Archive for the ‘Bruce Springsteen’ Category

Death has been much on the mind of near everyone these past seven months. How could it not? As a result, although recorded pre-pandemic, the new album from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Letters to You, is in sync with the zeitgeist of the moment. The ghosts of lost friends haunt some of the 12 tracks, while Springsteen contemplates his mortality on others. He also rejoices in the days that used to be via three cast-off songs of yore. As a whole, the album explores the same basic themes that accented last year’s Western Stars LP and Western Stars movie, but trades the pop gloss for the glorious cacophony that is rock ’n’ roll.

“One Minute You’re Here,” the first song, is not raucous, however, but a stark rumination about the dark clouds gathered in his soul: “I thought I knew just who I was/And what I’d do, but I was wrong/One minute you’re here/Next minute you’re gone.” It’s not a sentiment unique to him, of course, yet those of us who long ago grabbed our tickets and suitcases and boarded his train to the land of hope and dreams may well hear ourselves in the lyrics.

The first single, “Letter to You,” ups the tempo, with electric guitars and an organ rising, falling and rising again like waves in rough water. Bruce has said the song is directed to us, his fans, but it matters not, really. It’s just a great song. His oft-used locomotive and religious metaphors continue with “Burnin’ Train,” with the band barreling down the long twin silver line.

“Janey Needs a Shooter,” one of the cast-off songs mentioned above, is next; like the other two, “If I Was the Priest” and “Song for Orphans”, it dates to the early 1970s and sports a tangible Bob Dylan vibe. (It was reworked as “Jeannie Needs a Shooter” by Warren Zevon and Bruce for Zevon’s 1979 Bad Luck Streak at a Dancing School album.)

There are other sonic ghosts, too. “Last Man Standing” finds Bruce recalling his first band, the Castiles. The initial song written for what became this album, it was influenced by the passing of former Castiles bandmate George Theiss and the realization that he was the last group member alive. (Though, best I can tell, there are a few short-term members still walking.) In spots, at least to my ears, it conjures the Drifters’ “On Broadway” – especially when Jake Clemons takes a sax solo.

In similar fashion, the piano intro to “House of a Thousand Guitars” conjures another song: “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do).” (Listen to both back to back for proof.) That said, it’s a great song about the salvation inherent in rock ’n’ roll: “So wake and shake off your troubles my friend/We’ll go where the music never ends/From the stadiums to the small town bars/We’ll light up the house of a thousand guitars…”

“Ghosts,” the second single, is yet another killer track from the album, this one also inspired by the passing of Theiss: “I hear the sound of your guitar/Comin’ from the mystic far/Stone and the gravel in your voice/Come in my dreams and I rejoice….” Another ghost rises from the grooves by song’s end: the late Michael Been, as the outro conjures the Call’s “When the Walls Came Down.”

Sonically speaking, the E Street Band sounds huge; to borrow Bruce’s penchant for train metaphors, they’re often like a mammoth locomotive rolling faster and faster down the tracks, except that when they need to stop, they stop on a dime. There’s also something of a Neil Young and Crazy Horse ethos throughout, as it was primarily recorded live in the studio with minimal (if any) overdubs. As a result, the result marries Born to Run’s Wall of Sound (in this case, a tsunami of guitars) with Darkness on the Edge of Town’s straight-ahead attack. It’s real, it’s raw, it’s rock ’n’ roll. It cleanses the soul.

Years long ago, making a long-distance phone call for any length of time required one to first take out a mortgage. I’m being a tad facetious, of course, but consider this: In 1974, the first three minutes cost about $12 and each minute thereafter set one back four bucks; in today’s money, in other words, a five-minute call clocked in at $105. (See this ArsTechnica article for more.) By 1987, the average price had fallen to just shy of 30 cents a minute (69 cents in today’s change), but “average” is just that, with high per-minute rates on weekdays and lower rates late at night and on weekends. As a result, for all but the rich, hearing the voices of far-away family and/or friends was generally saved for special occasions or emergencies.

(For those curious, this MEL article explains why long-distance calls were so expensive.)

Stationary, envelopes and stamps were the communications currency of the era, in other words. One scribbled. One thought. One reflected upon and shared recent events in one’s life, and sometimes connected them with long-ago transgressions and triumphs. Some letters were a page long, others 20, and depending upon one’s scrawl, some words could be confused for others…or only understood in the context of the words that surrounded them. Things began to shift in the ‘90s with the mass embrace of, first, online services like AOL and Prodigy and, eventually, the Internet, email, instant messaging and Facebook.

Which is to say, these days, it’s a rarity to send or receive a letter.

Those are my first thoughts upon listening to “Letter to You,” the title track – and first single from – Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s forthcoming album, which is slated for an Oct. 23rd release. It harkens back to a simpler age in both sound and style.

“I love the emotional nature of Letter To You,” says Bruce in the album’s announcement, which was shared on Thursday Sept. 10th. “And I love the sound of the E Street Band playing completely live in the studio, in a way we’ve never done before, and with no overdubs. We made the album in only five days, and it turned out to be one of the greatest recording experiences I’ve ever had.”

My second thought: Bruce never articulates what exactly he “found out through hard times and good.” His lyrics sum up the letter without revealing its contents; instead, he trades in the broadest of metaphoric strokes: “I took all the sunshine and rain/all my happiness and all my pain/the dark evening stars and morning sky of blue/and I sent it in my letter to you.” (In some respects, the song could well be a harder-rockin’ spin-off of “Hello Sunshine.”)

My third thought: the letter’s intended recipient is his younger self. Such letters are a part of some psychological therapies, after all, helping those who write them to either come to terms with or overcome long-ago issues and anguish.

My fourth thought: the letter isn’t meant for his younger self, but his long-departed father and/or his mom, who has Alzheimer’s. It’s a way for him to communicate with them, still.

My fifth thought: Who the letter is to or what it contains doesn’t much matter. The guitars are great and drive the song, Mighty Max lays down a big beat, and Roy Bittan’s piano accents the proceedings like occasional drops of rain on an overcast day. The only thing missing: Clarence’s saxophone. That absence echoes the melancholia that underpins the song, I think.

My sixth and final thought: Damn COVID-19. My hunch is that Bruce and the E Street Band would have been launching an arena tour not long after the album’s release, with this song kicking off every night. Now? I have doubts about whether they’ll collectively set foot on a stage again.

Last weekend, yesterday and again this morning, I played the latest installment of Bruce Springsteen’s Live Series, Stripped Down. It features acoustic renditions of 15 songs, from “Dancing in the Dark” at Neil Young’s 1986 Bridge Benefit in Mountain View, Cal., to “Empty Sky” from the final stop of the 2005 Devils & Dust tour in Trenton. Unlike the archival concert releases available on brucespringsteen.net, the compilations can be streamed from the usual suspects – in my case, Apple Music, but for those who eschew the subscription services, it’s also available (with commercials) via YouTube.

As one might expect, it’s a sterling set accented by songs that still resonate despite some – in theory, at least – being long past their expiration dates. The tales of tough times in the ‘70s and ‘80s, as depicted with a novelist’s eye in “Seeds,” “Youngstown” and “The River,” are not dusty remnants of a bygone era, in other words, though some may initially hear them that way. As Springsteen sings in “Wrecking Ball,” “hard times come, and hard times go/yeah, just to come again” – and, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, tough times are back yet again.

“Youngstown,” to my ears, is the album’s pièce de résistance. Originally released on The Ghost of Tom Joad in 1995, it examines the corrosion of manufacturing jobs in what’s now known as the Rust Belt: “From the Monongahela Valley to the Mesabi Iron Range/To the coal mines of Appalachia, the story’s always the same/Seven hundred tons of metal a day, now sir you tell me the world’s changed/Once I made you rich enough, rich enough to forget my name…” It’s a detached, matter-of-fact portrayal of a working man whose way of life has been dispatched by the closing of a factory.

In any event, there’s little negative I can say about the live compilation except for this: None of the songs were recorded in Philadelphia, the city that championed Bruce first. C’est la vie. If you have Apple Music or Spotify, or access to YouTube, give it a listen – you won’t be disappointed.

The song list:

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.

As an example, here’s “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. As a result, I was much less shellshocked than the others, each of whom were longtime veterans of the E Street army. Still, even to me, the night had seemed off, with much of the new material lacking the intangible that separates the memorable from the mundane. The old material, meanwhile, was 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