Son, Take A Good Look Around

Elvis Costello may have summed it up best: “Home is anywhere you hang your head.”

Many of us grapple with where we came from. It’s the idea of “home” that incorporates just the family and geography we inherit through birth. It’s your hometown.

But it’s not your “home.” Home is really where we hang our heads–it’s where we find comfort in our lives, whatever that means. (Or to continue Elvis’ train of thought, where we feel most comfortable feeling sorry for ourselves.)

Becoming an adult often means disconnecting from the “hometown” where you grew up, with all its memories and assholes and resentments; and finding the “home” you create yourself, from your spouse, your kids, your friends. Springsteen’s songwriting career has charted that journey from the north Jersey gothic of the home he escaped from (“Independence Day”) to the warm, loving embrace of the home he’s created with his wife and kids (“This Life”).

It’s such a universal journey, and Springsteen fills it with the kind of specifics that you know are emerging from his own experiences. It’s entwined with his songs about fathers, about his own father and being a father, but it’s a distinct thread of its own. It’s central to what I think Springsteen means through his meaning, if that doesn’t sound too rockcrit claptrappy–that our personal and political lives, our insides and our outsides, our “home” and the community where we make our homes are all inextricably linked.

So he can sing about loss in “My City Of Ruins,” and it can express his grief over the death of close friends, but at the same time, it can detail his sorrow over the death of American dreams as foreclosures stripmined his hometown of hope.

It’s rattling around my brain as I confront my own family issues, drawing clearer lines between my home and my hometown. You can’t always disconnect from that hometown; it stalks you and nips at your heels and draws blood. But if you’re lucky, you can at least find a little stake of ground to call home, where you feel at peace and in control, and where you can stand stable and strong and loved. It’s the spot behind the wheel of that big old Buick, not whatever’s happening outside its windows.

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The Ones Who Had A Notion

“I don’t know what you guys think about what happened last night, but I think it’s pretty frightening…”

It’s 1980 and Ronald Reagan has just won his first presidency. Bruce Springsteen is playing a show in Tempe, AZ. He’s only just begun using his music to explore the political and cultural climate of his times; “The River,” the title cut from his latest album, is more preoccupied with the story of its drained lovers than it is with the forces that brought the pair to their knees. Their circumstances merit a single line: “Lately there ain’t been much work/on account of the economy.”

So this is a little unexpected, this sudden flash of awareness, as is the anger with which it’s delivered. Since that night, of course, Springsteen has become synonymous with a specific (if occasionally broad) political viewpoint, a form of liberalism that’s more FDR than Obama, even if he supported the latter in recent elections. And for fans, that specific moment on that particular night is a signpost in Springsteen’s legend, a loose thread that he would continue to pull until the rock star mythology he was building would deconstruct itself around him, even as he was finding greater and greater success around the globe.

What caught me off guard hearing this moment again was the audience reaction. It’s easy in hindsight to fit these copule of sentences into the larger narrative of Springsteen’s career. But at the time, in that moment…what did the faithful expect from their Boss? The greatest party act of all time, three-plus hours of sweat and blood and soul, a keen observational eye for the details that can build and break a heart…but political commentary?

Depending on the recording, the audience response is a bit different–Springsteen’s own official release (YouTubed above) indicates a pretty immediate warm response, like he’s preaching to the choir. I have a bootleg of the same show, and it’s more of a mixed vibe, loud but maybe not totally comprehending. There’s cheering, for sure, but also a few boos.

That reaction–more incredulous than supportive–throws the moment into new, sharp relief. It sketches a broad portrait of these fans as willing participants in Reagan’s own mythology, a pageant of convenient lies that would insure the rich got richer and the poor got fucked. They don’t sound like they appreciate their favorite rocker coming out against their shiny new president; they just woke up to morning in America, and here’s Bruce trickling down warm piss on their legs. They didn’t spend ten bucks on a ticket for politics.

Bruce doesn’t belabor the moment, as he would during later tours; during Magic shows, a single stab of sharp invecitve was replaced by a litany of political injustices recited off a teleprompter at the foot of the stage. In 1980, he tears into “Badlands” and lets his music speak for him.

There’s almost a Dylan-goes-electric “Judas” quality to the moment. It’s one of those instances where an artist you thought was one thing suddenly transforms into something completely different, and those in attendance have no choice but to react. For his part, Springsteen doesn’t draw a line in the sand between himself and the audience.

Instead, he leaves it to us to determine our own reactions. He takes the boos, and the cheers, and he speaks his mind and plays his music. He knows that blind faith in rock stars, or anything, will get you killed.

Heaven Assumed

There is an unfailing, unflinching, unstoppable human desire to expect the best.

Hope, in other words. The thing with feathers. Apparently, it floats.

What we want and what we get are usually hard to span–there’s daylight between them. So hope is the most unlikely of feelings…and yet, here we are. Here I am. Hoping still.

Standing too soon, shoulders high in the room

Hope assumes that we’re ready for what we want–that it’s right for us, it belongs, it fits. We confront the future with an eagerness it may not warrant, and we rise to occasions. Sometimes the occasions don’t deserve it.

And sometimes we stand alone, looking around a seated room, realizing all eyes are on us, exposed by hope.

Try to win and suit your needs
Speak out sometimes but try to win

Best intentions and compromise. Who are you? Who do you want to be? What is the line and where do you draw it?

These are delicate ideas, and this song approaches them so carefully–the prepared piano, the hesitating drums. A complete world in itself, hanging between what is and what could be. Springing eternal.

 

Rank the Rekkids: Human Touch

Much has been written about the process by which Springsteen came to release two albums on the same day in 1992. The story goes that he labored over a first set of songs for a year or two; in an effort to finish that record, he went into the studio and instead of recording just one song to finish Human Touch, he emerged with a second set of ten songs, released as Lucky Town.

One of Human Touch’s biggest flaws is that in its worst moments, it sounds labored and overthought, like Springsteen tried to compensate for the absence of his E Street Band by layering in synth hooks and support vocals (Sam Moore guests on a whopping four tracks, only one of which, “Roll of the Dice,” is among the album’s stronger cuts). Certainly the lengthy and occasionally torturous production processes of past Springsteen records had produced some amazing results; Springsteen probably never thought twice about taking 18 to 24 months to make a record.

That the better album (Lucky Town) emerged through a far more speedy writing and recording process speaks volumes about the state of Springsteen’s artistic muse at this stage in his career. He once told an interviewer that “I tried it [writing happy songs] in the early ’90s and it didn’t work; the public didn’t like it.”

There’s truth there, but only a sliver. It comes off more as sour grapes from Springsteen, wounded by the tepid critical reception of the album. The reality is that the public probably would have liked GOOD happy songs, but that these songs didn’t make the grade.

Springsteen is right, though, in that the early nineties marked the first time he’d sat down to write new music with a measure of personal fulfillment–a wife he loved, a new baby, superstar status, financial security–all of which had eluded him throughout the seventies and eighties. So instead, he satisfied his hunger with endless recording sessions and marathon gigs.

It’s not an uncommon problem for creative minds–many writers, from novelists to songwriters to screenwriters, rely upon a certain level of inner turmoil to provide grist for the mill. When it’s gone, there’s always that nagging feeling–would I be doing better work if I weren’t satisfied, or healthy, or mentally stable?

And yet, Springsteen did fine work once he’d cleared the gunk out of his system. Lucky Town is a great little album. It’s a portrait of exactly who Springsteen was at the moment, or at least, where he pictured himself–happy, satisfied, but still wondering what would come next.

It’s just too bad we had to hear the gunk he cleared out on its own separate album. It’s interesting, too, when you consider where Springsteen headed after this dual release–a big world tour, yes, with an anonymous cadre of session players–but then, not much of anything. Until he adopted what amounted to almost a character, in the folk troubador singing songs of American anguish on The Ghost of Tom Joad, and then remained reluctant to return to his E Street compatriots until a few years after that.

I don’t necessarily think the Human Touch album would have been redeemed by the E Street Band. Maybe working with those players would have forced him to exercise a stronger editorial hand, meaning that some of these songs would have never seen release? Nor do I think it’s completely without redeeming moments–the title track was a hit single, and deservedly so; co-writer Roy Bittan captured a little of the E Street mystique in a piano riff that supposedly inspired Springsteen to write “Roll of the Dice.” “Man’s Job” is catchy as hell, and “57 Channels” is a wicked little piece of satire, even if it’s aimed at a large and obvious target.

The rest of Human Touch is music Springsteen probably had to make–to clear his cobwebs, to find his way without his band, to determine what he wanted to write about and how he wanted to shape the material. I don’t necessarily think it’s music we had to hear, but I’m glad he found his way back to form eventually.