtuoso third guitarist in the E Street Band.

And that’s cool; Lofgren added a depth of texture and skill that Springsteen’s put to great use in the last 24 years, leaving his mark on some of Springsteen’s best work in the past couple of decades; the blistering solo in “Tunnel of Love” (and throughout the rest of the album named after the song), the broad, crunchy slide rhythm work on “The Rising”, and much, much more.

But it also short-changes the music-listening public. I was a Lofgren fan long before he joined the E Street Band before the Born In The USA tour.

Part of the draw is that he is, as Dave Marsh memorably put it, America’s great unknown rock and roller. His pre-Springsteen stuff – “No Mercy“, “Beggar’s Day”, “Keith Don’t Go“, “Night Fades Away”, “Cry Tough” – was sometimes eclectic, and always featured out-of-scale amazing guitar work, but at the end of the day it was always great old-school rock and roll; he resisted the currents of the seventies and the eighties pretty successfully (other than the regrettable I Came To Dance, a “Miss You”-derived foray into disco of which the less said the better) and still sounded fresh and vital.

Part of it, for me as a guitar player, is that his style is just so damn inscrutable. Unlike most guitar players, he fingerpicks – which is quite common among folkies and country players, but very rare among rockers. Unlike the best-known electric fingerpickers, like Richard Thompson and Mark Knopfler, he uses steel fingerspicks – think prosthetic steel fingernails that you slip onto your fingers – which he uses to for a hard, sharp, brilliant attack. And the part that I find the most vexing and thrilling is his ability to get, at will, the most intense pick harmonics (there’s no way to explain it to non-guitarists, although the solo that starts about 4:30 into this video of his most famous solo has a ton of ’em) of anyone who ever picked up a Strat. Trying to copy Lofgren – his style, his tone, his idiosyncracies – is the only thing in the world more vexing and yet fascinating than trying to copy Richard Thompson.

So happy birthday, Nils Lofgren, and many more.

You Don’t Know Diddley

Bo Diddley is dead of apparent complications from a stroke:

Bo Diddley, a founding father of rock ‘n’ roll whose distinctive “shave and a haircut, two bits” rhythm and innovative guitar effects inspired legions of other musicians, died Monday after months of ill health. He was 79.

Diddley died of heart failure at his home in Archer, Fla., spokeswoman Susan Clary said. He had suffered a heart attack in August, three months after suffering a stroke while touring in Iowa. Doctors said the stroke affected his ability to speak, and he had returned to Florida to continue rehabilitation.

The legendary singer and performer, known for his homemade square guitar, dark glasses and black hat, was an inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, had a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, and received a lifetime achievement award in 1999 at the Grammy Awards. In recent years he also played for the elder President Bush and President Clinton.

The 1988 inauguration, indeed, featured the memorable lineup of Diddley, Sam and Dave, and Lee Atwater.

Diddley appreciated the honors he received, “but it didn’t put no figures in my checkbook.”

“If you ain’t got no money, ain’t nobody calls you honey,” he quipped.

Working in radio as a kid, I was aware of Diddley bright and early – but I didn’t really know Diddley until he toured with The Clash, around 1979-80.

His first single, “Bo Diddley,” introduced record buyers in 1955 to his signature rhythm: bomp ba-bomp bomp, bomp bomp, often summarized as “shave and a haircut, two bits.” The B side, “I’m a Man,” with its slightly humorous take on macho pride, also became a rock standard…Diddley’s influence was felt on both sides of the Atlantic. Buddy Holly borrowed the bomp ba-bomp bomp, bomp bomp rhythm for his song “Not Fade Away.”

The Rolling Stones‘ bluesy remake of that Holly song gave them their first chart single in the United States, in 1964. The following year, another British band, the Yardbirds, had a Top 20 hit in the U.S. with their version of “I’m a Man.”

Let’s not forget Warren Zevon’s “Bo Diddley’s a Gunslinger” and, best of all, Springsteen’s “She’s The One”.  The NYTimes has a list of songs that reference the signature beat.

Diddley was also one of the pioneers of the electric guitar, adding reverb and tremelo effects. He even rigged some of his guitars himself.

“He treats it like it was a drum, very rhythmic,” E. Michael Harrington, professor of music theory and composition at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., said in 2006.

Diddley’s influence was always very underrated.

Nothing Is Forgotten Or Forgiven

Today is the thirtieth anniversary of the release of my favorite album of the rock and roll era, Darkness On The Edge Of Town.

Thirty years? Ooof.

Here’s what I wrote two years ago – a piece I’m still kinda proud of:

———-

Tonight My Baby And Me Are Gonna Ride To The Sea

It was 28 years ago today that Darkness on the Edge of Town came out.

For the past 25 or so years, it’s been my favorite album of all time.

Everyone remembers Born to Run, a timeless procession of suicide machines and old girlfriends and happy-go-lucky petty thugs and dresses flying in the wind and visionaries in parking lots dancing to late-night radio to the light of nearby billboards.

Darkness is the album for when the cruising’s over, and you have to grow up and live your life for real.

There’s a reason the album has stuck with me for almost thirty years – and why so many Bruce fans say that it, rather than Born to Run or The River or Nebraska, is their favorite Springsteen record.

There has never been a better record written about isolation – personal, geographical, cultural, and emotional – ever. Which may be why it resonated so much for a kid for North Dakota who desperately wanted to be elsewhere. In fact, “the Promised Land” is about exactly that:

On a rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert
I pick up my money and head back into town
Driving cross the Waynesboro county line
I got the radio on and I’m just killing time
Working all day in my daddy’s garage
Driving all night chasing some mirage
Pretty soon little girl I’m gonna take charge

CHORUS
The dogs on Main Street howl
’cause they understand
If I could take one moment into my hands
Mister I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man
And I believe in a promised land

Foreigner and Black Sabbath never wrote about being stuck in a small town, bored out of your skull. I was sold.

The first cut, “Badlands”, is a decoy; it’s almost “Born to Run”-ish, with its gleefully-sloppy guitar/sax interplay, big beat (almost danceable, by Springsteen standards) and exhortation that “it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive”. But after “Badlands” it’s clear – being glad you’re alive is no sin, but it’s something you gotta work for. “Adam Raised a Cain”, a brutal, plodding dirge, raises the ante; you can be glad you’re alive, but your past wants its due:

“Daddy worked his whole life for nothing but the pain
Now he walks these empty rooms looking for something to blame
You inherit the sins, you inherit the flames
Adam raised a Cain…

“Something in the Night” reads like an obituary to the teenage dream; like an almost-thirty-year-old is driving down the same route he covered ten years earlier – maybe the route “through the mansions of glory”, for all we know.

But he’s alone, this time:

I’m riding down Kingsley,
figuring I’ll get a drink
Turn the radio up loud,
so I don’t have to think,
I take her to the floor,
looking for a moment when the world
seems right,
And I tear into the guts,
of something in the night.

Well nothing is forgotten or forgiven,
when it’s your last time around,
and I’ve got stuff running ’round my head,
that I can’t live down…

So it’s been 28 years since I first heard the record, and about a quarter century since it’s been among my 2-3 favorite records ever. For me, it’s been a long stretch; a couple of careers, two and a half kids, a marriage that splintered like a Wal-mart dining room set, and a few dreams along the way that had to get wrapped up and put away for later, whenever “Later” is.

And at the end of it all – on the title and final cut on the album, the slow, mournful “Darkness on the Edge of Town” – a late-night tale by a guy who staked a big chunk of his life on a losing bet, a song that sounds like 4AM after a long bender, about the time when resignation gells into resolve:

Well, they’re still racing out at The Trestles
but that blood never burned in her veins.
I hear she’s got a house out on Fairview, now,
and a style she’s trying to maintain…

He’s been there. He’s thought about it.

He’s done:

Well, some folks are born into a good life,
and other folks get it anyway, anyhow.
And I lost my money and I lost my wife,
Them things don’t seem to matter much to me now.
Tonight I’ll be on that hill ’cause I can’t stop
I’ll be on that hill with everything I got
Where the lives are on the line, where dreams are found and lost,
I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost
For wanting things that can only be found
in the darkness on the edge of town…

The album has stayed with me like none of Springsteen’s other records – partly because I associate it so closely with that part of my adolescence when I was just starting to figure out who I was and where I belonged, but mostly because it’s about things that are pretty timeless.

It aint’ no sin to be glad you’re alive. It’s also something you have to earn:

Well everybody’s got a hunger,
a hunger they can’t resist.
There’s so much that you want,
you deserve much more than this.
Well, if dreams came true, aw, wouldn’t that be nice?
But this aint’ no dream, we’re living all through the night.
You want it? You take it, you pay the price…

So earn it.

———-

The other day, area blogger and fellow Bruuuuce fan Nightwriter left this comment:

I remember a friend of mine and I staying up til midnight at the end of term in ‘78 to hear the college radio station play the long-awaited new album on its release day. After all the anticipation I found it rather anti-climatic. I didn’t really like the album the first time through; there didn’t seem to be the “BTR” or “Rosalita” type anthem or a real party song. After the last cut finished my buddy asked me what I thought. I said it sounded as if Bruce had traded the city streets for the highways. I mean, how did he get from “E Street” to “a rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert”? Didn’t stop me from buying it, of course, and it did grow on me.

I’ve found that to be true with a lot of music; a lot of my favorite albums ever – London Calling, Empty Glass, Tunnel of Love, Exile on Main Street, Pleased To Meet Me, Poor Man’s Son and probably quite a few others – didn’t totally grab me right out of the gate. Oh, there were songs I liked on each right out of the sleeve – but it took a while for things to really insinuate themselves into my brain, and deeper.

And while it’s been a long, long time since I first heard it, some of my favorites on Darkness today are the ones I skipped past when I was in high school. Oh, things like “Badlands”, “The Promised Land” and “Prove It All Night” grabbed me in my adolescent gut, but I remember thinking “Racing In The Street” was a lab project to cram in as many traditional “Springsteen” cliches – cars, girls, driving, the shore – into one song as possible. My friend Rich actually broke out laughing when he first heard the song’s opening verse…:

I got a ’69 Chevy with a 396, fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor.
She’s waiting tonight down in the parking lot behind the 7/11 store.

…and, truth be told, I couldn’t really object. Not then, anyway. It took me years, and a lot of life, to really figure that one out.

Which may be why I love this album so much, more even than any other Springsteen album (and I love so much of that to begin with); there’s just as much there for me now as there was when I was 17.

They’re Screamin’ To Please Me, Gotta Make It Look Easy

It was thirty years ago this year (does anybody really know what date it was? Does anybody really care?)  We’re almost halfway through the year, so I’m as close to right as a wild guess can be) that Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes released one of the best albums in the history of rock and roll – Hearts of Stone.

The Asbury Jukes were a flash in the pan on the national popular chart scene – “Hearts of Stone” got on the Top40 Album charts, and their only Top40 single, “It’s Been A Long Time”, didn’t happen until 1991, with the help of Bruce Springsteen, Miami Steve “Silvio Dante” Van Zandt and Jon Bon Jovi. But they’ve flitted about the edge of the scene for over thirty years; they were the frat party band in “Adventures in Babysitting”; the band, or at least its horn section, “La Bamba’s Mambomen”, are the heart of the “Max Weinberg Seven”, on the Conan O’Brien Show (and Weinberg has sat in with the Jukes many times – but more on that in a moment).

But that was now; “Hearts of Stone” is then.

The Jukes are a fossilized remnant from an almost-forgotten era; a horn-based rock and roll band that slathered itself in Stax/Volt-era Rhythm and Blues. Their first two albums were loud, horn-driven party rock, laced with covers and throwaways – think a Lamont Cranston band album, if you’re from the Twin Cities. They remind the casual listener of the J. Geils Band, which was from a very similar genre (Geils had to rent a horn section – and while John Lyon is a great harmonica player, Geils’ Magic Dick is the Stevie Ray Vaughan of the instrument). And, most importantly, they came from the Jersey Shore, where throughout the late sixties and early seventies the various members mixed and mingled with the cast of characters that fans of the scene know well, and the casual listener probably only knows via Bruce Springsteen. The Jukes, led by “Southside Johnny” Lyon, were a long-time mainstay in the bar scene on the Jersey Shore; to read the tales second-hand in books like Dave Marsh’s “Born to Run”, Jersey Shore bands were like Twin Cities’ leftyblogs; eventually everyone played in every other band. Several E Street Band members, in fact, sit in on “Hearts”.  Max Weinberg plays drums on several tracks; Steve Van Zandt played in the band until Springsteen called him over to to the E Street Band during and after Born to Run; his distinctive, leaky, sloppy Strat playing accents several cuts on Hearts (“Got To Find A Better Way Home”, the title cut, “Light Don’t Shine” and others); Patti Scialfa hung out with the band for years before joining the E Street Band and, eventually, Bruce’s nuclear family.

Growing up in North Dakota, the Jukes were something you caught from the occasional zealot; her husband (and her brother in law) was the only other person in the history of Jamestown North Dakota besides yours truly to have actually heard of them. 

The problem with the Jukes was that they were a great bar band; at their best, they were amazing live performers – on stage.  And like a lot of great bar bands, it took a really good producer to get “their best” off the stage and into the studio.  “Miami Steve” Van Zandt was, for a few years, that producer; he married the band’s tight ebullience with the best material the band ever recorded; although Hearts has been called “the best album Springsteen never released, Bruce only wrote two songs – the title cut and the album’s single, “Talk To Me”, and co-wrote a third (the claustrophobic but propulsive “Trapped Again”) with Van Zandt and Lyon.  Van Zandt penned the rest of the album, and rode herd on the band in the studio.  The end result was that rarest of artifacts; a great bar band making a great record.  (Van Zandt repeated the feat two years later, with his uncredited production (along with Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson) of most of the Iron City Houserockers’ classic Have A Good Time (But Get Out Alive)). 

As to the individual songs?  Where do you start when every song is a highlight?  The first song, “Got to Be a Better Way Home”, is a frantic rave-up with an off-kilter beat (that is begging for a ska remake); it pops up as a bumper on the NARN occasionally.  Others – “This Time Baby’s Gone for Good”, “I Played the Fool”, “Take It Inside” – are in the same weight-class; big beefy bar-room raveups with glorious, horn-driven choruses; in an era when people thought Chicago was great music with horns, the Jukes showed the world how it was supposed to be done.  If this album doesn’t make you do something – dance, drive too fast, smile – then you must be dead.

Along with “Got To Be…”, though, the standouts are “Light Don’t Shine” – a weary, guitar-driven breakup song that sounds like cigarette smoke and too many boilermakers and too much heartache:

They came to shake my hand
I don’t want them to touch me now
They said, “Congratulations” but it’s too late now
Where were they when I called?
How could they forget it all?

Didn’t you get what you need?
The fight was lost, it wasn’t meant to be
It isn’t as hard for you to leave
There’s no easy way for me

And of course, the title cut.  “Hearts of Stone” was a Born to Run-era Springsteen song that never quite fit onto one of Bruce’s albums.  Slow, smoky, launching with a classic Van Zandt guitar solo over tinkly last-call piano, it reminds me of Springsteen’s “Racing In The Street”, which came out the same year on Darkness On The Edge Of Town – maybe less symbolic, but more personal:

You stare in the mirror at the lines in your face
And you try so hard to see
The way things were when we were at your place
Everyday was just you and me
And you cry because things ain’t like before
Well, don’t you know it can’t be that way anymore
But don’t worry baby

I can’t talk now, I’m not alone
So put your ear close to the phone
This is the last dance, the last chance
For hearts of stone

It’s the best album the Jukes ever did – and it’s well within Steve Van Zandt’s top ten, and probably up in Springsteen’s top 25, too.

So if you like the genre, check it out.  I have no idea if you can find the album on CD, anywhere in the world; I know the album is on ITunes (because, dang skippy, I bought it). 

Anyway – happy anniversary, Bruce and Steve and John.  Whatever date it actually came out.

Just Like A Spirit In The Night

Someday if I ever made a movie of my own life,  most of the soundtrack would probably be Springsteen songs.  I associate one song or another with most of the big milestones of my life – teenage angst, love found and lost, hope, determination, grief, whatever you got.

The E Street Band is just a tad greater than the sum of a bunch of great parts; the beating heart of the Weinberg/Tallent rhythm section, Miami Steve’s raw, sloppy-yet-perfect backup vocals, the Big Man’s sax garnishing the whole thing…

…but under and around and occasionally soaring above it all was the soul of the E Street Band’s sound – Danny Federici and his Hammond B-3.

Federici passed away yesterday at age 58 from complications of skin cancer after nearly forty years of playing with Springsteen:

It was Federici, along with original E Street Band drummer Vini Lopez, who first invited Springsteen to join their band.

(“Child”, with Springsteen, Federici, Vinny “Mad Dog” Lopez and Vini Roslin)

By 1969, the self-effacing Federici — often introduced in concert by Springsteen as “Phantom Dan” — was playing with the Boss in a band called Child. Over the years, Federici joined his friend in acclaimed shore bands Steel Mill, Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom and the Bruce Springsteen Band.

Federici became a stalwart in the E Street Band as Springsteen rocketed from the boardwalk to international stardom. Springsteen split from the E Streeters in the late ’80s, but they reunited for a hugely successful tour in 1999.

Federici and Springsteen were half of “Steel Mill”, a first-generation metal band (of all things) that predated the E Street Band by a couple of years, and whose bootlegs have been for thirty years among the most sought-after in the boot business. 

  It’s no accident that the Springsteen moments that I remember the most are, most often, the ones most keenly-accented by Federici’s raw, understated, yet always dead-on playing:

  • The figure in the chorus of “Incident on 57th Street” (The Wild, The Innocent And The E Street Shuffle); it’s only three notes repeated eight times, dissolving into a high, fat wash of chords keening above the raw longing of Bruce’s vocals; “Puerto Rican Jane – oh won’t you tell me…”, but without it, it’d be just another lovelorn guy baying at the moon; Federici’s part adds and accents the tension, the hope, the passion. 
  • “Jungleland” (from Born to Run);  The huge swell as Bruce roars “From the churches to the jails, tonight all is silence in the world…” signals that this song is going downtown to rumble.
  • “Sandy”, from E Street Shuffle, featuring Danny on an unforgettable accordion part

  • The Farfisa part that propels the choruses of Born in the USA’s “Glory Days” (and is virtually a sample of the even cooler part on “I’m a Rocker” (The River).
  • “Backstreets” (from Born to Run); Federici does two things that stand out in this song – one of my favorites, and easily the best “breakup” song of all time.  From the bridge (“Endless juke joints and Valentino drag…”) to the end, of course, Federici’s B3 howls with all the anger and longing that this angry, longing song deserves; the organ is the atmosphere.  But it’s at the beginning – the long intro Federici shared with pianist Roy Bittan – that is the most ingenious.  The organ part starts low, mournful and sad, with broad chords behind Bittan’s eighth-note riffing.  But then, when the band comes in, Federici swells up into a higher register, playing a nervous, jittery pentatonic counterpoint behind the rest of the band.  It’s so subtle you have to listen hard for it – and you usually sense it rather than hear it.  But it adds the angst-y undercurrent to the intro; while the rest of the band broadly thumps away, the organ twitches and twists in the background like all the unanswered questions behind any lousy breakup. 
  • “Jackson Cage” (The River) – Federici is the propulsion behind this, one of Bruce’s rawest sprints, almost challenging Weinberg to keep up. 

And of course, the entire album Darkness on the Edge of Town.  Dave Marsh once wrote that Born to Run belonged the Clarence Clemons and Roy Bittan – but Darkness belonged to Federici (and the low end of Weinberg’s drum kit, the toms and bass).   Marsh was right, as he usually was (when not writing about politics, anyway); Federici has almost too many great moments to catalog; the burst of howling joy in “Badlands” (especially the roaring swell in the second verse – “Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king…”), the fatigue-ridden last-call motif on “Factory”, the indigo atmospherics in the title cut…

…and, perhaps best of all, “Racing In The Street”, which constantly dukes it out with “Darkness…” for the title of my favorite Bruce song.  The song is the flip side of “Born To Run” – it’s about growing up and realizing after you’ve driven your suicide machine through the mansions of glory, that party’s got a morning after – the rest of your life. 

And the final coda, after the last chorus – “tonight my baby and me are gonna ride to the sea, and wash these sins off our hands…” – is entirely driven by Federici; slow and mournful at the beginning, and then brightening like the sun rising in the east over The Shore, as another day begins as things pick up tempo and life starts up again.

Federici was the quietest member of the band, the one who stayed the most in the background, the one whose career was most-closely tied to the band.

 

  Unlike Nils Lofgren, he had no previous solo career; he never forged much of a second career, like Steve Van Zandt’s acting or Max Weinberg’s now-long career as a bandleader, or for that matter Gary Tallent’s as a producer; he didn’t have the force of a supersized personality like Clarence Clemons to boot doors open.  His single solo album, the jazzy and largely instrumental Flemington, was and remains obscure.  He reportedly took the E Street Band’s extended hiatus, from 1990 to 1998, the hardest; rumors among the E Street fan hive had it that he had a bit of a drinking problem; the band’s reunion and tour in ’99 was, the rumors had it, a huge boost to his life. 

Whatever.  The fact remained that whatever the rest of the E Street’s bands parts brought to the table, Federici added the atmospherics, the foreboding, the tingle of anticipation…the soul of the band.

RIP, Danny Federici.

Tramps Like Us

Bruce Springsteen released Born To Run thirty years ago today.

Thirty years. The album is twice as old as I was when I first heard it.

Amazing.

borntorun_front.jpg

I hear the album today, and it’s still just as fresh as it ever was. If Rock and Roll is a matter of crystalline moments that still cut and shine through the tarnish of the years and the background noise of everyday life, Born To Run is the mother of all diamonds.

I remember being a seventies-addled junior high kid, watching the guy at Mother’s Records in Jamestown – the one across from the high school – drop the needle on the first copy of Born To Run I ever saw, on the one hand thinking “no way it’s better than Boston“, on the other hand looking at the sleeve – a 26 year old Bruce leaning on a 33 year old Clarence (with a Fender Freaking Telecaster Squire, in the middle of the heyday of the Gibson Les Paul, no less!), presaging the joy and tension and just plain ENERGY in the album, and thinking “Wow. That’s rock and roll”.

And then – Thunder Road:

The screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways
Like a vision she dances across the porch. As the radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey that’s me and I want you only
Don’t turn me home again, I just can’t face myself alone again

A girl! Dancing on the porch! Sign me up!

All prelude of course, to the burst of energy to come that washed over me, that shot a chill up my spine:

With a chance to make it good somehow
Hey what else can we do now?
Except roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair
Well the night’s busting open
This two lanes will take us anywhere
We got one last chance to make it real
To trade in these wings on some wheels
Climb in back, Heaven’s waiting on down the tracks…

Bruce has done better albums (Darkness on the Edge of Town, Tunnel of Love), he’s had records that sold more albums (Born In The USA) – but no album, before or since, has ever had moments like Born To Run.

Moments – it’s a prosaic word, but in the world of Mitch, as applied to Rock and Roll, it has a very specific meaning that, for purposes of explanation, I should make clear; a “moment” is something, some tiny snippet of a song, that sends a chill up your spine, that rattles you to the core of your being. They can be huge and dramatic (Roger Daltrey’s scream in “Won’t Get Fooled Again”), or light and subtle (Susannah Hoffs’ cooing “to a perfect world” at the end of “Dover Beach”, from the first Bangles album); they can be part of a great song (the final “to bring the victory Jesus won…” in U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, the murderous guitar hooks in Big Country’s “Where The Rose Is Sown”, the bridge in Smokey Robinson’s “Cruisin'”), a mediocre one (the final coda in the Alarm’s “Blaze of Glory”, the bridges in the Babies’ “Isn’t It Time”), even a crappy one (Neil Schon’s entrance in Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing”), it can beat you over the head (the beginning of Barry Goudreau’s blazing final solo in Boston’s “Long Time”), it can seduce you (the mournful, whispered chorus of Richard Thompson’s “Jenny”, Aimee Mann’s transclucent last line of the last verse of Til Tuesday’s “Coming Up Close”). You get the picture.

Moments are ephemeral, unpredictable. Most artists never have one (Laura Brannigan and Dee Snider searched their whole careers in vain); most albums never send a single chill up a lonely spine. A single such moment can redeem an otherwise mediocre career; the world could forget the Monkees, Roxette, 10,000 Maniacs, the Cars and Abba tomorrow, but I’d love them for a grand total of maybe fifteen seconds worth of moments among them (brief snippets of “I’m A Believer”, “It’s All Over Now”, “These Are Days”, “Bye Bye Love” and “SOS”, two-second flares of pop brilliance that are all I need). A talent for such moments – the ability to create more than one or two on a couple of albums – is a rare thing indeed, almost mythical. Pete Townsend, Ray Davies, Chuck D, Lennon/McCartney, Paul Westerberg, Chrissy Hynde (until about 1985), Bono/The Edge, Stuart Adamson, Smokey Robinson, Levi Stubbs, Aimee Mann – it’s a small, select list.

And in no album are there more such moments jammed so tightly together, moments enough to define the careers of a dozen other artists, moments that, thirty years later, still thrill and chill and drag you out into onto the Jersey Turnpike of the mind in Dad’s jalopy. None. Ever:

  • Thunder Road – “…roll down the window”, “it’s a town full of losers, and I’m pulling outta here to win…”
  • Tenth Avenue Freezeout – “While Scooter and the big man bust this city in half!”
  • Night – Almost too many to count – the frenetic opening, the raw harmonies of the first verse, the bridge (“Hell, all night, they’re busting you up on the outside…”)
  • Backstreets – The crescendo when the entire band joins, the exit from the bridge (“…but I hated him, and I hated you when you want away – whoooooah”, raw with aching and longing and unrequited pain)
  • The title cut – Again, too many to catalog; “Boom” Carter’s half-bar drum intro, “Beyond the palace, hemi-powered drones…”, the moment when Bruce counts off the beat to the last verse…
  • She’s The One – The band stomping into the Bo Diddley beat from the intro, heavy enough to crush rocks but deft enough to dance to – in fact, impossible not to dance to.
  • Meeting Across The River – All the sly little moments that tell us the song is about a couple of desperate losers looking for the big break; “Here, stuff this in your pocket, it’ll look like you’re carrying a friend…”
  • Jungleland – Too many to list; the first “Down…in…Jun…gle…Laaaaand”, the glorious guitar solo, “…in the parking lots the visionaries dress in the latest rage…, and of course, the song’s cornerstone “…and the poets down here write nothing at all, they just stand back and let it all be…”

Born To Run is the encyclopedia of rock and roll – one moment at a time.

And thirty years later, it still crackles like static from the speakers, feeling barely controlled, throbbing with potential energy (“Backstreets'” ominous buildup) and thundering with explosive release (“Night”), careening from smokey barroom to dragstrip to rumble to backseat like one of those lost weekend evenings from your teens – or the teenage years you imagined other people having – packed into a sleeve.

Born to Run is one of those rare records that feels as good today as the day it was released; it hasn’t aged or dated itself one iota; one of those bits of art that will long outlive its creator.

One moment at a time.

(Feel free to comment – but please keep all politically-oriented criticism out of this thread. Springsteen’s support of John Kerry last year is no more an indictment of Born to Run than the Pedophile Priest scandal is a black mark on the New Testament. Politically based criticism will be gleefully mutilated).