LP Review: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Western Stars’ – Born To Bacharach?

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I had been hearing for a while that Springsteen had cut a solo album, heavily influenced by Jimmy Webb, whose songs were made famous predominantly by the legend Glen Campbell. The most famous of those tracks was “Wichita County Lineman.” Interestingly enough, I saw the Stones in Wichita one time with my old college buddy Drew. The Stones did “Wichita County Lineman” and Mick said, “Everybody who plays Wichita probably plays this track, but here’s our version…” Drew said, “Actually, nobody ever does that song here.”

Hearing Springsteen was doing a Jimmy Webb/Southern California-70’s style album had a lot of people concerned this was going to be a country album. A lot of artists like say, Bon Jovi have done a country album late in their career as a crass commercial move. I will give country fans credit where credit is due… they still buy albums and CDs. And if they could they’d probably still be buying 8-tracks. Well, that’s only a theory…tip of the Stetson to you country folk out there. Hearing Western Stars and spending the last few weeks with it, I can tell you, it’s not country. It has more in common with Burt Bacharach’s sound to me.

I’ve had a real mixed relationship with Springsteen’s “solo” work, ie, his work without the E Street Band. I grew up in the midwest, which was Springsteen flyover country. He was big in the Northeast and the Ohio Valley… even down the eastern seaboard. He was big on the edges of the country. Chicago and California embraced him. In Kansas City he wasn’t really that big of a deal until later. Maybe radio programmers thought he was too “east coast,” whatever that means.

In 1979 I absolutely fell in love with The River. It was the first album with songs that got significant airplay in KC and so I made that huge double-LP investment and bought it. It was all over stylistically and I love every track on that album. I just loved the whole concept of this gang – The E Street Band. It all sounded so cool…and yes, I liked the way they dressed, homeless chic. Where was this E Street, and how do I get there? I slowly worked my way backwards through his wonderful early catalog. I was just back home from a very difficult first semester in college during my freshman year for Christmas break and was in the mall with my then-girlfriend and we passed by one of the record stores. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a rack full of Nebraska albums. I hadn’t heard any of the music, or anything about the album, but it was Springsteen, hells yes! I dropped my girl’s hand and went lunging into the record store. I was not emotionally prepared for the bleak music that poured out of my speakers when I got home that day. I realize Nebraska is a classic, but it took me a long, long time to appreciate it. You won’t hear that album at a party.

The next solo album by Springsteen was Tunnel of Love. There were cameos by the band, most notably Nils Lofgren’s amazing guitar solo on the title track, but it was a Springsteen solo project. I love that album, it’s a masterpiece. After that tour Springsteen went solo and fired the E Street Band. The resulting two albums, released on the same day, Human Touch/Lucky Town were a bit of a mess. Human Touch was overly produced and sounded labored. Lucky Town was lyrically rich but plodding musically. I still think there is one good album hidden in there… (iPod Playlist – Springsteen’s ‘Human Touch’/’Lucky Town’ LPs at 25: The B&V Single LP Edit). There are some great songs scattered across those two discs.

His next solo project was The Ghost Of Tom Joad. Other than the title track, I don’t think I’ve heard a track from that bleak album since…although “Youngstown” was a live staple. Devils and Dust recorded after he’d reunited with the E Street Band was topical but a truly great album. Like I say, it’s been an up and down road for me on Bruce’s solo stuff. All of his records have gems on them, but on his solo stuff you have to dig a little. Wrecking Ball certainly had a few great songs but overall, not my favorite Springsteen.

Western Stars,  while not country, is certainly country tinged… you’ll hear a pedal steel on a number of the tracks. This album, and I’d call it a genre exercise, is more of a sepia-toned, Southern California, 70s singer-songwriter album. There are strings on each track here that would make a young Elton John jealous. Springsteen’s voice, along with the strings, are front and center on this record. The other instrumentation is almost superfluous. You certainly aren’t going to get any screaming guitar solos here. He sings his ass off on this album. The vocal on There Goes My Miracle may be the most ambitious he’s ever done. These songs are, as the kids say, as melodic a.f. Sonically, this is as about as far away as you could get from Nebraska. It’s the lush kind of album you just don’t hear anymore.

This album conjures wide-open spaces, specifically in desert parts of the country like southern California, Nevada or Arizona. There is no social commentary in these songs as has been his more recent m.o. The songs are filled with drifters or men who are on the downward slope of life and somewhat down and out but the album is far from a bummer. Many of the protagonists are preoccupied with lost love or lost opportunity. The sun seems to always be going down. Most of the characters on this album could be described as a troubled Wichita lineman… There’s a sense of movement, or rather desperate men racing away from something… or finding escape through hard work under a big sky… with the past always near behind. I’ll be the first to admit, this album is somewhat monochromatic. It’s like Picasso’s blue period. Say man, try a little red.

The album opens with a pair of drifter tracks. “Hitchhikin'” opens the album and the first thing you hear is Springsteen’s voice, a perfect place to start. That leads into “Wayfarer,” which is the story of the hitchhiker if he had a car. While the first track has a nice acoustic guitar driving it, the second is all strings. The down on your luck theme continues later with the title track which tells the tale of a has-been actor, trading on his past glory for chicks and free drinks. “Drive Fast (Stuntman)” is the story of, obviously, a stuntman, near the end, hobbling around on “pins in my ankle.” “North of Nashville” finds a singer who never quite made it in the Country Capitol. All the protagonists mourn a lost love. While the songs all explore similar themes they’re all unique.

Lost love as a theme continues on “Sundown” “Stones” and “Moonlight Motel.” As a man who is no stranger to heartbreak I found these tracks all very moving. Although even I’ll admit “Stones” gets a tad repetitive. “Chasing Wild Horses” is the story of a guy with a temper issue who wears himself out at work each day to avoid fighting anybody at night. Like I said, its a bunch of troubled Wichita County Linemen…

The best tracks here, to me, include the first single, “Hello Sunshine.” That’ll be the track on the greatest hits packages going forward. It’s a classic tune, Review: Springsteen’s New Solo Song, “Hello Sunshine” From The Upcoming LP ‘Western Stars’. “There Goes My Miracle” is my favorite in a long list of strong vocal performances. Lately, and I don’t know why, I wake up with the refrain in my head, “there goes my miracle, walkin’ away.” On “Tucson Train” a man “down and out in Frisco” waits expectantly on his lover to arrive on the train to make everything better… why she isn’t taking the bus which is cheaper and faster, we’ll never know. I love a good train song and this one is the happiest track here.

There’s really only one song on this album I don’t like. It’s the change of pace, upbeat, Tex-Mex (almost zydeco) track, “Sleepy Joe’s Cafe.” It’s a bit like “Mary’s Place” on The Rising. It’s meant to be a bit of sunshine amongst a group of troubled characters but it just ends up being annoying. He could have easily cut that track and I’d have been happy.

This album makes me feel like I’m cruising down Highway 1 in California, top down with my shirt unbuttoned, with the wind blowing through my long hair and sideburns like it’s 1973, Aqua-Velva oozing from my pours, cowboy hat on the seat next to me. That’s just my 70s vibe, others might feel differently. I really like this album and urge everybody to check it out, despite it’s monochromatic bent. This is the most engaging, interesting thing Springsteen has done in quite a while.

Cheers!

 

 

 

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Review: Springsteen’s New Solo Song, “Hello Sunshine” From The Upcoming LP ‘Western Stars’

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I took a little vacation down to the Florida Keys last week. It was good to get away. I was able to sit and roast in the sun (always use sunscreen folks, and don’t forget to slather your feet with it), put my headphones on and crank up the tunes… “Hello Sunshine,” indeed. The people the Rock Chick and I were traveling with, who live down there, are enormous music fans. Their principal interest remains classic rock and especially the blues. Every night ended with us sitting out on the lanai (a very fancy word for a screened-in deck/porch) cranking tunes on my little portable speaker and enjoying a nightcap, or two. I don’t think I’ve listened to that much Lynyrd Skynyrd since high school. Florida really is just Arkansas with coastline. Our traveling companions were laser-focused on finding live music every night which is always fun.

As part of an unplanned change-up during the trip, we left the Keys early and headed up to South Beach in Miami for that last night in the “Sunshine State.” At one point that evening, we ended up in a Salsa bar, which is a lot like ending up in marching band camp, all horns and noise…the horror, the horror. I was just trying to watch the Kentucky Derby and enjoy my bourbon. One might describe the week as a “musically immersive experience.” The best part of decamping early to Miami was the three hour drive up the Keys where my hosts played SiriusXM’s Spectrum station. The Spectrum plays classic and current rock. Over the course of the trip I heard the new Bruce Springsteen track, “Hello Sunshine” probably three times. It’s always better to first experience a new track in the car. There’s just something about driving and jamming.

Springsteen has been a busy man whilst on hiatus from the E Street Band. He had his very successful, one-man show on Broadway based on his autobiography, and won a Tony. He followed that up with a Netflix special of the show and the inevitable soundtrack there of, Review: Netflix’s ‘Springsteen On Broadway’ – The Artist’s Dialogue With Fans Comes to the Great White Way. I’d been hearing about a solo project he’d recorded either prior to his Broadway show or during that time frame. The new music was described as “beautifully orchestrated.” Springsteen hinted that he was looking for a certain late-60s/early 70s sound on this new mystery solo project. I also just read yesterday, in a sudden burst of creativity he wrote an album’s worth of material for an E Street Band album. Which is really good news for those of you fearing we’d never see those guys together again. For now at least, we have the new solo album to look forward to in June, Western Stars. 

When describing the specific 60s/70s sound he was looking for, Springsteen mentioned singer/songwriter Jimmy Webb. I’ll be the first to admit that Webb is not a household name. I have been fortunate in my life that I’ve always surrounded myself with music nuts. After college, many of us eventually ended up in Kansas City. The guy I spent most of my time with in those days was an old roomie of mine, who I’ll call Stormin (name obscured to protect the guilty). Storm is like me, a huge music fan. When we weren’t drinking beer and eating stolen t-bones, we liked to go to the record store, spelunking for new stuff. He actually purchased a Jimmy Webb album back in those days and played it for me. It had all these great old tunes, mostly made famous by Glenn Campbell, like “Wichita County Lineman,” “Galveston,” and “By The Time I Get To Phoenix.” I said, “Why is this guy doing all these covers?” Lo and behold, I found out that much to my embarrassment, Jimmy Webb wrote all those great songs and I’d had no idea.

Springsteen, of course, isn’t covering Jimmy Webb, he just wanted to capture that sound. The songs Webb wrote always had beautiful melodies and amazing orchestration. It’s easy to think that his stuff was made famous only by Glenn Campbell, meaning they are all country songs, but that would be wrong. His stuff was recorded by artists as diverse as Isaac Hayes, Waylon Jennings and the 5th Dimension. Disco queen Donna Summer even did “MacArthur Park.” Alas, Webb never found the success (commercially) as a recording artist that he did as a songwriter… the critics always seemed to like his records but not the fans in general.

On “Hello Sunshine,” Springsteen has indeed captured that beautiful orchestration that Webb was famous for. The influence is very strong. Frankly, I’m thrilled Springsteen is paying this much attention to the sound of his music. Sometimes he can get a little too focused on the lyrics and the message. His music has become ever more topical of late, which isn’t a bad thing, it’s just nice to hear Bruce do more of a “pop” song (for lack of a better description). Over hushed drums and a wonderful bass line, Bruce sings in a slightly deeper register and manages to capture both the sadness and joy in the lyrics. It’s one of the most nuanced vocal performances I’ve heard from the Boss. The strings and piano kick in and the song takes off. There’s a beautiful pedal steel signature that plays throughout. The track does have an old-school country vibe, and I really, really love this song. Even the Rock Chick, who likes a fraction of Springsteen’s music said, “This could be a really great Springsteen album.” This song is almost an anachronism… it feels like it belongs in another time and place.

The lyrics are just great. The track is about a guy coming out of a dark time, perhaps a depression. The first lyric says it all, “Had enough of heartbreak and pain,
I had a little sweet spot for the rain.” Some of us get used to the darkness and come to be almost comfortable in it. It seems the “Sunshine” of the title may be a new love… “I’ve always liked my walking shoes, but you can get a little too fond of the blues.” I just think the lyrics perfectly fit the mood of the track. I love the sound and I love Bruce’s singing here. “Hello Sunshine, won’t you stay…” Don’t we all feel that way sometimes?

I don’t think this is Bruce’s “country” album. If “Hello Sunshine” is any indication, I think Western Stars has a chance of being a great, old-school, singer-songwriter type of album. You know, like Springsteen on his first album. This gives all of us at B&V something to look forward to this summer. I highly urge everybody check this track out!

Cheers!

 

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.

 

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!