Friday, July 08, 2005

In Defense of Bruce

It seems to me that folks in my generation regard Bruce Springsteen with a certain amount of scorn. "Sure, he used to be great and all that, but he became all rock star-ish and washed up, so why bother with him at all?" Why bother? Okay, if you're not going to bother with Bruce, then why bother with Bob, Joni, Neil, Mick 'n Kief, Van, or John Paul George and Ringo? With the exception of Joni and John, each of these artists has reached lower points in their music than Bruce ever has. Sure, I remember Human Touch and Lucky Town. I might be one of the five people in the world who does. But do you remember Self Portrait, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, Everybody's Rockin', Dirty Work, and Too Long in Exile? My point is that Bruce may have been boring at various points in his career (see his latest album, Devils and Dust, although it serves as one of his "somber storyteller" album, with Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad serving as much better precedents), but he has never released an album so bafflingly horrid as those mentioned above.
More importantly, Bruce has never told us anything but the naked truth. His unswerving refusal to allow irony to creep into his music, no matter what the flavor of the moment is (and he has survived some of the most ironic music of all time: disco, new wave, and 90's indie rock to name a few), makes him one of the few artists to rage against the machine and come out with his integrity intact. As a matter of fact, we could learn a lot from how Bruce has conducted himself throughout his career. So here are a few life lessons that I have learned from Bruce and his music. Enjoy!

1. Let them know you mean business.

Bruce released his first two albums within nine months of each other. Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ, released in the first days of January 1973, hit rock critics with a blast of pure rock 'n roll that inspired nearly universal praise. Then, on September 11, 1973, he released The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, not only one of his best but one of the best rock albums of all time. Again, the critics raved. Bruce was becoming The Boss and the critics were noticing.

2. Timing is everything.

Unfortunately, the critics were the only ones who noticed those first two albums. For some reason they just didn't hit with the public. Bruce kept touring, though, and pretty soon the rock critics started clamoring so loudly that somebody finally took notice. Actually, two somebodies: Time and Newsweek. The whole thing started when rock critic Jon Landau gushed, "I saw rock and roll future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen." Taken in context the quote is less cheesy and more thoughtful, but Time and Newsweek didn't care about all that nonsense; they smelled a big story! And so, on October 27, 1975, Bruce's mug appeared on the covers of the two biggest newsweeklies in the United States. There was no way Born to Run could not be huge.

3. Always keep creative control over your output and potential.

So before Born to Run hit, Bruce made a little mistake. He let Manfred Mann's Earth Band cover "Blinded by the Light," one of the best songs from his debut album. And it sucked. Oh dear God, did it ever suck! The original is a Dylan-esque musing on summer, adolescence, and girls. Typical Springsteen poetry. Once Manfred Mann got hold of it, however, it became something else entirely. Not only did the song resemble disco more than a little bit, it changed the lyric "cut loose like a deuce" to "wrapped up like a douche" and was thereafter known as "that douche song." For shame, Manfred Mann!
The second part of this lesson was a little bit harder on Bruce. Between Born to Run and his next album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Jon Landau (of "I saw rock and roll future" fame) became Bruce's new manager and producer. His old manager, Mike Appel, didn't like being cut out of the picture right when Bruce was becoming a major star and kept him tied up in legal battles for nearly two years. Bruce could not legally record anything during this time, although he did write one of his best songs, Because the Night, and gave it to Patti Smith to record. By the time it all got sorted out, the swell of popularity that resulted from Born to Run had abated and Bruce had learned a hard lesson.
I can't let this one go without saying, however, that this legal battle may have been the best thing that ever happened to Bruce. Judging by his rapid-fire output during his first year of recording, he might have been tempted to put out Born to Run Part II as quickly as he could to capitalize on his success. Instead, he had some little pissant pestering him for two years, and nothing brings out the creative vitriol better than some asshole trying to take what's yours. Darkness on the Edge of Town is a harrowing glimpse into Bruce's soul and, in my opinion, his most realized and realistic album. He poured into it every embattled emotion from three years of frustration and anger. Or maybe he just saw Reagan coming a mile away.

4. If you're feeling lost, bring it down to the bare essentials.

After Darkness on the Edge of Town, Bruce released The River, an uneven yet modestly successful double album. It contained his first hit single, Hungry Heart, and poised him once again on the brink of superstardom. Judging by the songs, however, Bruce didn't really know where he was as a songwriter. Half of the songs on The River are Bruce at his best and half of them are Bruce trying to be Bruce. I'm sure some of that had to do with the awful production (Bruce's voice is way back in the mix, and say what you want about him overdoing it sometimes, the guy can get some emotion across with those pipes, plus everything has too much echo, but hey that's just one guy's opinion), but he also seems unsure of where to go next. And when that happens, you go back to the source.
Nebraska is Bruce and a guitar, and it is fucking glorious. It's how every starry-eyed soul begin, just you and a guitar. The essentials. Done perfectly. And the songs. Oh the songs. I can't even write about it properly. Just listen to it on your next road trip. You're welcome in advance.

5. If you're gonna keep doing the same thing, do it LOUD!!!

Okay, I'll say it. Born in the U.S.A. was a great rock 'n roll swindle. Bruce took a few songs from Nebraska and added organs to them, took a few songs from The River and brought his voice up in the mix, took a few songs from Born to Run and replaced the keyboards with a second guitar, took a few songs from The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle and broadened the chords, and took a few songs from Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ and added synth and backing vocals. It was the same thing he'd always done with a bit of spit and polish. It spawned seven Top 10 hits. Oh, and it sounded great loud. Just go back and listen to it. Put the headphones on. Crank it up to 10. And tell me you don't get a bit misty when those first chords come in.

6. Life is art. Art is life.

What do you do when you're the biggest rock star on the planet? If you're Bruce Springsteen, you make an album about the messy dissolution of your marriage. Tunnel of Love may have been the last thing that the millions of people who had bought Born in the U.S.A. were expecting, but by God they knew when they heard it that they were getting unadulterated Bruce. The album plays like he's sitting down with you over a beer and pouring his heart out: about how marriage is so much harder than he thought it would be, about how he thinks about other women all the time, about how he suspects that his wife is cheating on him, about how he just wants everything to go back to the way it was when they were first married, about how scared he is that he'll lose her. It's one of the greatest breakup albums of all time, right up there with Ryan Adams' Heartbreaker, Chris Isaak's Forever Blue, and Dylan's Blood on the Tracks. Okay, nothing is as good as Blood on the Tracks, but it comes damn close!

7. You're never as good as you are with your friends.

Springsteen gave the E Street Band its walking papers after Tunnel of Love. Nobody really knows why. I guess maybe he just didn't see his new material as something that he should work with them on. Probably because his new material sucked ass.
With Human Touch and Lucky Town (go back up to the top of the post if you want the links), Bruce joined a less than illustrious tradition of artists releasing two separate albums simultaneously. That tradition consisted solely of Guns N' Roses releasing the Use Your Illusion albums the previous year. (If I ever get the motivation I will explain on these blog pages why those albums are unrecognized masterpieces.) More recently Nelly has done the same thing.
I don't know if it got Nelly to stop sucking, but it sure as hell got Bruce to start sucking. I maintain that it was because he ditched the E Street Band. Consider that he had been with these guys for his whole career up to this point (with a few minor tweaks). He had Nils Lofgren on guitar. The guy who brought the Born in the U.S.A. album to life. He had Max Weinberg on drums. Okay, Max Weinberg sucks, but whatever. But then he had Clarence Clemons on sax. If you're a skinny white kid from Jersey and you get a large black man to play sax in your band, you hang on to that dude no matter how big of a star you become.
Bottom line is, these were a bunch of guys from around the way who had helped Bruce get to where he was. I don't know if he was a dick about it or not, but the move to let them go baffles me. And he showed what a bad move it was with those albums.

8. Give your talent to something bigger than yourself and you will become more than you thought you could.

"Streets of Philadelphia" was one in a series of one-offs that Bruce did throughout his career (see Because the Night and Light of Day), but everyone knew it was more than that. It was the extra push needed to push a film about AIDS into the national spotlight and bring an epidemic into sharp focus for a populace being fed half-truths by people too lazy and/or afraid to dig deeper into the issue. And he got a buttload of Grammys for it.
And then there was The Rising. I've found myself trying to defend this album more than any other album or aspect of Bruce's career. One person with whom I was arguing commented that "if 9/11 hadn't happened, Springsteen would have invented it." Distance gives us the luxury of cynicism. Was the album opportune? Absolutely. Was it opportunistic? Absolutely not. The album, or those songs that even dealt with 9/11, was a personal response to an event that was larger than most people could comprehend. I'd wager that most people, when they strip away the cultural commentary that surrounds their memory of it, still can't comprehend the magnitude of it. Bruce was one man who felt a particularly strong reaction to it, New York being his adopted home for so many years. And getting beyond the 9/11 reaction (which really only takes up about 6 or 7 songs), the album is his first with the E Street Band since Tunnel of Love. Those who don't know what that means won't feel the power of the songs. That doesn't matter. But don't accuse it of being an artifact rather than an album if you don't know what you're talking about.

9. Stay out of politics. Unless you're trying to defeat George W. Bush.

Springsteen's letter to the editor of the New York Times says it all. There is a link to it on, a Springsteen fan site, but the site is down at the moment and I can't get at it. But seek it out. It's eloquent and inspiring.

10. Earn a nickname like "The Boss."

This one kind of speaks for itself.

So there you have it, my top ten reasons not to dump on Bruce. If I've changed one mind, it's been worth it. And stay tuned for the next crazy thing of which Cliff will try to convince you. Like the fact that all airplanes should be made of whatever material that indestructible little black box is made of. Or that Foghat was actually better than the Beatles.


Blogger Brad said...

That is, without doubt, the longest, most in-depth analysis of Bruce Springsteen I have ever seen. Kudos.

You should check out Kaiser Chiefs. They're album is fan-freakin'-tastic. And they totally rocked Live 8.

2:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why the hate on Manfred Mann? His Earth Band cover of "Blinded by the Light" (sung by Chris Thompson) was a number 1 hit.

10:45 AM  
Blogger cliff said...

Other songs that went #1 in the '70's: (Love is) Thicker than Water by Andy Gibb, Afternoon Delight by the Starland Vocal Band, Love Will Keep Us Together by Captain and Tennille, and Pop Muzik by M. Something happened to people in the '70's. And Bruce's version is just a different beast, all restless energy and stream of consciousness poetry. Manfred Mann made it into a party novelty song. In my opinion.

4:03 PM  
Anonymous cynthia said...

FINE FINE FINE! You win, I'll admit it. He's amazing. But there's no way I'm going to start calling you The Boss. You would, however, get an A on your persuasive essay in my class. :)

9:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You wrote:

Stay out of politics. Unless you're trying to defeat George W. Bush.

This is a good lesson. I would say "Let your boss kick you around a lot" is another good one.

You also wrote something nice about Ryan Adams, when he sucks, clearly.

1:23 AM  
Anonymous thejtrain said...

Wow, great post. I've always felt that if there are historians around 1000 years from now trying to understand our culture, they'll have a better grasp of late-20th-century working-class Jersey than just about anything else because of Bruce's lyrics.

I saw Bruce on the Human Touch/Lucky Town tour; I was a sophomore in high school at the time. If I recall correctly, he had Professor Roy and Clarence Clemons with him. It was a great show, but you're not wrong that the E Street Band was sorely missed.

9:17 AM  
Blogger Lex said...

Good analysis, but as a former musician myself, I would add one more lesson: Rock the joint. The best songwriting in the world will sell records and win over critics (consider Steely Dan, whom I like a lot), but if you want undying devotion, go communicate all those sentiments you've written live and direct. Charge a lot of money and leave people thinking it was a bargain. Give 'em a religious experience.

That way, people will be analyzing your career more than 30 years after your first record came out. :-)

12:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw Bruce at Bucknell Univ. two or three times in 73 and 74. Four-hour shows that left everyone exhausted.

That said, his music from that period (and Born To Run) always sounded like carnival music to me. I guess I like my rock and roll with some blues influence, and boy I just couldn't find any blues in Bruce's music. Lots of major keys, lots of of glockenspiel, lots of piano and organ, no blues guitar. And I'm a keyboard player. Of course, this doesn't take into account his gift for storytelling.

I ended up trading my copy of Born To Run for Toys In The Attic by Aerosmith.

2:45 PM  
Anonymous badger3k said...

Just wanted to add that listening to the original version of "Born in the USA" was a total shock. The nature totally changed when it went from that to the hyped-up commerical release.

Other than that, I've been to a few concerts, and even seeing Bruce and the Band when Bruce was sick was electrifying. The sheer energy coming off the stage was incredible - I even liked "War" - a song I hate. He definitely owns the title of "Boss".

4:07 PM  
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10:50 AM  
Anonymous Al Gozinya said...

Congratulations on having the only compete phrase on the worldwide web proclaiming; Max Weinberg sucks!
Couldn't agree more.

1:50 PM  

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