Contrast and compare – that’s one very good way to track an artist as he or she progresses through their life. Do they grow, or do they stay rooted in place and style? Are they true to their muse, or do they bend with the fashion of the day? Does the work resonate years and decades later? Does it make you feel as much at age 60 as it did at age 30?
Bruce Springsteen has been a constant in my adult life. From the first earth-shattering concert I attended at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island, way back in 197something I knew that he and the E Street Band were quite simply great. Over the years I’ve had the good fortune to see them in concert, and every show was just magic. Jan and I saw them in Connecticut shortly before we moved west, and I got to see them from a corporate box at Madison Square Garden with some colleagues and clients. I was struck by how many in my group were like me – respectable older guys by day, rock and roll animals and Bruce fanatics by night. We knew every lyric, every lick, and every story. We also had some first-timers with us. I sat next to Kim, a young marketing manager who I had been informally mentoring as she moved through her career. She was not familiar with the music, so I tried to give her some history and perspective. After a short while it became totally unnecessary. “I get it,” she said. Another fan is born.
Bruce Springsteen the songwriter is pretty fearless. He has written about everything from youthful love, lust and longing (Rosalita, Sandy, Incident on 57th Street…) He invents characters, gives them a story, colors them with emotion and confusion, and lays out the path to success or failure.
He takes on social issues, using his gifted ability to again create and infuse characters to make his points. His Oscar-winning “Streets of Philadelphia” gives voice to the AIDS epidemic. Born In The USA – often misappropriated as a flag-waving anthem, really gets down to the grit and pain of a veteran returning to a fading American Dream. The raucous version of the single, or the dark of the night solo version on an open-tuned 12 string slide guitar – same song, different shades of dark. “The Ghost Of Tom Joad” – “Sinaloa Cowboys,” “ Youngstown” – American Storytelling at its finest.
Faith and Hope
Bruce has penned many songs that touch on faith and hope. They seem to send a message of determination built on shaky confidence in himself, and in the rest of us too. Better Days. Land of Hopes and Dreams. My City of Ruins.
My favorite has always been Thunder Road. From the first time the needle hit the vinyl of the Born To Run record (kids, ask your parents to explain) I was struck still. I can’t think of a better, more descriptive, cinematic opening verse. Piano and harmonica.
The screen door slams
Mary’s dress sways
Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey, that’s me and I want you only
Don’t turn me home again, I just can’t face myself alone again…
Thunder Road has aged as Bruce and the band has aged. The finest version I have found is from the Live In Barcelona concert from 2002. It is so in the pocket, so mature, so beautifully played that it makes me a bit teary-eyed. A hopeful, almost desperate instrumental theme takes over the piece when the lyrics end. Building through the voice of the guitars, no flash, no frills, deliberate and plainly voiced. Then the immortal Clarence Clemons steps forward and sends it to the heavens, and you feel like maybe it will all work out for the characters.
(Bonus love for the audience sing-along, where they go rapidly out of time, drawing a slight head tilt and smile from bassist Gary Tallent, followed by a grin from Bruce as he brings everyone back into time (1:13 in the video.)
And then, there are these two songs, written decades apart. The first one – “Tougher Than The Rest” captures the feeling of love, lust, semi-hollow bravado, and a longing for connection, wrapped up and presented in a slow, low and controlled delivery, Telecaster played down the neck, basic chords, lots of Fender-y tremolo and reverb with enough twang to be country and enough growl to be punk and enough sexual tension to be … . This is a guy blustering his way into a relationship! This song has been covered by a lot of people, including Emmylou Harris and Travis Tritt. All great, but I still favor Bruce’s original.
Here’s a video of Bruce and company (including his now – wife Patti Scialfa on the duet.)
Now, fast forward 30 years or so. A lot of living, and a lot of years with that woman he sang with in the first video. Kids, massive success, and accolades. And lots of causes supported. Lots of songs, lots of collaborations and lots of shows. And lots of love.
I think of this one as a love song for grownups. The arrangement is a bit of a mess, perhaps missing the mark in an attempt to sound “older”. I don’t know and I don’t care, because this song makes me tear up just about every time. Probably because it reflects how I feel about my love, our relationship and our life so far.
And I count my blessings and you’re mine for always
we laugh beneath the covers and count the wrinkles and the greys
Sing away, sing away, sing away sing away
Sing away, sing away, my darling we’ll sing away.
This is our Kingdom of Days.
This is our Kingdom of Days.
Damnit, it got me again!