(#353: 17 October 1987, 1 week)
Track listing: Ain’t Got You/Tougher Than The Rest/All That Heaven Will Allow/Spare Parts/Cautious Man/Walk Like A Man/Tunnel Of Love/Two Faces/Brilliant Disguise/One Step Up/When You’re Alone/Valentine’s Day
“I had a certain talent for friendship, but I never had any friends, either because they simply didn’t turn up, or because the friendship I had imagined was an error of my dreams. I’ve always lived alone, and ever more alone as I’ve become more self-aware.”
(Fernando Pessoa, The Book Of Disquiet, trans. Richard Zenith. London: Penguin, 2001, p 270, end of section 319)
(Fernando Pessoa, The Book Of Disquiet, trans. Richard Zenith. London: Penguin, 2001, p 270, end of section 319)
“The laws that govern your private madness when applied to the daily routine of living your life can coagulate into a collision.”
(Tom Waits, interview with Mark Rowland, Musician magazine, October 1987: “Tom Waits Is Flying Upside Down (On Purpose)”)
(Tom Waits, interview with Mark Rowland, Musician magazine, October 1987: “Tom Waits Is Flying Upside Down (On Purpose)”)
Another Springsteen album, another Annie Leibovitz photo shoot. But these photos are different from the ones on the album before. On the cover he looks up at us, a little like a suspicious Columbo, in smart dark suit and bootlace tie, hands in pockets, or looks across to us with what could be interpreted as either weariness or contempt. He is leaning against a capacious-looking, cream-coloured car, against an unidentified shoreline, presumably somewhere on the New Jersey coast, maybe Atlantic City. Or the car, beach and sea could be a two-dimensional advertising hoarding as per Heaven 17’s The Luxury Gap. On the back cover he has taken his jacket off, rolled up his white shirtsleeves and looks somewhere to his right, beyond the camera, markedly more relieved. On the inner sleeve he is indoors and stares grimly at us, holding his guitar, in a cramped-looking room, wearing dungarees and the working pants from the front of Born In The U.S.A., perhaps the ones where he swears he left his wallet in “All That Heaven Will Allow.”
On the cover itself, however, it looks to be evening, and the sun appears to be setting. He could be anywhere, and from a personal perspective it would be an interesting surprise if the camera moved round 180° to reveal Blackpool Tower*. But he is with a car – or his idea of a car – and he is alone, and possibly not enjoying it as much as you think he might.
Or perhaps he is too much in love with this thirtysomething thing called rock ‘n’ roll and regretful that a music based on youth and impetus has proven so poor an indicator of permanence. The music was intended to be spontaneous, transient, not to be subject to lengthy studies of meaning, purpose and function. But this man has just turned thirty-eight, and there is nothing on this, his new record, which could possibly talk to twenty-year-olds, never mind appeal to them. Whether this was a hindrance or a reproach was not too clear in 1987, a year in which music did everything except stand still.
What is known, what is palpable, is that he is still in love with this music he first heard thirty years before, and still hopelessly entangled in its promised fantasy of escape. So it is that the opening of “Ain’t Got You” is performed with such fearful fearlessness that it might be the first rock ‘n’ roll record following some unspecified apocalypse. Such gusto does he have that he doesn’t even bother with instruments for the first verse; it is as if he is at home, listening through loud headphones and singing along.
And it’s the oldest story the capitalist wagon of rock ‘n’ roll knows; the man who has everything except what he wants. Got what he wanted but lost what he had (“They gain a peace but they lose one too,” as Samuel T Herring might put it). There is a discreet echo to the singer’s voice, designed to arouse memories of “Heartbreak Hotel,” and even before the acoustic guitar-and-castanets Bo Diddley shuffle waddles into aural view – this is not the only 1987 number one album that will begin with such a gesture – the unusual, almost tortured tension Springsteen (for it is he) puts on the first half of each line, tearing up the words like unread telephone directories out of his reddening sky of rage, suggests, ten years after he died, Elvis at the end of his rainbow, with nothing left in his life but the thing that drove him to this life in the first place (“But I’m still the biggest fool, honey, this world ever knew”).
Memories too of “I Can’t Get Next To You” – the fast Temptations or the slow Al Green; either will do – in which the singer is nothing so much as God, impatient that He can create everything except the one thing that matters, despite all of His powers; and “I Can’t Get Started,” that Gatsby of a song which became the unwitting anthem of a generation lost by war, a war Bunny Berigan didn’t even live to see, having already destroyed himself with drink (the Mingus/Schuller orchestration, as heard imperfectly on Epitaph, is a tortured jigsaw puzzle of tonalities and anti-harmonies out of which Vernon Duke’s simple melody eventually emerges like an intact butterfly. At the opposite extreme, the song is effectively a beacon of light relief in the middle of No One Cares, the darkest record Sinatra ever made). “Ain’t Got You” is both start and end to this record, or he finishes where he starts, or vice versa.
If the record starts in the manner of a tut-tutting, surviving Buddy Holly, then “Tougher Than The Rest” might take place in the same post-nuclear bar where the radioactive Blondie perform “Atomic” in their video. The song lumber s along like a big Orbison ballad, but the perspectives are all wrong; the bass synthesiser looms across both its melody and rhythm like a disused, partially destroyed bulldozer in a newly-created desert. Like Johnny Cash, Springsteen is ready to walk the line; unlike either Cash or Orbison, he says to the girl that he knows he’s not perfect, that he’s aware that they’ve both been around – probably been hanging round and annoying each other for years – but Springsteen is sadly pragmatic:
“Well, ‘round here baby,
“Well, ‘round here baby,
I learned that you get what you can get.”
The song also includes the first appearance of the recurring adjective “rough” (“If you’re rough enough for love,” “If you’re rough and ready for love”), indicating that this is no blushing romance, this is a cynical, or desperate, bidding, or plea, for love. Max Weinberg’s drums boom unshowily like God’s alarm clock, while Danny Federici’s organ creeps into the picture at the start of the second verse, holding sustained chords like Webb on “Wichita Lineman.” Springsteen’s single-note, low-strung guitar solo is reminiscent of Duane Eddy. Federici’s organ gradually moves to the front of the mix, such that the song becomes more hymn than barroom pickup, and Springsteen’s own harmonica takes the song out, more “Hey Baby” than Dylan, and more “Groovin’ With Mr Bloe” than either (see also Bowie’s “A New Career In A New Town”).
Still, the song holds out some hope, and in “All That Heaven Will Allow,” the singer pleads with the bouncer, or Mister Trouble, or God, to let him into the club where he knows his girl is waiting for him. There is no indication whether he is working at all, let alone have working pants or a wallet to leave in it, or maybe whether there is actually a woman inside waiting for him to come through the door. The style is Ben E King-period Drifters (as if Springsteen wants her to save every dance for him), fast and Latin-ish, but the title is sung and addressed from a different angle every time it appears, and eventually it appears that the song’s not about a dancehall at all, but about where the dancehall might lead him and her, the life and future that they want. Buried deep in its mesh are the following words:
“Now some may wanna die young, man,
“Now some may wanna die young, man,
Young and gloriously.
Get it straight now, Mister,
Hey buddy, that ain’t me.”
Oh no, rock ‘n’ roll was all supposed to be about “My Generation” and hoping to die before one got old. So what happens when neither dies? You have to see things through and find out how the story would have progressed, or keep making the story up as you go along.
So far, so hopeful.
“How amazingly far normalcy extends; how you can keep it in sight as if you were on a raft sliding out to sea, the stitch of land growing smaller and smaller. Or in a balloon swept up on a column of prairie air, the ground widening and flattening, growing less and less distinct below you. You notice it, or you don’t notice it. But you’re already too far away, and all is lost.”
(Richard Ford, Canada. London: Bloomsbury, 2012, p 110, chapter 15)
(Richard Ford, Canada. London: Bloomsbury, 2012, p 110, chapter 15)
Throughout “Spare Parts,” Springsteen’s guitar is speedy and attacking, like an ill-treated motorcycle, before it descends into baby-like cries. Something is wrong, and it is wrong from the song’s beginning, with an opening line worthy of Ellroy:
“Bobby said he’d pull out. Bobby stayed in.”
So Janey gets pregnant and Bobby says they’ll marry but Bobby gets scared and runs away. She has the child, never sees him again, and hears of this woman in Calverton who drowns her child in the river. Bobby, now in a “dirty oil patch” (which description sums him up) in South Texas, hears of the birth but resolves never to return. Janey doesn’t know what to do; she weeps, she prays. Finally she takes her child down to the river (“my baby and I” as another song put it) and places him in it, but only up to waist level, as though baptising him. Then both mother and child return home; she puts him back to bed, takes out her engagement ring and wedding dress, takes them down to the pawnshop and “walked out with some good, cold cash.” Life has been shit, but she has no choice but to persist with it, to bury the old dreams and enable two futures. Regaining “normalcy” is her only chance, just as the music is the most straightforward and rock-like on the record. Canada outlines the dire consequences when two people make a mistake, when they’re too young and too drunk to know better, and Bev Parsons stays in. The narrator’s mother dies, in prison and by her own hand, because she is unable to dissociate her reality from the dream which haunted her all her life. “Spare Parts” suggests a way out.
Because what other way is there? “Cautious Man” gives us a comparable story from the opposing viewpoint, though consists of just Springsteen’s voice and acoustic guitar with discreet background synthesiser drones – sometimes, as in the phrase “a thousand miles away,” his voice can sound Vocoderised, as though the awake man is trying to put some distance between himself and his sleeping lover. He has wandered carefully, if aimlessly, through life, and then he falls in love and settles down. But he remains restless; one midnight, while she is sleeping, he steals away, half-intending to resume his life on the road, away from responsibility.
He reaches the outside – but sees “nothing but road” and feels “a coldness rise up inside him that he couldn’t name.” Or, to put it another way, the cold, cold ground (and a different type of coldness from Janey’s “good, cold cash”). He finally realises that there is nothing left for him out there, no future and no life. The fantasy has to be rejected because his mind, his heart, his totality, is now with his wife. It may be that the “God’s fallen light” that he witnesses and inhabits at the song’s end is a signifier of Springsteen’s Catholic guilt (as the ending of “Spare Parts” may also in part suggest), but it is a striking image (which Springsteen sings in the voice of an exhausted wanderer), as well as a warning to anyone foolish enough to reject reality for a wreckage of life based on rootless dreams, as another record released six weeks ahead of Tunnel Of Love made horrifically and comically clear**.
But the first side’s most profound meditation may be its closer: “Walk Like A Man,” a song which would eventually show up the timid likes of “The Living Years” for the flaccid failures that they were in terms of father and son relationships. It is the son’s wedding day, and his father is in attendance – there’s that roughness again as the singer recalls “how rough your hand felt on mine.” He remembers how he had always tried to walk like his father, right from the age of five on the beach, and how his mother would take him and his sister to the church every time “she heard those wedding bells” – those last two words are underscored by a hollow-sounding synthesised whine – and show them the happiest or saddest of visions:
“Well, would they ever look so happy again,
The handsome groom and his bride,
As they stepped into that long black limousine
For their mystery ride?”
The “long black limousine” is a direct reference to one of Elvis’ darkest songs and raises questions about the concept of “happy”; each couple ventures into unknown darkness, as they find out what being together is actually all about, what is involved in building and sustaining a marriage. Now the singer himself is left by his father at the altar, waiting for his bride to appear, praying and hoping that he can finally learn to walk like his father did, all the while knowing that he almost certainly will not. This doubt is a lifetime away from the masculine certainty of the Four Seasons’ 1963 hit of the same name, where the singer’s father warns him away from love and commitment. “No woman’s worth/Crawling on the earth” – no, that won’t wash anymore, and shouldn’t have washed even in 1963 (even if you capitalise that “earth”). What can he do? He can’t walk on. He walks on. Because what other way is there?
The title song is the nearest thing the record gets to an E Street Band – and this was no accident; many of the record’s songs had begun as largely solo demos, and Springsteen had an urge to keep it that way. Co-producer Jon Landau agreed; the other co-producer Chuck Plotkin listened to the songs, worried about Springsteen and asked whether he wouldn’t mind having the band go over them. Springsteen emphatically and angrily did mind, but suggested a plan where individual band members would contribute to each song. This upset the band members more than if Springsteen had kept them out of the process altogether, and although they were called in, hardly any of their work was used in the final product. “Beat the Demo,” they called it. Max Weinberg adds drums and sundry percussion to eight of the twelve songs, but Federici appears on only four songs, Garry Tallent on one (“Spare Parts”), and Clarence Clemons is heard only as a backing singer on “When You’re Alone.” Keyboardist Roy Bittan appears on both the title song and “Brilliant Disguise.” Otherwise it was Springsteen all the way, and many of the musicians were furious about it.
But the band, such as they are on “Tunnel Of Love,” sound like nothing less than Simple Minds, with the song’s jerky introduction, Nils Lofgren’s very Charlie Burchill-esque guitar solo (his only other appearance here, also as a backing singer, is on “When You’re Alone”) and the constant four-chord synthesiser motif, not to mention Springsteen’s own, rather Jim Kerr-ish vocals (his groan on the “fall” in the phrase “they fall in love”). The song again focuses, via its fairground metaphor, on the unknown darkness of commitment, and perhaps outlines a forensic self-examination on Springsteen’s behalf of what really is meant by the word “love.” “But the house is haunted, and the ride gets rough” – that “rough” again – “And you’ve got to learn to live with what you can’t rise above,” which draws us back to the ambiguous principle of “Tougher Than The Rest.” Towards the end of the song, it is noticeable how backing singer Patty Scialfa’s voice gradually becomes louder and more forthright and urgent. Weinberg rains down drum thunderbolts, and the song screeches into a freeform pile-up which resolves into the delighted screams of the riders of the rollercoaster at the Point Pleasant Amusement Park (who, incidentally, were coached and directed by engineer Toby Scott and his assistant).
Next comes “Two Faces,” a song worthy of a vengeful, surviving Buddy Holly (“Two faces have I”) where the singer is at war with himself, or his worse self; half of him wants love, the other half to destroy it. The battle is numbing (the slow up-rolling of the word “baby” in the second line of the second verse sounds like the singer is slitting his own throat with a Swiss Army penknife) but the singer’s good half finally triumphs – for now (“He swore he’d take your love away from me…/Well, go ahead and let him try,” suggesting that the Orbison of “Running Scared” was both pursued and pursuer).
“Brilliant Disguise” is a sister song to “Two Faces” but that isn’t the half of this remarkable piece of work. We immediately note how the line “Out on the edge of time” relates back to the themes and emptiness of Darkness On The Edge Of Town – so it may not be too helpful to label Tunnel Of Love as a break-up album since this was not the first time Springsteen had presented us with such forlorn songs (for what it’s worth, both Springsteen and Julianne Phillips continue to speak of each other with what I think is heartfelt respect, although both are naturally guarded about talking in great detail about their time together).
Nonetheless, both song and performance beg the question: what the hell do you, or I, want from pop music, from love, from life? The song, like most of the songs on the album, proceeds like any immediate pre-Beatles pop record might have proceeded, or perhaps a few and very select post-Beatles pop records – those castanet triples which seem to resound throughout the entire history of pop, Weinberg’s rhetorical Orbison/Spector timpani. “I hold you in my arms/As the band plays,” Springsteen begins as though it were 1961 and he was Ben E King and the debt of the future had yet to incur itself. The doubt takes no time to make itself known: “What are those words whispered, baby/Just as you turn away?”
And suddenly the performance is so far from certain. There is paranoia – whoever is calling her name from underneath “our” willow, the shameful secret tucked beneath her pillow – and in his evaluation of the song, Dave Marsh is right to speak of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” but also of “Suspicion”, the Terry Stafford song covered by Presley in 1962, Pomus and Shuman’s shame-filled sequel to “Save The Last Dance For Me.” He also mentions Gene Pitney’s 1965 single “Last Chance To Turn Around” (a.k.a. “Last Exit To Brooklyn”) as a specific precursor of “Disguise”’s “Is it meeee, baby?,” but I can’t hear it, only one of Pitney’s fiercest and angriest vocals as he surveys the extent of his lover’s deception before heading out of town (accompanied by a bizarre Bubber Miley muted trumpet cry) with lyrics foreshadowing both Scott Walker’s “Duchess” and Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.”
Bittan’s piano enters deep and dramatically after Springsteen’s “Well, I’ve tried so hard.” When he reaches the middle eight’s “struggling” he sounds at the end of his tether, and the stark imagery of that same sequence points to another, less likely precedent – and the other end of the “Lovin’ Feelin’” anti-rainbow – Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (Federici’s high, held organ note at the song’s end, combined with Weinberg’s timpani, removes all ambiguity)***. Finally, they marry, but Springsteen already realises the danger lies within himself, as he slowly turns the song around and asks his lover whom she sees: “Is it meeee, baby?/Or just a brilliant disguise?” (Julianne Phillips is, of course, an actress). Tired of everything, he wanders away from the song at its end, again recalling “Apart” (“Tonight our bed is cold”), and finally crucifies himself: “God have mercy on the man/Who doubts what he’s sure of.” In 1987, only Waits’ “I’ll Take New York” touched its self-destructive power.
On “One Step Up,” terminally disgusted with himself, the singer breaks and quits. But everywhere he runs into a brick wall. His home is unhappy, but his car won’t start and so he has no option but to go back to the bar:
“When I look at myself I don’t see
“When I look at myself I don’t see
The man I wanted to be.”
He is even reduced to trying a half-hearted pick-up at the bar but, like the singer of “Tougher Than The Rest” and maybe even “Brilliant Disguise,” he knows that she knows that it’s all bull and jive. Then the dream reappears: “Last night I dreamed I held you in my arms/The music was never-ending” – as if the beginning of “Brilliant Disguise” had happened only in his mind, in his mind alone. But another voice joins in on the subsequent “We danced…” and it is the voice of Patty Scialfa. The music then rises to a crescendo of wordless chorals, as though both dancers were rising out of that old world.
On “When You’re Alone,” she ups and leaves (“Times were tough, love was not enough”) and he is all sneering and accusatory, but sounding so empty attempting either that the conclusion has to be that he is singing to himself. She does come back in the final verse, but the triumph sounds Pyrrhic; the intermediary second verse sounds like the plot of Franks Wild Years in précis. And then the backing singers – Patty Scialfa, from New Jersey, being one of them – form a chorus behind the singer, telling him that perhaps he’s not really alone. Or would prefer not to be seen as such.
But on the closing “Valentine’s Day,” he is entirely on his own. It is an attempt at deep soul with a steady, patient 6/8 tempo, and Springsteen’s own bass prowls and arches beneath the singer as he realises that fantasy and idealisations, like tears, are not enough. What is love, he wonders; it’s the friend of his who became a father last night – he, Springsteen, who on this album tries so hard to walk like his father – and the singer has had enough of façades; he wants home, and her. He is driving down a dark and “spooky” highway, but in the record’s most resonant and candid couplet, he lays it open:
“That ain’t what scares me, baby;
What scares me is losin’ you.”
And again, those dreams, that light of God (dying in his dreams reminding us of Joy Division/New Order’s “In A Lonely Place,” not to mention “The Electrician”), come through with a hymnal organ to underscore their importance. ”Don’t walk away. In silence” was how the song went. There are closing, chiming bells, the bluest and loneliest of Valentines – but, unlike Frank, he at least sounds as though he has a home still to reach and reside. “Now that we’ve found love” asked the O’Jays some years earlier, “what are we gonna do with it?” Recognising it, Springsteen recognises, is not the same thing as living with it, nurturing it, allowing it to grow and flourish. He has to get beyond the fun of the fair and get his hands dirty. It might even be called growing up, that inconsiderate and un-rock ‘n’ roll-like phenomenon that the most searching music of 1987 appeared to want and address more and more. You’ve finally got to learn to live with what you know you can make rise above. That is that thing called love.
*Appendix 1: Blackpool
You may wonder why I should reminisce about Blackpool in the context of an album set in one man’s heart in America, much of it recognisably set along the New Jersey shoreline – if that “dirty oil patch” in South Texas isn’t a roundabout reference to Roy Orbison’s background, and remembering that Newark’s Four Seasons were as much the sound of New Jersey in their day as Springsteen was, and perhaps still is, in his - and the only answer I can give is that I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Blackpool, a place I knew very well in the seventies and which I have not visited since the seventies, and something about the sunset/end-of-the-road twilight gleaming of Tunnel Of Love set me thinking about the place.
Specifically I’ve been looking at Blackpool as it is now via the marvel of Google Street View, tracing all the approaches to the town, and the town itself, as far as fits my memory of them. The overwhelming feeling that I have is one of melancholy. It doesn’t really matter which way you come into town; however you do it, the familiar shape of the Tower will soon come into progressively less distant view.
When my parents and I visited the resort regularly in summer holidays past, we used to lodge somewhere in Egerton Road, part of the elegant North Shore, by far my favourite district of the town (there is even a Carlin Gate to mark the otherwise invisible boundary between Blackpool and Bispham). As a very young boy I used to fantasise about living in the very grand Imperial Hotel, but then I had similar fantasies about living in Buckingham Palace and even in Tower Bridge. Tracing the path from there, I was astonished at how swiftly and how well I recognised the streets, the houses built in a brickwork of sandstone in a shade of red you don’t really find anywhere else. The turning at the top of the road which turned into another road, and you can glimpse the top of the Tower above one of the houses on the right (the same house used to boast an advertising hoarding for Omega Watches which no longer exists). Dickson Road, always an exciting walk in my younger days, eager to check out the latest American Marvel Comics, which came to Blackpool a lot sooner than they did to Glasgow. Then down to Talbot Road, with its terrific Marks and Spencer and fantastic butcher’s shop which sold the best burgers I have yet tasted, past Yates’ Wine Lodge to Talbot Square and there, facing you, was the North Pier, stretching far out into the North Sea – on an especially clear day, you could go right to its end and glimpse the coast of the Isle of Man.
Just to your left were Lewis’s department store – blue and huge – then the Tower itself, and the Tower complex, and next to that was the art deco Woolworth’s. If you glimpsed up the street that lay between Lewis’s and the Tower then you would see the famous Winter Gardens, which incorporated the comparatively swishy Opera House. Actually we hardly ever ventured into the Winter Gardens itself, except accidentally one summer when we opened a door and found ourselves in an auditorium, with distant acting on a distant stage, and affable-looking fellows standing around at the back laughing and conferring. It turned out to be the Are You Being Served? stage show (of which cast only Nicholas Smith, a.k.a. Mr Rumbold, now survives). There was a fairground of sorts and other such distractions.
The Opera House we went to twice, to see Ken Dodd, once in 1968 and again in 1971. I don’t really remember anything about the 1968 one, but I still have the programme for 1971’s The Ken Dodd Laughter Spectacular and it brings everything back. In truth it probably presaged the truth about Blackpool in the seventies, that it was already in slow decline from its twenties-to-fifties heyday, the cheap airline/package tour market gradually eating into its numbers of visitors. Even in the early part of the twentieth century, the likes of Sarah Bernhardt paid the town more than one visit (except, on one occasion, when acting in a French play with suboptimal sound quality, one gruff member of the audience regaled Bernhardt with the upbraid: “Speak up, lass! Nobbut a soul can hear what th’art sayin’! We haven’t paid our hard-earned money for that!”).
There was also the Grand Theatre, not too far away, where we went twice; once to see Jimmy Jewel and Hylda Baker in the Nearest And Dearest stage show, and again to see a farce starring Jack Douglas whose title I have long forgotten (it might have been called The Love Nest). But The Ken Dodd Laughter Spectacular seemed like a last-ditch effort to stage the sort of grand variety show to which Blackpool had been long accustomed.
I also recall it not being that funny. Dodd was only onstage here and there; once near the beginning, and again near the middle for some dreary song-and-dance business with the Diddymen which also involved some admittedly spectacular waterfalls (and there was a full orchestra in the pit). Otherwise the fare on offer could have come from 1911 or 1941; the Tiller Girls, ventriloquism (Jack Beckitt, “supported by WILLIE DRINKALL”), juggling, fire-eating, sleight-of-hand magic (the latter from the highly-respected Johnny Hart, the only name on the bill apart from Dodd’s that I recognised) and lots of stern, doughy songs sung by one Lyn Kennington with themes or titles like “When Knights Were Bold” and “Derby Day.”
But at the end, more or less, Dodd came back onstage, alone, and riffed, improvised or recalled gags from the air, reacted immediately to his audience, for what must have been almost an hour and a half and maybe even two hours. It was staggering. I’d never seen anything like it before, and it was clear that this was what everybody had paid to come and see, and that all the sub-Franz Lehar rictus-grinning stuff that preceded it was merely a warm-up. It doesn’t really matter that over forty years later I can hardly remember one joke that he told; it was about the moment, the here and now, and the thrill and pleasure in watching a master of his art at peak power and enjoying it so hugely.
Or maybe it was just one hour; I was very young and time out of school was a matter of elasticity. What I do remember was that when we eventually got out of the Opera House it was well past midnight and we had to get a taxi back to our boarding house. Dodd’s then-current single “When Love Comes Round Again” was sung on stage, played over the PA as we left the auditorium, and indeed was on sale in the downstairs foyer. It didn’t become a hit record until slightly later, and it remains perhaps Dodd’s strangest single. It was an English version of a 1970 hit by Italian singer-songwriter Sergio Endrigo, originally entitled “L’Arce Di Noé,” and followed Endrigo’s original see-sawing between cheerful singalong choruses and melodramatic verses. In Dodd’s recording, however, the pull-and-tug is almost schizophrenic; now we have the honky tonk piano, the Mike Sammes Singers, the hand-waving singsong (“Love –is-LIIIIIIIIKE an ever spinning wheel”), before these musicians suddenly drop out, perhaps through a trapdoor, the key switches from dominant major to subdominant minor, the guitar goes proto-Portishead on the listener, and we are left with a regally cold string section – although the song ‘s pulse is always constant, the verses pull off the illusion of sounding out-of-tempo – against which Dodd’s voice descends a staircase of grief (“Down the years, many tears have been cried about love and devotion”) with a methodology of phrasing and pause control almost identical in elegance to that of Scott Walker. The strings swell up, the chords mourn like a lamenting Dido – but before the wrecked soul can jump off the cliff, just as suddenly returns the don’t-worry-be-happy-clappy chorus. The overriding arc of love dying and love being reborn isn’t that distant from the overall theme of Tunnel Of Love. Towards the end of 1971, the song, retitled “Love Is Like A Spinning Wheel,” became a hit for American country singer Jan Howard, who in tandem with producer Owen Bradley did it as straight country without any of the melodrama.
But back to the Woolworth’s tower – such as it was - and beyond that you left the North Shore and entered the Central region, by far the most popular among the largely Glaswegian Fair Fortnight holidaymakers. Far more colourful, and maybe tackier, than the North, the smell of fish and chips combined with candy floss was prevalent all the way down the Golden Mile. Central Pier was also a far brasher pier than either the North or South ones, with its extravagantly vulgar design and its Peter Webster talent contests. There was a waxwork museum called Louis Tussaud’s, a cinema whose name I’ve forgotten where we’d go to watch morning matinees of seemingly endless Warner Brothers cartoon classics, and lots, but lots, of seafront hotels. Central Blackpool was all about loudness, as opposed to the calming reserve of the North Shore – there’s a great point on the North Promenade where the Metropole Hotel rises up and suddenly, if briefly, there are huge buildings on either side of the street.
Whereas the South Shore always seemed like something of an afterthought, looking as it did rather down-at-heel, primary-coloured paint scraping from the bright houses on the shore. The South Pier looked almost embarrassed to call itself a pier, although it really wasn’t all that bad. Nevertheless I clearly recall the pier’s theatre manager coming out onto the pier deck to address the masses reclining in their deckchairs, imploring them to come inside and see Freddie Garrity in The Jolson Story. “Plenty of seats left!” he repeated, the implication being that all seats were left (which, as I understand things, wasn’t that far-fetched; nobody took up the offer). This was very different from cheerful characters like Frank Carson and Little and Large strolling up the North Pier, waving to deckchairs, beaming and always ready for an autograph and a chat.
There was Pleasure Beach, Europe’s largest amusement park, or so it was claimed in those pre-Alton Towers days, and yes, it had a rollercoaster and a Tunnel of Love (not to mention a Ghost Train). It was probably the only institution in Blackpool which could advertise itself as separate and distinct from the Tower. After that, Blackpool slowly and unspectacularly dwindled down to nothing, at least until you got to Lytham St Annes, with its sand dunes on which you could actually sunbathe (at the opposite end of the town were the infamously windy and often Irish Sea-drenching Bispham Cliffs). And there were the trams, always the indispensable trams, and in autumn, the Blackpool Illuminations which four decades ago were pretty spectacular. Not to mention the local paper, the Evening Gazette, and the exotic novelty of watching Granada rather than Scottish Television.
These memories are all intact, and really I don’t want to spoil them by thinking about what Blackpool has turned into since then. Traversing along Google Street View I saw on my right, on Church Street, a huge and apparently disused club called The Syndicate. Now wait, I thought; don’t I know this building from somewhere? And then it struck me – it wasn’t remotely the same building, but was the building which had replaced the Blackpool ABC Theatre, a constant in the seventies, and before then, where stars like Morecambe and Wise trod its boards and guitarist Derek Bailey practised his Webern in the orchestra pit.
Then, the all-too-familiar parade of chain stores, and a feeling of slight desolation. Where Lewis’s once stood, there is now a Harry Ramsden’s and a Poundland, amongst many others. Where once there was a Woolworth’s, now stands Sports Direct. Many shops and hotels I had once known and recognised along the shore were now closed, boarded up or turned into other, less attractive things. I am aware that, for a multitude of reasons, Blackpool is a far less pleasant place than it was when I knew it. If I went there now, the thrill of instant familiarity would, I suspect, be swiftly undercut by the same saddening, reddening sunset one sees on the album cover; the time is gone, and I prefer to preserve the place as I remember it.
**Appendix 2: Franks Wild Years
I’m not very clear about Tom Waits’ religious upbringing or beliefs – like Lanark’s Duncan Thaw and myself, he may well have his “own conception of God,” although one of his most apocalyptic songs has to be 2002’s “God’s Away On Business” (“The ship’s sinking,” “it’s all over” etc.) and I note that his wife Kathleen Brennan, who co-wrote that song along with much of Franks Wild Years, was, like Springsteen, raised as a Catholic – but he seems able to raise his head from the mud more surely than Springsteen, forever crucified by his Catholic guilt, manages on Tunnel, and maybe has a happier story to tell.
Franks Wild Years – and this, incidentally, is not a typo; sleeve, spine and label are entirely free of the pardoning apostrophe, implying that Waits is collecting and filing wild years like others do stamps – was staged under the aegis of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, premiering at Chicago’s Briar St Theatre in June 1986. Planned as the third part of a trilogy of albums also encompassing Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs, it is perhaps more neglected than either. The original, apostrophe-incorporating monologue appears on the former, is over in a hundred and ten seconds, and is not much more than Waits growling a tale over Ronnie Barron’s Hammond organ and Larry Taylor’s walking bass, a story which doesn’t really have much bearing on what happens on this record, other than the awful, spontaneous urge to abandon a life based on reality and run away in pursuit of one based on fantasy.
Without wanting to waste my time and space and your patience on what a thousand writers have already told you about Waits, I’ll cut straight to the story that the record tells. It begins with excitement and anticipation; “Hang On St Christopher” as Frank – Sinatra? Bascombe? Wheeler? – sets out for Christ(opher) knows where, past The Grapevine, through Reno, further and further away from what he knew. “Straight To The Top” continues with the absurd optimism. But as he goes through “Blow Wind Blow” and “Temptation,” his voice gets higher and more torn, the music less graspable. The first “Innocent When You Dream” – the roughness of his dreams – is bawled as though he is weeping at his own funeral.
As his travels broaden and narrow, and his resources run out, the music becomes steadily more doleful as it becomes more dissonant; in “I’ll Be Gone” he actively welcomes the prospect of suicide, and by “Yesterday Is Here” and “Please Wake Me Up” he is dimly aware that there is no going or coming back. “Franks Theme” teeters in and out of comprehensibility like Carla Bley’s least forgettable nightmare. “More Than Rain” sees Waits pulling down the shutters on the planet. “Way Down In The Hole” is deep soul marooned deeper than Hades, Marc Ribot’s guitar tugging on the song’s perilous strands of logic, a trio of backing singers – a signifier of “soul” music – entering the song only a few seconds before it is terminated.
Side two is nightmare all the way. The Vegas “Straight To The Top” is both pitiful and hilarious, while “I’ll Take New York” is Sinatra refracted through Lynch**** – although Scorsese’s original New York, New York movie hardly said yes to life; Francine Evans and Jimmy Doyle are fated to separate and go into their respective musical and emotional dead ends . Then again, you could experience Waits/Franks’ torment, as the lounge music disintegrates around him like the world, the future, his life floating away from him (in his play “What Is The Right Thing And Am I Doing It?,” BS Johnson has Ghent reiterate that the only way he can explain how he coped what he made happen to him is “You had to…float”), as the devil who, as Waits put it, knows the Bible like the back of his hands and flows through the mind, wind and fingers of Jimmy Doyle as de Niro plays him. At the end of the song, he is fluttering, bleary, incomprehensible and unlovable, in the gutter.
There is a grain of hope in the hopped-up “Telephone Call From Istanbul,” as well as some of the album’s funniest lyrics (sample: “Never drive a car when you’re dead” – well, Waits makes it funny) – but “Cold Cold Ground” – the same cold, cold ground into which Springsteen’s cautious man stares – with the aid of David Hidalgo’s accordion, is the first of a pair of great vocal performances that showed D’Arby that he had some way to go; slow, patient, deep, hurt, and genuinely “soulful.” The second is the numbing “Train Song” where he realises that he has returned home, but that it’s not “home” any more, that it is too late for redemption or anything else. Springsteen never lets himself get anywhere near that trap. The final “78” reading of “Innocent When You Dream” sounds played from beyond the grave, as if Frank had expired. All that having been said, Waits is always accompanied by a core of his repertory company of musical players – musically he never sounds alone, as such – and given that the woman who became his wife helped to write so many of these songs, you could argue that the ending here was, paradoxically, happier than Springsteen’s lonely Valentine.
****Appendix 2b: Climate of Sinatra
In 1986, Sinatra’s brassy, Don Costa-arranged “Theme From New York, New York,” reissued by Reprise to promote a routine best-of compilation album, became an unexpected top five hit in Britain (his last such as a solo performer). I am not sure whether this had the welcome effect of drawing curious listeners back to the performance’s original home, 1980’s Trilogy: Past Present Future, a self-explanatory triple album which, in its final third, the Gordon Jenkins-masterminded “Future” suite, constitutes the most exploratory and avant-garde music Sinatra ever recorded. Those who think that Scott Walker was striking out a stubbornly lonely path are directed to “World War None!,” “Song Without Words,” and “What Time Does The Next Miracle Leave?”; the record is Sinatra’s Tilt, his Metal Machine Music, and as brilliant as either.
***Appendix 3: A Love Trilogy: Past Present Future
(a) “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’”
There were Springsteen-compatible precedents in Orbison, Pitney and the Four Tops; what else is the knowingly failed barroom pick-up in “One Step Up” but a cold rationalist update of “Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa”? But I doubt whether even the fifteen-year-old Springsteen was ready for “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.”
Like the opening of Citizen Kane, “Lovin’ Feelin’” plays its cards upfront. There is no introduction or prelude; without warning we are immediately lowered into the pit of the sarcophagus of Bill Medley’s voice, clanging its own hellish chimes of doom. It is like the Last Trump being blown directly into your ear.
No reassurance either: “You never close your eyes any more” is how it begins; did we come in halfway through the story, or record? Those first two words are uttered, as though they constituted the last words of man, before any music begins, and when the music does begin it is distant, like the band are playing in the next room, or on the next continent. The language of what the singer took to be love appears to be no longer valid, and he is having difficulty accepting that.
As he reaches the first chorus a second, higher voice joins him in harmony and their joint “gone, gone, gone” resounds like the sailors crying for bread in Boris Godunov. Then the song lands again, not quite where it was at the beginning – the sound is fuller and there are next-door-neighbour backing vocals, one of which is provided by Cher. A high string line – Nitzsche was indisposed and so Spector grumpily hired Gene Page to do the arrangement – enters into our consciousness like an oxygen tube. Then there’s another pained build-up – you may think these are just little things but SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL’S DYING, the greatest offence that humanity is incapable of bearing – and another chorus, before the rhythm section suddenly drops out, perhaps through a trapdoor.
There is just a vibraphone, and a double bass, and then “Goodnight Irene” harmonising, and then congas – but before even those Medley tries to prove that even Homer (Simpson) can nod – “Baby, baby…I’d get down on my knees for you” (then the wordless choir – is the subtext here “Take Me To Church”?).
But then there is another voice, a higher, more urgent one, which we hear on its own for the first time – the voice of Bobby Hatfield. Restraint versus anger, countenance against fear; two sides of the same man? More percussion enters, then snarling muted trombones; the music just keeps building and building – by the time the singers reach their quatrain of “Don’t, don’t, DON’T, DON’T let it slip away-ay-ay!,” the song, the record, sounds as though it is barely under control.
Then the two singers start to shout at each other – “Baby!” “BABY!” “Baby…” “BAYYYYYYBAYYYYY!!” – why are they arguing? They continue towards their peak of outward mourning: “I need your love,” says Medley mildly. “I NEED YOUR LOVE!” hollers Hatfield, to remind us of how he could stretch out and heighten that “I need your love” in “Unchained Melody,” a song Spector gave him to do alone, as recompense for being absent from most of “Lovin’ Feelin’.” Everything is about to boil over. It’s clear why they are screaming at each other. It’s their version of getting laid.
But instead of a Penderecki-type eruption, we can only go back to the chorus, the “Bring back that lovin’ feelin’,” roared more in forlorn hope than assured certainty (for otherwise why would they hush up and sing “I can’t go on” towards the end?). Another drop-out, and then an intentionally anti-climactic fadeout. Burdon’s “House Of The Rising Sun” wasn’t even in it.
Nor, for a moment, was British pop music. The big chart battle here was between the original and Cilla Black’s George Martin-produced cover. But Cilla and George got nowhere near it; the climactic bridge is cut short (the singer said she didn’t want people to get bored, not too convincingly) but after leading the original in the charts for three weeks, the British public turned around and decided that they preferred “to get bored,” to hear the whole, unabbreviated, unconfined story. It’s arguable that Black’s pop career never regained its momentum after that episode; her follow-up, a far more convincing and adventurous reading of “I’ve Been Wrong Before” – a record which introduced Randy Newman to our charts – was perceived as an audience-testing single and only just crept into the top twenty (a shame because I think her version better than the contemporaneous Dusty Springfield one; her cold harshness suits the song’s shopworn cynicism better, Martin’s strings crouching in the bushes like unexploded grenades).
Perhaps the most convincing cover of the song appears on the Human League’s 1979 debut album Reproduction; coming out of an abstract instrumental called “Morale,” Oakey’s grave voice resonates against giant tick-tocks, like God’s clock. He makes no attempt to reproduce Medley and Hatfield’s original vocal pyrotechnics, but sings it in a state of blank disbelief and premature resignation. The underlying “Morale” motif does not move to accommodate the chorus’ chord changes. It is as if Oakey is raising the question: what’s the look of love, and where did it go?
(b) Love Will Tear Us Apart
It is said that Tony Wilson gave Ian Curtis a copy of the 1978 Frank Sinatra Twenty Golden Greats compilation to give him tips for singing the song, which he sings more quietly and slowly than any other uptempo Joy Division song, and most of the downtempo ones. The music begins where most punk records ended, with a gigantic guitar/drums climax, but this then unexpectedly gives way to Duane Eddy lead bass and Hapless Child string synthesiser. The song’s sentiments are the same as those of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” but like Frank and Bruce the routine has now degenerated such that there is no chance of reconciliation or even elementary contact with each other. The music does not attempt another climax; instead Curtis simply muses quietly and regretfully. Eventually the song gives way, and we are left with a single high note of elegy flying above what is essentially “Then He Kissed Me.” It’s not so much that the record closed down the recent past and permitted New Pop to flourish, but that it is resigned to the possibility that there is no future at all. Even the Pistols’ “God Save The Queen” hadn’t gone that far. Beyond this only the posthumous ice forest of “Atmosphere” and something awkward called the future.
(c) (I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life
“I love myself (HE SAID I GOTTA GET UP, LIFE IS MORE THAN SUICIDE”
(“I” by Kendrick Lamar)
(“I” by Kendrick Lamar)
“If the future proves sweet, would it tell us to leap before we move?”
(“The Future (Continued): I’ve Been There” by Frank Sinatra)
Dirty Dancing was released in August of 1987 and could in any other world have been an Elvis movie (I wish that both Elvis and Marvin were still alive to give us their readings of “Take Me To Church”); it is set in the summer of 1963, i.e. before the Beatles changed everything, and the little plot it has hardly gets in the way of the dancing, which is the movie’s point. You remember Patrick Swayze and Baby and don’t recall the name of Swayze’s character or the name of the actress who played “Baby” (Johnny Castle and Jennifer Grey respectively). Maybe you bought the soundtrack, and even its sequel/appendix, which is full of songs which would have been part of the teenage Springsteen’s canon – “Hey Baby,” “Be My Baby,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “In The Still Of The Night,” “Some Kind Of Wonderful,” “Love Is Strange,” “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”; all these songs of implied deliverance and paradoxical, if retrospective, reassurance; those days before “we” were obliged to grow up.
“Time Of My Life” was written by John de Nicola, Don Markowitz and Frankie Previte, which latter you may remember from early eighties act Frankie and the Knockouts (the same team wrote “Hungry Eyes,” recorded for the film by Eric Carmen). The original choice of duo was Donna Summer and Joe Esposito, but they turned the song down, and so it came to the attention of Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes. Although the Righteous Brothers had a second number one in 1966 with the ostensibly self-produced (though Jack Nitzsche was heavily involved) “(You’re My) Soul And Inspiration,” a record of such desperate intensity as to outdo even “Lovin’ Feelin’,” they faded relatively quickly, only really coming back in 1974 with the terrible “Rock ‘N’ Roll Heaven.” So no doubt Medley was glad of the chance to reassert himself. Meanwhile Warnes was busy enough, working with more dangerous characters like Leonard Cohen and Arthur Russell – her Cohen covers album Famous Blue Raincoat was one of 1987’s most emotional records, as indeed was Russell’s solo/multitracked voice-and-‘cello essay World Of Echo – but the film’s music producer Jimmy Ienner prevailed upon her to repeat the “Up Where We Belong” magic.
The song, as Medley and Warnes recorded it, was a lot less ambiguous or ambitious than “Lovin’ Feelin’,” despite a deliberate reference to the latter in the string chart, but it was undoubtedly happier, and at the time of its initial release found an unlikely champion in Morrissey, who reviewed the record on Radio 1’s Round Table show and rated it very highly. It is corny and eighties-sounding, but both singers sound heartfelt, and there is the feeling of closure being attained. “I’ve searched through every open door/’Til I’ve found the truth/And I owe it all to you” – are we really that far away from a less melancholy Springsteen, out there on the highway in the dead of night, heading home again?