Tomorrow in the UK, and most of Europe, Tuesday for USA, sees the release of Bruce Springsteen’s latest album “Wrecking Ball”. It has been doing decent reviews so far, so perhaps Bruce fans will be in for a treat. By most accounts, it is quite political, very direct, and maybe a little bit more musically diverse, although likely sledgehammered home by the E-Street band. Myself I have only more recently become a bit of a Bruce fan. He’s not necessarily in my very best artists, I am after all, first and foremost an Indie kid, but I have an ever growing respect for what he does, and has done. Let me explain some more.
I was born in the mid seventies so I did a lot of my growing up, physically if not mentally, through the eighties. These were the times when Madonna, Prince, and Michael Jackson were mega stars. Bruce Springsteen and Dire Straits were not far behind, -big mainstream acts. My Dad is pretty much a mainstreamer in his musical choices so we had a lot of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Pink Floyd, Dire Straits, and of course Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen’s massive album at the time was “Born in the USA“, his seventh, which had seven top ten singles, and was the USA’s biggest selling album for 1985 (and his biggest all time seller). Whilst I sort of liked some of the singles, the track “Born in the USA” soon became kind of uncool and endemic of “flag waving Americans”, which whilst nothing against it now (it is a big part of the culture), kind of grates a bit if living in Europe. Little did I know at the time, but this annoyed Bruce too. It was not about waving the flag at all and is somewhat critical of America, and how it treated it’s army veterans, against a backdrop of waving the flag. I wasn’t to find this out until well into the nineties. One odd memory I recall of this time was my Dad copying the vinyl album onto a cassette. At some point the tape got spliced towards the end, which was then cut out where damaged and stuck together with some tape. Oddly this gave a perfect edit, but a shorter version of the last track. It took some time to hear this track again without my brain expecting an early fade out. – I was also a little familiar with the albums “Tunnel of love” and “Nebraska”, without seemingly taking a lot of notice of them.
Around 1992 when I was kind of getting into music myself, I was an Indie kid. My tastes were less towards mainstream acts, although there were some, and more toward Indie acts, or smaller, more critically acclaimed acts. Bruce seemed like the opposite of the tastes I was acquiring, Back then he was mainly seen as a big mainstream act, not the elder statesman kind of role he has now, and also possibly an large act a little losing his way. I also tend to get with the music before the lyrics, so I sometimes find the E-Street band to be a bit too much, a little too direct. Instead I had many years of bands such as Sugar, Nirvana, The Smiths, Blur, Pulp, The Boo Radleys, Suede, David Bowie, Radiohead, Super Furry Animals, to give you an small idea of my tastes, but really, much, much more. I was, and to some limited extent now, an Indie snob. But hey, I have a great music collection!
As it turns out, Bruce himself was in need of a change. The nineties were almost like a lost decade for him (although there was still “The ghost of Tom Joad” in there). From the end of the nineties and into the two thousands, Bruce started to make a comeback. This coincided with a lot of notable music critics, journalists and other writers popping up to give positive critical nod, an indication that there was something more. Myself, my musical tastes were expanding and with a large library now, more accommodating. Reading some of articles about Bruce, his life, and life’s work, I was getting a better feel for the guy. I then remembered the albums I had heard when younger and wondered if they were worth investigation again. I got hold of a few copies but didn’t really give them a fair listen. They seemed all right, but something I could come back to.
Also at this time a Spanish friend of mine who I met just after he had moved to England, was also getting into Bruce. I gave him a compilation cassette which was the starting point for him. I think he has all the albums now plus a bunch of bootlegs, so I guess we can safely say he became a big fan. I mention him because he dragged me along to one of “The Rising” tour dates at Crystal Palace athletics stadium, then later with the Seeger sessions band at Hammersmith, then the Wembley arena. It was the Seeger sessions that finally triggered Bruce with me. The irony of course is that he was performing old folk songs made popular by folk activist, Pete Seeger, not his own songs, but it was enough to raise the thought that yes, there was definitely more there, and it was now worth investigating. This was further helped by emerging bands I liked, that were clearly in a debt to his influence, such as The Hold Steady, and The Gaslight Anthem.
I was now welcoming myself to the open arms of the enemy, once was. I revisited some albums from my youth with more of a keen ear for the details. I then picked up a few others to round out the collection a bit. In 2007 I had my first trip to the USA, to California, where I met the woman I am now married to, and where I now call my home. Travelling the roads a bit on some of the road trips, I got to see some of the open land, and the places in the middle of no-where. This added a bit of perspective to some of his songs, they were a little easier to relate to (although I’m not going to try to pretend I understand the full experience, just from a road trip or two). I read a bit more about him, and paid more attention to the lyrics.
These days, where I’m much more into writing myself (again), I have a much bigger appreciation of his work. Many of his lyrics are well crafted short stories, with clever context and phrasing. He has made the small time america, open road, the dream, the collapse of the dream, almost his own, to the extent that when he revisits it now, it sounds corny. Some of the lyrics are amazing. I would urge you to check out “The River” (particularly the phrasing), or “Highway Patrolman” as just two of many examples. I have watched documentaries, “The Promise: The making of Darkness on the edge of town” is one I would recommend to get an idea of the the man (as he was then), the process, and the work that he puts in to get to the finished product. I understand more about his roots and the perspective he is coming from. Writing the working man’s song whilst being a multi millionaire is clearly a bit contradictory, but I applaud the effort. I know he does long concerts so fans get their monies worth, I know he tries to give something to his fans. My friend told me a story he had heard from another seasoned Bruce concert follower, which I think was from a concert in Barcelona, but could have been elsewhere. Some dedicated fans had queued for hours to be let into the stadium so they could be at the front by the stage. On this particular day it had rained almost non stop. Bruce having seen these fans out there by the stage in the rain, getting wet, sometime before the rest of the fans began arriving, brought out an acoustic guitar and played them a few songs, their own mini gig. This being prior to the stadium filling up and the actual support bands, and obviously, the Bruce gig itself. He clearly thought it was the least he could do.
The last album “Working on a dream” came out at a time when I was making plans to leave the UK. I would listen to this from time to time whilst walking into work. It now reminds me of that time. “Born in the USA” made a comeback, it actually reminds me of growing up a lot, and I was really familiar with all the songs. I now notice how some lyrics are sung with certain emphasis, which adds a different layer. If I had to choose, I’d say my favourite albums are “Darkness on the edge of town”, “Nebraska” and “Born in the USA”, with a soft spot for “Working on a dream”, but I like most of the others, although I don’t have everything.
So my road to Bruce was a long one, but one filled with getting a feel for the person and what he was trying to achieve. In fact I think I got that before the work itself. Now it grows on me the more I hear it. I could be getting old, but like to convince myself that it is a product of enjoying the work, and how it is created. It may be a little of the former and more of the latter. Understanding of him, plus the understanding of what goes into creating a piece of work (or art) adds the layers and respect. I still love all the old bands from before and a wide range of bands now. I’m still a bit on an indie snob. Bruce however now has a special place. I want to see what comes out next. Will it be an acoustic work like Nebraska? Well I know from the reviews this is not the case, it is a full on E-street record. But I’m now interested in what he has to say. I don’t necessarily like everything (and that actually adds something itself), but when it s good, it is really good. I shall be popping down the shops on tuesday morning to get a copy and find out why this one has to offer.
N.B. As a separate point, why is new music, dvds etc released on a tuesday? I used to like going to a CD shop on a monday to browse the new releases, well, when there were CD shops to browse. I liked the idea that new things came out at the beginning of the week, not a day into it, plus of course I now have to wait a day longer compared to friends who may buy on a monday. That said I think console games may come out on a tuesday here whilst they seem to come out on a friday in England. I’d prefer the music though.
Lexicon word of the day: Circumlocution.