(#445: 4 April 1992, 1 week)
Track listing: Human Touch/Soul Driver/57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)/Cross My Heart/Gloria’s Eyes/With Every Wish/Roll Of The Dice/Real World/All Or Nothin’ At All/Man’s Job/I Wish I Were Blind/The Long Goodbye/Real Man/Pony Boy
When Springsteen played the finished masters of Human Touch to Steven van Zandt, the latter’s immediate reaction was to suggest that he bin them and re-record all of its songs with the E Street Band. Disgruntled with their reduced requirements on Tunnel Of Love, that band had dissipated, and it came to pass that Springsteen eventually began to record the songs which would comprise Human Touch but then temporarily shelved the project because he’d had an idea for another album. Seeing which way the Guns N’ Roses wind was blowing, Jon Landau suggested releasing both albums simultaneously. Neither Human Touch nor its lower-key relative Lucky Town made number one on Billboard; both were kept off the top by entry #446, and certainly the former has generally ranked low in fans’ ratings of Springsteen albums, although in Britain it was (marginally) the bigger seller.
While I am essentially sure of what Springsteen was attempting here, I’m unsure that he succeeded. One problem with Human Touch is that it incorporates a killer four or five-track E.P. waiting to be liberated from its pallid, corporate surroundings. Both “Cross My Heart” and “I Wish I Were Blind” are among Springsteen’s great ballads – and again pass the TPL “could Roy Orbison have sung them?” test. “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)” is stripped-down and very funny. “With Every Wish” is a phenomenal summation of this album’s central theme; what do you do when you try your best to live an adult life but continually get thwarted – such a wonderful float of a song which could blow any which way. The closing, quiet rendition of the 1909 cowboy song “Pony Boy” with Patti, sung as though sitting in their kitchen, makes for an appropriately pensive ending.
Alas, there is generally far too much thumping/migraine-inducing computerised AoR pabulum in the album’s arrangements, and all the big shot sixties guest backing singers do not collectively compensate for the absence of Clarence. Only Roy Bittan reappears from the E Street Band, and Randy Jackson and Jeff Porcaro might have been super-proficient session players, but are not what, or whom, Springsteen needed. The repeated tolling bell motif on “Real World” is quite addictive, but too much of this record is Bruce trying to be Bono or even, Lord help us (on “Real Man”), Huey Lewis and the News. More often than not the album resembles the work of a below par Springsteen wannabe. Also, what is it with all this “Real World”/”Man’s Job”/”Real Man” stuff? Is this Jeremy Clarkson’s idea of the Boss? “The Long Goodbye” is a strong song rendered only semi-listenable by its headachy production. And while one applauds the relatively rawer and more personal approach of Lucky Town, I am not particularly moved or even aroused by any of its ten indifferently decent songs (and its cover, which depicts Springsteen in shades auditioning to be Shane MacGowan on Stars In Their Eyes, is also unhelpful in this respect).
Let’s take a brief look at an album released some six months later which I suspect is the one Springsteen really wanted to make:
Where Human Touch seems welded together meticulously enough to solicit plays on adult contemporary radio, Bone Machine sounds glued together with inadequate Blue Tak. Recorded in what was, in Waits’ words, “just a cement floor and a hot water heater” (a basement room in Studio C of the Prairie Sun Recording Studios in Cotati, California), the album splendidly illustrates Waits’ own, peculiar take on “ambient music.” Like Eno, he hears only fragments of music seeping out in the context of other sounds and life in general, but he takes this fascination and applies it to musical environments which might initially seem unlikely but end up sounding entirely logical.
There is no “band” as such on Bone Machine; it is mostly Waits with a few trusted cohorts (Canned Heat’s Larry Taylor on acoustic bass, Joe Gore on guitar, Brian “Brain” Mantia on occasional drums, Ralph Carney on equally occasional woodwinds). Most of the drumming, as such, is performed by Waits himself (some of it on a homemade contraption he called the “Conundrum”) and his wonderful, flat-footed but forceful drumming is precisely what is needed for the hilarious “Goin’ Out West”(“Well I know karate/Voodoo, too”).
The dominant theme on Bone Machine is that of biblical sin, apocalypse and redemption, conveyed far more effectively than on, say, Nick Cave’s contemporaneous tribute to Gene Pitney-style melodrama Henry’s Dream. “All Stripped Down” is a hissed confessional, akin to Depeche Mode being awarded a bucket of ice-cold fire. “The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me” is a Cubist argument against suicide. “In The Colosseum” is a numbingly explicit damnation of unchained capitalism.
At its best, Bone Machine can sound like the first and last music ever made. On “Jesus Gonna Be Here” – which firmly puts “Jesus He Knows Me” in its polite place – Waits and Taylor swap instruments (they play acoustic bass and guitar respectively) and their determined primitivism actually gives us a far more “authentic” take on what the music of worship might sound like than the dogged Memphis visits of the likes of U2 and Primal Scream. At other times, it can sound surprisingly sophisticated; the smouldering menace of “Earth Died Screaming” and especially “Black Wings” suggests an alternative path which Dire Straits could have profitably pursued. And at its most tender of times, ballads such as “Who Are You” (a rejoinder to Michael Jackson’s “Who Is It?,” perhaps?) and “A Little Rain” possess a fragile beauty which elevates Waits’ music to greatness. And the album closes very satisfactorily with “That Feel,” in which Waits’ old pal (and fellow Sagittarian) Keith Richards imbues the groove with characteristic genius (on guitar) while Waits plods happily away at his drumkit; crooning and croaking towards another sunrise.
Where does this all cross tracks with Bruce? Their vocal grains are so similar, and the palpable rage of something like “Dirt In The Ground” suggests something that Springsteen would have been eager enough to produce, had he sufficient bravery. However, given the reference in “57 Channels” to blasting out his TV with a .44 Magnum in frustration “in the blessed name of Elvis,” I am instantly drawn to the joyous proclamation of “I’m gonna put a hole in my TV set” during Bone Machine’s most famous song, “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up.” While Human Touch searches, somewhat despondently, for the path needed to access adulthood, Waits screams that it’s overrated and not really needed. It sounds like triumphant, fuck-you freedom, the barrier of reserve exceeded with the surety of a Chuck Yeager.