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Bruce Springsteen on the cover of “Letter to You” / Photo ©Danny Clinch

In the summer of the plague year, my other half and I moved from San Mateo, California, where we had lived for 33 years, to Seattle, Washington, to be in the same city as our only child. We loved the Bay Area. We had friends there, family, purpose. But the pandemic came and with it, the clear, overriding imperative to reunite our family and weather this together. We sold the house that we had lived in for 17 years and embarked on a surreal 13-hour road trip on eerily empty highways. Every gas station rest stop felt like coronavirus Russian Roulette. The anxiety of feeling COVID lurking all around us was so overwhelming that I think I was in a trance for most of the drive.

And now we’re in Seattle in a rented house where I feel like a guest, where I miss the Bay Area’s singular quality of light. “I left my heart in San Francisco” is not just a line from a song. The positive: our family is intact. But I feel neither here nor there. Sometimes, the body memory of living in the same place for 33 years is overpowering; I swear I could walk outside and smell the roses in my old backyard, or drive over to the grocery store where all the clerks knew us. I think too much about all the things we used to do in the Bay Area, and how, when we did them for the last time, pre-COVID, we didn’t know it was the last time. The last Giants game. The last walk by the ocean in Half Moon Bay. The last Saturday night on Clement Street for books at Green Apple and dessert at Toy Boat. I feel like a spirit trapped between worlds who can’t move on. I’m trying to love Seattle, but the better part of me is still in San Mateo.

II. Somewhere high and hard and loud

My story is far from unique and far from awful. Normal life stopped for everyone in March 2020. This disease has been catastrophic for millions of others. I’m just offering my story, for what it’s worth, to explain why Bruce Springsteen’s new album “Letter to You” hits me the way it does.

The leadoff track, “One Minute You’re Here,” is an unexpected opener to Springsteen’s first studio album with the E Street Band in six years. It’s a short, quiet song — a prelude, really — that begins on an image of a “big black train coming down the track.” The train is one of Springsteen’s favorite metaphors; on “Land of Hope and Dreams,” the train carrying saints and sinners, losers and winners did triple duty representing the E Street Band, rock and roll and America. On “One Minute You’re Here,” that locomotive is both a rush of memory and life itself speeding toward its final destination.

The song’s production is airy and clean, no extraneous frills. Springsteen’s voice is front and center, big, clear and more intimate-sounding than it has been on a studio album in years. The song is a meditation on mortality conveyed through a succession of reveries — boyhood at the end of summer, young love in autumn, an ominously starless sky “black as stone.” All of it is suffused by the sense of imminent endings, impermanence, the fragility of existence. “Baby, baby, baby, I’m so alone” goes the bridge, and, in the end, aren’t we all?

“One Minute” was written before COVID came. But like the rest of “Letter to You” (the album was recorded in five days in late 2019), it lands as a song for these lonesome and death-shadowed times. We’re all alone with our thoughts too much these days, and so, when I first heard “One Minute,” I connected it to my own particular existential circumstance of living here while longing for there. The way Springsteen’s mind jumps from memory to memory, I’m convinced the title phrase means, “One minute you’re here, fully present; the next minute, you’re gone to some other place and time in your mind.”

And that reading of the title, or misreading, cracked the rest of “Letter to You” wide open for me. This is another summational project from Springsteen, but unlike his Broadway show and his last solo album, “Western Stars,” he brings the E Street Band along on his deep dive into memory, revisiting his life in rock and roll, the choices made and the losses incurred along the way. Two exquisite guitar rockers, “Last Man Standing” and “Ghosts,” pay tribute to bandmates long gone from this world and convey the unbridled communal joy of playing music together. Three songs — “Janey Needs a Shooter,” “If I Was the Priest” and “Song for Orphans” — were written and discarded by Springsteen in the ’70’s.

The journey through the past is not chronological (sometimes it isn’t even logical), but “Letter to You” is a thematically cohesive record. It’s also a stunningly generous one, Springsteen’s generosity extending not just to the E Street Band, who are in their element playing live on the record, but also to his younger self. All of Springsteen’s recent soul-searching has come to fruition. It takes an artist who knows who he is to be able to make a record like “Letter to You,” an artist unafraid to revisit and honor the headspace he was in when he made the music of his earlier days.

This is not a nostalgia piece. Springsteen at 71 isn’t trying to be Springsteen at 21 or 31. On “Letter to You,” Springsteen brilliantly demonstrates, and embraces, the idea that we contain ourselves at all of the ages we ever were, right now. The record is a celebration of life in full and oh how we need it in one of the darkest years humanity has ever known. Resurgent and sure-footed, “Letter to You” is Springsteen’s late-middle (early-late?) period masterpiece.

“One Minute You’re Here” is like a slow dissolve in a movie signaling a flashback. And then, on the second song (the title track), the E Street Band kicks in and hearing them feels like home. Springsteen and the ESB haven’t played live together in what seems like ages, and hasn’t cut an album live in studio like this (some songs were done in one or two takes) in longer than that. Springsteen and co-producer Ron Aniello refrain from the layers of strings and samples they’ve used on previous albums. Songs like the thundering, joyful “Ghosts” (the moment when the whole band shouts “By the end of the set we leave no one alive!” slays me) is as close to the stop-on-a-dime sharpness of the ESB live as has ever been captured on a studio release (you’d have to go back to parts of “The River” to match it). The band sounds big as life and blazing with purpose.

The clarity and intimacy of the sound is the reason a song like “Letter to You” can transcend corniness and deliver straightforward humility. The “You” of the title is us, Springsteen’s audience: “The things I found out through hard times and good/ I wrote ’em all down in ink and blood/ Dug deep in my soul and signed my name True/ and sent it in my letter to you.” Fans have always felt Springsteen speaks for and to them; this song makes it clear that Springsteen values our part in the conversation. (Springsteen’s extraordinarily personal pandemic DJ show on Sirius radio “From My Home to Yours” sound like an outgrowth of “Letter to You”.)

It’s probably the pandemic isolation talking, but, to me, this album feels like the barrier between artist and audience, and between listeners, is gone. It feels like we’ve all materialized “somewhere high and hard and loud” (as the chorus of “Last Man Standing” goes) to meet at a justifying, death-defying E Street Band show — to be sanctified, as Reverend Springsteen says, in a rock and roll baptism.

Just don’t think about whether live music will ever happen again and you’ll be fine.

III. Somewhere deep into the heart of the crowd

The loss of live music makes the centerpiece of the record, “House of a Thousand Guitars,” almost unbearably poignant. Again, this song pre-dates the pandemic, but it’s eerily on-point for a time in which we can only burrow into memories of finding our tribe at a live show and feeling the music together: “So wake and shake off your troubles my friend/ We’ll go where the music never ends/ From the stadiums to the small town bars/ We’ll light up the house of a thousand guitars.” The song’s nimble, repeating piano riff and the line “bells ring out through churches and jails” echo “Jungleland.” But the exhilarating battles of youth that Springsteen chronicled 45 years ago on that epic have given way to the grinding reality that there are evils in this world that can’t be vanquished by guitars flashed like switchblades. The song ends with the guitars, drums and organ falling away, leaving the piano riff and Springsteen repeating “A thousand guitars, a thousand guitars” like a wobbly-voiced mantra. I promise, this song will destroy you, so plan accordingly.

“House of a Thousand Guitars” seems like it might have been specifically written about the healing power of live music as a refuge from the cruelty and chaos of Trump’s America: “The criminal clown has stolen the throne/ He steals what he can never own/ May the truth ring out from every small town bar/ And we’ll light up the house of a thousand guitars.” On the album, “A Thousand Guitars” is followed by “Rainmaker,” twangy and booming and reminiscent of parts of the “Wrecking Ball” album. “Rainmaker” is about the con man hired to bring rain to parched fields, and about the darkness within people’s souls that drives them to fall for the con: “Sometimes folks need to believe in something so bad, so bad/ They’ll hire a rainmaker.” Springsteen spits his contempt for demagoguery like watermelon seeds through gritted teeth.

When I wrote about “Western Stars” last year, I expressed my disappointment that Springsteen had chosen an inward-looking work for his first album of the Trump Era and not the call to arms I wanted to hear. But I will concede that Springsteen’s lack of interest in putting out an overtly political album might be the right call. On “Letter to You,” the oblique yet effective barbs on “A Thousand Guitars” and “Rainmaker” suffice. Springsteen saves his ammunition for his radio show, where he speaks eloquently about the unspeakable atrocities of this moment. “Letter to You” is a stronger album for its restraint.

There are many treasures for fans to sift through here, the most delightful being the trio of songs Springsteen wrote as a young man, and how he approaches them now. For decades, “Janey Needs a Shooter” existed only as a song title that Springsteen gave to Warren Zevon; it appears on Zevon’s 1980 album “Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School” as “Jeannie Needs a Shooter.” The two songs share only a chorus. Springsteen’s version tells a different story, about a man in love with a woman who gives (sells?) her body to other men. It’s a grown-up version of “Candy’s Room” (from “Darkness on the Edge of Town”), sung not in the cocksure voice of the kid who thinks he can save the girl, but the weathered one of the man who knows he can’t. Springsteen and the band return to the muscular grandeur of their “Darkness” sound on “Janey,” propelled by Max Weinberg’s thundering drums, Charles Giordano’s Danny Federici-like washes of organ and Springsteen’s raw, titanic wails of longing. (Listen to “Janey” back to back with “Something in the Night.”)

“Song for Orphans” is a never-recorded rarity from Springsteen’s early days, a song fans have been chasing forever. Unabashedly Dylanesque in its verbiage and structure (the verses call to mind “Chimes of Freedom” or “My Back Pages”), it would have been at home on “Greetings from Asbury Park”. I have no idea what all that stuff about the axis and the aurora and Big Mama are all about, but it sure is fun.

My notes made listening to “If I Was the Priest” consist entirely of this: “LOVE IT LOVE IT LOVE IT.” “Priest” is another song that looms legendary in fan lore. Influenced by Dylan and The Band and reflecting the country blooze of Springsteen’s hippie band Steel Mill, “If I Was the Priest” is wholly of its time, with a vintage late-’60’s-early ’70’s fixation on outlaws, bootleggers and yonder mountains. Springsteen sings this song with a twinkle in his eye; he leans into his youthful choices with humor and grace, fully committing to the period piece by channelling his idol Dylan with a question mark uplift in his voice and singing lines like “If my lady was an heiress and my Mama was a thief” with relish. The band cooks on this song, with chunky organ and guitars, gospel piano, bluesy harmonica, and a smoldering guitar solo on the outro. And, oh man, the kettle drum roll that rises up out of the hollow just before Patti Scialfa swings in to lead the band’s makeshift choir as if she time-traveled to the studio from a 1970 Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour: LOVE IT, LOVE IT, LOVE IT.

The final track, “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” forms bookends with “One Minute You’re Here.” Although it shares thematic elements and part of a title with Roy Orbison’s matchlessly spooky “In Dreams,” it’s as reassuring as a lullaby. Springsteen has said the song is to be taken literally — he regularly dreams about Clarence Clemons, George Theiss of his teenage band the Castiles and other departed friends and family, “for death is not the end,” as the lyric goes. ( I can’t help wondering, though, if the verse “I got your guitar here by the bed/ All your records and all the books you read” could also be about reuniting with one’s younger self, becoming whole again, which would also be a fitting way to tie up this record.) The song canters along until the band drops out on the last line, leaving Springsteen alone, the last man standing. “I’ll see you in my dreams,” he sings, unaccompanied.

And what is there to do anymore but share his faith? We will meet again on the other side of this thing, my Bruce family. Until then, we’ll be together in dreams.

” … and miles to go before I sleep.” Photo © Danny Clinch

©Joyce Millman, 2020


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

(Courtesy of Netflix)

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

(Continue reading Part 1 here.)

“Rolling Thunder Revue”: Dylan goes electric

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

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

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

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

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

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


Bruce Springsteen: Like a rhinestone cowboy

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

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

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

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

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

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


Prince “Originals”: Album of the year

(Courtesy of Virginia Turblett/The Prince Estate)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the vault: Bruce Springsteen on video

Is it me baby, or just a brilliant disguise?

With Bruce Springsteen’s “Western Stars” movie opening in theaters this weekend (I will see it if the Bay Area power outages permit), it got me thinking about a now-ancient VHS video anthology he released in 1989, comprising his MTV-age videos and clips from live performances at the 1979 “No Nukes” benefit and at Neil Young’s Bridge School benefit in 1986. In this anthology, you can see Springsteen’s early evolution as a performer in front of the camera and as a visual artist behind it. There’s a whole world of changes between his awkward dance steps on “Dancing in the Dark” and the stunning emotional nakedness of “Brilliant Disguise.” Here’s my review from the San Francisco Examiner in 1989. Expand image to read.



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

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

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

And it all leaves me cold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2019






2016 in 10 songs



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)


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.


*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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2008, 2016 by Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape

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