Just as much as film music, the music of Bruce Springsteen, whether it’s one of his solo albums or with his legendary backing band, the E Street Band, has had a profound impact on me for over two decades now. My first album I ever received that was my own was his iconic 1984 smash, “Born in the U.S.A.,” and though my father would borrow it from time to time for his own, that stuck with me when I really got full-bore into music in the early ’90s.
When I was 13, I had been playing trombone for a couple of years, but I hadn’t yet gotten into classical music and, especially, film music in any meaningful way. (That would be a couple of years down the road when I started at Lassiter High School.) Still, it was during 7th and 8th grade when my passion began to grow for music– Guns N’ Roses, M.C. Hammer, Paula Abdul, and Def Leppard were early favorites before I really delved into the classic rock bands that would really influence me. It was during that time of discovery that I reunited with Springsteen, first with his twin albums, “Human Touch” and “Lucky Town,” and then, through a family friend, the real heart of his discography: the acoustic soul of “Nebraska”; the rollicking joys of “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle” and “Born to Run”; and the epic storytelling of “The River” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” From that point on, The Boss had me for life.
What is it about Springsteen’s music that resonates with me? Well, as the years have gone on, it’s more than just the driving beats of Max Weinberg’s drums or Clarence Clemons’s sax; the infectious pleasure of Roy Bittan’s piano or the heartache in the vocals of Springsteen and his wife, Patti Scialfa. For 40 years now (at least, going by the release of Springsteen’s first album, “Welcome to Asbury Park, NJ”), Springsteen has followed in the tradition of some of the greatest of all songwriters– Woody Guthrie, Roy Orbison, and Bob Dylan –in telling the stories that matter most to blue-collar folks like myself and my parents, whether it’s the pain and pleasure of being young (“Thunder Road”); the hardships that come with rough living (“Atlantic City”); or the story of reliving the good old days (“Glory Days”). Of course, these are but three of the best examples from Springsteen’s 17 albums, not to mention box sets and B-sides that have made their way into fan’s hands over the years. Still, those three make a damn good entry into the world of Springsteen and his travels along E Street.
Earlier this month, Springsteen released album #17 with “Wrecking Ball,” and The Boss’s musical and narrative gifts remain in peak form. Though members of the E Street band play on the album, Bruce brings some outside help (namely, from the band he put together for his Americana album, “We Shall Overcome: The Seegers Sessions”) to tell the story of an America on the ropes after eight years of bad economic policies that led to the near-collapse of the financial system. The hope that was felt after Obama’s election in 2008, which was musically expressed on his 2009 album, “Working on a Dream,” has turned into a deep-seeded anger with a status quo that puts the rich above the rest; though largely written before the Occupy movement took hold in late 2011, their rage is given a musical voice from the early strains of the album’s first track, “We Take Care of Our Own,” building from there into a bold symphony of sound, fury, and multicultural rhythms that makes for a perfect soundtrack in this time of the 1% against the 99%. Bruce is mad as Hell, and he’s not gonna take it anymore, as he makes abundantly clear in tracks like “Easy Money,” “Shackled & Drawn,” and “Death to My Hometown,” with their Irish-folk rhythms; less chaotic, more elegiac songs such as “Jack of All Trades,” “This Depression” and the soulful “Rocky Ground”; and the grit and power of classic rock tracks like “We Take Care of Our Own” and the titular track (which was written and debuted when Giants Stadium in Jersey was torn down in ’09). Ever the romantic, however, by the end, Springsteen digs deep down, and finds a light at the end of the tunnel, and although the expanded album ends with a couple of old-school Americana rock tracks, “Wrecking Ball” finds its real emotional conclusion in the back-to-back pairing of “Land of Hope and Dreams” (which he debuted on the E Street’s reunion tour in 2000) and “We Are Alive.” As he sings in “Hope and Dreams,” “Leave behind your sorrows, let this day be the last. Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine, and all this darkness past.” With Bruce, dreams will not be thwarted, and most importantly, faith will be rewarded. You finish listening to “Wrecking Ball” believing that our best days are still ahead of us.
So, how is it that it took me so long to go see Springsteen, who is more or less my musical spiritual adviser, in concert? Honestly, I don’t know, but I DO know that when Clarence Clemons died in 2011 (the second of the E Street lineup to pass after organist Danny Federici died in 2008), I knew that I had to go at the first chance I got, and what better time to do so that with The Boss beginning his “Wrecking Ball” tour in Atlanta?
The band’s live show is the stuff of legend, and although live albums and compilations– in particular, the multi-disc “Live: ’75-’85” box and 2001’s “Live in New York City” –offer great glimpses at the energy and emotion the band brings to their concerts, there’s nothing quite like experiencing it in concert, which I was fortunate to do this past Sunday at Philips Arena. As with his albums, Springsteen uses the stage to tell a story, and on Sunday, the powerful narrative of current hardships he laid down on “Wrecking Ball” was continued in front of thousands of people from every age group. While I do wish I had been able to see the full band during its recent creative renaissance, Springsteen and co. haven’t missed a beat as they’ve continued their journey without Clemons and Federici: Charlie Giordano lacks the personal kinship that Federici had with The Boss, but he doesn’t lack the chops necessary to keep up with him; and Clemons’s nephew Jake, and the addition of the “E Street Horns,” has some mighty big shoes to fill, but listening to Jake wail on his uncle’s iconic solos during “Born to Run,” “Thunder Road,” and “Dancing in the Dark” made me a firm believer that he’s up to the task.
Naturally, the show featured primarily tracks off of the new album, beginning with roaring renditions of “We Take Care of Our Own” and “Wrecking Ball” before going back to earlier tales of rough living such as “Badlands,” but this wasn’t just a matter of listening to new material. The energy the band brings to the music lets the audience absorb it, and really let it become a part of them. It’s still too early to tell whether any of the newer songs will become classics like “10th Avenue Freeze Out” or “The Promised Land,” where audience participation has become an expected, and almost telepathic, form of affection between the crowd and the band, but I Springsteen made the album to last. It doesn’t capture a particular moment like “Born in the U.S.A.” did, and stay there (and as much as I still love that album, it is, very much, a reflection of the time in which it was made), but it embraces universal truths that may be of their moment, but will no doubt remain relevant in the years to come. At the end of the 2 1/2 hour show on Sunday night, not only did I feel closer to the artist, but I felt one with his music in a way that, until that night, I’d only dreamt about.
Thank you, Bruce, for the kick in the ass I needed. I can’t wait for the next time.
Before I go, I wanted to do a couple of lists of my own, personal favorites from The Boss: my five favorite albums, and my ten favorite songs. I hope you enjoy, and I hope I inspire you to check them out yourselves.
Brian’s Five Favorite Albums– Bruce Springsteen
1. “Born in the U.S.A.” (1984)- Because of it’s anthemic drive and rocking melodies, it feels more jingoistic than it really is. Still, I defy you to find one song on this album that doesn’t kick ass. You can’t say that about a lot of albums.
2. “Wrecking Ball” (2012)- The Boss’s latest is one of my favorites. Like “U.S.A.,” and Springsteen’s other, great albums, it’s hard to find a track that isn’t great. But even more than on #3 of this list, it’s Springsteen’s instincts as a rock storyteller that give the album it’s power.
3. “The Rising” (2002)- Springsteen’s response to 9/11. Written and recorded after someone stopped him on the street and said, simply, “We need you now,” Bruce’s first album with the E Street Band since “Born in the U.S.A.” is mournful, hopeful, and unforgettable from the first track (“Lonesome Day”) to the last (“My City of Ruins”). The band played a lot of these tracks Sunday night, and they really intertwined beautifully with the songs from “Wrecking Ball.”
4. “Born to Run” (1975)- In many ways, Springsteen’s best album. Only eight tracks long, but when those eight tracks include classics such as “Thunder Road,” “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” “Jungleland,” and the title track, it’s impossible to argue with those that put this as The Boss’s artistic peak.
5. “Live: 1975-85” (1986)- Okay, it’s kind of unfair to put this three-CD box set of highlights from the band’s classic live shows through the “Born in the U.S.A.” tour, since it includes so many of their best songs, but it has to make my top 5 simply by having so many of my favorite versions of their songs, including “The River,” “Thunder Road,” “No Surrender,” “Growin’ Up,” and “Reason to Believe,” among so many others.
Brian’s Ten Favorite Songs– Bruce Springsteen
1. “No Surrender” (from “Born in the U.S.A.”)- My personal anthem. “We made a promise, we swore we’d always remember. No retreat, no surrender. Blood brothers in the night, with a vow to defend. No retreat, baby, no surrender.”
2. “Thunder Road” (from “Born to Run”)- I’ll admit, this has made a run for #1 on this list, both in listening to live versions (including Sunday night), and the original, studio recording. But it’ll just have to live with 2nd place…for now. “It’s a town full of losers, and I’m pullin’ out of here to win!”
3. “Land of Hope and Dreams” (from “Wrecking Ball”)- First heard on the band’s “Live in New York City” album from 2001, this driving, spiritual track made an inspired choice for the tail end of Springsteen’s latest album. “Darlin’ if you’re weary, lay your head upon my chest. We’ll take what we can carry, and we’ll leave the rest.”
4. “Atlantic City” (from “Nebraska”)- The first of Springsteen’s unofficial “trilogy” of acoustic albums of despair and tragedy (he later returned to this sparse approach on “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and “Devils and Dust”), “Nebraska” remains his masterpiece of the form, although when he plays this stunning centerpiece live, the tempo and volume go up to 11, and get to the real power of the song. “Everything dies, baby that’s a fact. But maybe everything that dies, someday comes back. Put your makeup on. Put your hair up pretty. And meet me tonight in Atlantic City.”
5. “Prove It All Night” (from “Darkness on the Edge of Town”)- This song really made my top five a few years ago after “Working on a Dream” came out, and I started playing some of Bruce’s older albums again. Like the rest of the songs in this top five, it’s great rock that also doubles as a call to rebellion against the forces that keep us down. “You hear the voices telling you not to go. They made their choices, and they’ll never know. What it means to steal, to cheat, to lie. What it’s like to live and die.”
6. “Tougher Than the Rest” (from “Tunnel of Love”)- There aren’t really a lot of songs from this 1987 album that have stuck with me over the years, but this muscular ballad has dug itself deep into my psyche over the years, even if I haven’t always been able to live up to it. “Some girls they want a handsome Dan. Or a good lookin’ Joe. Some girls like a sweet-talkin’ Romeo. Well ’round here baby. I learned you get what you can get. So if you’re rough enough for love. Honey I’m tougher than the rest.”
7. “My City of Ruins” (from “The Rising”)- He wrote this song as an elegy to his beloved Asbury Park, New Jersey, but when September 11 happened, The Boss invested it with a more profound meaning by playing it on the 9/11 Relief telethon a few days after, and later making it the emotional, spiritual climax of his album that addressed the feelings that day brought up. “Come on, rise up! Come on, rise up!”
8. “I Wish I Were Blind” (from “Human Touch”)- It’s true that he early ’90s efforts without the E Street Band lack the urgency and strength of his previous albums, but they aren’t without their gems. This aching song of the pain of seeing your soulmate with another man remains one of my favorites of his. “We struggle here but all our love’s in vein. Oh these eyes that once filled me with your beauty, now fill me with pain.”
9. “Streets of Philadelphia” (from “Greatest Hits”)- Of course, the film music buff in me couldn’t go without mentioning at least one of his great songs for films, and while his title track from “The Wrestler” has been the recent favorite of mine, his Oscar-winning song for Jonathan Demme’s AIDS drama has real staying power all its own. “Ain’t no angel gonna greet me here. It’s just you and I my friend.”
10. “Bobby Jean” (from “Born in the U.S.A.”)- In many ways, it’s fitting that I close this list with another song from my favorite album of Springsteen’s, which is, by the way, my favorite non-soundtrack album of all-time. Like the rest of the album, it’s pure rock n’ roll, but it’s heart is poignant as the singer is doing what is sometimes the hardest thing we can do as individuals…moving on. “I miss you, baby. Good luck, goodbye…Bobby Jean.”
Thanks for listening,