Has it only been a year? It feels like a century. There’s a Reductress satire headlined, “Why I’m Preparing for the Anniversary of Trump’s Victory by Rolling Myself Up in a Rug and Dying in There.” Oh, such a tempting option! But the tiny flicker of optimism that hasn’t yet been beaten down tells me that a better way to mark this obscene milestone is by denying our doll-handed pretender the satisfaction of our despair. So I’m going to spend the day practicing defiance through positive action, and humbly suggest that you do the same. Volunteer in your community. Join a voter registration drive. Do a small kindness. Walk in a park. Talk to people. Take a break from Twitter. Listen to music.
I’ll make that last suggestion even more specific. Listen to “Other People,” the exquisitely angry and spot-on second album by the Rails. The married British folk duo (Kami Thompson and James Walbourne) recorded this record in Nashville, and it perfectly captures the mood of the past year, all upheaval and bad juju, shattered unity and evil bastards smirking their way to power. “Troubled times and devil bones/ There’s a fork in the road,” Thompson sings in the first and last line of the album’s final track. This is a record haunted by Trump and Brexit; hearing it for the first time was like finding an ally and a friend.
The record opens with “The Cally,” Walbourne’s harmonium-driven slow march that conjures the working-class neighborhood of Caledonia Road in the ’60s, when “them big old towers, they shot up fast and left us looking skyward.” Later, on the track “Brick and Mortar,” we see that march of progress continuing throughout London in present-day, and what a betrayal of the working-class it all turned out to be.
With ferocious fuzzed-out guitar and a snapping snare drum beat halfway between a New Orleans funeral procession and a Celtic march, “Brick and Mortar” sneers at deep-pocketed “sharks and lions” gobbling up neighborhoods whole, driving out working people, artists and the poor in favor of luxury flats and bullet trains to the suburbs: “And every piece of track is another stab in the back/ They’re tearing up old London’s brick and mortar.” (The song is specific to London, but it feels like San Francisco to me.) The themes of displacement and a broken country in disarray are there again on Kami’s heartbreaking “Leaving the Land” and that ominous finale, “Mansion of Happiness,” in which one of those forks in the road ends up pointing towards an England of “walking dead,” too suckered in by their screens to see their country stolen out from under their noses.
The record is so thematically cohesive that even the songs that deal with relationships in turmoil (“Late Surrender,” “Drowned in Blue”) or lost souls struggling with their own destructive behavior (“Dark Times,” “Hanging On,” “Shame”) work as metaphors for the bigger picture of things falling apart.
I don’t want to give the impression that this record is a downer. Like Thompson’s Brit-folk royalty parents, Richard Thompson and Linda Thompson and brother Teddy, The Rails are skilled at enrobing the bleakest lyrics in the most rousing Celtic/Americana snap and twang. Most of all, while “Other People” is not exactly a cheery record, it might give you some comfort to hear your own rage and sadness mirrored in Thompson and Walbourne’s voices.
If you’re nearly tapped out of hope that justice and good will prevail, listen to the title track, “Other People”; it’s a searing denouncement of the selfishness, cruelty and tribalism encouraged by the Brexit “Leavers” and Trumpism’s “I’m the only one that matters” credo. This song is exactly the affirmation of the power of community we need right now.
Thompson has a dark diamond of a voice dipped in sorrow and shining with intimacy and kinship. Singing the unsparing, astringent lyrics of “Other People,” she does something similar to what Jarvis Cocker did on Pulp’s “Common People,” but in a much sweeter way. She makes you feel like you’re not alone in this upside-down world. She makes you believe that we will eviscerate these assholes together.
“Crazy people, money grabbers, old religion and new regimes/Backstabbers, heartbreakers, psychopaths with evil schemes,” goes the first verse of “Other People,” and as a summation of Trump and Farage and their armies of darkness, you can’t ask for much better than that. Then Walbourne comes in on the deceptively simple chorus, which has a melody that carries a hint of a gospel sway: “There are other people in this world, other people in this world, not just you.”
The first time through the chorus, The Rails are simply confirming the reality that a segment of our fellow humans is willfully devoid of empathy or moral compass. On the second verse, Thompson directly addresses the money grabbers, psychopaths, et al.: “Take the money, steal the candy, rob the blind and kick the dog/Build your palace on a graveyard/ Make believe you’ve done nothing wrong.” After that litany of evil, when Thompson and Walbourne harmonize on the chorus, they sound how many of us feel a lot of the time — like we’re up against an overwhelming force.
But then, something almost miraculous happens. On the last verse, Thompson and Walbourne turn away from the bad guys to sing to the rest of us: “Heard a sad voice, heard it cry/Take me back to better times/ This cold world feels unfamiliar/We’re all strangers in our own time.” And in this context, the chorus is transformed into a message of solidarity and strength, a reminder that we are not alone, that “there are other people in this world” who share our fears and defiance, and in this battle, it’s “not just you.” It’s a breaking-of-the-fourth-wall moment, and it could have been corny, but it isn’t; instead, it’s a brave and heartening anthem for these dark times.
(Other People by The Rails was released in the US June 29, 2018 on ThirtyTigers. It debuted in the UK last fall on Psychonaut Sounds, iTunes, Amazon, and Pledge Music, UK)
Last week, Apple announced the death of the iPod Nano and iPod Shuffle, its last two stand-alone MP3 players. Most people might have been surprised to learn that those two lower-end iPod models had been, in fact, still alive in 2017. As music players, they were eclipsed years ago by the iPhone, and, to a lesser-degree, the iPod Touch (basically, the phone without the calling capability). For younger people, the iPod is as attractive as a gramophone.
The news didn’t surprise me. As the owner of a 2008 4th generation iPod Nano, which I still use every day, I’ve seen the writing on the wall for a long time now. Apple all but abandoned iPod fans like myself when it shifted its focus to the iPhone. I see the business logic to it: Unlike the iPhone, the iPod wasn’t a robust revenue stream. You bought an iPod, you loaded your music onto it, The End. But Apple’s announcement still makes me angry.
Look, I know that, as an old lady who doesn’t see the point of replacing a perfectly good working gadget every five seconds with a shinier iteration of the same, I am not Apple’s target consumer. I can live with that. Tech moves fast, and I made my choice to not move with it.
But it pisses me off that the most perfect portable music delivery system I’ve ever known is now — like a string of forerunners — over. Ever since I was a kid, I carried my music with me, consuming it in my head, on a succession of ’60s transistor radios and ’70s boomboxes, followed by an ’80s Walkman and a ’90s Discman. Just typing the names of those devices conjures flashes of memory. Transistor: On the front porch, in the summer, 10-years-old, AM Top 40 countdown. Boombox: Road trip to Asbury Park, Springsteen cassettes blasting out the windows. Walkman: On the bus, on my way to work, earphones in, listening to mix tapes. Discman: Man, I really disliked the Discman. Yes, CD’s sounded better and were more convenient to search than cassettes. But, unlike the Walkman, it was practically impossible to be mobile while using one. The discs skipped and I hated the stupid foam fanny pack-type belt holder accessory. I still have a Discman in the junk drawer. What a ridiculous invention.
But my first iPod … sweet liberation! Light, palm-sized, skip-proof, no physical media to carry, yet you could take your entire music collection with you — it was the best of all worlds. I had a 2004 1st generation iPod Mini, green, with the tiny screen and the big click wheel, and I used that baby everywhere. I hooked it onto my waistband, hit “shuffle” and listened to my own freeform radio station when I was cooking dinner (still my favorite use for the iPod). Holding the Mini now, it seems like it weighs a ton, but compared to the Walkman and Discman, it was light as a feather.
I stuck with that Mini until it stopped holding a charge, and moved onto the model that had replaced it, the Nano. Mine was a 2008 16 GB 4th generation, blue, with color display. It was so much lighter and smaller, yet it had a bigger screen and video playback capability, a pleasing, slightly curved, rectangular body, and, of course, a click wheel. I loved the feel of her in my hand, and I’ve had her for nine years, but she needs more charging all the time. I fear the end is near. Apple stopped making MP3 players with click wheels in 2014, switching everything to touchscreen technology. If mine can’t be fixed, I’ll have to hunt down a 4th or 5th generation Nano, or any MP3 with a click wheel, on eBay or someplace.
What is it about the click wheel? It’s simple. You can control it blind, without having to look at it and touch a screen. Use it once and you know instinctively where to place your thumb on the wheel to skip and pause play, how much pressure to apply in circular motion to control volume. With the click wheel, it just takes a second to put down the chopping knife, touch the “skip” or “volume” place on the wheel without taking your eyes off what you’ve got sautéing on the stove, and go back to work. Without the click wheel, it’s impossible to do that. And thanks to that click wheel, the iPod kept me calm through more dental and medical procedures than I care to remember; I’d hold it in my hand, thumb on the click wheel and turn up the volume to drown out the medical machinery and take my mind off the pain.
When I travel, I carry both my iPod and my iPhone. I could just accept defeat and stream music on my phone, but … no click wheel. And the thing is, more than half of the music on my iPod is my music, that I own, that I loved enough to buy on physical media and then wanted to carry around with me in my pocket, so I transferred it into my iTunes library. Yes! I still do this! I sit there at my laptop feeding CD’s into the slot and picking and choosing tracks to add to my library. And, yes! I own an old MacBook Pro that I won’t replace because it was the last model with an onboard CD drive. Are you seeing a pattern here? (I also refuse to update to the latest version of iTunes, because it sucks, and has sucked for years, and I have the last non-sucky version. As long as it still works, it’s staying.)
I’m fussy and I make no apologies for that. At the same time, I accept that the world will not conform to my fussiness. Which is a good thing, because Apple couldn’t care less about me and my quirks. But it’s not my fault that once upon a time, Apple designed a product that so impeccably fit my needs, I saw no need to replace it. I’ve loved its iPods long and well, and in return, Apple sees us both as obsolete.
I pretty much fell apart on November 9, so apologies for not writing anything new here in a while. I intended for this post to be a year-end list of my favorite new music and TV, but it kept wanting to go in a different direction. So, here are 10 songs that defined 2016 for me. Most of them are old, a few are new, some are offered in tribute to the departed, and all of them have taken on new meaning or been a comfort through the post-election gloom.
1. “Lazarus,” David Bowie. I’m sure you’ve seen the meme about everything falling apart this year because David Bowie was holding together the fabric of the universe. His death on January 10 hit like an earthquake, and 2016 never stopped shaking. Two days before he died, Bowie released Blackstar, which in hindsight, reveals itself (like the clues embedded in the cover of the album) as an urgent, feverish and brave farewell. “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” sings the Starman on “Lazarus”; his battered voice flickers with mischief and a daring sort of relief (“This way or no way/I’ll be free/Just like that bluebird/Oh, I’ll be free”) throughout the song, until it’s replaced in the long fadeout by a somber, lowing sax riff. In the eerie accompanying video, Bowie is in the middle of writing a sentence, creating until the last moment of his existence, when he is pulled away and shut up in a coffin-like closet. Of all the gifts Bowie gave us and all the frontiers he journeyed, pulling us (and the entirety of pop culture) along with him, his final act might have been his most generous. It was death-defying in every sense but the literal. Then again … maybe that too.
2. “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Stevie Wonder and Clarence Paul. During the string of police shootings of African American men earlier this year, when half the country lost its mind over the assertion that black lives matter TOO, I was driving around one day with the radio on and heard Stevie Wonder’s 1966 cover of “Blowin’ in the Wind.” This was a Top 10 hit for Wonder, but I had only dim memories of it from my childhood. But there it was, playing on Sirius XM’s Soul Town channel, which is devoted to R&B and soul hits of the ’60s and ’70s. Arranged in a country-gospel crossover mode (like his soon-to-be bigger hit, “A Place in the Sun”), this version lives and breathes the injustices counted in Dylan’s lyrics. It reminds you that this song is a protest for civil rights: “How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?,” “How many years can a man exist before he’s allowed to be free?”
Hearing the infuriating relevance of those questions in 2016, fifty years after Wonder and Paul recorded them, reminded me that the greatest, and most widely disseminated, protest music of the ’60s and ’70s was recorded by black artists, including Sly and the Family Stone, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions and Gil Scott-Heron. Edwin Starr’s ferocious anti-Vietnam song “War” went to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1970; Freda Payne’s “Bring the Boys Home” was number 12 in 1971. “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” one of James Brown’s empowerment anthems, reached number six in 1968. Volumes could be written on the powerful statement made by Aretha Franklin’s Afro back in the day. And somehow, I had never heard Lamont Dozier’s 1974 single “Fish Ain’t Bitin’,” with its imprecation, “Tricky Dick, stop this shit,” but Soul Town remedied that. This music was created by and for people fighting for their lives and legitimacy in America. White liberals who are only now discovering what it feels like to be strangers in their own country are advised to listen and learn.
3. “Uptown,” Prince. I’ve listened to Prince every day since April 21. Some days, I need the cathartic “Purple Rain,”a modern hymn, to combat the heartache that has yet to fade. Other days, it’s the unrepentant dance funk of “Housequake” or “Sexy M-F.” But of late, when I hear “Uptown” from DirtyMind (1980), I’m cast back to what it felt like in those days when “disco sucks” was code for white people (guys, mostly) to indulge in racism and homophobia — it didn’t all start with MAGA. Just one year after the idiotic “Disco Demolition” riot of 1979, Prince released his electro-funk-new wave tune about a dance utopia where “white, black Puerto Rican, everybody just a-freakin’,” and proved that disco was on the right side of history.
I first saw Prince in a rock club in Boston, the city itself only a few years removed from the turmoil surrounding desegregation of the public schools. With a cheeky punk swagger, the diminutive singer packed both the showmanship of James Brown and the guitar-god sexual mojo of Jimi Hendrix; the predominantly white audience didn’t know what hit them (that goes for me, too). In Prince’s world, all were welcome; his racially-diverse band included two out lesbians. And Prince’s persona itself — the falsetto, the female aliases, the eyeliner and furry jockstrap — blurred boundaries of sexual orientation and gender (although he exhibited troubling homophobia later in his career). “Uptown” was a joyful place where society’s marginalized and demonized could be free. I refuse to believe it was an illusion.
4. “Daddy Lessons,” Beyonce. Beyonce was the cultural figure of the year. Like Luther, President Obama’s Anger Translator from the Key & Peele show, Beyonce was Michelle Obama’s off-duty secret self — check out FLOTUS grooving to “Single Ladies” and rapping along with Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” during this much-shared installment of James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke.” Just like the first lady, Beyonce became a lightning rod for bigots who smeared her as an Angry Black Woman and cast her in vile racist memes, but she kept on singing, angrier and blacker, as the year went on. The Black Panthers fashion nod at the Super Bowl. The sinking police car and Black Lives Matter imagery in the “Formation” video. The “I like my Negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils” line. The baseball bat and I-ain’t-sorry.
A few days before the election, Beyonce teamed up with the Dixie Chicks at the Country Music Awards for a rowdy, unrepentant performance of “Daddy Lessons” from Lemonade. With the country polarized by the open racism (excuse me, “economic anxiety”) embraced by the supporters of the bad-daddy authoritarian in the cut-rate trucker’s hat, the CMA Awards moment took on an electrifying subtext. Here were the second most powerful African American woman in the land and the liberal country music pariah Natalie Maines (both Hillary Clinton supporters) celebrating the common roots shared by black blues and white country. Of course, there was outrage from the usual suspects. But Beyonce and the Dixie Chicks are not sorry.
5. “Under Pressure,” Queen and David Bowie. A song that encapsulated the Cold War nuclear fears of the Reagan Era comes back to haunt us. I put “Under Pressure” on a Bowie playlist, to which I’ve often escaped, post-coup. Most days, my mood pinballs between “It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about” and “Can’t we give love one more chance?” And Bowie and Freddie Mercury’s operatic swirl of compassion bittersweetly marks the challenge we face. Love’s such an old-fashioned word, but so what? This is our last dance, this is ourselves, under pressure.
6. “Livin’ in the Future,” Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen’s underrated 2007 album Magic, which largely concerned itself with the smoke and mirrors of the Bush II Administration, contained brutally clear songs warning about what happens when abuses of power become the norm. In the bleary morning hours after election night, lines from “Livin’ in the Future’ popped into my head — which was strange because this was the one song from Magic that I never cared for. I thought its apocalyptic visions were too overheated and its illogical chorus too tricky (“we’re livin’ in the future, none of this has happened yet”). Yet, every day since November 9, Springsteen’s lyrics become more chillingly true: “My ship Liberty sailed away on a bloody red horizon/ The groundskeeper opened the gates and let the wild dogs run.” That weird chorus wasn’t a trick after all. It was precognition.
7. “The End of the Innocence,” Don Henley. Another song that is stuck in my head, for better or worse. Henley wrote it about the Reagan years (see a pattern here?), another autocratic presidency claiming to Make America Great Again (for Rich White Men) and the hell with everyone else: “Oh beautiful for spacious skies, but now those skies are threatening/They’re beating plowshares into swords for this tired old man that we elected king/Armchair warriors often fail/And we’ve been poisoned by these fairytales/The lawyers clean up all details/Since daddy had to lie.” How many times can you lose your innocence as an American? More than I thought possible.
8. “All American Made,” Margo Price.Price’s debut Midwest Farmer’s Daughter was one of the best albums of 2016, but this song is as yet unrecorded. Price sang it on an NPR Tiny DeskConcert on the morning of November 9, looking the way so many of us felt: Stunned, weary, heartsick. “All American Made” is about the bamboozlement of working people by deceitful politicians wrapped in the flag and carrying a bible: “1987 and I didn’t know it then/Reagan was selling weapons to the leaders of Iran/But it won’t be the first time, baby, and it won’t be the end/They were all American made.”
This is the kind of finely etched, honest sociopolitical narrative that Johnny Cash used to write, that Springsteen is still writing. It’s the kind of truth-to-power bluntness that will not endear Price to country radio, but that doesn’t seem to bother her. The set’s last song, “About to Find Out” from Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, was transformed from a rollicking takedown of a self-centered hipster to an acid-dripped direct hit on our new “leader”. And she didn’t even have to change a word: “You have many people fooled about your motivation/But I don’t believe your lies/You blow so much smoke it’s bound to make you choke/I see the snakes in both of your eyes/But you wouldn’t know class if it bit you in the ass/And you’re standing much too tall/You may have come so easy and happened so fast/But the harder they come, they fall.” At the end of the song, Price opened her blouse to reveal a T shirt reading “Icky Trump,” and wiped the tears from her eyes.
9. “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” Hamilton soundtrack.Hamilton has become a constant companion. It will be remembered as the Camelot of the Obama presidency. For cultural moment of the year, consider the Broadway cast of Hamilton making an eloquent curtain address to audience member Vice President-Elect Mike Pence (author of homophobic “electrocute the gay away” legislation, among other far-right lunacies), asking him to respect all Americans, whatever their race, gender, sexual orientation, political affiliation or religion. The speech drew the pathetic wrath of the Twitter Troll in Chief, but then, what doesn’t? “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” is the final song of Hamilton, in which creator Lin-Manuel Miranda refutes the saying “history is written by the winners.” Alexander Hamilton lost the duel, but in death, his legacy outshines “the fool who shot him.” However, in one of the more fitting ironies 2016 bestowed upon us, one of those legacies is — the Electoral College. Still, it’s the duty of anyone who loves democracy to call bullshit, loud and long, on whatever fact-free, fringe madness come from this already-chaotic new White House. We need to be the ones still standing to tell the story.
10. “My Girl ,” The Temptations. Another Soul Town epiphany from within a fog of post-election grief. “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day/And when it’s cold outside, I’ve got the month of May.” I’ve played this song countless times since I first heard it on the radio as a girl. But now, I’m hearing something new. “I don’t need no money, fortune or fame/ I’ve got all the riches, baby, one man can claim.” “My Girl,” written by Smokey Robinson and Ronald White, was released in December, 1964. The Vietnam War and protests against it were escalating. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been passed, but the Selma-to-Montgomery Marches were still three months away. African Americans in the South were still obstructed from voting. The Watts riots in Los Angeles were on the horizon. These were hard, desperate times. But here was a song that offered listeners a refuge from the pain and turmoil around them. It wasn’t about refusing to acknowledge the struggle; the narrator of “My Girl” sees the clouds and feels the cold and knows that money is short. But in his heart and soul, hope blooms and he is free. “My Girl” is a song about love remaking the lover’s world. Today, we have to remember that we still have the power to look at ugliness and imagine better things, to keep faith in sunshine on a cloudy day.
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, TheRiver, 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.
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 MobyDick (“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.
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.
*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.)
The Folk Years: Blowin’ in the Wind and Yesterday’s Gone (Time-Life). CD set found for $2.99 at Goodwill.
The first time I saw The Folksmen (Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer of Spinal Tap fame in their guise as a 1960s folk trio), I laughed so hard I had an asthma attack. But I also had an overwhelming sense of deja vu. The Folksmen were a deeply sourced spoof of the Kingston Trio and the Limeliters, seminal, earnest folk groups of the pre-Beatles era. This was some of the earliest music I remember hearing on my parents’ radio and hi-fi, along with Peter, Paul and Mary and the Brothers Four. How dead-on an imitation was The Folksmen? Take a look.
The Folksmen, from A Mighty Wind:
And here are the Limeliters, circa 1981, singing the obvious model for “Old Joe’s Place,” “There’s a Meetin’ Here Tonight.”
For the full Limeliters/Folksmen comparison, this nine-minute European TV performance is pretty much a condensed version of A Mighty Wind. Enjoy, ye of stout heart!
Born on Saturday Night Live, the Folksmen were later resurrected in Guest’s underrated 2003 mockumentary A Mighty Wind, which chronicles the making of a public-televison reunion concert of the group and their ’60s folk scene compadres the New Main Street Singers (read: New Christy Minstrels/the Rooftop Singers) and Mitch and Mickey (Ian and Sylvia).
I should explain at this point that I’m obsessed with A Mighty Wind. I will watch that movie anytime, anyplace. This IsSpinal Tap is considered the masterpiece of the Guest/McKean/Shearer oeuvre. But I rate A Mighty Wind almost as highly because it nails the specifics of a less popular genre just as flawlessly. If you’ve ever seen the strangely watchable PBS Pledge Break special Folk Rewind starring John Sebastian (please tell me I’m not the only one who can’t look away), then you’ve seen just how right A Mighty Wind got everything about the music, the personalities, the gentle, well-meaning mindset of the people who performed and consumed this godawfully polite aural Cream of Wheat.
And I speak as one of them. Like many white kids in metropolitan and suburban areas on both coasts in the late ’50s-early ’60s, I grew up with folk music, or rather, a steam-cleaned, relentlessly smiley version of folk music, as part of daily life. I listened to Pete Seeger’s children’s albums (but not his overtly radical stuff), sang black spirituals like “Kumbaya” and “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” with no context at Jewish summer camp and endured the dreaded group-singing of “Erie Canal” and “Goober Peas” in elementary school. Hellishly cheery easy-listening folk tunes like “Walk Right In” by the Rooftop Singers and white-washed folk exotica like the Calypso-ish “Don’t Let the Rain Come Down” by the Serendipity Singers were Top Ten radio hits. (Where did the Lumineers come from? Here’s your answer.) In one universe, Bob Dylan was kicking folk music’s slumbering ass, energizing it with a protopunk’s spirit. In another, there was … this crap. I bet the killjoys who shouted down electric Dylan at Newport really dug this stuff. They deserved it.
Given all of this, you can probably imagine my fiendish delight when I came across Blowin’ inthe Wind and Yesterday’s Gone, two discs from the eight-disc 2002 Time-Life CD set The Folk Years in a Goodwill crawl. Sixty songs in all, encompassing some of my most beloved/hated folk-mush ever, including “Don’t Let the Rain Come Down,” “Walk Right In,” the Sandpipers’ supremely dorky version of Pete Seeger’s “Guantanamera” and — YES! — the Limeliters’ “There’s a Meetin’ Here Tonight.” Now I can guffaw through my very own A Mighty Wind/FolkRewind in the privacy of my home, whenever the spirit moves me!
I know, I’m being harsh. Even the blandest of this music had its purpose. Without it to learn from and, ultimately, rebel against, we might not have had Dylan, or the skiffle-bred Beatles, or the trailblazing British electric folkies Fairport Convention.
This Time-Life set (the half I own, anyway) does a good job of charting the evolution of folk B.D. (before Dylan) and after. Dylan’s influence is all over the Blowin’ in the Wind disc, even if he isn’t (the lone Dylan track, “Boots of Spanish Leather” is on disc 7, which someone must have grabbed before me). After the mostly quiet acoustic tracks on disc one of Blowin’ in the Wind, the crystalline opening electric guitar chords of the Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!” kick off disc two like a wake-up jolt of caffeine right to the bloodstream. Whoever segued the Byrds into the Kingston Trio’s smugly snoozy version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” has a wicked sense of humor. Two songs later, there’s the peerless Dylan interpretor Johnny Cash making “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” into a Johnny Cash song, and, you know, I think this was $2.99 very well spent.
The Folk Years also excels at conveying how the folk movement brought world music, part of that Mad Men-era tentative dip into suburban multiculturalism, to white middle-class American homes for the first time. If you’re of my vintage, I bet there was a Harry Belafonte album or two in your parents’ hi-fi cabinet. Belafonte’s beautiful “Jamaica Farewell” is included here on Blowin’ in the Wind, and his indestructible “Banana Boat Song (Day-o)” is on Yesterday’s Gone.
Blowin’ in the Wind also contains a live recording of Pete Seeger doing “Guantanamera,” complete with his educational spoken interludes explaining the song’s origin as a poem by Cuban revolutionary Jose Marti. It’s an important piece of political folk music. But, forgive me: besides making it impossible to watch PBS pledge programming or old Limeliters videos without falling into shrieking laughter, A Mighty Wind has also ruined educational spoken interludes about Hispanic history for me — see Christopher Guests’s epic downer of a Spanish Civil War ballad “Skeletons of Quinto” in A Mighty Wind.
I bought The Folk Years only partly as a snort. There are folk-pop songs here that I loved on AM radio as a kid, and continue to love now, even in their unfashionableness: “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine,” written and sung by the exquisite Gale Garnett, the winsome pop-ified cover of Ian and Sylvia’s “You Were on My Mind” by We Five, “Someday Soon” by Judy Collins. And there are some crucial ’70s folk/pop/country hybrids — Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” and Glen Campbell’s “Gentle on My Mind” are two — that take your breath away with their emotional depths.
But while I’m happy to finally have many of these songs on CD, my chief motivation in pouncing on this Goodwill treasure wasn’t to complete my collection. It was pure, gooey nostalgia — for these songs that create sense memories of early childhood, for how my dad used to think the Kingston Trio’s “Charlie on the MTA” was the cleverest song ever to hit WBZ-Boston’s airwaves. But mine is a nostalgia combined with an unsentimentalist’s horror of nostalgia. And maybe that’s the snarky quirk in my character that compels me to see the humor in the unabashed sincerity and unconscious elitism of the palest of these performances, and in tributes like PBS’s Pledge Break folk specials. In all of the above, I think, the creators of A Mighty Wind are my kin.