Music and TV favorites, 2019 (Part 2): Originals

(Courtesy of Netflix)

As I wrote in Part 1: The President (such as he is) of the United States is a liar. It’s no wonder the music and TV that mattered most to me in 2019 was all about the search for what’s true and real. All of my most-played and most-pondered favorites featured some variation of authentic selves breaking free from suppression, performers grappling with the limits of persona and the soul-truths that can sometimes only be revealed through the act of striking a pose...

(Continue reading Part 1 here.)

“Rolling Thunder Revue”: Dylan goes electric

“Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story,” Martin Scorsese’s magic trick of a Netflix mockumentary, had me hoodwinked for an embarrassingly long time. I finally twigged to what was going on more than halfway through the film when Michael Murphy appeared in character as former presidential candidate Jack Tanner, the role he played in Garry Trudeau and Robert Altman’s celebrated 1988 HBO political mockumentary “Tanner ’88.” And then I laughed out loud.

“Rolling Thunder Revue” is a carnival midway attraction of a movie, in keeping with the traveling circus atmosphere of Dylan’s shambolic 1976 Rolling Thunder tour of North America. Scorsese’s film is mostly recycled from concert and behind the scenes footage for “Renaldo and Clara,” the movie Dylan directed while on tour, in which he, Joan Baez and a horde of musicians and traveling companions played themselves but also not-themselves. (The original footage was shot by Howard Alk, David Meyers and Paul Goldsmith.) “Renaldo and Clara” was a critical flop when it was released; “Rolling Thunder Revue” is basically that movie reassembled by Scorsese with a wink and a nod.

I’ve watched “Rolling Thunder Revue” twice and I still can’t make up my mind whether Scorsese’s smoke-and-mirrors additions work. For instance, he plants ringers like actress Sharon Stone, purporting to have been on the tour as a teenager, and performance artist Martin Von Hasselberg as Stefan Van Dorp, the disgruntled alleged director of the original footage, among the interview segments with real-life Rolling Thunder participants. Was piling an extra-level of trickery onto the already tricky “Renaldo and Clara” overkill, like TP-ing a house on Halloween and egging it for good measure?

Maybe. But it doesn’t get in the way of the film’s main event, its exhilarating concert footage. Dylan is a wild man in the concert scenes, as he leads a rotating roster of musicians (the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn, Bowie’s guitarist Mick Ronson, a young T-Bone Burnett, and violinist Scarlet Rivera, working her Gypsy queen persona to the hilt) through stomping rock versions of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” as well as sweeping cinematic narratives like “Isis” and “Hurricane.” The camera often tight on his face, Dylan is incandescent with desire and rage, shouting out lyrics like they’re his last will and testament.

For me, watching “Rolling Thunder Revue” was like opening a time capsule and rediscovering things I’d forgotten and never fully appreciated, like how astonishingly sexy and charismatic this stage incarnation of Bob Dylan was. And the gender-fluidity of his ’70’s rock-star look — eyeliner, scarves, fresh flowers rimming his wide-brimmed hat — is startlingly modern. His face smeared with white mime’s makeup (remnants of “Renaldo and Clara”), “Rolling Thunder Revue” becomes one trippy masquerade.

The greatest singer-songwriter of our time has always managed to remain a changeling and an enigma; you were never truly sure if the Dylan you were seeing today would be the Dylan you’d see tomorrow. He pops up as one of Scorsese’s present-day interview subjects in the film, polishing his myth by giving characteristically flinty answers. But watching “Rolling Thunder Revue” again, I realized that in one of his faux-interview answers, Dylan is handing us a clue to the game he and Scorsese are playing, as well as summing up the theme of the movie (and Dylan’s career): “Life isn’t about finding yourself … Life is about creating yourself.”

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Bruce Springsteen: Like a rhinestone cowboy

In his 2016 autobiography “Born to Run” and the long-running “Springsteen on Broadway,” Bruce Springsteen tells us that the Boss was a character that he created, and that the Bruce Springsteen we think we know is a figment of our collective imagination. The soul-searching and naked confessions that make up Springsteen’s output since 2016 flip that Bob Dylan quote on its head: lately, Springsteen’s life has been about un-creating himself in order to find himself.

The solo studio album he released in 2019, “Western Stars,” didn’t move me. With its narrow focus on aging solitary men reaching the end of the line, “Western Stars” revealed Springsteen’s head as a claustrophobia-inducing place to be at the moment. I also thought the recreations of lushly orchestrated Jimmy Webb-style country-pop of the ’60’s and ’70’s were pretty but airless. I wanted something more from Springsteen’s first studio record since 2012, some acknowledgement that we woke up one day and everything had changed. I wanted him to articulate my pain and grief over the state of our country. Instead, he released this.

I missed the concert movie built around “Western Stars” when it had a short run in theaters. I set my sights on a rumored E Street Band album and tour on the horizon and moved on. And then one day I was driving in the car and heard the live version of “Sundown” from the “Western Stars” soundtrack album and I had a small epiphany. Played live with a band, string section and backup singers, “Sundown” came buoyantly alive. Springsteen’s singing was looser and warmer, freed from the constraints of the studio version’s fussed-over production. In my original review, I said that the “The Wayfarer,” “There Goes My Miracle” and “Sundown” (songs on the record that I actually like) could have been sung by Sinatra in the ’70’s. And sure enough, the live versions from the “Western Stars” soundtrack really swing, Jack.

So here’s the epiphany. I still don’t love the studio album or the precious years spent on solo introspective confessions and summations, but the “Western Stars’ soundtrack clicked something into place for me. I can finally appreciate what Springsteen is doing with all of this, and why.

Here’s a guy who has spent the better part of his career being “Bruce Springsteen,” who, as he tells us in the autobiography and the Broadway show, isn’t really him. He has tried to speak to us as plain old Bruce Springsteen before, most notably on “Tunnel of Love,” “Lucky Town” and parts of “Devils and Dust,” about his flaws and failings, his struggles, his love for his wife and kids. But now, at 70, his desire to tell us what he needs to tell us, to show himself, seems to have become more urgent. The “Western Stars” live album helped me understand that I was focused on the theme and sound of the songs, when the act of Springsteen singing them was the main point. This is grown-up music. And doesn’t Springsteen deserve to have some time to be his grown-up self, singing swinging grown-up songs with his baby by his side, and not having to get up on stage and conjure the “Bruce Springsteen” he used to be at 25 or 30 or 40? Springsteen will tour with the E Street Band again and for those three hours, we’ll all be transported back to 1975 again. Until then, we owe it to him to let him work out what he needs to work out in order to be at peace.

The “Western Stars” concert version ends with a cover of Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy,” an irresistible sing-along as well as a fitting homage to one of the inspirations for the album. It’s my choice for cover of the year. And in a way, Bruce Springsteen is the Rhinestone Cowboy, the larger-than-life, star-spangled hero, “getting cards and letters from people I don’t even know.” Springsteen sings the song with a self-deprecating smile in his voice. His performance is jovial but not jokey; he sounds like he’s having a blast, but the choice of this song carries an echo of the message he puts forth more somberly in “Springsteen on Broadway” — the person we see on stage isn’t always the person we think we’re seeing. And at this point in his career, he’s earned the right to take off those heavy rhinestones once in a while.

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Prince “Originals”: Album of the year

(Courtesy of Virginia Turblett/The Prince Estate)

Three years gone and Prince still manages to put out an album that blows away what most living artists released this year. OK, so Prince had nothing to do with the conceptualizing or release of “Originals”; it’s a well-chosen and sequenced project of the Prince Estate, consisting of Prince’s demo tracks of songs that were ultimately recorded by other artists. If he was still with us, Prince might never have consented to let this corner of his vast trove of unreleased work see daylight. But now that it’s out, “Originals” has the impact of a flex from beyond the grave; it’s equal to the diminutive genius tossing his guitar into the air after owning that all-star Rock and Roll Hall of Fame performance of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” as if to say, “Y’all see what I just did?”

By now, none of us should be surprised by Prince’s eternal ability to surprise us. And yet, “Originals” does exactly that. Only one of its 15 tracks, “Nothing Compares 2 U,” has been previously released in Prince form (a live version appeared on his ’90s greatest hits compilation “The Hits/The B-Sides”). These demos of songs Prince gave away to other artists date from the ’80’s, his most fertile period. Most of the tracks went to acts he produced under his “Jamie Starr/Starr Company” moniker, like Sheila E., Vanity 6, Apollonia 6 and Morris Day and The Time. Others went to outside acts like the Bangles (“Manic Monday”), Martika (“Love … Thy Will Be Done”) and — well, why not? — Kenny Rogers (“You’re My Love”).

“Gave away” doesn’t really get to the heart of what Prince did with these songs. He may have let others record them, giving several careers the kiss of life, but in return he breathed his presence and influence into every note of their performances, every inch of the recording tape. His original Warner Bros. contract allowed him to recruit and produce artists for the label. But he did even more than that. Prince was like a nonthreatening version of Harry Potter’s nemesis Lord Voldemort. Voldemort guaranteed immortality by secreting pieces of himself into seven objects and living things; Prince produced other artists in his own image, magnifying his sound and extending his influence beyond his home studio in Chanhassen, Minnesota. He was always thinking big.

We always knew Prince was the wizard behind the curtain of so many acts, but it’s a jolt to hear just how much influence he had on the finished recordings. As “Originals” reveals, these tracks aren’t demos so much as blueprints. The Morris Day and The Time song “Jungle Love” exactly follows Prince’s demo, every “o-ee-o-ee-o” and squawk, right down to the shout of “Somebody bring me a mirror!” (Prince, Morris Day and original Time guitarist Jesse Johnson get co-writing credit on “Jungle Love.”)

Likewise, there’s little breathing room between Prince’s demo of “Gigolos Get Lonely Too” and The Time’s version (although Prince sounds like the lonelier gigolo), or his “Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me?” and Taja Sevelle’s or his “Sex Shooter” and Apollonia’s. For “Manic Monday,” the Bangles gave Prince the keys and let him drive; he arranged the backing vocals and they kept his flower-power-y piano riff from the demo. It’s a kick to hear his lead vocal here, and his keyboard-playing stands out as lighter and more joyful in this draft of the production.

Prince’s demos for Sheila E. in particular — “The Glamorous Life,” “Noon Rendezvous,” “Dear Michelangelo” and “Holly Rock” — are a fascinating glimpse into their symbiotic relationship. Sheila E. receives sole or shared credit on all of these songs, but her finished vocals strictly adhere to Prince’s emphases and inflections from the demos. On his crackling version of “Holly Rock” (a close sibling of the smoking jam “Housequake” from “Sign o’ the Times”), Prince becomes Sheila E., singing out lines like, “Sheila E’s my name/ Holly Rock’s my game/I’m funky as I wanna be/Line up a hundred I swear to God/I rock ’em till they just can’t see.” Performing the song in the movie “Krush Groove,” Sheila’s vocal again follows Prince’s guide vocal. And with her peek-a-boo lace suit, pompadour hairdo and hip thrust/kick split dance moves, Sheila E. becomes Prince.

The Sheila E. demos aren’t the only songs here that reveal their gender-fluidity when Prince sings them. On “Make-Up,” recorded by Vanity 6, he narrates a cosmetic routine to a repeating Kraftwerkian technofunk riff , his monotone at once signifying dominatrix and sex robot. The performance gets sexier as the gender identity of the singer gets blurrier (“I guess I’ll wear my camisole”). I always assumed that Prince’s blended male-female Love Symbol stood for the sexual communion of his music. So “Originals” was a “holy shit” revelation for me about what Prince might have really been saying when he adopted that symbol as his own. Then again, maybe I should have taken the hint when he sang “I’m not a woman/ I’m not a man/ I am something that you’ll never understand” in “I Would Die 4 U.”

Wholly inhabiting these songs, Prince slips easily into different skins, different personas — the horny jester of “Jungle Love,” the working woman of “Manic Monday,” the transcendent spiritual being of “Love … Thy Will be Done.” It’s as if we’re hearing facets of personality, complexities of self, all of Prince’s contained multitudes. And then we come to the final song, the “Nothing Compares 2 U” demo that’s so sparsely orchestrated and intimate that the burbling electric piano chord may as well be a pulse, the percussion a clock winding down. “Nothing Compares 2 U” sounds like a voice and a soul, existing beyond space and time and skin and bones — the voice of Prince, the one and only, and that’s the God’s honest truth.

Music and TV favorites, 2019 (Part 1): Got to be real

The President (such as he is) of the United States is a liar. It’s no wonder the music and TV that mattered most to me in 2019 was all about the search for what’s true and real. All of my most-played and most-pondered favorites featured some variation of authentic selves breaking free from suppression, performers grappling with the limits of persona and the soul-truths that can sometimes only be revealed through the act of striking a pose.

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(Courtesy Elektra Records)

The Highwomen: A seat at the table

The name is a pun on and a tribute to the Cash-Kristofferson-Haggard-Jennings Mount Rushmore of country supergroups. But The Highwomen — Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby — see their project as more of a collective than a supergroup. And that’s exactly what this debut record sounds like. Their group singing conveys a whole, a sense of sisterhood and community to which all are welcome and all belong. In a genre where women artists have to fight for airplay (a 2019 study showed that women artists comprised only 11.3 percent of the country radio airplay on 2018 year-end industry charts), “The Highwomen” feels as much like a movement as it does a musical happening.

The title track is a rewrite of Jimmy Webb’s “Highwayman,” in which the male archetypes of rugged adventurers (outlaw, seafarer, dam builder, astronaut) are replaced by women protectors, activists and healers. The Salem witch, the migrant mother trying to cross the Southern border, the civil rights Freedom Rider (sung by Yola, an Americana/soul artist from the U.K.) are all portrayed as a threat to the patriarchal, misogynistic societies in which they live. In the migrant and Freedom Rider verses, the women are doubly persecuted for race as well as gender. Sung in unison, the final chorus — “and we’ll come back again and again and again and again and again” — conjures women as a resilient force through time, determined to right wrongs and speak truth in a world that underestimates and fears us. If that sounds corny, think of Christine Blasey Ford, Marie Yovanovitch and Fiona Hill testifying before Congress at personal and professional risk. Highwomen, all.

The two other statement songs on “The Highwomen” are similarly lifted by the sisterly blend of the group’s voices. “Redesigning Women” is a sparky country-pop homage to the way Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and Reba McEntire made “women’s lib” acceptable for their fans in past decades.The women in the song go to work, race home to breastfeed the baby, take on their families’ emotional burdens and drink a lot of wine. “How do we do it? /How do we do it? /Make it up as we go along,” goes the bridge. The message here is that there is no “right” way to be a woman, so we need to stop beating ourselves up trying to be perfect.

“Crowded Table” glows with a similar generosity. It’s a song of hope at a time when hope is defiance: “I want a house with a crowded table/And a place by the fire for everyone/Let us take on the world while we’re young and able/And bring us back together when the day is done.” The hearth and home imagery both calls to mind and undermines the traditional notion of “a woman’s place.” Women are doing most of the labor of resisting the Trump regime — working in groups, organizing protests, sitting at kitchen tables calling elected officials and writing postcards to voters. The “house” of “Crowded Table” is America. And while the song’s warm folk-rock vibe reminds me of “Our House,” by Crosby, Stills and Nash, it conjures no cozy retreat from the world. It welcomes the world in.

The smaller, more personal songs on “The Highwomen” pack an emotional wallop as well. “If She Ever Leaves Me” was written by Shires and her partner Jason Isbell (who plays on the record) for Carlile to sing. And Carlile’s vulnerable, full-hearted wobble on the declaration “I’ve loved her in secret/I’ve loved her out loud” tells you all you need to know about the cost of loving in secret and the liberation of loving who you’re meant to love.

One song that’s not on the record but should have been is The Highwomen’s version of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” (it’s on the soundtrack to the film “The Kitchen”). It’s a faithful cover, but with a crisper beat than the original. The song is an incantation, a curse ex-lovers level at one another. But when “The Chain” is liberated from the sexual merry-go-round that was the Mac and sung by four women joined together in righteous anger, it becomes something more dangerous and thrilling. As part of Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nicks’s crystal-vision sorcery was often misinterpreted as air-headedness by the male rock critic establishment. On “The Chain,” the Highwomen sound like a whole coven assembled to avenge Stevie Nicks and how she gave voice to the power of women’s love and rage. They are the daughters of the witch the male-driven music industry couldn’t burn.

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The category is “realness”: “Pose,” Lizzo and “Schitt’s Creek”

“If you feel like a girl, then you real like a girl,” Lizzo sings in “Like a Girl” from her unstoppable 2019 album “Cuz I Love You.” Her body positivity and self-actualization anthem “Juice” is the dance song of the year, but every track on the record slams, makes you move. And on the album’s other giant hit, “Truth Hurts,” she asks the question that’s been on a lot of people’s minds since the circus came to town on Election Day 2016: “Why men great till they gotta be great?”

Lizzo is the definition of exuberance, from her rich, sunny voice (reminiscent sometimes of Chaka Khan’s) to her boasts (“I just took a DNA test, turns out I’m a hundred per-cent that bitch“). Taking her stage cues from Queen Bey’s swagger, Lizzo commands you to respect her as she is, a self-made woman who has no time for your body-shaming. Lizzo is not too much, she is everything. Her odes to “self-partnering” like “Soulmate” (“They used to say to get a man you had to know how to look/They used to say to keep a man you had to know how to cook/But I’m solo in Soho, sippin’ Soju in Malibu/ It’s a me, myself kinda attitude”) alternate with songs reading unworthy men the riot act. “Cuz I Love You” could be titled “Cuz I Love Me,” a message she puts across in every performance, every glam shot, every pep talk about knowing your own worth. If it’s a pose, it’s a great and a joyous one, because it pulls her listeners into a place of celebration for the messy realness and the shining possibilities inside all of us.


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(The Rose family of “Schitt’s Creek”)

SPOILERS AHEAD!

Affluent jet-setting poseurs lose their fortune and are reduced to living in the hinterlands among their plaid-clad inferiors — that’s the premise of the Canadian sitcom “Schitt’s Creek.” It’s a seam that “Green Acres” and “Newhart” mined well (except that the urban sophisticates of those shows willingly relocated to small town USA in search of “real” folk). What “Schitt’s Creek” brings to the genre is a big-hearted view of humanity at a time when political tribes are actively avoiding each other. On “Schitt’s Creek,” the spoiled Rose family — video-store magnate Johnny Rose, his soap opera actress wife Moira and their pampered adult children Alexis and David — gradually develop humility and empathy as they discover their true selves.

Created by comedic treasure Eugene Levy (who plays Johnny) and his son Dan Levy (who plays David and is also a writer and producer on the show), “Schitt’s Creek” began life on Canada’s CBC and on the mid-tier cable network Pop in the U.S. It broke big when Netflix picked up existing seasons. I was slow to take notice, but once I did, I blasted through it with increasing astonishment and delight. It was my antidote to Twitter this year, and I wish I had had the will power to morsel out the 2019 season when it hit Netflix in October. But I didn’t, and now I have to wait for its sixth (and final season) to hit next year. That’s OK, it gives me more time to re-watch season five, which culminates in an amateur theater production of “Cabaret” for reasons unknown (but it totally works).

“Schitt’s Creek” is often burstingly funny. That magnificent, elegant clown, Catherine O’Hara has the role of a lifetime here and she slays it; her Moira is a bewigged, bedazzled fish out of water, clad in black-and-white haute couture and accentuating her lines in a bewildering speech pattern somewhere between pretentious thespian and Jiminy Glick. As for her longtime comedy partner Eugene Levy, I could write a thesis on his expressive eyebrows through the years, from “SCTV” to “Best in Show” to “Schitt’s Creek,” but for now, I’ll just say that his Johnny is a master class in comedic reacting as the optimist amid his family’s chaos.

What makes “Schitt’s Creek” perfect escapist viewing is it’s relentlessly positive depiction of people’s capacity for change; the longer the Roses stay in Schitt’s Creek — they bought the town as a joke when they were wealthy, and it’s their only remaining asset — the closer they become as a family. And as we get to know them and their neighbors, we’re constantly being surprised by every character’s slowly revealed strengths, kinks and aspirations, the depth of their emotional lives.

If this sounds treacly, it’s not. Every grandly sarcastic line from the mouth of bitchy fashionista David lands as invigoratingly as a cold dip after a hot sauna. And as Alexis, Annie Murphy has created an entire language out of variations on the exclamation, “Eww!” The most singular and wondrous thing about “Schitt’s Creek,” though, is its treatment of David’s queerness (Dan Levy is himself gay). Take the following exchange between Johnny and the town’s mayor, Roland Schitt (Chris Elliot). Roland is a passive-aggressive weirdo, but in keeping with the show’s theme that you should never assume you know what’s going on with people, he completely gets it:

Johnny: My son is pansexual.
Roland: Uh huh. I’ve heard of that. That’s, uh, that cookware fetish.
Johnny: No. No, no. He loves everyone. Men, women, women who become men, men who become women. I’m his father and I always wanted his life to be easy. But just… pick one gender and maybe everything would have been less confusing?
Roland: Well, you know, Johnny, when it comes to the heart, we can’t tell our kids who to love.

Near the end of season five, there’s a lovely episode where David’s adorably unflappable boyfriend Patrick (Noah Reid) comes out to his visiting parents. The parents are visibly uncomfortable and you’re waiting for the worst, but it turns out that they’re happy for him, just melancholy that Patrick kept his true self from them for so long. By design, there is no homophobia on “Schitt’s Creek.” This is Eugene and Dan Levy’s world, and we should all be so lucky to live in it.

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MORE SPOILERS!

FX’s “Pose,” the Ryan Murphy co-created drama series about ball culture and trans and gay life in New York City of the ’80s, set itself a daunting goal for its second season: Tell the story of how AIDS ravaged a generation of gay and trans people while President Ronald Reagan took no action. How do you document the terror, the demonization, the loss upon loss of those years without driving TV and streaming audiences away? Murphy, co-creator Steven Canale and writer-producers Janet Mock and Our Lady J did it by alternating the focus from the personal to the political, drawing parallels to the criminal indifference shown toward the lives (and deaths) of LGBT people by a Republican administration and its powerful religious allies, then and now.

Season two of “Pose” gave viewers a living history lesson of the plague years, from ACT UP die-ins to the terrors of living with the disease that (in those days) meant certain death. The show’s most beloved characters, House of Evangelista mother Blanca Evangelista (MJ Rodriguez) and drag ball emcee Pray Tell (Emmy winner Billy Porter), both developed full-blown AIDS during the course of the season, reacting with their usual resilience (Blanca) and anger (Pray). Yes, “Pose” was often difficult to watch this season without shedding tears. But, as Pray Tell is fond of saying, the older members of the community have to educate the youth. Here is a major TV series with a cast, producers and writers that is majority trans and gay (and majority black- and brown-skinned), exploring the fullness of LGBT lives at a time when the faction in power is doing everything it can to erase them from public life.

Some of the characters’ experiences were horrible: the murder of Candy Ferocity, an African American trans woman; the many characters’ backstories about being banished by homophobic and transphobic parents; Pray Tell’s bone-chilling AIDS-fever dream where he wanders through the hospital ward singing “The Man That Got Away.” But this was all necessary to make the essential point — “Pose” shows you what people will risk for the freedom to live an authentic life.

For all the heartache and sickness this season, “Pose” still gave us plenty of music, dance and ball-walking (a through-line astutely showed the attention Madonna’s “Vogue” brought to the ball community, and the debris after mainstream interest faded). And when the emotional highs came, they were soaring. Pray finally letting himself act on his attraction to a much younger dancer led to a long, skin-to-skin bedroom scene of pure ecstasy. And Rodriguez continues to infuse Blanca, the head and heart of her ball family, with poise, grit and an endless capacity for maternal love.

In an indelible scene from the season finale, Blanca turns up for the “Mother of the Year” ball competition still weak from AIDS-related pneumonia. From her wheelchair, she radiantly lip-synchs to Whitney Houston’s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” This land is our land too, the choice of music proclaims. Blanca’s House of Evangelista, her crowded table, her chosen family, is a vision of a welcoming, inclusive America that was just a dream in 1990. We’ve come so far in 30 years, the writers seem to be telling us, even as they invite us to consider the forces that threaten to drag us backwards to the time of outcasts and plagues.

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Coming in Part Two: Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Prince

From the Vault: Morris Day and Prime-Time

Hey, who remembers that Prince’s Court Jester, Morris Day, once starred in his own NBC sitcom pilot? I didn’t, and I was one of the few TV critics who reviewed it when it ran as summer filler in 1988. Here’s a nugget from my clippings archive, currently under construction. Many artifacts to come. (Stretch photo to enlarge.)

A Map of the Future: Bruce Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” at 30

(In 2008, the Friends of the Springsteen Collection at the Asbury Park Public Library asked me to write a piece for their website commemorating the 30th anniversary of “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” originally released June 2, 1978. Here is that piece as it appeared on the Friends website. Eventually, the piece was published with updates in 2012 in Eric Meola’s book “Streets of Fire: Bruce Springsteen in Photographs and Lyrics 1977-1979” (It/HarperCollins). The Bruce Springsteen Special Collection has been housed at Monmouth University in New Jersey since 2011. – Joyce Millman)

DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN – 30 YEAR ANNIVERSARY

“Here be dragons.” According to legend, medieval map-makers used that phrase to signal the dangers of unexplored realms. In 1978, Bruce Springsteen drew a map and wrote “here be dragons” on it – except his warning read, “Darkness on the Edge of Town.”

The “darkness” haunts this album like a living, often fire-breathing, presence. On the title track, “dreams are found and lost” within its shadows. On “Streets of Fire,” when Springsteen yowls, “In the darkness, I hear somebody call my name,” it’s as if his anguished character has imagined the voice of darkness itself. On “Adam Raised a Cain,” the narrator is swallowed up by an abyss of adolescent pain: “In the darkness of your room, your mother calls you by your true name/ You remember the faces, the places, the names/ You know it’s never over/ It’s relentless as the rain.” “Darkness” has many meanings on the album. It’s temptation and salvation. It’s what we desire and what we fear. It’s a crucible through which our true selves are revealed. It’s the sin we hide deep in our souls.

In the 1998 book “Songs,” Springsteen wrote that he envisioned the characters of “Darkness” as “a community under siege” from the emotional and financial struggles of working-class life. Thirty years after the album’s June 2, 1978 release, Springsteen is still guided by his old map, still squinting at the darkness on the edge of town. His most recent album “Magic” (2007) returns to a community under siege, but, this time, the siege is literal. On “Magic,” the darkness takes the monstrous shape of governmental arrogance, and the toll of that arrogance hangs over the Springsteenian Anytown landscape like a soul-chilling fog. The gypsy biker is returning home in a flag-draped coffin. There are bodies hanging in the trees. Our own worst enemy has come to town.

Through the prism of “Magic,” we can now see that “Darkness on the Edge of Town” was Springsteen’s great transitional and transformative album. It broached thematic territory to which he would return again and again: the struggle to live up to the promise of our better natures as individuals and as a society. And, musically, it charted a new course that he would follow for the rest of his career.

Springsteen’s first three albums, “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.” (1973), “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle” (1973) and “Born to Run” (1975), were big, tumultuous blends of eclectic rock/jazz/soul orchestrations, cascading boardwalk poetry and technicolor turnpike psychodrama. These records owed a debt to ’60s radio, Bob Dylan and Martin Scorsese’s operatic vision of Italian-American manhood, “Mean Streets.” But “Darkness” was something else entirely, a break with the past so sharp and unsentimental it looked more like an escape. 

Take the album cover, for a start. The scraggly-bearded scamp of the previous records was gone, replaced by an unsmiling, (relatively) clean-shaven Springsteen gazing straight into the camera, sleepy-eyed and defiant. Dressed like vintage Brando or James Dean in a white T shirt and black leather jacket, Springsteen is incongruously posed against faded-pink flowered wallpaper and graying Venetian blinds in an old house. On the front and back cover shots, photographer Frank Stefanko positions Springsteen in a nook right up against the blinds, so he seems too large for that small, stifling space. The message is clear: You can’t go home again. And indeed, Springsteen had left home. “Darkness” followed a messy legal emancipation from manager and producer Mike Appel; it was the first album made solely with new producer/mentor Jon Landau, the former rock critic who had proclaimed him the “rock and roll future” a few years earlier.

The mood of the music inside the album sleeve matches those broody, yet vulnerable, photos. On his previous records, Springsteen surrounded himself with a gang of lovable losers: Hazy Davy, Killer Joe, Spanish Johnny, Crazy Janey, the Magic Rat. But his lyrics for “Darkness” contain no such cameraderie. His characters here are anonymous, intensely alone and isolated.

“I live now, only with strangers/ I talk to only strangers/ I walk with angels that have no place,” Springsteen sings on “Streets of Fire.” Clarence Clemons’ sax solos, the sound of warmth and kinship on previous albums, only appear on three of the 10 cuts on “Darkness.” Springsteen’s vocals are gruff and growly, the guitar solos savage and scalding. Danny Federici’s dirty-blues organ riffs on “Prove it all Night” and “Adam Raised a Cain” hark back to the rumbling working-class anthems of the early Animals. The stately ballad “Factory” and the harmonica-driven “The Promised Land” reflect Springsteen’s new (and lasting) interest in Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie and other country and folk musicians. Lean where “Born to Run” was grand, “Darkness” jump-starts the straight-ahead, roots-rock sound that would hit full throttle on Springsteen’s fifth album, “The River” (1980), the studio release that best captures the spontaneity of the E Street Band in concert. 

With “Darkness,” Springsteen also unveiled a stunning new songwriting style, with language that was newly spare and stripped-down, but no less vivid or poetic for its terseness. The songs were no longer exclusively set on urban turf. “Lights out tonight/ Trouble in the heartland” goes the first line of the first song, “Badlands,” and from the “rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert” of “The Promised Land” to the “dusty road from Monroe to Angeline” of “Prove it all Night,” “Darkness” crosses the Jersey state line to embrace prairies and plains and a wider, all-encompassing version of America. As if we couldn’t guess from the literary-looking typewriter font of the album cover and lyric sheet, Springsteen had set out not to make just a great rock album, but to write his version of the great American novel. And in many ways, he did. 

In its vinyl incarnation, “Darkness” comprises 10 songs, five on each side, perfectly mirroring one another in theme and mood. “Darkness” is a looped tale; finish one side, turn it over, and you find different characters in exactly the same emotional, if not physical, place as their brethren on the opposite side. And that’s the whole point: The struggle to realize our dreams, to break out of pinched, repressive or hopeless circumstances, is a universal one, repeated from generation to generation, relentless as the rain. Springsteen sings most of the songs in the guise of a restless Everyman, but the ferocious “Adam Raised a Cain” stands apart as a close-to-home confession. Steeped in Catholic guilt and alluding to both biblical Genesis and Steinbeck’s “East of Eden,” “Adam” is the first song Springsteen recorded that nakedly depicts his turbulent relationship with his father. 

But, then, all of the characters on the album share a desire to escape the dead-end, dead-eyed “workin’ life” of their fathers (so succinctly and chillingly articulated on “Factory”). These people long to be somewhere, and, often, someone, else. And while all the songs on “Darkness” take place after sundown, this is not the sensual, liberating summer night of “Born to Run,” but, rather, a darkness ambiguous and impenetrable, in which the characters drive around and around “chasing some mirage.” But for all its car and road imagery, “Darkness” is really about the illusion of movement. Few of these characters truly get anywhere, except in their dreams.

The ones that do make it are haunted by the cost – betrayals, severed ties, disappointment – of pursuing their desires and ambitions, for “wanting things that can only be found/ In the darkness on the edge of town.” On the heartbreaking “Racing in the Street,” the narrator – possibly the kid from “Thunder Road,” who lured Mary off her front porch and into his front seat, crowing “it’s a town full of losers / And I’m pullin’ out of here to win” – has failed the girl he loves. He promised her a better life, but they’ve ended up back where they started, “on the porch of her Daddy’s house.” The girl’s “pretty dreams are torn”; the guy races cars to keep from “dying little by little, piece by piece” – to keep moving, even if he knows he’s just spinning his wheels. And yet, the song ends with the possibility of redemption and escape: “Tonight my baby and me, we’re gonna ride to the sea/ And wash these sins off our hands.” 

Battered, tenacious faith in the promise of a better life – that’s the glimmer of light at the heart of “Darkness,” and it shines brightest on each side’s opening tracks, “Badlands” and “The Promised Land.” Indeed, these two songs are the foundation of the populist spirit that has become an integral part of Springsteen’s music. Against a churning beat, the narrator of “Badlands” is “caught in a crossfire” of emotions and impulses. He wants to get out of this nowhere life, take control of his future, but he wonders if it’s possible to realize his heart’s desire without losing his soul. Is it preordained that to succeed in America, you have to succumb to selfishness and cynicism and adhere to the social and economic facts of life that dictate, “Poor man wanna be rich/ Rich man wanna be king/ And a king ain’t satisfied/ Till he rules everything”? The narrator considers going over to the dark side, but his heart isn’t in it; the pull of youthful idealism and innocence remain too strong. He keeps coming back to these two words: “I believe.” In the emotional crescendo of the song, Springsteen sings, “I believe in the love that you gave me/ I believe in the faith that can save me/ I believe in the hope/ And I pray, that someday it may raise me/ Above these badlands.”

The assertion “I believe” recurs in “The Promised Land.” The scenario is similar to “Badlands” – the young narrator works in his “daddy’s garage” by day and drives around aimlessly by night. He feels weak and trapped and longs for a purifying “twister to blow everything down/ That ain’t got the faith to stand its ground.” But, he hasn’t yet given up hope in what might wait shimmering for him in the wreckage: “Mister, I ain’t a boy, no, I’m a man/ And I believe in a promised land.”

That use of “Mister” in “Promised Land,” as if the story is being told to an observer just out of our view, brought a documentary dimension to Springsteen’s songwriting; he would pursue the “Mister” (or “Sir”) structure further in the sparse and spooky modern folk music of his 1982 solo masterpiece, “Nebraska.” But, in hindsight, “The Promised Land” may well have been Springsteen’s first true folk song. Like Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” “The Promised Land” is a subversive – a people’s – national anthem. It suggests the breadth and natural majesty of the land (that “dark cloud rising from the desert floor” is one of the most hauntingly visual images in all of Springsteen’s songwriting) and the resilience of working-class optimism.

But it’s shadowed with the dark side of the American Dream – the socioeconomic inequalities, the “lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted.” In “The Promised Land,” we can find the seeds of two bittersweet latter-day Springsteen folk songs, “Land of Hope and Dreams,” a passionate invocation of an America more generous and inclusive than the one we’re living in, and “American Land,” a rambunctious Irish-flavored salute to – and defense of – the immigrants who have followed their dreams to our supposed land of opportunity.

The question is, after eight years of the Bush Administration, after Iraq, torture, wiretaps, the erosion of the Constitution, the loss of moral standing in the eyes of the world, the disappearance of the middle class and the scapegoating of immigrants, legal and illegal, is it still possible to believe in America as the promised land? Springsteen thinks so, if his April 16 endorsement of Sen. Barack Obama for President is any indication. Springsteen wrote of Obama, “He speaks to the America I’ve envisioned in my music for the past 35 years, a generous nation with a citizenry willing to tackle nuanced and complex problems, a country that’s interested in its collective destiny and in the potential of its gathered spirit.” 

But even if Springsteen had not written those words, his faith in the “gathered spirit” would have been evident from the pivotal set list positions he gave “The Promised Land” and “Badlands” on the 2007-08 legs of the E Street Band’s “Magic” tour. “Magic” is an autumnal record, with references to ill winds and gray skies and a pervasive sense of identities, personal and national, breaking down. The deceptively upbeat “Livin’ in the Future” is a litany of all the things that have fallen apart during the Bush years: “The earth it gave away/ The sea rose toward the sun . . . My ship Liberty sailed away … The groundskeeper opened the gates and let the wild dogs run.” While the choruses repeat, “We’re livin’ in the future and/ None of this has happened yet,” it’s clear that this is only wishful thinking; to borrow a line from “Prove It All Night,” this ain’t no dream we’re livin’ through tonight. In nearly every concert of the initial North American portion of the “Magic” tour, “Livin’ in the Future” was followed – and contradicted – by “The Promised Land.” The latter song’s sweet harmonica intro rose up in the wake of the bleak imagery of “Livin’ in the Future” like a cleansing rain after a long, punishing dry spell. The words “I believe in a promised land” never sounded so cathartic, so welcome and so urgently necessary. 

On the “Magic” tour, “Badlands” usually made its appearance at the end of the first set, immediately following “Long Walk Home,” a cornerstone of the “Magic” album. On “Long Walk Home,” Springsteen turns the map around, so that he’s coming home out of the darkness – “in the distance I could see the town where I was born.” He’s out of the car and walking, just like Woody Guthrie in “This Land Is Your Land,” but as he enters the heart of town, he sees that something has gone very wrong. The diner is shuttered, the VA hall is abandoned, the townspeople are “rank strangers.” Once upon a time, his father proudly told him, this town – which is, of course, America itself – was a “great place to be born,” and the flag flying over the courthouse “meant certain things are set in stone/ Who we are, what we’ll do/ And what we won’t.”

The closing repetition of the wistful line, “It’s gonna be a long walk home,” alludes to the daunting work of reversing the moral, psychological and physical damage of the past eight years (“a great American reclamation project,” Springsteen called it in his Obama endorsement). But “Badlands,” with its holy trinity of belief in love, faith and hope, and its exhilarating assertion that “it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive,” reassures us that the task is not insurmountable. In concert, placed after “Long Walk Home,” the fervent declaration “I wanna spit in the face of these badlands” became a rejection of the moral wasteland of the Bush years, a refusal to remain a community under siege. 

In “Songs,” Springsteen wrote that “Darkness on the Edge of Town” was the record on which he found his “adult voice.” But it’s now clear that this was the record on which he found his political voice as well. “The Promised Land” and “Badlands” are simple yet profound affirmations of democratic ideals; they remain relevant today as commentaries on the darkness of cynicism and the dragons of endless war that threaten to wipe our town off the map. Like the whole of “Darkness,” these songs were built on a faith that can stand its ground. 

© 2008, 2016 by Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape