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

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,

High Hopes…. Dashed

Ugh. It almost pains me to write this. Especially when I consider that this will be the second time I mumble about a Springsteen album and the second not-so-favourable. I say this now because I do love a bit of Bruce Springsteen. My collection is stuffed with Boss. Nebraska, Tunnel of Love, Magic, Darkness and both Borns get heavy rotation. However….

Earlier this year Bruce Springsteen released his eighteenth studio album. Eighteenth. Saying that, two of the songs have seen release previously and three of the remaining are covers.

Before I get into this too much and why am I getting into this now….

This weekend, while doing a bit of tidying up and keeping the little man company, I found and put on Springsteen’s Blood Brothers DVD. It documents the slightly awkward and touch-too-soon mini reunion of the E-Street Band to record a few new tunes for Bruce’s first Greatest Hits (I should note here that I got that CD on its release and it served as my introduction to Springsteen and from there on…) .

blood_brothers_site-352x500Two things came from watching Blood Brothers that feed into this post. The first is a moment where, suddenly, the discomfort and ill-at-ease Bruce felt in front of the camera seems to fade as he discusses the implications of a string arrangement that had been created for Secret Garden. Talking of the song as a narrative, Springsteen explains to the gathered co-producers and mixers that the song is a narrative. If any arrangement or sounds distract from that “we’re fucked.” The second element of note is that the 1995 session captured also found Bruce and the band cutting into Tim Scott McConnell’s High Hopes for the first time.

That version of High Hopes was released as a B-Side to Secret Garden. Which, really, is where it should have stayed.

Let’s skip forward to 2014.  Post 2000 Springsteen is a different proposition to that of ’95 model Bruce. Now willing to trust others with production work, Bruce has seen his music produced, with varying results, by Brendan O’Brien (who should have taken a bow after Magic and not gone for the victory-lap with Working On a Dream) and, lately, Ron Anellio. Credit to him for this decision. If he’d stayed working away on his own, we may not have had the rebirth and revitalising of his and the E-Street’s sound that came with The Rising. Going on past lessons and biographical revelations, he may still have been in his home studio labouring away on the one album. Self-producing rarely works. It’s key to get a good collaborator in that can bring out an artist’s best and encourage them to shine.

So what’s the problem? Well I’d say Bruce has gotten a little lost lately in a seemingly ill-fated determination to sound fresh and vital. Just look at the cover. Sorry Bruce but is the double denim and popped collar really the best fit for you in 2014?

high-hopes-album-bruce-springsteen-1389043820

In the past, Bruce has had a very tight quality control. Not letting anything out that he wasn’t 100% happy with or didn’t fit the feel / story of an album. That’s what archival releases like Tracks and the Darkness box are for. Working On A Dream marked a turning point. There should have been more use of “no” in the studio on that one… “supermarket beeps and a song about fancying the girl on the checkout while doing your shopping? Sure thing Boss!”

Fuelled by social circumstances again and looking to vent, for Wrecking Ball Bruce came up with some of his tightest and most direct, angry lyrics yet. However, the collaborators bought in to furnish these songs took them the wrong way and did exactly what Springsteen previously voiced such determination to avoid – they detracted from the lyrics and the songs.

Unfortunately the songs on High Hopes suffer the same fate at the same hands. This is not a studio album in a true sense. Long-term Springsteen ally/collaborator/sidekick Stevie Van Zandt has often said that on any one day, Bruce will have at least half an album of songs on him. With High Hopes we discover what would happen if that half-album of songs were taken into the studio, recorded with selections of the E-Street Band, it’s latest quasi-addition Tom Morello shoved in awkwardly, mixed with another half-album of left overs from the last decade, warmed up by over-production and served as a ‘fresh’ dish.

That’s not to say that the album is devoid of good music. Frankie Fell In Love, Heaven’s Wall, The Wall, This Is Your Sword… all top-draw Springsteen material, even the brooding Harry’s Place feels like some of the cracking, darker material Springsteen wrote (though never truly released) in the early 90’s. Even it, though, is over-worked. Heaven’s Wall is nearly drowned in over-the top choir arrangements. Those heavy handed arrangements blight too much of the strong material here and are used far too much to prop up the lesser songs.

Morello is, frankly, out of place here. His guitar parts, the scratchy sounds that were once new and compelling, are both now and here tired and overplayed. They sound clunky when added to the title track and trample all over songs they have no business being near. Just take the title track as an example. It’s said that this project was born after Morello hearing High Hopes while preparing for the Australian leg of the Wrecking Ball tour and proposed it join the set list, from there the studio beckoned for a ham fisted bounce over a song that was only suited to B-Side status (let alone lead-single).

See:

We didn’t need a second take on Ghost of Tom Joad and as for the recasting of American Skin (41 Shots)? The live version of this was compelling, tight and full of well-directed anger with a searing solo from Springsteen himself. It came at a turning point for Springsteen – pre-9/11 and on the back of the reunion tour, a relative drought of quality new material in the 90’s and here, suddenly, was a glimpse at new material that bristled over with the force of old material. Guitars like teak bolted onto socially-aware lyrics and furnished with delicate, perfectly fitted arrangements from the E-Street Band. A precursor to The Rising and a return to form after a decade of almosts.

Bruce has said that he never felt it got presented properly. So, as with Land of Hope and Dreams on Wrekcing Ball, it was given a new studio arrangement. Surely it would be a winner. Relevant again with the shooting of Trayvon Martin and back in the set list, a slow burning tune that builds to a thundering climax and release. Surely it would be a winner. Surely…. Except it isn’t. Instead that same song is flat (albeit with the exception of Clarence Clemons’ sax giving us one last treat from beyond), layered with cheap-sounding production effects and, in place of Springsteen’s own guitar, ruined by a solo from Morello that’s bad-80’s-power-ballad by numbers.

With Nebraska, Bruce took his raw, home-made demos to the E-Street Band. They tried them on for size and found the songs didn’t fit in the band setting. Springsteen released them as was. The result is one of his most loved and praised albums.

Secret Garden: Bruce tried a few grander arrangements, added layers, different string parts. Didn’t work. The original arrangement was released. But, the other arrangements, rather than scrapped, did see release as B-Sides and soundtrack additions.

With High Hopes…. it’s the heavy handed, overworked and near-drowned in effects versions of the songs that have been released.

In a way, High Hopes is best looked at as a “what if” album rather than a legitimate ‘new’ studio album. What if some of these songs – Frankie Fell In Love, Heaven’s Wall… been given that little bit longer to gesticulate. What if some of these had been included in place of the clukers on Working On A Dream? What if Down In The Hole had been used in place of its very-close sister Paradise on The Rising? Sadly it’s not as intriguing or rewarding a listen as the “what-ifs” of Tracks’ second, third and even fourth discs.

To me, now, nearly ten months later and with Mr Springsteen assuming radio and road silence again, it’s a case of not only what-if but please, when the next album emerges we find the quality control of old back in place.

Back to Blood Brothers, though: