(#520: 11 March 1995, 1 week; 15 April 1995, 1 week)
Track listing: Born To Run/Thunder Road/Badlands/The River/Hungry Heart/Atlantic City/Dancing In The Dark/Born In The U.S.A./My Hometown/Glory Days/Brilliant Disguise/Human Touch/Better Days/Streets Of Philadelphia/Secret Garden/Murder Incorporated/Blood Brothers/This Hard Land
I was born in Dennistoun, in the East End of Glasgow, and grew up in the superficially more prosperous suburb of Uddingston, surrounded by people who for the most part thought, acted and behaved as though it were still the nineteenth century. Fear, sin and reprisal ruled like three forks of behavioural acid. My mother, who was Italian, loved and scolded, and the two were always symbiotic. My Glaswegian father taught me a lot of lessons in both good and bad ways. I had visions of the type of life I wanted to live, and at an absurdly early age – there are 1965 press cuttings from the Scottish Daily Record which will confirm this – I fell under the spell of music. Literature, art, theatre and cinema too; but primarily, it was music which tempted and guided me.
One feels this passion more pressingly and palpably when you are in an environment which would seem to offer you no scope to explore and develop such passion, indeed thrives on suppressing it as harshly as possible. Thus did I slowly slope away from parents and schoolmates, and at weekends explored Glasgow and other places in order to enable me to explore myself more wisely. Unending Saturday afternoons in the Mitchell Library, or Bridge Street Library, near the Gorbals; scanning the racks of record shops and the shelves of bookshops, trying to put together a more compelling portrait of myself, all the while reminding myself with increasing, though still quietened, vigour: “I will be a writer.”
Writing was, and is, my talent, my thing, rather than music. So I have to be careful when approaching the premature living statue of Bruce Springsteen because he likewise grew up in a placid dead-end of a town where one obeyed and asked no questions, least of all of oneself, with a mother who adored and worshipped him and a father who…well, we never really know too much about Douglas Springsteen except, like my father, he was an exceptionally unhappy man who I suspect detested his family for steering him away from the life he would have liked to lead – and he also married an Italian. Unlike Douglas Springsteen, my father did not have bipolar disorder or suffer from depression as such; the young Bruce endlessly came home to find his father sitting, in the dark, at the kitchen table, wordless, unreachable, untouchable in the wrongest of ways.
It ruptured Bruce, and I am unsure whether he has ever managed to escape that shadow. Over and over in his work, we witness the big, grand gestures, to be swiftly followed by an apologetic retreat to passive pacificity, as though he feels sorry to be viewed or deemed as being so great. He asks you to consider the nature and essence of what might be perceived as “greatness.”
For the young Bruce, rock ‘n’ roll was great and everything that preceded it frustrating and swiftly wiped out. What was it like for there to be nothing and then, suddenly, Presley and then The Beatles and then Dylan arise, not to mention a thousand other purply optimistic chance-takers? We’ll never know unless we were there, and even then we’d probably have to be Springsteen. Nobody else, not even Nick Cave, takes on the burden of being rock ‘n’ roll so heavily, yet so willingly.
At school he was in a covers band, one of a million, called The Castiles, and then went heavy with a band called Earth, and then a group named Child, which was later renamed Steel Mill; even then, observers and fellow band members knew instinctively who had the ideas and the aura for leadership. Then he came into touch with Mike Appel, and they sought to touch John Hammond and Clive Davis at Columbia Records. What became known as the E Street Band was also stuttering towards a recognisable form.
initially appealed to Columbia as a potential new Dylan, a solo performer, and
so his first album, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. (1973, #41 – but it did
not chart at all in the UK until 1985), shuffles uncomfortably between
restrained solo songs and loud ensemble pieces, and its two best-known songs,
“Blinded By The Light” and “Spirit In The Night,” were written hastily to
placate Davis, who liked the album but heard no hits – Springsteen readily
admits that the former was put together with the aid of a rhyming dictionary.
The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle (1973, #33 – again, not a
British hit until 1985) was a little dithering in its timid experimentation but
slightly more focused, bearing several early setpieces (“4th of July, Asbury
Park (Sandy),” “Incident on 57th Street,” “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”). None of this work appears on Greatest Hits but not to mention it would represent a dereliction of duty.
It didn’t do Springsteen much good, though. By early 1974 his career seemed to be as tedious and journeyman-like as this piece has been so far, and if a book of this blog were as glumly historical, its publishers wouldn’t be able to give it away with a packet of tea. Columbia Records, by then under different management, appeared to have a similar viewpoint. There were stories of A&R people going around radio stations and record shops demanding that Springsteen’s songs be withdrawn from airplay and sale and replaced with records made by their far more malleable recent signing, Billy Joel.
In May of that year, however, Jon Landau went to see him at the Harvard Square Theater and said in Boston’s The Real Paper that he was the future. Appel managed to convince Columbia to give Springsteen another chance; they said he could record a single. It took six months to bring that to fruition, and a total of fourteen months before an album could be released.
“Born To Run” was the elastic emancipation of rock fuck-it. Springsteen knew he had to do something better, grander and bolder than he had ever done before, something which sounded as though the preceding twenty years had been leading up to it. I used to think that “Born To Run” was a photocopy of a great pop record, as opposed to the thing itself (actually, no I sodding well didn’t, enough of that smug hindsight bollocks – I loved it; as someone who didn’t really experience Pop History directly, it felt like the previous twenty years of pop ganging up to embrace me. Richard Williams in Melody Maker called it the best pop single since “The Tracks Of My Tears.” And it never got into our charts, kept out by such aesthetic giants as “Fattie Bum Bum,” “Big Ten,” “Can I Take You Home Little Girl” and “Una Paloma Blanca”).
However, “Born To Run” did turn out to be the bloodiest of custard pies thrust in the gaily glum face of “American Pie.” Its roar raged like audio leatherlipped Stanley Spencer, all the spirits arising from the tombs of Cookham, and its epic sonics demonstrated that this wall of sound could be constructed from simpler fabric (only to a point, however; the final mixdown involved seventy-two tracks). Springsteen had dropped by Spector’s studio, while in the process of recording the Born To Run album, to see him at work on Dion’s Born To Be With You (the title track of which latter sounded like a gloomily celebratory elegy for rock music – neither record hit big commercially at the time; audiences continued to hunger for more elementary fare). He quietly freaked Spector out, but learned quite a bit about which buttons to push, when and why.
Despite its rancorous optimism, “Born To Run” is fundamentally a pessimistic song; its two protagonists are fully aware that they are stuck in the world of nowhere and imagine getting the hell out, though know in their bones that they will never really sum up the nerve to do so. This was not the way to act in a post-sixties climate which still craved easy “yes”es. Born To Run, the album (1975, #17 - although in Britain, it took a decade to reach that peak), documents a day in the life of a degrading city; “Thunder Road” promises escape as surely as “Jungleland” shuts the promise down at schoolmasterly length. In the album’s textures, it appears as not so much a rock record, but a pre-postmodern smorgasbord of rock tropes, giddily quoting from the music’s entire history with the same damn-you brightness in which Daft Punk would subsequently indulge. It is the cautious light to the contained darkness of its blood sister, Patti Smith’s Horses. It is gleeful, insolent and consolatory, and nothing in Springsteen’s previous work had indicated it, just as his entire life had been palpably leading up to it.
There was, as I mentioned, some hype, and associated disappointment. Then a legal management dispute with Appel shut him out of the studio for nearly three years; a coincidental backdated tax bill – in all his years of gigging, Springsteen had never given a thought to paying any taxes – meant that he was essentially working to assignment until the 1980 River tour. This may have influenced his subsequent musical thinking, but note that Born To Run already delineated the characteristic Springsteen stance of hurtling towards a future, then guiltily crawling away from it, as though he himself were unworthy of escape.
Hence Darkness On The Edge Of Town (1978, #14), half-lit, subdued and fiercely pessimistic, the Truman Rock ‘N’ Roll Show; the atypical “Badlands” is the only track to make it to this Greatest Hits collection. Its other, brighter half, The Promise, appeared twenty-two years later (2010, #7). The River (1980, #2), produced during a period of artistic prolificity which necessitated at the very least a double album, sounds more ebullient, but its songs largely remain tragic, and sometimes bloody. “Hungry Heart,” his first major hit single in the USA, and originally intended for The Ramones, sees him driving away from everybody and everything (I note how both “Thunder Road” and “The River” are sung, or growled, in the manner of his unlikely doppelganger Tom Waits).
Springsteen began work on Born In The U.S.A. in 1982, but interrupted it to record the determinedly low-key Nebraska (1982, #3), autumnal tales of doomed rebels taped seemingly from another world (only “Atlantic City” reappears here). Then came Born In The U.S.A. itself, a triumphant double-Born screw-you of a pop record, and Springsteen’s finest work – there is still the stench of desperation (“My Hometown”) but the misappropriated rage of the title song – Max Weinberg’s drumming encompassing Clem Burke and Andrew Cyrille - cut a swathe through the smug balladry of its surrounding affluent times. “Glory Days” was a kick in the browning teeth of pub nostalgia, “I’m On Fire” sounded as old and lost as “Mystery Train” (which then was barely thirty years old) and “Dancing In The Dark” appropriated New Pop tactics as its singer searingly pined for his entire self to be erased and redrawn, with its closing quote from Bruce Channel’s “Hey Baby” – Delbert McClinton’s harmonica on the latter having directly inspired Lennon on “Love Me Do.”
By 1985 Springsteen and the E Street Band were as big as they were ever likely to be, and Weinberg for one saw that the heights were unsustainable. The slab that was Live/1975-85 (1986, #4), though highly and controversially selective, was as titanic an irruption into the amiable aortic valves of 1986 as the drum thunder of Tackhead. Then Springsteen pulled back, and back down into the electronic desert of Tunnel Of Love, in which the other band members appeared singularly or hardly at all.
The E Street Band took their revised division of labour on that record somewhat badly, and it is perhaps not accidental that one then had to wait five years for another Springsteen album – and then two came at once. Human Touch was the “proper” considered record but left little impact, while Lucky Town (1992, #2), represented here by “Better Days,” was the more “spontaneous” record and perhaps felt “truer” to the artist’s quest – but still leaves me unmoved.
followed a protracted attempt to make a purely electronic album – the
distressed post-OMD helicopters of “Streets Of Philadelphia” indicate how that
might have sounded – but Columbia convinced him that this was taking the trust
of his fans a little too far, and instead this less than satisfactory Greatest Hits
album, including four new songs recorded with a regrouped and
reluctant-sounding E Street Band, appeared. There is the restless pacificity of “Secret
Garden” – the elegant Garbarekian drift of Clemons into its uncomfortably still
space is perhaps how a full-band Tunnel Of Love might have sounded. “Murder
Incorporated” is would-be ferocious bar band protest, “Blood Brothers” quiet,
acoustic and considered, and the harmonica decorating the otherwise humdrum “This
Hard Land” suggests he hadn’t yet got past, or over, Mr McClinton. Later in the
present year, The Ghost Of Tom Joad’s dozen songs, mostly laments for
contemporary sharecroppers and seemingly recorded in a previous century, made
people wonder exactly who Springsteen was (#16). Perhaps he still only found himself in
the mirror, staring at nothing, as his father had evidently done all too often. This story will, in time, be continued, and possibly renewed.