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.

No comments:

Post a Comment