Sunday, April 10, 2016

Bruce Springsteen's "The River"

About ten years ago, my mother went missing for 23 hours at Christmastime. She was at the bank and called my sister to tell her she was coming right over. My sister lived about ten minutes away from the bank. Mom wound up traversing the state of New Jersey several times, turning around each time she encountered evidence that she was going the wrong way: New York City, the ocean, Philadelphia, the Delaware Water Gap. She turned up at a mall 60 miles from home, where she parked her car and walked around until she saw a guy using a cellphone and asked if she could borrow it to call her daughter. My sister wound up having to call the local police to arrest Mom, since mall security couldn't hold her. When she and her future ex-husband went to pick up Mom, they had to drive around the parking lot for hours because she couldn't remember where she'd left the car. I asked Mom later how she'd felt while she was driving around lost for hours. "It was fun," she said. My sister and I tried to make Thelma and Louise jokes, but only later did I realize the truth: Mom was Bruce Springsteen.

I was never what you'd call a Springsteen fan.

When his first couple of records came out, he seemed to me like a particularly loghorrheic Van Morrison imitator. Indeed, on songs like "Blinded by the Light" and "For You," the boy sounded like he was trying to recite the entire Manhattan phone directory. It didn't help that "Blinded" had been covered by Manfred Mann's Earth Band, who got the lyrics wrong and gave us the immortal "Wrapped up like a douche" to make fun of. And my freshman year of college, it seemed that every freshman girl owned the same two LPs: Greetings from Asbury Park and Piano Man. (I grew up on Long Island, so I'm entitled to hate Billy Joel.)

When Born To Run arrived, replete with "rock 'n' roll future" hype from Rolling Stone scribe Jon Landau (the man who eviscerated the MC5 in the studio when he produced their sophomore album), its Spectorsound-aping production reminded me of Christmas music. When I went back to visit my bad-acting college chums after I'd dropped out, I walked into my old drummer's room (the man who later talked me into moving to Texas, although he claims not to remember doing so) and found a copy of the album on his turntable. I immediately ripped it off and smashed it to smithereens as he looked on in horror. (Looking back, it's a wonder he didn't kill me.) Later, on the way to Texas, I pitched a traveling companion's Springsteen mixtape out the window somewhere in Mississippi (for which I have since apologized numerous times). Curiously, when the Clash hit the U.S. with similar hype from the same label a few years later, I accepted it without thinking. Perhaps by then I wanted to believe more.

The worm began to turn when I moved to Texas in June '78, the month when Darkness on the Edge of Town was released. Darkness got to me in a way none of Springsteen's earlier stuff had -- possibly because there was more loud electric lead guitar on it. And more yelling. The rush of "Candy's House," with its arcing "Heart Full of Soul" guitar break, was genuinely exciting. (A few years later, when Uncle Lou wanted to achieve a similar effect on a song called "Finish Line," he borrowed E Street Band pianist Roy Bittan for the session.) Some of the less verbose lyrics ("Factory" in particular) reminded me of people and situations I was familiar with. (Somewhere there's a tape I made with a guy I used to play in a band with, the first time I went back to Long Island to visit, where I'm attempting to play bass a la Entwistle on "Promised Land," and some song my friend wrote.)

In the fall of '79, I moved to Austin, and thence to Aspen, Colorado (the misadventure recounted in the London Calling post I wrote a few years ago). When I got back to Fort Worth in the spring of '80, my "music collection" consisted of two cassettes: the debut albums by the Pretenders and the Specials. I could have done worse. I lived in a duplex on Winthrop, off North University, next door to a couple of truckdrivers who were always offering me stuff they'd stolen out of their loads. The windows were all nailed and painted shut, and the only heat source was gas space heaters, which I believed would tip over and set the place on fire if I went to sleep with them on. So every night when it was cold, I'd put on every stitch of clothing I owned and shiver under the covers. When it got warm, I would have perished if Dan Lightner (bless him) hadn't brought me a rotating fan, which I'd sit in front of until I'd sweated out every molecule of moisture from my body, then get up and walk to 7 Eleven for more Gatorade, beer, and cigarettes.

For awhile I shared the place with a coworker whose wife would come to stay with him in the living room (their arrangement was complicated and I never did get -- or want -- the full particulars) and I'd have to tiptoe over them when I got home late. One weekend I went to Austin with a couple of buds and got stopped for a taillight in Waxahachie. Because our car was full of empty beer cans, I got arrested and my friends drove my car to Dallas. When I got sprung (by either Lightner or Charles Buxton; my memory is unreliable on this), I had to walk downtown from my apartment to the Greyhound station to catch a bus to Dallas to reclaim my car. I got home, went to the can, flushed the toilet, and immediately a geyser of water started shooting out of the toilet tank: life as a Jerry Lewis movie. Because I was too clueless to turn the water off, I managed to point the stream toward the bathtub, then walked to the pay phone around the corner to report my problem to my landlady, who said she'd send her son the next day (!) to take care of it.

I threw all of my belongings (it was still possible to do so then) in the trunk of my car and went to check into the Rio Motel on Camp Bowie, just down the street from the record store where I worked. When I got off work the next day, I went back to the duplex, which by that time was like a swamp. Water was still shooting out of the toilet tank and had overflowed the bathtub to the point where it was lapping at the living room carpet. At that point, I decided to kiss my security deposit goodbye and went and found an apartment at the Warren House on Las Vegas Trail near I-30. When my driver's license was belatedly suspended for a year-old drunk driving charge, my future ex-wife, who worked with me, would pick me up and take me to work (which necessitated extremely considerate scheduling on the part of our boss).

This lengthy story is relevant because when The River came out in September, it took up residence atop the stack of records I'd play on the turntable I'd bought for five dollars from Mike Woodhull when I moved into the apartment. You had to put a nickel on the tone arm to make it track, and I'd run it through my tweed Fender Deluxe -- probably how I screwed up the best sounding amp I'd ever have (my future ex-brother-in-law -- RIP -- would destroy it completely a couple of years later, when I left it with him "to repair" while I was stationed in Korea). I listened to The River as incessantly as I'd been listening to Arthur Blythe's Illusions, Captain Beefheart's Doc at the Radar Station, Gang of Four's Entertainment!, and Otis Rush's Original Cobra Recordings (and as much as I'd listen to the Clash's Sandinista! a couple of months later). And when Springsteen's tour in support of the album came through Texas, we caught him both in Dallas on November 8 (she drove) and in Austin the following night (I took her...on the bus).

Live, Springsteen really did "prove it all night," for three and a half hours on two consecutive nights. His exuberant presence radiated positive energy and drove his band and audience to peak after peak of excitement. Then he'd downshift and talk to the shed crowd as though they were in a much more intimate space, telling stories during the slow numbers like "Point Blank" and "Independence Day" -- the ones I loved best. When I'd seen the Clash, they played fewer slow songs than Springsteen, but also looked haggard by the end of their show. Springsteen looked like he could have done another couple of hours. Years of four-hour gigs in Jersey bars had taught him how to pace himself for the long haul. For that reason, I'd have to put Springsteen ahead of the Clash on my list of greatest-concerts-I-ever-saw. And that makes him Number One.

That said, I still don't listen to his records.

Even at the height of my Springsteen appreciation, I could see how, viewed from a certain perspective, he still sounded like a Van Morrison simulacrum, albeit one who was obsessed with driving his car at night. And on record, his singing -- a two-fisted, testosterone-infused roar that made the likes of Bob Seger and Mitch Ryder sound like sissies -- used to wear on me after a few songs. Plus, canned, you couldn't enjoy the camaraderie between Bruce and his band boys the way that you could onstage (although Clarence Clemons' Junior-Walker-on-steroids tenor sax and Steve Van Zandt's equally manly backing voice served to signify same on record).

I think the difference between Springsteen's mega-success under Landau's tutelage and the MC5's failure comes down to the fact that from the beginning, Bruce had a better idea of where he wanted to go than the Five did. Once he'd traded slumming fusion guy David Sancious for the aforementioned Roy Bittan, and original E Street Band drummer Vini "Mad Dog" Lopez (the name kind of says it all) for the crisp, professional Max M. Weinberg (who comported himself behind the traps as though Baker-Bonham-Mitchell-Moon had never existed, hewing to the rules as laid down by Earl Palmer and Hal Blaine), he had a band equal to his intentions.

His Big Idea was to use the structures of embryonic rockaroll and Brill Building pop as a medium to tell stories that addressed his great overarching subject: the struggle to maintain hope in the face of failure. Is there a more American concern than that? I think not, which is why I'd rank him as the greatest Meercun rocker of the '70s, in the same way Dylan was for the '60s and Elvis was for the '50s. ("Greatest" doesn't necessarily mean "my favorite." Pre-rockaroll, I'd rate Hank Williams, Robert Johnson, and Louis Armstrong as equivalent figures for their respective decades.)

I've been thinking about Bruce because he's in the news this week for canceling a show in North Carolina after they passed a law there making it legal to discriminate against transgender folks under the guise of "religious freedom." Springsteen -- who decades ago (after I'd stopped following his music) took John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie as his models in standing up for the oppressed -- called bullshit and gave them a little taste of what his right-hand man Van Zandt once gave apartheid-era South Africa with "Sun City," because economic impact is something rat bastards understand. Plus, I still have the copies of Darkness, The River, and Nebraska that Mike Woodhull let me borrow before he passed last year (which I still need to return to his wife). So the time seemed right to listen, too.

Through more experienced ears than I possessed with the album was new, it's the melancholy songs on The River that ring the truest, as if Springsteen -- who was 31 when the album was released -- had started to figure out that the romance of "getting out of here" wears off when you realize that you take "here" with you wherever you go. The fun of the upbeat songs seems forced by comparison, which is almost the point. Still, you can't deny the pleasures of "The Ties That Bind," which roars out of the gate with a ringing 12-string that carries the song until Weinberg's "Ticket To Ride" fill on the bridge, neatly encapsulating 1965 in the same way as "Hungry Heart," "You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)," and "Fade Away" distill the respective essences of the Ronettes, Chuck Berry, and the Drifters.

The dark heart of the matter lies in one song on each of the first three sides, and 75% of the fourth side (which would be perfect -- if unremittingly bleak -- if you could substitute "Stolen Car" for "Ramrod" at the top of the side). "Independence Day" resonated the most for me when it was new, because it mirrored my own difficult relationship with my father. "Point Blank," a tale of desperation and despair, was the most arresting moment in both of the live shows I saw. The title track shattered every dream of the protagonists on Springsteen's first three albums, while "Stolen Car" depicted a man reduced to trying to get arrested to prove he was alive. Even with "Ramrod," the last three songs on the fourth side have the somnolent rhythm of a late night drive to nowhere. "Drive All Night" is the climactic tour de force, but then it's followed by "Wreck On the Highway," with its false ending and intimation of mortality. The vibe and subject matter of these songs would inform Springsteen's follow-up, the solo acoustic Nebraska, which he cut on a cassette recorder, giving it an even starker sound.

When I was young and still thought I had the world by the balls, I used to look at old burnt-out motherfuckers and wonder how they got that way. Now that I'm one of those motherfuckers, I know. It's called life.


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