Tuesday, March 20, 2012

On matters Springsteen

In the two weeks since the release of “Wrecking Ball,” the new Bruce Springsteen album, it’s become a pastime of mine to hear what the people who hate it have to say.

And hate it some people do. I don’t think they hate it so much as they hate that so many people like me think it’s really great.

That’s what infuriates them. I understand this emotion. I used to get furious when something I didn’t like became wildly popular. But I learned long ago there was nothing I could do about tastes that differ from mine and I’d be forced to get along in a world that includes things like Madonna, the Dallas Cowboys and fundamentalist Christians.

The hatred of “Wrecking Ball” would be understandable if it was emanating exclusively from gluttonous bankers.

Bankers, Wall Street fat-cats and people who put “Mitt is It!” bumper stickers on their Escalades come in for melodic tongue-lashings in stand-out songs like “Jack of All Trades,” “Easy Money,” and “Shackled and Drawn.”

Springsteen hints they are evil, lacking souls and responsible for national desolation and it’s understandable their feelings are being hurt.

The poor dears.

I’m among the 99 percent who feel better hearing someone bash the crap out of the one percent, particularly when it’s set to a really tuneful beat.

What surprises me is to discover many of the people who hate the album aren’t bankers, mothers of bankers or banker trophy wives.

No, they are hardcore Springsteen fans.

I know this because I listen to E Street Radio on Sirius XM satellite radio. It’s where people debate Springsteen lyrics the way papal scholars ponder things like Dead Sea Scrolls.

Every word, every nuance is deciphered and placed in grand context.

It’s a place where the truest of the true fans congregate. I’m guessing about 20 percent of them, presumably all Republicans, call and say it’s wrong for Springsteen to weigh in so heavily on political matters. They don’t like that one of America’s greatest and most popular artists is taking political sides opposite of theirs.

How can this guy, one of the wealthiest men in America, write songs bashing people for being wealthy, goes one common complaint.

It’s strange to me because I never hear anyone complain when Mick Jagger sings a song about a night when he’s having trouble getting laid.

Well, let me explain how one of our wealthiest artists can write songs that resonate with people who are poor or resent the disparity of wealth so evident in America.

It’s called empathy. It’s an artistic gift with which he was born.

I hear songs on “Wrecking Ball” and believe he understands what it’s like to be poor, forlorn and ticked off that so few have so much.

Springsteen is one of those musicians who would still be singing songs about injustice if he was doing it on street corners. Becoming rich was just a by-product of doing what he was bound to do.

And I’d rather him write songs trying to relate to my life than write songs that would make me hate him for his.

Because he could write a song about his millions and how Obama takes his calls and name it “Thurston Howell III Blues,” but it would feel less authentic than the ones about how it hurts him to see people struggling when he knows we can do better.

Less authentic even than criticizing one of our greatest performers for being political.

One of the features of E Street Radio is it allows any listener the opportunity to be guest DJ. You could say it’s very Democratic!

It’s a tricky endeavor for those selected because the picks have to be idiosyncratic enough for hardcore fans, yet appealing enough to resonate with casual listeners. You look lame if you pick pick “Dancing in the Dark,” “Badlands,” “Born to Run” and other greatest hits.

So here are my l0 essential Springsteen songs I’ll play if I’m ever picked to be guest DJ:

• “Blinded By The Light,” 1972 -- The first song on his first album. This still exudes the jaunty joy that have made him so indelible for 40 years. What a great first impression. "Mama told me not to look into the sights of the sun . . . Whoa! But mama! That's where the fun is!"

• “Spare Parts,” 1987 -- The emotions his songs evoke range from euphoric to rage, but the ones that ring loudest with me, as you'll see, are the ones that celebrate perseverance. I like it when he stacks the deck against people like godforsaken Janey and has her raise her middle finger against fate and just keep on fighting.

• “I Wanna Be With You,” 1998 -- This is one of those joyous rarities from the “Tracks” compilation that casual fans have to hear. What’s remarkable about Springsteen is how many truly great songs of his just fell straight through the cracks. He’d be one of our greatest artists if he’d only released the songs he never released.

• “This Hard Land,” 1995 -- This one earned inclusion on his greatest hits package before most of America had even heard its opening harmonica toots. Even bald guys can feel the wind rushing through their hair when they crank this one up. To me, it’s right up there with “America the Beautiful” as far evoking marrow-stirring feelings about our mutual love for America.

• “Incident on 57th Street,” 1973 -- The E Street Band sounds so lavish and the storytelling so luxurious this one feels like a trip to one of the classier opium dens from days of yore. I don’t know how people who like to get high can listen to this one without getting high.

• “Part Man/Part Monkey,” 1998 -- Another rarity from the often uneven “Tracks.” It has a reggae jungle rhythm and tells the story of the Scopes Monkey Trail, coming down squarely on the side evolution. Fear not, it’s not about politics. It’s about hormones.

• “Point Blank,” 1981 -- It always surprises me when this one’s never included on everyone’s guest DJ list. It’s noir and always makes me think it’s Humphrey Bogart on the dance floor who ends up with blood all over him.

• “American Skin (41 Shots)” 2003 -- Not just Springsteen’s most powerful song. Maybe the most powerful song ever written. It’s about the shooting of an unarmed young black man who was killed because he looked suspicious. Starting to sound familiar? I can’t listen to this one in front of my daughters because I don’t want them to see the old man cry.

• “One Step Up,” 1987 -- Betrayal, lust and infidelity set to a waltz disguised as humble human frailty.

• “Wrecking Ball,” 2012 -- Written to memorialize the demolition of the old Giants Stadium, he’s also singing about his aging self. “Rocky Ground,” “Land of Hope and Dreams,” I’m not even sure the title cut is my favorite song on the new album, but it has so much anthemic euphoria it must be offered on my guest DJ list.


Anonymous said...

You are so right! The incessant babble from the minority of Sirius callers includes a fair share of people whose idea of Bruce Springsteen is limited to "Glory Days", "Dancing in the Dark" and "Hungry Heart."

Springsteen has always been political but in recent albums has become more overt. Probably because the times of the day require artists--who aren't spending all their time tending to their "brand--to be more political.

Try to think of our impression of The Great Depression without Woddie Guthrie. Now try to imagine how our grandchildren will someday think of today through the lense of Wrecking Ball and the Springsteen legacy. They will and to do so will be just and accurate.

This latest album is THAT powerful, attuned to the times and expressive of our collective sadness and rage that--save for a few bursts here and there--channels sentiments that are so common for so many. If "Death to my Hometowm" promotes too much unease among some listeners so be it. That's a pitifully small price to pay for a grand and accurate artistic summary of what has come down.

Anonymous said...

You need to pare down the list to five songs I think and certainly would have to include the one song that summarizes all things Springsteen--"Prove it All Night."

Another fun version of this game is to pick five songs likely to create gastric distress in certain Western Pennsylvania bloggers. For that audience mine would be:

1. Outlaw Pete. How can you not like hair braided with buckskin?

2. I Wish I Were Blind. Or perhaps on certain songs hearing-impaired.

3. Hungry Heart. Never understood the allure of Baltimore in the first place.

4. Pony Boy. Was training to oneday help Outlaw Pete.

5. Reno. A Bruce character reliving his personal pornography--greatly advances expression in Western Art.

Enjoy the set--and be near a bathroom when listening.

Chris Rodell said...

I was hoping to hear from you, Jawny. In fact, your recent comment about worthiest songs for different categories was an inspiration for this, as was the great new album, of course.

I've enjoyed the recent albums, but this blows them clear out of the water, musically and lyrically. And your Woodie Guthrie comment is spot on.

I'm really loving, "Land of Hope and Dreams." I've heard it live before and it just seemed to meander. The studio version soars. And it's a party album. Simply brilliant.

Chris Rodell said...

Three of your songs are right on the money: "Outlaw Pete," "Pony Boy," and "Reno."

"Hungry Heart" is a great song about a deadbeat dad, some of the most misunderstood lyrics of any of his songs.

But I do love "Wish I Were Blind." Very melodic.