…and polished up the chrome

It can be expensive being a Bruce Springsteen fan. I’ve just taken a look at the price tag on the River box set “The Ties That Bind” – what the hell, man? That’s almost as much of a piss-take as price tags that are attached to the recent trawls through Dylan’s vaults.

It’s all the more frustrating as:

a) The ‘specials’ for Born To Run and Darkness On The Edge of Town both sit in my collection and add plenty to the collection yet neither were as ott in terms as price (Born To Run’s 30th Anniversary edition set me back less than £20 if I remember and I was gifted the Darkness Set).

b) Raiding Bruce’s vaults has always turned up gold before and I doubt this is an exception.

Still – that’s what streaming is for I guess. I probably don’t have space for it in all honesty either.

But looking at point ‘b’ – Tracks proves that. That it’s so cheap now beggars belief – probably as it was the first such exercise in dusting off masters and so doesn’t have the kind of lavish ‘boxed’ feel that so many collections do now (oh but I so do still want that Ten box from Pearl Jam); there’s no hardback book, no live dvd concert or ‘documentary’ – just four fantastic (three faultless) discs of never-before released songs.

I’m pretty sure that the best of the outtakes from The River have already surfaced on Disc 2 of that set. Fuck, there’s 11 of them. I doubt very much if anything else is as good, to my ears, as Take Em As They Come (included on both):

Anyway….

The thing that always gets me with these sets is – “how the hell didn’t this make the cut when X-song did?” Even his latest, single volume ‘dust-off’ of scraps High Hopes had me wondering how songs like Down In The Hole or Frankie Fell In Love never made the cut – or the ‘bonus’ track Swallowed Up (In The Belly Of The Whale) was relegated in place of Easy Money etc etc…

Chief amongst the possible causes is the fact that Springsteen albums are almost concept albums. There’s a theme, a feel to them. Some songs, no matter how good, just don’t fit.

Another is that with so many strong songs being churned out, an album only has space for so many. Just look at the songs across the second, third and half of the first and fourth discs on Tracks.  Born In The USA was so rammed full of A-List songs that seven of its twelve songs were released as sings – and that didn’t include it’s best tracks like Bobby Jean, Downbound Train or No Surrender! It’s even more surprising then that there’s 17 further songs from the Born In The USA sessions on Tracks. Seventeen! And that doesn’t include the original demo of the title tune – that one was an out-take from Nebraska.

Even then there’s still more lurking in the vaults – what about the electric, full-band take on songs from Nebraska? Where’s the whole album Bruce recorded and shelved in 1994? Where are the other 36 tracks that made the original shortlist of 100 for this collection? Though, given that Tracks covered up to 1998 (ish) it’s safe to assume that a truck-load of those have appeared on the box sets for Darkness and The River.

That’s a whole lot of music. A wealth of songs. Is it worth these trawls? Well, when the material is as strong as this I’d say 100% yes.

It’s not like we’re wading through songs by Lifehouse that weren’t Hangin By A Moment or something here.

We’re hearing songs that were written by one of those few as prolific and important as Dylan to the musical landscape.

One of the things I love about these is seeing just how much goes in to developing the themes / characters / lyrics. There’s some which feature very-very close matches on lyrics, follow a theme but aren’t quite there, there’s something not quite convincing. It’s like listening to Springsteen try them on, see how they fit and adjust until he ends up with what he considers the best use of that lyric, theme and apply it to the right feel – usually the song that makes the album.

The song Car Wash wasn’t quite there but the line “Well I work down at the car wash” would appear in Downbound Train with just a tweak.

Further proof of this process can be seen on the Blood Brothers doc with just how many variations in just musical style / timing signatures the lyrics are staple to before the ‘final’ one is found.

It’s clearly an on-going process.

I caught one the other day, listening to Shut Out The Light:

It’s one of Bruce’s then many Vietnam-vet songs. Guys came home but bore scares physical and mental. In this case Johnny’s still reeling with shock, gets the shakes, wakes up at night and feels his girl next to him (another familiar trope, see Happy, Cautious Man, The River etc etc). There’s a line in there – “Bobby pulled his Ford out of the garage and they polished up the chrome”.

It hit me. I knew that line.

It’s used in one of the best tracks on the damn near unimpeachable (I could do without Girls In Their Summer Clothes) Magic:

Now I think I see what this song really is, all the more bitter.

It’s more than revisit of that soldier’s homecoming theme but instead of a happy reunion “Johnny oh Johnny I’m so glad to have you back with me” and picking up the pieces of life and trying to move forward – there’s no coming home. The soldier coming home here has been killed in Iraq, this time sung to his memory. Instead of a family welcoming, there’s a family mourning – Wendy sits with the soldier’s uniform while John is “drunk and gone”.

And the line? “We pulled your cycle out of the garage and polished up the chrome”.

Bobby? Bobby’s there too. He “brought the gasoline” and helped set the bike on fire in the foothills.

The use of the same names makes it all the more haunting and effocative. It could even be the same family given the “my love for you brother” in the last verse.

It’s brilliant. It’s not a re-use of lyrics that didn’t fit right at the time (Shut Out The Light was considered worthy of release even as a b-side – appropriately – to Born In The USA). It’s a return to a scene and delivering it’s final chapter. Magic is brimming with anger and barely-veiled hostility to the state of the US and, to me, it’s like Bruce looked back in his cannon to see what he’d got that could help punch his message home hard and he found it. Some quarter-century later, Springsteen delivered a bitter counter-punch to the almost-optimism of the earlier work to bury home the fact that so many families were being left gutted by yet another American war on foreign land.

 

8 thoughts on “…and polished up the chrome

  1. You say this – “The thing that always gets me with these sets is – “how the hell didn’t this make the cut when X-song did?”

    I wondered that myself. My thought? Bruce is too close to the stuff. Consider that he put “The River” out as a single album, was dissatisfied with it, recalled it, worked on it for (I think) a year then re-released it as a double album. So Bruce is not only a perfectionist but I think he overthinks stuff and is too close to it. And so great stuff like “Sad Eyes” winds up on the outtake and B-side album.

    Anyway, nice post.

    • Thanks Jim.

      Yeah – definitely was a perfectionist. Not so sure whether that still applies as I do question the quality control on the most recent couple of albums but yeah.
      I’ve been listening to “The River; Single Album” via Spotify and – as with The Promise – it’s amazing that he didn’t release it, it would still have been a huge album but probably not as vital as The River became. Not sure it’s enough to make me part with £70 though.

      Can an artist not be too close to their work though?

      • Yes, I agree about the inconsistent quality. I bought “Magic” a few years ago and liked maybe one song. But there’s a larger question hanging out there which is how long can any artist remain viable, fresh and creative? When’s the last time McCartney did anything noteworthy? Woody Allen? I think maybe they reach a point where they’ve said everything they have to say.

        As to “The River” box set, it just so happens I have a credit at Amazon. Do I use it to buy that? Or just download a bunch of different tunes? Frankly I’m leaning towards the latter.

        As to an artist being too close to their work, sure, always true. Stephen King has a small group (6-8) people who to this day read his novels before publishing. Bruce has certainly always had the band, one assumes his wife ,and, of course, Jon Landau about whom I have very mixed feelings. His thing seems to be “less jazzy, more slam-bam commercial.” That’s served Bruce well commercially, not always, IMHO, artistically.

      • Really, just the one song? I think Magic is the better of his work since reforming the E-Street Band (but for Girls In Their Summer Clothes). It was certainly a lot more pointed and cohesive than anything since.
        I think he’d certainly drifted from writing anything relevant pre American Skin; the 90’s were – as your post pointed out – a lost period for sure. Oddly enough, having read a couple of bios (including the ‘as close to official without being official’) I don’t think he bounces songs off anyone but the producer at the time – though he did use Steven Van Zandt as a sounding board in the past (but then he too was listed with Landau as a co-producer. I get the impression the band and their parts are directed rather than collaborated with.
        As for McCartney…. blimey. The Frog Chorus?

      • Yes, I actually did note, if not on my blog then perhaps on someone else’s that I need to give Magic another listen. My first impression wasn’t strong and a few more playbacks didn’t knock me out. But I will go back and spin it again.

        For the record, Uncut magazine came out with a Bruce “Collector’s Edition.” It’s pretty good and as I am reading through it, am listening to the albums they review chronologically. It’s interesting to see how he evolved over the years. So I haven’t yet made my way back to Magic but will eventually.

  2. Yeah I think I may have that Uncut magazine in the shelves somewhere.
    I think it’s one that gets stronger with repeated listens as there’s so many layers to it that open up.- at the moment I’m hooked on the Van Zandt’s mandolin on the title track.

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