Friday, September 01, 2017

Get Your Kicks Etc.

So as you may have heard, a certain Shady Dame of my acquaintance has snagged two tickets to see Bruce Springsteen on Broadway

On October 21. Which just happens to be a major milestone birthday of mine (don't ask).

In any case, when friend of PowerPop Phil Cheese heard this news over at Facebook he was moved to ask "Are you going to shout out for 'Route 66' like you did decades ago? Haha!"

And therein lies a tale.

If you've never heard it, here it is at it originally appeared over at the website of Barnes and Noble back in the late 90s. (The occasion was the publication of that huge coffee table book of Bruce's complete lyrics).


That Bruce Springsteen changed a lot of lives is both a truism and a cliché, although at this moment, if one is feeling uncharitable, it may be a rather naive and adolescent cliché. After all, 25 years after his first album, "Greetings from Asbury Park," Bruce is an institution (he's now eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, if you can believe it), and his music has changed in ways few of us expected (although we probably shouldn't be surprised about it). Springsteen now resembles a plainspoken populist like Merle Haggard far more than a generational spokesperson/poster boy like, say, Kurt Cobain. And the people whose lives Bruce most radically affected are, of course, now comfortably middle-aged, with more on their minds, understandably, than rock dreams. Face it: To paraphrase an early Springsteen song, it's hard to be a saint in the city when you're worried about making your mortgage payments or finding a good preschool.

Still, cliché or not, Bruce did impact more than a few lives, and if you want to know why, at least part of the reason can be found in the just-published Bruce Springsteen: Songs, a massive coffee-table tome featuring the complete lyrics to every song found on every one of his albums (save the simultaneously released "Tracks"—more about that later) as well as Bruce's reflections on what he was thinking at the time. What's most surprising about Songs—for me, at least—is just how well the stuff holds up on the page. It's a given, of course, that Springsteen is a great storyteller. Back in 1981, I noted, in a review of his "Nebraska" album, that the song "Highway Patrolman" would probably make an interesting film someday, so I was not exactly shocked when Sean Penn adapted it as "The Indian Runner" a decade later. Still, given Springsteen's penchant for overheated, fuel-injected romanticism, I was pleasantly struck, seeing these lyrics in cold type after all this time, by how even the least of them are redeemed by flashes of humor and wordplay. I was particularly taken reading "Thunder Road" (from "Born to Run"): Bruce has gotten a fair bit of feminist flak over the years for the line, "You ain't a beauty but hey, you're alright," but such complaints seem misguided in light of the line that immediately follows: "Oh," he adds, in what strikes me as an ineffably funny, apologetic attempt to deflect that very criticism, "and that's alright with me." What a gentleman.

But we were speaking of life changes. My own Springsteen moment was in early 1973. At the time, I was a baby rock critic at the old Stereo Review, and "Greetings from Asbury Park" had just come out, accompanied by reams of Columbia hype, the gist of which was that Bruce was (what were they thinking?) the latest New Dylan. Little did I know, of course, that for the rest of the more jaded rock press, this tag had the sort of negative connotations associated with phrases like "serial killer" or "record company weasel." In any case, in my naïveté I gave the disc a spin, and sure enough Bruce was spewing the sort of freely associative lyrics that could most charitably be described as Dylanesque (if not, more accurately, verbose and in need of a good editor), and I recall being mildly unimpressed. And then suddenly: Boom! A drum beat and Clarence Clemons's near-mystic sax wail announced "Spirit in the Night," and I was a goner.

The music was perfect, like much of Bruce's stuff to come: a sort of Proustian mix of half-remembered licks from rock and R&B oldies that may or may not have actually ever existed, the whole thing sounding simultaneously sublime and absurd, like Van Morrison at his most uplifting, jamming at a South Jersey pizzeria. And the song's lyrics were—and are—the most dead-on evocation ever of what it felt like to be a post-Woodstock 20-something with no direction home. I personally had the eerie feeling that Bruce had been reading my mail, and I later found I was far from alone in that perception.

As it happened, Bruce was making his semiofficial New York debut that week, on a double bill with the similarly debuting original Wailers. (To put this in perspective: This was at Max's Kansas City, a club that sat fewer than 200 people. I don't want to say, "Those were the days," but frankly, they were.) Every rock critic in New York showed up for what would be their first exposure to live reggae, and yes, the Wailers' opening set was rapturously received by all (few bands have ever had two front men as charismatic as Bob Marley and Peter Tosh). After intermission, however, I realized that the aforementioned highly jaded press contingent, having already had their tiny minds blown by a bunch of Rastas turning the beat around, were not about to fall for any "New Dylan" hype and had beaten a hasty exit. This left me in the odd position of being alone in the back of Max's with 30 or 40 of Bruce's buddies from the Jersey Shore. I was, literally, the only stranger there.

And the show was everything I'd hoped for, and more. Bruce and his E Street Band opened with a version of "Spirit..." that made the album take sound anemic. He went on to preview the far richer material he had already written for what became his sophomore masterpiece, "The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle," going so far as to use a mellotron on a gorgeous "New York City Serenade" that sounded like a Phil Spector record made flesh. Most memorably, though, I got to witness an early incarnation of the sort of interactive, fan-friendly stagecraft that would soon establish the Cult of Bruce. "Any requests?" Springsteen asked at one point. "It don't have to be one of ours." I blurted out "Route 66," having been listening to a lot of early Stones that week, and to my amazement, Bruce and band immediately launched into the best rendition of that chestnut I had ever heard. Who'd have thunk it: On top of everything, these guys were the bar band of my dreams.

You know the rest of the story, of course. Bruce's live show became legendary, his fans became famous for their missionary zeal (the sort of people who bought tickets for unbelieving friends), and eventually the kid from Asbury Park made "Born to Run" and wound up, simultaneously, on the covers of Time and Newsweek. Around this time, Bruce also became the second most widely bootlegged solo artist in the history of recorded music; most of those fan favorites are now, finally, officially available on the four-CD "Tracks" box set, with the conspicuous and peculiar omission of "The Fever," perhaps the most mesmerizing performance Bruce ever committed to tape. So what's the bottom line? Even if you're a lapsed fan like me (mortgage payments and all that), Songs is going to remind you that, yeah, you weren't crazy. Maybe the guy didn't literally change your life, but he sure as hell enriched it. Thanks, Boss. -- Steve Simels

I bring all this up partly to gloat, which I think I'm more than justified doing under the circumstances, but mostly because over the years few people have believed this story when I've told it.

Until today, bitches. Because listen to what I just found on the intertubes.

Okay, it's not great, and it certainly isn't as good as the one I remember hearing at Max's. But still.

Have a great weekend, everybody!


BG said...

Love that story. :-)

Mark said...

Very nice story. To be at a place like Max's for the double-bill you describe is a kind of blessing, and I'm NOT a religious guy.

Anonymous said...

i certainly hope the Wailers played "Tall Cool One....."

Anonymous said...

August 12, 1978, Augusta Civic Center, Augusta, Maine.
I had seen Alice, Elton,Zappa - showmen extrodinaire.

He redefined showmanship. I left with my Jaw on the ground,


Anonymous said...

Wow, Steve, that's about the coolest early Bruce story I think I've read. Right now, we need them as us fans won't be getting the B'way tickets. I'm flying in from the SF Bay Area the last two nights of the run-thrus and I couldn't get them. I'm catching Willie Nile, so I'm ecstatic but here we are, seeing more of the myth being written. Sure wish I could be there; heck, I'd yell out Route 66 for you!!! I'll just continue to relish my own memory of him pointing directly at me in an arena of 14,000 people and re-re-re-watching it on youtube :)


John Werner said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Werner said...

This story is why reading about rock and roll is almost as good as listening (and seeing) the real deal. I've got to say I'm a huge Simels fan and when I can find one of his old reviews I relish it. It takes me back to when I was still a little bit of an open book and I "soaked" in anything I could to enlighten me. This double-bill show has got to be one of the top ten greatest. A moment in time never to be repeated again. Hell no I wasn't there. I was way too young and geographically stunted...But, by the miracle of the internet I'm transported back to something so great I kind of hang on the words and imagine. That, my friend, is the best writing and when it's married to my love of rock and roll I'm in a kind of rarified air. Great stuff!