And in the quick of a knife, they reach for their moment… Springsteen’s Lyrics (Part 3)

Right, finally – Part Trois.

What started off as a two-part look at my favourite Springsteen’s lyrics grew into an easy three-parter as every time I worked on the list it grew when I remembered another lyric. I could have stretched this to four but this Springsteen Series is already long and it’s time to wrap it up. I reckon I’ve still got at least a couple of these BIG BRUCE BLOGS in the works though, so let’s move forward and get into the final part of this one, complete with playlist.

Seeds

“Well I swear if I could spare the spit, I’d lay one on your shiny chrome, and send you on your way back home”

When Bruce started expanding his lyrical framework beyond his immediate locales, his social and political consciousness began growing too. In place of songs about Jersey boardwalks and fortune tellers came lyrics about real people and their struggles in failing economies where ‘lately there ain’t been much work’. ‘Seeds’ is one of these early tunes to plow this awareness into his songwriting.  Oft-overlooked as it never made it to a studio album (it joins the list of those culled form Born In The USA*) and was only officially released on Live 1975-85 it would feature in Springsteen’s sets for a reason – it was a mainstay during the Reagan years and it would slip back into Springsteen’s set lists in 2009, when America’s economy started to circle the u-bend.

You can feel the anger in this one, another story of how betting everything on following the American dream (chasing the oil boom just after it went bust) fucked someone over, scathing lyrics set against a thumping E Street rhythm and heavy chords.

Human Touch, Better Days & Living Proof

“You can’t shut off the risk and the pain, without losing the love that remains”

“But it’s a sad man, my friend, who’s livin’ in his own skin, and can’t stand the company”

“Life is just a house of cards, as fragile as each and every breath as this boy sleepin’ in our bed”

It’s not cheating – to me these are both three great individual songs but their lyrics and arc belong in the same write-up.

They complete a story arc that’s clearly autobiographical and highlight one of those elements that – even when a large part of the album’s they’re on are tosh – makes Springsteen a great writer is that he’s able to take that look into himself,  and what’s in all of us, and carve it into something that you actually want to listen to.

At the end of the 80’s Springsteen’s first marriage was over and he’d already been fighting depression. The arc represented by these songs shows characters who – in ‘Human Touch’ – have been bruised by former experiences (‘so you’ve been broken and you’ve been hurt, show me somebody who aint’) but are still willing to lay it on the line for a second chance – but , as Springsteen put it: “to receive what love delivers, they have to surrender themselves to each other and accept fate.”

In Better Days those “characters return from broken love affairs and self-doubt and find the tempered optimism to take another shot,” – Bruce pointed out in ‘Songs’ – having “taken a piss, at fortune’s sweet kiss”, realised what passes by while you sit “listening to the hours and minutes tickin’ away” and find the redemption that’s out there.

There’s an undeniable sense of promise and positivity to the song and it doesn’t hurt that the lyrics are strapped to one of the better tunes in terms of production on the two albums.

Despite being the song that kicked off writing for Lucky Town, ‘Living Proof’ serves as the final chapter in a way as Bruce reflects on fatherhood and the joy and sense of completion that delivers – children being the living proof that “love is real. They are faith and hope transformed into flesh and blood.”

The song has meant more to me withe each passing year since my own son arrived “like the missing words to some prayer that I could never make” and will remain a lyrical favourite for just that reason. Springsteen obviously felt pretty similarly about it as it’s the sole song from Human Touch and Lucky Town to have been selected for the ‘autobiographical’ collection Chapter and Verse.

I think any of us that have every fought that black dog can recognise and appreciate Springsteen’s lyrics across these three tunes – that there is a light there if you’re willing to give it a shot but you gotta be willing to the chance – nor deny his right to apply this more personal light to his lyrics (even if the overall albums and production fall flat).

Last to Die

“Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake, whose blood will spill, whose heart will break”

Magic is one of Springsteen’s finest collections of songs and easily the strongest of his post-reunion albums. It’s certainly his angriest, with Springsteen’s rage against Bush and the cost of war on people – I think it was Bono who said that all of America is Springsteen’s hometown now – burning beneath the surface of so many of it’s tunes. ‘Gypsy Biker’ updates his ‘Nam song ‘Shut Out The Light’ with harsher consequence and ‘Last to Die’ takes takes it’s lyrics directly from John Kerry’s testimony on Vietnam – “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

It’s packed with scathing, bitingly angry lines like ‘We don’t measure the blood we’ve drawn anymore, we just stack the bodies outside the door’ and ‘The wise men were all fools’ and strapped to the blazing sound of the E Street Band in its final peak.

Youngstown

“We sent our sons to Korea and Vietnam
Now we’re wondering what they were dyin’ for”

A stand-out story on an album resplendent with story songs and precise lyrics. ‘Youngstown’ tells the story of that Ohio town from the discovery of the ore that was “linin’ Yellow Creek” in 1803, through wars Civil, First, Second, Vietnam and Korean to the city’s decline as the arse fell out of the steel industry – “the yard’s just scrap and rubble .” The ‘Jenny’ in the chorus is also the nickname for the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company’s Jeanette Blast Furnace – which shut down in ’77 (ta, Wikipedia).

There’s a real poetry to Springsteen’s telling of this potted history and the lyrics work both against the minimal backdrop of The Ghost of Tom Joad and when set alight by Nils Lofgren live:

 

Hey Blue Eyes

“In this house there’s just the dust of bones, the basement’s filled with liars
In this house our sons and daughters are spilled like wine.”

Technically the last ‘new’ Springsteen tune released and testament to the fact that he can still punch above the pack with this lyrics even when not amazing with anything musically, ‘Hey Blue Eyes’ is taken from the American Beauty EP that was released in 2014.

Springsteen has described the track and its allegorical lyrics as “one of my darkest political songs. Written during the Bush years, it’s a metaphor for the house of horrors our government’s actions created in the years following the invasion of Iraq. At its center is the repressed sexuality and abuse of power that characterized Abu Ghraib prison. I feel this is a shadow we as a country have yet to emerge from.”

The Last Carnival

“Moon rise, moon rise, the light that was in your eyes is gone away.
Daybreak, daybreak, the thing in you that made me ache has gone to stay ”

Danny ‘The Phantom’ Federici, founding member of the E Street Band, died April 17, 2008 after a three year fight with melanoma. Working On A Dream, Springsteen’s 2009 album, is dedicated to Federici and ‘The Last Carnival’ is both a reference to ‘Wild Billy’s Circus Story’ and a touching tribute to the first of the E-Street Band to slip this mortal coil.

“It started out as a way of making sense of his passing. He was a part of that sound of the boardwalk the band grew up with and that’s something that’s going to be missing now.”

Brothers Under The Bridge

“One minute you’re right there, and something slips”

A tune cut around The Ghost of Tom Joad though left off and included on Tracks – ‘Brothers Under The Bridge’ is a story about a homeless Vietnam veteran living beneath a bridge, with other homeless veterans, “who has a grown daughter that he’s never seen, and she grows up, and she comes looking for her dad. And what he tells her.”  At a time when Springsteen was like a factory churning out great short-story like songs against hushed backgrounds that wouldn’t hide bad lyrics, this is a stand out and one that sits with his finest ‘Nam songs –  with lines like ‘You were just a beautiful light, in your mama’s dark eyes of blue’ and that final line ‘something slips’.

Jungleland

“Beneath the city two hearts beat
Soul engines running through a night so tender”

Of-fucking-course it was gonna be on here. How can Springsteen’s most epic and well-loved ‘story’ song not be? I’ve been using its lyrics for the blog titles after all. There’s nothing that can be said about this one that hasn’t been said by better critics than I – all I’ll say is that you can pick any lyric on here and it’ll not only be gold but will be sung along to passionately by the entire crowed at any given Springsteen show it’s played at.

And….. playlist:

 

*One of those three posts in the pipeline

3 thoughts on “And in the quick of a knife, they reach for their moment… Springsteen’s Lyrics (Part 3)

  1. You know how much I like Bruce’s writing. I had never heard ‘Hey Blue Eyes’ (and I call myself a fan) two new tunes in one day. Tom Joad/Devils Dust feel. I always liked his writing on Human Touch/Lucky Town. When he released those albums a lot of critics (I really like them) didn’t dig them. Not everyone because I really liked them. He stirs up so many images and emotions. I think I said that to you before. Good piece Tony.

  2. Hi Tony, Thanks for sharing this awesome blog with us. Your blogs on Springsteen series help us to understand more about the lyrical framework of Bruce. Keep posting such awesome blogs.

  3. Hi Tony, Thanks for sharing this awesome blog with us. Your blogs on Springsteen series help us to understand more about the lyrical framework of Bruce. Keep posting such awesome blogs.

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