Wednesday, November 4, 2009
For Boss fans only: A Springsteen career retrospective
While many other writers are triumphantly engaged in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), in which they try to in 30 days write 50,000-word novels, I will write about what it’s like to listen to 318 consecutive Bruce Springsteen songs in chronological order over 23.5 hours.
I’m not like other writers.
And Springsteen, 60, is not like other artists.
He’s in the midst of an historic run of shows that will play to more than two million fans. What’s stirring a lot of fan interest is how he’s including entire albums in each concert. So fans in Philly one night may see a set that includes “Born to Run,” while fans the next night might hear “Darkness on the Edge of Town.”
It got me to thinking which album of his I’d most like to hear. So last month I decided I was going to listen to every Springsteen song in order.
It was so much fun I might do it every six months.
He’s that interesting. Even when he sucks -- and suck he does -- it’s still a worthy effort.
So for hardcore Springsteen fans, and I know you’re out there, here’s a career critique from a fan who’s been there since near the beginning. Feel free to scan or skip.
And if this winds up being, gadzooks, in excess of 50,000 words (and it might), I’m going to slap a title on it, call it a novel and try submitting it to some beleaguered agent for publication.
• Greetings from Asbury Park, 1972 -- His first words on his first album are gibberish: “Madman, bummers, drummers and Indians in the summer with a teenage diplomat . . .” But it has a catchiness that pays off with the euphoric touchstone line about Mama telling him never to look straight into the sights of the sun, “Whoa! But, mama, that’s where the fun is!” Even better is the defiance of “Growing Up” and the shocked menace of “Lost in the Flood.” It’s surprising what a nifty little roadmap to his career this 9-song, 37-minute album hints at. It has the highs -- some of these songs (“Growing Up,” “Blinded by the Light” and “For You”) are still concert staples. And there are the puzzling lows (“Mary Queen of Arkansas,” “The Angel”) that leave fans scratching their heads. I’d like to listen to this with the now 60-year-old Springsteen and hear what he thinks of what the 22-year-old kid did. I think he’d like it. He should.
• The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, 1973 -- He’s playing this in its entirely at Madison Square Garden on Saturday. I’d give a limb to be there. When fans talk about his greatest albums, this one’s rarely mentioned. It should be. It starts out with the now solidified E Street Band braying like stallions eager to bust out of the corral. From there it’s an almost Sgt. Pepper like performance of exuberance. It may be a sacrilege to legions of frat boy fans, but the least interesting song of the bunch might be concert staple “Rosalita.” And it’s a meaty bunch. The shortest song, the title cut is 4:31 with “New York City Serenade” clocking in at 9:36. It’s such a rich, jazzy joy. The best here are “Incident on 57th Street” and the aforementioned “NYC Serenade.”
• Born to Run, 1975 -- I keep needing to be reminded that “Born to Run” precedes “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” As great as they are, there is nothing in either of the two previous albums to suggest that this glorious sort of crescendo would happen so quickly. It would be like the Rolling Stones releasing, “Between the Buttons” and “Out of Our Heads,” then -- Boom! -- “Sticky Fingers.” “Born to Run” is one of the greatest albums ever recorded. “Thunder Road” plays like an opera and even the lesser tracks (“Night,” “Meeting Across the River”) are gems. The masterpieces (“Backstreets,” “Jungleland”) are legendary. The title cut never feels old. It’s still as fresh and remarkable as the first time we heard it. They could have all quit after this. Bruce could have gone all bald and paunchy and none of it would have mattered. These eight songs ensured immortality. The album ends with the audacious crescendo of “Jungleland.” Springsteen knew he’d made a masterpiece and he punctuated it thusly.
• Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978 -- I was flattered to be asked to contribute a blurb to a “The Light in Darkness,” the fine new book commemorating the release of this album. Here’s what I wrote:
“Listening to “Darkness on the Edge of Town” for the first time in 1978 did more to accelerate my 15-year-old adolescence than any human biological factors. Like Bob Dylan once said about the first time he heard Elvis, this record “felt like busting out of jail.”
The songs had a tethered fury, a striving that made me want to run away to an adult world where I wasn’t even sure I could survive. But it was a promised land I knew anyone with a spark of spirit or adventure was destined to enter and have his character forged. There would be dangers, illicit pleasures, cowards and heroes and these songs made me want to test myself to see where I’d land.
How so many songs of grim despair can still sound like triumph is a puzzle I’ve yet to unravel.
The same songs that had me wishing as a boy I was older, today, more than 30 years later, make me feel forever young.”
My favorites? “Racing in the Streets” and “The Promised Land.”
• The River, 1980 -- Bruce and the band find their groove here and cling to it a bit to tightly. “Ramrod,” “Cadillac Ranch,” “You Can Look . . .,” “Crush on You”) all, despite their fury, are a bit redundant. They come across as caveman stomps and concert fillers that do little to move the ball up the field. The hit single, “Hungry Heart,” is joyful, and happy romp that features lyrics about the sin of a man who abandons his family, an odd pairing. He for the first time indulges a country bent on songs like “Wreck on the Highway” that he’ll thread throughout his career, much to the consternation of fans who want his music to cling to the Jersey beaches and highways. The best songs here are “Sherry Darling,” the title cut and the sublime and mesmerizing, “Point Blank.” This 20-song collection also marks the last time he engages audiences with a long form song, the 8:33 and somewhat forgettable “Drive All Night.” It is the last time he includes a real stretcher until the ill-conceived “Outlaw Pete” from earlier this year. This has always been one of my favorites, but it doesn’t hold up as well as I thought it would.
• Nebraska, 1982 -- He misses in his effort to channel Woodie Guthrie, but winds up nailing Johnny Cash. Still, this isn’t the Bruce any of us pay to see. Conversely, the title song, “Johnny 99” and “Seeds” a B-side from the same sessions have really stood up in concert over the years. But the unwelcome coyote howl of “State Trooper” had us wishing for the old Bruce. We were about to get him in spades.
• Born in the U.S.A., 1984 -- Even then, perhaps in reaction to the subdued reception of “Nebraska,” this seemed like it was Springsteen’s attempt to be gargantuan. Here he makes writing gigantic and enduring hit singles seem effortless. “Glory Days,” “I’m Going Down,” and the title song remain fan favorites. But I’d love to hear the decision-making process and band input about why they included “Dancing in the Dark,” to this day the worst Springsteen single ever released. The song’s an oddball on this album -- on any non 90’s album, really -- and a betrayal of any fan who caught the E Street fever with “Born to Run.” The colossus is “Born in the U.S.A.” It’s a great song dulled by now a bit by repetition. With a lesser artist, this often misunderstood song could have become his “Achy-Breaky Heart,” his defining song. Not Springsteen. But he proved here how commercial he could be. So, congratulations, you’re gargantuan. Let’s move on.
• Live Box Set, 1986 -- This massive nearly four-hour three-disc set loses some coherence in that it spans 12 years and the venues run from clubs to stadiums. I love “Fire,” a Springsteen song made famous by, yikes, the Pointer Sisters. The oddly subdued “Thunder Road” kicks off the bunch that goes on to include all the usual suspects. “Growing Up” live shows why it is the ultimate Springsteen concert experience, and hearing the moving soliloquy preceding “The River” remains among the most moving experiences in rock listening. The collection is best as an archive, rather than a true concert experience. Best left in the time capsule for long stretches.
• Tunnel of Love, 1987 -- His second curveball to fans in five years, but this one dazzles. It remains among the top two or three of Springsteen “solo” experiences. It has a snappy start with “Ain’t Got You” and leads into a string of country-tinged songs that tasteful Nashville artists are still covering. “Spare Parts” is a haunting rocker -- I’d take this over a couple dozen songs like “Ramrod.” “Brilliant Disguise” and the title song are great evocative numbers, but the gem here is “One Step Up.” A musical and lyrical waltz, it’s so beautiful it shimmers.
• Human Touch/Lucky Town, 1992 -- I’ve argued that Tom Petty is a better song writer than Bruce Springsteen because Petty’s had one really bad song (“A Wasted Life” from 1982’s “Long After Dark”) while Springsteen’s had one really bad decade. It was the 1990s and this simultaneously released pair starts all the stinkin’. This is the best he could do after seven years on the sidelines? They’re terrible. What was he thinking? Were Clarence, Little Steven and the rest of the E Streeters busy? These two include 24 songs with 16 throw aways. The title songs are good, as are “Cross My Heart,” “I Wish I Were Blind” and the lovely “If I Should Fall Behind," but the rest is dreck.
• In Concert MTV, 1993 -- A county fair bingo-playing chicken could have selected a better set list. After being away for so long, he’s really trying to shove the new stuff down our throats. It says something about the goodwill he’d earned that this period didn’t cause legions of fans to desert him for good. Best here is a surprise ass-kicking version of “Light of Day.” The rest sound like they were performed by a Bruce Springsteen tribute band at some highway Holiday Inn.
• Greatest Hits, 1995 -- Normally, I’d be infuriated by a greatest hits album arriving amidst the creative desert through which he’d been leading us. But here he includes four unreleased, unheard songs, three of which instantly earned “greatest” status. They are “Murder Incorporated,” “Blood Brothers,” and the epic “This Hard Land,” a song I’d include among his best ever.
• The Ghost of Tom Joad, 1995 -- It would be really cool to be sitting in Springsteen’s basement and hear him play these songs for just you and maybe four of your friends. Instead, it was another major release that demanded fans shell out the bucks just to see what he was up to. It’s another sleep walk that lacks any mystique. There are no best songs. No standouts. No compelling tales behind the bleak music. No pulse. This is his worst.
• Tracks, 1998 -- After the long hard slog of the ‘90s, this seems like a bit of a valedictory, a reminder of why he’s so indelible to our musical DNA. Early gems include “Thundercrack,” “Santa Ana,” and “Zero & Blind Terry.” How songs this stellar went unreleased for so long is a mystery. It includes some great B-sides like “Be True,” and “Wanna Be With You,” and the ragged beauty of “Hearts of Stone.” “The Wish” is so lovely it always makes me smile and feel like coming home. It becomes less and less interesting as it meanders into, yep, the 90s with keyboard-driven songs like “Janey Don’t You Lose Heart” and “Sad Eyes.” Still, a great way to enjoy this is put all four discs on random and have a party. It’s like walking into a friendly bar with a really great juke box.
• 18 Tracks/Chimes of Freedom, 1999 and 2000 -- Two lesser collections, mostly rehashes. Chimes includes a great live version of “Be True” and the Dylan song that rings with a righteousness the way the title hints it ought to.
• The Rising, 2002 -- This was a disappointment to me when it came out because I believed it was destined to seem like the product of a time capsule that would not resonate within 10 years. Listening to it nearly 10 years later and I see I was wrong. It sounds like a great rock album. Released in response to 9/11, songs like “You’re Missing,” “Waiting on a Sunny Day” and “Into the Fire” still stir a raw visceral feeling in my gut. But if I were an 18-year-old kid just getting into The Boss and unaware of its poignant inspirations, I think I’d love this album. Tragedy is laced into the lyrics, but many of them could today seem to apply to a busted romance as much as a national tragedy. Plus, perhaps out of a sense of national obligation, this album marked the first time Springsteen’d reunited with The E Street Band in 18 confounding years. It was such a tough time for the country and having them back together making music was more comforting to me than all the tough “Dead or Alive” talk coming out of the White House.
• The Essential Bruce Springsteen, 2003 -- That’s a pretty audacious title for someone with a backlog as deep as Springsteen. But it’s appropriate if for no other reason than one stunning song: “American Skin (41 Shots).” Originally included on a live album (one I didn’t purchase out of “live” fatigue), this raw song examines the true life/death story of West African immigrant Amadou Diallo who was gunned down by New York police in a tragic misunderstanding. The police were furious with Springsteen for his contention “that you can get killed just for living in your American skin.” The mother’s lament to her son that he understand the need to be polite, never run, and will keep his hands in sight is devastating. It’s hard to listen to this without a hanky handy. The haunting refrain “41 Shots” is repeated 41 times throughout the song.
• Devils & Dust, 2005 -- Like the sublime “Tunnel of Love,” he again figures out how to do minimal with muscle. This is a lushly produced collection with all the bells ‘n’ whistles, not to mention the cellos, fiddles and trumpets. The title song’s great as is the lovely guitar/organ interplay on “Maria’s Bed.” But as “solo” projects go, this one’s just a warm up to the joy that was to come just 12 months later.
• We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, 2006 -- Just watching the video of “Jacob’s Ladder” made me want to drop everything I’ve been doing these past few decades and go out and learn how to play a tuba. I showed it to my young daughters and said, “This is why you want to play music in a band.” It is utterly joyful, as is the rest of this landmark album. Amazingly, this slapdash collection of bar tunes is among his very best. It’s the one to play at parties. It’s one of our greatest American musicians leading a band in some of our best American songs. Like the companion DVD done live in Dublin, he’s done something here that is completely separate and distinctly Springsteen. It’s so rich, so celtic, yet so utterly American.
• Magic, 2007 -- This kicks off with a quartet of songs with a Jersey vibe that feels more like home than any Springsteen album since “The River.” After so many detours, this is a welcome band effort and reaffirmation of what drew us to Springsteen in the first place. On the surface, it all feels like good scrappy fun. The happy music, again, decoys lyrics that show how fearful he is for America that’s engaged in a misguided war being fought under a man for whom he cannot conceal his contempt. Mixed in with darkly critical songs like “Living in the Future” and “Your Own Worst Enemy,” are happy ditties like “I’ll Work for Your Love” and “Girls In Their Summer Clothes” -- and I just love the latter. It’s pure sunny magic.
• Working On A Dream, 2009 -- If the 20-something Bruce Springsteen knew the 50-something Bruce Springsteen was going to write something as awful and hokey as “Outlaw Pete” in 2008, he’d have killed himself to spare his legacy the shame. At 8:01, it’s the longest song he’s released in 20 years and one of his worst. But what do I know? I enjoy the equally hokey, “Queen of the Supermarket.” The title song has a euphoric joy he clearly felt at the outcome of the 2008 presidential election. There’s a string of happy and optimistic songs led by “This Life,” “Kingdom of Days” and “Surprise, Surprise,” -- and wouldn’t it be fun to hear Gomer Pyle sing that one? The best news about this collection, his fourth in five years, proves he’s riding a creative crest that doesn’t look like it’ll be soon spent. This is his fourth album in five years and they’re all keepers.
• Wrecking Ball, 2009 -- A surprise gem that has me hungering for Boss v. 2010. He’s singing about the demolition of Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands, but it’s clear to me he’s also singing about himself.
“I was raised out of steel here in the swamps of Jersey, some misty years ago
Through the mud and the beer and the blood and the cheers, I’ve seen champions come and go
So if you’ve got the guts, Mister, yeah, if you got the balls, if you think it’s your time then step to the line and bring on yer wrecking ball!
Bring on yer wrecking ball! Come on and take your best shot, let me see what you got and bring on yer wrecking ball!
America’s been through some difficult times. So has Bruce and his music. But with this song, America’s most articulate musical chronicler shows he’s not going down without a fight.
With him leading the way and back on track, neither will the rest of us.
So, there. That’s about 3,100 words to kick off my NaNoWriMo. Only 46,900 to go!