Bruce Springsteen (3)

First post here:

Well I’m tired of comin’ out on the losin’ end
So honey last night I met this guy and I’m gonna do a little favor for him
Well I guess everything dies baby that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
Put your hair up nice and your makeup pretty

And meet me tonight in Atlantic City

The eighties were an interesting time for Bruce. By now, he was a superstar of international magnitude. “The River” had been a smash hit. And so we all expected him to put out the next big anthems, the next big rock album, the next “Born to Run.” And so a full two years later he comes out with …

… “Nebraska.” A solo acoustic album about death row killers, petty gangsters and other disaffected losers. I’ve always found Springsteen to be torn between rocker and troubadour, Woody Guthrie and Jerry Lee Lewis. And in this case, he apparently needed to get something out of his system.

Recorded in his home studio, the intention was for the band to re-record the numbers and add their “E-Street-ness” to it. But they could just not find a way into this somber, serious material. And so the tape was cleaned up and it was put out as a solo album. (Say this for Bruce, he does not always try to cater to mass tastes. And if he does, he quickly retrenches and thinks about if that’s where he wants to be).

“I felt that a large audience is, by nature, transient,” he said. “If you depend on it too much it may distort what you do and who you are.”  So in order to not let his popularity “blind me to the deeper resonances of my work,” he began recording these songs in his garage.

And while not necessarily met with open arms on its release, this album has gone on to become a quiet classic. “Atlantic City” has been covered by everybody from Levon Helm to Mumford and Sons:

And so we come to “Born in the USA,” a massive worldwide hit that has sold some 30 million albums to date. It produced 7 top 10 singles. I really like the album and yet, I have ambivalence about it. Why? Well I listened to it recently and all that stuff I originally loved about Springsteen, the subtlety, the jazziness – all gone. Instead it appears that someone told Max Weinberg to hit his drums as hard as is humanly possible on every single song.

So by the end of the album I don’t feel so much exhilarated as pummeled into submission. For me, a bunch of great songs run through the “after Nebraska, Bruce, we gotta have something commercial” mindset. My observation is that he allowed himself to be swayed by Landau a little too much, even having to be persuaded to do “Dancing in the Dark.” (Evcn the video seems dopey today with Bruce doing some strange teen idol gyrating and of course, pulling a young Courtney Cox onto the stage. All staged).

So, I am going to somewhat rectify that here by posting the original acoustic version of “Born in the USA.” It better projects the melancholy post-Vietnam intent of the song, not the (never intended) flag-waving part. And wouldn’t it be nice if there were two versions of this album – one for when you feel like some arena fist-pumping, one when you want a more subdued listen.

Born in the U.S.A.
Come back home to the refineries
Hiring man says “son if it was up to me”
I go down to see the VA man
He said “son don’t you understand?”
Born in the USA, Born in the USA
I had a buddy at Khe Sahn fighting off the Viet Cong
They’re still there he’s all gone
He had a little girl in Saigon
I got a picture of him in her arms 
Down in the shadow of the penitentiary
Out by the gas fires of the refinery
I’m ten years down the road
Nowhere to go and nowhere to run

By this point in time, I’d been listening to Bruce for about 11 or 12 years. And I found myself drifting away from him somewhat anyway. It was a different era, he was different, and I wanted to listen to other stuff. (I had actually started doing that more in the late ’70’s when New Wave came around). Oh, I always kept track of what he was doing, was still a fan, occasionally went to see him. But I was no longer following him religiously. I think that’s why, other than a couple cuts, I didn’t pay much attention to “Tunnel of Love.”

This album was largely a product of his failed marriage to model/actress Julianne Phillips. He doesn’t so much trash her as admit (in one of my favorites, “One Step Up,”) that:

It’s the same thing night on night
Who’s wrong baby who’s right
Another fight and I slam the door on
Another battle in our dirty little war
When I look at myself I don’t see
The man I wanted to be
Somewhere along the line I slipped off track
I’m caught movin’ one step up and two steps back

I went back and listened to this 1987 album recently and you know what? It’s pretty damn good. I had never actually heard it all the way through. Less boom-boom crowd-pleasing than “USA,”and more heartfelt and sincere. Really enjoyed it.

Bruce is well-known as a dynamic live performer. He and the band will play for 3 or 4 hours or whatever. And they leave nothing out there on the stage. It as an all-out blowout with Bruce as preacher, teacher and rock n’ roll savior. And so just for the hell of it, lest we forget Bruce is a rocker (“I’m a rocker, baby I’m a rocker”), let’s end this thing with a live E Street blowout. Here’s the so-called “Detroit Medley” from 1978.

“Are you loose?” Fuckin’ ay!

Next – final Bruce post. Nineties and beyond

11 thoughts on “Bruce Springsteen (3)

  1. We must disagree about Born in the USA 😉 I agree that the videos and corny promo stuff is annoying, but I think the album remains true to what Bruce intended with brilliant songwriting. Not everything’s a fist-pumper, as you have songs like I’m on Fire and Dancing in the Dark which are fairly mellow. I think, though, we can agree that (in terms of albums) ‘Bruce the Urban Literary Romantic’ probably trumps ‘Bruce the Triumphant Voice of the Working Classes’ 😉

    As for Nebraska, I’m quite a big fan of it. The slightly muffled underproduction of it is the key to its success IMO. Great post.

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  2. Yes, I know I’m staking out the controversial position on this one. Just to note I far from hate or even dislike “USA.” Next time I’m cruising that’s one I’ll consider putting on. But if I’m looking to hear Bruce the way I prefer to hear him, I’m going to back to “E Street Shuffle,” And I’m digging other stuff too. Agreed on “Nebraska,” and I’m liking “Tunnel of Love.” (Love “Asbury Park” in its own funky way.)

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  3. Great stuff all round, eh? BTW, my new discovery today: John Fahey, relaxing instrumental acoustic music and the so-called progenitor of ‘American Primitive Music’. Folky and wonderful. Hey ho…

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  4. Yeah, I’m a guitar player so I have at least a nodding acquaintance with his stuff. Cannot claim to be an expert. I will add him to my (ever-growing) list. 😀

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    1. Ok, so I listened to this. A couple of times in fact. For me, a mixed bag. What i liked:

      -I liked the singing, harmonies and use of instrumentation. I especially liked the way they handled the more uptempo songs (Johnny 99, State Trooper, etc. To the extent that anything on this album can be called uptempo.) I was less thrilled with their handling of the slower tunes. “Nebraska” in particular came out almost dirge-like. I get that it’s about a mass murderer. But I think there’s a way to do a song like that and not have you feel like the pacing is too slow.

      -But when they get it right, it’s good. Their version of “State Trooper” is pretty wild and haunting.

      Anyway, good stuff. Overall I can’t say I prefer it to Bruce but there’s some nice interpretations. It’s difficult to make you forget the original the way Hendrix did with “Watchtower.”

      Thanks for bringing this to my attention. If you’ve seen my One Song/Three Versions posts, you know I love interpretation by other artists.

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      1. You’re welcome. I’d say you’re fairly on the money. I got to see them perform the album live a few months back and it was a lot livelier in places.
        I did see at least one of your One Song/Three Versions posts (I want you back) and enjoyed it very much. I’ve been meaning to check out your others, so this is a timely reminder. I had done something similarish here https://runawayamericandreamsite.wordpress.com/2015/11/29/the-song-remains-the-same/ with the Ghost of Tom Joad.

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  5. I’ll check it out before the weekend. Today’s my “listen to Bowie” day as they’re playing him on a channel on Sirius all this week. (And tonight’s my “go see the Elvis Costello broadcast at a theater” night. I know – all of these are tough work but somebody’s gotta do it!) But I will definitely check it out and report back. Thanks!

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