Saturday, January 21, 2017

Song #177: The President

Robyn Hitchcock, 1986





Watching the inauguration yesterday and the inspirational marches across America today, I’m drawn back to this song from 1986.  It’s written by a surrealist Brit, but it’s always been my favorite song about the relationship between the careless use of power and symbol and its effect on an audience.  It was inspired by Reagan’s trip to Bitburg, a Nazi cemetery, where he stated, “They were victims, just as surely as the victims in the Concentration camps:” perhaps Reagan’s most tone-deaf moment as President.  Not only does it match my own sense of overwhelmed bewilderment today, but it has one of my all-time favorite bass tracks by the under-celebrated Matthew Seligman; he steals the show.

Here's to collective participation in the days ahead.

Lyrics below—>

The President is talking to us through a microphone
Like he's trying to pack his mother off
To an old people's home

I know you're out there
I know you're out there somewhere
I know you're out there
When I hear the word "Democracy"
I reach for my headphones

He's the president of Europe and he's talking to the dead
They're the only ones who'll listen or believe a word he said
You know I'm out here
But you can't see me, darlin'
You know I'm out here 
When I hear the word "Security"
I reach for my shotgun

He's standing in a cemetery inside the western zone
I listen on the radio, I'm glad I'm not alone
I know you're out there 
I know you're out there somewhere
God knows you're out there

I can almost hear it raining
I can almost hear it raining

I can almost hear it raining


Thursday, January 19, 2017

SONG #176: Papa Was A Rollin' Stone

The Temptations, 1972





Where were you the first time you really “heard” music for the first time?  Do you have a memory of hearing something that made you different afterwards?  That made you a person who had now heard that music?  Can you still hear it? Feel it?  See it?

Hearing this song for the first time was a turning point in my life.  It changed me, and my whole trajectory.  Without the night I’m about to describe, I would have been (and become) a different person.

I was eight years old, and we were visiting my grandmother in Melbourne FL.  This was not an unusual occurrence.  We went to Florida all the time.  I was born there, and then we moved to Newport RI, and then back to FL (Gainesville this time) and then finally to Maryland, but we went to Florida to see my grandmother three times a year, including every Christmas.  I spent 25-35 days a year at her house until I was in high school.  For a kid who grew up in the snowy East, my memories of childhood Christmases are mostly tropical.

It was a difficult visit every time.  My Ya-Ya (Mom’s family is Greek) was a troubled woman, beset by demons real and constructed.  Being around her took its toll— other songs will let me tell her story more vividly at some other time— and visiting her took work and effort to endure.  Because we went so often, and because I was an only child, I needed to bring entertainment with me to pass the time and to have something familiar to simulate some kind of home space.  In the winter of 1977, I traveled with a little suitcase record player.  

Pretty cool, huh?



When I arrived, there was a stack of 45s sitting in my room waiting for me, left there by a series of my grandmother’s boarders.  Ya-Ya took in foreign students attending FIT, or the Florida Institute of Technology.  The one I remember best is Munder, sent over by Quadafi from Lybia to learn Engineering in English so he could fly recon missions for the Lybian air force.  I swear I am not making that up.  He was an American culture nut, and consumed it uncritically.  The week he left for good in 1981, he bought a radio with a cassette deck in it, 100 90-minute tapes, and taped a top 40 radio station’s broadcast for 128 straight hours.  “I’ll need it,” was what he said when I asked why.  I often think of Munder, flying below our radar throughout the 1980s, spying on American aircraft carriers on the Line of Death, all while listening to Pat Benatar on a knockoff Walkman.

So there’s me, a little suitcase record player, a pile of random 45s, a room decorated in the mid-1960s, and the instructions to stay upstairs and entertain myself.  

A lucite spaghetti lamp: there were several in that room.


The grownups were having a party downstairs, and between my mom’s old friends and the neighbors, things got pretty loose.  After spying on the party a little bit from the top of the spiral staircase, (favorite overheard dialogue: “So you know that I told that damn P.I.G. to go to hey-ell!”) 


In my memory, the partygoers mostly looked like this.



I settled in with the record player and the 45s, and started to go through them one by one.  I don’t remember any of them, though I remember reactions of indifference, familiarity, disinterest, strong dislike, etc.  After an hour, and getting a little bored and stiff from sitting cross-legged in front of it, I reached for the next one.

I can still see it, vividly— it had the purple and yellow Tamla label.  No picture, no real info.





I was intrigued by the length: seven minutes! 45s were four minutes at most in my experience.  And I knew the phrase “Rollin’ Stone” was important— the band, the song, the magazine.  I felt like the title itself gave the song gravitas.  And I loved the name of the band: who were The Temptations?  I pushed the little yellow spindle into the center,

How beautiful is that?



put the record on, and the needle sputtered and caught the outer groove.

BUM-BUM.  BA-BA-BUM. BUM.

I could feel the silence in between the notes.

BUM-BUM.  BA-BA-BUM. BUM.

Those first bass notes and hi-hat were like a punch to the face.  I looked around, suddenly terrified.  I felt like the room had collapsed in size.  The sound of the party downstairs disappeared for me.  Those faraway strings, the rubberband guitar, the lonely trumpet— what the hell am I listening to? 

When’s the last time you listened to this song?  The introduction takes forever— it’s two minutes (1:55, to be exact) before the vocal comes in— you think it’s coming at 1:25, but the track breaks down instead, and 1:42, it’s back to square one, with that brilliantly simple and discordant guitar part imitating the bass.  The introduction is longer than some singles.

And then… “It was the 3rd of September, that day I’ll always remember (yes I will) ‘cause that was the day… that my daddy died.”

My dad had me when he was 22; he was only 30 years old the night I heard that song, and the idea that a kid could lose his father that early hadn’t crossed my mind.  Hell, my dad was still a kid.  And I was eight— the songs that came my way were big radio hits— “We Are The Champions” was #1, I think, right around then.  This song was different.  It was important.  I could feel it reaching out to me.  It felt so stripped down and intimate.  I felt the responsibility to bear witness to what was coming.

“Mama I’m depending on you to tell me the truth.”

And then mama gives that enigmatic half-answer:  “Your papa was a rollin’ stone / Wherever he laid his hat was his home / And when he died / All he left us was alone.”

That was my way into the  song— I had asked my mom what was wrong with Ya-Ya, and her answers were unified by the same vague half-truths.  I already knew there were questions about family you weren’t supposed to ask, and for which there were imperfect answers.  I felt immediate kinship.

But then the song went deeper, and I knew it was a song about something else besides a dead father. It was about the world around the character that had claimed them all, and the song was going to show it to me.

In 1977, we weren’t a rich family.  We rented a two bedroom duplex, both of my parents worked, and we didn’t take vacations that involved airplanes.  My parents paid the rent in quarters one month. I knew we didn’t have a lot of money, but we were stable, and I leaned into that stability.

“Is it true what they say that papa never worked a day in his life?”
“Three outside children and another wife”
“Stealin’ in the name of the lord”

I wasn’t sure what “outside children” meant; for a few years, I thought it meant kids who were homeless.  But I knew it was evil.

This description of poverty explained the difference between my house and theirs— it felt the desperation in it, both the skeletal insecurity (that haunting backing track) and the shared, collective despair (to this day, I imagine five brothers, maybe 6 to 18, all finally asking mom to give them the full story).  I couldn't believe how honest the singers were; the fact that the lead vocal jumped octaves and registers made it seem less like a song than a confrontation.

That night, I watched that record spin around for seven minutes and click off, and then I just sat there, to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald, alone in the unquiet darkness.  I had never been moved by anything quite like that before.  Almost scared to, I started the song over, and then I spent the 90 minutes playing and replaying it, ten times in a row.  To this day, I still get the chills when I hear it.  I’ve gotten the chills writing about it for the last few hours.  If I've ever had a listening experience like the one Ralph Ellison describes in the prologue of Invisible Man, this was it.

I credit this song with making we want to be a real musician.  It taught me rhythm— the off beat hand claps were the first syncopation I mastered.  It’s also the moment when I first began to understand the consequences of America’s obsession with race that became the focus of my adult scholarship.  I was a white kid who’d spent years in the south— I’d seen and heard plenty of racism.  But this song explained to me why racism was more than just trashy behavior I’d been raised to reject; it explained the impact.  Something began to shift in me that night that has never relented, and as I’ve grown more conversant and educated, the song’s impact doesn’t change— it just hits me differently.  But it always lands— hearing this song means something to me.  Every time.  Without it, I wouldn't have been able to understand what Ellison was talking about eight years later, or have the capacity to let Invisible Man keep changing me just as that song had.

If you wanted to explain race in America to foreigners, or aliens, or yourself, and you could only use three pieces of art to do so, I’d recommend the Frederick Douglass slave narrative, Toni Morrison’s Song Of Solomon, and this song.  “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” explains the sociopolitical, economic, psychological, and artistic fallout of slavery in seven minutes.  It’s as fundamentally American a piece of art to me as anything I’ve ever seen or heard.

So on this inauguration eve, my song is this one, a song that still resonates for me as a cry for American justice.  I plan to continue to do what I can to help us all come up with a better answer for that kid who’s asking his mom why he’s in the mess he’s in.  Yes, his dad lost the thread.  But he had some sinister help finding that darkness.

Where were you the first time you really “heard” music for the first time?  Do you have a memory of hearing something that made you different afterwards?  That made you a person who had now heard that music?  Can you still hear it? Feel it?  See it?

If you have a minute, tell me below.   



Wednesday, January 18, 2017

SONG #175: Every Little Bit

Patti Griffin, 1996



Ah, 2017. 

I’ve spent the last few months trying to figure out an artistic outlet for the voice that wants out of me concerning our country’s impending change in direction, and I’ve been wholly unsuccessful.  I find myself quoting other writers, trying to make connections among myriad texts and moments, binge-planning potential projects, and feeling hollow about them all.  At work, I’m energized, but otherwise I’m feeling a little bereft, spinning in circles.

Meanwhile, amazingly, people keep reading this modest blog and asking me why I’m not writing more of them.

Great question. 

I’m re-committing to the blog for awhile and we’ll see what happens.  I’m gonna start slow and follow where it takes me; maybe writing about one thing will lead me to another, and maybe remembering the past will help me find a voice about the present.  

So it’s back to basics for this quiet, tentative return; I hit shuffle and took the first tune the Pod offered, my favorite Patti Griffin track from her debut record.

Griffin’s first record is essentially the demo she recorded in preparation to make a debut record.  After struggling to give the songs a full-band treatment, she released this version instead.  It’s a great lesson in the pitfalls of record-making (sometimes you can gild the lily) but I also think it ultimately hurt her as a recording artist, as her audience expected her to be a folk troubadour going forward, and she had greater ambitions than that.  I happen to be a Patti Griffin fan who prefers her full band albums (Flaming Red and Silver Bell) and feel sad for her that she’s been forced to return repeatedly to acoustic music to satisfy her less-imaginative fanbase.  That said, there’s something undeniable about the power of this performance.  

I can’t decide whether “Every Little Bit” is a song about a regretful but pursued encounter, or a rape, or a confession about her emotional isolation, or a little bit of all of the above.  I love the skeletal guitar riff (easy enough for a beginner to play, but memorable and effective) and while the vocal is a little showy at the end, if I could sing like that, you better believe I’d hit those notes often.

My most vivid memory of this song was hearing it live. I saw Patti open for Shawn Colvin in 1996 when Colvin was touring her breakup album A Few Small Repairs.  Patti was a solo acoustic opener, and my seat was in the balcony of what was then the Luther Burbank Center in Santa Rosa (now called something else— Wells Fargo Entertainment Box, or something like that).  I had heard of her, and maybe given the record a cursory spin at a Tower Records, but I wasn’t particularly moved by it.  In those days, though, I never missed the opening act.  I had been in my seat for about ten minutes when the lights went out, and Griffin walked onstage at 8:01pm (things start PUNCTUALLY at performing arts centers).  My first thought was how slight she looked— the guitar looked enormous on her.  She went right into the riff that leads off this tune,  opened her mouth, and filled the room instantly.  It was one of the most impressive first twenty seconds of a show I’ve ever seen.  She absolutely killed the whole song, and I was sitting at just the right angle for her guitar to catch the light and shine right at me. It remains a vivid concert memory two decades later.  While the rest of the set was strong, and I left a fan, nothing topped those first five minutes.


My view that night...


In 1996, especially, it spoke to that twenty-something kid in the balcony who was also just figuring out how to come out of his own wiry shell and not see nighttime encounters as skirmishes.  I remember feeling instant kinship with the fractured loneliness embedded both in the lyrics and in the voice, and since I was at the height of my sensitive-ponytail-solo-acoustic music career, I think I went home and wrote a dozen crummy knockoffs.  Listening all the years later, I feel pretty far removed from its jagged disaffection.  And I believe Patti now lives with Robert Plant, so hopefully she’s doing better also.

See you soon.




Sunday, February 8, 2015

SONG #174: Goin' Back

Nils Lofgren, 1975



For the last twelve years, I’ve been fortunate enough to be playing music at a pretty high professional level.  I’ve also been lucky enough to be a sideman through all that time, so I’ve been wonderfully anonymous through it all.  

Case in point— (and you’re just going to have to excuse the #humblebrag quality of some of this)— I played on the Jimmy Kimmel Live! show last year.  I was playing keys for my buddy Jeff Campbell.  I had quite a rock star day— I flew into LA, took a cab right to the show, rolled in backstage and met up with the rest of the band, did the gig (as Homer Simpson reminds us all, we musicians call it a “gig”) spent the night at a classic LA hipster hotel (the caviar in the hallway vending machine was only $300 bucks!) and flew home the next day.  Sounds pretty glamorous, huh?  Well… the whole experience on Hollywood Boulevard that day reminded me what a seven-layer cake of humble pie (sorry for the dessert mixed metaphor) fame is.  Allow me to break it down:

Level 1— the guys on Hollywood Blvd. dressed up like movie stars and movie characters.  




Level 2— the tourists there to take pictures and wait in line to see Jimmy Kimmel’s show.




Level 3— Jeff Campbell: handsome bugger.




Level 4— The “famous” people on the show in front of Jeff (it was the actress from The Great Gatsby— we weren’t allowed near her.  The dressing rooms are stratified as well.)




Level 5— Jimmy Kimmel (or his first guest, depending on how A-listy)




Level 6— The stars looking down on us from the billboards overheard (it was Wolf on Wall Street Di Caprio that week)






Level 7— The guys in the offices on the top floors of the buildings with DiCaprio on them deciding who will be the next DiCaprio.



I'm scared to look directly at this picture.



So where was I?  Right around a 2+, I think, as long as I had my “performer” wristband on.  My favorite moment came when I had to step outside about an hour before showtime.  By then, there was a big line of people waiting to get into the show.  When I opened the door, about fifty people shouted and took my picture, and then groaned sadly when they realized they had wasted digital storage space on a picture of no-one.  A few even looked at me accusingly as if I had tricked them into taking my picture in the first place.  I felt like I could hear the line delete my photo.

I was on TV for exactly 1.65 seconds.  That’s 1.65 seconds more than I ever expected to be, but not enough to register on any starmaker machinery.





And it was GREAT!  I had a blast, and I didn’t have to suffer through the nerves that Jeff must have felt.  It was all bacon and gravy and chocolate and butter cream icing and no vegetables (what’s with all the food metaphors?  I’m getting a snack after I finish writing this one.)  

If I was still trying to peddle my own material with my 90s ponytail, there’s no WAY I’d be on Kimmel.  I finally found my calling when I took two steps to the right and started helping people make their songs sound good (thanks, Rich Price!)  Being a sideman is fantastic, and suits me so much better.

I tell you all of this in order to explain why I have developed a soft spot for this song, my favorite performance by perhaps rock’s most successful guy like me.

Nils Lofgren spent over a decade almost making it— first in Grin, then as a solo artist, and sometimes flirting as a guitarist in other bands.  He’s a damn fine musician— he can play just about anything better than most people, has a voice born to blend and hit difficult harmony vocals, and (especially important if you grew up in DC in the 70s) HE WROTE AND PERFORMED THIS SONG!!:


If that was Nils’ only contribution to culture, he’d be on my short list.

But the hard truth about Nils?  His songs aren’t that memorable.  He just put out a NINE CD collection of his life’s work, and I liked a handful of songs on it, and they were all from his debut album.  I don’t dislike any of them, but I can’t hum them or remember them right after they finish.  He’s a guy born to play music— other people’s music.  Once he joined the E Street Band in 1985, he discovered the perfect gig for his talents.  He makes Bruce Springsteen’s music sound better, and based on what a wonderful overall guy he seems to be, he helps keep the E Street Band together.  And he doesn't have to carry the show.

It's why this performance is his best; he didn't write it.  “Goin’ Back” is a Goffin/King tune, one of their little miracles, and while Dusty Springfield, The Byrds, Springsteen, and a dozen others recorded it, I think I like Nils' version best.  The song is about trying to hold onto and recapture youthful innocence in adulthood's more complex landscape.  The lyrics suggest that you can, that even though there are no more "electric trains" and "sailboat[s]" to play with, it's still possible to "think... young [while] growing older."  Most performances of the song, however, hint at an underlying lack of reconciliation-- that "you can't go home again."  They turn the song into something wistful: sophisticated, yes, but also in the wrong hands a little maudlin.

Not Nils-- he's the dreamer, the eternal optimist in this performance.  By speeding up the tempo a little and adding that fantastic "look at how fast I can play! Wheeeee!" piano part, he does something different.  The song becomes a declaration, not a warning or a meditation.  It's over in a flash-- under 2 1/2 minutes-- and it's a bouncy, happy paean to being a wide-eyed kid in long pants.  It would fit right in over a montage in a cartoon movie in which the main character finds his courage. Nils believes he can stay an open-minded kid forever, make "every day a magic carpet ride."  

And he did-- he just had to jump on someone else's carpet to do it. It's good work it you can get it-- take it from me.


Now go buy a Jeff Campbell record.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NJlqNg3x0vU

Saturday, January 31, 2015

SONGS #163-173: Bruce Springsteen— The Agora, Cleveland OH 8-9-78, SET TWO




Rested?  Great.  “Alright! Round Two!”

The band comes out, Springsteen introduces Clarence, and they break into Paradise by the “C.”  It’s interesting to compare the crowd’s reaction— they are far less frantic than at the top of the show.  The band’s already won them over, and now band and audience are old friends, relaxed, and it shows in the band’s performance.  This version of “Paradise” truly swings— compare this track to the “Summertime / Badlands” opener— here, the band’s in no hurry, and there’s no attempt to knock the audience over or blow them back.  Instead, the band’s loping along (well, except when Max unleashes 300 snare hits at 3:05).  “Paradise” is the kind of song only the E Street Band can pull off and make charming.  It sounds like ballroom dance music, something these guys might have heard floating out of a dance hall in their childhoods.  It serves to warm the band up for set two, and gives Clarence a showcase after a first set when he’s not prominently featured.  It’s not Clarence’s best moment— he’s late in places and he flubs the last pass, but the band’s exuberance covers for him.  Things are, to use a favorite Springsteen expression, “loose.”

That vibe continues with “Fire,” a hit song that Bruce gave away.  Here’s Bruce in seduction mode, and you can tell it’s working from the audience’s reaction.  I love this version of the song— the band holds back a little more than on the Roxy 78 version on the box set.  Bittan’s less insistent in the second verse, and the bridge is a little more sloppy and offhand, which fits Bruce’s delivery.  There’s no showoffy high notes on this version— Bruce is in sly smolder mode from beginning to end.  “C’mere darlin’…”

After “Fire,” Bruce feels like chatting.  Unlike the more scripted, reverent stories from set one, here Bruce is off the cuff, and sharing his knowledge of rock history, introducing “Sherry Darling” as an imitation of what Bruce calls “frat rock.”  From a 2015 perspective, it’s fascinating to listen to Bruce sounding like a grizzled old rocker at age 28.  We have not yet, in 1978,  reached the moment when old farts like me are at concerts (or on the stage)— it’s a young person’s game and activity, and Bruce seems a little embarrassed to have to explain the origins of his song with 60s references.   Lots of bootlegs from the 70s reveal this tension— my favorite moment is from a 1971 Allman Brothers radio broadcast, when Duane Allman is lamenting the murder of saxophonist King Curtis, brings up Aretha Franklin’s “Soul Serenade” as one of his great performances, and then says, “but you kids are probably too young to remember that far back. Sorry.”  Not only is he talking about a song that’s only three years old at that point, but he’s 24 when he apologizes to his audience for bringing up ancient history!  Only in the early days of rock and roll was a 24 year-old unsettlingly old.  Springsteen is in the first generation of rock stars to turn music into a career and not just a youthful distraction, but he’s not there yet.



Does not include "Sherry Darling"


This version of “Sherry Darling” is a blast, and the crowd deserves an MVP award, even if Bruce uncharacteristically butchers the lyrics more than once.  It swings a little harder than the studio version (an audible bass track really helps) and it represents where the Darkness record (and The River after it) could have gone.  Either of those records could have been party records, chock full of three minute singalongs, but Bruce (much to Van Zandt’s disappointment) couldn’t bring himself to limit his vision to a series of hit singles.  Now that he’s finally released dozens of outtakes from those sessions, you can make Van Zandt’s version of Darkness or The River for yourself.  I can truly see both men’s point-of-view.

At the end of “Darling,” Bruce is completely loose, joking with the audience and completely in control.  He turns back to Max and says “Give me a beat!” and so begins what is, for me, the high point of the night— the mesmerizing hourlong trip through four of his most durable tunes— “She’s The One,” Growin’ Up,” “Backstreets,” and “Rosalita.”  “She’s The One” takes forever to rev up to fell speed— it’s all drums and vocals for the first 3 1/2 minutes.  Bruce picks up his guitar and improvs some chordal solos. He’s ragged in places, and outrageously out of tune in others, but it completely works. It’s a pretty brave, skeletal moment in the show, six full minutes of Bo Diddley beat before the payoff.  And he’s not done— Bittan starts the intro to “She’s The One,” but Bruce sings “Gloria” over it instead.  The band doesn’t miss a beat.  Finally, seven and a half minutes in, Bruce starts “She’s the One.”  Unlike “Summertime Blues,” I read the inclusion of the covers here as hints to the audience of where Bruce is trying to position himself in rock music— “Not Fade Away” and “Gloria” are, by this point, well-known covers by dozens of bands, and Springsteen’s versions are close to the originals.  But if you think about it, in 1978 Springsteen seems to want to be the intersection point between Buddy Holly’s specificity and minimalism ("Not Fade Away") and Van Morrison’s wild, emotional indulgence ("Gloria").  Isn’t “She’s The One,” in fact, a Buddy Holly ripoff with lyrics reminiscent of Morrison’s romanticized descriptions of desire?  The band’s energy here elevates the tune above homage or imitation, though— it’s tougher than Holly and more direct than Morrison.  It’s also the first major high point of set two, and unique as well in that Bittan’s piano disappears completely from the mix.  He usually dominates the song, and I like this more stripped down version— the guitars take center stage, and it becomes about the sound generated by the whole band rather than one instrument.

It takes a moment to work out whatever was wrong with the mix, and once the piano is audible again, Springsteen called for “Roy!” and begins one of his longest-ever versions of “Growin’ Up.”  This version is known among Springsteen fans as the “Teenage Werewolf” version because of the story that he tells, and it’s a story similar to the one that he tells on the box set at the Roxy.  Told to choose between being a lawyer and an author (or “a author,” as he stubbornly insists on saying), he chooses option C, this time with God’s blessing.  I won’t spoil it any further— just check it out.  It’s a generous, triumphant performance.





I will say this, though— Springsteen is one of the few rock performers who can captivate a room with a story, and perhaps that's because it's the only time he's really comfortable talking to people.  In every book I’ve read about Springsteen, the difference between the shy, offstage personality and the extrovert onstage is really startling.  Like so many of his contemporaries, Springsteen was only able to work through the pain he felt about his relationship with his father in his art, and these stage stories are an integral part of the that struggle.  In Tom Petty’s Running Down A Dream documentary, archivist Bill Levenson says that the great untold story of rock n roll is fathers and sons, and Springsteen is exhibit A.  He plays the story that he tells here as comedy, but there’s so much obvious pain and repression at the center of it.  Whenever I listen to “Growin’ Up,” especially this one, I can’t help but think of the hundreds of thousands of teenage kids who felt exactly this way, and never found the outlet or the success that Springsteen did.  This song resonates with me for some similar reasons, but it doesn’t haunt me— I love my life.  However, if you really felt like the character in “Growin’ Up,” and also felt like you’d never escaped those demons and shadows, then this song must hurt and cut deep, even when Bruce yells “Let it rock!” and tries to you free.  

One final footnote for those of you who don’t know who Earl Sheib is:





And right into “Backstreets” in its most epic form for “Joey and Jimmy, Cleveland boys who’ve been following me for three years… I love them so much.”  Already seven minutes on album, this version is twice as long, and includes the interlude that Springsteen collectors refer to as “Sad Eyes.”  Unlike the other epic songs that I’ve been critical of in this review, I think “Backstreets” is magnificent on Born To Run, and harder to improve live than some of his other tunes.  Moreover, for some reason, the images and characters don’t seem overly stylized to me.  Rather than feeling like a low-rent West Side Story, this song always made me feel like I needed to meet more interesting people, and that love required a depth of devotion and feeling that, when I first heard the song as a teenager, I knew I didn’t have yet.  These folks felt real to me, and “Backstreets” made me want to dig deeper into myself.  The band on this take feels the same way— they are up to the challenge and play “Backstreets” with the same fervor that they brought to “Prove It All Night” ninety minutes earlier.

Bruce hits the “Sad Eyes” moment around the six minute mark.  There are variations of this interlude all over the 1978 tour, and I find myself wondering just how autobiographical it is.  Bruce stripped images from it and turned it into “Drive All Night” on The River, but I prefer it here (even if it's so Van Morrison-ish that Bruce should consider an Irish accent).  If you don’t listen closely, you’ll miss what a dispirited moment it is as well— he feels betrayed, and he’s hurt, even mean as it builds.  By the time he yells “STOP!” at 10:40, “Backstreets” is a much more complex tune then when it started, and its narrator is far less of a puncher’s chance hero.  Even after twelve minutes, the band has the strength to nail the ending, which is played for maximum drama, features a terrific, tricky little chord progression at the end (G-C-Am-F-D-D7) to get back to the original riff, and leaves the crowd completely spent.

And he’s STILL not done!  He calls out Roy again, and it’s time for Rosie.  The crowd starts calling for it by name at 13:35 in “Backstreets,” even though they sound completely exhausted.  Listen how quiet they are— you can hear individual people yelling like you couldn’t before.  It sounds like Bruce is having technical issues— he’s uncharacteristically absent (is that Clarence trying to banter on his turned-down mic?) and then you can hear him plug in his guitar (always put your amp on standby before you plug in, Bruce), and finally, over two hours after he started, Bruce is ready to start closing the show.

If you’re still reading, chances are I have nothing to add to your appreciation of “Rosalita.”  The live take from Phoenix ’78 that MTV played every 45 minutes in the 80s totally drew me in every time-- I know this song backwards and forwards.  Back when MTV first started, and they only showed about 25 different videos, they would sometimes show the live “Rosalita” right before or after Meatloaf’s “Paradise By The Dashboard Light.”  They were both live performance clips (though the Meatloaf one was on a soundstage and lip-synched), featured similar lighting, and were epic in length.  And I feel like watching them back to back taught me everything I needed to know about how to decode authentic rock n roll from posturing.  Those two videos are a crash course in what and what not to do in a rock n roll band.  Close your eyes and remember those clips-- who do you believe, Springsteen or Meatloaf?  (And a quick thank you to Karla DeVito for speeding along puberty a tiny bit.) *



Meatloaf giving young viewers hope that there's someone for everyone.



Two more quick things— I also think this is the last tour when Bruce bragged about his lack of education— he introduces Bittan as “the only member of the group with a high school diploma.”  By the time he writes Nebraska, his lack of education is no longer a badge of honor for him.  And did you hear the band play “Macho Man” for five seconds when Bruce introduces Clarence?  Pretty hilarious, even to Bruce: “I was afraid of that.”

When Rosie finally takes her bow, the band says goodnight, and amazingly, Bruce then leads them back out for another thirty minutes.  It’s totally fun— a sweet “4th Of July, Asbury Park” with unapologetic accordion (and absurdly loud castanets), a muscular “Born To Run” with sincere thanks to Cleveland, a burning cover of Eddie Floyd’s “Raise Your Hand,” and a totally unnecessary, if-you-really-want-one-more-then-OK “Twist And Shout.”  

It’s a generous encore, and totally fun, but Bruce has already made his point earlier in the night.  This 1978 tour is not just a history of Springsteen’s career, but also Bruce’s attempt to communicate how he feels as he stares at turning thirty.  The Agora concert is not unlike a rock n roll version of The Great Gatsby, with Springsteen embodying not the doomed, self-invented title character, but Gatsby’s narrator, Nick Carraway— a spy in enemy country who is also turning thirty, desperate to hold onto his youthful belief in “infinite hope,” and trying to chase down the hypocrisies not just in his peers, and in his country but, most painfully, himself.  Compare Nick’s eulogy on page two that foreshadows Gatsby’s fall— “Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men” — to Springsteen’s “Baby this town rips the bones from your back / It's a death trap, it's a suicide rap / We gotta get out while we're young /`Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run.” In both, there’s a sinister hegemony lurking out in the darkness that wants to claim us, that has already defined us by our class, or our race, or our background, and the only way to evade it is to acknowledge and face it, and then be willing to leave it behind, consequences be damned.

So, yeah, it’s a pretty great show.  I still believe in the power of live music to change us.  So go see a band soon— it’s good for you. 

Thanks for coming along for this ride, and see you soon.



* And because I can't resist-- the actual female vocalist on "Dashboard: is Ellen Foley, girlfriend of The Clash's Mick Jones, who co-wrote "London Calling," covered at Hyde Park in London in 2010 by... Bruce Springsteen.




Thursday, January 29, 2015

SONGS #153-162: Bruce Springsteen-- The Agora, Cleveland OH 8-9-78, SET ONE




Introduction / preshow tailgate:

My relationship with Bruce Springsteen’s music has been inconsistent.  I was late to the game— while Bruce was establishing himself in the late 70s, I was listening to Boston and the Beatles.  The first song I was aware of was “Hungry Heart,” and it sounded like a 50s song to me; I skipped over him and, in 1982, went right to the Clash and punk rock.  In the winter of 1983, however, I joined the Columbia record and tape club (again— see http://20ksongs.blogspot.com/2011/04/songs-143-147-side-one-of-10987654321.html for more details), and bought Nebraska, which was the first Springsteen album I owned and listened to carefully, and I loved it.  When I got my first acoustic guitar a year later, I learned how to play “Atlantic City,” “Johnny 99,” “State Trooper” and “Highway Patrolman” in the first week I had it— they were four of the first twenty songs I learned how to play on guitar.

That spring, I was in the backseat of my parents’ car, and we were driving back into Annapolis over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, when a song came on the radio that grabbed my attention immediately.  I thought the lyrics were incredible (and I usually never notice lyrics) and the melody unforgettable.  But I was also really bummed out by the loud 80s keyboard sound (ironic, as by that point I was myself a loud 80s keyboard player in a band).  When the song ended, I thought to myself, “Wow— that’s a great song— too bad it sounds that way.”  

It was “Dancing In The Dark.”



"I'll be there for youuuuuuuuu...."


The rest, as you know, is history.  Bruce became Broooooooooooooce that year.  By 1985, he was playing stadiums and was probably the most popular American rock musician since Elvis.  I bought Born In The U.S.A. like everyone I knew, listened to it 700 times, watched the videos on MTV every time they came on, and… secretly… didn’t love it that much.  The gunshot snare drum and the DX-7 synth got in my way of those terrific songs every time; they still do.

So I went backwards in the catalog looking for greatness, and I was frustrated by almost all of it. I loved Born To Run (and it’s still my favorite by some distance), but Greetings, from 1973, was too quiet and restrained.  Wild And Innocent was too inconsistent— even then I couldn’t abide a drummer who slows down.  Darkness was too slow and ponderous for me in the 80s— when half your record collection is hardcore punk rock, Darkness sounds like chamber music, and Bruce looked sleepy to me on the cover, not brooding.  Same problem with The River— I loved the first three songs, and most of the fast numbers, but I was bored to death by side four.

I basically decided that, though I would keep it to myself, Springsteen was overrated and perhaps a little too in love with his “everyman” image.

The behemoth live box set in 1986 changed everything.  I couldn’t listen to the fourth and fifth LPs (who wants to feel like they’re sitting in a giant stadium?) but the first three albums in the box floored me.  Here were the versions of the songs that made sense!  Hearing him live, I totally got it.  I listened to some of those performances every day for year.  It’s still not safe for me to drive to “Saint In The City” or “Candy’s Room.”

Therefore, being the kind of person I am (and maybe you are, if you’re still reading) I went hunting for Springsteen bootlegs, and since 1991, when I got high quality copies of the Passaic 9-19-78 and Main Point 2-5-75 shows, almost all of my Springsteen listening has been live bootlegs.  The only two records I listen to anymore are Born To Run and Wild and Innocent— other than that, the Bruce that I feel truly does him justice is unavailable to the law-abiding record buying public. (With the exception of Live In Dublin from 2007— that’s fantastic). In fact, this blog’s humble beginnings is a bootleg Springsteen track; http://20ksongs.blogspot.com/2009/12/song-1.html.

So imagine my excitement when, after four decades of hopeful clamoring by fans, Bruce Springsteen has opened his vaults.  On the dedicated website live.brucespringsteen.net, he has started to release complete concerts, following the model used by Pearl Jam and Phish— almost of his 2014 tour is available, but more exciting, he has started a simultaneous “archives” series that promises to reach back as far as 1973.

The first release in the series was from the Apollo Theatre in 2012, and I believe it was the first show after Clarence Clemons’ death.  Though an emotional and memorable night for the band, it didn’t do much for me as a show; I didn’t love the song selection or the mix, and it had me worried that Bruce would overthink his choices and leave us all frustrated again.

This show was the second release, two days before Christmas, and it has taken over my life for the last month.  It blew my head off.  So much so, that it’s going to re-awaken the blog, and lead me to try something new; I’m going to listen to the entire show and write about it in one sitting.

I had heard the bootleg version of the show taped off the radio, and while fun, the sound quality was an impediment.  But this is the original master tape, mixed by Jimmy Iovine and given a sonic 2015 scrubbing to remove its age spots.  It sounds exactly like 1978— it’s a damn time machine. Since I started listening to it, my dreams have been about my childhood, and I’m remembering all kinds of things that I’d forgotten (some of which, I’m sure, will come up in the next few hours).  As of this writing, this show is the definitive 1978 document of the band, and one of the five best things Springsteen’s ever released, period.

Because it’s 2015, the show has already been uploaded here:     AGORA 8-9-78 COMPLETE SHOW

so until they pull it down, get comfy and feel free to listen along.  It’s even indexed for ya.  For the next three hours, the blog has a new subtitle: “Jeff stays up too late listening to a concert for the 17th time and loves every minute of it.”



Set One Notes (Lights go out):

Agora 1978 is the complete set from a show in the middle of the mammoth Darkness tour, a free show played in front of 1500 people in a place that holds 750 and broadcast live on WMMS in Cleveland and all around the region.  Springsteen does two 70 minute sets and a thirty minute encore.  It’s a month after the famous Roxy show that Springsteen used on the live box set.  It’s a hot, steamy Cleveland summer night, the club has allowed double capacity to sneak in, Springsteen knows that millions will be listening on the radio, and he’s hungry.

Kid Leo, WMMS DJ and rock tastemaker, introduces the band.  Springsteen comes on, and undercuts Leo’s rhyming dictionary introduction.  “He must have memorized that at home.”  The band jumps into “Summertime Blues,” faithful to the Eddie Cochran original.  Many of Springsteen’s shows in 1978 opened with a cover— I realize now after years of playing little clubs that it’s a brilliant move on several levels, but primarily, it gives the sound man a “throwaway” song to double check his levels, chase problems, and get a good mix together before the “actual” first song.  And sure enough, it’s a good thing— you can hear feedback throughout the track, and Clarence’s mic is too low.  Nevertheless, the band is having a ball, and when the end of “Summertime” becomes the dramatic opening to “Badlands,” you can feel the audience levitate.

“Badlands,” when Springsteen isn’t feeling it, bores me— it’s dangerously mid tempo, and the lyrics demand an urgency in the performance.  This version is the opposite— I’ve never enjoyed listening to this song as much as I have this month.  I don’t think it’s their “best” performance— the background vocals are ragged, and Bruce oversings in moments and loses pitch, but it’s part of the charm.  Listens to Max Weinberg’s drums— he’s so excited that he’s starting his fills eight bars before a change instead of four— he’s barely in control all the way through, and it’s fantastic.  Weinberg has claimed in several interviews that he thinks this show is the E Street Band’s greatest ever, and you can see why— he goes for broke start to finish.  Check out the ridiculous fill at 3:23— he is jacked up.  It’s amazing he was able to calm down enough to play the ballads.  I also love the guitar tones and where Danny Federici’s organ sits in the track— everything is rough and low-fi but still warm and professional.  When the track ends, you can hear the pandemonium in the club.  Bruce even seems a little overwhelmed— “Yo! Cleveland!”

And right into “Spirit In The Night.”  Here’s another song that can veer off into parody.  For people who don’t get Springsteen, this song is exhibit A, with the silly character names and the overdramatized delivery.  Me?  I love it.  Call me a sucker, but these lyrics capture the desperation of youthful love expertly— “I said ‘I’m hurt,” she said “Honey, let me heal it.”  The first night that a woman said a version of that to me is one of the most intensely (and ultimately heartbreaking) memories of my entire life.  And the fact that it took place near a pond (no Greasy Lake, but it’ll work in a pinch) connected the song and moment forever in my head.  It was the first time I’d fallen in love uncontrollably, and to be requited for one night (but not a second) taught me all kinds of good and bad lessons.  So “Spirit In The Night” might be theatrical, but since I feel like I played the lead role, I forgive it entirely.

The mix on this track is brilliant.  If you listen, you can hear everybody— the interplay between pianist Roy Bittan and Federici is particularly clear, and Gary Tallent’s bass is dead center.  Tallent is the unsung hero of this band— I never undertstood why he didn’t get more session work away from E Street.  Take thirty seconds and focus on him— he never stops moving and never pulls focus.  And Clarence is feeling it early in this show— he’s not exactly Coltrane, but he’s nailing his spots.

Bruce takes a full minute break after “Spirit”— I think he’s worried that the crowd is a little out of control— there’s the “I’m workin’ here!” admonition, and then he asks the front to sit down only two songs after he asked them to stand at the start.  “We’ve got a long way to go.”

“This is for Jay Cox in Cincinnati.”  And into “Darkness On The Edge Of Town.”  The studio version is missing something for me— it’s too careful, or performed, or something.  I never connected with it.  Here, though, the song completely makes sense to me.  The dynamic shift between the verses and choruses is arresting— EVERYONE finds a great part.  Listen to Bruce pull his guitar out of tune three or four times just playing chords along with the band— it sounds like he’s beating the hell out of it.  And Max’s three kick drums at 2:36!!  By the time Bruce gets to the “I’ll be on that hill!” crescendo, the band has nowhere to go— the last minute of the song is full-bore, on a song that was supposed to calm the audience down and restore order.  Not here.

Then comes a real shift— Bruce plays “Factory,” a strange little two minute love letter to his dad and to Cleveland workers, still a successful factory town in 1978 and just starting to die slowly.  It’s clear that Bruce is trying to be serious, and the crowd doesn’t catch on right away.  Bruce is using set one to try to communicate the themes of his most recent album— accepting adulthood, compromise, imperfections, and responsibilities.  “Summertime Blues” is a thing of the past— the next 45 minutes is Bruce at his most deadly serious.  The fans call for hits at the end of “Factory,” but Bruce has things planned out— “we’re gonna get to that one, but this one’s called ‘Promised Land.’”

These kinds of tunes are the side of Springsteen that can be ponderous if he’s not careful.  There’s nothing fun about “Factory” into “Promised Land,” and if not for the band, there might be a lull here, but the guys really have Springsteen’s back this night.  Steve Van Zandt saves “Promised Land”— the rhythm guitar has bite and grit not on the studio version, and his background vocals are unhinged and wonderfully tossed-off.  He’s much-needed adrenaline on the tune (Bruce acknowledges him at the end of the song).  When Springsteen takes a solo at 2:41, he’s picked up on the band’s vibe, and he’s far more adventurous than usual, reaching for high, bended notes and sacrificing precision for feel.  Even so, the last two minutes of this track are the low point of the show for me— listening to the last verse and chorus feels like work, or medicine.  It feels like it’s good for me, and the only moment in the whole show where I feel like Bruce is singing at me, rather than inviting me to sing along with him.

Happily, it’s a short-lived lull.  What follows next is one of the handful of greatest performances I’ve ever heard this band do.  On the 1978 tour, Bruce opened “Prove It All Night” with the longest guitar solos of his career since he was a stoner blooze guitarist on the Jersey Shore in Steel Mill in the late 60s and early 70s.  And this “Prove” is my current favorite— over the ones from Winterland and Berkeley that same year that are also contenders.  I love the tight, claustrophobic mix— listen to Clarence’s triangle cut through, Bittan’s piano, and the way Van Zandt, Tallent and Weinberg are locked in.  At 1:20, Bruce joins in, playing an A to B hammer-on for twenty seconds.  Then he’s off— when I was younger, I thought Bruce was sloppy, but the older I get, the more I love his playing.   He’s an angular player who can play fast, but who is also really interested in the overtones and harmonics that he grabs by accident.  I also love that he’s in no rush here— each part of the solo has its own flavor, and though improvised, stumbles upon some lovely memories (2:30-3:00, for example).  By the time he’s warmed up, he heads up the neck for the showstopping moment.  In a riff that Mark Knopfler would use to kickstart his career in “Sultans Of Swing” a year later, Springsteen builds the intro the first set’s great musical crescendo, and then the bands drops expertly into the song itself.  

I remember reading a story about Springsteen from 1985 in Rolling Stone about his inability to turn off his internal motor.  It described an off night on the Born In The USA tour on which he was playing 3+ hours a night.  He went to a bar, jumped up with the band there and did 50s covers, and got so worked up that his own band took him outside, threw him over a car hood, and poured ice water on him to try to get him back to earth.  “Prove It All Night” to me has always sounded like the musical equivalent of that side of Bruce.  It’s such a desperate song, breathless and aggressive— in almost every live version I’ve heard, he clutches at least one line because his mistimes his breath—  I can’t believe there’s two more hours to go after this song ends— how is this song not the finale?  How does he push himself this completely and then regroup and do it again and again?  Truly remarkable stamina.  The final minute is ridiculous— Max and Bruce are daring each other to keep going.  It reminds me of a Who track the way the drums and guitar takes turns going for broke.

When I was 19, I felt the same way as this song feels— I would have trouble sleeping for days, and either walk or drive around my neighborhood from one to four am trying to feed and conquer the voices in my head telling me that I could do more.  My friends must have thought I was nuts— I dragged so many of them out into the empty streets of my neighborhood just to walk and talk for hours.  It wasn’t until my late 30s that I could have a meaningful conversation without pacing.  

Finally, at ten minutes, they call it.  Even Bruce needs a minute and a half to catch his breath— he gives Max his due, and then takes a break, and maybe even signs an autograph.  But Bruce is not done pushing the audience— there are three songs left to go in the set, and they’re all monsters: “Racing In The Street,” “Thunder Road,” and “Jungleland.”  

I’ve never been a car guy, so the iconography and fetishistic quality of Bruce’s car descriptions have never done much for me, but like any good American, I love the freedom and escape and reinvention that a car offers.  I’m not a big fan of “Racing,” but it’s an essential song to play here— there’s nowhere to go but down from “Prove It All Night,” and Bruce’s vocal here is outstanding— I feel the frustration of the characters here in ways that I don’t on other performances of this song. In fact, one of the few songs I’ve written myself that isn’t awful unconsciously ripped off the final verse of this song and I didn’t know it until this month.  Another sign of aging— I’ve learned that my skills as an editor and critic wildly outweigh my skills as a creator.  The outro here is beautiful, a great example of a band listening to one another and building to something together.  Even Clarence doesn’t overdo it.

Bruce has just played five straight songs from his new album, which isn’t selling well in August of 1978.  That’s thirty five minutes of unfamiliar music.  He has demanded a lot of his audience, and himself, and it’s time to reward them with two tracks from 1975’s Born To Run, the record that saved his career.  

As the songs fades to just piano, Bruce tells a true story of a car trip that he and Steve took in 1977 to the west coast (pictures from it are in the Darkness Box set released a few years ago).  Now he’s the one behind the wheel, but instead of “Racing” around Asbury Park, he’s set his sights on the world— it’s the perfect bridge to “Thunder Road,” a song all about getting out and away and escaping, “pulling out of here to win.”  Now the message of set one is starting to take shape— a concert is a party, a communal celebration, where often we cheer our successes, but it’s also OK to acknowledge our fears, admit to our weaknesses and obsessions, bemoan our disappointments, renounce our fears, and demand more of ourselves and our lives.  When he announces “Thunder Road,” the place explodes with recognition and relief— the Darkness tunes have been bleak and unrelenting, and offered no guarantee of success.  It’s time to sing along and believe that, as Ralph Ellison’s wounded vet claimed in Invisible Man, we can “be our own fathers.”

It’s a great “Thunder Road,” expertly played and sung (though the sound guy is chasing gremlins suddenly— check out Clarence’s entry on sax— he’s WAAAAAY too loud.  Some fans complained that the show wasn’t remixed for release, and it’s true that some moments sound better than others, but I love the you-are-there quality of it— that’s what the show sounded like in the hall that night, and a live show is sometimes defined and made memorable by happy accidents). If the set ended there, it would have been generous, and allowed people to go to the break feeling relieved, but Springsteen isn’t letting people off that easily.  Rather than “Thunder Road’s” uplifting optimism, Bruce makes his audience follow him back into his darkness and neuroses with “Jungleland.”

I can’t believe Bruce wrote “Jungleland” at 24.  In many ways, his music seems more like a younger man’s now than the stuff he wrote in the 70s.  When Bittan starts the intro, the audience sounds excited, but also trepidatious to me— “Oh man, they’re gonna play THAT now?”  You can almost hear them take some deep breaths and prepare themselves for it.

“Jungleland” is another Bruce romantic epic.  Much as I love it, it makes me laugh at the same time.  Who has EVER been known as “The Magic Rat”?  I had never taken the track that seriously until I saw the band do it live in 1988 at the Amnesty International superconcert with Peter Gabriel and Sting and Tracy Chapman and Youssou N’Dour (thanks again for the ticket, Redman).  Seeing it live, all the bombast made sense, and I got completely caught up in the grandeur of it.  The same thing happens here— I’ve been typing non-stop for 90 minutes, and I don’t feel tired at all— Bruce is soloing at the three minute mark, and I’m bopping my head.  I’ve heard this version a dozen times in the last thirty days, and I can’t wait for the sax solo, and I don’t really LIKE sax solos. (There’s some funny stuff going on as well.  Listen for the moments when they put too much reverb on Max’s snare drum trying to imitate the album mix— a few of them last through the next hit).

I like to imagine what the band is thinking at this point— they’ve been onstage for 65 minutes, and they must know it’s been a special first set, and that they’re killing it, again, on the radio.  Do they know the tide is turning?  That this is the gig that will define their lives?  The combination of brotherhood, confidence, arrogance, commitment and purpose must have been overwhelming at times.  It’s so hard to be in a band, and keep it together, and surely the E Street Band must have had its petty politics, but it’s not possible to be onstage playing this well and not feel a part of something bigger.

Finally, Bruce calls an end to set one— the ending of the tune is marred by some painful feedback (blame the reverb again) but it’s still triumphant.  Bruce introduces the whole band, and it feels like it could be good night.  After all, it’s a free show, and it’s been 70 minutes, and instead, he asks for fifteen minutes to regroup.  Little does the audience know that he’s not even halfway done.


So let’s take fifteen minutes (or a month— your call.  It’s the internets, after all.  I’m splitting this into parts anyway).  Get some water and a stretch, rest your ears, and get ready to be rewarded for being such a conscientious audience member in part one.  Set one was complex and demanding— set two is a nonstop party.  I think that, for most people, once is enough through that first set.  The “Prove It All Night” will hold up over repeated listenings, but otherwise, you’re good.  But this second set?  Make room in your iPod (or whatever the hell we’re using these days).  It’s really really fun.

Dear Apple-- can we please have this 160gb iPod back?  I don't want to stream stuff.  
Thank you-- an old man who fears change.