Archive for the ‘1990s’ Category

Mortality and the passage of time has much been on my mind this past month, as I marked another year sailing around the sun on this ship we call Earth. We’ve entered unsettled waters of late, with towering waves thrashing the hull and cracking through rotted planks of wood that the captain, an incompetent steward if ever there was one, claimed sound prior to leaving port.

In any event, in this storm, I look back at all that’s come before with wonder and few regrets – yet, to borrow a lyric from Juliana Hatfield’s “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory,” find myself questioning “Where is the comfort in having been somewhere you know you can’t go again?” The past is behind us, in other words, and reliving past glories impacts the present not a bit. As she sings in “Fade Away,” albeit in a different context, “there is nothing I can say/that is not a cliche.”

If you’re unfamiliar with “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” (which is not a cover of the classic Johnny Thunders song made famous by Guns N’ Roses), that’s no surprise. Along with “Fade Away,” it’s one of 11 God’s Foot demos she served up as a PledgeMusic premium in late 2014, while accruing cash to fund the 2015 Juliana Hatfield Three album Whatever, My Love.

The God’s Foot album, for those not in the know, was slated to be the follow-up to her 1995 Only Everything album. It was more a concept and less a stack of specific tracks, with Juliana racking up six-digit studio costs while recording in Woodstock, N.Y. Atlantic Records, her label home, rejected her efforts due to the dearth of a radio-friendly tune that could be pushed as a single, however. She recorded some more, they said no, and finally she gave in and asked to be released from her contract. They consented, but retained rights to the material she’d recorded for the unfinished album.

Two decades and several bootlegged versions of God’s Foot later, including this one…

…she decided to share what she did have from the aborted album with fans. From what she noted at the time (and Live On Tomorrow – A Juliana Hatfield Fan Site recorded for posterity), “[t]he recordings were taken from an old cassette – the only version of these recordings that I have…the songs were recorded onto two-inch reel-to-reel tape and then most likely transferred to half-inch tape and then transferred onto a cassette for my listening pleasure and then that cassette ended up in the basement sitting in a paper bag full of cassettes and then years later (circa now) the cassette was transferred onto a CD.”

She also noted that “although I never finalized an official version and sequence of the album, some of you have heard versions of what people who made the songs available (not me) were calling God’s Foot. but, again, I never sanctioned the song choices. Since I knew the album was not ever scheduled for release, I never needed to finalize the song choices or mixes or the sequence.”

The download-only delight from 2014 was 320 kbps and sounds very good, with a minimum of hiss and no slo-mo warped interludes that sometimes happens with old cassettes. The songs possess an analog warmth, actually, and none of the brittle highs that marred many recordings during the mid-‘90s. I’d love to have the set on CD, LP or full-resolution FLAC/ALAC files, as I’m sure some sonic pleasures were lost when squeezing the songs into MP3s. 

To my ears, the God’s Foot demos harken back to the oft-sweet sounds of Hey Babe while foreshadowing the lushness of Beautiful Creature, in exile deo and How to Walk Away, with dollops of harder rock (“Get Over Me” and “Charity”) punctuating the set. Guitars are plentiful, vocals are upfront and, as on the aching “Don’t Need a Reason,” cushioned by down-soft backing vocals. The lyrics feature Juliana’s idiosyncratic takes on life and love. In the opening “How Would You Know,” for instance, she confesses that “I want you to see me/look into my soul/but how would you know/my eyes are closed….”

Why Atlantic Records rejected the songs is beyond me; if these 11 songs are any indication, the album was guaranteed to be one of the decade’s top discs; instead, it’s become one of the decade’s great lost sets. To lift another lyric from “Fade Away”:

In the rosy gloom of youth
Every moment has its truth
It’s gonna fade away…

Two songs did eventually surface on the now out-of-print Gold Stars 1992–2002: The Juliana Hatfield Collection: “Mountains of Love” and “Fade Away”; and a third, “I Didn’t Know,” was made available during Juliana’s honor-download experiment of 2006-07 (somewhere I have a few cancelled checks with her signature on the back). If there was any justice in this world, however, American Laundromat would partner with Atlantic and issue God’s Foot. But I’m not holding my breath.

The songs: 

The hot August night ended with myself and fellow Bruce Springsteen fans, including Diane, huddled inside my 1990 Dodge Colt, where the chilled air blasting from the A.C. provided little solace to the heat and humidity that gripped the night like a vise. To say the others were beside themselves would be an understatement; they’d passed that mark a few hours before, when Bruce and his Non-Street Band performed “Darkness on the Edge of Town” as if it were a karaoke tune. No, they were despondent, grieving the end of Life as They Knew It.

Here’s a performance of “Darkness” from MTV’s Plugged special, which was recorded on Sept. 22, 1992. It just sounds…weak.

Although I’d been a fan for some time, I should explain, it was my first time seeing him in concert – as I often say, “time and circumstance” (aka school, work and lack of cash) had kept me away. Which is to say, I was much less shellshocked than the others, each of whom were decades-long veterans of the E Street army. Still, even to me, the night had seemed off, with the new material lacking the intangible that separates the memorable from the mundane and the old material more akin to mimeographed copies than anything. “John Mellencamp put on a better show,” I said, referencing the January show I wrote about yesterday. 

Diane agreed and the others – not Mellencamp fans, as I recall – refused to argue. They were aghast at the comparison, mind you, but were so disappointed by Springsteen that they couldn’t and wouldn’t disagree.

Let me back up: 

In 1992, for those who don’t know the backstory, Bruce Springsteen released two solo albums, Human Touch and Lucky Town, on the same day, and then hit the road to promote them with a band that didn’t include the famed E Street Band (Clarence Clemons, Danny Federici, Garry Tallent, Nils Lofgren and/or Steven Van Zandt, and Max Weinberg), just the professor and Mary Ann (aka Roy Bittan and Patti Scialfa).

To my ears, Human Touch – which he worked on from late ‘89 to early ’91 – housed few solid songs and many flaws, including oft-generic lyrics and a sterile production that made it sound as if Bruce had joined Toto. Two good examples: The stark renditions of “Soul Driver” and “Real World” at the 1990 Christic shows are hypnotic, while the recorded versions sport sheens that seemingly court the fans of “Rosanna,” not “Rosalita.” (That’s not a snarky gibe directed at Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro, by the way, as he actually keeps a steady rhythm alongside bassist – and future “American Idol” judge – Randy Jackson, but at the gloss Springsteen and his production cohorts embossed onto the songs.)

Lucky Town, on the other hand, was (and remains) a smart 10-song set that finds Springsteen caught in a crossfire that he’s attempting to understand. The songs were primarily recorded at the end of ’91 and possess a zest lacking on much of the Human Touch material; they don’t sound labored over (though, no doubt, they were). If anything, they maintain the stripped-down template he utilized for Tunnel of Love. He handles the bulk of the instrumental chores himself, backed only by drummer Gary Mallaber, though Bittan, Jackson, keyboardist Ian McLagen and Trickster all make guest appearances.

If he’d only released Lucky Town, or glommed the best Human Touch tracks to it in some sort of Lucky Touch hybrid, perhaps the initial underwhelmed reaction to the recordings would have been better than it was. And if he’d gotten the E Street Band back together for the tour, but kept the legion of backup singers, including the legendary Bobby King, in the mix?

We’ll never know the answer to that, of course. Instead we have this, which occurred toward the end of the August night in question, when we were analyzing the show: Diane mentioned, and she wasn’t being hyperbolic, that Crystal Taliefero brandishing the saxophone during “Born to Run,” the second-to-last song of the evening, was akin to a dagger through the heart.

In retrospect, however, my hunch is that the show was better than we, as a collective, perceived. I expected the night to match the legendary bootlegs I knew like the back of my hand, while the others expected something in keeping with what they’d experienced firsthand. Instead, we saw a band that was still in the process of becoming, and should have expected as much. Bittan, former Lone Justice guitarist Shayne Fontaine, bassist Tommy Sims, drummer Zachary Alford and Taliefero, the group’s resident Captain Many Hands (guitar, percussion, saxophone and backing vocals) had only played together for a few months, after all.

The next night’s 32-song bonanza, which we also took in, was no better, just longer. But by December, when the band returned to Philly for two shows, the group was tighter and more cohesive, though Taliefero’s sax solo during “Born to Run” still hurt the heart.

The set:

  1. Better Days
  2. Local Hero
  3. Lucky Town
  4. Darkness on the Edge of Town
  5. Growin’ Up
  6. 57 Channels (and Nothin’ On)
  7. Trapped
  8. Badlands
  9. Living Proof
  10. If I Should Fall Behind
  11. My Hometown
  12. Leap of Faith
  13. Man’s Job
  14. Roll of the Dice
  15. Gloria’s Eyes
  16. Cover Me
  17. Brilliant Disguise
  18. Soul Driver
  19. Souls of the Departed
  20. Born in the USA
  21. Real World
  22. Light of Day

Encores:

  1. Human Touch
  2. Glory Days
  3. Bobby Jean
  4. Thunder Road
  5. Born to Run
  6. My Beautiful Reward

All in all, as I’ve written before, 1992 was a good year. Diane and I were young and in love, spring was in the air and magic was everywhere – especially within the concert venues in and around Philly. Memories of many of those shows have turned to mush, unfortunately, but I’ve retained vivid imagery of a handful – including John Mellencamp’s at the Philadelphia Spectrum on January 15, 1992.

Although “Hurts So Good” and “Jack & Diane” turned my ears and eyes in 1982, as videos for both were in rotation on MTV, it wasn’t until Uh-Huh – which was released during the summer of 1983 – that I plunked down cash for a Mellencamp album. Is there a better opening stretch on vinyl than “Crumblin’ Down,” “Pink Houses” and “Authority Song”? (FYI: I’m trading in hyperbole here.) “Play Guitar” was a crunchy good time, too. Aside from those glimmers of greatness, however, the album was solid, not stellar. Yet it set the stage for what came next: Scarecrow, one of the best albums of not just 1985, but the ‘80s as a whole. The Lonesome Jubilee in 1987 explored many of the same small-town themes while expanding Mellencamp’s sonic palette – fiddle, accordion and other Appalachian folk instruments. The underrated Big Daddy (1989) continued in the same vein. In 1991, however, Mellencamp shed the Appalachian vibe and returned to the straight-up rock of Uh-Huh with Whenever We Wanted – and, like Uh-Huh, it mixed the sublime with the so-so.

During the ‘80s, he was often (unfairly) compared to Bruce Springsteen – a heartland rocker with a conscience. But, really, the better comparison (if one is to be made) is probably to fellow heartland rocker Bob Seger, as he also kicked around quite a few years before coming into his own.

Work, school and cash had kept me from seeing him prior to this night, unfortunately, so I was beyond excited to finally see him in concert. I assumed that the night would emphasize Whenever We Wanted – and that was okay, as the songs I liked, I really liked. The title track, for instance, is sheer grace set to song… 

…though it may just be the guitars that get me. (The same’s true for much of the album. Though longtime consigliere/guitarist Larry Crane is missed, new guy/guitarist David Grissom, ex of Joe Ely’s band, elevates even the most mundane tracks, such as “Get a Leg Up.”)

In any event, Diane and I scored decent seats: The last row (on the aisle) of whatever first-level section we were in. The show was either sold out or close to it. (I don’t remember seeing any empty seats, at any rate.)

My first memory is of the oddballs we often attract at concerts. Simple etiquette dictates that standing vs. sitting is set by those in the front rows, not those in the back. After the initial thrust, most folks take to their seats – but, in our section, the two (drunken) guys right in front of us decided they wanted to dance the night away. After some back and forth, we reached a quick compromise: We traded seats.

My second memory: The concert started strong until the end of the first set, when two acoustic numbers (“Big Daddy of Them All” and “Jackie Brown”) failed to connect in the arena as they did on vinyl. The second half all but blew the roof off the Spectrum, however.

My third memory: Mellencamp shaped the 24-song setlist more as a greatest hits showcase, with six songs from Scarecrow, four each from Whenever We Wanted, Big Daddy, Lonesome Jubilee and Uh-Huh, and two from American Fool. 

My fourth memory: The intro to “Pop Singer,” in which he railed against turning pop and rock songs into advertisements. “I don’t want to be a TV commercial,” he exclaimed. It’s a rant well worth watching, falling at about the 1 hour, 20 minute mark of this video (not mine), which features the concert in full:

My fifth memory: Mellencamp’s band was, in a word, phenomenal. It featured drummer extraordinaire Kenny Aronoff, guitarists Dave Grissom and Mike Wanchic, bassist Toby Myers, accordion/keyboard player John Cascella, first-class fiddler Lisa Germano (whose solo albums are well worth looking up) and Pat Peterson and Jenny Douglas-McRae on backup vocals and percussion.

My sixth and final memory: “Whenever We Wanted” wasn’t one of the night’s chosen songs – and, by night’s end, I didn’t much care. It was a great, great night that reaffirmed my faith in this thing called rock ’n’ roll. If you have two hours and fifteen minutes to spare, crank up the video I embedded above; the second half is a concert masterclass.

First set: 

  1. Love and Happiness
  2. Paper in Fire
  3. Jack & Diane
  4. Lonely Ol’ Night
  5. Check It Out
  6. Rain on the Scarecrow
  7. Martha Say
  8. The Real Life
  9. Rumbleseat
  10. Get a Leg Up
  11. Big Daddy of Them All
  12. Jackie Brown

Second set:

  1. Small Town
  2. Minutes to Memories
  3. Now More Than Ever
  4. Pop Singer
  5. Crumblin’ Down
  6. R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.
  7. Play Guitar
  8. Hurts So Good
  9. Authority Song
  10. Pink Houses

Encore:

  1. Again Tonight
  2. Cherry Bomb

On Monday Sept. 25th, 1999, less than 24 hours after blowing the proverbial roof off the hallowed hall known as the Spectrum, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band wrapped a six-night stand in the City of Brotherly Love with a concert for the ages at the oversized barn known at the time as the First Union Center – aka the F.U. Center. (It’s since been re-named the Wells Fargo Center.)

After the Sunday extravaganza, which opened with “Growin’ Up” and closed with “Blinded by the Light,” Diane developed some health issues that briefly caused us to consider canceling this night’s foray to South Philly. I say “briefly” because, of course, seeing Bruce and band is an elixir for just about anything that ails you. (in that sense, it’s a far more potent tonic than the so-called “miracle water” pushed by snake-oil preachers the world over.) Which is to say, as planned, we met up with friends in the parking lot prior to the show…and, thanks to someone’s relative who worked in the building, the lot of us were soon ushered inside so that we could eavesdrop on the soundcheck from the concourse. 

As we entered the building, “Incident on 57th Street” – Diane’s longtime holy grail, which she only saw once in the ‘70s – echoed throughout the cavernous arena. She all but swooned into my arms, ecstatic. According to Brucebase, the pre-show set in full was “If I Should Fall Behind,” “Incident on 57th Street” (times four), “Crush on You,” “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” and “New York City Serenade.” Given the passage of time, however, I can’t confirm anything beyond “Incident” and “Crush on You” – and that Diane, to borrow a lyric from Van Morrison, was “higher than a cloud and living in the sound.”

A song performed at soundcheck doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll make the same night’s concert, of course, so we crossed our fingers. Once the doors officially opened, we parted ways with our friends and made a long trek to the worst seats we’ve ever had for a concert: Directly opposite the stage in the second level. My memory has us in the last row of the section; Diane, however, remembers us being in the second or third row. Whichever it was, this we agree on: When Bruce and band filed onto the stage, they looked like ants scrambling across a sidewalk. 

But no matter. The first notes of “Incident” swept through the sold-out arena and ushered Diane to heaven yet again…

…and the set that followed was filled with moments that, for me, were just plain nirvana (though others, I’m sure, would find them perfunctory). Nils Lofgren’s guitar histrionics on “Youngstown,” for instance, take me places no matter how often I hear them, just as the anthemic “Badlands” lifts me toward the sky. And with “Murder Incorporated” sandwiched between them? It doesn’t get much better for me, save for the 1975 trifecta of “Jungleland,” “Born to Run” and “Thunder Road.” Those songs stop time, just about.

I won’t lie and say that the lousy seats didn’t cause a disconnect on occasion, yet it was an incredible sight when the house lights came on to reveal the 20,000+ fans raising their arms and singing along as one. In that sense, this night was more than just an opera off I-95; it was a revival meeting that provided sustenance for all who sought it, be they saints or sinners, losers or winners, whores or gamblers, or lost souls…

These past few days, I’ve been re-living the concert again (and again and again) thanks to its release via the Live Bruce Springsteen/nugs.net store. Whether or not one was at the show, it’s well worth the download: The sound quality is excellent and performance beyond reproach. And let’s hope that the other five Philly shows eventually see the “Light of Day,” as well…

The set: