They just stand back and let it all be… Springsteen’s Lyrics (Part Two)

First up, a disclaimer: This series was supposed to be two parts long. This second installment has taken as long as it has to kick in because I realise whittling down my ‘short list’ to a ‘final list’ has proven impossible. As such… this is now Part 2 of 3.

So Part 3 and Playlist to follow. Let’s get back to it!

Thunder Road

“The screen door slams”

Springsteen has often said that in Born To Run he made a conscious effort to stream down his lyrics and write lyrics that were a little more direct. He didn’t lose the poetry or power in his lyrics, just trimmed the fluff. That’s evinced from the very first line on the album. ‘Thunder Road’ is full of great imagery – like those ‘Skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets’ – but that opening line is as perfect as it gets. There’s a universality to it – this isn’t a song about Jersey or NYC, it could be anywhere – and a sense of romance and promise as the screen door ‘slams’ on the past and Mary looks out and, presumably, pulls out to win.

All I’m Thinkin’ About

“Little boy carrying a fishing pole, little girl picking huckleberries from off of the vine, brown bag filled with a little green toad”

Devils and Dust is the third and most recent of Springsteen’s ‘acoustic’ albums but not as songs aren’t as sparsely accompanied as they are on Ghost Of Tom Joad or Nebraska. As with both of those, Devils.. is a ‘story’ song album and while some songs aren’t as strong as they could be there’s still a lot well crafted lyrics in there – three of my favourite’s come from this late-period collection including ‘All I’m Thinkin About’ which is just chock full of great, poetic visuals that come close to early Springsteen lines.

One Step Up

“Mmm she ain’t lookin’ too married. And me, well, honey I’m pretending”

In its 1987 review of Tunnel of Love, Rolling Stone called it “an unsettled and unsettling collection of hard looks at the perils of commitment. A decade or so ago, Springsteen acquired a reputation for romanticizing his subject matter; on this album he doesn’t even romanticize romance.” The album is one of my favourites and ‘One Step Up’ is full of great lines from the firs ‘Woke up this morning the house was cold’… yeah… the furnace wasn’t burning but this is a song of allegory and Springsteen was finding his house cold and a marriage that wasn’t burning either but that line.. “Me, honey, I’m pretending”… of course, Tunnel.. being the album of uncertain minds that it is it’s followed by “Last night I dreamed I held you in my arms, the music was never-ending. We danced as the evening sky faded to black” as the contrast between dream and reality hits in.

I’m On Fire

“Sometimes it’s like someone took a knife, baby, edgy and dull and cut a six inch valley through the middle of my skull”

As mentioned in Part 1 – the thrill of Springsteen’s archival releases is hearing lyrics being worked on in situ as it were. Catching rough drafts of lyrics that would reach fruition years later attached to very different, musically, tunes. Keen-eared listeners to The Promise will have picked up a huge chunk of ‘I’m On Fire’s lyrics being worked on in ‘Spanish Eyes’. The opening couplet “Hey little girl, is your daddy home, did he go away and leave you all alone” is right there as are the “does he do to you” lines but, somewhere in the intervening few years it became a more brooding song of frustrated desire and that line ‘edgy and dull’ is what transforms it for me. Absolutely love that line.

Lost In The Flood

“The ragamuffin gunner is returnin’ home like a hungry runaway, he walks through town all alone”

Springsteen’s first Vietnam vet reference and on his first album. ‘Lost in the Flood’ is just an all-out lyrical high with some great visuals and stories that I can never get enough of, it’s probably why I’ve kept my ‘Bronx’ Best Apostle’ t-shirt for so long. There’s nuns runnin ‘bald’, Eighth Avenue sailors, street fights and cops putting ‘that cat from the Bronx’ right away. But, as scene setters go, that opening line takes some beating.

Devils and Dust

“Fear’s a powerful thing, it can turn your heart black you can trust. It’ll take your God filled soul and fill it with devils and dust”

Devils and Dust has songs on it that date back to Ghost of Tom Joad and I can’t help but feel that it was writing the title tune that gave Springsteen the ‘key’ he needs for each album to tie them all together – it may will be why this song, written in anger at the end of the Bush years – gave it’s title to the collection. What do you do when what you’re doing to survive kills who you are?

You’re Missing

“Children are asking if it’s alright, will you be in our arms tonight?”

For all it’s songs of finding solace in love and music and each other, The Rising would not be the powerful response to 9/11 if it didn’t handle the overwhelming loss experienced by so many and rendered it as powerfully as it did. ‘You’re Missing’ is a heavy hitter with it’s subtlety and perfectly captures the loss of someone’s physicality when everything else in the world remains. “I thought, ‘What do you miss?’ You miss the physicalness and the ability to touch somebody. I’ve had people close to me who died. I remember when I was young, that aching to touch the person again was very, very strong and it was very painful to realize that it just couldn’t happen.”

Lines like “Coffee cups on the counter, jackets on the chair, papers on the doorstep, you’re not there” get that across but it’s the “children are asking” line that does it. That loss… the kids needing that hug…  man he nails it.

Badlands

“Talk about a dream, try to make it real, you wake up in the night with a fear so real. Spend your life waiting for a moment that just don’t come. Well don’t waste your time waiting!”

Woah oh oh BADLANDS! Darkness.. is my favourite Springsteen album and up there with my favourite albums period. For all its seriousness and samurai approach to songwriting, there are some uplifting, inspirational messages in there just like this and…

Prove It All Night

“Well everybody’s got a hunger, a hunger they can’t resist. There’s so much that you want, you deserve much more than this. Well, if dreams came true, aw, wouldn’t that be nice? But this ain’t no dream, we’re living all through the night. You want it? You take it, you pay the price”

As he’d latter rue himself for doing in ‘Better Days’… don’t sit around waiting for your lift to begin: get up and get it done because the world isn’t going to just give it to you.

Death to My Hometown

“The greedy thieves who came around, and ate the flesh of everything they found
whose crimes have gone unpunished now, who walk the streets as free men now”

Musically and overall this is not even up in my Top 20. Wrecking Ball has some strong songs but I don’t put it too high in Springsteen’s overall catalogue. However – as Aphoristcal commented on the previous installment – even when he’s not at his finest musically, he’s remained a very good lyricist. I’d go a little further and say that as he’s matured and widened his experiences he’s not only gotten better but his lyrics (when he’s not simply repeating lines for emphasis) remain great and Wrecking Ball is full of examples of Springsteen using  a cracking lyric to rage against the 2008 economic crisis. I especially enjoy ‘Death to My Hometown’s use of archaic references to destructive forces like ‘cannonballs’ and blood soaked ground. Not to mention the tying in of ‘My Hometown’ – a song so many associate with warmth – being torn apart.

The poets round here don’t write nothing at all… Springsteen’s Lyrics (Part One)

Throughout my career I’ve been required to wrestle with the written word. Some days “thoughts arrive like butterflies” while on others it’s akin to wading through waist-deep mud with no solid ground in sight.

Perhaps that’s why I appreciate  a great lyric in a song, the knowledge that it doesn’t always come easy and what sounds so beautifully simply more likely than not took a lot of work and refinement. Meanwhile, my love for the written word has also meant that I always seek out those lyrics and love a good ‘story’ song.

Bruce Springsteen has written more songs than it’s possible to count. For every song that has been released on each album there’s a good five or six that didn’t make the cut and, even when they’re released on archival products such as Tracks, The Promise or The Ties That Bind, there are still countless others that remain locked in vaults.

From a songwriting point of view I’d rank Springsteen as one the greatest in terms of both qaulity and consistency – certainly equal to Dylan and, while he has just wrapped up his equivalent to a Vegas residency, Bruce has yet to resort to churning out nothing but albums of cover songs. His lyrics have tackled everything from the circus to war, New York to front line in Iraq , love, birth, death, cunnilingus and lobbing it up the wrong’ un.

So, I thought it was time to put together a list of my favourite Springsteen songs from a lyrical perspective. This is Part One with Two (and the Spotify playlist) to follow as time allows. While not necessarily my favourite Springsteen songs full stop, from a lyrical point of view, these take some beating. In no particular order….

The Wall

“I read Robert McNamara says he’s sorry”

Asking if Springsteen’s got any good ‘Nam songs is like wondering whether a bear defecates in wooded areas. From ‘Lost in the Flood’ to the tubthumping ‘Born In The USA’, you could easily make a great compilation album of his songs that use Vietnam as a touch stone, but for me the most poignant lyric is to be found on an album that’s otherwise stuffed with re-heated leftovers, melodies with stapled-on effects and Tom Morello wankfests. Yup; I’m talking about High Hopes. ‘The Wall’ is one of the most personal and affecting of Springsteen’s many Vietnam songs as Bruce – against minimal musical backdrop, sings a ‘short prayer’ inspired by the memory of his friend Walter Chichon, who taught guitar to Springsteen but would die in the Vietnam War at around the age of 19.

The deeper I get into Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War series the more I understand just how horrifying and wide-reaching it was and just why Springsteen – and others – found it such a source for lyrics and stories.

As such, the more I listen the more the line “I read Robert McNamara says he’s sorry” just kicks me each time. When parents like Carol Crocker say how they chose to have their sons buried at Arlington because she ‘feared that if he had been buried closer to home, she would claw her way into his grave to once again “feel his warmth.”‘ it’s hard to fathom that much pain and loss but, hey, McNamara says he’s sorry… “apology and forgiveness have no place here at all.”

Blood Brothers

“The world came chargin’ up the hill and we were women and men”

Springsteen wrote ‘Blood Brothers’ on the eve of working with the E Street Band again for the Greatest Hits album and it’s just full of great lines. He’s stated that it’s filled with ‘the ambivalence and deep affection of revisiting a relationship spanning twenty-five years’.  For me the lyrics feel like an acceptance of life’s inevitable changes, the trade off that’s required between fantasy and reality, of  how ‘the hardness of this world, slowly grinds your dreams away’, and ‘we lose ourselves in work to do and bills to pay’.

Yet it’s an optimistic song too, one of togetherness that was fitting for the band’s reunion and as a final song – some five years later – on their reunion tour, it’s almost like it became the story of the band’s friendship: “I’ll keep movin’ though the dark with you in my heart, my blood brother.”

The River

“Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse”

The River, while an extension of the themes explored on Darkness on the Edge of Town,  marked a big change in Springsteen’s song writing: “my first attempt to write about the commitments of home and marriage.” While given a hard kick up the arse by the rockers, the album’s story songs are huge: ‘Point Blank’, ‘Stolen Car’, ‘Wreck on the Highway’… but ‘The River’ is just an out and out classic and one who’s lyrics are just so ridiculously well written it stands as his benchmark ‘story’ song for me.

Springsteen took his inspiration from reality – the crash of the construction industry in the late 1970’s and the impact it had on his sister and her family: “I watched my brother-in-law lose his good-paying job and work hard to survive without complaint”. This was the song that sold Springsteen to me when I first heard it on Greatest Hits, at the time I would’ve been reading Steinbeck for school and it felt like an extension of that classic American literature style story telling.  Springsteen had hit a rich vein for songwriting inspiration and would continue to tap into it with great results for the rest of his career.

Long Time Coming

“Well if I had one wish in this god forsaken world kids, it’d be that your mistakes would be your own”

Dating back to the Ghost of Tom Joad era, ‘Long Time Comin’ is one of the standout tracks on 2005’s Devils and Dust album. The song marks the first use of the word ‘fuck’ on any of his records (let’s not talk about ‘Reno’ here) in what is a great song about redemption that bounds along and is shot through with great, joy-infused lines – including a sly nod to his own past with “it’s me and you Rosie” – but it’s the “if I had one wish in this god forsaken world…” line about not passing your own baggage on that stands out for me.

Bruce felt so strongly about it that it was selected for the ‘soundtrack’ album to his autobiography Chapter and Verse and would – during his his Broadway show – explain that it was inspired by a visit from his father just before the birth of Bruce’s first child “to warn me of the mistakes that he had made and to warn me not to make them with my own children, to release them from the chains…  that they may be free to make their own choices and live their own lives.”

Racing in the Street

“Some guys they just give up living and start dying little by little, piece by piece”

What I really enjoy with Springsteen’s ‘archival’ releases like Tracks and The Promise is listening to earlier takes of songs and tracks that didn’t make the cut at the time and hearing him try out different lyrics, evolving them, seeing if they fit in this song, then that and then, finally, they appear fully polished on the album version.

‘Racing In The Street’ is one of the greatest songs on the best Springsteen albums, Darkness on the Edge of Town. I love the “give up living” but if you listen to the ’78 version of the song on The Promise, it’s not there. That great line doesn’t appear anywhere in ‘draft’ form, I get the impression it arrived like a bolt of lightning and really moves the song into a different place.

American Skin (41 Shots)

“If an officer stops you promise me you’ll always be polite, that you’ll never ever run away, promise Mama you’ll keep your hands in sight”

“I had the title and a few stray lines, an idea for a song about American identity, sitting in my workbook for six months…” It would, as with The Rising, take a tragedy to spur Bruce into writing a powerful song that would reaffirm his place as a songwriter able to tap into the public consciousness again. While the reunion tour had seen new songs like ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ and even ‘Further On Up The Road’ show that Springsteen still had new songs up his sleeve, ‘American Skin’ was the one that showed he could still take a step back and then come up with something unexpectedly hard-hitting in its lyrical content and relevance. The lyrics are hard-hitting without being exploitative and remain evocative with repeated listens, best heard delivered live and never really captured effectively in the studio as the genie had already been let out of the bottle.

Born To Run

“Beyond the Palace hemipowered drones scream down the boulevard”

A first-person love letter to a girl called Wendy. A song about busting out and making a break “on a last chance power drive”. It’s a refined, more direct blast of power than Springsteen’s previous work. It’s got the same passion but there’s a sense of dread and more urgency in the need to escape than on, say, ‘Rosalita’,  but, for me, the album and song still contains as many evocative lines as those on its predecessor and there’s just something about that line… I mean, how many other rock songs or radio hits have used a phrase like ‘hemipowered drones’?

Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)

“Windows are for cheaters/ Chimneys for the poor/ Closets are for hangers/ Winners use the door”

Before there was ‘Born To Run’ there was ‘Rosalita’ and The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle is just full of Bruce’s poetry in full swing. Shorn from the inhibitions of his debut and flowing wonderfully throughout, it’s tough to pick out anything specific but I love the humour of this, Springsteen’s autobiographical ‘getting out of town’ preview for his next album, and the poetry in…

Wild Billy’s Circus Story

“The runway lies ahead like a great false dawn”

‘Circus Story’ is stuffed to the rims with great lines. It’s a “black comedy” of a song in which Springsteen uses his memories of the circuses that would visit Freehold during his childhood to paint a romantic picture of “the seduction and loneliness of a life outside the margins of everyday life” like that of a musician on the road, say.

Atlantic City:

“Now our luck may have died and our love may be cold but with you forever I’ll stay”

For all the power and fun of The River‘s rockers, Springsteen’s next move would be to veer toward the more serious side of his song-writing, to tap further into those characters and ideas established in its story songs.

With Nebraska, Springsteen would create songs written quickly and recorded (as demos) with minimal musical backing. There’s a direct line between the sense of misfortune stories on The River and Nebraska – the young couple  who escape to Atlantic City only to continue to struggle and, in the line “with you forever I’ll stay” a continuation of Springsteen’s exploration of marriage and commitment that would thread through into Tunnel of Love‘s documentation of his own, an album which I think this lyric would be equally at home on,

Faith will be rewarded: Bruce Springsteen – Madison Square Garden, New York 2000

“The floor was a mass of smiles and swaying bodies, and as I watched, I thought ‘I can do this. I can bring this, this happiness, these smiles.’ I went home and called the E Street Band.”

Back when the music press was writing it up and even when I bought the live album that documented it – Live in New York City – I didn’t really understand just how big a deal Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s Reunion Tour was.  I’d only really been listening Bruce for a few years at that point and was by no means a decades-long fan.

I was actually one of the generation of fans that made Bruce realise it was time to get the band back together again after a “two young kids” introduced themselves to him outside a pizza joint and expressed their dismay at having never seen the E Street Band live “I started realizing there was a sea of young people out there who never saw the greatest thing I did: PLAY LIVE… with the E Street Band”.

Here we are in 2018 – with a number of studio albums completed with E Street Band tours and shows further on and it’s clear how important that Reunion Tour was. For the decade leading up to it had been filled with two tours from Bruce. One with ‘The Other Band’ in support of Human Touch/Lucky Town and what became known as the ‘Shut The Fuck Up’ Tour for Ghost of Tom Joad. So when Bruce took to the stage with a full E Street Band in 1999 many, including the band themselves, weren’t sure how long it would last.

It had been 11 long years since the end of the Tunnel of Love tour and Steven Van Zandt hadn’t toured with the band since 1981. Questions abounded: was it a one-off? Was it just a nostalgia tour? Was there anything left in the tank? Would this be the start of a new chapter?

By the time the Reunion Tour reached New York in June 2000 for it’s grand finale – a ten-night, sold-out stand at Madison Square Garden – all of those questions had been answered. The E Street Band was firing on all cylinders, tighter than a duck’s arse and clearly a force to be reckoned with now and into the future. The set contained a healthy mix of classic ‘Jersey greaseball’ and ‘Mega’ Bruce along with a selection of Tracks‘ most euphoric moments and new songs to boot.

Songs from June 29th and July 1st would be chopped up and spliced into the ‘live’ album Live in New York City. Back in my Least to Most on Bruce I mentioned how this album suffered from “strange sequencing and fading out”. I stand by that. Until recently a real document of that tour and its closing stand has not been available. But, as Bruce and others, continue to use that weird old ‘Nugs’ service and release more individual shows to the public, I’ve added (thanks to Black Friday the best $4 I’ve spent) Madison Square Garden, New York City, July 1, 2000 to my collection and, let me tell you now: it’s fucking awesome.

Hearing the show from start to end, in full and uninterrupted is a new experience that highlights just how vital and powerful a performance it was. It would be a few tours before Bruce started abandoning setlists and taking requests so those core songs that it revolved around – ‘My Love Will Not Let You Down’, ‘Two Hearts’, ‘The Promised Land’, the fiery recasting of ‘Youngstown’ leading into ‘Murder Incorporated’ are all here as per Live in NYC but still fantastic and exuberant in their performance.

In fact I’d go so far as to say that now, with the benefit of understanding the band’s history, hearing the Van Zandt spotlighting ‘Two Hearts’ is even more rewarding.

There’s a stunning take on ‘Lost in the Flood’ which – it turns out – was the first time this one had been tackled since the Darkness on the Edge of Town tour. Tracks favourite ‘The Promise’ is met with a near-orgasmic reaction from the crowd after every verse and chorus and the guaranteed crowd pleasers ‘Badlands’, ‘Backstreets’ both ‘Born’s – though the USA in a heavily stripped-back slide-blues version closer to the take on Tracks delight as they always do. Given that Bruce almost cut all the classics from the set, wanted to stick more closely to Tracks material, makes you more grateful for Landau’s sage wisdom in guiding him toward doing what he does best. There’s also the introduction of Bruce as ‘rock and roll televangelist’ as he promises salvation though the power of rock and roll. Yes, it’s rehearsed and probably didn’t change night to night, but the band and the performances are so tight you can’t help but get caught up in it.

The sound of the band had changed too as this tour marked the point at which the guitars became more dominant. With both Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren in the mix now alongside Springsteen’s own teak-like tone and Patti Scialfa adding an extra rhythm the band shifted to a four-guitar attack which, when coupled with the power of Max Weinberg, makes this era sound so much heavier and more powerful than takes on previous live recordings. It fucking kicks.

But it’s the stuff that, for some bizarre reason, was left off that record that really shines a new light on these concerts. Springsteen chose to open this show with a new song – the Joe Grushecky co-penned ‘Code of Silence’  and dropped a pre-The Rising version of ‘Further On Up The Road’ later into the set. Of course, two other new songs were featured on Live in New York City and also feature here but there placing in the setlist is more natural. Tour anthem and ‘theme’ song ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ is the penultimate song while ‘American Skin (41 Shots)’ came earlier on in the night than that album would lead you to believe. It’s one of Bruce’s finest and made for performing live -which is probably why it’s never been done justice in the studio – because it’s the reaction, the silence as attention is given then the cheers that greet this song and it’s meaning are always worth listening to:

‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ , with it’s message of inclusion and moving forward as one, had been played every night of the tour, usually the set closer. As he introduces the song here, Bruce says that he was “hoping that our tour would be the rebirth and the renewal of our band and of our commitment to serve you. I hope we’ve done that well this year and we´ll continue to try and do so…”

This show does’t end with ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ though. Bruce saved the best for last. For the first time, the band would play ‘Blood Brothers.’ It’s a powerful and moving rendition and Bruce adds a new verse for the occasion and you can hear his voice break with tears. Unrehearsed and impromptu, he calls the band to stand with him and join hands as he sings these new words, in the video that was taken you can see Clarence wasn’t paying attention – he’s caught up in the emotion – and needs to be beckoned, It’s the perfect closer to the tour.

After a twenty-eight song set, packed with much crowd banter and preaching the band leave with a simple “we’ll be seeing ya”. They would be, even if that wasn’t 100% at that point, and would drop many a classic show propelled by great, stadium-ready new songs, but the sheer rediscovery of their power as a band, the promise of that which could lay ahead and the celebration of what they had accomplished make Madison Square Garden, New York City, July 1, 2000 an essential live album for fans and one that I know will be in frequent rotation for a while to come.

 

Currently Listening

Here we are again. Another ‘series’ down and a couple brewing in the pot and time for a look at what (alongside continual listens to Lost In Kiev’s Nuit Noire) my auditory ossicles have been pinging on down the line of late.

The Mono Jacks – 1,000 De Da

This one was sent to my wife last week via our friend in Romania who gave me some ammo for my Out of Europe on that country and I’ve been listening to it and their new album pretty solidly since. My Romanian isn’t strong enough to offer a translation but I’m told it deals with a certain kind of… parental method that a lot of Romanians today can identify with and “represents our inner children yelling for freedom as we each carve our own paths in life”. The Mono Jacks describe themselves as sounding “between alternative rock and post-punk touches”. As the review on the band’s site says: “I’ve seen most of the British bands ploughing this particular furrow, and The Mono Jacks have better songs than pretty much all of them.”

Destroyer – Chinatown

Another example of strange ways to discover music…. I was looking at an album on Amazon a week or two back and down in the “recommended” type carousel I saw Destroyer’s Kapputt at £5 for a double lp. Out of nothing more than curiosity and intrigue after scanning the glowing reviews (numerous album of the year accolades and reviews like “an astonishing world in just nine songs” and “an open love letter to a vanished pop era: it’s unique and warm and beautiful” ) I checked it out on Spotify and was hooked and hit ‘buy’. Why it was so cheap I have no idea, but, to quote another review “a brilliant and accessible album that draws from the lush sounds of the early 1980s but never forgets the importance of songwriting”.

Band of Susans – Elizabeth Stride 1843-1888

Again – different ways of discovering music. I saw a book (I think on Instagram) that I thought might be interesting called ‘Gimme Indie Rock: 500 Essential American Underground Rock Albums 1981–1996.’ I downloaded a sample chapter and while it’s more a case of “author’s favourite 500..” the description of Band of Susan’s Here Comes Success got me intrigued and I’ve had this opening track on a lot since. There’s a really obvious late-80’s Sonic Youth element to it along with *that* guitar sound. This one actually sent me down one of those Wikipedia rabbit holes that lead to the Saucy Jacky postcard (“you’re a saucy one, Jack”). Apparently Leo Fender was a rabid fan – of Band of Susans not Jack the Ripper.

Pearl Jam – Release, 1994 Orpheum Theater, Boston, MA

Because Jim at Music Enthusiast has got me seriously considering delving deeper into a Pearl Jam series and because I need no excuse to listen to Pearl Jam I’ve been spinning the live disc that came with the Vs/Vitalogy box. In terms of Pearl Jam live albums it’s probably the finest ‘official’ release out there.

Bruce Springsteen – I’ll Stand By You Always

Again in preparation for a possible series / longer post… (my notebook is starting to fill up with these and I haven’t even touched on the 100 Essential Albums thing..) back when Springsteen was doing the promo rounds for his book he confirmed the existence of this one as having been written for, and turned down by the producers of that film about kids and magic. At the time he said that it was “very uncharacteristic of something I’d sing myself.” “It was something that I thought would have fit lovely.” Well, despite being locked down for over a decade it emerged this year on a bootleg set called Odds and Sods. Perhaps not suited for a kids movie as such it’s certainly a different take for Bruce and would probably rank quite highly on his ‘movie songs’ list. It comes from the start of a very prolific song-writing period for Bruce and while he currently squats on Broadway in another activity that keeps him from releasing any new material it’s worth a listen for fans.

In terms of where this sits with sessions and musicians…. It’s listed as “copyright June 13, 2001” so my guess is that it could be from the E Street sessions at Thrill Hill East of that spring – between the end of the Reunion Tour and the start of The Rising sessions later that year in Atlanta – that Springsteen considered fruitless but there’s so little on it in terms of ‘band’ sound that it could just as easily be a solo recording.

Bruce Springsteen – LA Sports Arena, California 1988

Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in!

How? Well with a facebook post announcing that as it’s Mother’s Day in the US, Springsteen’s live archive series was available for half price – I’m still not sure I see the connection with the two but what the hell, I’d toyed with the idea of downloading one for a while and while the £ to $ ratio is a bit up and down depending on Maggie May or Putin’s Cock Holder, it still meant the idea of downloading a full concert for less than £4 was too good an opportunity to miss.

Which means that after something of a Bruce diet I found myself scrolling through the available shows and settling upon one from 1988 – from the Los Angeles Sports Arena, April 23rd to be precise. A 31 song setlist for less for around 10p a song.

Why this one, and not – say – the earlier peak-period concerts from, say ’75 or ’78? I reckon Hammersmith Odeon, London ’75 and the live concerts captured on The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story, not to mention Live/1975–85 do a pretty good job of covering that era while anything post re-union I fancy hearing is also well documented with the Live In New York City and Hyde Park releases. The thing about all of those post-Tunnel Of Love releases, though, is that not a single tune from that album is represented. Given that I believe these represent some of his best, most insightful songs of his career, getting a high-quality concert from that era seemed like a no-brainer for me.

So.. with that in mind; is it any good? First thing – the sound quality is spot on and I only plumped up for the basic MP3s. And, having spent a couple of days with it now I can tell you that yes, it bloody well is good. I wouldn’t call it an essential live album but it’s a fascinating and at times brilliant concert and I would call it essential listening for a Bruce fan.

I say fascinating because the Tunnel of Love Express Tour found Bruce in a transitional phase. He was seemingly tired of the E Street and Bruuuuuce of old and was trying – perhaps in an interest to keep himself interested as much as give the audience something different – to mix things up. The venues were smaller than the megadomes of Bossmania and songs that had been setlist staples were culled in place of obscure b-sides (opener ‘Tunnel of Love’ was followed not by a crowd-shaker like ‘Badlands’ but by the weaker* ‘Be True’) and covers, band members were shuffled into different places – Max Weinberg was moved from centre to the side and Patti Scialfa was bought to a more prominent position, becoming more of a foil than Clarence Clemons. The positioning and role of Patti Scialfa caused much conversation at the time for obvious reasons.

Oh and, in a further effort to distance the work and tour from his former music, Bruce added a horn section – The Horns of Love. Those horns aren’t something I enjoy listening to, I’ll be honest. They trample all over ‘Adam Raised A Cain’ and their toots and parps over ‘Dancing in the Dark’ and ‘Glory Days’ don’t do anything for me. I reckon it would be a while before Bruce really figured out how to add the extended horn section into his live set-up**.

The shows on this tour were also stripped of on-stage spontaneity and the setlists were much more rigid. There’s also some strange moments – very rehearsed and repeated nightly – that make for odd listening. Whereas Live 1975/1985 featured the “Bruce’s Vietnam Dodge” story or tales about his relationship with his father, LA Sports Arena, California 1988 features a surreal 8-minute long ‘caper’ with Bruce and Clarence sitting on a park bench talking about ‘adult’ subjects such as marriage and kids in the build up to a horn-addled  All That Heaven Will Allow’. In fact the video below shows just that scene as well as the fact that it’s the same routine every night***.

But but but. Do not get me wrong. This is still a great live show. It’s fucking Springsteen after all and even with the sense of drama and fascinating confusion that shadow it this set is bloody good. Just check out the track listing:

Set One
“Tunnel of Love”
“Be True”
“Adam Raised a Cain”
“Two Faces”
“All That Heaven Will Allow”
“Seeds”
“Roulette”
“Cover Me”
“Brilliant Disguise”
“Spare Parts”
“War ”
“Born in the U.S.A.”

Set Two
“Tougher Than the Rest”
“Ain’t Got You”
“She’s the One”
“You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)”
“I’m a Coward”
“I’m on Fire”
“One Step Up”
“Part Man, Part Monkey”
“Backstreets
“Dancing in the Dark”
“Light of Day”

First Encore
“Happy Birthday to Roy Orbison”
“Born to Run”
“Hungry Heart”
“Glory Days”
“Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”

Second Encore
“Have Love, Will Travel”
“Tenth Avenue Freeze Out”
“Sweet Soul Music”
“Raise Your Hand”

Yes; that is ‘Roulette’ sitting in there rubbing shoulders with a searing version of ‘Seeds’. Yes; that’s 8 songs from Tunnel of Love and they all hold their ground with some of the heavy weights of Bruce’s catalogue, specifically the meld of ‘Ain’t Got You’ into ‘She’s the One’. Video again taken from another night but…

There’s no ‘Thunder Road’ or ‘Badlands’ and ‘Born To Run’ is the acoustic recasting that would also feature on the Chimes of Freedom EP later that year but, with his desire to present his newer music in a more serious, less Bruuuuce light seemingly sated toward the end of the second set, Springsteen’s classics deliver in the same crowd delighting way they always did and will – ‘Backstreets’ is dedicated to the fans and they react accordingly and when ‘Rosalita’ kicks in the roof is torn off (Bruce making a point by singing “you don’t have to call me lieutenant Rosie.. But. Don’t. Call. Me. BOSS”). The songs from Tunnel of Love were already well known to the audience – the album had been out a good six months by now – and cuts such as ‘Brilliant Disguise’, ‘One Step Up’ and even ‘Two Faces’  are met by rapturous applause and, with the band now well broken in on the tunes and their roles (this was still only Scialfa and Nils Lofgren’s second tour), delivered as strong as the deeper cuts. ‘Spare Parts’, once its oh-so-80s piano intro is done, rips along like the scorcher it is on record.

Tunnel of Love was a near-perfect album that captured Bruce at his most insightful and human. The tour that followed marked not only the live casting of these songs but an artist trying to recast himself too. This tour would be the last time he would play with the E Street Band until 1999, he would shortly divorce his wife and begin a lasting relationship with Patti Scialfa, spend time attending to his personal life and his inner turmoil, taking a five year break from his career in the process. As such LA Sports Arena, California 1988 makes for a fascinating and captivating listen capturing the end of an era, the closing of the first chapter of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. I’ll be listening again for sure, £4 well spent.

*In comparison to the wealth of B-Sides he could’ve chosen but then I believe it was part of the ‘relationships’ theme of the show.

**I still don’t think they’re necessary. Live the E Street Band is one of the unstoppable, unbeatable things that doesn’t need padding out. It tears the roof off when in no-frills mode.

***Again, nothing that new, I read a piece in Rolling Stone from the Magic tour rehearsals that detailed that all of the gestures and interactions are pre-rehearsed rather than ad-libbed but then that’s not an 8 minute ‘bit’ involving a park bench.

Least to Most: Bruce – Darkness on the Edge of Town

“For the ones who had a notion, a notion deep inside,
That it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive
I wanna find one face that ain’t looking through me
I wanna find one place,
I wanna spit in the face of these… BADLANDS!”

Here we go then; my favourite and most-played Bruce Springsteen album and likely up there as a favourite album full stop, Darkness on the Edge of Town.

The history surrounding Born To Run‘s follow up is well covered: following internal conflicts and examining of contracts, Springsteen and his former manager Mike Appel entered a legal battle that would prevent Bruce from recording any new material until its resolution in May 1977. It’s a strange one to consider given how successful Born To Run had become but, after the protracted break from recording, Springsteen found himself in a make-or-break situation for the second time in a row. He now needed to prove that a) he still had it and b) Born To Run wasn’t a fluke and, for the record company too, that he was a viable artist.

When he did hit the studio, Springsteen was overflowing with ideas and songs and the sessions for Darkness on the Edge of Town marked the first of many protracted recording periods where more songs would be recorded than released – as proven by the wealth of strong material left off the album and included on Tracks and The Promise. I could just as easily play ‘best non-album Darkness track’ to ‘best Darkness track’ such is the quality of the cut songs.

Acknowledging that the “music that got left behind was substantial”, Springsteen has said that ““Darkness was my ‘samurai’ record, stripped to the frame and ready to rumble.” In order to filter through the thirty plus songs – in a recorded and ready state, not to mention those in other stages – numerous ‘track listings’ and sequences were plotted* before the final selection and sequence was made ready for release in June 1978**.

As the now-released tracks show, the recording sessions found Bruce running through almost every conceivable structure – from gorgeous pop songs to old school R&B. When it came time to the crunch, though, the excess was cut, the songs were honed down to their essentials and the arrangements tight*** – a vast contrast to the Wall of Sound employed for Born To Run – with the songs recorded by the full E Street Band, tight and honed after touring since 1975, at once. Steve Van Zandt would earn a co-producer credit for helping Bruce tighten the arrangements.

Darkness on the Edge of Town is Springsteen’s best guitar album. Whereas Born To Run was written mostly at the piano, Darkness is clearly a six-string job and sees a return for those chops that had started to get space on The Wild, The Innocent… before being lost in the mix. Check out every live version of ‘Prove It All Night’ or the angst-driven ‘Adam Raised a Cain‘ or ‘Candy’s Room’:

Yes, the songs on Darkness are more serious – Springsteen, flush from Born To Run‘s success having returned home to find those he grew up with struggling with the blue-collar life he’d escaped had also weathered a lengthy and unpleasant lawsuit having realised that the wool had been pulled over his eyes- but they’re very well written and is perhaps the best example of his marrying the rousing (‘Badlands’) with the minimal (‘Factory’). Oh, and it also contains what I consider his finest lyrics on his finest song: “Some guys they just give up living, and start dying little by little, piece by piece”:

There’s a lot of fun on the album, too. I reckon if you get to a Springsteen show and they pull out a  rave-up on ‘Prove It All Night’ then nobody will be heading to grab a beer, they’ll be there singing along:

Darkness on the Edge of Town is Springsteen’s first album of maturity. It takes in and refines  everywhere he’d been and serves as a signpost for everything he’d go on to record later.

An album of defiance in the face of struggle that cracks along with an urgency and taut electricity. It’s my favourite Springsteen album and brings this Least to Most exploration of Bruce to an end.

*A look through the (very much worth investment) box set The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story will show just how many.

**Recording sessions were finished early January ’78 with mixing dragging on until late March with a number of mixes being toyed with and one (‘The Promised Land’) being changed as late as April.

***For evidence see the difference between Darkness‘ ‘Racing in the Street’ and ‘Candy’s Room’ vs ‘Racing in the Street (’78)’ and ‘Candy’s Boy’ from The Promise.

Least to Most: Bruce – Born To Run

“One day I was playing my guitar on the edge of my bed, working on song ideas, and the words ‘born to run’ came into my head… I liked the phrase because it suggested a certain cinematic drama that I thought would work with the music I was hearing in my head.”

There’s probably very little I could add to anyone’s knowledge or appreciation of Born To Run, an album that’s undoubtedly at the top of many a list and is very likely many people’s favourite album of all time. ‘Born To Run’ may have taken six months to write but it and Born To Run changed everything for Bruce, both in terms of sales / success and writing. This was the album that lived up to the promise of ‘Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)’, maintaining its excitement and drive “while delivering it’s message in less time and with a shorter burst of energy. This was a turning point, and it allowed me to open up my music to a far larger audience.”

It was this song that made sure the world would become aware of Springsteen in more ways than one. Neither his début or The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle had achieved the level of success that would make a record company throw money for studio time at him. He had to write something that would get him his last shot. He may be somewhat flippant about its origins (if not its impact) now but writing ‘Born To Run’  in early 1974 got him that chance – it was recorded during touring breaks (with drummer Ernest ‘Boom’ Carter*) and an early mix was released to radio in November of the same year. It’s popularity on radio meant previous Springsteen singles began picking up more airplay and gave him validation to get to work on the rest of the album.

Like, I’m sure, it was for many, ‘Born To Run’ was the first Bruce Springsteen song I was aware of. Specifically the 1987 video from a performance shot during Boss Mania. What strikes me most about the song, and the album as a whole, is the poetry of the lyrics. How many other FM rock songs used a lyric like the “the amusement park rises bold and stark” or “beyond the Palace, hemi-powered drones” found in ‘Born To Run’? And if we’re talking lyrics, let’s look at how the album kicks off:

“The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves. Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays.” Or what about the “One soft infested summer” of ‘Backstreets’ or ‘Jungleland’ with it’s “In a bedroom, locked. In whispers of soft refusal and, then, surrender”? Bruce may have claimed that “the poets down here don’t write nothing at all” (I’ll admit the double negative still bothers me some) but from a lyrical point of view, Born To Run saw the volley of words on Greetings.., the romance of The Wild, The Innocent… turn into something much more direct and universal (earlier characters and scenes were much more specific, that ‘screen door’ could be anywhere) and coupled with a new-found confidence from years of honing his act on the stage to produce some of Springsteen’s most evocative and memorable lines.

Work on the album is something of a legend in itself – Springsteen aware that it’s his make or break shot, agonising over takes and layering track upon track (there’s close to a dozen guitar tracks on the title song) as he struggled to explain the sounds he heard in his head, it lead to a changing of both studio location and began the changing of the guard with Appel vs Landau when the sessions got bogged down… or even the number of takes it took to get Clarence Clemons’ finest performance just right…

The thing is that such ardent efforts can sometimes lead to something that just sounds overworked**. In Born To Run though, it equals magic. You don’t hear what must have been a stressful session in those closing minutes of ‘Jungleland’ or the fact that it took nearly 14 months to record an album that fades out less than forty minutes later than a harmonica swept it in. What you hear is an album of meticulous detail and ambition underpinned by a songwriter hitting his stride and not holding back.

It’s packed with moments of magic – the intro of ‘She’s The One’*** giving away to the Bo Diddley beat that Springsteen admits he wrote just to hear Clarence blast all over, the jazzy film-noir intro for ‘Meeting Across The River’, the “hiding on the Backstreets” refrain, every single second of ‘Jungleland’ but especially it’s mid-point swing and ‘this ain’t over yet’ sax break….

Every song on this album works on its own. The biggest ‘hits’ from Born To Run – the title track, ‘Thunder Road’ ‘Jungleland’ – all stand as great songs in their own right but (and I urge you to go and do so) work best when played in sequence, they belong together. They ebb and flow as a story across one magnum opus and create one of the greatest albums ever made.

I will say, though, that it’s worth making sure that you get a decent master of this album. The first one I had… the remastering for CD was pretty crap. The version (that I guess is now in standard production) that came with the 30th Anniversary box really jumps out at you.

*If you’re only gonna be on one Bruce Springsteen song….

**Ahem; Human Touch

***Bruce wasn’t even sure if he should put this one on the album