Musical words…. A Top Ten Music Book List

Alrighty, lets see about combing the two usual focuses of this blog into one post –  music and books, books about music.

A good book about music or musicians isn’t as common as you’d think. There are shit loads of duffers out there – poorly researched and badly written fluff pieces. Some musicians who you’d expect a really good book out of tend to spend more time talking about their model railway collection than about the making of After The Gold Rush and some make it a little too obvious that they have an ulterior motive in a book release other than just a memoir – Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band, for example.

But, there are some bloody belters out there and there’s a reason that a good chunk of my library is given over to a ‘music’ section. I’m sticking close to this blog’s wheelhouse here, obviously, but honourable mentions should go to The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross and Peter Doggett’s There’s a Riot Going on: Revolutionaries, Rock Stars, and the Rise and Fall of 60s Counter-culture.

In no particular order, then, are my ten favourite music biogs / auto-biogs / books etc…

Pearl Jam – Twenty

Put out as part of the celebrations surrounding the band’s twentieth anniversary – the clue is in the title – which included a Cameron Crowe helmed documentary, CD, live album, two-day festival and short tour… Pearl Jam Twenty is a year-by-year oral history of the band’s career. Stuffed to the bindings with imagery and photos, this is as intimate and candid as you’ll get for Pearl Jam, notoriously shy of publicity and exceedingly unlikely to offer anything resembling an official biography. There’s a wealth of humour and details in here given the format and it’s fuelled many a post on this blog and every time I open it up to refresh my memory I end up absorbed again.

Keith Richards – Life

Did you know Mick Jagger started an autobiography? Sometime in the 80’s – presumably during the lull in Stones activity, he got quite far with his book but promptly forgot about it – when he was later approached by a publisher he could neither remember writing it or let it be published. Somehow, Keith Richards remembered even more and not only finished but published his autobiography, Life. Could have been something to do with the publisher giving an advance of $7m based on a short extract, but Life is an essential read for even a minor Stones fan like me. Yes there’s the thrills and vicarious spirit of rock ‘n’ roll excess – but it’s his honesty and unflinching and everlasting love for music that really comes across, you understand how he became known as the human riff. Worth following up with the Netflix doc on Keith too if you’re in the mood.

Mark Yarm – Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge

This book is, frankly, immense. In its scope, its telling and impact. Just reading it you can feel how much work and love has gone into this telling of the Seattle music scene – from its origins to its current status. The highs (both natural and chemical) and lows – some of which are pretty fucking dark and were a real discovery for me – are all covered in a forthright manner that manages to remain factual and detailed while also a clearly affectionate chronicle, sometimes gossipy, often hilarious and regularly revealing. It can’t be easy to build a narrative from so many and often conflicting memories (The Melvins’ Buzz Osborne comes across as a bit of a contrary prick) but Yarm has created what can only be described as the Bible of the scene here.

Bob Dylan – Chronicles Vol. One

“I’d been on an eighteen month tour with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. It would be my last. I had no connection to any kind of inspiration. Whatever was there to begin with had all vanished and shrunk. Tom was at the top of his game and I was at the bottom of mine.”

Wait, what? Nobody was expecting it, but Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Volume One appeared like a revelatory bolt from the blue in 2004 after he got ‘carried away’ writing linear notes for planned reissues of Bob DylanNew Morning and Oh Mercy. The memoir – apparently the first of three (who know when) – is a detailed and candid insight into Dylan’s life, thinking and writing at the time of those three albums. The dejection and lack of direction he felt for his career while on tour with Petty is pre- Oh Mercy which, it turns out, came about thanks to Bono, an obscure singer with a little-known Irish band called U2* who, for some reason, Dylan showed the songs he’d started putting together and, while old Bob thought about burning them, suggested he call Daniel Lanois instead…

There’s a lot to discover in these three ‘vignettes’ considering the brevity of the periods covered and it’s a vital read for any Dylan fan. For a less personal and fuller Dylan read, Howard Sounes’ Down The Highway does a comprehensive and enjoyable job of telling Dylan’s story while keeping clear of the myth(s).

Speaking of stripping away the myth..

Peter Guralnick – Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of AND Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley 

This isn’t a double-header, I’m not sneaking two books into one slot, both deserve a spot on this list but as you just can’t read one and not the other I’ll cover both in one go. I bought these books a long time before I got to reading them. I’m not a big fan of Elvis, I can quite quickly name a Top Ten but I don’t go deep with the King. These books do and I’d mark them as essential.

Last Train to Memphis does a magnificent job in detailing – and I mean detailing – the rise of Elvis Presley right up to the point where he’s shipped out to Germany in 1958. Where he’s from, who he was as a person, his love for music, getting started, this book is rich in detail and interview and a real eye-opener. Guralnick finds the truth behind what has become a much retold and embellished story that’s become so familiar that the truth of a poor young truck driver who loved nothing above his mother and music and came out of nowhere to become the biggest thing the world had seen is far too often forgotten. Take, as an example, the words of Marion Keisker, the secretary at Sun records who recognised something special in the polite teenager’s voice, words on the enigma surrounding Elvis: “He was like a mirror in a way: whatever you were looking for, you were going to find in him. It was not in him to say anything malicious. He had all the intricacy of the very simple.”

The degree to which Last Train to Memphis manages to deliver the real Elvis Presley makes Careless Love all the more affecting. Once again – the demise of Elvis’ career and the man himself are too often mistold and the stock of parody: fat Elvis dying on the throne trying to take a dump surrounded by hamburgers and tv sets….

Careless Love gets underway with Elvis’ time in the army in ’58 and chronicles the gradual unravelling of the dream that had burnt so bright in Last Train To Memphis and details in disturbing detail the complex playing-out of Elvis’s relationship with his plotting, money-grabbing and manipulative manager, Colonel Tom Parker. The lying Dutchman’s desperate attempts to stop Elvis returning to the road after his comeback special (he’d have less control of him on the road), his continual pushing of terrible movie after terrible movie, the appalling contract and commission he took which fuelled his greed…. it wasn’t drugs that did for Elvis if you ask me. Written with a grace and affection for its subject, Careless Love is the real deal, a true insight into the end of one of the biggest and misunderstood figures of the 20th century.

While neither made me run out and buy anything beyond the couple of compilations that sit on my shelves, both of these books changed how I thought about Elvis.

Oddly, looking back as I write this, it’s not an Elvis song that comes to mind here:

George Harrison – I, Me, Mine

My love for this book isn’t so much down to what’s revealed or any ‘shocking truths’ – this aren’t necessary really. Though apparently John Lennon was pissed off (it came out a few months before he was murdered) and claimed to be hurt as the book doesn’t refer to Lennon as being a musical influence. What I love is the warmth and feel of I, Me, Mine. My version is that which was published in 2002, not long after Harrison had passed, with a new forward from his wife Olivia.  The autobiography itself isn’t essentially long or detailed but it’s everything else about this book I love – the bounty of photos and the song lyrics- copies of handwritten lyrics included – with details on the writing of each: “‘What is Life’ was written for Billy Preston in 1969. I wrote it very quickly, fifteen minutes or half an hour maybe…. it seemed too difficult to go in there and say ‘Hey I wrote this catch pop sing; while Billy was playing his funky stuff. I did it myself later on All Things Must Pass.”

 

Aerosmith – Walk This Way

My first taste of musical bios is a pretty extreme one. I bought this when it came out (first edition hardback still sitting on my shelves looking rather well read) and I was really starting to get into Aerosmith. Written by Stephen Davis and the band, Walk This Way was the first official telling of the Aerosmith story, from the band members’ origins and the formation of the group through to its early rise and debauchery to its drug-fuelled collapse and nadir before being reborn via sobriety in the mid-80s – much is given over to this process and the resentment Tyler felt at the time, Perry being involved in the intervention while still using etc and the troubles that nearly caused another break up prior to Nine Lives.

Since publication three of members have written their own memoirs (oddly I’ve only read Steven Tyler’s) and have suggested that Walk This Way is perhaps a little… sanitised and glosses over a few things. Odd considering just how shocking some of what this covers …

Mark Blake – Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd

I mentioned this one recently and I still believe it deserves a place in my Top 10. While there’s never likely to be as complete and comprehensive a Pink Floyd autobiography as desired – Nick Mason’s Inside Out comes close but is obviously his own story – as a) Gilmour and Waters don’t really get on and b) Syd Barrett and Richard Wright are no longer with us… Pigs Might Fly is a thoroughly detailed and researched ‘as close as you’ll ever get’.

Bruce Springsteen – Born To Run

Of course this is bloody well going to be on here. This is pretty much top of the list and sets a new benchmark for how autobiographies should be written. I wasn’t expecting this one to be written so well or so candidly. In my original review for this, which was extensive so I won’t go overboard here, I said: It is an absolute blast to read. Written completely solo and without the assistance of a ghost-writer, the voice is clearly that of Bruce – at times cuttingly honest, at others poetic and then written as though delivering a sermon from the stage on the LIFE SAVING POWERS OF ROCK AND ROLL!!! (yes, the caps-lock button is Bruce’s friend). Contained within its five hundred or so pages is the story of how a young man from a poor, working class family in the town of Freehold, New Jersey, fell in love with music, got a guitar, learned how to make it talk, refined his craft and cracked the code. It’s fascinating and joyous stuff.

 

*If there isn’t a tribute band called ‘Not You Too’ then I’ll bloody well start one.

I wake up in the morning, just glad my boots are on: Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars

I read a line this morning that said “Springsteen sounds like an episode of Home Improvement if it was a song” and it’s thrown me off somewhat… I came here to work on a couple of the Bruce posts that are in the works and now all I can hear is Tim Allen going “uuuuuuuuAH?”

I will persevere though and talk about The Boss, specifically about his first new album in seven years, Western Stars.

I’ll be honest – at first I was nervous, apprehensive. Springsteen had been talking about his new ‘solo’ album* before he began his Broadway residency and the idea of an album that had been long-laboured over as with Human Touch made me wonder if it was ever going to see the light of day. Throw in producer Ron Aniello** and lack of E Street band…

I was wrong. Very fucking wrong. Western Stars is Springsteen’s strongest in a long time. Where it sits in terms of my Least to Most is still tbc but the songs on here are far and away some of his best story tunes to date.

Now a lot was said in the run up to the album’s launch, and still is being said, about the sound. How this album is supposed to be influenced by the southern-California  pop sound of the 70’s championed by Burt Bacharach or Glenn Campbell…. I don’t know a lot about that because, well; frankly it’s not something I’m all that familiar with. It is a different sound to what you might expect from Springsteen – there’s no snarling guitar or stomp on here. But… at the same time….. it’s not. Some of Springsteen’s later career highlights such as ‘Paradise’, ‘The Last Carnival’ or ‘The Devil’s Arcade’ found Bruce moving into more contemplative tunes with strings vs screaming guitars and the sounds on Working on a Dream had already hinted at a taste for the lush.

It was only a matter of time before he ditched the rock and tried the orchestra and there’s also a progression in his ‘solo’ album sounds, from Nebraska to Ghost of Tom Joad to Devils and Dust there were increasing embellishments on the sound from the initial ‘one man, a guitar and a four-track’ approach. Here we have the ‘solo’ album that is, in fact, one man, a producer, multiple guest musicians, former band members and several orchestras…

Yet it takes a little getting used to, this approach. Exactly one and two-thirds of a song, in fact. Opener ‘Hitch Hikin’ isn’t a success. From a lyrical point of view we’re good, it’s standard Bruce travelling-tune fare complete with reference to a ‘souped-up ’72’. Yet for a song with little weight to it, the production is way over the top – I’m looking at you Aniello – with strings and slobbered over it as though building to some cinematic climax that simply isn’t there. It’s jarring.

‘Wayfarer’ suffers a similar fate, at first. Lyrically we’re fine – love the line “Some folks are inspired sitting by the fire, slippers tucked under the bed, but when I go to sleep I can’t count sheep for the white lines in my head” – but the orchestral accompaniment here sounds as fake and appropriate as the tits on ‘Baywatch’. It doesn’t work. Until 02:30 that is. Bruce pushes his voice a little too hard and, instead of collapsing, everything comes together behind him – horns, strings and melody complete and, suddenly, it’s working together in a, yes, Burt Bacharach soundtrack style.

From here on in it gets good. Really good. Where this album works so very well is when the strings and music is minimal – used more as a graceful backdrop to what are some of Springsteen’s finest character and story songs with gentle sweeps of string and lap steel to move between verses and time as on the title track:

The tex-mex flavour of ‘Sleepy Joe’s Cafe’ lifts the pace a little while there’s a cadence to Bruce’s lyrical delivery that almost brings to mind the upbeat numbers on The River. Lead ‘singles’*** ‘Tuscon Train’ and ‘Hello Sunshine’ differ the least from Springsteen’s songwriting and sound – hell, one of them is a bloody ‘train’ song complete with steam train sounds at the end – but are nonetheless strong tunes.

The real highlights for me, though are songs like ‘Drive Fast (the Stuntman)’ – a deceptively simple gentle guitar strum and piano accompany the first lines before the orchestra joins gently to rise and fall with the story in gorgeous surges and rolling out like the soundtrack to a gritty short film****.  When the instrumental passages and orchestral accompaniment blend with – rather than being the focus – Springsteen’s lyrics and initial melody as they does with so many songs on here, Western Stars is a triumph.

Western Stars has met with near unanimous acclaim including critics that usually scoff at Springsteen and with good reason. It manages to be both a move in a different direction and familiar at the same time. The sheer strength of Springsteen’s songwriting on this album means that his songs are both immediate and reveal more on each listen as the sounds unfold beneath them – sounds which, while initially unexpected, suddenly make sense and you end up wondering why he hadn’t tried this earlier.

Whether we get to hear any of these live is another question – there’s no tour for Western Stars – after performing twelve million shows on Broadway the man’s entitled to a break I guess. Plus there’s now talk of a new E Street Band album being written and worked on at the end of the year. Then there’s the Tracks 2 and second Seeger Sessions album and….

We’ll see…

*only live releases have been credited to anything other than ‘Bruce Springsteen’

**case in point: High Hopes and Wrecking Ball are among Springsteen’s low points in terms of production and sound IMHO

***does anybody really do singles anymore?

****one of which is apparently due in autumn.

Albums of my Years – 1982

I actually have a memory from 1982 – and it can really only be 1982 or 83 -but it’s not music related. I can’t claim that I was sitting under a piano and singing Beatles songs in my second year on this planet.

So I have no memory of either hearing music or music news from 1982 such as that about the bloke from Birmingham , who’d already bitten the head off a dove in ’81, doing the same to a bat in January 1982. Of course he claimed he thought it was rubber but you’ve got to be fairly off your tits not to be able to tell the difference between a squeaky toy and a live mammal. 1982 wasn’t his year as he’d be arrested a couple of weeks later for taking a leak on something called The Alamo…

At the same BB King decided he didn’t need his record collection and donated the lot – some 7000 rare blues records. I suppose it saved money on IKEA Kallax units.

In March, Billy Joel came off his motorcycle and dinged himself up pretty good – he’d spend more than a month in hospital undergoing physio on his hand which must’ve gone well judging by the quality of The Nylon Curtain…

I don’t really care for Black Sabbath or Ozzy but he seems to have been dominated music headlines in ’82. His guitarist Randy Rhodes was killed when the plane he was in crashed after buzzing Osbourne’s tour bus. A few months later Ozzy would get married and, presumably, start bellowing “Sharon!”

Pink Floyd released the movie version of Waters’ diatribe The Wall which mixed the egos of Waters and director Alan Parker to mixed results.

My favourite bit of music trivia from 1982 though is the point at which, fearing poor ticket sales for a tour in support of Combat Rock, Joe Strummer was convinced to “disappear” – his manager suggested Strummer ‘vanish’ and stay in Texas for a couple of weeks. Instead, Strummer genuinely disappeared for a couple of months – choosing  to run the Paris marathon (he claimed his training consisted of drinking 10 pints of beer the night before) and “dick around” in France. The Clash were falling apart with tension – Topper Headon would be fired in ’82 thanks to his cocaine addiction – and Strummer would later say he regretted his vanishing act. Though he would later run the London marathon without any training too.

In 1982 it was goodnight from ABBA, Bad Company, The Blues Brothers (this was the year John Belushi died), The Jam and Blondie (until 1997 that is). Meanwhile American Music Club, A-Ha, James, Public Enemy, The Smiths, Swans and They Might Be Giants all formed in 1982.

So what dropped album wise in ’82? I’ve already mentioned a couple – The Clash dropped their best-selling album Combat Rock in July – it features their biggest singles too in ‘Rock the Casbah’ and the Stranger Things favourite ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ and the formidable ‘Know Your Rights’:

There were quite a few albums from artists that feature within this blog’s orbit in 1982 including the first Sonic Youth album and the debut EPs from both R.E.M and the Replacements – though neither could really, honestly, be called the band’s best work. Split Enz dropped Time and Tide in  April of ’82 and The Cure released Pornography shortly after. George Thorogood & The Destroyers released their fifth album, Bad to the Bone which continues to thrill me a considerable amount more than Thriller (also released in ’82) ever did. B-b-b-b-b-b-b-bad:

The year also saw the previously mentioned Nylon Curtain by Billy Joel which features one of my favourite tunes by the piano chap, ‘Goodnight Saigon’.

Kate Bush dropped her least commercial album, The Dreaming, which was full of highlights and served as the perfect bridge to The Hounds of Love… Prince released the extremely commercial and massive-selling 1999 while Neil Young pushed out Trans which was so noncommercial in its orientation that it was one of the albums used by his label Geffen in their lawsuit against him for producing wilfully unrepresentative and noncommercial material. Oh, and Aerosmith released the appropriately named Rock In A Hard Place. Well, I say ‘Aerosmith’… even Joey Kramer doesn’t consider it a proper entry in the band’s catalogue – “it’s just me, Steven, and Tom — with a fill-in guitar player.” It’s not entirely without merit – ‘Bolivian Ragamuffin’ has a real groove to get stuck on and both ‘Jailbait’ and ‘Lighting Strikes’ are decent tunes (the latter featuring Brad Whitford on guitar, presumably recording his rhythm parts on his walk to the door) but were I to tackle Aerosmith on a Least to Most… this would be the least.

Now in terms of albums that do feature high on my personal favourites list… Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released Long After Dark which features ‘Straight into Darkness’, ‘ A Change of Heart’ and ‘You Got Lucky’.

And then there’s Nebraska. Once of Springsteen’s finest albums, his first ‘solo’ album and his most stark in terms of subject and sound…. it really, really should be the featured album on this list…. but I’ve written about it exhaustively as part of the Springsteen Least to Most series and rules are rules. So… it looks like a second entry on the list for one band:

Dire Straits – Love Over Gold

It’s fitting really. For a while I questioned whether this should be the choice for this year but there’s a number of factors that mean Knopfler and co’s fourth album sits here for ’82; It’s an album I heard a huge amount of in my youth and growing up thanks to my Dad’s penchant for the band. So much so that down to the fact that his record had a skip on the “I’ve seen desperation explode into flames and I don’t wanna see it again” in ‘Telegraph Road’* that I got so used to that I still expect the skip when listening on CD or online.

As part of my debating whether to go with this album for 1982 I listened to it in full, again, and realised that I didn’t need to be questioning it – it’s not only a bloody strong album but it’s one that resonates with me on so many levels and is part of what formed my tastes moving forward. ‘Private Investigations’ was one of the first things I set about learning on guitar and will still go to from time to time – especially if I pick up the old ‘classical’ guitar out of the garage. Combined with ‘Telegraph Road’ it makes for a faultless Side A:

Love Over Gold is, to me, the final ‘classsic’ Dire Straits album. There’s still a very quintessentially English element about it and it’s sound and writing are less direct and radio-ready than the Brothers In Arms era that would follow. It’s the final of those early albums before ‘Money for Nothing’ threw them into bigger venues and TV sets around the world and the scale that would lead to Knopfler walking away began to build.

The music and sound benefits from the addition of Alan Clarke on keyboards – wider and more intricate sounds that mark a natural and real development on that of Making Movies – just listen to the interplay between the two on ‘Love Over Gold’:

The sheer power and length of the two songs that make up Side A do mean that trio on Side B are often overlooked, much as the album itself – sitting between Making Movies and Brothers In Arms – can be. But the title track,  ‘Industrial Disease’ and ‘It Never Rains’ are far from filler.

As much as I understand Knoplfer’s reasons for not attending the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony and his disinterest in reforming – I do wish that this era of the band (before it became about headbands and filling the largest venues) could get the revisit and attention it deserves.

*Side note/ pub quiz / music trivia point: Jon Bon Jovi, of all people, is also a Dire Straits fan – he was working at his cousin’s record studio (The Power Plant) when Making Movies – and has admitted to ripping off ‘Telegraph Road’ with ‘Dry County‘.

 

Spinning some new

In between working, reading the Pink Floyd biog, composing posts about Springsteen (2 in the works) and Dylan, pricing up a Jag and reading / writing fiction I also manage to listen to new music and notice that I’ve forgotten to post on here again.

So, in an attempt to fix the latter – here’s the new that’s been getting a lot of rotation of late:

The Pixies – On Graveyard Hill

Despite the fact that I love pretty much every Pixies album, for reasons various it was only a month or so back that I finally got round to listening to their 2016 album Head Carrier. Then, a few evenings back an email pings into my inbox and announces that they have a new one ready for later in the year and this beaut is available to hear now. It’s a sodding belter of a song.

Jambinai – Sawtooth

I picked up my copy of the new Jambinai album, Onda, yesterday from the same record store I discovered them in, it was only out on Friday but I’ve been enjoying this lead track for a bit now. Mixing  traditional Korean instruments with heavy, noisy guitars and a Nirvana-like rattly bass punch. I fucking love this band.

Big Thief – Cattails

I did something I hadn’t done in years last month and bought a physical copy of a music magazine – complete with a CD of music new and almost-new, hand-picked by The National as part of the press barrage surrounding their, inmho, naff new album. This one… isn’t the Big Thief song that was on their but it lead me to their new album U.F.O.F which has my hypnotised… it’s impossible to pin it down genre-wise but there’s something so… it’s a blissful thing with so much going on that’s perfect for sunny evening to spin, drift away listening  and remembering getting small to.

Sam Fender – Hypersonic Missiles

See… Sam Fender has been cropping up a lot on the one radio station I can stomach listening to these days. I’m gonna say this knowing how old it makes me sound – but this kid is only just 25. There’s a real power to his voice and he’s got some guitar and song-writing chops on him too, bit of Springsteen influence on this one (especially around the two minute mark)- amongst a bucket load of others – but this still fashions a sound of its own that I quite dig.

Gang of Youths – What Can I Do If the Fire Goes Out?

I listen to the radio in both an effort to wake myself up on the commute and not get stuck in a rut with music by discovering something new. I’ve discovered a fair few additions to my record collection that way and I’m enjoying these guys lately. There’s some dark stuff to their lyrics but they manage to get it into a beat and tune that makes for a good listen. I think ‘Let Me Down Easy’ was the one that broke Gang of Youths on radio both here and at home – they folks come from that land Down Under – and this one is another getting turned up in the car etc and, again, wears a Springsteen influence on its sleeve.

Bruce Springsteen – Tucson Train

Speaking of the Boss. There’s a new album due to hit my shelves a little later this month… ‘Tuscon Train’ is the third song released (do they do singles anymore?) ahead of Western Stars‘ release in a week or two (it’s already getting cracking reviews) and is easily my favourite thus far. Really looking forward to this one…

Hello Sunshine

Well, it happened. I thought it wasn’t going to, certainly not so soon after his ‘Vegas residency’ period but I woke this morning to the news that Bruce Springsteen’s new album Western Stars will drop in June.

Given that I was reading the news while dropping the kids off at the pool* it meant I’d pre-ordered before I stood up.

Recorded predominantly at his home studio in New Jersey, this – the first album of new material in five years (seven if you don’t count those heated up left overs of High Hopes), Western Stars, to cite Springsteen’s website: takes his music to a new place, drawing inspiration in part from the Southern California pop records of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

“This record is a return to my solo recordings featuring character driven songs and sweeping, cinematic orchestral arrangements,” says Springsteen. “It’s a jewel box of a record.”

Cover art (the first not to feature Bruce’s mug on it since The Ghost of Tom Joad) and track listing have dropped and the first ‘single’ has also been released (not that these things really exist anymore, do they?) too:

Good things:

It’s a return to story-telling Bruce
Album themes encompass a “sweeping range of American themes, of highways and desert spaces, of isolation and community and the permanence of home and hope”
David Sancious
No Tom Morello
It’s been a long time coming – this could go either way: Human Touch was laboured but rushed-releases could use better quality control
The song title ‘Chasin’ Wild Horses’ seems promising on its own to me
“Sweeping, cinematic orchestral arrangements”

 

Bad things:

Ron Aniello
No E Street Band

So… Am I excited? Fuck yeah, I’ve just finished another Bruce series that’s reminded me that there’s always a reason to tune in, even if there are warning signs production-wise.

*curious to see if that reference is known across the various blog-oceans

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

Albums of my Years – 1980

What’s this then?

Well: this year will feature my last birthday with a 3 at the start. So, I figured that, given my average posting frequency and to allow a post every week or so, I’d pick an album from each of the years I’ve been on this ride in the theory that this would leave me enough time to complete a 40 post series just as I hit 40.

I’ll be picking one album from each year that’s either a favourite, one that means something to me and has not been covered in these ‘pages’ thus far.

Sound alright? I am, of course, always happy to get feedback or recommendations for anything that I may have missed along the way – especially in those years when I hadn’t yet mastered walking.

So, let’s start from the top…

1980 saw a fair bit going on in the music world:

Paul McCartney kicked off his 1980 in jail in Japan when he was caught with some marijuana on him – they’d kick him out of the country two weeks later.

Don Henley also got in a bit of bother with the rozzers and drugs, albeit some harder substances when police hit the motherload in his house after a naked 16-year-old prostitute(!) had drug-related seizures and they found another 15-year-old girl(!!) tripping balls. He ended up with all kinds of charges which, oddly enough, didn’t end up as lyrical fodder for ‘Boys of Summer’…. ‘you got ya hair combed back and those quaaludes are kickin in, baby.’

Led Zepplin’s powerhouse drummer John Bonham’s wholehearted embrace of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle of excess reached its inevitable conclusion and he was found dead by bandmate John Paul Jones – the drummer having choked on his own vomit after downing several pubs worth of vodka. The band would disband a month or two later.

Back to Fab – John Lennon and Yoko Ono got busy recording Double Fantasy which dropped in November. But, just one month later, Lennon was entering the Dakota building when he noticed Mark Chapman standing nearby and nodded at him – presumably recognising him after Chapman had requested Lennon’s autograph earlier in the day. Moments later Chapman fired five shots at John Lennon’s back, from about ten feet away and 1980 drew to a close with 100,000 mourners holding a public vigil in Central Park for the murdered John Lennon.

Bit of an odd one to be born into, really. In terms of album’s released in 1980, it’s slim pickings from my wheelhouse.

Split Enz released the phenomenal True Colours (home to ‘I Got You’ and ‘Nobody Takes Me Seriously’ and a buttload of other crackers)…. The Police’s Zenyatta Mondatta dropped in October and it, too, is stuffed with corkers.

The Joe Perry Project released their first album Let the Music Do the Talking which included the stonking title track and a good dose of riff-heavy tunes and some fella from New Jersey released an ep called The River... and a group of young lads from Ireland dropped their debut Boy and promptly vanished into obscurity.

BUT: I can’t choose The River as the ‘1980’ album. As much as it’s my favourite release of the year I’ve already talked about it at length and I don’t want to repeat myself. So.. what does that leave? Scary Monsters? Meh. Sandinista! ? Nah… though ‘Police On My Back’ is a fucking belter!

How about:

Dire Straits –Making Movies

Knopfler and co’s third album, Making Movies dropped on October 17th 1980. The same day as Bruce Springsteen’s The River and just 11 days before I did.

Dire Straits actually ‘borrowed’ both Roy Bittan and Jimmy Iovine from Springsteen for Making Movies. Knoplfer had wanted Iovine as producer after hearing Patti Smith’s ‘Because The Night’ and Iovine helped get The Professor involved. Probably helped that they were pretty much next door – Making Movies was recorded at New York’s The Power Station at the same time as work on The River was wrapping up. – I’ve pondered before if the seeds for, or at least the title of, the Boss’ Tunnel of Love song were planted here, there’s no way he’d not listen to what his producer and piano player had been moonlighting on.. or even listened through the wall with a wine glass?

That oft-maligned trade rag Rolling Stone has this to say of Making Movies: 

“Making Movies is the record on which Mark Knopfler comes out from behind his influences and Dire Straits come out from behind Mark Knopfler. The combination of the star’s lyrical script, his intense vocal performances and the band’s cutting-edge rock & roll soundtrack is breathtaking—everything the first two albums should have been but weren’t. If Making Movies really were a film, it might win a flock of Academy Awards.”

To say I grew up with Dire Straits and Making Movies on in the background would be an understatement. Their love of the band was something that bonded my father and his best friend (my ‘Dutch uncle’) and it was continually played to the point that now, thirty some years later I still know every word on the majority of this album and still enjoy spinning it.

It’s the album that helped the band break out to a wider audience with ‘Romeo and Juliet’ did the business on radio. On yet another Springsteen connection (I know, I know) that beautiful guitar arpeggio? Go listen then go listen to ‘Jungleland‘ and the piano in the first verse. It wasn’t deliberate, Knopfler hit on it by pure chance while trying out a tuning with his National:

There’s nothing wrong with ‘Romeo and Juliet’ but my personal favourite is still the first tune on the album, the Tunnel of Love / Carousel Waltz combo. When you combine it with ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Skateaway’ I think you’ve got a pretty damn fine Side A there.

Side B isn’t too shabby. Granted ‘Les Boys’ wouldn’t be released today with it’s “Les Boys do cabaret, Les Boys are glad to be gay” lyrics but Knopfler’s guitar work is on form throughout, as with the tres-80s titled ‘Expresso Love’ and the charming ‘Hand in Hand’ which, for my money, points at sounds that would surface more on their next album Love Over Gold:

Still, what saves the album isn’t just what’s on it but what isn’t: ‘Twisting by the Pool’ was recorded during these sessions but was, thankfully, left off.