Sundown

 

Bruce Springsteen’s new solo record “Western Stars” puts us inside the heads of lonely men adrift in an American West so picture-perfect it might as well be a movie set. Springsteen’s characters here are all variations on a dusty-booted theme: A wayfarer hitch-hikin’ down the highway; an aging movie stuntman with a steel rod in his leg; a has-been Western movie actor downing raw eggs before shooting a Viagra commercial. All of these men harbor regrets about broken relationships. They’re waiting on the Tucson train for redemption or hoisting a toast to an absent lover in a ratty motel room. Wild horses, coyotes, charros and steers make an appearance, as do truckers, bikers, a souped-up ’72, an El Camino and John Wayne.

The aging men of  “Western Stars” are free-falling towards obsolescence.  These characters are in constant motion, but it’s an illusion of motion, because they always end up in the same place — at the end of the line, unchained but tethered to the failures and regrets inside their own heads. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” is how Kris Kristofferson put it, in another time and place. The sadness on this record is palpable. Springsteen discussed his struggle with depression in his fine 2016 autobiography Born to Run and in “Springsteen on Broadway,” and while depression is never mentioned on “Western Stars,” it’s there, obliquely, in the cellos and minor chords and the self-imposed isolation of its characters.

Produced by Springsteen and Ron Aniello (who also produced 2012’s “Wrecking Ball”), “Western Stars” is deeply layered with lavish strings, keyboards, horns and female backup singers; the orchestrations often do the emotional work of a film score. Here and there, a rugged, twangy guitar muscles into focus. The influences are obvious and worn proudly: Elvis Presley’s “Kentucky Rain,” the “Midnight Cowboy” movie soundtrack, the wide open vistas of Aaron Copland’s America and the kind of sleek country-pop Glen Campbell made in the late ’60’s (there’s even a reference to a county lineman on “Sundown”). “Western Stars” contains some of Springsteen’s plushest, swankiest pop melodies — you can imagine ’60’s Sinatra swingin’ through “Sundown,” “There Goes My Miracle” and “The Wayfarer.”

And it all leaves me cold.

I’ve never had a reaction like this to any Springsteen record. I’ve been disappointed with Bruce albums (“Working on a Dream,” “High Hopes”) but I’ve never before been bored. I’ve never before felt let down. My problem (and judging from the near-uniformity of the positive critical response to the album, mine alone) is that the album strikes me as lovely but irrelevant. It’s reverential retro-ism, well-crafted artifice. “Western Stars” is not what I needed from Springsteen’s first studio album of new material since 2012, his first since that rough beast slouched into the White House. It gives me nothing I can use and I’m lost.

Maybe it’s me. Probably it’s me. Perhaps, two years into the chaos and darkness of Trumpism, I’ve lost my capacity to appreciate an elegy for idealized (fetishized?) archetypes of American manhood.

I tried hearing the record as a character study, a sequel to “Nebraska,” if you will. But these anonymous characters with their less-than-compelling stories are a road-weary blur;  there’s not a Johnny 99 or Joe Roberts in the bunch. The only guy who stands out is Sleepy Joe, owner of Sleepy Joe’s Cafe, simply because he has a name. Unfortunately, that name has become popularly associated with a lame-ass Twitter insult favored by our juvenile leader. Was a change of name out of the question?

Speaking of “Sleepy Joe’s Cafe” (“There’s a place out on the highway ‘cross the San Bernardino line/ Where the truckers and the bikers gather every night at the same time …”), it’s on my very short list of Bruce songs that I never want to hear again, right up there with “Outlaw Pete” and “Queen of the Supermarket.” What a strangely uninspired jumble of forced gaiety – Cajun accordion! Vaguely south-of-the-border horns! – and recycled dancing-our-cares-away imagery. It sounds Springsteen-ish but not of Springsteen, and I find this weird and not a little alarming.

Lighten up, you say? OK, I tried to lighten up and escape into “Western Stars” as a note-perfect homage to a particular genre from the golden age of AM radio pop. I grew up with that sound. I know the symphonic soft-rock and country-pop hits of the era inside and out and there’s a place in my heart for them. And who doesn’t need an escape from this world we’re living in? “Western Stars” should have hit the bull’s-eye for me, and it doesn’t.

A homage to a specific sound and genre of the past — sure, bring it on. Just not now. The timing of this release is off. We needed something more from Springsteen at this crucial moment in the life of our democracy and, for that matter, the planet. We needed his first new recorded songs in seven years to acknowledge that shit’s gotten real since 2012. Instead, he has presented us with a diorama, airless, sealed up in a world of its own.

Maybe it’s just that Bruce has so accurately envisioned our current cultural and political moment that there’s nothing more to say. I hope that’s not true. But I can see how being so far ahead of the curve can be wearying. He made a whole record about bigotry and hatred toward migrants and the homeless 24 years ago (“The Ghost of Tom Joad,” 1995). He debuted “American Skin (41 Shots),” his song about law enforcement brutality against people of color, in 2000, more than a decade before Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Philandro Castile. The searing and under-appreciated “Magic” album (2007) sounded the alarm at the exact moment when lawlessness became the guiding principle of the Republican Party. Marinate over this line from “Magic”‘s “Long Walk Home,” a response to Bush-Cheney’s adventures in Katrina neglect and Gitmo waterboarding, and consider how much farther we’ve fallen from the ideals of our founders since Springsteen wrote it: “Your flag flying over the courthouse means certain things are set in stone/Who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t.” On “Death to My Hometown” from “Wrecking Ball” (2012) he called out the “robber barons” stealing this country from within, the oligarchic coup that happened without a shot fired or a dictator crowned. Except, since that song was recorded, a dictator was crowned. All of those records mean infinitely more today than they did when they were released.

I wanted to hear what Springsteen has to say about the dystopian hell that’s broken loose since 2016. I wanted an album of new material that engaged with the existential terror we’re living through, that articulated our anger and lifted it up and offered community. I wanted songs we could fight with, hope with. We’ve been traveling over rocky ground. Where’s the Bruce who wrote that hymn of comfort and persistence?

Maybe it’s me. Probably it’s me. Maybe the Springsteen I need will answer the call next year, if a rumored E Street Band tour comes to pass. He has been there for us before  — notably, after 9/11 (“The Rising”) and Katrina (“Magic” and his Seeger Sessions Band rewrite of “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” comprise as efficient a dismantling of the G.W. Bush era as you could hope for). I get it, though. Bruce can’t save us from the mess we’re in now. And he can only make the album that he can make at any given time. This time, it was “Western Stars,” claustrophobic and sealed off from the world as it may be, and, on the surface, it hits the right notes: It sounds like a ’60s country-pop album.

But … hear me out. There was more to that genre than a big sound and a two-lane highway. Sometimes, a country-pop song would engage with the world in a way you never saw coming. Sometimes, shit got real.

In 1969, as the Vietnam War was raging, Glen Campbell recorded a Jimmy Webb song called “Galveston,” which, like Campbell’s previous Webb-penned hits “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Wichita Lineman,” featured the deep twangs and lush strings that Springsteen recreates on “Western Stars.” Wrapped in a gorgeous, fluid Webb melody, Campbell sings as a man yearning for his idyllic home town on the Gulf Coast and the girl he left behind. And then in the second verse, comes the bombshell: “Galveston, oh Galveston/I still hear your sea waves crashing/While I watch the cannons flashing/I clean my gun/And dream of Galveston.”

Did you feel that chill? “Galveston” is a deceptively pretty song about a homesick, scared GI in Vietnam. The last verse goes, “Galveston, oh Galveston/ I am so afraid of dying/ Before I dry the tears she’s crying/ Before I watch your sea birds flying in the sun/ At Galveston.” “Galveston” is one of the saddest songs ever recorded. Campbell’s soaring tenor on that last “oh, Galveston” made me cry when I was 12 and it makes me cry now. All the lush strings in the world can’t hide the horror of the situation the narrator finds himself in.

And yet, “Galveston” reached number one on the Billboard Hot Country and Easy Listening charts and number four on the Hot 100. Clearly, people were willing to accept the painful reality of war articulated in a hit song on AM radio. They wanted to hear Glen Campbell, one of the most successful entertainers of the time, acknowledge the world beyond Phoenix and Wichita. They needed a pop song’s reassurance that they were not alone in their worry and confusion, as the death tally of young men mounted, ideological chasms divided Americans and the world felt like it was coming apart at the seams.

I guess what I’m saying is, I wish that “Western Stars” had been Bruce’s “Galveston.”

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2019

 

 

 

 

 

Tramps like us: In Bruce Springsteen’s fearless memoir, his story becomes our story

First look at the first album. Photo from "Born to Run" (©Art Maillet)
First look at the first album. Photo from “Born to Run” (©Art Maillet)


Born to Run
by Bruce Springsteen (Simon & Schuster, pp. 510, $32.50)

Bruce Springsteen fans of a certain age have been living with his warm, sturdy, weathered voice in our ears for more than 40 years. The music has seeped into our DNA. The concerts are tattooed into memory. The lyrics, interviews and biographies have been parsed like holy scripture. We thought we knew all there was to know about our hero The Boss.

It turns out, we were right, and we were so wrong. We might have correctly intuited the shape of his life from the music. But as the 67-year-old Springsteen reveals in his new autobiography Born to Run, the details of that life are darker, tougher, more joyous and so much sadder than fans might have guessed. There are parts of this generous, fearless and gracefully-written book that will pierce your heart. Springsteen’s prose voice — like his songwriting voice, part-compadre, part-carney-barker, part-hardscrabble poet — is  so familiar by now, that his pain isn’t the pain of some remote celebrity, it’s the pain of a family member. And it hurts.

The story begins in Freehold, New Jersey, with a couple of stunning chapters about growing up in the bosom of an eccentric (sometimes poisonously so), blue-collar extended family of first- and second-generation Irish and Italian immigrants. He is doted on by his paternal grandmother, with whom he and his parents, Douglas and Adele, live. His grandmother Alice was long ago broken by the death of her five-year-old daughter Virginia. His grandparents’ house — “the greatest and saddest sanctuary I have ever known” — is dominated by the loss of the little girl. “Her portrait hovers, breathing a ghostly air into the room and shining her ill-fated destiny over our family gatherings,” he writes. “Her seemingly benign gaze … communicates, Watch out! The world is a dangerous and unforgiving place that will knock your ass off your tricycle and into the dead black unknown …”

Grandma Alice takes up little Bruce as a surrogate for her lost child. He is spoiled and protected, with no bedtimes, no rules. “The grinding hypnotic power of this ruined place and these people would never leave me. I visit it in my dreams today … It was a place where I felt an ultimate security, full license and a horrible, unforgettable boundary-less love. It ruined me and it made me. Ruined, in that for the rest of my life I would struggle to create boundaries for myself that would allow me a life of some normalcy in relationships. It made me in the sense that it would set me off on a lifelong pursuit of a ‘singular’ place of my own, giving me a raw hunger that drove me, hell-bent, in my music. It was a desperate, lifelong effort to rebuild, on embers of memory and longing, my temple of safety.”

The yearning for home recurs throughout the book; in a shiveringly evocative passage, he cruises the old neighborhood, even after his family has moved on and success has claimed him, driving slowly after midnight, parking on his old street, but not getting out of the car.  

By the time Bruce is elementary school age, his unorthodox family situation has rendered him “an outcast weirdo misfit sissy-boy … alienating, alienated and socially homeless.” He is unable to conform to the outside world and, especially, to Catholic school. Reclaimed by his parents, he is moved into a house darkened by the hulking silence of his father, a laborer with a boxer’s menace who will later haunt Springsteen songs like “Adam Raised a Cain,” “Factory” and “Independence Day.” As he once did in long, therapeutic stage raps, Springsteen lays out an eerie portrait of his father sitting at the kitchen table, seething and smoking cigarettes in the dark, waiting to lash out at his disappointing son: “He loved me, but he couldn’t stand me.”

Why did his sunny, lively mother submit to her husband’s passive hostility and madness, he wonders. “What penance was she doing? What did she get out of it? Her family? Atonement? … She loved my dad and maybe knowing she had the security of  a man who would not, could not, leave her was enough.” When Bruce is 19, Douglas packs Adele and their youngest daughter, Pam, off to start a new life in San Mateo, California, a last-chance power drive to lift the blackness in his mind. “Get out, Pops! Out of this fucking dump,” his son writes. “How much worse off can you be?” At the time that Bruce signs with Columbia Records, in 1972, he is essentially homeless, crashing in a surfboard factory. He has no credit card or bank account, has never visited a dentist and has yet to learn how to drive.

It wasn’t just the generation gap that had colored the mood inside the Springsteen home. “We are the afflicted,” is how Springsteen characterizes the “serious strain of mental illness” that plagues the Irish side of the family. In later chapters, he writes movingly of his father finally being diagnosed and treated for the depression, paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder that had gone unnamed for so many years.

Springsteen candidly details his own depression and anxiety, which arrived in his 30’s around the time of his mid-eighties Born in the U.S.A. superstardom and his short-lived marriage to actress Julianne Phillips. Therapy helps, and also touring and playing. But it remains an ongoing struggle. He writes of antidepressants that stop working and bring on non-stop crying jags, unyielding depression kept secret while recording 2012’s Wrecking Ball (his greatest late-career record to date) and a terrifying six-week bout with “agitated depression,” during which, he writes, “I was so profoundly uncomfortable in my own skin that I just wanted OUT. … For the first time, I felt I understood what drives people toward the abyss.”

Knowing the extent of Springsteen’s battle with depression now brings deeper meaning to a song like “Your Own Worst Enemy” from 2007’s Magic (“There’s a face you know/ Staring back from the shop window/ The condition you’re in/ You just can’t get out of this skin”). Taken literally and not as a metaphor for economic hard times “This Depression” from Wrecking Ball (“I’ve been down, but never this down/ I’ve been lost, but never this lost”) becomes simply shattering.

In an extraordinarily revealing section, Springsteen traces the connection between his father’s and his own mental illness and “the rigidity and the blue-collar narcissism of manhood ‘50s-style … The hard blues of constant disaffection … A misogyny grown from the fear of all dangerous, beautiful, strong women in our lives crossed with the carrying of an underlying physical threat, a psychological bullying that is meant to frighten and communicate that the dark thing in you is barely restrained. You use it to intimidate those you love.” Springsteen describes himself during his marriage to Phillips as a “passively hostile actor” given to “cowardly” acts of emotional violence. “I wanted to wound and hurt and make sure those who loved me paid for it. It was all out of the old man’s playbook.”

Too many rock memoirs merely polish the image set in granite. In Born to Run, Springsteen tells us from the first sentence that he is tinged with fraud, and then, sets about showing us his fragility, his failures, his shame and finally, with almost palpable gratitude, the hard-won lessons that taught him how to be a caring, emotionally open modern man. The pumped-up physique from the Born in the U.S.A. days was, he ruefully explains, “a symbol of an imaginary commanding manhood and masculinity” akin to the ship captain’s hat his father took to wearing in California. “For me there’d be no captain’s hat! Just ‘THE BOSS!’. Bulging muscles, judo and the lifting of thousands and thousands of pounds worth of meaningless objects every … single … day.” Some folks who stopped listening to Springsteen in 1985 might be surprised at how forcefully he takes apart that guy in the red bandana and the muscle shirts.

One of the strengths and pleasures of Born to Run is how we can discern the origin of songs rising up through the narrative, without Springsteen even mentioning their names. The shaggy boardwalk stories recounted here cast your memory back to the bar-band, Jersey shore world of “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” and “The E Street Shuffle” from his first two albums. The self-lacerating “Brilliant Disguise,” “One Step Up” and “Two Faces” from Tunnel of Love (1987) immediately spring to mind while reading his searing descriptions of his failures as a husband to Phillips. And he returns again and again to the class realities internalized from growing up poor in an economically depressed region in the 1960s, realities incorporated into his late-70’s-early-80’s albums Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, Nebraska, and the song “My Hometown” from Born in the U.S.A..

The teenager from the wrong side of the tracks who played for the preppies in wealthy Rumson, New Jersey eventually bought a house there. But Springsteen tells of being acutely uncomfortable with being tagged as “a rich man in a poor man’s shirt” when he decides to write about the lives of Mexican immigrants and the rural poor on the 1995 solo album The Ghost of Tom Joad. His songs are “emotionally autobiographical,” he explains. “The piece of me that lived in the working class neighborhoods of my hometown was an essential and permanent part of who I was … No one you have been and no place you have ever gone ever leaves you. The new parts simply jump in the car and go along for the rest of the ride.”

Springsteen’s assessments of his talents swing between wry humility (“I was not a natural genius”) and a seasoned showman’s pride in knowing how to leave it all on the stage. Though he makes it clear that he is THE leader of the E Street Band (“Democracy in rock bands, with very few exceptions, is often a ticking time bomb”), he writes with appreciation and love for the men and women with whom he makes music; they are a long-running train filled with like-minded saints, sinners and lost souls (as he mythologized the band in the beautiful 1999 track “Land of Hope and Dreams”) and they’ve endured through time and age and even beyond death. As for his fans, he counts us as an essential part of the equation. Almost as if he’s breaking the fourth wall, he tells us of struggling to find a spark while rehearsing the band in isolation for its 1999 reunion tour, until some die-hards loitering outside the hall were let in and “suddenly there it was  … there’d been only one thing missing: you.”

Springsteen’s writing is as windy and wordy, funny and rich as his lyrics. There are a few patches of mere workmanlike prose when he gets into track-by-track roll calls of one album or another. But most of his insights into how particular songs came to be are essential. He angrily defends “American Skin (41 Shots)”, the song he wrote about the 1999 shooting death of Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo by New York City police as he was reaching for his wallet — a song that has proven to be sorrowfully prescient. He writes that no other song of his, including “Born in the U.S.A.” (famously misinterpreted as a patriotic ditty by then-President Reagan) “ever received as confused and controversial a reaction … it truly pissed people off. It was the first song where I stepped directly into the divide of race and in America, race cuts deep.” For writing “American Skin,” he was given a plaque by his local NAACP: “I was always glad that the song brought me just a little closer to the black community I always wished I’d served better.”  

If the soul of the book is Springsteen’s long road to making peace with his father and himself, its heart is his marriage to Patti Scialfa, the singer and Jersey girl who cracked the E Street Band’s boys club when she joined in 1984. Springsteen writes tenderly of Scialfa, who seems a patient, loving and no-bullshit-brooking soul. Under Scialfa’s guidance, Springsteen learns how to be a true partner, as well as how to be a father to their three children — no easy task, having grown up nearly feral himself. And becoming a father brings him closer to Douglas. When the latter lays dying, Springsteen makes a head-to-toe study of the elder man’s illness-ravaged body: “It was not shined or shaped into a suit of armor. It was just the body of a man … His feet … are the feet of my foe, and my hero. They are crumbling now at their base. … I feel warm breath as my lips kiss a sandpaper cheek and I whisper my good-bye.”

Just when you think Born to Run has hit its final emotional peak, out comes one last, house-lights-up encore, an autumnal last paragraph in which Springsteen once again speaks directly to us. He has worked and fought to understand his own life, he writes, to turn its peaks and valleys into music, into shared experience. “This, I presented as my long and noisy prayer, my magic trick. Hoping it would rock your very soul and then pass it on, its spirit rendered, to be read, heard, sung and altered by you and your blood, that it might strengthen and help make sense of your story. Go tell it.”

I heard my story writ large the first time I heard Darkness on the Edge of Town. It was 1978, I was 21 and it gave me the courage to believe that I wasn’t going to be stuck in this house of fear and this defeated Northeast town forever. I carried it with me to California. It inspired and comforted me through depression, parenthood, illness, middle age, loss. And whenever Springsteen comes to my town, I’m there, surrounded by my fellow aging fans, with our aches and pains of body and soul. We all have our own stories, but in every one of them is a chapter called “Rock and Roll Salvation,” subtitled “Bruce.” We are all part of that train that Springsteen set in motion, and now, with the bittersweet summing-up of Born to Run, he’s taking us home.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape 2016

Bruce Springsteen at City Arts And Lectures (10/5/16)

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A few quick notes on Bruce Springsteen’s San Francisco stop on the Born to Run book tour …

The event was a 90-minute onstage interview for the venerable City Arts and Lectures series. It  was recorded for San Francisco’s public broadcasting station KQED-FM, and will air on KQED at 1 p.m. Sunday (Pacific time), Oct. 16. City Arts broadcasts also air nationally; check your public radio station for details.

The talk took place at the 1700-seat Nourse Theater. Before the doors opened, fans congregated at the stage entrance and posed for selfies in front of the poster advertising the sold-out show. It was a concert atmosphere, except for one thing: Bruce T-shirts were equalled by San Francisco Giants gear. This is after all, an even-year October.

Once doors opened, the line to purchase pre-autographed copies of Born to Run snaked outside into the courtyard. In the auditorium, fans posed in front of the sparse stage set — two empty orange wing chairs, a little table and a vase of tulips — cradling their copies of the book, or sang along to the Springsteen greatest hits mix blasting from the speakers while checking the National League Wild-Card game on their phones. We are Springsteen fans. We are Giant.

Springsteen shambled onstage looking like his off-duty self in spiffy leather jacket, gray T shirt, distressed jeans and biker boots. He acknowledged the roof-rattling ovation with an “Oh, stop” wave.

The interview itself, while enjoyable, offered little that differed from the Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and Terry Gross interviews. The problem was the interviewer, Dan Stone. Stone seems to be the go-to guy for City Arts’ interviews with rock musicians. I don’t know how his interview with Patti Smith the night before for the same series went, but he was overmatched for his interview with Elvis Costello last year (Costello, a superb interviewer himself, simply took control and steered the program in a more enlightening direction) and un-imaginative for Springsteen. Maybe he was going on the assumption that his audience was not made up of music fans, but this crowd — many of whom became members of City Arts and Lectures in order to purchase tickets at the member pre-sale — needed more than questions that covered the same well-trod ground. Also, dude — so many Dylan references!

Bruce read a few passages from the book, and did a lovely job of it — as soon as someone emerged from the wings to loan him a pair of drugstore reading glasses. Springsteen explained that he left his own readers “in the car … They’re weird and red, ’cause I only use them in bed.” Now there’s a mental image that was almost worth the price of admission.

The audience erupted in loud, long applause when Stone brought up Springsteen’s cancellation of the E Street Band’s North Carolina concert earlier this year in protest of the state’s anti-LGBT laws. “Folks that are real fans of our music will understand where I’m coming from,” said Springsteen.

Asked if he thought about creating a persona or stage name, like Bob Dylan did, when he was starting out, Springsteen deadpanned , “I did do that. It’s been so mysterious that nobody’s caught on yet.”

In response to a question about why he dropped the bar band sound of his early days when he signed as a solo artist with Columbia, Springsteen answered, “The degree of difficulty of the lyrics on Greetings from Asbury Park would have made people twice as drunk.”

One random but amusing tidbit about the night he first met producer Jon Landau at Joe’s Place in Cambridge, Mass. (the “I’ve seen rock and roll future” gigs): Organist Danny Federici played the shows with a huge white bandage on his forehead covering an injury sustained in a car accident. Federici happened to have been wearing a huge cowboy hat at the time of the crash. The hat,  says Bruce “saved him from disfigurement.”

Asked which current artist deserves to be called the “Voice of a Generation,” Springsteen talked up Kendrick Lamar.

Springsteen got a bit feisty when answering Stone’s question about writing from the working-class perspective after he attained wealth: Nobody “asks Martin Scorsese why isn’t he in the mafia.” Continuing on, Springsteen talked about how working-class roots never leave you, joking, “That’s how you get Howard Hughes naked in a chair in his 60’s saving Kleenex … which I hope I don’t end up that way.”

Ticket holders were given the opportunity to submit questions via email before the program, and Stone read a few of them to close out the evening. From this part of the interview we learned that, as a child, Springsteen’s favorite book was The Wizard of Oz. (“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” he chuckled.) As an adult, Springsteen really dug reading Moby Dick (“more than you ever wanted to know about whales”), the great Russian novelists and the dark fiction of Jim Thompson and Flannery O’Connor.

And that was that. Springsteen didn’t pull out a guitar and play (a long-shot hope, for sure), and there was no meet-and-greet, though some fans got lucky and caught him for an autograph while he was leaving the theater. But it was a chance for us to see Springsteen in an intimate venue, give him and his beautifully-written autobiography some love, and to assemble with fellow fans between concert tours. And the Giants won. Best of all worlds.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016

 

 

 

 

 

Bruce Springsteen turns 67 … and 30

 

What's New - Nov. 1979 (Springsteen photo by Andrea Laubach)
What’s New – Nov. 1979
(Springsteen photo by Andrea Laubach)

Bruce Springsteen turns 67 today, and he’s celebrating with a new autobiography Born to Run,  to be released Sept. 27. But as we all age along with Bruce, I’m thinking back to a landmark birthday he shared with an arena full of us in 1979. It was Madison Square Garden, Sept. 22, the first night of Springsteen and the E Street Band’s two-night appearance on the bill of the all-star MUSE concerts against nuclear energy. At midnight, as September 23 dawned and Bruce turned 30, he stopped the music to say, “Well, I’m over the fucking hill. I can’t trust myself anymore,”* and then threw a chocolate birthday cake into the seats down front.

Luckily, I was up in the rafters on my own dime, a baby rock critic covering the show for a free Boston music rag called What’s New. It was a wild night. The Boss was in a bit of a mood, and he was exorcising it all on stage. But this show was unforgettable for more than Bruce’s birthday, or the gigantic charity rock show vibe. This was the night Springsteen debuted “The River” from an album that wouldn’t be released for more than a year. He sang this new ballad at a deliberate pace, with immediacy and fierce passion, with no guitar in hand, no barrier, between himself and the audience. The performance was hypnotic and heartbreaking, and watching him, it was as if the thousands of souls around me slipped away; there was only the sweeping, piano-driven melody and the open-ended story of young lovers beset by accidental pregnancy and harsh economic realities.

One part of the song, in particular, grabbed me. It was the moment the narrator slips into a memory of the river as Eden, the lovers “tanned and wet down at the reservoir,” only to dissolve it in the next frame with a vision of the lovers visiting a dry riverbed: “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse …” Did Springsteen become a poet that night, or was my 22-year-old self finally alive to the poetry that was there all along?

With the 2016 River anniversary tour just wrapped up, it seems like the right time to share this clipping from the vault and remember the night that journey started. Happy Birthday, Bruce Springsteen. Long may the river run.

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*He’s quoting a saying we had back in the ’60s and 70s: “Don’t trust anybody over 30”.

(P.S. – I know it looks like the review says “his 11 hour set,” but, sadly, that was a typo. I think it was supposed to say “1 1/2-hour”. And love to my friend Holly Cara Price, who made this adventure happen.)

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016

Here’s “The River” from the movie of those MUSE concerts.

(Not) Record Store Day 2015

 

Desi and Marnie in happier days (Photo © HBO)
Desi and Marnie in happier times (Photo © HBO)

 

(FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE — APRIL 1) Record Store Day is April 18, 2015, and this year’s celebration of independent music sellers promises to be the best ever. Why? Because Record Store Day 2015 Ambassador Dave Grohl is included FREE with every purchase!  At last, you won’t have to endure the wait for Dave’s TV appearances, which can sometimes occur hours apart!  The inexhaustible Foo Fighters frontman will come to your house, wherever you are, and do whatever you want! He’ll organize your vinyl collection so the rare stuff is placed in just the right spot for your friends to notice your awesome taste –not too near to the top, where it looks like you’re trying too hard, but not buried in the back of the crate, either. He’ll clean out your garage. He’ll drive Grandma to the foot doctor. He’ll even DJ at your daughter’s bat mitzvah. And he’ll do it all with a big toothy smile, because that’s the way he rolls! And best of all, he won’t leave!  You can hint, you can plead, you can even call the cops, but how much do you wanna bet the cops end up jamming with him? His energy is THAT infectious!

Here are some late additions not really to the totally fake list of Record Store Day 2015 special releases, as of April 1 get it?:

Various Artists, Saturday Afternoon at the Guitar Center. An exclusive compilation of live performances by the best unsigned musicians around!  Tracks include some of the guitar solo from “Ain’t Talkin’ ’bout Love” by the retired firefighter down the street; the opening notes of “Stairway to Heaven” by the guy who gives guitar lessons at the Senior Center; something that might be “Master of Puppets,” it’s hard to tell, by the scary Peterson kid; a three-year-old having a tantrum on the floor while her brother pounds on a djembe;  the intro to “Crazy Train” by that weird guy over there in the Slayer T-shirt; and the chords to “Heart of Gold” by your mom. Each album comes with a commemorative extended warranty and a ukulele.

U2, Songs of Innocence (Deluxe Version with 10 Bonus Tracks). FREE to anyone who visits a local independent music seller on Record Store Day! You don’t even have to buy anything to receive this exclusive gift from the legendary Irish rockers;  just cross the threshold of a record store and it’s yours! Seriously, you will not be allowed to leave the premises until you’ve accepted your copy. Too busy to stop by? No worries! We’ll find you! We have your Apple accounts! We know where you live! Slainte!

Various Artists, Lost in Greenpoint: The Songs of Desi and Marnie.  Producer T Bone Burnett and a host of roots-ish superstars celebrate the short-lived but influential Brooklyn duo whose sound defined modern American folk music with an indie edge. Or were they more, like, “She & Him” with actual romance? You decide! Guided by newly discovered demos recorded during the duo’s heyday in the early-2015’s, Lost in Greenpoint is a vision of what might have been if Desi hadn’t disappeared right before the couple’s big record company showcase. Features Desi and Marnie’s timeless words and music performed by Mumford and Sons (“Song for Marcus Garvey”), Bon Iver (“Oaxaca Blues”),  the Decemberists (“Rattlesnake Cowgirl”), Of Monsters and Men (“Kokopelli Shelly”) and First Aid Kit (“Whoa, Wow, Wonderful”), among others, as well as a bonus track (“Close Up”) by 12-time Grammy-winning solo artist Marnie herself. (Desi, who now fronts a Lumineers cover band, refused to participate in the project, citing “negative energy”. Plus, he’s just a big douche.) This exclusive Record Store Day release features passionate liner notes by the mayor of New York City, Ray Ploshansky.

The Estate of Marvin Gaye, You’ve Been Served: The Lawsuit Album. Includes remixes, greatest hits and unreleased cease and desist orders against Prince, Usher, Justin Timberlake and the estate of Michael Jackson.

Bruce Springsteen, The First Seven Albums: The Remastered Remasters of the Remasters. Are you a Springsteen fan in your 40s who wishes you were born 10 years earlier? Are you an older fan who dreams of going back to your youth, when life still sucked, but not as much as it sucks now? Well, this Record Store Day, you can finally purchase Greetings from Asbury Park (1973) through Born in the USA (1984) in a vinyl format that faithfully reproduces the experience of listening to the Boss’s seminal albums of the ’70s and ’80s — just as if it were the ’70s and ’80s! All seven albums are re-released on crap-quality floppy vinyl distressed with pops and skips. Authentic smudges of Clearasil, burger grease and human tears adorn the covers, poignant reminders of that time Bruce helped get you through some really heavy shit. Super-collectible random copies feature the name of an older sibling scrawled in ballpoint pen on the top left back corner.

Record Store Day wouldn’t be complete without these exclusive singles and reissues!

  •  50 Cent featuring Ringo Starr (“Hey Kanye, I Have a Beatle Too!” b/w “Octopus’s Garden”)
  • George Ezra featuring Dave Matthews and a screaming goat (the folk classic “Wimoweh” b/w a cover of Focus’s “Hocus Pocus”)
  • The 20th anniversary reissue of Bryan Adams’ “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?,” the Oscar nominated theme song to the Johnny Depp-Marlon Brando classic Don Juan DeMarco. The limited edition single features Adams’ original track on one side and a newly discovered version by Depp (with Brando on bongos) on the other.
  • The 20th anniversary reissue of “Peaches” by The Presidents of the United States of America, b/w the dub step remix. Pressed on cannabis-resin vinyl.

Do you miss those classic all-star charity releases of the ’80s? Well, this year’s Record Store Day includes TWO exciting new supergroup projects for a good cause! Jay Z, Beyonce, Kanye West, Madonna, Jack White and many others join forces under the banner of Artists United Against Spotify for an exclusive single! “Do They Know It’s Christmas (and There Ain’t No Santa Claus)?” b/w “I’m Just a Water Bill” aims to raise money for impoverished millionaire music-makers while also teaching them basic life skills. Available in two limited-edition vinyl formats: 200 gram pressing ($20) and paper plate with grooves drawn on it in Magic Marker ($10).  Meanwhile, Dick Aid features Eminem, Robin Thicke, Chris Brown, Adam Levine and more in an all-star benefit for victims of feminism. This special four-and-a-half-inch single features the Dick Aid anthem “We Own the World” b/w a Diplo remix of “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?” All proceeds will be donated to the Bill Cosby Defense Fund.

(Record Store Day is April 18, 2015 — for real. You can find the complete list of actual RSD 2015 releases here.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

Just some guys talking about Bruce

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Below is a promo video for the forthcoming boxed set of Bruce Springsteen’s first seven albums, which have been remastered on vinyl from the original analog tapes. In the video, a select group of Springsteen’s “most loyal” fans (that’s the wording the official Springsteen website used to introduce the video today) get a sneak preview of the remastered albums and share their thoughts.  Let’s watch, shall we?

Notice something missing?  To recap, the participants who are filmed discussing the new boxed set are, with one exception, middle-aged white guys. There is one younger African American guy and one young white guy who proclaims himself a “vinyl snob”. There is a blonde woman who is quickly seen in one of the first pan shots, but we never see her again and her opinion is not included. There is an older blonde woman in the background when some of the guys are talking, but she never speaks. Oh, and there’s a reflection of a woman passerby in the window of the record shop in the first shot of the storefront where the listening session takes place. Probably on her way to the nail salon down the street.

Look, I don’t know what happened when this focus group was created. Maybe the women spoke, but were edited out for one reason or another. Maybe an attempt was made to invite more women, but everyone had other commitments. Maybe the guys never got the memo that they were each supposed to bring a female Bruce friend. Maybe it’s a truth universally acknowledged that only guys can hear the subtleties of remastered sound quality.

All I know is, if you told me that this was an SNL Video Short spoofing Springsteen’s perceived fan base, I’d believe you. Actually, I’m still hoping it is. Just drop Bobby Moynihan as Chris Christie in there, maybe Taran Killam in a “Born in the U.S.A.” bandanna — boom, instant classic.

I have spent 36 years trying to explain to non-fans how wrong their stereotypical view of Springsteen’s music and his fan base is — the Boss isn’t just for (now, old) white guys, honest!  But, hey, if official marketing material is going to reinforce that stereotype, why should I bother?

The irony is, Springsteen himself has long ago put the image of the E Street Band as a boys’ club to rest. The band has women in it, and their voices were an integral element of the 2012-14 tour. The audience has women in it, now more than ever. And think about these classic lyrics: “So Mary climb in, it’s a town full of losers, we’re pulling out of here to win”; “Come on Wendy, tramps like us, baby, we were born to run.” The Boss never excluded women from the journey, the rock and roll adventure. Which makes our exclusion from this promo all the more glaring. We are in this conversation, whether we’re invited or not.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014

 

 

 

In the grooves, part three

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In parts one and two, inspired by the exhibit “Vinyl: The Sound and Culture of Records” at the Oakland Museum of California History, I began revisiting the role that albums played in my life from my childhood in the ’60s until I stopped listening to the bulk of my music on vinyl in the early ’90’s. In the conclusion: Earthquakes, personal and geological.

College: 1975-79

I’d heard tracks from Bruce Springsteen’s first two records played on Boston’s FM station, WBCN, and I liked them. But, for some reason, I didn’t buy a Springsteen album until Born to Run, and even then, not until a year or so after it was released in 1975. But then something clicked and down I went into the rabbit hole of Springsteen fandom; I belatedly bought his earlier albums, and became enchanted by the cinematic story-songs and beatniks-on-the-beach vibe of The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. I wore out “Rosalita” and “New York City Serenade” as I made up for lost time. So when “Prove It All Night” was released in the spring of 1978 as a teaser single for his fourth album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, I was like a stick of dynamite ready to explode.

I remember my junior and senior year of college as a blur of Bruce. I saw my first E Street Band show in May 1978, then spent the rest of the summer counting the days until he came back to Boston in September. Darkness was the first record that I instantly, viscerally, understood — the narrator’s despair at living a small life, his desperation to be his true self somewhere else, spoke to me in my circumstances as a girl from a blue-collar family, filled with ambition but not much faith in myself. I parsed every word of Darkness reviews by Dave Marsh (Rolling Stone) and Kit Rachlis (the Boston Phoenix), pieces that approached the album the way we approached classic novels in my English Lit. classes, and I knew that I wanted to write about music this way. You know how people say, “Omigod, this album changed my life”? OMIGOD, THIS ALBUM CHANGED MY LIFE.

So Much Music: 1979-81

In senior year of college, I started writing record reviews for the free music papers that showed up in record stores around town. I met a kindred soul named Holly Cara Price, a Bruce fan, poet, photographer and aspiring rock writer. She persuaded me to start writing music reviews for an unlikely publication, a feminist weekly called Sojourner. Somehow, Holly convinced the editors that their definition of “women’s music” should expand beyond Teresa Trull and Sweet Honey in the Rock (no offense to those pioneering artists), to include all strong female rock and punk voices. So we wrote about Patti Smith, Rickie Lee Jones, Bonnie Raitt,  Joan Jett, even — I swear — Donna Summer’s Bad Girls album, all for a Cambridge radical/feminist/lesbian audience. They drew the line, however, at our attempts to educate our readers about Bruce. But I did learn about some amazing traditional women’s music artists, including the charismatic Ferron, who was pretty much the Springsteen of lesbian folk music. So, all in all, I think it was a mutual broadening of horizons.

When we weren’t fighting the patriarchy one Blondie review at a time, Holly and I were obsessing over Bruce together. It’s because of Holly, and Bruce, that I made my first trip to New York City for the 1979 No Nukes Concert at Madison Square Garden. That’s when I first laid eyes on Bleecker Bob’s, the legendary Greenwich Village record store, where I bought this Springsteen bootleg. Geek details: It’s pressed on red vinyl, has no credits and lists then-unreleased songs we’d later come to know as “Thundercrack” and “Bishop Danced” under the titles “Angel from the Inner Lake” and “Mama Knows Rithmatic, Knows How to Take a Fall”.

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After I graduated college, I kept my job in the campus library (the journalism offers weren’t exactly pouring in), but I continued writing for the free music papers. I was paid in promo albums, which is how I accumulated a Who’s Who of “Who’s that?” Do you remember Moon Martin? How about Horslips?  Yep, if there was a record that nobody else wanted to review, give it to the new kid. I didn’t care. I was getting a byline and trading in the crap promo records for albums that I really wanted.

And there was so much music to want in 1979 and 1980. This was as formative a period as 1970-1971. One part of me was all about Bruce. The other part was in an Anglophilic swoon over British new wave. Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces and Get Happy!!!, with their dazzling wordplay, sealed the deal on a deep admiration that has lasted through Costello’s many changes of persona and genre. The Clash’s London Calling launched a passion equal to that of my Bruce fandom; I remember buying their Sandinista! on my way to a December 1980 Springsteen show at the Boston Garden, stashing it underneath my seat and feeling like my musical worlds were colliding.

Ah, Sandinista!. This is what albums could do that CD’s and MP3’s can’t. The Clash packed an entire world, a movement, a community inside that album sleeve. Not only did the package contain three records for the price of two (including one side of dub reggae and electronica that sounds startlingly contemporary now), there was a tri-fold, punk ‘zine insert with lyrics, credits, notes and hand-drawn cartoons crammed onto every inch of its six pages. Sandinista! was a manifesto and a world-music party that you could hold in your hands.

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And then there was Chrissie Hynde . . . When I first heard the Pretenders’ debut album,  it was Tapestry all over again;  I felt like Hynde was speaking to women who loved rock and roll in our own language. Although she fronted a male band, she wrote from an aggressively female perspective, about sex, love, pregnancy, birth control, rape. The melodies were swervy and the rhythms jagged and hard, but Chrissie’s achingly beautiful voice, her singular phrasing and cooing vibrato, put her femaleness front and center. She didn’t wear dresses, though, and she didn’t flirt; she played a rhythm guitar as sharp as her cheekbones and bristled at being included in the condescending “women in rock” stories that filled the media in ’79 and ’80. Chrissie was everything I wanted and needed her to be. And the album cover shot of her in a bright red leather jacket, her kohl-rimmed eyes staring defiantly out from under Carnaby Street bangs, was, to me, the epitome of cool.

 

Rock Critic: 1981-1987

In 1981, I landed my dream gig — I was on the roster of regular music writers at the alternative weekly the Boston Phoenix. And one of the first lessons I learned there about writing rock criticism was this: Do your research. Don’t worry about looking stupid in front of a colleague for asking a question about a band or record. It’s better than looking stupid in front of your readers.

I hate to be all “Back in my day …” about it, but, do you know how hard it was to do your homework on an unfamiliar artist or genre before the Internet, before Wikipedia, You Tube, iTunes, Amazon and Spotify?  Your fellow critics were your Wikipedia and record stores were your iTunes. If the LP gods were kind, you could find the pertinent albums of any artist’s back catalog in one of the many used record stores in Boston and Cambridge. The juicier my assignments got, the bigger my record collection grew.

I loved research (still do). Artists and records that had been just names in Rolling Stone became indispensable favorites the deeper I dug. If there was a buzz around the office, I wanted in. That’s how I got turned on to Richard and Linda Thompson. I bought a last minute ticket to their show in 1982 at the tiny Paradise in Boston, knowing almost nothing about them except that they had a new album called Shoot Out the Lights and my editor was high on it. (It turned out to be their last tour — their marriage was pretty much dead at that point.) I came out of that show ravenous to hear more of their dark, droll British folk, which led me to their back catalogue, which led me to Thompson’s previous group, Fairport Convention, which led me to Sandy Denny, which led me to British folk nerd heaven. A depressing ballad elates me. A hurdy-gurdy throws me into a frenzy. I once counted up my souvenir ticket stubs and, to my surprise,  it turns out that I’ve seen Richard Thompson in concert more than any other band, more than Bruce, more than Elvis Costello. And it all started with this record.

A pile o' British folk.
A pile o’ British folk.

At the Phoenix, I became friends with a twinkly-eyed elf named Mark Moses, who was a computer programmer by day and one of the finest rock critics of his generation by night. (He eventually wrote the pop music column for the New Yorker.) Mark and I both loved bad puns, wicked gossip, lost 45’s from our childhoods and the songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. We never thought of ourselves as collectors. We combed through used album stores because we were completists, hungry to hear more. We couldn’t leave a copy of a record we loved to sit unappreciated in some suburban discount department store bargain bin, even if we already owned it. It’s because of Mark that I started to appreciate Gram Parsons, Luther Vandross, Gladys Knight, the Mekons. He also introduced me to the enriching, sustaining beauty of Aretha’s gospel records and Al Green. He came up with the single funniest rock and roll pun I’ve ever heard: “Little Richard Thompson, the manic-depressive R&B-folk singer”. He died of AIDS, 25 years ago this month. I wish I had a photo of him, but who went around taking pictures of their friends before cell phones? I have the music he gave me, though. And it makes me laugh every time I look at that copy of Dusty Springfield’s A Brand New Me and see the price sticker  — he liberated it from a going-out-of-business sale at a New Bedford Zayre’s.

 

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1987-now: California Soul

In 1987, I was offered a job as the daily TV critic for the San Francisco Examiner. My husband and I figured that we’d move out to the Bay Area for a few years, make some real money, then move back to Boston and have a kid, settle down. We pruned the record collection, sold some, gave away some, but still loaded more than 1,000 records onto the moving van for the trek west. I was uncertain, having never lived anywhere but Greater Boston. The records (and my washing machine — don’t ask) were like a security blanket. I really believed that we could just pick up our lives in one place, set them down intact in another and carry on, just as if we were still living in Boston, but, you know, further west.

For the first couple of years, we lived in a kind of limbo, rooting for the Celtics from afar, hanging out with people we knew from Boston, making frequent trips back. But as much as I resisted, California got under my skin. I loved looking into the horizon and seeing mountains, not gray flatness. I loved the dreamy quality of the sunlight on the green Pacific. I loved the unfamiliar flowers and the trees that never went depressing and bare. I was weirded out at first by the friendliness of the people, who actually said hello on the street, but that, too, grew on me. As did National League baseball, the lack of weather extremes, real Mexican food and (gasp) the Grateful Dead. Gradually, the East Coast ties loosened.

One October day, I got home from the office in the late afternoon, looking forward to watching the Giants and A’s World Series game. I puttered around with Kate Bush’s The Sensual World on the stereo. And then the earth began to shake. I ran under the doorway between the living room and kitchen and hung on, while the rented, wood-framed ranch house shook around me like a chew toy in a dog’s mouth. I closed my eyes and listened to dishes rattling in the kitchen, the top-heavy album shelving thudding against the walls of the living room, and the needle bouncing on the record. When I opened them, the first thing I saw was a pile of albums, hundreds of them, all over the living room floor. I keep the ruined Kate Bush record as a souvenir of the day I really became a Californian.

Because I wrote occasional music reviews for the Examiner, I was on record company mailing lists for a long time, but by the early ’90s, they had nearly all switched over to sending CD’s. Which was fine with me, because, by then, I’d had my son and portability of music was crucial if I was going to ever have time to listen at all. We bought a house (never moved back East after all), pruned the record collection again, stored the rest in boxes in the closets. I framed some of the artier album covers — Layla is now hanging in my bathroom. (What? I never claimed to be a decorator.)  A few times a year, I would get an urge to hear something that I only owned on vinyl, but I had long since stopped buying albums.

I never considered selling my remaining records, though — too many memories. And I’m glad that I didn’t. My son has claimed a good chunk of them for his own. His generation is buying vinyl again, making their own memories to the warm sound of (to quote Elvis Costello) “every scratch, every click, every heartbeat.” The circle is unbroken, the turntable spins.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014