Thursday, August 23, 2012

Casey at the Mic

Great moments in rock-n-roll media history. We all know 'em.

Elvis shakes it on Ed Sullivan.

The Beatles invade the same Sullivan stage a few short years later.

The Who trash the Smothers Brothers set.

Aretha Franklin mocks a coked-out David Bowie at the Grammys.

The Sex Pistols make David Frost wish he wasn't British.

R.E.M. performs a yet-untitled "So. Central Rain" on Late Night with David Letterman.

Bruce Springsteen plugs in for MTV Unplugged.

Kanye West blindsides Taylor Swift at the VMAs.

And this. Where Casey Kasem throws a profanity-laden five-star nutty.

Over a Long Distance Request. For a perfectly awful Henry Gross song, a song written about the death of Dennis Wilson's dog. Yes, that is all true.

Listen. And love.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Bruce Springsteen Live...and Open All Night

I  saw Bruce Springsteen live for the first time in the late summer of 1988 in Montreal, the closing act in a star-studded Amnesty International show. He and the E Street Band played for 90 minutes and delivered a wonderfully tight (if abbreviated) set. I was not quite 20 years old, and around me was a range of fans that ran from middle-aged down to what appeared to be newly minted teens. Bruce Springsteen, just a few days short of his 39th birthday, appealed to as wide a swath as anyone on the scene.

I most recently saw him this past Saturday night in Foxboro, MA at Gillette Stadium. He and the E Street Band played for 3 hours and 20 minutes in a mind-bendingly diverse and surprise-laden set. I am not quite 44 years old, and around me was a range of fans running from advanced middle age down to newly minted teens. And I should know—my 13-year-old son was one of them, taking in his first of what I only hope are many, many Bruce shows.

Bruce Springsteen, a few weeks shy of his 63rd birthday—or to put it in even crazier terms, a year younger than George H.W. Bush was when he ran for President in that summer of 1988—still appeals to as wide a swath of people as any rocker who has ever lived. Growin' up? He's all growned up now. But amazingly still evolving. And he still does what he does better than anyone.

This show, this dizzying 28-song set that featured no fewer than 18 (!) songs from the Born in the U.S.A. album and earlier, was the best Bruce Springsteen show of the many I have seen. While the Boss feigned being tired at one point, taking a mock-nap on stage during "Dancing in the Dark" in one of the encores before Little Steven squeezed several sponges water over his head, he surely looked and acted the part of someone who could have stayed forever.

In fact, when he stunned the crowd by choosing the obscure Nebraska rockabilly track "Open All Night" as one of his "sign requests"—only then revisioning it (as he did on his 2006 Sessions tour with an entirely different band) as a 10-minute Dixieland horn-filled showcase—the unexpected and unrehearsed romp could have served as a theme for the night. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band...older, greyer, thinner in the ranks due to the untimely deaths of two longtime members in the last four years, yet showing no other outward signs age...were open for the business of the most diverse, energetic and faithful rock-n-roll you've ever heard. And they seemingly could have gone all night.

But you know what? Let's put "Open All Night" aside for a second.

Bruce Springsteen never takes the stage just to perform "greatest hits" shows—every time he tours, save for the epochal 1999 Reunion tour that relaunched the E Street Band after a decade on the shelves, he does so to in-part promote a new album. And he never puts aside his four decades worth of classic material to just spotlight the newer stuff. The newer stuff gets played, and fans want to hear the estimable newer tracks from his terrific Wrecking Ball album. But to expect only the hits or only the new songs is to miss the point of this artist. A Bruce Springsteen show is a holistic event, encompassing a career that has spanned the staggering totality of his 40-year run. From a young street poet once lauded (against his will) as the "New Dylan," to a strident romantic who gave the world epic stories of cars and girls and running away and finding the romance of the unknown, to a jaded observer of the darker side of the industry and of humanity and even of love, to a politically charged voice of the unheard people, to an elder statesman who still preached on all of the above (well, except maybe the New Dylan stuff), that is what you get when you go to see Bruce Springsteen these days. You want it all, and you get it all, or at least a sampling of all of it. To not hear from every corner of his stunning career, or at least most of them, would be to miss something.

These are the shows that Bruce Springsteen is giving his fans in 2012, and has largely been giving his fans since the days before Born to Run launched him in 1975 as the most exciting American musician since Elvis Presley. This is what he brought to Fenway Park in Boston last week on back to back nights, where he played seven hours of music total and performed an unreal 45 different songs.

I didn't see the Fenway shows, sadly. But I saw the Foxboro show. And it was more of the magnificent same, more of the mesmerizingly diverse setlists he's been giving fans this tour. With my son to my right, two great longtime friends to my left, and an older gentleman experiencing his first ever Springsteen show in front of me, it was quite literally a night for the ages.

It opened with the splendid Tracks number "My Love Will Not Let You Down" and quickly exploded into probably the most obscure track from Born to Run, "Night."  Two songs from 1980's The River (the band staple "Out in the Street" and the long-discarded...until this tour anyway...first Top 10 hit he ever had, "Hungry Heart") followed. Then it was time for a troika of fine tunes from Wrecking Ball—call to arms "We Take Care of Our Own," the title track (which drew good-natured boos from the crowd for the mention of the Meadowlands and the Giants) and the dirge-like anthem of anger and fighting back, "Death to My Hometown." Seven songs in, sweat pouring off him, Bruce was just getting started.

The band roll call came next with "My City of Ruins," a disarmingly lovely testament to the very essence of "rising up," and included a fitting tribute to fallen E Streeters Dan Federici (a spotlight shining down on his empty organ made for an indelible image) and the Big Man himself whose absence can never be overstated, Clarence Clemons. Bruce called it a time to remember ghosts, no longer the spooky spectres that scared us as children, but the ones who walk among us and beside us, whom we come to collect and need as time goes on. The crowd of 60,000 strong understood the sentiment, to be sure.

From that moment on, there was no telling what came next. In a musical sense, all hell broke loose.

Has any fan ever imagined he/she would see a back-to-back of "Growin' Up" and "Lost in the Flood" again? In 2012? Both of which followed a splendidly hedonistic "Spirit in the Night" (which made it an unbelievable three songs from Bruce's debut 1973 album, and it was during "Spirit" where he told Clarence's nephew Jake, now playing saxophone for the band, "I wrote this song before you were born") and the aforementioned "Open All Night?" How about following that four song run with "Because the Night" (featuring Nils Lofgren's blistering, spinning solo that would make anyone forget the man is working with artificial hips) going into the sexed-up Bo Diddley smoke of "She's the One"?

"Working on the Highway" bopped its way into a heartfelt song from 2002 Bruce clearly enjoys serenading the crowd with, "Waiting on a Sunny Day." "The Rising" gave way to a searing "Radio Nowhere" (which delighted my son, who longed to hear the 2007 song but was convinced he wouldn't.) "Badlands" closed the main set out sounding as victoriously defiant as it did when Bruce debuted it on Darkness on the Edge of Town 34 years ago.

But amazingly, those weren't the biggest highlights. Nor was the greatest song he will ever write, "Born to Run," which customarily brought the houselights on early in the encore. Nor was its companion piece "10th Avenue Freeze Out," the only song Bruce ever wrote overtly about Clarence and which on this night featured the now-customary (but no less breathtaking) three-minute video tribute to the Big Man at the song's apex. Nor was, on a sheerly personal level, "Bobby Jean," one of my very very favorite Bruce songs which followed "Born to Run" and caused me to jump and and shout like a kid on Christmas morning. Nor, even, was an improvised cover of  Dobie Gray's "Drift Away" that followed "10th Avenue," which Bruce and the band performed with letter precision.

No, in an evening of astounding highlights, three still stood out above all others.

The first was "Open All Night," performed with a baroque New Orleans flair we couldn't have imagined the E Street Band had in them. It was a sign request, as I said, and Bruce pulled it out admitting he wanted a "challenge." He got one, and the band offered an out-of-this-world musical jambalaya one would have sworn they've spent months rehearsing, with literally every member of the band (most notably the amazing horn section) seizing center stage for a moment before giving it back to their leader. It was, well...see for yourself.

The next highlight came towards the end of the first set with "Racing in the Street." Unexpected and singularly perfect. Scott and I have discussed this before—if "Born to Run" is the greatest song Bruce ever did (and it kinda has to be), "Racing in the Street" has an excellent chance of occupying the number 2 spot. It is a picture of tragic, understated beauty—a tale of losers who may not have giving up living, as the song cautions, but sure as hell aren't working too hard to create something truly worthwhile. As romantic and hopeful as the songs of Born to Run were, that's how lonely and lost the songs of Darkness on the Edge of Town are. And none moreso than "Racing in the Street."

Roy's dreamlike opening chords announced to a shocked crowd what was coming, and Bruce soon was delivering the story in the weary, worldly way only he can. "I got a '69 Chevy with a 396, fuelie heads and a Hearst on the floor."

When the band kicked in for the bridge and middle verses, the subtle way they slowly built off of one another was exquisite, and came in a way that only people who have been playing together for so long can.  They knew their next moves, they anticipated them, they became one great functioning being onstage. Always hard to do, but maybe a mite easier when performing a balls-out rocker. When doing a ballad as tender and terrifyingly downbeat as "Racing in the Street," the degree of difficulty increases substantially. The audience hung on ever note of Roy's extended coda, of Max's metronone-like backing, of Garry's delicate foundation, and for a tiny solitary moment before the song ended and the thunderous, appreciative cheers reigned, there was something seldom heard at a rock concert: silence.

That Bruce Springsteen takes pride in his performances is the understatement of the year. But this was different. This was an audience that was proud of the performer, and when the nanosecond of silence finished and the applause shook the stadium, it was a sound not unlike 60,000 prideful parents cheering their children on.

"Racing in the Street" does not "rock" like millions of songs do. It is slow, it is sad, and sometimes it is almost too painful to really consider the words being sung. But while it may not have rocked, it was the very essence of rock-n-roll. Bruce and the E Street Band saw to that.

Along with my son, I came to this show with pals Davey G. and Jason; we have been friends for 20+ years, and I've had the pleasure of seeing several Bruce shows with them. As everyone cheered, I turned to them and said, "That may be the greatest thing I have ever seen him do."

And then I turned to my son, who himself was cheering wildly, and said, "That is not something you'll see every day!"

"I know it!" he said, beaming, clapping, and fighting his very-real fatigue to invest every inch he had of himself in a show that just kept going and going.

Lastly, among the highlights of the highlights, there was the song I never thought I would hear. Only because I never thought Bruce would play it again, with Clarence's passing. Even when word came that he'd performed "Jungleland" once on the European leg of the tour, it seemed aberrational, maybe a one-shot deal to prove that he could still play it.

But no. For the first encore, he whispered something in Jake's ear, and then stood in a near-offertory pose facing a blackened back of the stage, arms outstretched, pensive. And then one of the most unique sounds in the history of modern music—the violin/piano combination that starts the track off, told us we were not imagining it. "Jungleland" was about to be performed.

As you can see the rendition was as pretty much every live telling of this grandiose street opera has been; emotional, divergent, eclectic and put together with gorgeous, meticulous care. The piano solo Roy added before the final verse was a beautiful, redemptive treat, the power chords at the height of the verses were as jarring and explosive as they've been in the song's 37 years of existence. And Jake Clemons' spot-on and mystifying take on the most famous saxophone solo in history was something to behold. Yes, it was on the nose. But that he was performing a solo made legendary by a beloved uncle, no longer with him on earth, added a layer of pathos and passion to it. Jake's horn soared far beyond the 60,000, far past the stadium and the parking lots and the highways and the road signs and the building and the trees and up into the wind and beyond, to a far away place, where his uncle may very well have smiled as he listened in.

Jake and Bruce briefly touched hands as "Jungleland" finished, and for anyone who was there to see it on this humid August night, it will not soon be forgotten.

Bruce may play longer, he may even play better on this tour and in tours to com. There will surely be some who will argue Fenway Night 2 was better, or who will  say that their show that they see later this summer or fall in their hometown will be superior. I will not argue with any of it, and I hope they do think that way. I want them to. Because I hope people leave a show by Bruce Springsteen later this year feeling the way I felt just after 11:30 last Saturday night in Foxboro. Everyone deserves to feel that way.

But for me, this was the best I have ever seen. Ballads and anthems, rockers and sing-a-longs, epics and newfangled pleas of conscience, it all added up to one thing—the magic of music, music as close and familiar as memory. That I got to watch it with longtime friends with whom I have shared Bruce stories and discussions for decades made it all the more worth it. And most of all, that I got to share it with my son, with someone who is seeing Bruce for the first time through the new teenage eyes I never got to, is best of all. Because this was a moment for family.

"Hey ho rock-n-roll," Bruce sang with triumph at the end of "Open All Night," "deliver me from nowhere."

We were all delivered, though nowhere is a place that doesn't exist on E Street. When Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band plays and the audience listens, everyone is in the same place. Wherever that may be, we're all somewhere together, and as far from nowhere as possible.

To paraphrase the man himself, it was a night that busted open. And remained open. Open all night.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Get Up, Stand Up / Hitchin' a Ride

Now this is what I'm talkin' 'bout.

As I've mentioned before, I'm a big fan of mashups. Sure, some are lazy, some don't work at all, and some are simply amusing. But at their best, an unexpected juxtaposition can successfully limn the originals such as to create something that's actually a new and valid work of art—not to mention fun and interesting and cool.

For instance. At first you'd think there's was nothing Bob Marley and Green Day have in common, and musically, you'd probably be right. But both use(d) pop music as a way to express discontent, resentment and disillusionment with the status quo of contemporary politics and socio-economic conditions. (And, of course, to make some money and meet lots of girls.) In some ways, they're actually remarkably similar, even if the end result was completely different.

Or was, until the magic of the mashup.

You can fool some people sometimes but you can't fool all the people all the time.
Now everybody do the propaganda and sing along to the age of paranoia.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

I Am the Walrus

The next time you're feeling down, feeling like you can't do anything right and nothing's ever going to go your way and what's the point of it all, listen to this and think about the fact that John Lennon hated the sound of his own voice.

On the other hand, you're not John Lennon. So, hey, maybe you're right to feel terrible about yourself. On the other other hand, John'd just turned 27, so maybe you have time to surpass him?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Bruce Springsteen, Midwestern Suburban Poet

Just in case you ever wondered what Bruce Springsteen's oeuvre might have been like had he grown up in, oh, let's say, a Denver suburb in the late 70s/early 80s, we offer this rare glimpse into just such an alternate universe. 

“4th of July, Del Mar Park (Tiffany)”

“5 Channels (And Nothin' On)"  

“A Night with the Jersey-Knit Sweater”

“Adam Glazed a Ham”

"Ain't Got Yoo-Hoo"

“All that 7-11 Will Allow”

"American Bland"

“Aqua Net Headed Woman”

"Badland o' Lakes Butter"

“Better Days Inn”


“Blinded by the Lite Brite”

“Born to Walk at a Brisk but Satisfying Pace”

“Braise Your Lamb”

“Brilliant Halloween Costume”

“Devilled Eggs & Dust”

“Does This Bus Stop at the Korean Baptist Church?”

"Downbound Training Bra"

“Drive All Early Evening”

“Dungaree Heart”

"He-Man at the Top"

“Girls in Their Target Clothes”

“Jackson Batting Cage”

“Janey Don't You Lose Your Library Card”


“Lightly Overcast Road”

“Lonesome Dave”

“Maria's Bed and Breakfast”

“My Beautiful Rewards Points”

"My Hometown Buffet"

“Open All Night? In These Parts? Are You Nuts?”

“Orange Crush on You”

“Outlet Mall Pete”

“Prairie Dog Tunnel of Love”

“Racing in the Cul de sac”

“Reason to Believe That K-Mart's Prices Are Lowest”

“Ricky Wants a Video of Her Own”

"Rocky II, III, IV and V Ground"

“Roll of the D&D Dice”

“Rosarita (Come Out Tonight)"

"School Spirit in the Night"

"Sherry Darling, I Bought You Some New Parachute Pants"

“She's The One Wearing the Denver Nuggets Cap”

“Shorn in the USA”

"Spare Ribs"

“The Ghost of Tom & Jerry”

"The Price You Pay is Probably Lower at Wal-Mart"

"The Promise Margarine"

“The Thin Leather Ties That Bind”

“Tougher Than the Meth”

“Volare Ranch”

“Waterproof It All Night”

“Well, Maybe SOME Surrender”

“Wild Missy's Kool-Aid Story”

“Working on a Dreamsicle”

“Working on the Lego Highway”

Special thanks to Melissa Wiley for her help compiling this list of mean streets really quite polite and admirably wide streets goodness. 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Call Me Maybe: The Haiku

Not only has Carly Rae Jepsen delivered for us the most irresistibly catchy pop tune in years with "Call Me Maybe," but she has also fashioned something of the perfect haiku.
I just met you, it's
just crazy—here's my number
So call me maybe
Sure, Basho (pictured above) could bring it with the 17 syllables. But could you also dance to it? I think not. Thus Carly Rae's (pictured below) song/poetic masterwork, and I say this without hyperbole, is the greatest cross-cultural artistic achievement in the history of the universe.

(NOTE TO SELF: Learn what the word "hyperbole" means sometime very soon.)

Shine On You Crazy Diamond

Okay, as long as we're on an acoustic Pink Floyd kick...

Going unplugged is not without its dangers. Sure, you could end up with a "Come As You Are" by Nirvana...but then again, you might end up with something as silly as Yes's unplugged "Roundabout" or as utterly heinous as Eric Clapton's emasculation of one-would-have-thought-impossible-to-emasculate "Layla"—conclusive proof, all on its own, that going unplugged is not necessarily always a good idea.

Now, having said that...

Judging by the remarkable effectiveness of this stripped down version, I would love for Dave Gilmour to do an entire night of Pink Floyd songs, largely or at least mainly solo. If he can pull this one off, I don't doubt he could do another two utterly riveting hours of Floyd and I surely wish he'd try.

Caught in the crossfire of childhood and stardom.

Sunday, August 12, 2012


Of the dozen or so versions of "Echoes" I've heard, I find precisely none of them more interesting than this brief snippet—and only an epic like "Echoes" could make a six minute rendition seem brief. Check out how chuffed the entire band is to be taking the piss like this—and how quickly it turns serious, if still joyful.

A note  to the cameraman and director, however: if you'd included three times as many shots with Dave Gilmour and Rick Wright in the frame at the same time, it'd be three times better. You kept almost getting it right, but for the first half, at least, kept getting it just wrong instead. A pity.

Still pretty great, though.

Both inviting and inciting. 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Top 50 Bruce Springsteen Songs

In which we once again foolishly attempt to winnow down one of the greatest bodies of work in rock and roll history—Bruce Springsteen's oeuvre—to the very best 50: a fool's errand if ever there was one. 

As with our earlier list, The Top 50 Beatles Songs, feelings were hurt, noses bloodied, paternity questioned, evidence planted, warrants served, but at long last we did it, and definitively too, one might add. 

Except that six months after we compiled the list, we each took a look at the list and realized that at least one or two masterpieces had somehow gotten left off—no "Highway Patrolman"?! No "For You"?! No "Pink Cadillac" or "Streets of Philadelphia" or "Queen of the Supermarket"?! Madness, madness, we say!—each of us logically blaming the other.

A sign of just how wide and deep the greatness of Bruce Springsteen goes? Or how one's view of art changes constantly? Or impossible to get just right a task like this is?

So. You've paid your money, you take your chances: The Top 50 Bruce Springsteen Songs. (So far.) In alphabetical order. Because numbering these by quality? No. No.
That's a bridge too far, even for us.

“4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” — “For me this boardwalk life is through,” Bruce mutters exhaustedly at the end of this magnificent lovesick Jersey Shore travelogue. A justifiable favorite of Springsteen’s longtime hardcores, this ballad of loss and lust amidst all those odd characters from his past whispers in gorgeous understatement. The weeping guitar he pours over the rhythm line breaks your heart, Dan Federici’s accordion is perfect accompaniment, and Vini Lopez’s drumming is almost, dare we say it, subdued. This was the earliest sign of a wild child starting to grow up—Madame Marie and the Tilt-a-Whirls would soon give way to highways and the dreams beyond the pier lights, even as he looks to get lucky with Sandy one last time. A breathtaking farewell.

“American Land” — In which the E Street Band turns into the Pogues. This stomping Celtic-infused immigrant's tale appears as a bonus track on two albums – live on the 2006 Seeger Sessions and a studio version on the most recent Wrecking Ball. Both are brilliant. Inspired by a folk song—“He Lies in the American Land”—that Pete Seeger later covered, it talks of all America promises to be...and all it promises not to be. It could easily be looked as the Irish twin to “Born in the USA.” One of Soozie Tyrell’s finest ever moments; she drives it along in celebratory fashion, despite the sometimes downbeat lyrics. And an awesome concert staple.

“American Skin” — Even the best person can make a horrifying mistake. The question is: what happens then? Do you go tharn, take the understandable and human route and try to hide it, hope you can jerry-rig a solution and maybe get away with it? Or do you choose the hard road and back up and admit the error, ask for forgiveness and try to actually fix things? That’s the question Bruce Springsteen ponders in this wildly misunderstood song, which opens with a police officer who’s just shot someone, on his knees, "kneeling over his body in the vestibule, praying for his life." But after focusing initially on the one cop, Springsteen pulls the camera back and shows how this question relates to our entire country. He doesn’t have the answers but he’s maybe the only major artist still willing to ask the hardest of questions, audience reaction be damned. "We're baptized in these waters and in each other's blood." 

“Atlantic City” — "Everything dies, baby, that's a fact. But maybe everything that dies someday comes back." Bruce Springsteen, famous lapsed Catholic, going all eastern religion? Not quite. This tragic tale of a man who's basically tried to do everything right yet finds himself with no alternative to a life of crime opens with violent death and has him agreeing to do a favor for, you know, a guy. But despite that, what he's really hoping will be reborn is his luck and the love he and his girl once shared—and not necessarily in that order. In fact, given his concern for her well-being ("put on your stockings, baby, 'cuz the night's getting cold"), perhaps their love isn't quite the goner he thinks it is. Maybe—maybe—their love will return and be enough to see them through the bad ending we can see coming a mile away, even if he can't. But don't count on it. 

“Backstreets” — Where to begin? Perhaps Roy Bittan’s extended piano opening, once described as being so beautiful “it sounds like the musical opening of The Iliad.” Or the story itself, two friends (lovers?) believing in each other enough that maybe it would someday get them somewhere. Or Bruce’s heartbreaking scream at the climax (hello, nurse!), followed by a soul-draining guitar solo almost too painful to listen to. A key ingredient of the epic Born to Run album which launched him, “Backstreets” had it all, culminating in one of the finest rock-n-roll lyrics ever written which brought the desperation, longing and search for something great to the fore: “Remember all the movies, Terry, we’d go see? Trying to learn how to walk like the heroes we thought we had to be?” 

“Badlands” — One of the earliest and best examples of Bruce Springsteen’s mastery of hiding a paradoxical juxtaposition in plain sight, this song is remarkably dark while sounding utterly triumphant. Starting with violent imagery and confusion (“Lights out,” “a head-on collision smashin’ in my guts”)  before laying it right out there in the chorus, “Let the broken hearts stand as the price you've gotta pay,” implying, no, outright declaring that broken hearts—note the plural, meaning it’s not only the singer’s heart who’s getting broken but he, in turn, is breaking the hearts of others—are simply the cost of getting what you want. Does it end with a declaration of hope and faith? It does, and it’s stirring, but even that’s not quite as convincing as the simple sound of the Mighty Max abusing his snare and the Big Man testifying.

“Born in the U.S.A.” — First comes single-shot drums that Max strikes so violently they sound like cannon fire, accompanying a Roy Bittan synthesizer so uplifting it makes you want to stand up and salute. But this is no jingoistic anthem, as is clear the second Bruce spits out the words, “Born down a dead man’s town, the first kick I took was when I hit the ground.” It’s a brutal tale of a frustrated Vietnam veteran forgotten by his country, screaming anger and outrage. This song elevated Bruce from a rock star into an American Icon, somewhat ironically given the content. But its intent was clear and resounding to those who were paying attention—every American deserves a voice. 

“Born to Run” — Only a handful of even the greatest artists can come up with That Song, the one that somehow encapsulates almost everything great about them: The Rolling Stones nailed it with “Satisfaction” and Nirvana with “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” This is where Bruce does it. The singer of this song wants: he wants to break free, he wants to find where he fits in, he wants desperately…even if he’s not sure exactly what—but whatever it is, he doesn’t have it, that he knows. Most of all, he wants love, he wants someone to feel as passionately as he does. What he doesn’t seem to quite get, but what the listeners do, is that he’s got it already: the E Street Band playing their hearts out behind him, laying it all on the line, leaving nothing on the table, and in the process creating one of the very greatest rock and roll songs of all time. That's love.

“Brilliant Disguise” — At the apex of Tunnel of Love, his 1987 masterpiece about the perils of relationships, comes a work of art that shows exactly how tremulous the idea of love and marriage can be. "Now look at me, baby, struggling to do everything right. And then it all falls apart when out go the lights." Bruce wears his heart and soul on his sleeve here, wondering how things that seem so right can get so wrong, and baffled that he never banked on doubt and fear coming into play when he fell head over heels. This song—mid-tempo with a great pop melody—lays it all out there, cold and stark.

“Dancing in the Dark” — The Boss What seemed like such a departure makes total sense in retrospect. Springsteen's music was always heavily influenced by r&b and pop, and one of his biggest early(ish) hits was courtesy the Pointer Sisters. So strip away the 80s synths and Max’s drum machine impersonation and you’re left with a typically bleak, desperate Springsteen lyric ("I ain't got nothin' to say," "I wanna change my hair, my clothes, my face," “I’m just livin’ in a dump like this”) hidden in plain sight, thanks to a crazily catchy melody and shiny happy people production. Sure, the Big Man’s sax comes in at the very end to lift the spirits, and the video was all glistening biceps, tight jeans and smiles, but underneath all that is a cry of desperate unhappiness—which, as with John Lennon and “HELP!”, pretty much no one noticed at the time.

“Darkness on the Edge of Town” — “Everybody’s got a secret, sonny, something that they just can’t face.” Such is the sentiment on this final tale of despair and desolation, on an album filled with tales of despair and desolation. Unlike his previous two records, which ended with sprawling city operas bathed in romance, this is dramatically understated by comparison (at least until the explosion at the chorus). Bruce offers no answers to overcoming our crippling struggles, though we do get an assurance that he’ll be there, “with everything I got,” no matter the cost. And maybe that will be enough to finally see some light, maybe it won't. But this is how this brilliant record ends. Not awash in a dreamy glow, but wrapped in darkness. 

“Devils & Dust” — “I’ve got my finger on the trigger but I don’t know who to trust.” Springsteen returns to the themes of honesty, malleability of trust and elusiveness of knowledge explored in “Brilliant Disguise” but now transposed to a warzone. "What if what if you do to survive kills the things you love?" he wonders. This time it’s not just his wife he’s not sure he can trust, it’s his foreign allies, his leaders, even his combat buddies—and most of all, just as in the earlier meditation on marriage, himself: "when I look inside my heart, there's just devils and dust." 

“The Ghost of Tom Joad” 
— Homeless families sleep in their cars, a preacher smokes a cigarette by a campfire, cardboard dwellings underneath highway overpasses are suffused with despondency. “Welcome the new world order,” Bruce sings, chillingly, almost too softly to be audible. This is the world Bruce sings about on 1995’s stark, acoustic The Ghost of Tom Joad album, and never more pointedly or accurately than on the magnificent title track. Where are the heroes? Where is Steinbeck’s legendary figure, rushing in to stand and fight for all those who are so badly without a champion? At the end Tom’s ghost finally seems to arrive. But has he arrived too late? We don’t know, but neither Bruce nor the times that have followed the song’s release give us much reason to be optimistic.

“Girls in Their Summer Clothes” — Bruce meets Brian Wilson! Okay, not really. But the warm pop charm of this 2007 song sounds like a dream as its played, as sweet and easy as the summertime it sings about. Though there’s a sharp melancholy edge here too. (Big surprise.) Bruce is hitting the town to see the beautiful girls and even boasts “tonight I’m gonna burn this town down,” but he also makes it clear that they all simply “pass me by.” Brendan O’Brien’s production, Max’s effortless timekeeping and the layers of guitars and keyboards all add up to a wondrously hummable tune that 25 years earlier, in an era when FM rock existed, would have become a radio staple.

“Glory Days” — That big carnival organ, the fresh-faced, smiley video: they obscure that this song is actually about people who've found themselves washed-up has-beens by the time they're old enough to vote. An oddly prescient lyric from Springsteen, considering he was already successful but nothing like the global megasuperstar he was just about to become, and a cautionary tale to himself he seems to have taken to heart: "I hope when I get older I don't sit around thinkin' about it...but I probably will." The utterly straight-ahead music, all three chords, fits perfectly—especially the way the opening guitar riff is syncopated so you can't tell where the 1 is. Once Max firmly establishes the beat, you almost forget there was ever anything amiss. But there was.

“Growin’ Up” — The song that got it all started. When a 23-year-old Bruce Springsteen auditioned for CBS in 1972, this song is what he played. And boy howdy did it work. Bruce’s first great song, it's an impish explanation of who he was and where he hoped to go, backed with some of his finest early wordplay and driven along by a perfectly sweet piano. Bruce the Romantic wasn’t quite born yet, but this lookback shows he has an idea where he’s headed, particularly with this: “I swear I found a key to the universe in the engine of an old parked car.” Soon enough he’s be hitting the road in search of glory, but for now, he was content to keep growing up. 

“Hungry Heart” — His first real hit, “Hungry Heart” established the new Springsteen modus operandi: catchy, upbeat, 3 or 4 chord tunes with a singalong melody you can dance to and a lyric that Leonard Cohen would consider too dark: "I got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack—I went out for a ride and  I never went back; I met her in a Kingtown bar—we fell in love, I knew it had to end." Originally written for the Ramones, it opens with Max’s most overt Motown tribute, has a lovely organ solo from the late Phantom Dan, and is the last Bruce song of which Clarence’s honking sax is part of the very fabric (as opposed to a marvelous addition). Fantastic backing vocals by the Turtles—the first Springsteen song with such sweet harmonies—help make this the first utterly perfect pop song he wrote and recorded himself.

“Incident on 57th Street” — The first of Bruce’s three longplay street operas—the other two would be “New York City Serenade” and “Jungleland”—and also the most straightforward narrative. Romance plays out in Shakespearian terms at the tenement level, where heroes Spanish Johnny and Puerto Rican Jane shoot for love amid all the underworld uncertainty. “We may find it out on the street tonight, baby. Or we may walk until the daylight, maybe.” David Sancious’ piano work is among his loveliest ever, and gives the song its heartbeat, while Bruce’s vocals are weary, wounded and unceasingly tender. One of the very favorites of his old-guard fans, with good reason. 

“Independence Day” — Rock and roll has always been a form of rebellion—against authority, against society, school, the law...against parents. But no one has written about parents as often or deeply as Bruce Springsteen. Originally shaggy dog stories, and later howls of protest and pain directed at his father, he's more recently been writing from the other side, as a father himself. But for all the spine-chilling angst of "Adam Raised a Cain," he never wrote as movingly as this lament for the seemingly unbridgeable gap between him and his father. Too similar to be able to reach each other, the narrator feels he has no choice but to leave, granting each other independence—the son’s not the only one gaining his freedom here. The final lines, "I swear I never meant to take these things away" are as sad as any lyrics he would ever sing. But long before he gets to those words, Danny's heartbroken organ lines and Clarence's aching sax have already told the story.

“Jack of All Trades” — An anthem for the 1% v. 99% times we live in, this gorgeous six-minute piano ballad, ultimately taken to some heavenly plain at the climax by guest guitarist Tom Morello’s searing, simplistically perfect solo, is the culmination of Bruce’s 40 years of writing about the hopes, dreams and limitations of the working man. A handyman wants—needs—to work, and remains resolute that a man with his skills will always be able to find employment. He repeatedly tells his loved ones, “We’ll be all right”—but is he trying to reassure them or himself? Because as this song makes it clear, people like the narrator do not call the shots, and remain forever at the mercy of those who do. His newest great song, and a heartbreakingly spot-on picture of the now, written by someone who’s seen it coming for decades. 

“Janey Don’t You Lose Heart” — Dave Marsh once wrote that one sign of just how great the Beatles were was that no other band in history could ever have afforded to bury a song and performance as brilliant as "I'm Down" on a B-side. The exact same thing could be said for Bruce Springsteen and this song. An utterly perfect piece of pop from a guy whose melodic gifts are often overlooked, it was one of nearly 80 songs he wrote and recorded for Born in the USA.  In the hands of a lesser writer the line, "'til every river  runs dry, until the sun, honey, is torn from the sky" could have been hackneyed, but Springsteen follows that up with the decidedly unhackneyed and unexpected, "'til every fear you've felt burst free." Other artists with long and successful careers would have made this song the centerpiece of their finest and best-selling albums. He made it the flip side of his sixth single off that album. That is an embarrassment of riches.

“Jungleland” — Bruce’s epic nine-minute-plus street saga, stretching from Harlem to the Jersey state line, is one of rock-n-roll’s most unusual masterpieces. Veterans reunite, punks and their lovers “take a stab at romance” while the cops chase them away, and gang fights play out in operatic form amid urban battlegrounds bathed in advertising neon. The entire world seems hanging in the balance as Bruce tells the story, motored along by startling power chords, stunning changes of pace, gorgeous piano and violin accompaniment, and perhaps his most diverse vocal performance ever. And right in the middle of all the grandiose madness, Clarence Clemons pens a love letter to the fans, delivering a two minute and eleven second saxophone solo that leaves us breathless. There is only one Bruce Springsteen, and there was only one Big Man. “Jungleland” explains why.

“Kingdom of Days” — “I count my blessings that you’re mine for always. We laugh beneath the covers and count the wrinkles and the grays.” Bruce is all grown up – the romance of his early escape years has been sought and conquered, the doubts of Tunnel of Love are gone, and now is the time for him and Patti to look back on the years and share a laugh as they grow old together and enjoy the blessing of days gone by and days to come. It goes without saying that no rock star has ever aged as gracefully as Bruce Springsteen, and the contented ease with which he sings this lovely little 2008 song makes it clear his happiness is well-earned and very real. We all long to have that someone to laugh and smile with, years down the road, and look back at all we’ve done together. Inside his kingdom of days, a very satisfied Bruce Springsteen has exactly that. 

“Land of Hope and Dreams” — The "This Land Is Your Land" for the 21st century, this song could have been an embarrassingly didactic screed. In Springsteen's capable hands, it's a moving testament to his love for his country and his fellow humans as well as the long-lasting impact his long-abandoned Catholic faith had on him: "This train," he asserts, "carries saints and sinners, losers and winners, whore and gamblers"—which is to say, there's room for all of us. Most of all, it's the finest bit of heartland rock the E Street Band ever produced, channeling and (at the very least) equaling even the mighty Band in its total mastery and assimilation and amalgamation of gospel, country and blues—in other words, rock and roll. "This train," he asserts, "carries winner and losers." And you don't just want to believe him; for as long as the song lasts, at least, you do. All aboard.

“Long Time Comin’” — Bruce Springsteen said he didn't release this song—a little-known sequel to his beloved "Rosalita”—for years because it was "too happy." Only Springsteen could think a song featuring a pair of dads—one of whom’s a deadbeat and the other a self-professed failure—was too happy. On the other hand…well, he's right: it is an ultimately beautiful and joyous song, wherein we discover that since leaving the swamps of Jersey for that little café down San Diego way, Rosie and her boy have stayed together and aren't just parents themselves now but still every bit as electric together as they were back when Rosie's parents wanted to keep them apart—“It’s me and you, Rosie, cracklin’ like crossed wires.” Lyrically rich and intricate, it also hits like a jackhammer, as with the heartcrushingly intimate image of the singer gently placing his hand on his sleeping wife’s belly in order to feel the baby inside kicking. Once again, only Dylan has managed to grow older while still being so far ahead of the pack qualitatively.

“Long Walk Home” — Time and again, Springsteen has refused to go the easiest, most commercial route, preferring instead to poke at the dark underbelly of the American dream and shine a light on the things forgotten about or trampled underfoot, whether people, promises or values. "That flag flying over the courthouse means certain things are set in stone," Bruce sings, "Who we are, what we'll do and what we won't." Ah, if only. "Now it's gonna be a long walk home." Six years down the road, sadly, we're still trying to find our way back, with no end in sight.

“My Beautiful Reward” — Freed from whatever constraints he felt the E Street Band had put on him, and now happily (re)married with a kid, Bruce showed his thankful side on 1992’s solo effort Lucky Town. And this, perhaps the record's best track, gave voice to the joy of the search. “Down empty hallways I went from door to door, searching for my beautiful reward.” We never learn exactly what the reward was, only that the quest to find it never seems to end—he’s still looking high and low as this gentle and melodic gem ends. And the search likely continues today, proving that happiness and satisfaction don’t necessarily have to be the end of the journey. 

“My Hometown” — Bruce Springsteen has focused sharply over the last 30 years on community systems, and how the failure of those systems can lead to social devastation. Where 1982’s Nebraska deals pointedly with the impact those failures have on the individual, “My Hometown” takes the theme more universal and applies it to overall society while never ignoring the impact upon the individual. “Foreman says these jobs are goin’, boys, and they ain’t coming back to your hometown.” Times have changed, and not for the better, and the world we imagined ourselves growing into is no longer a reality. By the end of the song the narrator considers packing up his family and moving on, knowing his son won’t ever have the same opportunities here once promised to him. Bruce would revisit these themes often in later years, with both optimism (“My City of Ruins”) and pessimism (“Long Walk Home,” “Death to My Hometown”) but this sparse 1984 tale laid it out bluntly and with aching poignancy. Son, take a good look around.

“Nebraska” — Rock has always been interested in exploring the taboo and mysterious, making not just death but murder a perfect subject. But serial and spree killers and mass murderers are a bridge too far for many—or if not, they tend to go for the lighthearted or crass, as though it's just too frightening or dangerous to address seriously. Not Springsteen, who not only tackles Charles Starkweather’s story, but actually puts himself in the killer’s head, singing in a chilling first person. The result is moving and terrifying, as Springsteen’s flat delivery conveys an emotional remove even when inside the murderer’s mind, trying to explain his motives. But whereas Sufjan Stevens somehow found the common humanity shared by even John Wayne Gacy, Springsteen discovers no such thing. His final reveal: it’s all pointless, and life and death are just random events driven by base animal instincts, signifying nothing. "Well, sir," the narrator sings in a nearly inflection-free voice, "I guess there's just a meanness in this world." That this is the first song off his new album was a pretty clear indication that the guy who’d written “Rosalita” and just had his first major hit with “Hungry Heart” had changed his focus a bit. 

“New York City Serenade” — For many, the Holy Grail of live performances—rarely played anymore, but when it is it’s something to be cherished. The longest song Bruce ever recorded, it’s also one of his most eclectic, combining at different times elements of classical, jazz, funk, blues and yes, even prog. Not as straightforward in narrative its 1974 companion piece “Incident on 57th Street,” and without quite the grandeur of the next year’s “Jungleland,” “New York City Serenade” instead crackles and hisses with the sounds of the city streets, sounds that had such a profound impact on Bruce in his younger days. David Sancious’ extended piano lead-in is breathtaking, and the E Street Band—still in its infancy at this point—plays like a family that’s been together for 100 years. It all ends with a junk man “all dressed up in satin,” singing his heart out as he collects the trash. Wherever he looks, Bruce Springsteen can find the music. And make it beautiful.

“One Step Up” — Everything in this song is off kilter: the heater's cold, the car’s immobile, birds are mute, the married guy pretends he’s single. Even the title—for every step forward the narrator and his wife try to take, they end up taking two back, finding themselves further and further from their goal. The singer’s desperately unhappy about this state of affairs, and the end of the bridge, where he admits he’s not the man he wanted to be before whispering “I’m caught,” is perhaps the saddest moment in any Bruce Springsteen song. Finally, tempted by easy and available infidelity, he finds himself remembering the previous night’s dream, he and his wife happy again, as he holds her in his arms, dancing…one step up and two steps back, and for the first time, there’s a graceful balance. But, of course, it’s only a dream. That each of his final lines are echoed by his future-but-very-much-not-then-current wife Patti Scialfa only adds to the skewed reality of the song.

“Paradise” —Oddly overlooked on his 2002 E Street Band reunion album, The Rising, Springsteen took the almost unbelievably brave step of singing this song initially from a suicide bomber’s point of view, attempting to make sense of the inexplicable and, stunningly, succeeding. As though that weren’t challenging enough, he then spins the camera around and sings from the point of view of a dead victim of terrorism. One of Springsteen’s loveliest melodies is wedded to haunting music and the result is a song unsurpassed in emotional resonance. This is not the finest song Springsteen has ever written. But he has never written a more powerful one.

“The Promise” — When Bruce Springsteen wrote “Thunder Road” in 1975, the title represented the dreamscape laid out before the narrator and his girl, a symbol of limitless romance and possibility. But just a year later, mired in a lawsuit with his manager over the creative control of his future, Bruce came back to Thunder Road, only now it was an unreachable place, a symbol of dashed hopes and dreams. This is “The Promise,” the first song Bruce ever wrote that replaced youthful romanticism with cold, bitter reality. Very possibly due to the legal fight he was enduring, the song conveys heartbreak and loss he never saw coming. “Everyday it just gets harder to live this dream I’m believing in,” he sings, accompanied by a melancholy piano and a voice that seems older, harder. History proves Bruce bounced back magnificently from this setback, but there’s no doubt that something in him had changed forever, and Thunder Road would never hold the same promise again.

“The Promised Land” — The singer is a man—not a boy—pushed to the point of exploding into violence, fighting to live the right way but nearly blind from exhaustion and frustration, and believing that only howling dogs understand the way he feels. Incredibly, this seemingly grim ode to determination is one of Bruce Springsteen's most triumphant anthems, and an early precursor to the dark lyrics/upbeat music juxtaposition that would lead to megastardom and mass confusion on Born in the USA. Here we get an early sense of just how deeply his upbringing influenced this famously lapsed Catholic, as religion permeates the song, right down the title. Tellingly, however, he actually sings not of the promised land, but a promised land. And after all these years, despite all evidence to the contrary, he still seems to be searching for it, and trusting that it's out there, somewhere.

“Racing in the Street”— Even in a list of Bruce Springsteen's 50 greatest songs, a few stand out. “Born to Run” and “Thunder Road” get the majority of the love, and understandably so. But if this is not his finest song, well, he has never written a better one, not even those aforementioned titans. A melody so heartbreakingly sublime it was stolen by Academy Award-winning composer James Newton Howard for the Pretty Woman theme. And lyrically? It’s the story of a guy whose only interest in life is illegal car racing until he finds The One—but discovers she’s too broken herself, too beaten down by life for even love to save her: "she sits on the porch of her daddy's house but all her pretty dreams been torn; she stares off alone into the night with the eyes of one who hates for just being born." He vows to keep on trying but in the end turns back to the hotrodding, to a race where you go as fast as you can to be the first guy to get…nowhere.

“Reason to Believe” — At the end of the bleak darkness of his iconic 1982 Nebraska—the startling, stripped down collection of tales of hopelessness and decay—finally comes a hint of daylight. Or does it? Is “Reason To Believe”—the most provocative, open-ended song Bruce would ever write—an “attaboy” to the human spirit or a scornful slap at people who have the audacity to believe in something simply not there? The song rolls along like the river it twice mentions, bouncy and free, but his voice is straight from the barren dirt. Heartbreak and death are everywhere, yet the song is also laced with odd strains of hope. Grooms and brides are jilted, a man prods a dead dog to do a canine Lazarus impression, babies are baptized and old men die. And through it all people find a reason to believe, which leaves the narrator in astonished wonderment. Us too—both at the nature of Bruce’s answerless question, and that even in his retreat to stone simplicity, he was still able to create such a poetic conundrum for the ages.

“Reno” — From the earliest days, Springsteen’s portrayal of relationships tended towards the romantic, in the literary sense. Lovers were soul mates, albeit suicidal or doomed ones, or whose love had died—but always with a sense of high drama. Not so in this song off 2005’s solo album Devils & Dust. The tale of a heartbroken man’s meaningless visit to a prostitute is told in clinical detail, and the combination of Springsteen’s flat delivery and the sad hollowness—unable to face the reality of his lost relationship and what he’s doing, the singer either looks out the window or closes his eyes, rather than allow himself to see what’s really going on—make it, despite its ostensibly prurient topic, as unerotic a song as the man has ever recorded.

“The Rising” — A firefighter rushing into what the listener gathers is a soon-to-collapse Twin Tower can see neither in front nor behind and is burdened, weighed down by his equipment, even as he’s vitally tethered to a lifeline. Springsteen uses this gripping situation as a metaphor for the country as a whole (and his own career). Ever the contrarian, he takes this dark story and leads us to a beautifully and believably hopeful ending, even using a “Smells Like Teen Spirit”-type guitar solo to lift it even higher. How odd and sad, then, that a decade later, it’s clear to Springsteen (and most of us) that he was, in fact, being far too optimistic and that, stunningly, things might actually get in many ways even worse from there.

“The River” — A mournful harmonica drawls at the outset, echoing as if it’s being played by the last person on earth. Which is appropriate for this take of loneliness and resignation. A young man gets his young lover pregnant, and any romance they once enjoyed—swimming in the river together, sleeping by the shore—is out the window. Replaced by a hastily arranged marriage and unprepared adulthood. “The River” is among the saddest songs Bruce ever wrote, punctuated by the throbbing line near the end, “I just act like I don’t remember, Mary acts like she don’t care.” But they do care, Bruce makes clear. They do remember what once made them love each other. It’s just that time, like their river, can’t stop for them, and they’ll never be able to catch up. The song is a beautiful, telling portrait of believing in something that’s not there, and what happens when you finally realize it’s not there. 

“Rosalita” — The hero stands down in the street, beckoning his super-idealized girl to come run away with him. She’s forbidden fruit—her protective parents can’t stand the reckless suitor. His pitch is not exactly romantic—it’s defiant (he is literally insisting that she run away from home), desperate (he calls it her “last chance”), dirty (“Daddy’s coming?” Jeez!) and borders on Faustian. And here’s the kicker—we don’t know if the hero ever gets the girl; when the song ends he’s still bellowing up to her to come out tonight. That’s “Rosalita.” The most raucous, rambunctious, rebellious and revved up seven minutes of rock-n-roll ever recorded, a song destined from chord one to become both an FM classic as well as the Washington Monument of live performance. From the twangy, irresistible Telecaster that opens it to an ending that sounds, as Eric Guterman wrote, like “the entire E Street Band collapsing in a heap,” “Rosalita” never once comes up for air. We have no idea if Rosie ever takes the wild ride, but we do. And we love every crazy second of it.

“Shut Out the Light” — The literal and figurative flip side to “Born in the U.S.A.” This quiet, acoustic song about a Vietnam vet’s problems upon returning home may indeed feature the same narrator as on the better known A-side. But whereas that song was loud and angry, this is soft and solemn, and this time the pain is personal and inwardly-focused, still discovering how the country has failed its vets but with none of the outward fury of the A-side. The singer of “Born in the U.S.A.” couldn’t find a job. The singer of “Shut Out the Light” can’t even sleep through the night, waking in terror and tears, so shattered that he’s reducing for calling for his mother for comfort, as not even his wife can quite reach him. As the song ends, the singer finds himself standing in “a river without a name,” staring “across the lights of the city and [dreaming] of where he's been,” unable to face waking reality even as he’s unable to hide from it in sleep. Together with “Born in the USA,” “Shut Out the Light” provides a moving, unexploitative examination of the issue in a way most full-length feature films can only dream of. 

“Spare Parts” — Possibly the most unlikely of Bruce’s great songs, as well as one of the most terrifying. The guitar scream at the beginning gives way to a frayed, deep country blues riff, followed by this sternum-punch opening line: “Bobby said he’d pull out, Bobby stayed in. Janey had a baby, wasn’t any sin.” Then comes a bitter, furious story of betrayal, personal failures—including, horrifically, a near-infanticide—and, ultimately, redemption. From Max’s thunderous, unflinching beat to a scorching harmonica solo played by guest James Wood, to a vocal take that reminds people just how ferocious a singer Bruce can be, “Spare Parts” is the 50-foot rollercoaster drop that shocks the listener upright amidst all the other quieter, haunting images of the masterful Tunnel of Love album.

“Spirit in the Night” — One of his earliest classics, 1973’s “Spirit in the Night” finds Bruce in what would become familiar territory, singing about good friends and good times. Only this story of a wild group of friends enjoying an endless night together has a mystical, magical quality attached to it, playing out like rock-n-roll comedia dell’arte. Fueled by Clarence Clemons’ smoky, jazzy saxophone and Mad Dog Lopez’s loose-limbed swing, Bruce introduces us to the likes of Crazy Janey, Hazy Davy, Killer Joe and Wild Billy, all characters making their way up to Greasy Lake for a night of sultry moonlit madness. “It felt so right,” he sings triumphantly, even as it ends with one of the characters injured and a hint of consequence invading their hours of hedonistic freedom. It sounds right, too, and intoxicating enough for us to still want to be there.

“Straight Time” — A complex tale of an ex-con trying to go straight even as he’s pulled in opposite directions both by family members and his own desire, the keys lines are: “Eight years in, it feels like you're gonna die/But you get used to anything—sooner or later it becomes your life.” Does that include our failings? Did he get too used to a life of crime to go straight? Or if he can just be strong enough, can he eventually get used to walking the straight and narrow? It doesn’t seem likely, as indicated by the fact that his loving wife, who married him knowing full well his past, can’t help but watch him out of the corner of her eye as he plays with their children. The song ends inconclusively, the singer having prepped a sawed-off shotgun—has he used it yet? Is he going to?—and with a smell he can’t get off his hands. But what is it? The scent of the rendering plant where he works, turning waste material into something useful…or is it something else, something even more sinister? 

“Thunder Road” — The first thing you hear is a harmonica winding upwards, sounding like it's coming from and imbued with the dark, rich loam of the midwest, accompanied by a slow piano which is nearly classical in tone without ever being anything less than 100% rock and roll. After only a few seconds, they speed up together and just like that, the curtains are pulled back and a vista opens up and all of America is spread out before you as day breaks. No one could have predicted it. No matter how big a fan you were of Springsteen's first two albums or his shows, there was no way to anticipate the masterpiece which was Born to Run and its opening song, a barely-challenged contender for Greatest Springsteen Song Ever. A widescreen, cinematic masterpiece which aimed for the scope, ambiguity and drama of The Searchers or The Godfather and the pure rock and roll power of Orbison and Spector, it is a stunningly brash move from a 25-year-old on the verge of being dropped from his label for low sales. Instead of playing it safe, he threw caution to the wind and shot for immortality and in the very first song, he grabbed it by the short hairs. The narrator is completely convincing, even as he’s far from smooth—unless “you’re not a beauty but, hey, you’re all right” is actually a successful pick-up line, and a vow to break all promises is itself a convincing argument for trust. In the larger context of the album and his career as a whole, you realize that the singer’s not so much running to something promising as away from his current life, and you can’t help but suspect that while the night was bustin’ open and he’d learned how to make his guitar talk, he never really did find what he was looking for—after all, as the song ends, Mary herself is still on the porch, undecided. But while the original recording is playing, failure is simply impossible to conceive. And when the “Layla”-like coda kicks in and Clarence’s sax harmonizes with Danny’s glockenspiel and Roy’s piano and Max takes it all down to a majestic half-time, the music proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that there really is magic in the night and for at least these few minutes, they have pulled out of there, and they have won.

“Thundercrack” — This ramshackle marathon of swashbuckling studio fun from an old, old incarnation of the E Street Band serves to represent the very best of Bruce's early, unreleased jams. While "Kitty's Back" instead made it onto his second album, "Thundercrack" makes this list, and (at least to us) is superior. Ostensibly it's a lovesick and slaphappy ode to a "dancer" (yes, that probably means stripper), who moves up and back and slips and slides and bumps and grinds her way into the narrator's heart. The interplay between Bruce, Clarence and piano maestro David Sancious is spectacular during the extended instrumental free-for-all, and the "round and round" chorus is disarmingly lovely. Once more, and with feeling, this is a track never quite worthy enough to make it onto an album. Amazing.

“Tunnel of Love” — Bruce Springsteen, blue collar troubadour, turns marriage counselor—and a remarkably adept one, so that it’s almost surprising that the marriage didn’t take, given how insightful he seems to be. There’s no car or motorcycle in sight, just a funhouse ride—a mode of transport which gets you absolutely nowhere. But there’s no blame in this song, merely an acknowledgement of how hard it can be: “the lights go out and it’s just the three of us: you, me and all that stuff we’re so scared of.” Whereas lesser writers would turn it into a Dear Alex & Annie-style number (we’re lookin’ at you, Mr. William “Tell Her About It” Joel), Springsteen keeps the focus on the difficulties, offering no pat solutions. Max provides as danceable a beat as he’s ever come up with, trickily helping obscure the lyrical darkness and, generously, the insane, unpredictable guitar solo is handed over to Nils for the first time. Most notable of all, Patti’s prominent vocals float hauntingly over the back half of the recording like a banshee. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, maybe it’s not quite so shocking the first marriage didn’t last. 

“Walk Like a Man” — Bruce stands with his Dad at the altar, watching his bride come down the aisle, ready to walk with her into...a lifetime of doubt. Hopefully, "Walk Like a Man" has never been anyone's first dance. On every other plain, though, it works wondrously. A gorgeous melody led by Danny's angelic organ, lyrics as heartfelt and true as he had ever written, a resolution (of sorts) to his longstanding and painstakingly documented issues with his father, and a plea to himself to do what is right, to walk the way a man does, with his bride arm and arm into whatever may come. With all the darkness and uncertainty such a "mystery ride" connotes. Written as the centerpiece of 1987's Tunnel of Love, Bruce makes it clear before, during and after this song that not all was rosy, and not all was right. But still, he's standing there the only way he knows how. As a man. And he's learning just how hard it is to be one.

“Wreck on the Highway” — Bruce's 1980 double album, The River, contained everything from barroom ravers to frat rock, from ballads to rockabilly to soul, but when the final track played we heard...something totally different. Mournful, slow, organ-driven country, a meditation on mortality about a man dying alongside a rainy highway one night, and the narrator's instant reflection on what this stranger's death will mean to those who loved him. "Sometimes I sit up in the darkness and I watch my baby as she sleeps. And I climb in bed and I hold her tight, I just lay there awake in the middle of the night, thinking about that wreck on the highway." It is a stunning, bold, tragic, gripping and unceasingly beautiful way to finish off the 20-song collection, and as the song plays off in an extended Danny Federici and Garry Tallent coda, the listener is left speechlessly wondering what Bruce could possibly do next. We found out two years later with Nebraska. And we are still finding out, more than three decades down the road.

“Youngstown” — This solo song is so class-conscious and steeped in history even Woody Guthrie would have been awed. The narrator comes from a long line of patriotic steelworkers who have watched as their town is discarded, crippled by the very mill owners they’d made unimaginably wealthy: “The story's always the same—now, sir, you tell me the world's changed, once I made you rich enough…rich enough to forget my name.” Just how disillusioned are these loyal vets? This much: “We sent our sons to Korea and Vietnam, now we're wondering what they were dyin' for.” But the horror isn’t confined to this plane of existence—the singer fully expects his trials to continue into the next: “When I die I don't want no part of heaven, I would not do heaven's work well; I pray the devil comes and takes me to stand in the fiery furnaces of hell.” The most tragic part isn’t that the singer doesn’t believe he belongs in heaven with those billionaires who’ve so abused him and his, or even that he believes his life’s work has better prepared him to spend eternity in hell than in paradise. It’s that by choosing to work for the devil in the afterlife, he’s unwittingly volunteering to continue working for the very same ones who’d destroyed Youngstown in this world.


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

In Your Eyes

I saw Peter Gabriel in concert twice following his So album hitting the world in 1986. Once at Great Woods in Massachusetts in the Summer of 1987 (Scott was there as well, as was a large merry band of pals), and then again a year later in Montreal as part of the star-studded Human Rights Now! tour that Amnesty International put together.

I thought then as I think now—the sheer enjoyment and theatrical wonder that Peter Gabriel put into those concerts was a sight to behold. Maybe he's not Bruce Springsteen live, but that's only because they offer such different performances. Bruce's are longer, have more diverse setlists and (brilliantly) evoke the spirit of a rock-n-roll revival. PG's concerts back then (and in some tours that followed, though I can't speak to the last few ones he's had) created a pulse entirely of their own, a perfectly executed ballet of music and movement and light and energy, all adding up to a sensual contact with the audience that few performers are ever able to achieve.

At different times during those shows, PG stood stationary at the piano bathed in blues and greens ("Family Snapshot," "Here Comes the Flood"), was pretty much attacked by crane lights as he sang about visceral disconnection from his faculties ("No Self Control"), careened across the stage with athleticism that would have made his Amnesty tour pal Springsteen proud ("Shock the Monkey," "Sledgehammer"), literally lay on the stage, bathed in a womb-like red glow while he sang ("Mercy Street"), dived into the audience and allowed himself to be swallowed up in complete surrender ("Lay Your Hands On Me") or simply stood center stage holding court with anthems of human destruction and perserverance ("San Jacinto," which opened many of those shows, and "Biko," which always closed them).

There was formula in the songs he played, to be sure (although at the Great Woods show he stunned the audience by announcing "Solsbury Hill," a song he hadn't performed much on the first leg of that tour). But there was no formula to the investment PG made in his audience, and to the way the crowd members reacted. It was soulful and stagy, political and sexual, whimsical and melodramatic. It was rock-n-roll, to its very core.

But best of all came at the encore. As I said, he closed every show back then with his anti-apartheid clarion call "Biko." But the way he opened those encores centered on one of the best songs he has ever written, if not the best: "In Your Eyes."

"In Your Eyes" is the centerpiece of the fabulous So album, a love song about offering oneself up unconditionally to something greater. With an African rhythm serving as its heartbeat and David Rhodes (guitar), Tony Levin (bass) and Manu Katche (drums) creating some sheerly fascinating and understated interplay behind the synth-driven melody, "In Your Eyes" remains as fresh and exciting now as it was when it was when released more than a quarter of a century ago.

And amazingly, he made it even better live. Stretching the song to nearly double its studio length, adding lyrics and significantly expanding the parts of Senegalese star Youssou N'Dour and his band, "In Your Eyes" turned into a celebration onstage. An affirmation of all that music can do for us and to us, a rhythmic free-for-all of color and motion and spiritual unity with those watching and singing along. When PG sings "I see the doorway to a thousand churches, a resolution to all the fruitless searches," we get it, and we know exactly where he wants to take us.

Here's a decent video of it, from the same year I saw him, in 1987—you'll get the idea.

Monday, August 6, 2012

And Your Bird Can Sing

It's insanity.

Dave Marsh once memorably wrote:
Cut at the same session as "Yesterday," sneaked out as the B side of "Help," not issued on an LP for many years, "I'm Down" is emblematic of the Beatles' full greatness. Because in the history of rock and roll, there was probably nobody else who could have come up with a with a letter-perfect update of Little Richard, right down to the gospel yowls, and there was certainly no one who could have then afforded to just throw it away. Other bands would have dredged a career out of that silly little electric organ alone.
I've always loved that. It cuts to the heart of just how great the Beatles were, or at least one reason—and that's the point. They were so great for so many reasons that you can pick out just one or two and, all by themselves, they'll be convincing arguments—or you can even throw away things like the fact that Paul McCartney is on the very shortest of short lists for Greatest Rock and Roll Bassists Ever, and that decent arguments can be made for either John Lennon or Paul McCartney as The Greatest Rock and Roll Singer Ever, and they were both in the same damn band. I mean, come on. But toss out those arguments, and you can still made a nearly watertight case for them being the best rock and roll band ever. It's just not fair, really.

Which brings us to "And Your Bird Can Sing." Pete Townshend may have coined the term "power pop," and some of the early Who and Kinks singles may perfectly embody the concept Townshend himself credited the Beach Boys for creating—so wonderfully carried on in the 70s and 80s by Big Star, the Raspberries, R.E.M. and the Replacements—but it's most closely associated with the Beatles, and with good reason.

Take, for example, oh, let's say, the aforementioned "And Your Bird Can Sing." Wonderful melody? Check. Amazing harmonies? Check. Kickass drums and spellbinding guitar riff? Check and check. Lyrics about boys and girls? Check. If someone wondered what power pop is, in less than two minutes you could illustrate it perfectly by playing them "And Your Bird Can Sing."

Now, how this relates to the almost insane greatness of the Beatles is this clip. It's an early version of the song, with the famous guitar parts slightly abridged and held until the solo section.

How on earth could someone listen to that absolutely perfect song, with its impeccable better-than-the-Byrds intro and think, "'s lacking." It's not! It's wonderful as is! But more unreal is the idea that someone listened to the (admittedly a bit sloppily played) guitar line in the solo and, rather than patting himself on the back for writing such an amazing part, thinking instead, "right...that can be improved upon"? It's not credible. How could someone then decide to scrap this entire recording and start all over from scratch a few days later? It's just unthinkable.

And yet that's what the Beatles did. They listened to the perfect intro and found it lacking. They listened to the guitar line and thought it could be better. And then John, Paul, George and Ringo went and improved something which was nigh upon perfection.

That's crazy. That's just not possible. That's just one more thing that's emblematic of the Beatles' full greatness.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

We Are the World

I'm not exaggerating when I say I have never seen a more fascinating bit of rock and roll filmmaking. Just watch as Bob Dylan is patiently guided through his verses by Stevie Wonder. When Bob can't find his way into the song, he turns to Stevie and asks for help. "Can he play it one time?" Dylan asks. And Stevie Wonder does play it. But not one time. He plays it and then he plays it again. And then he plays it again. And again. Quincy Jones may have been the official producer of the session, and he is a presence, but it's Wonder who really produces this section of the song, teaching, encouraging, coaching Dylan.

It's hard to reconcile how timid and uncertain Dylan is at the beginning with the popular view of him, but his unease almost seems to border on fear at times, as he asks Stevie to play and sing his short lines over and over. Others shout encouragement, as if it were a sporting event; you can hear Bruce Springsteen at several points, including him calling out to assure his dissatisfied idol, "that sure sounded great, though, Bob."

But Stevie Wonder's the real star here, even seeming to forget himself, dancing and clapping in the background, when Dylan finally gets into it. He plays Dylan's section repeatedly, helping Bob figure out what he wants to do, and making the key suggestion to the booth to put more drums into the mix, a seemingly odd idea which seems to help Dylan immediately. Bob's relief and gratitude when Lionel Richie joins Jones in congratulating Dylan upon completion of his part is palpable and even endearing.

Bob Dylan is many things. A genius. A monster musician. The most influential American songwriter of the past fifty years. Clearly wickedly funny, intelligent, erudite, sarcastic, private. But the one thing I'd never have imagined he was is sweet.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

While My Guitar Gently Weeps

Here's a post I originally wrote five years ago. I just watched the clip again and found myself actually laughing out loud several times during the solo—it's that ridiculously great. 

I just stumbled across this clip and...whoa.

Tom Petty sounds really good, and Jeff Lynne, the most successful b-talent perhaps in rock history, also sounds swell. George’s son Dhani—the spit and image of George—looks like he’s never been happier in his entire life. And the guitarist does a beautiful job of recreating Eric Clapton’s original obbligato accompaniment, does he not? He does.

But it's just before the three and a half minute mark that the real guitar solo begins.

If this is not my favorite guitar solo of all time, it is certainly in my Top Ten. I've listened to it dozens of times and I still get goosebumps every damn time.

Because he’s one of the most brilliant singer-songwriters of the past thirty years, a phenomenal singer and an unsurpassed bandleader and performer, Prince sometimes gets overlooked as a guitarist. If this solo doesn’t qualify him as one of the truly all-time greats in rock history, then such things have no meaning.

The word “blistering” is not strong enough. His complete and total mastery of the instrument, the flawless technique, the searing tone, the fluidity of movement, how he plays around the singers, the way he effortless drops littles quotes from Clapton’s original solo into the middle of this maelstrom and then back out, the stunning showmanship…sweet Jesu, this is the very essence of rock and roll guitar. Watching this, you wonder: if he had chosen to focus solely on his guitar playing, it's not inconceivable that he might have been the true heir to Jimi Hendrix, able to build upon and expand upon his groundbreaking explorations.

[Now the real question: what the hell happened to the guitar at the very end?]

A previous version of this was originally posted at Left of the Dial with, it should be noted, some might fine comments.