Friday, May 30, 2014

The Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll: A Look Back at Born in the U.S.A.

In honor of the 30th anniversary of Born in the U.S.A., Legends of Springsteen will be looking back at this landmark album, dissecting it track by track all month. But first, a few thoughts on the album as a whole.

Marc Dolan’s 2011 Bruce Springsteen biography boasts the fantastic title “Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll”. I must confess that I haven’t actually read the book, but I’ve admired the title ever since I heard it. To me, the album Born in the U.S.A. exemplifies what the promise of rock ‘n’ roll truly means: the power to connect billions of people through music, and in doing so, create something that can question society, inspire with words of hope, and rock out like no one is watching.

Critics would likely point to Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town as the superior albums artistically, but Born in the U.S.A. operates in the upper echelon of commercial success, unrivaled by any of Springsteen’s other work. The album’s popularity (it’s one of the biggest albums in the entire history of music) makes it hard not to consider this his most important work. After all, this is the album that cemented his legacy as a music icon, ensured that his past albums would be revisited and paved the way for 30 years of more music. It also gave eternal fodder to the smaller group of naysayers who might dismiss his songs as “roller rink music.”

Listening to the album 30 years later, even a diehard Springsteen fan can see both sides of the coin: why it was popular, and why it might come to be derided. As someone who favors the former side, the one complaint that I would concede to is that the music and lyrics don’t always mesh together. On most occasions, the music is far more upbeat and buoyant than the gritty, sobering lyrics. I think it’s fair to cite a tonal dissonance on tracks like “Born in the U.S.A.”, “Dancing in the Dark” and, perhaps most flagrantly, “I’m Goin’ Down”. Is this representative of an artist who can’t fully calculate his feelings? Or an artist who isn’t talented enough to reconcile both sides of the song writing process?

On the other hand, doesn’t this album represent the pinnacle of what pop music can achieve? A blend of art and commerce. Yes, the songs disguise jagged commentary in top 40 friendly sounds. But isn’t that a good thing? Infiltrating the populous to tell stories about the spoils of war or the folly of lingering on one’s youth, isn’t that the definition of pop music in its most excellent form? Born in the U.S.A. is equal parts confectionary and commentary. Like The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, and Kanye West’s Yeezus, Born in the U.S.A. feels equally at home at the top of the charts as it does in a scholarly journal.

The fact that Born in the U.S.A. is perceived as Springsteen’s most pop-friendly album is an amazing feat in itself when you consider the dense, lyric-heavy songs like “Working on the Highway” and “Darlington County”, the sobering recollections of “My Hometown” or – famously – the political outrage of “Born in the U.S.A.”

Despite Bruce’s best efforts to make sure the album’s titular song didn’t define him, “Born in the U.S.A.” still packs a wallop. Listening to the song afresh in the context of the album, from the second you hear the fury of Max Weinberg’s drums, you realize that time hasn’t dulled its immediacy and that this banner track retains its indelible, raw power.

Bruce has seemed more comfortable extending the popularity of “Dancing in the Dark” by turning it into an encore staple, but it’s received its fair amount of derision as well. Often the song is dismissed as too poppy, but for my money it has some of the best lyrics Springsteen has ever written, delivered in a vehicle for mass consumption.

The fact that the songs on this album have been so misunderstood and misappropriated seems at least partly by design when you contrast the album version of “Born in the U.S.A.” with the Nebraska version eventually released on Tracks. You can’t blame the American public for missing the mark on some of these tracks. I concede that it took me years – if not decades – to fully grasp some of these tracks. Like all good art, there’s room for misinterpretation here. But the album is not just an effort in theoretical inquiry. It’s also a hard rocking album ripe for blasting at full volume. Born in the U.S.A. may have been made for mass consumption, but it wasn’t made for the lowest common denominator.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Coming Soon - Born In The USA Month!

On June 4th, 1984, Born In The USA was released, elevating Springsteen from a critically-praised rocker with a strong fanbase to a national icon.  It began Springsteen-mania: it sold over 15 million copies, becoming Springsteen's best selling album and the number one album of 1985.  Additionally, seven of the 12 songs were released as singles, with all of them becoming top 10 hits.  With the 30-year anniversary of this landmark album happening next week, we here at Legends of Springsteen will honor the occasion by dedicating the entire month to Born In The USA.  So please join us in June, when we will bombard your computer screen with all things Born In The USA.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Great Moments In Springsteen Comic Book History - Hawkeye #7

I've talked about before how rare it is to talk about comic books and Springsteen, but, time and time again, I have been able to unearth numerous examples of Springsteen's presence in sequential art.  Not so rare is finding the band Kiss in comic book form, although with their marketing you can pretty much find Kiss in any form.  However, it is extremely rare finding a moment where the worlds of Bruce Springsteen, Kiss, and comic books intersect.  Yet, that happened in Hawkeye, issue 7:

Click on the image for a larger version

As someone who grew up in New Jersey and currently lives in Brooklyn, I never got the sense of any rivalry between the state and the borough (in fact, many people rooting for the Brooklyn Nets still live in New Jersey).  However, I'm sure that even our local Kiss army member would agree that any Boss-bashing is grounds for expulsion.

That being said, I'd like to lay some praise on this current run of Hawkeye.  I've only recently discovered it, but have already become an addict.  With witty writing by Matt Fraction and dynamic art by David Aja, every issue is packed with strong characters, good humor, and explosive action.  It has enough nods to the past to satisfy long-time comic fans, but is streamlined enough to be perfect for new readers.  If you are a fan of the television show Archer, I'd highly recommend this book (I mean, read the excerpt above, and tell me you couldn't imagine H. Jon Benjamin saying all of Hawkeye's lines).  While the above scene is from an issue in volume 2, it is best to start with the first volume.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Under The Influence of Springsteen: Kiss - "Shandi"

Friends who know me know I am an absolute Kiss fanatic.  Granted, no one will ever top Bruce, and Kiss isn't even my second or third favorite.  I don't know where they land on the list of my top ten bands, but they are definitely on there.  But because of their cartoonish makeup and Gene Simmons' awful reputation as someone who is just in it for the money, Kiss is usually the band I spend the most time defending.

All my other favorite bands need no defense.  Bruce has a 40+ year career that speaks for itself, Guns N' Roses have the greatest debut album of all-time, Metallica, AC/DC, and Ozzy Osbourne are all heavy metal icons that are well respected outside of their genre for their longevity and worshiped in the heavy metal community.

But Kiss fans only have each other.  The Kiss Army was really born out of necessity more than any other reason.  Rock and roll purists disregard Kiss as a novelty act never to be taken seriously, while heavy metal fans see them as soft and phonies.  Pardon the pretentiousness, but it really takes something special for Kiss fans to realize that not only is the band not a novelty act, the band is beyond talented, but the music really is something special.  Author and essayist, and fellow Kiss Army Member, Chuck Klosterman, put it much better, and more detailed, than I ever could.

But this past year, Kiss was vindicated by taking their rightful, long-overdue spot in the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame alongside the E Street Band in the class of 2014.  I thought that would be where the similarities between the two bands ended, but I recently read in an interview with Paul Stanley that their 1980 hit "Shandi" from their album Unmasked was heavily influenced by "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" from The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle.

I can't believe I never noticed this before, as one listen of the chorus to "Shandi" and it sounds practically identical to "Sandy".  Also, "Sandy" and "Shandi"?  Come on, it's basically the same name.  And for the record, outside of the Kiss song, I have never heard the name "Shandi" before or since.  Except of course for the delightful Summer Shandy beer.  So crack open a Shandy, pump some "Shandi" and compare it to "Sandy".

Friday, May 16, 2014

Video Spotlight - "No Surrender" in Houston with Local Teens

Thanks to friend of the blog Matt C. for alerting us to this video from Bruce's concert in Houston last week. During the show, two teens made their way on stage and helped Bruce sing along to "No Surrender". There are so many moments of pure joy in this video, from the big high five shared between the teens to Bruce's fond noogie at the end. Like this Slate article observes, it's great to see young fans who know all the lyrics to a 30 year old song (Bruce seems impressed too). While Bruce has been inviting fans on stage more and more in recent concerts, the unpredictability of how the fans will react underscores the magic of seeing Springsteen live. You really feel like anything can happen.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Best Bruce Springsteen Songs for New Parents

Last month my wife and I were blessed with the gift of a baby boy. It's an unbelievable experience and we couldn’t be happier. But it’s also a lot of work! As much as you read or observe beforehand, nothing prepares you for the 24/7 commitment of raising a newborn. So, like everything in life, a good Bruce Springsteen playlist can get you through the scary parts, amplify the happy parts and preserve your sanity when you're at your wits' end.

This is a happy playlist to celebrate the joys of bringing a baby into the world, so I've left off downers like “The River” for obvious reasons. The songs included in the playlist are not necessarily songs written about babies or the parenting process, but they are songs that can take on a new connotation when you become a parent. Some of these songs are good for singing to your baby, some are good for singing to yourself when you don’t know what else to do…

“Dancing in the Dark” – Born in the U.S.A.

In the early months, you'll find yourself working through many a sleepless night. And while you're trying everything you can to sooth your crying baby, you'll often find yourself dancing in the dark beside the baby's crib. It doesn't always work but sometimes it's just what a baby needs to get to sleep. You have to be persistent though. After all, you can't start a fire without a spark.

“Working on a Dream” – Working on a Dream

“The nights are long, the days are lonely.” These lyrics give you an idea of what caring for a newborn can feel like, especially if you aren't blessed with an extended support network of family and friends. My wife and I are very fortunate in this regard, but we can still find ourselves counting down the seconds from 11:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. and then sitting around bleary-eyed staring at the ceiling during the daytime while the baby finally sleeps and the bright sunlight streams through the curtains. But in these moments, you have to remember that raising a baby is like working on a dream.

“Let’s Be Friends (Skin to Skin)” – The Rising

Medical practitioners will tell you the great benefits of going skin to skin with your baby. This means putting the baby's bare body (with diaper on of course) on your bare chest for periods of time. This helps regulate baby’s breathing, provides comfort and gives parents an additional connection point, especially for fathers. And it's even more fun if you sing the song to your baby while you prepare. The song's repeated lyric "Don't know when this chance might come again, good things got a way of coming to an end" is also a good reminder of the fleeting process of caring for a newborn. Babies grow up in the blink of an eye and you have to take advantage of it while you can.

“When You Need Me” – Tracks

“When you need me, call my name.” It will be a while before your baby can call your name, but you’ll feel this way immediately. And with good reason since a baby is 100% dependent on you. But one day your baby will grow up and won't be as dependent on you, but you’ll still feel this way.

“Man's Job” – Human Touch

The song is clearly about lust and love between adults, but you can appropriate some of these lyrics for caring for a newborn: “Loving you is a man's job.” Everything inside you tells you that you should automatically love your child, and hopefully you will. But that doesn't mean it's easy. Fatherhood is hard. It’s not for boys, you need to be a man to do the job right.

“Restless Nights” – Tracks

“My baby, she has restless nights.” This one speaks for itself.

“Take ‘Em as They Come” – Tracks

Each day is different, and try as you might to create a schedule or routine, there's no rhyme or reason to what works and what doesn't. You just have to take each day as it comes, and learn to appreciate the sleepless nights as much as the restful ones. The song itself is very dark, but Bruce’s singing is so hard to understand that you can just focus on the chorus and sing along emphatically for reassurance when you’re dealing with an open-air diaper incident or pacing around at 3:00 in the morning.

“The Wish” – Tracks & “Walk Like a Man” – Tunnel of Love

These songs are the more forward-looking entries in the playlist. While it's hard to imagine in your current state, one day your baby will be all grown up, and you can only hope you earn the respect and love expressed for a mother and father in this pair of songs.

In addition to listening to the above songs, I also strongly recommend picking up a copy of the Sleepytime Players Lullaby Tribute to Bruce Springsteen so that you can rock your baby to sleep with a combination of Springsteen melody, dulcet lullaby tones and your own off-key singing.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Great Moments in Springsteen Fandom: The Orchard Grill Incident

This story goes back to my college days at Niagara University. Go Purple Eagles!  During my senior year, my roommate Sean and I had a bit of a tradition. After our last class on Thursday (of course we designed our schedule to give us Fridays off) we would get absolutely annihilated drunk. That's not fair, we did it a lot more often then once a week, but Thursdays were special.

Every Thursday we would meet our friends Cara and Kate at The Orchard Grill. Most students at NU never even heard of this place. While most of the campus was out at the clubs or overpriced bars, we spent our time at Orchard Grill because it was so cheap and we loved the people who worked there. There were rarely other customers there, and if there were other customers, they didn't stay for long. This was like our own private bar. At the end of the night we got our tab, which was always something stupidly cheap like $20.  How could life be any grander?

They also had one of those old fashioned jukeboxes with the full albums on it, including Springsteen's Greetings From Asbury Park. Usually at some point during the night, I would put a few bucks in the machine and play the full album, much to the annoyance of my friends and the one or two other patrons in the bar.

But on one night in mid September of 2007 something "magical" happened. Somewhere during "Spirit in the Night", this big guy came up to me and said "Are you the guy who keeps playing Springsteen?" I assured him I was and he then asked me to come outside with him. Being chock full of whiskey and cheap beer I gladly did, but looking back on it now I can't believe I did this. This bar was in a crappy area of an even crappier city. You don't just follow strange men by yourself in the dark.  But I did, and as we approached his car, he gave me a copy of the new Springsteen CD, Magic!

I couldn't believe it, the album wasn't due out for a few more weeks!  I thought for sure it was hoax, but he assured me it wasn't. All he asked was that I buy him a beer back at the bar. Ah, that's what he wanted all along!  Well, beers were so cheap there I figured why not?  This was the most clever scam I had ever seen to get a beer. But it wasn't a scam. When I got home and put the CD on heard the opening chords of "Radio Nowhere" I realized this guy was for real. I don't know how he got it, I don't know who he was, as I never saw him again, and I don't know why he gave it to me. But I was sure glad he had, as it's one of my favorite Springsteen albums ever.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Video Spotlight - "Forever" by Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul

Last week, I spotlighted the solo work of Clarence Clemons.  Today, I'll set my sights to probably the most successful E Street alum, Steven Van Zandt.  His band, Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, wrote several albums, which sold solidly.  The song above, "Forever", is from their debut album, Men Without Women.  While the song is a catchy toe-tapper, I just can't take my eyes away from this video.  It shares many qualities with Clarence's video:

  • I refuse to believe that's Little Steven's voice.  I'm not saying it's a bad voice, it's just that you don't expect that man to open up and start singing with an Elvis Costello-esque warble.  
  • There is a lot of man in this video.  Everywhere I look, it's shoulders and chest hair.  Prominently featured is a shirtless man in a Raiden hat on bongos.  Do you hear bongos in this song?  Neither do I.  The video, dripping with the raw sex appeal of the Disciples of Soul, helps answer the main question of the song.  "If I give you my heart, will you love me forever?"  With that chest?  Yes! 
Clearly, with many of these videos, nobody suspected that anyone would still watch it over 30 years later.  And thank goodness for that.  But, I can't help but wonder if the videos from our time won't be equally embarrassing in 30 years.  Wait, what am I talking about: they already are!

Friday, May 2, 2014

Album Review - Hero by Clarence Clemons

When this blog first began, I considered myself a very passionate and knowledgeable Springsteen fan.  However, over two years later, I have absorbed a disturbing amount of Bruce information, including two biographies, two comic books, and countless strange Youtube videos.  Recently, after seeing the E Street Band get inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I figured it was time to step up my game and learn more about the backing band that created Springsteen's signature sound.  Having been amused by Clarence's 80s-tastic video for "You're a Friend of Mine", I decided to dive into the album that spawned it: Hero.

Based solely on the timing of the album's release (November 1985), this album could be easily categorized as a shameless cash grab at the apex of Springsteen-mania.  Unfortunately, there's nothing on this album that disproves this hypothesis.  The sound here is classic 1980s, as you can hear bits and pieces from the decade's iconic bands throughout the album, such as Duran Duran ("Temptation"), Prince ("Kissin On U"), Journey ("Christina"), and Hall & Oates ("You're a Friend of Mine").  You could easily imagine many of these songs being played during a montage in Beverly Hills Cop or Rocky IV.  The lyrics here are very simplistic and literal, lending credence to the thought that this album was hastily put together post-Born In The USA.  However, what helps make this manageable is that Clarence is self-aware of the nature of the project, often referring to himself as his "Big Man" persona, describing himself with Boss-esque cartoonish hyperbole.

There isn't too much to say about this album.  There are some lyrics and music choices that have aged like milk, but let's be honest: Clarence was not aiming to make Born To Run here.  Hero was made for a specific moment in time and for a very niche audience (people who loved Bruce Springsteen and wondered what it would sound like if the saxophonist sang).  That being said, there are a few songs that were worth noting, such as his surprisingly effective love ballads like "Cross the Line" and "Christina".  Other tracks are fairly strong musically, but are dragged down by surface-deep lyrics.  I feel that if Bruce had a once over look "It's Alright With Me Girl", he could have come up with something stronger than: "It's alright with me girl, if you tell me the truth.  It's alright with me girl, do what your heart tells you to."  However, my main complaints with this album mirror my complaints about Clarence's biography: while it is funny and light-hearted, it ultimately feels phoned in and unsatisfying.  I'd rate this a 2 out of 5 stars: if you are an E Street die-hard, feel free to check it out if you are curious, but it is not essential listening.