Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Five Small Things That Make Tunnel of Love Unforgettable

Bruce Springsteen’s 1987 Tunnel of Love, which turns 25 this year, is a masterpiece of an album with very, very few peers. As has been documented in many places, including Scott’s awesome Left of the Dial site, it is—along with Blood on the Tracks—the definitive album about the perils and pitfalls of adult relationships. Scott wonderfully described it as “an album by an adult for adults.” And that’s what it is, and one of the many reasons why it is sui generis.

Another reason, obviously, is the music. It is strongly in the running for the most melodic album Bruce ever put together, and certainly held that title at the time. The lyrics are sparse and spot on; Bruce knew what he had to say when making this record, and he says it perfectly. It just works so well musically—the lyrical splendor of “Brilliant Disguise,” the ethereal beauty of “Walk Like a Man,” the blistering and stunning solo from Nils Lofgren at the apex of the title track, and the earnest, heart-on-the-sleeve romance of “Tougher Than the Rest.” Those are just a few examples.

It is not a “depressing” record as some have described it. In fact, it very well may contain more optimism than the sprawling and raucous Born in the U.S.A. that preceded it. No, what it is is realism—at times cold, hard, bitter realism, but realism nonetheless. It has plenty of anger and sadness, but makes it clear that both are well-earned and understood. It also has slight touches of happiness and relief, and again makes it clear that those too come hard-earned. And it is rife with betrayal and resignation and self-loathing and self-realization, yet there isn’t a drop of self-pity to be found anywhere. So, depressing? No. Realistic and unflinching? You bet. And magnificent in how it pulls that off.

And here’s one more reason why it is such a triumph—it had the nearly impossible task of following up Born in the U.S.A., the album that launched Bruce from superstar to icon. He couldn’t possibly build on the oversized tones of the 1984 record, and he knew it would be folly to try. So once more, just as he did in following up that other definitive masterpiece of his, 1975’s Born To Run, Bruce turned inward.

When he did that in 1978 with Darkness on the Edge of Town, he scored a near-flawless record that damn near equaled Born to Run. It was so very different, as it had to be. But it was amazing.

And when he did it in 1987 with Tunnel of Love, he set the bar even higher and at a greater degree of difficulty. And not only did he succeed, but he even surpassed the mighty Born in the U.S.A. in quality. His ability to come through at that moment—when his personal life was falling down around him (as is evidenced by the content of the album) and with a seemingly impossible task of outdoing the record that made him a legend…well, in a career of amazing feats, this one is very close to unsurpassed.

So given all we know about Tunnel of Love, where it came from, and what a brilliant success it was, it's essential to still remember the smaller picture(s). We know the big things that made it great. We know the songs and the themes. But how about some of those littler things, the kinds we can always find on the finest of albums?

Does Tunnel of Love have its own unique touches? Its own “inner groove,” its own train whistle, its own toy police siren? Yes it does. Plenty of ‘em.

Some subtle, some not so much. Things that maybe go unnoticed or even unappreciated now, 25 years later. Various surprises sprinkled throughout the 12 songs that all serve to enhance the overall effort.

Here are five that come to mind.

The BookendsStarting with an a capella Bo Diddley beat and closing with a waltz. As unique and, frankly, oddball a choice to start and finish an album as one can find in rock's realm, specifically when it comes to an artist who so clearly invested so much in track placement. Yet it works to a tee. The opening shuffle of "Ain't Got You" is never repeated or even hinted at again, and the 3/4 time of the understated "Valentine's Day" that brilliantly closes the book is a rarity for Bruce. Two strange and rare choices that work sublimely.



The harmonies on "Tougher Than the Rest"Bruce had invested plenty of time harmonizing up to this pointhe and Steve made an artform out of it for yearsbut this was new. Very seldom did he ever lend harmonies to his slower songs, and even more seldom were the harmonies the featured portion of the song. On "Tougher Than the Rest" the harmonies, while used only at certain times, evoke the very core of the folk sound and lend rich, deep layers to this head-over-heels track. Yet they remain so decidedly rock-n-roll in nature. Certainly not the first thing you think about on the album, or maybe even the 10th, but it's there. And it's remarkable.


The harmonica on "Spare Parts"Certainly Bruce had used the harmonica before many times; to evoke triumph and/or defiance ("The Promised Land"), to paint a picture of sadness and despair ("The River," "Nebraska") or perhaps just to lay out the epic landscape he was getting ready to spotlight ("Thunder Road"). Never quite like this, starting with the fact that it's not even him—James Woods had one thing to do on this record and one thing only, and he did it with the most distorted, menacing, angry harmonica we could have imagined. The fuzzed up sounds he throws behind the melody on this, one of themost ferocious and terrifying songs in Bruce's vast canon, add a layer of seething, unquenchable rage to "Spare Parts" that very few have ever attained.


Danny’s Solo at the end of “Two Faces”—Ah, Danny. Bruce’s oldest friend in the band, and often times the most unsung. (Well, he and Garry, anyway). But it seemed fitting that as Bruce began to walk away from the E Street Band in 1987, he leaned on Danny and his organ more than any other bandmates other than Max. Danny’s playing added to the mournful feel that permeated Tunnel of Love. But then, out of the blue, on the bleak and seemingly innocuous Side Two track “Two Faces,” Danny flies in at the song’s coda with a positively bouncing, carnival-like organ that’s practically uproarious, damn near inspiring the listener to get up and dance. It’s not the first time Bruce juxtaposed upbeat music with downbeat lyrics, and it sure wasn’t the last, but it’s one of the starkest and most surprising examples that Bruce ever drew up.


Patti's appearance on "One Step Up"—It is no secret now, 25 years later, what was going on in Bruce’s personal life when he recorded Tunnel of Love. According to his most recent bio by Marc Dolan as well as others, his marriage to Julianne Phillips was all but over at this point. When Tunnel of Love finally gets around to the drawn-out, inevitable breakup, following the doubt (“Tunnel of Love”), the fighting (“Two Faces”) and the resignation that it’s falling apart (“Brilliant Disguise”), the hammer drops in the form of the finest song on the record, the heartbreakingly lovely “One Step Up.” When Bruce sings, “When I look at myself I don’t see the man I wanted to be,” we see it all in Technicolor; the man who had nothing and gained everything, even love, only it wasn’t enough. But again, it’s not a “woes me” line. It accepts the pain and the sadness, acknowledges it, and makes it part of who the singer now is. And then, as the song reaches its peak with an image of a couple dancing their lives away, though only in a rose-colored dream, Patti Scialfa emerges for the first time since the title track, practically beckoning the singer away to something new. When she responds “One step up and two steps back” to his identical line, she appears as a comely specter, a vision of what else might be out there. Given what happened with Bruce and Patti’s lives not long after the record came out, and where they are together now, the song and her gorgeous backing vocals are steeped in irony and foreshadowing. Her voice takes us all—not just the narrator, but all of us—to a different place, giving the first clue on the record that the “tunnel” may have a different way out than the singer ever envisioned.


So. Anyway. Celebrate Tunnel of Love at 25, if you get the chance. Listen to it and experience its splendor all over again. You’re likely to find even more hidden little gems inside of it.

Friday, July 27, 2012

(You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care

This was one of the very first Elvis clips I ever saw. I'm sure I'd seen bits and pieces, especially when he died, but few of them stuck with me. This, though...I remember watching this and thinking, oh...right. I get it. Now I get it. 

There was a period where MTV used to play this fairly often. I'm not sure why—maybe it gave them some sort of hipster cred, putting it on between the latest hair metal and some Brit synth pop. Or mabye it was simply that it was less than two minutes long and made programming easier.

All I recall is that no matter who it came between, artists I loved, artists I hated or artists I didn't really care about, it was more than a breath of fresh air: it was absolutely spellbinding. The easygoing manner, the way he clearly has no training as a dancer and yet is almost liquid in his movements as the music starts in his feet and works its way up his legs until he brings into song, the small smile, as if this is all just a private joke you're in on together, the overall insouciance, it all added up to the best two minutes on MTV. I'd watch this and think, sure, Dylan and Lennon and Springsteen are all open about it but, no, I don't care what the bios say about Anthony Newley and  Lindsay Kemp, this, this is where David Bowie got most of his moves, not to mention where Robert Plant got his...well, pretty much everything.

Elvis had the voice, he had the looks, he had the moves and, most of all, he was just. so. damn. cool. It came three years after the true beginning, but watching this is very nearly like being able to witness the big bang of rock and roll.


And just check out the expressions on the faces of the extras; not one of them seem to be acting.


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Wrote a Song for Everyone

Recently a writer I greatly respect wrote this about B.J. Thomas' rather pondersome, "(Hey Won't You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song": Goddamnit, another song about songs. It's not horrible, but please make this trend stop!

To an extent he's right. Writing a song about writing a song can be such a colossal example of self-flagellation that it can be hard to take. The song "If" by Bread ("If a picture paints a thousand words, why can't I paint you?") is Ipecac for the soul. "Just An Old-Fashioned Love Song" gets old...really old...after about 30 seconds. Donovan's "I Sing For You" is pretty and all, but it's just so...so...so Donovan-y. And much as I love Barry Manilow (and I do...I do!!!) one of my only real problems with him is one of his biggest hits, "I Write the Songs," is a song he didn't write! (I know, I know, it's still a lovely song. And one Mr. Pincus sang a cajillion times better than author Bruce Johnston ever could). I'm just sayin'.

But then there's the other side of that tricky little coin. There are some songs about writing songs that are just, well, that are just so damn good. "Dancing in the Dark" certainly touches on the difficulty of writing a hit record, not to mention having the right image and a sense of being that can make one happy. Suzanne Vega's glowing "Gypsy" ends with a promise to write a song for an an old, lost love somewhere down the road, and it works so beautifully. And at the end of one of his finest solo tracks (1993's "Things" from 14 Songs), Paul Westerberg touches on the subject too ("Things I can never tell you, down the line someday, you'll be a song I sing, a thing I give away.")

Not only does the idea of a "song about a song" work in these instances and others, it works brilliantly. It depends on the artist, I suppose. And the reason the song is being written.

With that in mind, here's a song about writing a song. But also about so much more than that. Done to perfection. By someone who possessed such a classic American voice and was blessed with such wondrous songwriting abilities, it's a shame this song isn't better known. John Fogerty is great and CCR was great; I don't know if they were ever better than this track.


But amazingly enough, this flawless song almost gets an even better telling from Jeff Tweedy and the magnificent Mavis Staples. Watch and appreciate:

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Spooky

Elvis Presley. The Beatles. Bob Dylan. Jimi Hendrix. Aretha Franklin. Bruce Springsteen. The Replacements. Nirvana.

One thing many great rock and roll artists/bands have in common is that oh so many of them are great cover artists. R.E.M., for instance, had the ability to take a familiar song and make it sound like one of theirs, yet without stripping the original of what made it great in the first place—their semi-ramshackle cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Who'll Stop the Rain," for example, is amazing, hindered only by slightly the fact that Michael Stipe barely knows the words. And yet, despite that, their delicately southern gothic take on the song approaches transcendence, with the subtle harmonies of Mike Mills and Bill Berry adding something that even CCR's utterly flawless version didn't have, while Peter Buck's Byrdian arpeggios fit the mood impossibly perfectly.


But what they also liked doing was taking a song significantly less...significant, and treating it as though it were every bit the equal of a John Fogerty masterpiece. Their take on "Love Is All Around," from their Unplugged show is an obvious and well-known one, as are their official covers of Wire's "Strange" and various Velvet Underground songs—not to mention their gloriously drunken dismemberment of Roger Miller's "King of the Road"—but they surprisingly delighted in the arena rock of Lou Gramm's "Midnight Blue" on their Document tour; at the time, it seemed impossible it was anything but snark no matter how much the band insisted they just liked the song, but with the benefit of hindsight, it appears simply a sign of things to come—I mean, the seeds of "Departure" seem very much to have been sown right there.



But I'm not sure anything tops their cover of the Classics IV song "Spooky."

video

If I had a time machine I could only use once, I would go back in time and hand Bill the lyrics so he doesn't start laughing during his verse. (This is why no one ever trusts me with a time machine. But, I mean, come on. The cover's great even with the screwup, but without it, it'd be phenomenal.) Sure, Mike comes to the rescue, but this is the only time I know of where all three R.E.M. vocalists trade solo vocals like this, giving an invaluable opportunity to compare and contrast. Mike's verse shows his smooth style. Bill's is shortened but shows a rough country inflection, and gives an indication of why Michael Stipe said Bill had the best voice in the band, in a conventional sense.

And then comes Stipe. His voice wasn't for everyone. It wasn't as appealing in a low key way as Berry's, and he didn't have the understanding of harmony that Mills had and throughout the band's entire run he often had trouble with his pitch. But here his commanding entrance, the way he assuredly takes over from the previous two very good vocalists shows why he was the lead singer from the first, even back when he was so shy he'd literally hide behind the others or even his hair, and shows exactly why he was the one who became the rock star. From his first few syllables, you can tell: this guy's got It.

Mix-A-Lot

When we were kids growing up in the 70s, my brothers and I heard our first-ever mixtape. It was one that my Dad made and played in the car on a consistent basis on pretty much every trip we made—to the beach, to Vermont on ski trips, to upstate New York or central New Jersey to visit family friends, and even on long, long rides from Connecticut to Florida.

My Dad called it "Assorted Cuts," and he originally made it on his massive reel-to-reel player before transferring it to a 90-minute Memorex cassette tape that he'd be able to use in his brand new car cassette player. And yes, he probably had a version copied onto an 8-track tape as well.  

I can still vividly picture the dark blue Memorex tape with the words "Asstd. Cuts" not written on the label, but rather pasted on front one of those old-fashioned raised label makers. Without a question this was not a tape my Dad had any intention of taping over.

It was a collection of roughly 20 songs, many of which I recall in order. Side 1 began with the Eagles "Take it to the Limit," followed by Olivia Newton John warbling "Have You Never Been Mellow," Cat Stevens' bizarrely soul-free version of "Another Saturday Night," and then to my Dad's all-time favorite song, Kris Kristofferson's weary version of his epic "Me and Bobby McGee." Next came Steeleye Span's "Blackjack Davey." And if you've ever heard it, well, I am impressed. Because I have never met anyone who has.

But the mix, I have come to realize, contained music that planted a lot of seeds for me. It had three Beatles songs that my Dad spread throughout the 90-minute duration ("Hey Jude," "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and "Let It Be") that I have no doubt are the first three Beatles songs I ever heard. The tape was my introduction to Kristofferson (who remains a favorite today) as well as Ms. Newton John (who doesn't), and it contained a staggering four Elton John tunes (yes, it had the standards "Rocket Man" and "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," but also had the monumental "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" and the deep, deep cut of "A Bullet in the Gun of Robert Ford"). The tape had tracks from Carole King and Mary Travers sidled up against a screeching track from Janis Joplin "(Cry Baby," which my Mom couldn't stand and always wanted to fast forward.) 

It was an eclectic mix, to say for sure. That my Dad is a near equal devotee to ABBA as he is to Queen says something about him. Good, I think. Something very good. Even though anyone—anyone—who listens to ABBA has at least a small something inherently wrong with him/her. But I digress.

But that little mixtape was really the first-ever primer I had into pop music. Good and bad. I would give anything today to find it and listen to it, straight through, one more time, and hear those songs now as I heard them then. While staring out a car window and watching snow-peaked mountains get closer and closer, or I-95 highway signs clip by one after the other on a long, long journey south. To provide a backdrop to my travels, wherever I'm headed, that is as familiar to me as family. 

I've made a million mixes in the years since I first remember hearing my Dad's "Assorted Cuts" tape. A million of 'em. With songs as disparate as the ones he had, to tell the truth, only no longer limited to the confines of one 90-minute spool of tape. I've made tons of them. With 20 or 50 or 70 or even 90 songs on them, songs that come in nearly random order that surprised and delight me when I hear them a few years later, as I did on a recent trip to Florida when I sat listening to a 70-song mix I made in 2008 called "2008 Vacation Mix." I've made them, I've listened to them over and over again, and I've anxiously awaited whatever song comes next.

I've made a ton of them and I'll make a ton more. I love the work of art that is the music album, one artist putting a collection of songs together under one encompassing skin; I hope it's not a dying artform. But I also love making funny and interesting song mixes and having them spool out of the speakers, one surprise at a time.

But no mix will ever mean more to be, for better or for worse, than that "Asstd. Cuts" Memorex tape my Dad made all those years ago. For my brothers and me, it was the soundtrack to our childhood.

(Oh, and in case you care, here's "Blackjack Davey." And hell, it's not bad, I'd say.)

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Thirteen

For a long time I was embarrassed to admit I didn't love "Thirteen."



I thought it was fine, but I'd heard so much about how incredibly wonderful it was and knew that an appreciation of Big Star was an absolute necessity when it came to proving your cred that when I finally heard it I thought, well...okay. It's nice, but...

But then I heard Elliott Smith's cover



and then Garbage's



and those won me over and allowed me to better appreciate the original.

Except. I still found the song inherently creepy and just didn't get how that wasn't the focus of every discussion about the song.

And it was only today I learned that apparently Alex Chilton wrote the song...when he was thirteen years old. And that the song that I always assumed was a grown man singing to a barely teenaged girl was, in fact, from the point of view of a barely teenaged boy singing to a barely teenaged girl, despite the fact that the singer I heard singing the song was obviously a grown man.

In which case...yeah. Not creepy at all. Just lovely and forlorn and wistful and sublimely painful.

(Of course, that makes Garbage's wonderful cover kinda weird, since Shirley Manson can convey many things, but naïve and confused and wistful barely teenaged is not one of them. For all Manson has admitted to more than her share of personal problems in interviews, her singing persona tends more towards the "don't even think about messing with me, 'cuz I'm stronger and I will beat you like a rented mule." I suspect she wasn't even able to convey naïve and confused and wistful back when she was thirteen. If she ever was.)

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Can't Hardly Wait

He just can't help himself.

The Replacements famously got themselves forever banned from Saturday Night Live back in January of 1986 for, among other things, being drunk, switching clothes and wearing dresses—in short, being a bit too alternative, before alternative was a good thing, and long before it was again a bad thing. And, sure enough, the second greatest American band never again appeared on SNL. One more self-hammered nail in their coffin.

But Paul Westerberg was allowed to come back after the 'Mats had split and he'd gone solo. The result is one of the greatest filmed performances of his career, as he delivers a brilliant version of one of the greatest of all Replacements songs.

And yet.

Can't Hardly Wait  

Great as it is—and it is; his voice sounds amazing, rough yet accessible, and the way he plays with the melody ever so slightly here and there is just sublime—he cannot help but force himself to fail.

Of this entirely incredible performance, the telltale moment comes at 2:11, when delivering an absolutely astonishing performance to the biggest audience of his career, the band stops and the spotlight is suddenly all his...and he can't do it. He laughs. He literally pulls away from the microphone. But I dunno. I feel like you can see in his eyes that even as he's doing it, he knows what he's doing, he's not happy about what he's doing but by God, he just cannot quite help himself. As the scorpion said, it's his quiddity.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Fable

"This is beautiful, Dad," says my 11-year-old. "Who is it?"


"John Abercrombie and Ralph Towner," I say. 

She nods. "I thought it sounded like Ralph Towner. But it wasn't quite...there was a kind of bite to it, you know? That didn't sound quite like he usually does. I guess that's the other guy." 

I smile. Ralph Towner only plays acoustic guitars (and keyboards), and she was correctly noting the different timbre of John Abercrombie's electric guitar. 

It's very rare that I feel like I've really gotten something right.  

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

I Love Music

Recently I have been the P.A. guy at my son’s Little League All Star home games. It makes sense because it is a job that I am highly qualified for. Given that 1) I have a mouth and 2) I was willing to volunteer to do the P.A.

It’s nice to be wanted, you know?

There’s not a whole lot to it, of course. You announce the players as they run on the field, you ask the players to remove their hats and face the centerfield flagpole for the National Anthem, you announce the players as they come to bat, you announce pitching changes, you ask folks to kick in a few bucks to offset the cost of food for the players and umpires, you occasionally shriek “BEAR!!! THERE’S A BEAR IN CENTERFIELD” into the microphone…okay, maybe I made that last one up. But I can dream, can’t I?

Oh, and if the guy next to you sneezes as you announce a player's name, it's best to turn the mic off before saying "Bless you." Lesson learned.

Anyway, where was I? Right! P.A. responsibilities.

Well, one part I didn’t know existed but have come to kinda dig is the part where I get to put on music after each half-inning. Sure, I start off, as mandated by federal law, with Smash Mouth gettin’ all soul-patchy and hep with “All Star,” but the remaining dozen or so half innings and the musical choice is mine. Mine! Mine! All mine.

And putting me in charge of music to be played over a P.A. system is kinda like…well…putting me in charge of music to be played over a P.A. system.

Oh, don’t get me wrong—I took it seriously. I played “Hey Ya” and the crowd loved it. I played “Viva La Vida” (such a great song, BTW) and it seemed to go over nice and all. I even got kinda daring with “Baba O’Riley” and “Born to Run” and that awesome Proclaimers song with the “Bah-dah-dah-dah” chorus. The crowd seemed to range from not noticing to barely noticing. I was in the zone.

So come the bottom of the 5th last Saturday, on a gorgeous Connecticut afternoon around 6 pm with a gentle summer breeze sweeping o’er the field and our team safely…well…they were safely well behind, I decided to get a little more creative.

I called upon a song I love so very much, and a version of it I cannot and will not ever stop loving. As the players made their way in from the field, a gentle, thoughtful little ukelele began to play, and before anyone knew it, the words to a song nearly everyone grew up were being sung.



It was such a lovely moment. The breeze, the lovely green grass of the ballfield, the families milling about, and this splendid little version of this American treasure coming on for all to hear...it made for a lovely little moment. Have I mentioned that?

About 90 seconds in I wondered aloud why the players hadn’t taken the field yet.

“I think they all just drifted off to sleep in the dugout to the relaxing music,” a nearby assistant coach said with a smile.

“Too mellow?” I asked.

“Maybe a little.”

Fair enough.

Entering the bottom of the 6th I had this to offer instead. I don't know if this was the first time these songs have ever been played back to back, but I hope not. Such wondrousness should not be limited to once in a lifetime.



There were some smiles among my fellow scorer’s table volunteers. A few people began to sing along. Out in centerfield two people began to clap along. And I looked up to notice at least one assistant coach on the field mouthing the words as he headed to his dugout. Victory!

“That oughtta get ‘em moving, huh?” I asked.

The nearby coach nodded, smiling, humming along.

I love music.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Bruce Springsteen and politics

So DT and I belong to a mailing list that focuses on work of Bruce Springsteen. A while back, I made what I thought was an uncontroversial statement, which was that Bruce Springsteen's political views were evident in his lyrics from the very beginning of his recording career, but most obviously since 1978's Darkness on the Edge of TownMuch to my surprise, several people took issue with this assertion, and accused me of projecting my own views onto Springsteen's songs. I wrote the following in response: 

Perhaps part of the problem is in the terminology. When I say his politics are shot through his body of work, I don't mean a simple binary red state/blue state, Democrat/Republican, conservative/liberal comparison. It's not a question of culture war issues, it doesn't touch upon (with perhaps one exception) issues of energy consumption or production, or civil rights or women's rights or pollution or gun control or abortion or any of the other standard obvious political topics.

What I mean—and I would have thought this obvious, but clearly not, and my bad—is that from his first album forward, but especially beginning with Darkness on the Edge of Town, one of Bruce Springsteen's primary concerns has always been the subject of class in our society.
Poor man wanna be rich
Rich man wanna be king
And a king ain't satisfied 'til he rules everything 
Well, Daddy worked his whole life for nothin' but the pain
Well, you're born with nothin' and better off, baby, that way
Soon as you got somethin' they send someone to try to take it away
Some guys they just give up livin' and start dyin' little by little, piece by piece
Some guys come home and wash up
And go racing in the streets
Not to mention pretty much the entirety of "The Promised Land" and "Factory."

All those positively scream of class consciousness to me—which is not only a more accurate way of describing his point of view than I perhaps did originally, but is also virtually verboten to talk about in polite society these days, given how, as we all learned in school and have thoroughly internalized, we live in a classless society.

There is no question which class all those singers/subjects belong to, and while there may be a certain dignity afforded them, there's also no question, in my mind, that he's not singing of the glories of being working class or poor, the idea many religions teach that poverty can enrich the soul. It's clear Springsteen sees many of these particular characters as living largely dead-end lives, and you either break out of them through incredible hard work and good fortune, or you find some way to forget about your incredibly hard luck lot in life for a little while—by racing in the streets or getting in a bar fight—or you give up and die, emotionally and spiritually if not physically.

Not that Springsteen's one-dimensional, of course, by any stretch—it's incredibly telling that, as he put, the songs on the album's four corners are in some measure optimistic, whether it's the rousing "Badlands" and "Promised Land" or the quietly determined "Racing in the Streets" or the grimly defiant "Darkness on the Edge of Town."

Yet even in those songs, there's a desperation in these hard-scrabble lives depicted in the cinéma vérité style films with which he'd then become enchanted. These are people born into difficult lives through no fault of their own (not that where/how/when anyone's ever born is ever his or her fault) and in a world where no one is going to hand you anything, and where even if you do all the right stuff, you still might not make it out. And I don't think Springsteen needed to mention the 1978 equivalent of Paris Hilton to make obvious the flipside of that situation.

The father in "Adam Raised a Cain" and "Factory" are characters who tried to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, who did all the things they were told to do. And what did they get in return?
Well, Daddy worked his whole life for nothin' but the pain
Factory takes his hearing
According to the text, they get pain and they lose their hearing. That's what they get.

Having politics run through an album doesn't mean it's espousing a particular candidacy. You can certainly have politics without politicians and/or without dryly or didactically discussing concrete policies. As DT pointed out, Jon Landau himself wrote in his original review of John Wesley Harding:
“Dylan manifests a profound awareness of the war and how it is affecting all of us. This doesn’t mean that I think any of the particular songs are about the war or that any songs are protests over it. All I mean to say is that Dylan has felt the war, and there is an awareness of it contained in the mood of the albums as a whole.”
That's what I mean when I say Bruce Springsteen's entire body of work, looked at as a whole, is positively suffused with his politics. He certainly makes his position overt with the rallies and benefits he chooses to play, and in some of his between song banter and interviews. But it's right there in the text, more artfully, more subtly, for all to see. 


DT largely agreed with my viewpoint, and added: 


Underclass and underdogs are Bruce Springsteen's main focal point dating all the way back to the first album. The difference, starting with Darkness, is he no longer tends to celebrate and canonize the street urchins around whom he based his songs. With Darkness they are no longer romanticized. They are shown in black and white, and their frustrations and viewpoints are things that Bruce clearly has a keen understanding of. He feels for the father in "Adam," for the workers in "Factory," even for the poor schlub who can't afford to shower his love in riches in "Prove it All Night." And he makes no apologies for it—"I've done my best to live the right way"—but it's still a pervasive feeling throughout that album and the three to follow.

There was no greater domestic issue in the late 1970s than poverty and economic struggle. Vietnam limped to an end, Watergate set fire to ideals we thought would never come into question, and the country wheezed and hacked its way through the post-nightmares of both. And they discovered that the jobs they once counted on had started to go away and the lifestyle they thought they had earned was no longer a given. I mean, gee whiz, do you think Springsteen wrote "Factory" in a vacuum?

How often is September 11th, the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, al Qaeda, the hijackings, Afghanistan, Osama Bin Laden, the NYPD, the NYFD, or the 2,900 deaths specifically mentioned on The Rising?

I think the answer is zero. Still, isn't it clear that September 11, 2001 runs throughout every fiber of that album?

I am actually surprised this is even a debate. I have long thought this to be a given.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Danny Boy

My parents insist that when I was barely leaving toddler-hood, I knew all the words to this song and loved singing it. Very possibly because I was called Danny. Though also possibly because I was an idiot savant. It's really a coin flip.

But I doubt I sang it like this. Because no one ever has. Good golly, what Roy does to a song that cannot possibly be made any better...well...it turns out it can be.

Monday, July 2, 2012

My 25 Favorite Songs Part IV

10) “Woman”—John Lennon, 1980. This is a “time-and-place” song for me, having first heard it within days of Lennon’s being killed. I was an emerging Beatles nut at the time and had no idea what his death would mean for every person who would ever come to worship at the Beatles altar. This love letter to Yoko Ono is musical romance at its straightforward best. And thank God he got to say it before it was too late. “Let me tell you again and again and again…I love you, now and forever.”


9) “Achin’ To Be”—The Replacements, 1988. I’ve gone into depth about my love for the Replacements. This is not their best song, but it’s my favorite. Paul Westerberg was his generation’s finest songwriter, and his hoodlum poetics never sounded so sad, elegant, and lonely as this waking look at weary self-discovery (it even includes a wry gender-flop to give it an air of further detachment.) He’s written dozens of take-your-breath-away lyrics before and since, but this is Westerberg at his mature best. “She’s kinda like a poet who finds it hard to speak; the poems come so slowly, like the colors down a sheet.”


8) “Why Worry”— Dire Straits, 1985. A hushed, lullaby-like ballad spotlighting the water magic of Mark Knopfler’s Stratocaster. Pretty and seductive – I used to drift off to sleep at the end of some late, late college nights with this playing.“Just when this world seems mean and cold, our love comes shining red and gold, and all the rest is by the way.”


7) “Fall on Me” —R.E.M., 1986. Just a beautiful rock song, with wondrous descending harmony and melody lines that seem to go on forever and an undeniable pop hook. R.E.M. was music for people who felt different and needed something different; a club for people who didn’t belong to clubs. And this may very well be their best song, as well as my favorite. “Buy the sky and sell the sky, and bleed the sky and tell the sky, ‘Don’t fall on me.’”


6) “Rain”—Beatles, 1966. Probably written as a throwaway, but this is the height of Lennon’s fuzzy psychedalia and musical mathematics. It led to dozens of barely listenable hippy-dippy copycats, but this one is the genuine article. The first time I heard it was as a kid, finding it buried on Side 2 of the Hey Jude collection, just when I thought they couldn't get any better. The harmonies are magical, and Ringo’s at his very best, too. "Shine, the weather’s fine.”

Sunday, July 1, 2012

I Really Want You to Call Me (Maybe)

Maybe—maybe—not the best thing ever. But I would never swear to it.


(It's the bit from "Valerie" that really pushes it from Wonderful into Greatness territory.)