Thursday, October 17, 2013

Janey, Don't You Lose Heart

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 "Janey, Don't You Lose Heart."


Few rock major rock stars have been as prolific as Bruce Springsteen; Steven Van Zandt has said Springsteen always has at least a half an album of unreleased songs ready to go. And during the recording of Born in the U.S.A. Springsteen was prolific even by his standards, with stories of him coming in every day with two or three new songs they’d cut and then never play again; at least 70 songs were recorded for the 12-track LP and maybe more. And that’s just one damn album. The fact that there were apparently 300 songs under consideration for the Tracks boxset, the vast majority of them unreleased, lends credence to these tales even as it boggles the mind.

Springsteen has said that these songs provide a sort of alternate map, a road-not-taken, what-might-have-been view towards his catalog. Many of the songs were omitted from albums not because they were in any way lacking in quality, but simply because they didn’t fit the larger theme in some way, lyrically or sonically or atmospherically.

Which brings us to “Janey, Don’t You Lose Heart.” The b-side to “I’m Goin’ Down,” the sixth single released off Born in the U.S.A., “Janey” is perhaps the most unabashedly direct love song Springsteen had yet released.

The lyrics begin with an odd and arresting image:
You got your book baby with all your fears
Let me, honey, and I’ll catch your tears
I’ll take your sorrow if you want me to
Come tomorrow that’s what I’ll do
Listen to me
Janey don’t you lose heart
Janey don’t you lose heart
Janey don’t you lose heart
Janey don’t you lose heart
The opening verse could have come across as a simple pick-up line, or as a man trying to appear heroic as he Prince Charmings to the damsel in distress’s rescue. But the chorus changes that. Yes, he’s offering to catch her tears, a romantic if not overly useful gesture. But he’s not offering to solve her problems. He’s offering to help her…but mainly he’s encouraging her own efforts and offering her emotional support. The fact that he’s focused on such an abstract concept as her fears leads more depth to the lyric. He doesn’t see her crying over a broken heart; he sees her destabilized by her own insecurities. Not the average song topic from a male rocker in the 80s—and that the song seems to be about a woman who has a string of one-night-stands, and the male singer passes no judgment is also (sadly) noteworthy.

The second verse amplifies this:
Well you say you got no new dreams to touch
You feel like a stranger babe who knows too much
Well you come home late and get undressed
You lie in bed, feel this emptiness
Well listen to me
Here Springsteen sings about a woman getting undressed and into bed and yet somehow manages to make it not the least bit sexual or creepy but instead entirely relatable—who hasn’t had those kind of days, where they just want to crawl into bed, hoping against hope for some respite from that hollowness inside?

The final verse turns from the intensely personal towards the kind of imagery he’d rarely used post-Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ, albeit in a much less verbose manner, and with a “God Only Knows” backhanded approach:
'Til every river runs dry
Until the sun honey’s torn from the sky
‘Til every fear you’ve felt burst free
And gone tumblin’ down into the sea
Listen to me
Janey don’t you lose heart
I’ll tell you, a guy says that to me in my darkest hour? I might just consider switching teams.

As with most of even his seemingly simple songs, there’s usually more going on beneath the surface than is immediately noticeable to those who’ve been conditioned to view Springsteen as a pumped-up heartfelt arena rocker. (Which isn’t to say that’s not part of his persona.) I remember Springsteen being criticized at the time for his use of the familiars “baby” and “honey” and “girl” and so on. Even the fact that he used Janey, the diminutive form of the name, could be viewed in this light. (Or course, you’d have to then ignore the many male names—Billy, Bobby, Charlie, etc—he used in similar fashion.)

But Springsteen’s women, unlike most of those of most other artists of his stature, are neither perfection upon a pedestal nor simply vessels for male satisfaction. They are imperfect characters but treated with and deserving of respect, reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130. Janey, as with so many of the females (and males) in Springsteen songs, has been beaten down and is on the verge of losing faith. But she hasn’t yet. She’s obviously still fighting, or the singer wouldn’t be imploring her to stay strong.

Musically, “Janey” is one of the most immediately catchy songs Springsteen ever released. Sure, it’s bathed in those cheesy 80s synths that make this era so hard for many to take seriously (although I don’t think they’ve aged nearly as badly as their reputation would suggest—I think they’ve aged, sure, but it’s more that it’s cool to show your disdain for those sounds now…some of which are pretty deserving of disdain, admittedly), and it’s got a trademark Clarence Clemons sax solo, as well as a trademark Springsteen one-line repeated chorus. But “Janey” is unusual in that it starts not the expected tonic chord (an E, since the song’s in the key of E), but instead the subdominant chord, so the song begins with an already slightly unsettled, searching feel. This same subdominant chord is also the most frequent chord in the fadeout, again, leaving the song in an unresolved state, and the listener with an ever so vague sense of disquiet.

There’s also that one last final solo vocal of Nils Lofgren’s that I’ve never been able to figure out. I could argue it’s showing a sense of community or something like that but, really, I just think it’s weird. But cool. Nils Lofgren’s E Street Band studio debut FTW!

"Janey," more than just about any other officially released song from the Born in the U.S.A. era reinforces what “Blinded by the Light,” “Because the Night” and “Fire,” should have—but didn’t—make obvious previously, which is that if he had wanted to, Springsteen could have been a writer of pop songs along the lines of Bacharach and David, Goffin and King, Mann and Weil and so on. His melodic gifts are often overlooked, but then that’s largely due to his own decisions—after all, he’s the one who decided to discard “Fire” and “Because the Night” and “Janey, Don’t You Lose Heart.” (Springsteen later showed his mastery of melody in spades on Working on a Dream…but unfortunately at the seemingly unnecessary expense of lyrical depth). “Janey” is melodically reminiscent of, and could have stood proudly alongside, such 1960s gems as “Walk Away Renee,” “When You Walk in the Room,” “Look Through Any Window,” etc, and reminds us that as much as he was a fan of the Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks, Dylan, CCR, etc, it was the wonderland that was pop radio at large in the 1960s that was his main influence.

It’s not surprising Springsteen left this off Born in the U.S.A., as there’s nothing else remotely like it on the LP. But it’s also not entirely surprising that he recognized it was a great enough song to be deserving of an official release, and not just stuck in the vault for a few decades. For most other good artists, ”Janey, Don’t You Lose Heart” would have been a highlight of their career. For Springsteen, it was just good enough to make the b-side of the album’s sixth (sixth!) single. That’s one hell of a plethora of riches.

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.

1 comment:

  1. For those searching for the word to describe the quality of Scott's effort here, please allow me to offer one: Perfect.

    Nicely done, pardner.