Review: Netflix’s ‘Springsteen On Broadway’ – The Artist’s Dialogue With Fans Comes to the Great White Way

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*Image taken from the internet and probably subject to copyright

I’ve been a Springsteen fan for as long as I’ve been a rock and roll fan. The first LP I bought of his was The River, a double-album which at the time was a huge financial commitment on my part… there are only so many lawns you can mow or tables you can bus to feed a vinyl habit when you’re in high school. That album quickly led me backwards in his catalog, through Darkness On The Edge of Town to Born To Run to The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle (which is frankly my favorite of his albums). Since that time I have been on this journey with him. He likes to describe his body of work as a dialogue between an artist and his fans. When I heard he was taking a 1-man show to Broadway, I thought it was a natural progression of that very conversation.

Springsteen On Broadway is indeed just that – a dialogue. One might describe it as a recap of the entire dialogue we, his fans and Bruce have been having all along. I had really wanted to try and get tickets and fly to New York to see the show live, like my friend Judy did (name changed to protect the guilty). But like most people, watching the Netflix special was how I got to see the show. I am sure the opportunity to see this show live, in the intimate Walter Kerr Theater would have completely changed the experience. I finally caught it on Netflix yesterday and I was deeply moved. I will admit freely, that despite being a huge fan, I never did read Springsteen’s highly acclaimed autobiography fittingly named, Born To Run. Unfortunately, rock autobiography has been destroyed for me forever by Keith Richards’ Life. I didn’t need to read Keef comparing dick size with Mick.

Despite my not reading the autobiography, I realized right away it was the source material for much of the show. But that was probably because I’m a huge fan. I’m not sure a casual Springsteen fan can connect with this performance without reading his autobiography. Springsteen writes in such an epic, poetic style that it’s no wonder his story was a perfect fit for the stage. There’s a theatrical nature to all things Springsteen. And like all things Springsteen, On Broadway was long – two and half hours long. After seeing the show, I wondered to myself how often I would return to the soundtrack to listen again. I’m glad I saw it and heard it, but like reading a book, I’m not sure I’d go back to it, and again, I’m HUGE Bruce fan. For once I might have to actually say, this Bruce Springsteen performance may be only for the true fans. And there are plenty of us out here.

Over the years Springsteen’s legend has grown so huge – as a performer, writer, activist, it’s nice to see him cut loose and spend a little time debunking the legend. He begins by explaining that he’s from a boardwalk town, where everything is based on a little magic and deceit. Despite being considered the champion of the working man, he’s never “held an honest job.” He’s never worked in a factory. To the Rock Chick’s great amusement, despite being known as the foremost writer of car songs, he couldn’t drive a car until he was in his 20s. He expresses a host of emotions as he tells the stories he chose and it’s quite a ride. I was happy to hear Springsteen cuss, which I think was also meant to undercut some of the “Saint of Rock N Roll” legend. Then there are times when Bruce goes into, what I describe as “The Reverend of Rock n Roll” act which also made me feel a little like Bruce was playing a character named Bruce Springsteen.

For the true Springsteen fans, there are a host of stories that touch on all the important points of his story. Each story (and some are quite long and revealing) is accompanied by a song and they compliment each other very well. To be clear, the songs are there to compliment the dialogue and not the other way around. He starts off, of course, with “Growing Up” and a story about Elvis and his first guitar. It’s clear, like most of us, Elvis had a big impact on Bruce. Looming even larger was Springsteen’s father and the relationship between them. The most moving pieces of this show were about Bruce and his dad. I was pleased to hear him play “The Wish,” a song about his mother. It’s a deep cut off Tracks. It’s wonderful that his catalog has a song for almost everything he’s been through. His real life completely informs his art which is probably why the legend has grown.

The performance here of Born In the USA is stunning. It follows Bruce talking about Vietnam and how it affected his generation and more personally some of his friends and Jersey idols. He spoke of meeting Ron Kovic and reading his book, ‘Born On the Fourth of July’ and what an effect it had on him. I think that was probably the birth of Springsteen the activist. When he speaks of Clarence Clemons and everything that friendship meant to him I got tears in my eyes. I love the version of “10th Avenue Freeze Out” that he plays in tribute.

Patti Scialfa Springsteen comes out and sings a couple of the most personal songs, (love songs naturally), “Tougher Than the Rest” and “Brilliant Disguise.” Both of those performances were definite highlights. They are not only married, they harmonize spectacularly. “Ghost of Tom Joad” and “Land of Hope And Dreams” are two of the more political moments and Springsteen handled them both deftly – both the songs and the things he said prior.

From Elvis, to his dad, to his mother, to Clarence, to Vietnam, to being a parent, to our current political situation, Springsteen covers it all. He does so with at times good humor and other times deep, sorrowful feeling. This was a great performance and I really regret not making it to Broadway to see it in person. I will say, this one is just for us in the cult of Springsteen.

Life is a long ride… Turn up the radio and try to be good to each other.

 

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Album Lookback: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born In The USA’ June 4, 1984

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There aren’t many exact dates in my life where I can tell you where I was. Hell, I’m not sure where I was last Tuesday, let alone a random day in the 80s. When I was a kid I can remember my mom telling me she could remember where she was the day John Kennedy was shot… for the record, she was pregnant with me, ironing in her living room and watching ‘Days Of Our Lives’ when the network broke in to announce the sad news. I don’t have any of those momentous geopolitical days in my life where I remember where I was… I do vaguely remember I got up late and came downstairs to find that the Challenger had exploded…but I don’t remember much other than that. All that said, I know exactly where I was on June 4th, 1984.

It was summer time and I was home on break from college. In the summer, us folks who grew up in “olden times” had to find a summer job. I did a lot of different jobs, from temp work to bus boy to light construction. The summer of ’84 was a happier summer for me than the summer of ’83. In ’83 I’d gone through an embarrassing breakup and spent the summer as a man of leisure or more appropriately a man about town…the ladies of Kansas City were helping me grieve, with my eternal gratitude. By ’84 I was well past all that heartbreak and was desperately in need of money to fuel my beer and vinyl habits. My oldest and dearest friend Doug had a line on work… his father owned a small company that installed scoreboards and more importantly, built tennis courts. I was hired to help on the tennis court construction. Utterly difficult, filthy work in the hot sun, but it was an honest day’s work, unlike what I do now, and at the end of the day you didn’t really worry about the job, again unlike what I do now… Like the Cure, I submitted my unanswered prayers for rain every day… Every night after work I had to soak in hot tub to get all the grainy, hardened tennis court surface to slowly melt from the hair on my legs… it was that or pull out all of the hair on my leg with the tennis court goop. I’m a guy so I found that too painful… hats off to you ladies who pluck, shave and otherwise eradicate hair… but I digress. I was, in all senses of the word, a working stiff.

But on Monday, June 4th in 1984, and I don’t recall why, we weren’t out on a job. For some reason our foreman, I’ll call him Norman, had us working in the warehouse yard. We were moving large 55 gallon barrels of sludge around so they looked to be in some semblance of order. For some reason Norman put me in the giant one-ton truck and had me go pick up sand at a local quarry. I was instructed to hurry back and then he’d let me go to lunch. I can remember being in the cab of the one-ton, driving down Pflumm, headed back to the warehouse when the DJ on our local radio station, KY102 came on and said, “We just got the new Springsteen album and we’re going to put it on now…” This was huge to me… I’d been anticipating this record for weeks, since the single “Dancing In The Dark” had come out… I knew somewhere in Wichita, my college roomie Drew was equally anticipating this moment. When the first song “Born In The USA” came over the tinny speakers in that truck I got goose bumps and tears welled up in my eyes. The anguished cries of a Vietnam vet, who never turned his back on his country, although it seemed his country had turned its back on him, was one of those, music-hits-my-lower-brain-stem moments that bring me back to the turntable. After work, as filthy as I was, I drove straight to the nearest record store and bought the album. It was a big day.

The album by the same name, Born In The U.S.A was Springsteen’s biggest selling album. It’s the record where everything changed. The album spun off at least 7 singles, and sold a kajillion copies. This was where those of us who were in the relatively small (especially in Kansas) clique of people who liked Springsteen had to share him with the rest of the world. This album was Springsteen’s manager Jon Landau’s greatest dream. Making Springsteen a name that was uttered along with Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna. Me, I liked Springsteen already, this was just gravy. Springsteen managed to merge a modern sound, complete with synths, into his core sound seamlessly, a thing a lot of 70s acts had struggled with. Many believe that’s why the album was as popular as it was. Naturally I have a different theory. To understand why this album was so popular, you have to step back and look at Springsteen’s career up to that point.

When Springsteen released Born To Run he was christened the new Dylan, the savior or the “future of rock and roll.” He was on the cover of both ‘Time’ and ‘Newsweek’ the same week. The hype was almost too much. But then he ended up in a legal battle with his manager Mike Appel that drug on and on. He toured incessantly through 1976 and 1977 on tours dubbed “The Chicken Scratch Tour” and “The Paying the Rent Tour.” One has to wonder why there wasn’t a “Paying the Legal Fees” tour but I wasn’t there to consult with. Finally Springsteen made what was considered a come back in 1978 with Darkness On The Edge of Town an album that had harnessed his anger and frustration about his legal battles with the energy and feel of punk rock to great success. It had very little to do sonically with Born To Run, but it succeeded.

In order to publicize his return in 78, Springsteen allowed several radio stations in LA, NY, San Fran, and elsewhere to broadcast his concerts over the radio. These concerts were widely bootlegged and helped build Springsteen’s legend as a live act. Springsteen returned relatively quickly in 1980 with a double album, The River, which while uneven, to me was always the rightful successor of Born To Run. With all the hype of the bootlegged 78 concerts, they say that more people slept out for tickets on The River tour than actually saw him in 78. My friend Brewster was apparently on the bandwagon and bought 2 tickets but never asked me to go… It’s my belief that Shakespearean betrayal  is what caused his family to move to Houston, in shame. It was the only honorable thing to do short of cutting off a finger. By the time The River tour concluded Springsteen was huge… he was on the cusp of superstardom. So what’s he do… he releases, in 1982, the spartan, demo-sounding, acoustic record Nebraska. There might be more dour, depressing music out there, but one would have to go to some hippy coffee shop to find it. It was a shock. I get it, it’s a masterpiece, but it’s not an album you put on at a party.

If you take Nebraska out of the equation, it was actually a full 4 years between studio albums for Springsteen, much like the lapse between Born To Run and Darkness. The reason Born In The U.S.A. was such a smash, was the simplest reason – pent up demand. Yes, it’s a kick ass album, but the guy had been away for four-fucking years. That was an eternity back then. Especially for guys my age, who were too young to see the Darkness tour, we just had to settle for the bootlegs. Some of us had sadly missed The River tour – thanks Brewster. We were dying for new music from the Boss… we were dying to actually see this myth, this legend in concert. Which, we all did on this tour, I might add.

The album itself is amazing. Although I will admit I’ve always had a problem with the sequencing. The title track, which starts the record, is one of the greatest things Bruce has ever recorded. Max Weinberg’s drumming is monumental. He keeps the whole thing together. That leads us into another single, the great “Cover Me.” The next two songs, however, “Darlington County” and “Working On The Highway” both tell the same story. Both are about a guy working construction who gets busted for messing with underage girls. Although “Working On the Highway” was a great rockabilly song vs “Darlington County”‘s anthemic approach. The first ballad, and the second best song on the album, “Down Bound Train” also ends with the protagonist in jail. The 80s were a dark time… But again, the next song, which concluded side one is another ballad, ‘I’m On Fire.” Spread it out Bruce….

Side two starts with two songs about Little Steven. The recording of Born In The U.S.A. was fraught with it’s own Shakespearean drama… Springsteen’s side kick, Little Steven who always advocated for the music was pitted against, Iago, er I mean Landau who was advocating for a big, commercial record. Eventually Little Steven split for a solo career. Springsteen obviously wrote “No Surrender” and the next track, “Bobby Jean” about his dearest friend, Little Steven, who had left the band. The rest of the side 2, is a little better sequenced, finally ending on the beautiful ballad “My Hometown.”

Born In The U.S.A ended up being the titanic album that Landau and, it would appear, Springsteen wanted. The enormous fame and attention dwarfed anything Springsteen had experienced before… one might argue the success changed the trajectory of his career… but for this working stiff, on a hot June Monday, it was a game changer, so much so, I know where I was that day. It really is one of the greatest albums of all time.

Cheers!

 

 

 

 

iPod Playlist – Springsteen’s ‘Human Touch’/’Lucky Town’ LPs at 25: The B&V Single LP Edit

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I saw over the weekend that Bruce Springteen’s two simultaneously released 1992 LPs had turned 25 years old. ‘Human Town’ and ‘Lucky Town’ were highly anticipated back in ’92. We hadn’t heard anything from Springsteen since 1987’s ‘Tunnel of Love’ and back then five years between albums was a luxury only afforded to those nut jobs in Boston. In the interim, since ‘Tunnel of Love,’ much had occurred in Springsteen’s life. He’d gotten divorced, married again and started a family (good for him). On the music end of the ledger he’d severed ties with his long time backing band, The E Street Band (bad for him). Bruce had decided it was time to go solo.

At the time, I remember hearing or reading an interview with Springsteen where he said his music and the story he was trying to tell had all been building from ‘Greetings From Asbury Park’ all the way through ‘Born In The USA.’ He felt that ‘Born In The USA’ was the culmination of that story and it was time to find a new direction. He’d attempted to do that very thing with ‘Tunnel of Love,’ although my thoughts on that LP were that it was a reaction to the unheard of fame that resulted from ‘Born In the USA’ and it was Springsteen’s attempt to slow that hysteria down a bit. Often when an artist gets bigger than they expected, they release a quiet, introspective or “arty” work so they can avoid the massive expectations they’ve set up for themselves.

At the time, I remember thinking, “new direction,” my ass. The fame has given him “the fear.” But all these years later, when I listen to the classic live shows he’s been releasing on his website, damn if I don’t hear the progression. The live LPs I’ve heard from 1975 through 1984 all do actually build upon each other. He had the skeleton of his live shows and with each succeeding LP he added certain pieces here, took away pieces there. ‘Born In the USA’ really was an end point for Springsteen. He’d gone from rhyming boardwalk poet on ‘Greetings From Asbury Park’ to working class hero for the universe on ‘Born In the USA.’ It now makes sense to me what he was trying to do. His work, more than almost any other artist I can think of is, as he describes it to be, a dialogue.

Despite Springsteen’s best efforts to escape the expectations set by his past, with the long wait between records and firing the E Street Band, the expectations were still running very high in 1992 from his rabid fan base, yours truly included. Only Guns N Roses had released two albums on one day, although in their case I actually considered ‘Use Your Illusions’ to be a double album released separately to command a higher sales price. When the news that Springsteen was releasing two albums on one day leaked, we all went nuts. The first thought was, well this explains the long absence, he’s polished off two records. Then word came out that he’d been toiling over the first record, ‘Human Touch’ for years but had been hit with a burst of sudden inspiration and knocked out the second record, ‘Lucky Town’ in a matter of weeks, a rarity for Bruce.

When the two albums came out, I liked them. I have to admit in retrospect, I was carried away by sheer enthusiasm and momentum, I was young. It was obvious ‘Human Touch’ was labored over and ‘Lucky Town’ was pounded out by Bruce in a room with a guitar and only a drummer helping him. After repeated listens I began to realize these albums lacked the musicality of his previous LPs with the E Street Band. I soon realized that I was pretty disappointed. The critical reception to the album was tepid at best and savage at worst. Only Springsteen’s ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’ (despite the excellent title track) has received a more savage critical response. It appeared that Springsteen had lost “it.” Maybe a life of happy domestic bliss had blunted his creative edge?

There’s an old adage in rock and roll, that in every double LP there is a great single LP lurking. Certainly there are exceptions to that rule where the double LP stands on it’s own. ‘Exile On Mainstreet,’ ‘The Beatles,’ ‘1999,’ ‘Songs In The Key of Life’ and ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ all stand out as masterpiece double LPs, which I covered in a previous post. But on the whole, you can take many double LPs, edit them down to a single LP and you’d have a better, more cohesive work and likely a more commercial album. Not that anybody should care about the commerciality of the LP. Art is art, people, follow the muse. As someone who once tried to write a novel, believe me, editing is good, folks.

Over the weekend, one of my favorite websites, UltimateClassicRock.com had four different critics attempt to test the “in all double LPs there lurks a great single LP” rule. Each critic took a shot at taking ‘Human Touch’ and ‘Lucky Town’ and combining tracks from each to create a new, single LP. I usually don’t tailgate on anybody else’s idea but this was an exercise that I’d attempted several times over the years, since the advent of MP3’s made doing so easy. And frankly, all four of the critics got it wrong. They mostly limited the new single disc to 10 to 12 tracks. Clearly the critical disdain for these two LPs remains to this day… There are more than 10 good songs on these records.

Here is the official B&V version of ‘Human Touch’/’Lucky Town’ edited down to a single record. I have this on my iPod as a playlist as editing vinyl is a little difficult. I took the liberty of expanding my play list to 14 songs, (of a potential 24 songs on over both records, I didn’t include anything left out and released on ‘Tracks’). In returning to these discs I realized that there’s a lot more to like here than to loathe. Don’t get me wrong, these are some of Springsteen’s weaker efforts, but if he’d combined them and done his usual scrupulous editing I think this would have been a lot more acceptable to longtime fans, despite the missing musicality of the E Street Band…I did labor over the exact order of these tunes… to make it more cohesive… The original LP is denoted in parentheses, LT = ‘Lucky Town, HT = ‘Human Touch.’

Side One:

  1. Lucky Town (LT)
  2. Local Hero (LT)
  3. Human Touch (HT)
  4. Soul Driver (HT)
  5. Better Days (LT)
  6. Gloria’s Eyes (HT)
  7. If I Should Fall Behind (LT) – the beautiful, acoustic ballad to end side 1…
  8. Roll Of The Dice (HT) – a rocker to start side 2…
  9. 57 Channels (And Nothin’ On) (HT)
  10. Leap of Faith (LT)
  11. I Wish I Were Blind (HT)
  12. Living Proof (LT)
  13. All Or Nothing At All (HT)
  14. My Beautiful Reward (LT)

This would have represented, in my mind here at B&V a much tighter, more cohesive LP. Each side starts off with some up beat, rocking tunes and ends with a beautiful ballad. If I’ve left out a tune or you have an alternative version, I’m all ears. I think revisiting these LPs on their 25th Birthday with a tumbler of something strong is well worth the adventure and the time.

“I’m a thief in the house of love and I can’t be trusted….”

Bruce Springsteen: Sixty-Seven But On A Roll!

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I have to say a big, belated Happy Birthday to Mr. Bruce Springsteen. The man turned 67 yesterday and shows no signs of slowing down. Having seen Bruce with the “legendary” E Street Band in April, I’m stunned he’s 67. Only Mick Jagger seems to defy age more than Bruce Springsteen. And you have to think in Mick’s case, he’s tethered to Keith Richards who hasn’t aged as… gracefully, but I digress. Springsteen is on a huge roll right now. He’s got a lot going on so I thought I’d catch everybody up.

First and foremost was his 2016 “The River” Tour, one of the year’s highest grossing tours. It was done in support of the excellent box set celebrating “The River” entitled “The Ties That Bind.” The box set had the double LP as released in 1979, the original single LP version of the album that Bruce submitted to Columbia but withdrew, entitled like the box set “The Ties That Bind,” and a disc of outttakes. “The Ties That Bind” was very similar to the great box set celebrating “Darkness On The Edge of Town,” named “The Promise,” after one of the great outtakes from those sessions. “Meet Me In The City” from the outtakes is a great, great Springsteen song. I will say , half of the outtakes had already been released on the previous treasure trove box set, “Tracks.” but I’m splitting hairs here. You need to hear all the tracks together to really frame the artistic period surrounding “The River.”

On the first American leg of “The River” tour, which is when I saw Bruce last, the band played the “River” album in it’s entirety, start to finish. It’s a dicey enterprise playing an entire album in concert. It either goes very well, like when I saw the Cult do “Love” or “Electric” or poorly like when I saw Motley Crue do “Dr. Feelgood.” It’s all about the album’s pacing. “Love” and “Electric” were non stop hard rock albums that held up very well in concert. I’m still baffled as to why “Dr Feelgood” didn’t translate as well live. There are some of my favorite Crue songs on that record, but the pacing seemed to lag on what would be side 2. The Rock Chick gave up on seeing Motley live after that, much to my chagrin… The Rock Chick’s likes and dislikes can be very mercurial… I wonder how long she’s going to let me stick around, but that’s another post… and I intend to stick for the long haul but I digress again. Must be all this traveling I’m doing… can’t stay focused.

“The River,” played straight through actually held up very well live. The album is paced well and highlights everything the E Street Band does well. There are barrel-house rockers and light-touch ballads. Springsteen’s intent when recording “The River” was to recreate the energy the band put off during live shows, so it makes sense that “The River” live would be fantastic. After the album was over, they played what Bruce was calling the “concert after the concert” which varied almost every night. I was pleased to finally see “Rosalita” performed live after all these years of attending Springsteen shows. That set after the album seemed to really spark the excitement in the band. I downloaded the free “Chicago” show and it’s a very strong live album. I began to realize the band was doing some of their finest live work in their career.

When the E Street Band got over to the European leg of the tour, the strictures of playing the entire “River” LP every night had gotten old and so they cast that aside. The sets he started playing in Europe were as varied and career spanning as I’ve ever seen. By the time they got back to the US, Springsteen was setting records for his longest shows and then breaking them on the next night of the tour. The set lists on these shows are staggering in their breadth and depth. What’s better still is that you can buy any or all of these great shows on brucespringsteen.net any time you want.

I picked up the August 30, Metlife Stadium show in New Jersey and it ranks amongst the best bootlegs I’ve ever heard of Springsteen. He opens with the obscure chestnut, “New York City Serenade.” Springsteen fans will all realize how special that song is, I don’t think it’s been performed since the 70s, but I’m no historian. He then went through a quasi chronological tour through his entire career. He only played two songs from “The River” and neither was the actual song, “The River” which is odd considering the name of the tour but hey, he’s the Boss. He even dug into his “solo” period and played “Living Proof” which was a surprising highlight. I highly recommend checking out any of the shows on the tour after he’s returned to the US. I will warn you, the 8/30 date is over 4 hours, so strap in for a long listening experience but it’s worth every minute. He does most of “The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle,” my favorite album by Bruce. You can even purchase all three New Jersey shows as one special package, but even I shy away from 12 hours of music from anybody… Do yourself a favor and check out these live recordings, it will reward you.

On top of all that activity, Bruce’s autobiography, aptly named “Born To Run” came out on Friday. I read a great interview with Bruce in Vanity Fair and it sounds like Bruce plumbs the depth of some of his battles with depression. It’s been described as being like one of his concerts: sprawling, ecstatic and epic. Here’s my problem. The rock and roll autobiography kind of got ruined for me by Keith Richards. I love Keith to death but his arcane writing about the different guitar tunings he used on certain songs was too much for even me. And he went on to comment on Mick’s penis… C’mon man, nobody wants you to go there. Someone gave me Pete Townshend’s autobiography but after Keith’s “Life,” I couldn’t bring myself to even open it. I’m on the fence about Springsteen’s book, because I think he’d be a better writer, but man, it’s a huge commitment.

The treat for me around this whole autobiography thing was that Bruce released a “companion” disc of tunes to go with the book. Two-thirds of these songs have been released on various albums and greatest hits so why bother? Well, he’s released five tunes from his pre-fame career. Two songs are by his first band, The Castiles. One song is from his outfit named Steel Mill. I’m not going to lie to you. The sound quality of these tunes is not great. These songs are for you completists out there – you know who you are – but I can’t recommend them. They’re solid, meat-and-potatos 50’s style rock. Nothing terribly revelatory there.

The two songs I would recommend are a solo song “Henry Boy” and a song credited to The Bruce Springsteen Band (his pre E Street configuration) named “The Ballad of Jesse James.” I really liked “Henry Boy.” It sounds like a left over from “Greetings From Asbury Park.” It’s all rapidly strummed acoustic guitar with words spilling out of Springsteen almost as fast as he can sing them. It’s a really nice addition to the catalog. The gem here, the song I absolutely love and consider a must-have for any Springsteen fan is “The Ballad of Jesse James.” That song is all pure 70’s rock. It opens with a giant slab of a riff and then Bruce hits you with a squealing almost slide guitar sound that kills. There are back up singers. The sound of this song is very much “of it’s time,” the 70s. It sounds like a song Gregg Allman could have recorded on one of his solo albums. The guitar solo is worth the $1.29 for the song alone. I have to wonder, where the hell did this sound go? He didn’t play guitar like this again until “Darkness On the Edge of Town.” The chorus, which I love, asks the question “Don’t you wanna be an outlaw?” The answer, as any B&V enthusiast must know by now, is yes, yes I do. Again, the sound quality is a little rough, we’re all used to highly polished, digitized music these days, but the sound of this one harkens back to hearing a vinyl record on a loud PA system at a bar having a drink-and-drowned night, all the beer you can drink for $5 and who doesn’t miss those days?

Put “The Ballad of Jesse James” on the stereo, slip on your old bell bottoms and dance around like you ain’t got no brains and celebrate Bruce’s Birthday. Happy Birthday Bruce, and many more to come. Here’s mud in your eye! Cheers !

Artists Who Changed Their Music to Escape Fame

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*Photo shamelessly borrowed from the Internet, gettyimages, Paul Bergen

I just love this photograph of Pearl Jam from their early days. The only guy who looks happy is the drummer, in the middle, and they fired him. Likely on the HR form it read something like: Reason for Dismissal: Cheerfulness or Enjoying the Fame.

My corporate overlords are asking me to travel quite a bit more and I haven’t been able to write as often as I’d like, my apologies. It has given me a lot more time to think about music… and lately I’ve been thinking about fame. Ah, Fame, it’s such a cruel, fickle beast. Bands often form, write music, tour and work hard to achieve financial stability and yes, fame. But once it happens many bands/artists don’t know how to deal with it. There are certain levels of fame that nobody is ready for. Not everybody can be the Beatles, who not only embraced their fame, seemed energized by it. Well, McCartney anyway, Lennon seemed somewhat unnerved by it all.

Fame has all kinds of effects on an artist and not always good ones. Many artists, feeling the pressure to repeat earlier heights of record sales crumble under the pressure. Many artists turn to drugs, alcohol or just plain break up the band. Or sometimes the effects of fame are even worse…bad juju indeed. There are as many reactions to fame as there are artists, I suppose.

Lately, I find myself thinking about those artists/bands who decided to take control, take the bull by the horns as they say, and purposely change the trajectory of their artistic arc. The artists who, commercially speaking, tried to take a dive. The goal seemed to be to thin the herd of rabid fans, hanging on every word. These acts literally altered their art (in my opinion) to reduce their fame…

Bob Dylan: After a two year period that saw Dylan “go electric” and record three classic masterpieces: “Bringing It All Back Home,” “Highway 61 Revisted,” and “Blonde On Blonde” Dylan retreated to upstate New York to Woodstock (pre-festival fame Woodstock). This creative burst is beautifully documented on the box set, “The Cutting Edge” reviewed earlier in B&V. Dylan just wanted to get away, rest and spend some time with his wife and new family. Then, he had a motorcycle accident. Or did he? I’m not usually a “second shooter on the grassy knoll” guy, but I wonder if Dylan faked the whole thing to get a break in his crazy schedule. The guy was being touted as the “voice” of his generation. He was the appointed leader of the Hippy movement… heavy responsibility for a guy who is really just a singer… or a poet, depending on your outlook. After secluding himself in upstate NY and hanging out in a basement for a year with the Band, recording some pretty amazing music, but not really sharing it, Dylan emerged with a quiet, acoustic based “John Wesley Harding.” While considered a classic by critics, it was quite a dramatic departure from his three prior albums. It’s like Dylan rewrote the book on a career in music. He went on to record a country album, “Nashville Skyline.” He really didn’t recover commercially until “Blood On the Tracks” by which time his rabid audience had diminished and mellowed out.

Neil Young: Neil Young’s trajectory was similar to Dylan’s, perhaps without the messianic overtones… the 70’s were a more cynical decade after all. Young released “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” and then “After the Gold Rush” and joined CSNY. He was poised to explode. I don’t think he realized how big he was going to get when he delivered the mellow, extremely popular “Harvest.” You couldn’t get away from “Heart of Gold.” Neil said, on the liner notes of the excellent greatest hits package “Decade,” that he found himself in the middle of the road after “Harvest” and decided to steer his career into the ditch…he said he’d meet more interesting people there. He dismantled his following by delivering the live LP, “Time Fades Away,” which oddly seemed to declare war on his fans. Young was exorcising demons, but his fans were left to exorcise Neil.

Bruce Springsteen: Springsteen’s career has been a study in the art of controlling your fame. He released “Born To Run” and ended up on the cover of Time and Newsweek… after a 4 year absence due to legal issues with his management, he delivered the grim classic “Darkness On the Edge of Town.” Punk was prevalent and so he probably rode that wave, plus he was pissed about the court stuff and the four year absence. Finally, in 1979 he released “The River” which gave him his biggest seller to date… rather than capitalize on that success he retrenched with “Nebraska” an album I still struggle to listen to without being put on suicide watch. He finally reached his peak potential when he released “Born In the USA” but quickly retrenched to “Tunnel of Love.” Release something that makes you huge, follow up with a quiet personal album to make the crowds go away…it’s the best of both worlds.

Fleetwood Mac: Nobody saw the huge success of “Rumors” coming. Lindsey Buckingham, fueled by the punk movement took control of their next album and drove the band in experimental, weird directions. Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie apparently didn’t get the memo and continued to record solid mid tempo rock songs causing a very disjointed approach.”Tusk” is a masterpiece in my mind but it was heralded as a huge disappointment upon it’s release. I see it for what it was – Buckingham responding to the pressure of repeating “Rumors” by taking the band in a less commercial, artsy direction. When the LP doesn’t sell as much as the last one, you just say the audience didn’t “understand your creative vision.” It’s a great strategy really. Although Mick Fleetwood did drive out to Lindsey’s house after the reviews were in to say, “you blew it, mate.”

Prince: “1999” was such a breakthrough record for Prince. He, along with Michael Jackson, were one of the first black artists to breakthrough to a broad white audience. He followed up with the movie/LP “Purple Rain.” Prince, a control freak, whose goal had always been world domination, and who actually accomplished it, responded with the quirky, artsy “Around the World In a Day,” an album I bought the day it was released and sold a week later. Yeah, I was one of the fans Prince exiled from his fan base with that record. Prince never really regained his commercial/artistic mojo. That’s the risk when you purposely try to kill off your fame… sometimes you’re successful.

Nirvana: Kurt Cobain, almost 30 years after Dylan, was also tagged with that “voice of his generation” tag. Based on Dylan’s response to that in the 60s and what happened to Kurt, you might want to avoid that tag. After “Nevermind” seemingly destroyed everything that came before it and revolutionized music in a way that punk only dreamed of, Cobain felt painted into a corner. He had wanted to only be as big as say, Sonic Youth, not bigger than the Beatles. In response to the world-wide worship, Cobain and Nirvana delivered the abrasive album “In Utero” an album that was such an obvious attempt to drive fans away and yet it was still wildly popular. “Heart Shaped Box” is still my favorite Nirvana tune. Sadly Kurt never reconciled his fame and for a myriad of reasons ended up sadly ending his own life… the most tragic tale I’m gonna tell.

Pearl Jam: I read an interview with Eddie Vedder once, and he said they were playing a bar that had a free hamburgers in the parking lot while they were set to play. He got on stage in front of an empty room (everyone was eating outside), closed his eyes and when he opened them, the entire bar was full of enthusiastic fans. He went on to say that was how Pearl Jam’s world wide fame happened, seemingly in the blink of an eye. “Ten” was such a huge album and it’s follow up “Vs” despite the “us vs you” implied by the title, was just as popular. Finally PJ put out “Vitalogy” which I consider a classic but like “In Utero” it was a clear attempt to “thin the herd.” You only have to take one look at the picture above and you can tell these guys were uncomfortable with the fame that had resulted from their music. Eddie took these guys down a path that saw them stay a solid live draw, but their music has never sold like it did early in their career and I think that’s how Eddie wants it… Vedder’s only proper solo album was a ukele album…clearly not a guy looking for wide commercial success or additional attention…

That’s it for now folks. Did I miss anybody on this list? Please add your thoughts in the comments if you’re so inclined.

Have a great weekend! Cheers!

Springsteen: The River Tour, Kansas City 4/7/2016

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I must pause in the writing to acknowledge the passing of a legend… RIP Merle Haggard. I saw the Hag with Dylan about 10 years ago and frankly I enjoyed Merle more than Dylan. His voice was craggy velvet on whiskey. Haggard and Johnny Cash are all anybody needs to know about country music. Everything after them isn’t worth the effort to drop the needle onto the vinyl….. On with the review…

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I went down to “The River” last night and I knelt to pray and I was cleansed. I haven’t had a chance to write much lately because my corporate overlords have been making life a living Hell. Nothing solves that work-despair like a good, old fashioned, rock and roll show. Especially when that concert involves the legend, the myth, Bruce Springsteen.

In the midwest in 1979-1980 you were hard pressed to find a Bruce Springsteen fan. A few of his tunes would make it to the radio but he wasn’t a wide spread phenomenon like he probably was in say, Philadelphia. I grew up in the provinces people. I like to think of myself as a drunken, much less talented Mark Twain. I remember February of 1980, getting up and scouring the paper for a review of the previous night’s Bruce Springsteen concert in support of his new album, “The River.” The reviewer said, “without a doubt we’ve seen the concert of the year and it’s only February.” I went to school and saw my buddy Brewster and lamented that we hadn’t gone to the show. Brewster and I would always go to shows together. He said, “Uh, Ken, uh, you might not have gone, but I went. I didn’t know you were into Springsteen… it was amazing.” It may have fundamentally altered Brewster and my friendship. Bitter, party of 1, your table is ready. Ironically Brewster was in from The Tall City, Texas last night and at the show and whilst his wife managed to keep us from speaking we were texting each other during the show.

“The River” album conjures so many memories. Unlike most people, “The River” not “Born To Run” was my first Springsteen album. (I bought “Born To Run” after sneaking into a Senior Skip Day party when I was a sophomore and making out with a beautiful girl… I had to stop to ask her what music was playing…”Born To Run” you idiot…”) “The River” was the first double LP I ever purchased, which was a huge commitment of lawn-mowing money back then. It was 12 bucks, much more than the usual 8 you’d plunk down for a single LP. Oh, my God, was it worth it. It’s a sprawling masterpiece. Springsteen said last night that he was attempting to capture the E Street Band’s mammoth live show on a record. I would say he succeeded. What I loved about “The River” was that Bruce let Little Steven (harmony/backing vocals/guitar) and Clarence “The Big Man” Clemons (saxophone) run wild on this album. The album was big but felt intimate. It was like listening to the world’s greatest bar band explode like a nuclear bomb. There was so much more joy on “The River” than “Darkness On The Edge Of Town” that it’s hard to think both albums came from the same group of guys.

The show opened up with a muscular version of the outtake “Meet Me In the City Tonight”, which like “Thunder Road” is a great invitation to an adventure. My buddy SB said, “Hey, which album is this on?” There are so many great Springsteen songs that no one has heard, but I digress. (Everyone needs to buy the box set “The Ties That Bind”, the outtakes are worth it, trust me). Then Bruce gave a nice preamble speech about “The River” and what it meant to him as an artist. As the band launched into “The Ties That Bind” I must admit, and not to be a chick about it, a tear welled up in my eye. Clearly this album meant a lot to me as a listener too. I can still remember, nervously dropping the needle on the vinyl for the first time, wondering if my huge investment in a double album by this “Springsteen guy” was worth it. I was taking a huge risk. When that riff burst out of the speakers it was like what I imagine heroin hitting the brain pan, my temples exploded with joy. I was hooked on Bruce and haven’t given up the habit yet.

The band was leaner last night – no back up vocalists, no full horn section – it was just the basic band, albeit with an extra guitarist, Nils Lofgren and a violinist Suzee Tyrell who weren’t with Bruce on the original “River”tour that Brewster caused me to miss (did I mention I’m still bitter). And, predictably, I have to say that Jake Clemons is a big dude, but he’s no Big Man. His uncle Clarence, whose loss still brings tears to my eyes, was a much more powerful player than Jake. But I will give Jake an A for effort.

As always with me, it was the ballads that were the most arresting moments of the concert. “Independence Day” which comes early in the show, (and closes side 1 of the vinyl LP) was particularly moving. It’s what Bruce described as a conversation between two people at a kitchen table. If you’ve ever had a problem with your father, this is the Springsteen song for you. People talk about “Adam Raised a Cain” as his ultimate “father” song, but “Independence Day” is a heart wrenching, moving song that sums up everybody’s relationship with their dad or at least my relationship. Eddie Vedder used to leave his house with his acoustic guitar and slip down to the park and play that song as a form of escape. I wish I’d been hanging around because Vedder and I seem to like the same music. The version of “Point Blank” with a long piano driven preamble was the highlight of the night. It was the most amazing version of an amazing song that I’ve ever heard. It was gripping and live music at it’s very best. You should buy a ticket to this show just for that song. The version of “Stolen Car” they played last night will haunt me, in a good way, for the rest of my life. “Drive All Night” has always been a personal favorite of mine, and last night’s version did not disappoint me. It’s the greatest love song ever written. I only wish Clarence was here to play that beautiful sax solo, but again Jake did fine, I’m knit picking.

The set after “The River” was explosive and fantastic. He managed to play over half of “Born To Run” including a fabulous version of “She’s The One”. It’s the songs you don’t hear on the radio from that album that make it so special. “Backstreets” was sprawling, rocking and amazing all at once. I had two firsts last night, “Because The Night” and finally after all these years “Rosalita” which I’ve waited a life time to hear. Late in the set they broke into “Tenth Ave Freeze Out” and again, when Bruce sang, “the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band” I felt tears well up in my eyes again. I toasted Clarence with a large, deep tumbler of rye after the show. “Tenth Ave Freeze Out” is a gentle reminder that the E Street Band is more than a band, more than a group of musicians, it’s a brotherhood. And the magic of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band is that on any given night, even out in the provinces of Kansas City, they can make you feel like you’re a part of that brotherhood.

Do yourself a favor. If you live in a city that Bruce is coming to in the next month or so, get a ticket and see his show. Dance in the aisle, sing along and for a beautiful 3 hours, forget you have to go to work the next day. Love life like it’s 1979 again and your buddy Brewster has called with tickets to the big show…..

Cheers!

Springsteen’s Winter-Storm Jonas Gift: Thank You Bruce

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 When Winter Storm Jonas rolled through the Northeast last weekend, wreaking havoc, one of the by-products was the cancellation of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s concert at Madison Square Garden Sunday, January 24th. As a free gift to make up for the cancellation Bruce released his previous show ‘Chicago January 19th’ as a free MP3 download for a two day period. Naturally I jumped on that gift, and let me say, Thank you Bruce. I’ve already written about Springsteen’s archival downloads in another blog post, but I’m not sure if I mentioned he’s now releasing every show as a live download through his website like Pearl Jam has been doing for 15 years or so. I downloaded his Capetown, South Africa show from his last tour. He finally found a way to beat the bootleggers. Springsteen and the E Street Band are out on the road to support last year’s box set ‘The Ties That Bind’ which celebrates the anniversary of Bruce’s epic double album, ‘The River’. I would be writing about ‘The Ties That Bind’ but there was a mix up at Christmas and despite the box set being at the top of my Christmas list, here I sit in January with no present. Apparently it’s “on it’s way”. Sigh, Christmas…

As part of this tour Bruce is performing ‘The River’ in it’s entirety, from start to finish. Ah, the album playback-centric concert. It can be dicey. Playing an album as it was released can often produce mixed results. I saw Motley Crue do ‘Dr Feelgood’ a few years back and left disappointed. I saw the Cult do ‘Love’ and ‘Electric’ and those shows were amazing. Of course the Cult is a hard rock band (and could really be defined across genre’s) so there is a cohesion on those records that lend themselves to a concert treatment. Of course, for the ‘Electric’ show I was drinking vodka with the Rock Chick and my buddy Stormin’ in Denver and I actually got a VIP package and met the band so that may have influenced my feelings about that show.

‘The River’ was my first Springsteen album purchase. I grew up in the suburbs of Kansas City, in Kansas so Springsteen was a bit foreign to me. He didn’t get a ton of airplay out here. I had only recently switched my radio from Royals’ games to KY/102 the lone rock station in town. I’d heard some Bruce but wasn’t that familiar with him. “Hungry Heart” was literally the first “hit” he had out here. I can still remember standing in the record store, the smell of incense in the background clutching the double vinyl album wondering if it was worth the investment. A double album in those days could be close to $15 which was a fortune on a lawn mower/bus boy wage. In those days, if I liked the first single on an album I’d wait until I heard a second then a third song. If I liked all three it was deemed “purchase-worthy”. What can I say, cash was in short supply when you spent half of it on beer and gas. I can say, all these years later, thankfully I made the buy.

I remember the jolt I got when the needle found the groove and “The Ties That Bind,” the opening track, jumped out of the speakers. It was like a jolt of amphetamine. I realized I’d made a very sound investment. Springsteen had been kept out of the studio for 4 years after ‘Born to Run’ and then had been very selective on what he put out on ‘Darkness On the Edge of Town’ so he had a back log of great songs that he’d been playing live (and being bootlegged) for some time. He had originally submitted a single album but wisely pulled it back in favor of this sprawling, masterpiece. Over the course of 20 songs the Bruce and the E Streeters do everything – rockers, rockabilly, ballads, politics, love, breakups, a wreck on the highway, literally everything. Every double album that comes along gets compared to ‘The White Album’ but this one may actually earn that description. The title track to ‘The River’ is one of Springsteen’s finest achievements as a songwriter: he captures the political ramifications of an economic downturn in the most personal way, and it’s much more effective for it.

It appears on this tour Bruce is opening with a song from ‘The Ties That Bind’ box, “Meet Me In the City Tonight”. How did this song not see proper release long ago? I can only hope that some day I’ll actually get my Xmas gift and hear the studio version (Damn you Santa). “Meet Me In the City” is an awesome opener. It just shows the depth and quality of the material Bruce was writing at that time. From there the E Street Band takes you through ‘The River’ in it’s entirety. It’s an amazing start to this concert (and I do mean “start” the show is 3 1/2 hours long). ‘The River’, with the way the album was paced, is a great album to play in concert. It’s music and moods are varied enough to withstand a concert treatment. Bruce tells a nice story before “Independence Day” which was a song I listened to constantly in my “angry-at-my-father” stage of life (does everybody go through that?). “Drive All Night” may be my favorite Springsteen love song. “Baby, I’d drive all night, just to buy you some shoes” is the line that always gets me and the way my wife buys shoes ended up being somewhat prophetic for me.

After they complete ‘The River’ album playback, it’s party time. I’ve looked at the set lists from other shows and they vary wildly. On the ‘Chicago’ show he plays several songs from ‘Born to Run’ and ‘Born In the USA’ (including “Cover Me”, “Dancing in the Dark” and “No Surrender” where Bruce blows the intro twice). He also plays “Human Touch” a song I’ve never heard live and was surprised to hear. Bruce even does a nice acoustic/violin version of “Take It Easy” as a tribute to Glenn Frey which is understated and powerful (although I would have loved one of Bruce’s patented pre-song stories about, say, Warren Zevon and Frey and he hanging out, but those records are probably sealed). After a towering run through “Rosalita” the party comes to an end with the old R&B tune, “Shout”. I’ve heard Springsteen, Billy Joel, and Tom Petty all do this song, and frankly no one will ever top Otis Day and at the Knights from the movie “Animal House” but the E Street Band do a great version.

The vocals on this live show are right up front. The Capetown show I purchased, the vocals were down in the mix, which was disappointing. Not so on this album, the sound is terrific. Since Clarence Clemons passed away Bruce has augmented the band with an entire horn section. For ‘The River’ Tour he’s paired it down to only Jake Clemons, The Big Man’s nephew. I must say, I was impressed with Jake’s playing. No one will ever play with the distinct power of Clarence, but his nephew does him proud. I like this stripped down version of the horn section. I am also very happy to see Bruce’s wife Patti back on rhythm guitar and vocals, she’s been missing the last couple of tours. Little Steven, who co-produced ‘The River’ is up front and appears to have replaced Clarence as Bruce’s main on-stage foil. I think we all love Little Steve, so this is good news. The sound of this recording is really great.

I don’t think ‘Chicago January 19th’ is still being offered for free, but it’s certainly worth the purchase price. My advice is to look at the set lists for his different shows, pay particular attention to the songs after song 21 where ‘The River’ concludes and pick the set of tunes you like. This is an epic tour and it appears Bruce is working on yet another “solo” project so it may be a while before you hear the whole band perform together again. Fans of “Live Music” recordings, look no further.

Enjoy and as always, Cheers!