2016 in 10 songs

 

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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 Dirty Mind (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 Desk Concert 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.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016

 

 

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016

 

 

 

 

 

Bruce Springsteen turns 67 … and 30

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016

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

Live review: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, The River tour (Oakland, March 13, 2016)

 

Bruce Springsteen on The River Tour, 2016 ©Danny Clinch/Shore Fire Media
Bruce Springsteen on The River Tour, 2016 ©Danny Clinch/Shore Fire Media

The River, which Bruce Springsteen released in 1980, was an album of contradictions. It was an expansive double-album, half party-time rockers, half introspective ballads about people wanting to grow up and settle down, but often failing at both. I was a 23-year-old Bruce fan when The River came out, and, in my inexperience, I didn’t quite know what to do with it. Where were the restless, rebellious young-adult souls of his previous album Darkness on the Edge of Town, with whom I fiercely identified? And why did he close The River with a sobering song about a wreck on the highway that seemed to contradict the adolescent melodrama of that “Born to Run” mantra, “I wanna die with you Wendy on the streets tonight in an everlasting kiss”? I thought the album was all over the map and that Springsteen was trying too hard. Ah, youth.

And then John Lennon was murdered. He was the first of my rock idols to die. Three days later, still numb, I saw the Providence stop on Springsteen’s 1980 River tour, and the emotional energy in the Civic Center could best be described as manic-depressive. The ballads from The River seemed laden with an extra measure of heartbreak. Everyone in that arena, in the crowd and on the stage, needed to cut loose on “Sherry Darling” and “Cadillac Ranch” as if our lives depended on it. Which, in a way, they did. Our generation had lost a Beatle, and in that awful week, a lot of us shed a layer of innocence.

If I had been perceptive, I would have realized then what The River was all about: life, in all its joy and sorrow. Only now, nearly 40 years later, am I well-seasoned enough to understand what Bruce had done on the album. The river — which would figure so prominently in Springsteen’s later work — makes its first appearance as a metaphor for the flow of life, of hope and loss and rebirth. Being able to love and commit to another person, to commit to life, while knowing that we are all mortal, is the point of everything on The River. It was an older man’s masterpiece made by a young man.

And that became even clearer seeing Springsteen and the E Street Band play The River in its entirety, in order, 36 years later. At Oracle Arena in Oakland Sunday night, Springsteen seemed a bit hoarse, as if fighting a cold, but he was intensely committed to putting across The River as a whole. And it was fascinating to see this material interpreted by the Boss in his maturity. After a lights-up overture of “Meet Me in the City” (a new track from the 2015 River reissue set The Ties That Bind), he offered some scene-setting commentary about trying to “work out where I fit in” by writing the album. And then the band (minus the absent Patti Scialfa) charged into song one, side one, “The Ties That Bind,” and that underrated, twangy, mid-tempo rocker sounded as fresh as if it had been released yesterday. The party tunes were as fun as ever, Pirate King Steve Van Zandt acting as a mugging, rollicking foil (and playing killer roadhouse guitar) on “Crush on You”, “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” and “Ramrod.”.

But it was on the slower songs that the concept behind this show truly revealed itself. During Roy Bittan’s lush extended piano intro to “Point Blank,” my companion whispered to me, “Operatic.” The current River tour is less rock show than theater, almost like a semi-staged production of a musical. And on the three-song arc that comprises the emotional high point of the show, Bruce’s pre-song commentary and intense delivery of the lyrics almost suggests an autobiographical one-man show.

Before “I Wanna Marry You,” the band vamped softly in the background as Bruce, shaking maracas, recalled how he wrote the song as an imagining of what true, committed love would be like, but admitted that he was still naive enough then to have no idea of the consequences and responsibilities such a love entails. He was imagining “a love that didn’t exist.” And then he and Van Zandt began singing a sweet doo-wop passage (“Here she comes, walkin’ down the street … someday I’m gonna make her mine …”) that eventually transformed into a heart-soaring version of the song about pledging himself to the young single mother who passes by his house every day, with whom he has never spoken. But then the romantic daydream vanished, and we went down to “The River,” where Springsteen gives us stark reality — unintended pregnancy, marriage too young, and the grind of trying to make ends meet.

Springsteen sang “The River “absolutely still, eyes closed as if lost in memory, his right hand making occasional pointing and sweeping gestures as if to punctuate and underscore his lyrics. After this song,  which closes side three of the album, he faced the band, made a circling gesture that suggested turning over a record, and began “Point Blank,” the side four opener. In 1980, I thought I heard disdain for the former lover’s surrender to despair and conformity. But watching the 66-year-old Springsteen sing the song now, slowly and deliberately, with Van Zandt floating chilling Morricone-meets-Eno fills, what I heard was a man fighting to hold on to youthful hope and idealism while acknowledging, with tenderness, those who tried and failed.

There were gorgeous moments to come after that stunning trio of songs, including the rarely performed “Stolen Car” and “The Price You Pay” (the latter song hadn’t been played live in California since the original River tour). “The Price You Pay,” especially, showcased the E Street Band at its mightiest, their lithe yet muscular playing adding a thunderous, majestic sweep to the Old Testament imagery of one of Springsteen’s greatest modern folk songs. And the River set-closer “Wreck on the Highway” was both devastating and graceful. When he wrote “Wreck on the Highway,” Springsteen borrowed the title and bare-bones of plot from an old country song: a man randomly witnesses another man’s death in a car wreck and is shaken to his core. “Sometimes I sit up in the darkness/ And I watch my baby as she sleeps/ Then I climb in bed and I hold her tight/I just lay there awake in the middle of the night/ Thinking ’bout the wreck on the highway.”

What a strange, depressing song to close on, I thought, when I was a kid. But now, is there any other way to end an album “about life”?  After he had finished “Wreck on the Highway” at Oracle, Springsteen summed up the album’s message as being about how once you enter adulthood “the clock starts ticking” and you come closer to your own mortality — the idea is to fill your time with people and work that you love, and “to do something good with your life.”

And after those autumnal words, without a break, Springsteen and the E Street Band kicked into a breathless, near-90-minute set of 13 crowd-pleasers, including  “Badlands,” “Rosalita” and “Dancing in the Dark,” to send us home with the comforting, if illusory, notion that rock and roll can stop the clock from ticking and the calendar from ever moving past summer.

Oh, about that 23-year-old girl who first heard The River in 1980 … Something about the album’s message must have sunk in. Spooked by Lennon’s death, she ended up getting married the following year (and remains so), had a career, had a child, lost friends, lost a father, lost many more idols, and got old. She’s grateful that Springsteen showed her how to live.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016

In the rotation: late summer

Cover of M3LL155X by FKA twigs (Courtesy Young Turks UK)
Cover of M3LL155X by FKA twigs (Courtesy Young Turks UK)

A couple of things I’ve been listening to lately :

FKA twigs,  M3LL155X 

The British singer/dancer/songwriter/performance artist (birth name: Tahliah Barnett) steps forward as Kate Bush’s truest spiritual daughter with this five-song multimedia project that appeared with no advance notice on Aug 13. Working with producer Boots, twigs continues to make bewitching and confident music that defies easy classification — like last year’s LP1, the new EP is a mesh of electronica and R&B that pulls you into its dreamy drifting logic the more you listen. Like Kate Bush, twigs sounds ethereal but her concepts, and the conviction with which she puts them forth, carry a gigantic echo. Both artists think and perform across art forms, and both artists’  lyrics and videos explore sex, gender, creativity and the inner lives of women with a dramatic flair that marries the beautiful and the grotesque.

The release of M3LL155X (pronounced “Melissa”) was accompanied by a visually arresting 16- minute video, directed by twigs, that strings a narrative together from four of the songs and hinges on twigs’ explanation that “Melissa” is her “female energy.” The film opens with a regal gold-toothed, tattooed and bejeweled figure (portrayed by Michele Lamy) — she could be the wise crone or a mother goddess — wearing a swan-necked light bulb on her forehead to suggest the esca of an angler fish. Meanwhile, we hear twigs singing “Figure 8,” about learning to be tough yet still womanly by following the example of vogueing men. The lyrics are a sensual stream of juxtaposed maternal imagery and violence: “I’ve a baby inside/ But I won’t give birth until you insert yourself inside of me … I am an angel/ My back wings give the hardest slap that you’ve ever seen.”

As “Figure 8” flows into the staggered, spacy “I’m Your Doll,” the crone’s mouth closes around the light bulb and gives birth to a blow-up doll that uncurls from its fetal position to become twigs with a plastic CGI body: “Wind me up/ I’m your doll/Dress me up/I’m your doll/ Love me rough …” As harrowing as “I’m Your Doll” sounds on the EP, it’s even moreso on video, with twigs-as-blow-up-doll enduring dehumanizing sex while her big fringed doll-eyes stare emptily at the ceiling.

In the next song, “In Time” (the most immediately melodic song on the EP), twigs wakes up with a huge prosthetic pregnancy belly, then dances for a man who watches impassively as she implores him be his best self: “Learn to say sorry and I will play tender with you … I will be better and we will be stronger and you will be greater/ The one that I always wanted you to be.” But when her waters break in a gush of multicolored paint down her legs, the man’s face contorts in disgust. “You got a goddamn nerve,” twigs screams on the jagged chorus.

The male gaze and the female gaze morph back and forth in the final sequence “Glass and Patron,” in which twigs births herself of vogueing, fluidly gendered males, meant to symbolize “Melissa.” They vogue for her inspection, and then she joins them, decked out in breathtaking red on a fashion runway. As a multimedia performance piece, M3LL155X is intoxicating and in-your-face, and FKA twigs executes it all without flinching.

Hot Chip, Why Make Sense?

Hot Chip’s sixth studio album has rarely left my playlist since it was released a few months ago. I’m in love with the humanness of this record, not to mention its mood-elevating dance grooves. From the sampling of “Let No Man Put Asunder” by First Choice that opens the lead track “Huarache Lights,” to the funky Stevie Wonder-esque clavinet keyboard sound on “Started Right,”  to the slow-jam loveliness of “White Wine and Fried Chicken” (which sounds like a lost Prince tune), Hot Chip infuses its electronic pop with soulfulness, warmth and a tang of wistfulness that never slides over into nostalgia. It’s an album about the anxiety of growing older and obsolete — “replace us with the things that do the job better” goes the robotic-voice chorus of “Huarache Lights” — tempered by the enduring joy of finding human connection, be it through love or music.

Not on the album, but firmly of the album: Hot Chip’s cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark,” which they’ve been playing on their Why Make Sense? tour. Everything about this choice is perfect. “Dancing in the Dark” was Springsteen’s first single off 1984’s Born in the U.S.A. and his first attempt at a modern-sounding synth-driven dance song. At the time, Springsteen took some heat from rock-oriented fans over his foray into “disco.” But Springsteen’s vulnerable, yearning vocal, about wanting to get out into world, no matter how grim and restricting, and be alive, counteracts the potential remoteness of the synthesized keyboards. Which has pretty much been Hot Chip’s approach to making music, in their fusion of electronica, Alexis Taylor’s intimate vocals and actual guitar and drums. Hot Chip’s touring version of the song works as both homage to Springsteen and extension of the theme of Why Make Sense? They put the soul into the machine, and leave their audiences, literally, dancing in the dark.

Also, I really want this sweatshirt.

 

 

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

 

 

Just some guys talking about Bruce

albumbox

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014