Thursday, December 23, 2010

Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen is one those artists, like Prince and The Cult, who I kind of liked in the Eighties and then abandoned because I lost interest in their later work.

I'd read about Springsteen before I heard any of his music. In the Stellenbosch Municipal Library there was copy of the 1975 issue of Time magazine with Bruce on the cover. I do not recall whether the library also had Newsweek, who put Springsteen on its cover at the same time as Time. Anyhow, the piece, as I recall it, told us about a new street poet New Jersey kind of guy, with a big band behind him and a powerful work ethic and even more powerful huge rock and roll sound who was here to save the world, or at least to entertain us. At the time Springsteen meant absolutely nothing to me and for all I knew it was just some hype by Time magazine to boost the career of a flavour of the month artist.

When "Born to Run" eventually roared from the radio speakers I was immediately hooked. It was powerful, it had a great chorus and the lyrics seemed to be about reality yet also mythical. Those opening chords still thrill me viscerally every time I hear the song.

Other than that I knew nothing about the other songs on the Born To Run album. The record was available in my local record store but for some reason I never asked to listen to it or even had any intention of buying it. My musical focus was elsewhere. I'd bought a copy of Circus magazine with a somewhat gushing review of the album and from I could glean about the music I gathered that it would not really be to my taste and that the rest of the songs were not as mighty as "Born to Run" and so I left it.

Over the next few years I read a lot about Springsteen, mostly in NME where, for example, Tony Parsons was very effusive in his praise of Springsteen's material circa the Darkness On The Edge Of Town release, which surprised me because I had thought of Parsons as a punk booster.

I might have heard "Badlands" on the radio at the time and I liked it but by then I was kind of firmly set in my resistance against buying Springsteen's music. To a degree the idea of a rock band with a large horn section put me off; at the time I did not even particularly like the urban blues style of BB King with his big band. I also felt that there was so much hype surrounding Bruce that I could only be disappointed when I listened to a whole album.

Chris Prior used to play some tracks off the first two albums and these jazz funk (as I thought of them) infected rock song with semi-Dylanesque lyrics were not hard or simple enough for my taste and the words were just too much nonsense. I can understand why it took a while, and a sea change, for America and the world to catch onto Springsteen's talent.

My mate Emil Kolbe bought a copy of The River when it came out, perhaps in Japan, and left it at my flat for a while. I listened to it once and realised, apart from "Hungry Heart" and "The River" itself, which had been on the radio a lot anyway, that I really did not like this kind of rock and roll at all. The slow songs seemed forced and silly in their street seriousness and really dragged, and the fast songs were just all these car songs that quickly became boring to endure. The double album was just too damn long.

In 1983 in Windhoek, Marius Rijkheer, one of my neighbours at the Officer's mess, who was a big fan of the New Jersey fireball, had a copy of Nebraska, the solo album that sounds exactly like the soundtrack to assist in the contemplation of suicide. I'd thought Leonard Cohen made downer music until I heard Nebraska; then Cohen seemed almost excessively upbeat by comparison.

Rijkheer copied the album for me onto a cassette tape and I listened closely to it. It was very strange that anyone in Springsteen's commercial position at the time would want to release an album not only of him on his own but also of such gloomy material. Where The River could have been good music for a party, Nebraska was just good for depressing you even further than you might have been before you started listening to it. Perhaps it is a work of pure genius but to this day I think of Nebraska as an album of demos Bruce got his record company to release because he could. Having said that, the title track and "Atlantic City" are great songs. After that the songs started melting into each other and by the end of the first side the focus is gone.

Marius Rijkheer was a Law Officer like me and in 1984 when I was a candidate attorney based in the Strand he was a public prosecutor out in Caledon. When I had occasion to visit the Magistrate's Court in Caledon I looked up Rijkheer and we had lunch together. He drove to our lunch spot and played a cassette tape of Born In The USA while we drove. This album was to be the record with which Springsteen went from success to mega worldwide success and I would imagine I would have heard "Dancing In The Dark" on the radio by then but it was pretty much a pop song compared to the more rock oriented other tracks on the album and I was impressed by that first cursory exposure to Born In The USA.

The album became a phenomenon of huge proportions. It seemed that about half of the songs on the album were played as plug tracks (perhaps they were actually released as singles; I did not buy singles and was under the impression that they almost no longer existed) on the radio over the next two years, while the album chalked up mega sales. Before 1964 Bruce had been big in the States and popular elsewhere and afterwards he was global rock hero.

I still resisted buying the album, partly because of the hype and partly because I was not convinced that I would want to listen to his music over and over again.

My cousin Raymond Solomon had a different opinion. I think he might have been a fan since Born to Run but in any event he had the records of Born to Run, Darkness On The Edge Of Town and Born In The USA and somewhere in 1985 or 1986 I borrowed these 3 albums and copied them onto cassette tape and this was then the first time I listened to either with any kind of attention.

Regarding Born In The USA my first surprise was that I immediately recognised a song that had not yet received any radio airplay, namely "Working On The Highway". I recognised it because it was in the set of All Night Radio. My favourite local band of that time, who had been playing "Working On The Highway" without informing the audience of the identity of the songwriter. They also did "Pink Cadillac", which might have been a single B-side.

As the set contained mostly self-penned material and because the Springsteen tunes fitted in so seamlessly I was none the wiser and simply thought Steve Louw had managed to write two great tunes. I would imagine that I was almost alone in the audience in my ignorance. The other people around me probably knew well that All Night Radio was doing cover versions.

Be that as it may, I immediately liked Born In The USA, despite the slightly tedious familiarity of so many of its songs, a lot better than Born To Run where the street poet intensity of most the songs left me cold and made me wonder whether this was not some elaborate joke on Springsteen's part. How could anyone be so serious about this?

Apart from the title track the only other song from Born to Run I unreservedly liked was "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out", which I'd heard before and could have been the B-side of "Born To Run" and which was the best other rocker on the album. The overall impression was that the songs were slow, ponderous and almost ridiculous. "Meeting Across The River" was almost a pleasure because it was so short compared to the longer narratives.

I get that the E Street Band is very much a powerhouse of swing and melody and rock and that the emotional depth of the songs is enhanced by the R & B styled big band alternatively playing sensitively and slowly or loud and frenzied as the mood dictates, but it is still not a sound I could instinctively love.

Born In The USA is, for all its pop production sheen, more of a traditional rock album with more fast songs than slow songs and with the heavy myth-making somewhat downplayed. It is indeed the kind of record where every song is good and the whole sounds like a greatest hits package. Given how many songs were taken from it as singles, it might as well be. I don't think Bruce ever managed that kind of popularity since and probably never wanted pop success again.

However, the really big revelation was Darkness On The Edge Of Town. For me this is the great Bruce Springsteen master work and his most effective and affectless album. Where Born To Run for the most part sounded too sleek, bloated, overblown and very calculated, Darkness On The Edge Of Town sounds rough, raw, tight and about as spontaneous as Springsteen could get in the studio. These tunes rock furiously, like "Badlands", "Adam Raised A Cain", "The Promised Land" and "Streets Of Fire" (with the most ferocious guitar solo Springsteen ever recorded) and the slower songs like "Something In The Night" and the title track, do not come across as ponderous or anywhere near as pompous as "Thunder Road" or "Jungleland" from the previous record. . The band rocks harder and Bruce plays really loud, aggressive guitar that truly tears the room apart. This was my kind of rock and to this day Darkness is my top favourite Springsteen album and in fact the only album, apart from the Greatest Hits set from the mid-Nineties, that I've bothered to buy. The only let down on Darkness is "Racing In The Street." It sounds like a reject from Born To Run and builds up painfully slowly and I really don't get the point of the story. Perhaps it is because I did not grow up working class in New Jersey.

This is pretty much where I stopped taking an active interest in Springsteen's music. "Brilliant Disguise" from Tunnel Of Love (1987) got some radio airplay in South Africa, as did "Human Touch" from the eponymous album and "Better Days" from Lucky Town, both 1992, but I do not know whether they could be called great hits and after that Springsteen kind of disappeared from South African radio, which might be a reflection on the state of our rock radio, but I did not much like any of these songs anyway. The radio songs sounded too pop and too twee for my liking and the hubris of releasing Human Touch and Lucky Town almost simultaneously as separate albums instead of as 2 halves of a double album, gave Bruce a hit of a comeuppance. Those two albums were staples in discount bins at record stores or in second hand CD stores for years to come. I was not prepared to buy them even at a massive discount.

In 1995 I did buy the Greatest Hits album because it had a good selection of the best tunes without the tedious ones that surrounded them on the albums from which they were taken. For my money, apart from Darkness, that is the best way to listen to Bruce: do some cherry picking and avoid the dross. This compilation is 15 years old by now and possibly out of date and there has been The Ultimate Springsteen collection since, and a series of albums with previously unreleased tracks form the vaults for the Springsteen completists who wanted to hear demos, out-takes and alternate takes.

This particular practice is an interesting marketing tool of the digital age. From Bob Dylan's Bootleg Series and The Beatles' Anthology series onwards there is now a general adoption of the idea of trawling through any major act's back catalogue of unreleased material with the idea of releasing just about everything ever recorded by the artist based on the assumption that fans will want to hear and own everything. There is also some historical interest here in getting to know an act developed well-known songs, from demo to early version to popular version, and of how the act developed over time from uneasy beginnings to assured globe conqueror. Jimi Hendrix had been something of a victim of this practice given that many early posthumous releases were substandard studio jams tarted up for release, but nowadays the rationale is about presenting the whole of an artist's body of work than simple exploitation of dead superstar.

This piece was inspired by one such archival release. There is a boxset of previously unreleased material from the recording sessions for Darkness On The Edge Of Town plus a remastered version of the album itself and concert footage on DVD, and a cheaper 2 CD version of just out-takes from the sessions.

It is telling that Darkness has been selected for this extensive revisit and not Born To Run, but apparently the Darkness sessions were incredibly fruitful because of the injunction against Springsteen at the time that prevented him from releasing anything although it did not stop recording or live shows. In my opinion, though, Darkness get this treatment and deserves this treatment because it represents Springsteen at his best, at the height of his powers, on the edge between cult (albeit a large cult) success and mass popularity, while he was still thin and hungry looking and before he buffed up and started looking a bit like a caricature.

Darkness On The Edge of Town is the best Springsteen album ever.

Nowadays there is a lot of Springsteen music out there: old stiff, new stuff, live albums, live DVDs and so on and I guess all of it is very worthy and of high quality but I have almost no interest in any of it. Bruce Springsteen may be the most colossal superstar rocker of the past forty years, an American icon and a universal myth, and his talent and gifts and work ethic are undeniable, yet his music has very limited appeal. I do not fancy the great American working class myths he concocted, even after he left that world behind, and too often the overcooked, superheated effect the words and music combine to thrust in my face, simply put me off. In some ways Springsteen has been the Celine Dion of rock: he can invest too much and often very much superfluous emotion into the mundane in an attempt to exalt the base.

As far as I understand the Springsteen approach to life and music he is very much the proponent of the myth that rock and roll can save and sanctify. On the basic level it is simply the story of a lonely loser who makes good in the entertainment industry; from working class lack of prospects to endless possibilities as rock superstar. This is obviously not a new story by any means as the career of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and many other can illustrate and it is very much Bruce Springsteen's own story. I can understand that music can a great deal to a person. For many years music carried me through rough patches, it was the constant in my life, though in my case it did not mean that I made music, I simply bought lots of albums and spent a lot of time listening to music. Where I am different to Springsteen, then, is that music did not change my life. It gave me a passion but that was about all.

I also have a more realistic and non-mythologised appreciation and understanding of what music is and means to me. It is entertainment and has many aspects and many practitioners. It is a business as much as it is an art. By and large musicians all want to make a living at their craft and most probably want to make a lot of money and become famous.

Bruce Springsteen sees, or professes to see, something transcendental and holy in rock and roll and to me that is a tad stupid. Perhaps he sees it like that because it did rescue him from poverty and struggle and gave him a better life than he could have hoped for had he stayed in Freehold or Asbury Park, New Jersey, and worked at some menial job. The blue collar workers of the USA must have known what he was talking about because they were still stuck in their ruts but for a middle class kid like me in South Africa where my past and prospects were very different this fervent claim that music can be redemptive seemed preposterous. Sure, you can become very successful if your musical career takes off but it is far-fetched to claim that somehow God, or whatever rock deity there is, intervened just because you had the music in you and it had to come out. There are plenty stories of how music careers did not redeem and led to early, untimely death or destruction of the self. Lots of aspirant musicians struggle all their lives and never make it big, some have a brief window of success and then lose it again. Springsteen is like every motivational guru who tries to tell everybody to do just what he did to be successful. Unfortunately successes like Springsteen's are the exception to the rule. Rock and roll redemption is highly individual and selective.

Bruce Springsteen is a towering, legendary figure in rock music, not particularly an innovator or taboo breaker but the best example we have of someone who grew up on the first wave of rock and roll, internalised its beat and aspirations and made something entertaining of it, fusing all kinds of elements of the music, and at the same time convinced his fanatical audience that he had something to say to them and about them that was a heartfelt and true and elevated their banal and mundane lives to a plane where myth virtually becomes real. On top of that comes the equally legendary live shows where the phrase "hardest working man in show business" leaves cliché behind.

With Bruce you got a deal that was more than just fluff and young men, mostly, want music that seems substantial and is not just bubblegum. Of course it is all just a schtick, even if the schtick is about sincerity and community but perhaps the good thing about the schtick is that many fans can identify completely or partly with the characters Bruce writes about. Almost all his men are called "mister" and the women are invariably "Mary" and the land is the industrial heartland or just the hardscrabble back country where poverty and bad luck coexist with struggle and failure. Where decency and principles rule. Where true values triumph. Where Everyman is any man but also universal man.

Would I pay to attend a Bruce Springsteen concert if he were to tour South Africa? Of course I would if the opportunity arose. There was no chance of seeing the young Bruce in action but I understand that he still works as hard and that the shows are still awesome. One has to go to see the legends, even the elderly legends, if the opportunity is there. And it must be an unsurpassed thrill to hear the opening bars of "Born To Run" and to know that this is one roller coaster ride that is actually nothing but fun.