Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Movie Review - The Grapes of Wrath

One of my favorite Springsteen legends revolves around John Ford's film adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath.  The story goes that Bruce was flipping around the television dial one night, and stumbled across The Grapes of Wrath, and was immediately drawn in by the tale of the Joad family.  He had never read the original novel by John Steinbeck, but used the film as the basis for his future songwriting (most notably in the album not surprisingly titled The Ghost of Tom Joad).  Before sitting down to write this post, I scoured the internet to try to find confirmation of this tale, but failed.  Maybe I had heard it at a concert, or read it in one of the many Springsteen books I've reviewed throughout the years, or perhaps it was just another one of my beautiful and disturbing Springsteen dreams.  Regardless, having never read the book either, I decided to plop on my couch, flip on Netflix, and emulate my hero.

Before going into my thoughts and feelings, let me just give a quick summary of the movie for those unfamiliar with the story.  If you are worried about spoilers for a movie that came out in 1940, I'd suggest you skip over the rest of the review.  The movie opens with Tom Joad, played by Henry Fonda, returning to his Oklahoma home after a four year stint in prison for killing a man in a bar fight.  Upon returning home, however, he finds that the Dust Bowl has wrecked the economy of his home town, and the banks are forclosing on his home.  There is no use battling back, as there is no specific man to blame, and the construction equipment coming to tear down his home cannot be haulted - you stop one, and they'll send more.  So the Joad family packs up and heads to California, hoping to find more work.  Unfortunately, when they arrive, they see that there are too many people looking for work, and the employers have slashed their wages due to the overabundance of labor.  They working picking peaches, and are forced to live in destitute bungalows where they are heavily monitored, as attempts to organize a resistance are immediately squashed by hired goons.  The family finds some peace in a government-run camp where the community is run by the workers.  In the end, Tom Joad moves away from his family, inspired to take up the fight for the working man across the nation.  His final words are stirring and memorable: "I'll be all around in the dark. I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look, wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they build, I'll be there, too."

Reading that description alone sounds like you've just listened to about fifty different Springsteen songs.  As a Springsteen fan for years, it was eye-opening to see how heavily this influenced him.  I'd compare it to the first time I saw Citizen Kane after growing up on The Simpsons: it's amazing how many references you can pick up on now.  I'm not exaggerating: take a look at the very first shot of the movie, does it remind you of anything?

John Ford, with famed cinematographer Gregg Toland, fills the movie with beautiful, stark imagery like that above.  In traveling from Oklahoma to California, we see gorgeous scenic shots that remind me of a film noir version of Breaking Bad (there are a lot more parallels you can draw between Breaking Bad and The Grapes of Wrath, but that's a subject for a completely different blog).  Springsteen's music reflects the barren, depressing mood in the film most notably in Nebraska and the obvious The Ghost of Tom Joad.  As Steve wrote about this summer, The Ghost of Tom Joad could be considered the most cinematic Springsteen album, but I see a lot of influence from this film in his most recent work, Wrecking Ball.  Two songs particularly stand out: "Death To My Hometown", as the men who kick the Joads off their farm are exactly what you'd imagine the "greedy thieves that came around and ate the flesh of everything they’ve found" would look like; and "We Are Alive", which draws from Tom's aforementioned "I'll be there" speech.

I would highly recommend this movie to all Springsteen fans.  While it may be a bit liberal for some of the more conservative Springsteen fans, it tries its best to stay apolitical, with Tom not even knowing what a "red" is.  The main message, as Springsteen echoes (on Wrecking Ball again), is that we take care of our own.  It is a tribute to the working class and a plea for compassion for your fellow man.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Guest Post - JD & The Straight Shot cover "Pink Cadillac"

This post was written by Keith Stone, writer and editor of the blog Rainman Suite, the home of my own Atlantic City Diaries.  A die-hard Knicks fan, he discovered James Dolan's cover of Bruce's "Pink Cadillac" a couple weeks ago, and was inspired to write a post.  Take it away, sir!

In 1983, Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen recorded “Pink Cadillac” while a young musician named JD decided to put his rock star dreams on hold and take a greater interest in his father’s cable company. Well, fate has an interesting way of working out and 30 years later JD is Jim Dolan, the billionaire CEO of Cablevision and Madison Square Garden.

The funny thing is, when you’re a billionaire, you can do whatever you want: race yachts professionally, trade your legendary Hall of Fame-bound center for Glen Rice, or create your own classic rock-infused blues band filled with employees of companies that you run and tour with the Allman Brothers.

In honor of the upcoming NBA season and considering that the New York Knickerbockers are the closest team playing to New Jersey, here is JD & the Straight Shot performing their rendition of “Pink Cadillac.” Unfortunately, JD is not wearing his trademark fedora, but you can still hear the heartbreak and passion in his grizzled Southern accent that one can only get by growing up in a mansion on Long Island.

While to the casual eye the luxurious Oyster Bay house he converted into a recording studio is a far cry from the Stone Pony, a keen observer can spot notable similarities between JD and Bruce. For one, they are both bosses who have spent considerable time ordering around big men and tambourine-playing women. Secondly, they both gesticulate wildly while performing. However, while Bruce moves around the stage with the excitement of a child who just received a Nintendo for Christmas, Mr. Dolan is more like a diabetes patient who forgot to take his insulin.

Who knows how many takes it took to produce such a spontaneous looking music video? When the Cablevision helicopter is at your disposal, you can jam long into the night. Between JD reading the lyrics from a sheet of paper just off camera to the rest of the band awkwardly looking like they’re in the worst episode of The Office ever, it’s a disgrace this wasn't nominated for a VMA. Just make sure to look like you’re having fun when the red light is on, young guy in the Straight Shot. Otherwise, your check may not clear.

[Important note for law enforcement: I checked for shackles on the one guy in the glasses but it’s possible they were edited out in postproduction. He did not look like he was there by will. Just to be sure, is it possible to file a missing persons report?]

The important takeaway from the JD&TSS cover of “Pink Cadillac” is that dreams do come true (if your dad co-founded HBO). It doesn't matter if JD doesn't realize that Bruce wasn't actually referring to a car. Look at that huge smile on his face. With that said, musically it’s not bad. And therein lies every Knicks fan’s hope: that somehow JD can accidentally put together a winning team like the Straight Shot. Enjoy the video and enjoy the 2013-2014 NBA season.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Great Moments in Springsteen Television History - "No Surrender" from Glee

This past summer the TV World lost Glee stare Corey Monteith.  I'm not exactly what you would call a Glee fan, that is to say I've never seen an episode but still hate it.  However, I am saddened to hear that someone who was obviously talented die so young.  Monteith's character on the show, Finn, was honored by his fellow cast mates in the episode "The Quarterback", airing earlier this month.

As per usual with Glee, there were several musical performances throughout the episode, all paying tribute to Finn.  One of the songs was an acoustic, slowed down performance of "No Surrender" performed by the character Puck. Bruce has played stripped down acoustic versions of "No Surrender" before, most notably on the Live 1975-1985  box set.  The song takes on a whole new meaning when it's performed like this.  Much more somber than the rebellious enthusiastic electric version.

Again, I don't watch the show so I don't particularly know the significance of this character, or why he would choose this song specifically.  However, just going by content, "No Surrender" is a great choice for a song to tribute his friend.  The lyrical content of "No Surrender" has been discussed before on this blog, so I won't repeat myself.  But suffice to say, it's one of those songs that just about every Springsteen fan nods along with, and recalls their own memories to , when they hear this song.  So it's very easy to understand why this song would be the choice for the character to sing about his friend.  (Note: Rory has requested I sing "You're Missing" in my faux opera voice at his funeral.  If that song were more well known to the public, I would have suggested that instead.)

Friday, October 18, 2013

This Laugh's On Me: The Onion on Bruce Springsteen

The Onion, the internet's foremost authority on fake news, has had certain celebrities and politicians in their cross-hairs for years.  I've always enjoyed their continuing obsession with Spurs power forward Tim Duncan; his quiet and stoic presence both on and off the court have led to excellent, funny, and bizarre articles.  The Boss has been a frequent target as well, as his political causes mixed with his rock-and-roll lifestyle are ripe for satire.  Here are some of the highlights from the last five years:

Bruce Springsteen Concert Totally Changes Area Man's Mind About Voting (Oct. 27, 2008): In this article, Springsteen is used in place of any celebrity that is dragged out in election season for those silly "Rock The Vote" campaigns.  The choice of who to vote for (and choosing to vote period) are very complicated issues that always get reduced to simplistic platitudes that ultimately mean nothing.  The last line in the article sums it up best: "On Nov. 4, Garlock plans to vote for John McCain because he thinks Sarah Palin is hot."

Obama To Wait For Next Bruce Springsteen Album For Word On Economy (Jan. 10, 2010): The Onion has frequently predicted the future, and this article is no exception.  The next Springsteen album after this piece was Wrecking Ball, Springsteen's most direct take on the economy to date.  Whether or not Obama will base his policy off of it remains to be seen.  The shot at John Mellencamp at the end makes this article totally worth the thirty seconds it will take you to read it.

Bruce Springsteen Releases New Sci-Fi Concept Album About Struggles Of Poor Miners Working On Mars (Sep. 14, 2011):

As a fan of science-fiction and a fan of Springsteen, this article is the perfect storm.  The writer adds in so many details that help sell such a zany premise.  Song titles such as "Dead Man's Home", "Solid Ground", and "Martin Shoulders" truly sound like Springsteen tracks....provided he was doing a concept album about Martians.  You have to love the exasperated quotes from Steven Van Zandt, followed immediately by the sycophantic praise from a Rolling Stone editor.

It's Funny, I've Actually Only Been To New Jersey A Couple Of Times (Dec. 4, 2012): It's an article "written by" Bruce Springsteen, and I really wish Springsteen did write something like this.  It would be the greatest prank a rock star has ever pulled off.  It's funny how, even if you are not from New Jersey, hearing Springsteen reveal his "true nature" would forever change the way you see both him and his music.  Rationally, the music should stand on its own merit, but this article dares you to imagine a world where Springsteen was from Hollywood and how that would alter your thoughts on his work.

Bruce Springsteen On Fence About Playing Assad’s Birthday Gig (Sep 4., 2013): This article I didn't really care for, as it seemed like they could have inserted any artist into it, and just randomly picked Springsteen.  I mean, why would Springsteen agree to do only a 45-minute set?  That's way too unrealistic.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Dropkick Murphys - Rose Tattoo

I've really written a lot about the Dropkick Murphys on this blog, haven't I?  Anyways, this was a pretty cool re-release of a 2013 Murphy's song, redone with Bruce, in response to the Boston Marathon Bombings of earlier this year.

I wasn't too crazy about this song when I first heard it on the new album last year, and the Bruce inclusion improves it slightly, but it's still worth giving a listen to.  It's one of those songs that I never think to listen to, but when it comes on my playlist, I find myself getting into it more and more.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Great Moments in Springsteen Cinema History: Promised Land

Okay, so this isn’t a great moment but it’s a pretty good one. In the movie Promised Land, Matt Damon plays a natural gas representative who goes up against an anti-fracking environmentalist played by John Krasinski. The movie came and went with very little fanfare at the end of 2012 but it’s worth a viewing for its engaging performances and unexpected subject matter that doesn’t become as politically didactic as you might think – even if the plotting is a bit formulaic.

But we’re really here to talk about the Springsteen moment of course. Now, despite the film’s title, the song featured is not “The Promised Land.” Nor does the film feature Springsteen’s original music. Instead, it features Krasinski singing an (intentionally) off-key rendition of “Dancing in the Dark” at an open mic. The scene is classic Springsteen in nature. It begins with Krasinski alienating the crowd with his firm anti-natural gas beliefs before winning them over by singing Springsteen. His fellow bar patrons quickly join in and start singing with him on stage – the unifying nature of Springsteen incarnate.

In an interview with The Guardian, Damon expressed his appreciation for Springsteen and even said he feels that Promised Land is (coincidentally) a film version of Wrecking Ball. And he’s not off-base, there are strong thematic similarities to several of the songs on the album, particularly “Easy Money,” “Jack of all Trades,” and “Wrecking Ball.”

Guardian Excerpt:

Is Damon, I ask him in Berlin, a fan of Springsteen? It turns out to be a lucky guess, made only because his new film is called Promised Land – the name of a track from the 1978 album Darkness on the Edge of Town – and by the fact there is a memorable scene in the movie where Damon's co-star John Krasinski sings a karaoke version of the song "Dancing in the Dark".

"Uh-huh, huge," says Damon. "Springsteen's a god in my eyes." There then follows a few minutes where Damon picks his way excitedly through Springsteen's recent oeuvre: The Rising ("a masterpiece"), Magic ("such an intelligent takedown of the Bush administration"), and culminating with last year's Wrecking Ball, which reached number one in both the UK and the US. It is an intensely political record that shines a harsh light on the American dream, with music inspired by the Civil War and the Dust Bowl. "It doesn't feel like an act," Damon muses. "It doesn't feel like he's trying to pretend that he still has the common touch. I think he believes what he believes, and that's very real."

He continues: "I do view this movie, Promised Land, as the visual expression of his last album. It's actually eerily similar. I hadn't heard the album before we wrote the script, but John Krasinski and I went to hear him in Madison Square Garden at the first show that he did of Wrecking Ball and he played the album and I went: 'Fuck! That's the movie!' I went back to see him afterwards and he asked: 'What are you working on?' And I said: 'It's like the movie version of your new album.' And he goes: 'What the fuck does that mean?' And I said: 'I don't know, man! But you've got to see this thing when it comes out. I'm telling you, it's the movie version of your album.'"

Sadly, I couldn't find a clip of the open mic scene from Promised Land online so instead I'll include this video of John Krasinski and Jason Segal singing "I Get by with a Little Help from My Friends" at a karaoke bar in Michigan.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Pet Shop Boys - "The Last To Die"

Last month, I was needlessly whiny about the lack of diversity in Springsteen covers, opining for musicians to look deeper into the Boss's song catalog for inspiration.  Well, there I was, listening to the latest Pet Shop Boys album (which is the wonderful Electric), and I came across a song titled "The Last To Die".  I surely thought that the similarities between this song and Bruce's song would end at just the title; I mean, "Last To Die" isn't nearly as iconic as "I'm On Fire" or "Born To Run".  But, lo and behold, after an 80s synth opening that exemplifies the Pet Shop Boys, Neil Tennant begins to sing "We took the highway 'til the road went black..."  Gadzooks!  The song ends up playing out similar to a New Order song, with heavy-bass drops and catchy beats that will have you dancing along to melancholy story.  Going back to my point last month, it is interesting to see that an older band is the one more comfortable with taking on Springsteen's newer songs, while the younger bands usually stick to Springsteen's classics.  It's their experience in the industry that allows them to be more comfortable taking risks, and produces a fun interpretation of a nearly forgotten song.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Video Spotlight: Dream Baby Dream (Wrecking Ball Tour Thank You)

Today, BruceSpringsteen.net posted a "Thank You" note from Bruce to everyone who supported the Wrecking Ball tour. And he released a video of his cover of "Dream Baby Dream" with crowd footage from the tour. Does anyone love their fans as much as Springsteen?

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Video Spotlight - Louis CK on Loneliness, featuring Springsteen

Louis CK has been my favorite comedian for nearly a decade now.  I remember my first exposure to him was in the 90s, probably on one of those random Comedy Central specials, and I just filed him away as "generic white comic #644".  However, around my junior year of college, I discovered his excellent Live In Houston album (sadly out of print), and was instantly hooked.  Over the last 10 years, Louie's career has rose meteorically, to the point where I really don't need to explain who he is to anyone anymore.  Outside of his stand-up, his innovative deals that he has struck with both the filming of his television show and the distribution of his concert tickets and videos have been hugely influential on the comedy industry.  Personally, I've enjoyed watching his comedy evolve, as you can see "him"* go from a selfish, petty, and scared asshole to a humanist who has come to peace with his failings.

*Note: I put "him" in quotes just because it is important to distinguish that how the performer presents himself as a comedian is not necessarily who that person is.  Some comics do come off as more sincere, while others make it clear that they are playing a character - just see Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.  However, it is sometimes when these lines are blurred is where comics can get into trouble, such as Andrew Dice Clay and Daniel Tosh.

Louie has always been fantastic on his talk show appearances, but over the past few years, his demeanor has become more relaxed and less "joke-y".  In his some of his most famous Conan appearances, Louie just goes full on into his comedy set, telling jokes immediately and get huge laughs.  However, it the performance above, Louis takes a more conversational, slower tone.  He is still on the subject of cell phones, and rather than focusing on the entitled people using them, he focuses on how the technology itself is divorcing the users from the human experience.  It's a difficult joke to tell, and Louie guides his audience along a long narration.  Eventually, they hit the subject that made me write this post: Bruce Springsteen.

Around the two-minute mark, Louie talks about listening to "Jungleland" on the radio.  Both he and Conan take a pause from Louie's story to ham it up with cartoon-y Springsteen impersonations.  Knowing how seriously Louie takes the joke-writing process, it is clear that invoking of Springsteen, and specifically "Jungleland" is not an accident (although Louie does "forget" the name of the song).  Springsteen is a universally known performer, and the chance to do an over-the-top Springsteen impersonation gives some goofiness to the somber story he was telling.  While "Jungleland" isn't as broadly known, it is the perfect Springsteen song to punctuate the joke, as those who know the song instantly connect to the moment Louie is talking about.  In the end, Louie crafts a sad, funny tale that eloquently describes what we here at the blog have been amateurishly trying to express: that the perfect Springsteen song can be a kick you right in your emotional gut, and connect you to parts of your humanity that are often neglected.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Journal of Springsteen Studies Call for Papers

A good friend of the blog tipped us off to the new academic journal BOSS: The Biannual Online-Journal of Springsteen Studies. The first issue is being published in June 2014 but they're currently accepting paper submissions. If you have anything of academic rigor, please see below for how to submit. We'll look forward to reading the first issue next year.

In the interim, if you're looking for good scholarly analysis of Springsteen's music, we recommend picking up a copy of "Bruce Springsteen and Philosophy."

BOSS: The Biannual Online-Journal of Springsteen Studies is a new open-access academic journal that publishes peer-reviewed essays pertaining to Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen’s immense body of work and remarkable musical career has inspired a recent outpouring of scholarly analysis. BOSS will create a scholarly space for Springsteen Studies in the contemporary academy. We seek to publish articles that examine the political, economic, and socio-cultural factors that have influenced Springsteen's music and shaped its reception. The editors of BOSS welcome broad interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary approaches to Springsteen’s songwriting, performance, and fan community, as well as studies that conform to specific disciplinary perspectives.

Please submit articles between 15 and 25 pages that conform to The Chicago Manual of Style to Springsteenstudies@gmail.com by January 1st, 2014. Authors will be notified of acceptance by March and the first issue of BOSS will be published in June, 2014, which marks the thirtieth anniversary of the release of Born in the U.S.A.

Contact: Please address all inquiries to Jonathan D. Cohen (Managing Editor) at Springsteenstudies@gmail.com
Managing Editor:Jonathan D. Cohen
Email: springsteenstudies@gmail.com

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Which Bruce Song Do You Wish You Could Hear Acoustic?

As Rory mentioned recently in relation to "The Promised Land," we’re always susceptible to Bruce’s slowed-down acoustic versions of his hard rock singles. This got me thinking, which hard rocking song would I most like to hear performed acoustic but never have? For me, the answer is “Lucky Town.”

Of course, Bruce being a prolific experimenter and the Internet being a never-ending cache of live performance footage, I was able to find this pretty quickly. Bruce performed “Lucky Town” a few times during the Devils & Dust tour in 2005. Like so many of his acoustic versions, the lyrics take on a new sense of poignancy when delivered slower and unencumbered by a mass of instruments. In particular, I enjoyed hearing my favorite lyrics in this version: “I got dirt on my hands but I’m building me a new home.”

Are there any of Bruce’s classic rock songs that haven’t received the acoustic treatment yet? I’d be interested in hearing “Livin’ in the Future” acoustic but I feel that we get a good taste of that from the slower version he performed live during the Magic tour.

What is your favorite acoustic version of a Bruce classic? Which song hasn’t received the treatment yet but deserves it the most?