I’m twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound
The minute you try to grab hold of Dylan, he’s no longer where he was. He’s like a flame: If you try to hold him in your hand you’ll surely get burned. Dylan’s life of change and constant disappearances and constant transformations makes you yearn to hold him, and to nail him down. And that’s why his fan base is so obsessive, so desirous of finding the truth and the absolutes and the answers to him — things that Dylan will never provide and will only frustrate. … Dylan is difficult and mysterious and evasive and frustrating, and it only makes you identify with him all the more as he skirts identity. -Todd Haynes
The Replacements — Takin’ A Ride
Bundle Up - The Replacements
This is probably the closest thing to a Christmas song The Replacements ever did, it is a hot mess and I love it.
Stockings were hung by the chimney with care
Santa in the bathroom was a-combin’ his hair
The elves and Rudolph they was a-shootin’ up junk
Not a creature was stirrin’ ‘cause they all was drunk
Have you ever noticed that songs can transport you back through time and place? I remember listening to this song in eight grade, just before my fourteenth birthday. I was sitting in one of those shady-looking unmarked white vans that are simultaneously used for sexual crimes and church trips, traveling through West Texas on a school camping trip. I remember the two high schoolers in the front of the car who played that song. I remember sitting several seats away from my crush at the time and feeling like I was going to throw up. I also remember how peaceful the song felt as we bumped along the dessert (though I always remember the drive as crusing along): orange plateaus, sandy, brown rocky roads, and miles of big, blue Texas sky.
The lyrics themselves remind me of the trip. We paid two dollars a person to cross the Rio so we could hang out with Mexican school children, give them school supplies, and realize how blessed our own lives are. After a day filled with hiking and children, we had our choice of two cafés and clearly we all picked the one in the shade. I remember ordering a coca-cola and when the drink arrived in a glass bottle, I knew nothing would ever be anything as delicious as that coke or that moment.
You may say naïveté had informed such a rushed decision to mark that moment as the pinnacle experience in my life. But I know the truth. While I know I have had more delicious meals than that coke and more delicious moments than a mere bit of respite at the end of a long day, there was something truly remarkable about that moment, that day, and that song, which all have been inextricably married in my mind. I’m sure I’ve conflated some of the details. However, that memory of sitting in the shade as the Mexican sun set will forever remind me of a kind of irreplicable peace and delight. And that’s a delicious memory.
"Mad man, drummers, bummers, and Indians in the summer with the teenage diplomat … "
“Rosalita, jump a little lighter / Señorita, come sit by my fire … “
“The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves … “
“The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive … “
“The dogs on Main Street howl, ‘cause they understand … “
“Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack … “
“Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact / But maybe everything that dies someday comes back … “
“I check my look in the mirror, wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face … “
“So tell me what I see when I look in your eyes / Is that you, baby, or just a brilliant disguise?”
Now that I’ve teased with some of the best known, most indelible lines of this week’s subject, prepare to disregard them. Here is the first of Three Unusual Features of
OneWeek // One Band, Bruce Springsteen Edition:
Unusual Feature #1: After today, we are done with the hits.
Those Springsteen songs that you’ve heard hundreds, maybe thousands of times? We’re not talking about those, so take a last look at the lyrics above, throw on Born to Run or Nebraska or The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle as you read along, and get ready for a perversely non-iconic look at New Jersey’s most iconic rock’n’roll son. Except for today’s introductory posts and in relation to their lesser-known brethren and incarnations, this week will feature minimal coverage of the familiar Bruce. We’ll be interpreting the footnotes and apocrypha of the Book of Springsteen, reconstructing his career from his cast-offs, and seeing what you get when you separate the songwriter/musician from his self-consciously cultivated official canon1.
Unusual Feature #2: I’m not doing this alone.
That “we” above isn’t a carelessly flung first-person plural. This week, I’ve rounded up a group of Springsteen fans—a veritable OW // OB Street Band (pronounced “Oh Double-You Oh Bee Street Band” to avoid redundancy)—to tackle Bruce from the margins. Since “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” “Rosalita,” and Springsteen’s other familiar ‘band intro’ songs are off the table, I’ll forego the traditional musical vamping and nicknaming here and introduce the crew in the next post. I think you’ll agree it’s quite an impressive bunch.
Unusual Feature #3: Whenever I use the term “this week,” interpret it as “these weeks.”
Due to the number of contributors and the scope of the project, Hendrik has graciously granted us an extended stay—you’re stuck with us and Bruce for two weeks. Think of it as an approximation of the Springsteen concert experience.
Artists as prolific as Springsteen have the choice, recording contract permitting, to bombard their fanbases with releases or to strategically withhold good songs in pursuit of the perfect LP. Even moreso than fellow prolific songwriters like Neil Young, Prince, and Bob Dylan, Springsteen has often been extraordinarily picky about the internal logic of his releases. Scarcely a Springsteen album makes it to the public without a unified sound (the brooding rock of Darkness on the Edge of Town), thematic cohesiveness (the post-9/11 elegies and positivity of The Rising) or set of preoccupations meant to represent Bruce in the Moment (social concerns set against friendship, disillusionment, and romance on Born in the U.S.A.). But in most instances, there were countless alternate paths. Darkness on the Edge of Town may portray a soul fighting its way out of despair, but the lighthearted love songs Bruce wrote during the same period show an indomitable joy fueled by ’60s radio pop. The Rising was interpreted as panacea for a post-9/11 nation, but many of its songs were written long before the towers fell. Born in the U.S.A., despite a wealth of hits, was a chimera formed from a largely-failed attempt at full-band takes of Nebraska songs and unrelated demos.
Since his career began, Springsteen and others, most notably manager Jon Landau (from mid-’70s to present), have meticulously controlled the public-facing side of Springsteen’s work—in crass terms, his “brand,” although I think this too cynically sums up the process. Yet there’s a layer between Bruce Springsteen the public persona (what we know from official output and interviews) and Bruce Springsteen the human being (known only to himself and, perhaps, close friends) that, thanks to archival releases and a dedicated fanbase of bootleggers and traders, we can catch a glimpse. This is Bruce Springsteen the songwriter/recording artist—a creative talent less encumbered by fan and market expectations and unconcerned with the eventual need to shelve the great song for the great album (or, as has sometimes been the case, the great song for the pretty good album). It’s in the gap between the songs he’s recorded and the comparatively small number of them on his albums that we find our guiding questions for the week. When evaluating an artist’s output, should we limit ourselves to what’s released? What can we learn from what’s held back? As contributor Travis Harrison put it as we discussed over e-mail the decisions Springsteen and Landau have made over the years: “Would Bruce Springsteen still be Bruce Springsteen if they didn’t make the choices they did?”
Today is introductory—information about the contributors and Springsteen’s canonical output, capped off with a foreword of sorts by Jon Blistein, who manages to tie his own conversion to Springsteen fandom to a lesser-known song, largely forgotten Michael J. Fox movies, and the power and limitations of rock’n’roll.
Tomorrow, we’ll work backwards from Springsteen’s official debut through his pre-canonical work. After that, coverage will take a chronological turn, mirroring Springsteen’s official releases with some detours. Contributors will trickle in over the first few days, and we’ll hit peak "million different voice speaking in tongues" mode as we make our way into the mid-’70s, coincidentally just around the time that the longest-running incarnation of the E Street Band began to take shape. We’ll wrap up with a day on the nearly 30 years of Springsteen’s career between Born in the U.S.A. and the present (primarily because outtakes and rarities become scarce after ‘84). At least that’s what’s currently scheduled; stay tuned for an announcement at the end of the next post.
1 A note on canonicity: the two main commercial sources of Springsteen rarities, Tracks and The Promise may technically be no less “albums” than Born in the U.S.A. Springsteen didn’t just unload his cast-offs, but spent years sorting through his archives, recording new parts for many songs, and even re-recording some songs in full. However, as chronology is key for this week (specifically, ‘what does this song have to say about Springsteen at a particular moment in time?’), songs included on Tracks and The Promise will be considered non-canonical in the sense that they became canon years after the fact. This is a debatable point, since the release of Tracks and The Promise arguably have as much to say about Bruce in those respective moments as his writing and recording those songs have to say about Bruce at those times (to say nothing of the fact that Springsteen has regularly played unreleased songs live). But I contend that it’s more compelling to consider Springsteen’s creative process behind recording “Zero and Blind Terry” in 1973 than his motivation in making it one of 66 archival songs to be released in 1998.
The chronological discography in the last post is only one way to tackle Springsteen’s official works, of course. For a more detailed, compellingly argued ranking of Springsteen’s albums from worst to best, consult this recent Stereogum feature, written by one of this week’s contributors, Ryan Leas.
Nothing against the writer of course but boy do I hate articles where you have to keep clicking through to read more.
Human Touch as the worst Bruce album, I think that while it has its defenders this would be a largely universal choice. I’ve never read Ryan Leas before and I don’t talk Bruce or read talk about Bruce any more, but everything said — the fact that the title track is really the only memorable thing, the fact that despite the overly slick production values the album manages to be inferior to the synth-laden Tunnel of Love, it’s all what I’dve said, it’s self evident when you wriggle into Springsteenism. There’s always that temptation to take Human Touch, Lucky Town, and the two later Tracks disc and come up with the Album That Might’ve Been, but really, mainstream pop/rock was not in a great place IMO in this era and it wouldn’tve really made a statement anyway, IMO, and Springsteen was always conscious of the way his albums played in the current pop music atmosphere.
It is curious though how the synthfest sensibility of the 80s doesn’t date his 80’s albums as much as the aftermath of that sensibility dates his 90’s albums (sans Joad which has a very different sensibility). Myself, I would place Tunnel of Love above Greetings from Asbury Park NJ. Yes the former suffers from the 80s production, but the latter had its technical issues too, and the songwriting on Tunnel was vastly more mature than Greetings. Both have their charm but Tunnel always impressed me, it stands up there with Joni’s Blue for classic heartbreak albums. It is cohesive and emotional and to me it is the country-tinged classic that should have been, hiding under too many electronic keyboards and synths. Ironically though I love the title track exactly the way it sounds.
That said, half of Greetings is absolute awesome. Just usually better live. But the worst of Greetings, it’s trying-too-hard-to-be-a-verbose-Dylan quality, is worse than the worst of Tunnel IMO.
Working on a Dream is definitely the weakest 21st century Bruce album. It’s … just pleasant, and tha’ts it. I loved the cover art and was kinda sad that that was the highlight. My biggest gripe about the second half of Springsteen’s career is the production on his records, it’s too heavy, too processed. The Seeger Sessions’ best aspect, for me, was that it was a welcome break from that. I think Wrecking Ball does those comparable influences better though. For this same overly heavy production reason I find myself listening to Magic a lot more than The Rising even though the latter is obviously a more Major Statement. To me they feel fairly different, though Leas seems to problematize them with the same issue.
Personally I find The Ghost of Tom Joad much more unfairly ignored than Devils and Dust. Yes a lot of Joad feels similar and blends together, but it really forces you to listen hard, and I find that ambitious and commendable. I like D&D but I don’t return to it as often as Joad.
It’s too hard to rate the classic Springsteen albums sequentially. Most people can agree that The Wild Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, Nebraska, and Born in the USA are the creme de la creme of Springsteen’s career, encompassing everything he is about, coinciding with his highest visibility, and at each step every single one of them was saying something new. To sort through those is hard and to criticize anyone is unfair.
The Born albums are his most visible and intentionally major statements and Darkness is the one that gives Springsteen his most, er, masculine “rock cred”, so I get it.
But FWIW, to me the most impeccable are The Wild Innocent, Bruce’s take on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, and Nebraska, an album unlike any other I have ever experienced.
Or is it something worse?
Barbara Pyle - Bruce Springsteen lunch on Canal Street, 1975.
Why Bruce Springsteen is my one true love: he is the dorkiest rock star e v e r.
Beautiful Child | Fleetwood Mac
You are a beautiful child
And I am a fool once more
You fell in love when I was only ten
The years disappeared
Much has gone by since then
I bite my lip, can you send me away
I have no choice
I have to stay
I had to stay
I had to stay
There is so little time
Your eyes say yes
But you don’t say yes
I wish that you were mine
I wish that you were mine
You say it will be harder in the morning
I wait for you to say, just go
Your hands, held mine so few hours
(I fell in to your arms)
But I’m not a child any more
I’m not a child any more
I’m tall enough
To reach for the stars
I’m old enough
To love you from afar
Too trusting… yes?
But then women usually are
I’m not a child any more
I’m not a child, oh no
I’m tall enough to reach for the stars
I will do
As I’m told (I’m old enough to love you, from afar)
Even if I never hold you, again (Too trusting, yes, but then women usually are)
Hold you, again (Hold you, again)
There is so little time (I will do as I am told)
Your eyes say yes, but you don’t say yes (Even if I never hold you, again)
I wish that you were mine (Hold you, again)
I wish that you were mine (Hold you, again, even if I never hold you, again)
Well I wish that you were mine (Hold you, again)
Well I wish that you were mine (I’m not a child any more, tall enough to reach for the stars)
From 1980’s Roses in the Snow, a hit country album for Emmylou Harris featuring a bluegrass sound that was a bigger liability in Nashville then than it is now (at least ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’ made it kind of cool for a while via association to the Coen brothers). The album went to #2 on the country charts and #26 on the Billboard Hot 100. This is my favorite cut off the record (although “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” is also beautiful). A mandolin lover’s daydream tbh.
Joni Mitchell playing and singing “California” is all I aspire to be in life.
It’s been ages since I lived in L.A. and I was only there for a relatively short time, but when she sings “make me feel good rock and roll band, I’m your biggest fan, California I’m coming home” I just melt. Oh it gets so lonely indeed, Lady Mitchell.
The Atlantic has a great history of Leonard Cohen’s now-iconic song “Hallelujah” up, along with videos of the original and some of the best covers of it, including the one by Jeff Buckley that catapulted the song from obscurity to ubiquity. Fun fact about how Buckley came across the song:
Jeff Buckley, a hungry young singer-songwriter from California, first heard “Hallelujah” on a Leonard Cohen tribute album he discovered in a friend’s home while cat-sitting in Brooklyn in 1992. He began performing the song regularly in New York’s East Village clubs, and called it “a hallelujah to the orgasm … an ode to life and love.”
And here is Terry’s 2006 interview with the Bard Cohen himself.
(HT Fresh Air producer John Myers!)