Monday, October 14, 2013

Be True

DT and I wrote a series of posts for the great One Week // One Band. They're all archived over there, along with an incredible number of other fantastic pieces. Here's the one I wrote about "Be True."


Ah, the 1980s. Such a simple time. An ignorant time. A time before that wild and wooly western frontier known as the internet. When an international superstar like Bruce Springsteen could play in concert an officially released song and few of even his long-time fans would know what it was, because the previous night’s setlist hadn’t been posted in real time. (And later we’d ride our dinosaurs back to our caves.)

The first time I heard “Be True” was in Worcester, Massachusetts in late February 1988. It was the second show of his Tunnel of Love Express tour and I’d paid a lot of money for a scalped ticket—a scalped ticket I soon learned was, in fact, not even authentic. That it still got me in is a matter that confuses me to this day, but about which I was not and never have been exactly displeased.

I’m sure I’d heard of the song before that night—I was Springsteen-crazy enough to study various hard to get b-sides in catalogs and discographies and what have you—but I’d certainly never actually heard it. Back then, to hear a rare b-side, you had to either know someone who owned it and would let you listen, or you had to send away for a copy, a process which was expensive and time-consuming—and not just compared to today, where you can download an mp3 or play something on the YouTube with a few clicks of the mouse, but even compared to being able to run down the record store, back in those halcyon days of such marvelous things as record stores existing.

So the song was entirely new to me. And while I generally take a while to warm up to songs, I loved this from the first. It was catchy and the E Street Band was putting their all into it, and the interplay between Bruce and Patti was delightful, engaging and arresting and an effective visual component to the concert’s overarching theme. (And am I misremembering that I thought their mock romantic on-stage behavior was…let’s say, unusually believable? Or is it merely later events which have implanted faulty memories?)

Sometime thereafter Springsteen released an EP on a mini-CD, with four previously unreleased live songs: “Tougher than the Rest,” his amazing acoustic version of “Born to Run,” and his cover of the Byrds’ cover of Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom.” And “Be True.”

If it were possible to wear out a CD, I would have at least come close. I listened to that damn disc scores upon scores of times. And while it’s not possible to love a recording more than I loved that first acoustic “Born to Run,” my feelings for “Be True” came close.

"Be True" wasn’t quite like any other Springsteen song. When I later learned to play the guitar, I realized that at least in part it’s because it’s got far more chords than the average Bruce tune. By Darkness on the Edge of Town, and especially by the time of The River and Nebraska, Springsteen had famously stripped down his music to, for the most part, three and four chord songs. (Yes, there are many, many exceptions, but then this is a guy who put out a four-disc, 66-song set of unreleased songs 15 years ago, and even at the time, that was apparently less than half the unreleased songs they considered releasing—he and the band recorded over 50 songs just for The River album alone. The point being, he’s written kind of a lot of stuff, so anything you can say about his music, you can also find a lot of exceptions to the rule.)

"Be True," by contrast, had the kind of busy chord changes he’d used on his first few albums. Melodically, it was more River era. Lyrically, however, it wasn’t quite like anything else he’d released. It’s an unabashed, heartfelt love song…albeit, in classic Springsteen fashion, with an object of his desire who’s a million miles away from the simple T&A the Rolling Stones were singing about (literally) at the time. Nor is she some untouchable goddess on a pedestal. This is a woman who’s been hurt, who’s made bad decisions and who has a proclivity to continue to do so, and yet is smart enough not to fall for what she suspects are simply the singer’s pickup lines. She is, in other words, a smart but flawed person, hurt but hopeful but wary. In other other words, she feels real.

Springsteen’s lyrics, as I said, don’t quite fit into any pre-existing category. They’ve got clever wordplay, like his earlier material, but without any of the excessive words for the sake of words of his first album. (Which I adore.) Rather, he make use of allusions and metaphors in a way he’d rarely if ever done before, and would only rarely do afterwards. (And most of those kept “Be True” company on Tracks.)
Your scrapbook’s filled with pictures of all your leading men
Well baby don’t put my picture in there with them
Don’t make us some little girl’s dream that can’t ever come true
That only serves to hurt and make you cry like you do
Well baby don’t do it to me and I won’t do it to you

You see all the romantic movies, you dream and take the boys home
But when the action fades you’re left all alone
You deserve better than this, little girl, can’t you see that you do
Do you need somebody to prove it to you?
Well you prove it to me and I’ll prove it to you
Now every night you go out looking for true love’s satisfaction
But in the morning you end up settling for just lights, camera, action
And another cameo role with some bit player you’re befriending
You’re gonna go broken-hearted looking for that happy ending
Well girl you’re gonna end up just another lonely ticket sold
Cryin’ alone in the theater as the credits roll
You say I’ll be like those other guys
Who filled your head with pretty lies
And dreams that can never come true
Well baby you be true to me
And I’ll be true to you
Looking at the lyrics and considering the rest of Springsteen’s output from the time, it’s hard not to wonder if the song isn’t actually surprisingly autobiographical, and that he’s actually singing about himself, and simply switching gender.

"Be True" reminds me of Elvis Costello’s "Everyday I Write the Book," but using cinematic terminology, rather than literary. (Interestingly, Costello has said he likes "Everyday I Write the Book" less than almost anyone else—obviously, Springsteen liked "Be True" okay, or he wouldn’t have put it out as a b-side, much less played as the second or third song of a major tour for the next four months. On the other hand, he didn’t like it enough to put it on an album or play it on earlier tours, waiting nearly a decade to do so.)

So. A few years later, sometime in the early mid-90s, I shelled out the twenty or so bucks for the “Fade Away” single, just so I could hear the original version of “Be True.” And I was amazed. The energy was off the charts. I couldn’t believe how much faster it was—somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 BPM faster. The result, however, while exciting, is that the song feels somewhat lightweight, with Max’s drums skittering rather than pounding, and Roy’s piano sounding like Schroeder’s toy. I love the record. But, frankly, despite his modern confusion over the issue, Springsteen was right to choose “Crush On You” over the original “Be True.” (Confession: I’m an unapologetic “Crush On You” apologist.)

One of the original recording’s most interesting features is how, in retrospect, very punk it is. The River's debt to rockabilly is often noted, but I think its allegiance with punk has always been unjustly overlooked. The River and “Be True” were recorded at almost exactly the same time the Clash—big Springsteen fans and vice-versa—was recording London Calling, and except for its lack of low-end, they share a certain energy. Which helps remind a perhaps incredulous modern audience that Springsteen, that most classic rock American rocker, was considered something of a punk at the time, friends and admirers of the Clash, the Ramones and Suicide—fans of early rock and roll as at least the first two bands were. It’s a refreshing reminder and helps limn the rest of recordings from that era in a slightly different light.

I’m one of the rare hardcore Bruce Springsteen fans who doesn’t subscribe to the notion that the songs always sound better in concert, that that’s where they only truly come to life, and that you need to see Springsteen live to really get him. I love Springsteen live. I love seeing him in concert and I love listening to live recordings, of which I have over…well, at least three times as many as someone sane would have. But I’ve just never bought into the belief that he’s always better live. He’s sometimes better live, often better, maybe even usually. But not always. And I have to believe Springsteen himself agrees, otherwise, he’d release more live recordings, or even go the Running on Empty/Big World route and record his new material in front of live audiences. But “Be True”? “Be True” is one instance where it’s absolutely true—the live version is markedly superior to the original studio recording.

It’s a great song. And the original is a wonderful recording. I love it. But it’s not a great record. I love it. But Springsteen was right to leave it off The River, as it didn’t fit sonically or thematically. But, damn, am I glad he did release it on its own and as part of Tracks.


The original post can be found here, along with the other amazing posts that week. And while you're there, check out their other weeks, featuring so many great pieces on so many great artists.

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