Friday, September 27, 2013

Great Moments in Springsteen Television History: The Facts of Life

So a few weeks ago I was hit with a serious case of insomnia.  I tried a number of different things to fall asleep, but as the minutes turned to hours and I just stared at the ceiling, I gave in, turned on the TV and flipped around.  I stopped on a late night marathon of The Facts Of Life.  For those who don't remember, The Facts of Life was a popular show in the 1980's about 4 girls coming of age while living together at a boarding school with their motherly figure, Mrs. Garrett.  The girls run the gamut of usual stereotypes: Blair, the rich and pretty girl, Jo, the tough tomboy, Tootie, the sassy black girl, and Natalie, the cheerful chubby girl.

This particular episode, "The Fear Strikes Back", was "a very special episode."  Again, for you young ones, "very special episodes" were a staple of sitcoms back in the 80s and early 90s where they tackled serious issues.  Usual topics included drug use, drinking and driving, and child abuse.  This time the topic was sexual assault.  In this particular episode, Natalie is the victim of sexual assault.  What does that have to do with Bruce Springsteen?  In a vain attempt to cheer Natalie up, the other girls get her tickets to the Bruce Springsteen concert.  I couldn't help but laugh at this episode, and think about how mercilessly this episode would be lambasted today as sexist and misogynistic.  The other girls spend a good part of the episode wondering why Natalie can't just get over what happened to her and go to the Springsteen concert, why would the attacker want Natalie as a victim (after all, she's a fat girl), and finally they all come to the conclusion that Natalie basically deserved what happened to her because she was by herself, and walking on a dimly lit street.  Ah, 80s TV... is there anything finer?

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Album Review - Magic

Six years ago today, Bruce Springsteen released his fifteenth studio album, Magic.  It was his first album with the E Street Band since The Rising, which was more or less the gateway album into my fandom (as it was for many younger Springsteen fans).  With that in mind, Magic had a lot to live up to - the last two albums, while they have grown on me in retrospect, were not the classic Springsteen sound that hooked me.

A month before the full album dropped, the first single "Radio Nowhere" was released.  While it was not a particularly groundbreaking or deep song (as many critics noted, it shared much in common with Tommy Tutone), it was a wake-up call that the Boss was back, and making sure we were all ready to join him.  When the album was finally released, I was immediately hooked.  After maybe a day (or an hour) of trying to be skeptical or nit-picky about the album, I just knew that Springsteen had released another classic album.  Like The Rising, the tracks were at once catchy rock tunes and very political.  Whereas The Rising spoke to the strength of America post-9/11, Magic spoke towards the mistakes we've made as a country, believing the lies of our leaders, and how it is our job to both acknowledge and solve the problems we've created.  It encapsulated a dark-yet-hopeful feeling, as opposed to Wrecking Ball's dark-and-angry feeling.  I saw two shows during the Magic tour, and I loved Springsteen's preambles introducing the new songs, such as "Livin' In The Future":

However, I really haven't given the album much of a listen in several years, and many songs from it were noticeably absent in the Working on a Dream and Wrecking Ball tours.  So, in the interests of the current blog post you are reading, I decided to re-immerse myself in Magic, hoping it didn't lose any of  Instead of keeping you in suspense, I'll let you know up front: it is still amazing.

What is really outstanding about the album is it is just chock full of songs that, had they been released earlier in Springsteen's career, would be iconic hits for the boss.  The zenith of the album is "Livin' In The Future", which brings back the classic E Street sound from the Greetings from Asbury Park days.  In the track, the band is fast and free-wheeling, perhaps being influenced by the Seeger Sessions.  The lyrics are Springsteen turned up to his "Madman drummer bomber" level of zaniness, as we are treated to monkeys on leashes and barrel-piston-esque boot heels.

On a side note: Regarding the lyrics, each election year, fellow Legends of Springsteen writer Steve and I have a tradition based on "Livin' In The Future".  On the first Tuesday in November, Steve will update his Facebook status with "Woke up election day.  Sky's gunpowder and shades of grey."  I, dutifully, update mine with "Beneath the dirty sun, I whistle my time away."  While Steve's update generally receives little notice, mine usually sends a message that I'm being lazy, and have often received messages reminding me to get out there and vote (my general cynicism about politics also plays a roll in this perception).  Now, you may be wondering what this has to do with the album Magic, and you'd be right.  Moving on....

"Girls In Their Summer Clothes" was the album's biggest hit, as it encapsulated a unique and specific summer feeling that is rarely touched upon - the summer song of the aging.  Trust me, when I go to the Jersey shore and start seeing how much younger everyone than me is, you can be certain that I always grimly shake my head, put my headphones on, dial up "Girls In Their Summer Clothes", and slowly walk away.  I really do watch too many movies.

But the albums hits don't stop there.  "I'll Work For Your Love" also sounds like an early Springsteen track, as the haunting piano and religious imagery were Springsteen's modus operandi in the Born to Run era.  "Long Walk Home" is an amazing companion piece to "My Hometown" - you could easily see one segueing into another during a concert.  Even when Springsteen goes slower and sadder on this album, he absolutely nails it, making "Terry's Song", a tribute to Terry Magovern, a touching tribute that I'll write into my will to be played at my funeral.

And that just concludes what I consider to be the A-list songs, but there are several songs that are solid additions to the Springsteen catalog, such as the aforementioned "Radio Nowhere", "Gypsy Rider" (this is a near classic, as the opening is amazing, but I just wish it was more subdued throughout the whole song), and "Last To Die" (could have easily switched places with "Radio Nowhere" as the leading single, but the lyrics may have been too political).  If I had to list any criticisms, it would be that sometimes Bruce's voice is over-manipulated (as in "You'll Be Comin' Down Now"), making him sound flatter and removing the "raw" quality from his voice.  Also, the title track leaves me flat, as it is too dark for my tastes, yet the tune of the song is not that bad (it could easily be re-appropriated into a love song), and it is the shortest song on the track.

As I mentioned before, this album is an instant classic, and I'd easily rank it among Springsteen's ten best, if not in the top five.  It is a shame that we don't hear Springsteen play more tracks from this album in concert, as not hearing it live could make fans reluctant to continue to listen to it.  So, if you have overlooked this album recently (as I had before this article), do yourself a favor and give it another spin - you won't be disappointed.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Happy Birthday Bruce!

Happy birthday Boss, from your favorite blog!  Hard to believe that at age 64, Bruce is not only still going strong, but rocking harder and setting the standard for musicians half his age.

Below is a video I found on YouTube from last year's concert at Metlife Stadium on Bruce's birthday.  The Legends of Springsteen crew was proud to be there, and are proud to wish him the very best today.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Song Spotlight - "The Promised Land", Live in Freehold

Taking a fast-paced song and slowing it down is an oft-used tactic by Springsteen - he's done it with his classics like "Born To Run", "Born In The USA", and "Thunder Road".  These versions spotlight the powerful lyrics in each song that can be lost in the original versions, which lend themselves more towards dancing or blasting out of your car stereo.  One would think that after doing this so many times, it would become predictable, but I get sucked in every single time.  "The Promised Land" from his night in Freehold is the most recent slower, acoustic version I've discovered, and it once again gives the song's lyrics a deeper emotional punch.  It is one trick I keep falling for over and over again.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Bruce Springsteen by the Decades

In so many ways, Springsteen’s music is timeless. Without prior knowledge of a song’s release date, it can be difficult to pinpoint what decade it was produced. While Bruce’s songs may be instantly recognizable as his own, they are rarely defined by the decade in which they were released. Even with the massive popularity of the Born in the U.S.A. album, you’re less likely to find his songs on a “Best of the 80s” compilation than you are to find the work of the Go-Gos or Tears for Fears. However, Springsteen does have a few songs that are a bit easier to characterize. What follows is a list of songs that scream the decade they were created. Decade by decade, I’d argue these are his “most 70s” or “most 90s” sounding songs. Disagree? Let us know in the comments!

1970s – “The E Street Shuffle”

Lengthy instrumentals, background chatter and abrupt changes in pace. This is easily the grooviest song on Bruce’s grooviest album.

1980s – “Tougher than the Rest”

Synth-heavy with a lot of deep organ sounds. Is this Bruce Springsteen or an outtake from the Top Gun soundtrack?

1990s – “Man’s Job”

Every time the background vocals come in on “Loving you is a man’s job, baby” (see 0:50 for the first instance) I just picture ripped jeans, mullets and old school VH1 logos.

2000s – “Worlds Apart”

Bruce’s most clear attempt at “world music” boasts a Middle Eastern influence and a distinct vocal styling that denotes a time when global consciousness received heightened awareness.

2010s - ???

It’s too soon to tell – both due to the newness of the decade and the prospect of more albums to come down the road (fingers crossed!). But if I had to speculate, “Wrecking Ball” sounds like an old school barn burner, “Rocky Ground” feels more like early 2000s and “Death to my Hometown” just feels like it exists in its own time and place. For now, my money is on “We Take Care of Our Own.”

Friday, September 13, 2013

John Legend - "Dancing In The Dark"

There was a time when I was a huge Howard Stern fan, but due to the fact that he rarely does live shows anymore, and he's nearly 60 years old (he's gone from being a cutting edge and controversial to just a dirty old man), I've kind of soured on him.  However there are times when I'm reminded of his brilliance in his interviews.  Stern was famous for being able to get his guests to drop their guard and be able to get them to be themselves, thus creating some great radio.  And a late night search of classic Stern clips on YouTube led me to this great cover.

This is an example of that.  I'm not really a big John Legend, which is to say I'm not at all.  Not that I don't think he's talented, he's a phenomenal singer and great musician.  Just not my cup of tea.  I'm not sure if "Dancing in the Dark" is a regular in his setlist, but going by the context of the Stern interview, it sounds like more of a rarity.  It's a great cover, that really concentrates on the lyrics.  When you take away the synthesizers and 80's sound of the Bruce original, you're left with just the lyrics that speak of a desperate man.  And Legend isn't alone in covering this song this interpretation.  A quick search on YouTube, shows a number of great artists doing stripped down covers of this song.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Video Spotlight: Twin Shadow Covers "I'm On Fire"

It seems like every month, there's a new cover of a Springsteen song by one of the younger, hipper musicians on the scene.  This month, Twin Shadow makes his contribution with an even slower, more ethereal version of "I'm On Fire".  While it is a solid cover, I just wish that these newer acts would choose some different Springsteen songs.  It seems like every indie band now has a Springsteen song ready to burst out, which is a good thing.  Unfortunately, that Springsteen song is almost inevitably either "I'm On Fire", "I'm Goin' Down", or "Atlantic City".  Somehow, these three became the holy triumvirate of Springsteen songs to cover.  Come on fellas, let's take some chances - when everyone else zigs, you got to zag!  This is why I loved the Hanging Out On E Street series, because we were treated to Springsteen songs that are rarely covered, such as "You're Own Worst Enemy" and "Factory".  Personally, I think "All I'm Thinking About Is You" is ripe for an artist to re-interpret and make it their own.  Anyway, Twin Shadow's cover is fine, but at this point, there are plenty of "I'm On Fire"s that this one does not particularly stand out.  My favorite "I'm On Fire" cover is by Johnny Cash, but that may be the subject of a future post.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Lyrics Spotlight - Springsteen's Hard Times

This past Wednesday, I was listening to some live Springsteen on Youtube, as a Springsteen blogger is wont to do.  During this binge session, I came upon Springsteen's cover of the smash hit of 1854, Stephen Foster's "Hard Times Come Again No More".  It's just one of many highlights from his 2009 Hyde Park show, a performance spotlighted by a great solo from Clarence and Bruce's voice digging into new gravelly depths to sound like it was actually from the 1850s.

It is also a song that clearly inspired Springsteen, as he has often described the E Street Band as a band built for "hard times".  That phrase, "hard times", seems like it appears in numerous Springsteen songs.  So I began to research, and found that "hard times" appears in a whopping....three Springsteen songs.  There are songs where he is working hard, trying hard, looking so hard, having hard earned days, searching for things hard to find, and is in a hard land, but not a ton where Bruce specifically points out the hard times.  However, in these songs, as in most of his work, there is always a glimmer of hope at the other side of the dark tunnel.  Let's take a look:

"Rocky Ground"

You raise your children and you teach 'them to walk straight and sure 
You pray that hard times, hard times, come no more 

This is a bit of a cheat, since Michelle Moore is singing this part, but rumor has it that Bruce was originally going to do the rapping, so I'll assume the lyrics here were all penned by the Boss.  "Rocky Ground" really does have some great lyrics, but the song is a bit too over-produced (a problem with a lot of Wrecking Ball, as too many instruments are crammed on the tracks), and the rapping makes it feel more like a novelty Springsteen song.  It's a solid tune that I've enjoyed seeing live, but one I rarely listen to on the album.

"Waitin' On A Sunny Day"

Hard times baby, well they come to tell us all
Sure as the tickin' of the clock on the wall
Sure as the turnin' of the night into day

This, too, is another novelty-esque Springsteen song, moreso when performed live - as Bruce always finds an adorable eight-year-old girl to sing on stage with him, while I just stew in my seat, angrily thinking, "SHE DOESN'T EVEN KNOW THE WORDS!  SHE WILL PROBABLY END UP HATING YOUR MUSIC IN FIVE YEARS WHEN SHE STARTS REBELLING FROM HER PARENTS!  THAT SHOULD BE ME ON STAGE!"  Phew.

Anyway, I do love the lyrics above, as this particular "hard times" is delivered with such passion, both by Bruce, and by me singing along, trying to prove that I would've been the right choice to sing up there.  Sigh.  Perhaps I'll have better luck if I show up next time wearing my Elvis costume.

"Wrecking Ball"

And hard times come, hard times go
Hard times come, hard times go
And hard times come, hard times go
Hard times come, hard times go
Hard times come, hard times go
Yeah just to come again

First of all, it is a shame that when I search for "Wrecking Ball lyrics", Miley Cyrus's song is the top result.  Get your act together, Earth.  Anyway, fellow writer Steve is not a huge fan of the song, describing it as "overly repetitive and yet all over the place".  I completely agree, it is overly repetitive and yet all over the place - which is why I love it, because that's exactly what the process of living is like.  As Bruce repeats "Hard times come, hard times go", it invokes images of the difficulties you've had in your life and, simultaneously, your triumphs.  As you get older, you begin to see the events in your life and the world around you repeating, and you realize that these cycles have been happening way before you entered the game (to borrow from "Jack Of All Trades": It’s all happened before and it’ll happen again).  While much of "Wrecking Ball" works as a tribute to the Meadowlands, the "hard times" part here escalates the meaning of the song into another echelon, more universal for non-Jersey listeners.

There you have it, folks.  The first comprehensive look at the times Bruce has sang about, literally, "hard times".  Are there any other classic Bruce phrases that you've noticed in several songs that you'd like us to break down?  Let us know in the comments.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Video Spotlight - Bruce's Story of Meeting Clarence

If you are familiar with Bruce Springsteen's live shows, and I hope to God you are, you know that Bruce will burst out a long, rambling personal story or two (or three).  Usually, these precede classic songs, but whenever you hear the opening notes of "Growing Up", you know you that after about two minutes in, you are in for a crazy tale that sounds straight out of American folklore.  These outlandish accounts always are punctuated by Clarence's roaring saxophone part that closes out the final minute of the song.  This particular version from 1985 is probably the longest and most elaborate of Springsteen's myths, involving props, coordinated pantomimes, and additional actors in outrageous costumes.  It runs over ten minutes, and is worth stick around through (if you make it to the very end, you can hear the opening notes of another Springsteen classic).  We often spotlight Bruce's humor on this blog, and this strange tale of bears and gypsies is a worth addition to Bruce's comedy reel.