Friday, August 19, 2005

The compassionate Boss
What makes Bruce Springsteen’s music so special?

I remember the first time I heard “Thunder Road” as if it were yesterday. Over 10 years ago, at about 3 a.m., when I was staying up all night to study for an important exam I had little chance of clearing. Anxious and frustrated, I thought maybe music would calm me down. Someone had taped the album Born To Run for me. The cassette was a bit dicey, the sound slightly muffled, the lyrics almost impossible to pick out. Still, the album opener “Thunder Road” absolutely stunned me. Exactly what I was feeling inside was suddenly coming in right through my ears. I had no clue what the damn words were, it was the sound that got me. It seemed to emanate from a man trapped in a situation he just couldn’t handle, he was imploding because of it, but there was this great will to break out of it. Thousands of miles away, 13 years before that instant when I first heard this song, Bruce Springsteen had captured what I was feeling then to a T, and he certainly wasn’t singing about anything near exam blues. It still seems wondrous to me.

Obviously, I’m not the only one. There’s something about his music, especially the albums, Born to Run, Darkness On The Edge Of Town and The River, that somehow evokes this kind of a response in people who are feeling, or have felt, desperately trapped in some situation (career-related, romance-related, family-related). Over the years, every single person I’ve met who’s truly loved Springsteen’s best music, has been in that kind of a situation sometime or the other. Another interesting thing - Springsteen’s body of work is somewhat like the internet, it doesn’t matter where you get in from, once you’re in, you’ve entered his world, all his music is suddenly accessible to you. Of course, there is a common thread running through a lot of his music. The point-of-view of a man who finds it difficult to accept his life the way it’s turning out, but has to. Springsteen creates characters and tells their stories directly, often very evocatively. He does his groundwork well, crafts the songs with care and performs them passionately. There is a fierce perfectionist streak in him, clearly the reason for his having released just 11 studio albums in 25 years of recording. More than half of these are all-time-great albums; the rest of it is very far from ordinary too.

The most remarkable thing about Springsteen’s musical career is that it seems immaculately scripted. Every alternate album Born To Run onwards has been a commercial success, relatively speaking. Each such album has been followed by a less accessible and darker album that steers well clear of the mainstream. It’s as if Springsteen courts commercial success, gets it, then he balances the euphoria with something more introspective, as if it’s a right that he has earned (which he probably has), and then to avoid getting too indulgent, he goes “commercial” again and the cycle continues. Intentional or not, what’s amazing is that his “commercial” albums are almost invariably as good as his “introspective” ones. All his songs have the authority of a self-assured and confident artist aware of his tremendous talents. That’s how he got nicknamed “The Boss”, by fellow musicians who recognised this quality in him even before his career had taken off.

It wasn’t always like this. Bruce Springsteen spent his formative years at Freehold, New Jersey- a provincial, conservative town. It was a typical middle-class upbringing. His father changed jobs many times - he was a mill-worker, cab driver, bus driver, even a prison guard for a while. A frustrated, bitter man who believed he never quite got his due, Bruce’s father wanted his eldest son (Bruce has 2 younger sisters) to do better than him so that he could avoid the difficulties of a blue-collar life. It was a life Bruce saw and experienced closely and it never ever left him. Things got worse after Bruce touched adolescence and began dreaming of a different life for himself. He had ferocious fights with his father that left him embittered, isolated and unsure. The young Bruce Springsteen was very sensitive, very thoughtful, perhaps a lot like his father, with one difference - Bruce had rock ‘n roll as his outlet. Ultimately, that made all the difference.

Bruce was 13 when rock ‘n roll hit him. The radio became his life-force as it radiated energy through Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, The Beatles, The Animals, The Byrds, The Who…and most significantly Bob Dylan. The last according to Bruce, “freed” his mind and made him realise the tremendous possibilities in this new art form. But interestingly, as he began to play the guitar and gradually started performing, it was the grand orchestral sound of Phil Spector and the raucous energy of lesser known rock bands that influenced his sensibility. He and his band used to perform in the relative isolation of the Jersey shore. In retrospect, this was significant because the area was not very “hip” thus preventing unnecessary pressures of trends and put-on styles. Very quickly the young Bruce Springsteen began to explore numerous influences and develop something new and fresh of his own. His talent was noticed and suddenly Bruce had an audition with John Hammond Sr - the man who had discovered Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin. Bruce had barely performed 3 songs when Hammond signed him up. In Hammond’s own words, “I reacted with the force I’ve felt maybe three times in my life. I knew at once that he would last at least a generation.”

Springsteen’s first album Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ was released in 1973. Despite having some excellent songs like “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City” and “Growin’ Up” it faltered because of its lack of focus. Wanting to write like Bob Dylan led to verbal diarrhea, the sound was restrained because the producers didn’t identify the rock‘n roll inherent in the compositions, Bruce himself gave voice to too many influences all at once. Still, it promised a great deal.

The next album, The Wild, The Innocent And The E-Street Shuffle was many steps forward. The rock band sound from a superbly skillful ensemble of musicians brought out Bruce’s poetic best as he wove his story songs around adolescent restlessness and urban unrest. He sounded assured and driven, clearly he was beginning to find his own voice. An outstanding album, it showcased exquisite, albeit fancy, playing by the talented musicians on it best exemplified in the final track-the superb “New York City Serenade”. Though the critics loved it, the album was a commercial flop.

One of those critics - John Landau then went to one of Springsteen’s concerts and posted a legendary report that included the lines, “I saw rock ‘n roll’s future today and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young he made me feel like I was hearing music for the first time.” This was largely a tribute to Bruce Springsteen’s soon-to-be legendary live act. He had firmed up his back-up band - now called the E-Street Band, and the chemistry wasn’t just palpable to the cult following they had garnered by now. Things began to happen after Landau’s review. Bruce’s record label quoted it everywhere and after some time even hired Landau to co-produce the next Springsteen album. A project Bruce had been struggling with for a while.

Bruce’s vision for the album was to write songs around a feeling giving the entire album a very consistent mood. He wanted a “big” sound, with lots of instruments, the Phil Spector effect. Though he and the band worked very hard at the studio, things just wouldn’t fall into place. The pressure grew. The intensity of the sessions was scary, particularly since they went on and on. It took 4 months to produce it and every minute of it would prove worthwhile.

Born To Run came out in 1975. “Thunder Road” opened the album with a feeling that never faltered throughout its 8 stunning songs. The sound had a near-mono feel that seemed to add poignancy to the vocal as it came searing out of the chaos of the E-street Band’s robust, focused playing. The brilliant “Backstreets” and the incredible title track married passion with compassion better than anything in popular music. The album marked his first commercial success and confirmed Springsteen’s status as an all-time great rocker. Even if he didn’t record anything again, his place in musical history was secured.

In any case, legal wrangles prevented him from recording for 3 years. Darkness On The Edge Of Town (‘78) was a darker, more introspective album than Born To Run. Though songs like “Badlands”, “The Promised Land” and the title track were from Born To Run territory, the characters were older (by 3 years?) in this album, understandably therefore, they were less hopeful and romantic , more isolated and resigned to their fates. Springsteen avoided the sonic embellishments of Born To Run here and kept it more straightforward with his furious guitaring and impassioned vocals. Though Bruce would later feel that he “oversang and the band underplayed”, this was another magnificent album that represented his constant growth as an artist.

The next album would be an even better example. The River (‘80) was Springsteen’s first double album. With 20 varied songs demonstrating Bruce’s formidable narrative abilities, none more than the folkie title track where the river was an evocative metaphor for life going on, regardless of everything. The mood ranged from up-tempo to sheer joy to frustration to sadness to introspection to upbeat again. There was folk, raunchy rock, rockibly, country, affecting ballads - all stamped with the distinctive, assured Bruce Springsteen touch. The characters in the songs were older (31, like Bruce?) and some of them were even married (a first, in Springsteen’s songs). This was his most complete album and it did well commercially too. “Hungry Heart” became a huge chart hit, his first. The album tour led him to Europe, Japan and Australia. In 1981, Bruce Springsteen became a world, albeit cult, figure.

The next year produced the first dramatic change in his musical career. Bruce had recorded a demo of songs at home with just guitar (and harmonica) as accompaniment and he took them to the studio for polishing them up. Landau, by now his manager, heard the songs and insisted they didn’t need dressing up; they were perfect as they were. The songs in Nebraska (‘82) were not just stripped bare in sound; even the characters in them put their deepest feelings on the line. They were isolated from every aspect of their life, which led to, in Bruce’s own words, “a spiritual breakdown”. It was a stunning album, intimate enough to give the feeling of the characters trying to converse with you. There were thoughtful touches, like the suffix “sir” being used by some of the characters, as if they were looking up to you, from a position of inferiority. Critics hailed the album as a masterpiece, though it didn’t do well commercially. Neither was unexpected.

Bruce had made demos of a few more songs besides the ones that made up Nebraska. They were in the same vein, about loneliness and isolation and the difficulties of coping. But this time he decided to treat them differently. Without changing the song themes, he wanted them to sound upbeat, tuneful and accessible. He and the band got working and the result was the most significant album of their careers. Born In The USA (‘84) was a massive worldwide commercial hit that made Bruce Springsteen a household name. The songs, almost like celebrations of despair, were just magnificent. Ironically, it was a gross misunderstanding that contributed the most to the album’s commercial success.

A casual listening of the songs in the album, particularly the title track, suggested that they’re infused with a patriotic “hoo-haa-America” sentiment. As Bruce put it “these people only heard the chorus, not the lyrics”. The title track in fact, was scathingly sarcastic. Songs like “No Surrender” and Bobby Jean” were raucous rockers, yet had broody lyrics. The mega-hit “Dancing In The Dark”, for all its infectious tunefulness, was really about a man who can’t cope with loneliness. “My Hometown”, for all its nostalgic feel, was really about things going wrong in small-town America. Forget the paying public, even the US president Ronald Reagan missed the point. Egged on by his geriatric advisors no doubt, Reagan actually mentioned Springsteen during his election campaign, promising to fulfil the same “dreams” Bruce sung about. Springsteen wasn’t amused.

Despite being one of the great live acts of all time, Bruce and the band had never released a live album in all these years. They made up with the release of 3-album-set Live 1975-85. Besides the superb alternate versions of well-known songs (like “Thunder Road”) or terrific songs that weren’t included in any album (like “Fire” or “Because The Night”), the surprisingly beautiful parts were the little stories he told (mostly about his adolescence) before performing some of the songs. He spoke evocatively about the communication breakdown with his father in a manner that could move you deeply (especially an incident he mentioned just before performing “The River”).

Tunnel of Love was Springsteen’s last great album. After the commerciality of Born In The USA, he set about making his most personal record. It was the first album after his marriage and he almost exclusively confronted love in it. However, there was an aura of sadness and an introspective tinge to everything on it, clearly the result of the disintegration of the marriage. It was Bruce’s quietest album, with him playing most of the instruments himself. Despite being uniformly brilliant the album wasn’t a commercial success. Too many people wanted back the accessibility of “Born In The USA”. Bruce wasn’t about to comply.

The ‘90s haven’t always seen Springsteen at his best. His best songs, in fact, were film contributions - the Oscar-winning “Streets Of Philadelphia” and “Secret Garden” (from “Jerry Maguire”). In 1992, the 2 albums he released - Human Touch and Lucky Town suggested the first signs of decline. There were some good songs in both the albums -particularly the title tracks and the ethereal “My Beautiful Reward” (from Lucky Town), but somehow the hallmark Springsteen consistency was missing. His biggest commercial success in the ‘90s came immediately after that when he released his Greatest Hits package, predictably great value for money.

The Ghost Of Tom Joad (‘95) was a partial return to form. A sparse acoustic guitar, harmonica set of songs, it mined the same territory as Nebraska 13 years later. But this time the songs were set in Western America (Bruce had moved to LA recently after his 2nd marriage) and were about illegal Mexican immigrants, drug smugglers, serial killers – just people who couldn’t keep themselves together because of circumstances. Quieter than “Nebraska”, the most interesting difference in Joad was in the attitude of the characters in the songs. They were more fatalistic than those in Nebraska (maybe because they were 13 years older?). It was an honest, sincere effort though flawed somewhat by its staleness. A lot of the tunes seem like déjà vu recalling those in Nebraska and even Tunnel Of Love. “The Line” sounds like Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero”. However, as usual, there are some stunners on this album too - the title track, “Youngstown” and “The Border” are brilliant. The album won Springsteen his first Grammy - a joke, because it’s nowhere near his best effort. (Echoes of Dylan?)

Finally, the greatest thing about Springsteen’s music is not that he’s given blue-collar America and its outsiders a voice like no-one else. Or that he assimilated the music of his previous generations and came with a body of work quintessentially his. Or that he balanced introspective art with commercial acceptability like very few have. His towering achievement is the universality of his expressions. His songs about inherent American concerns (like the Vietnam draft, for instance) can make even people at the other end of the world relate to it. (Maybe that’s why every single one of his albums is available in India). An artist like this doesn’t “lose relevance” - as they’ve been saying about him lately. Hold on, his best may be yet to come.

January 1999


Blogger Rick T Hunter said...

Hi Jaideep,

I read only a couple of issues of Gentleman, maybe 6-7 years ago, and still remember them, and the fact that I've not seen an equivalent since. Can you tell us a short history of what happened to it? (start-finish?)

Any updates on Springsteen with his new albums poat-1999?


12:29 PM  

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