Rank the Rekkids: The Ghost of Tom Joad

In college, I came up with this sorta-BS distinction to explain some of my musical tastes: There was stuff I liked, and stuff I respected, and stuff that got both, and stuff that got neither. The concept made for scintillating imaginary conversation with all my imaginary girlfriends in imaginary coffee shops and record stores.

Sometimes, it still works. I respect The Ghost of Tom Joad album, but I don’t like it very much.

It’s not that I hate the acoustic Springsteen, either, although I do think he’s always made his best music with the E Street Band. It’s more that the Joad record specifically is starchy and sterile, like he’s trying so painfully to affect a Guthrie troubadour pose that he suppresses the fire that has always made his music special, whether folk or rock.

The other day, a cut from a Joad tour show came up on shuffle, a version of “Johnny 99” that blew me away. Springsteen was shredding his instrument, part percussion and part rhythm guitar, and it was full of fire. Contrast that with the reserved, staid performances on the actual Joad album, all quiet plunking and mumbled lyrics. You can even hear Springsteen’s voice affected by his Guthrie-esque phrasing on the few contemporaneous full-band recordings that are out there–“Blood Brothers” from the Greatest Hits disc sounds like almost another singer.

Nebraska, Devils and Dust, even We Shall Overcome–these are acoustic records with deep passion. You can hear the fire on every cut. Listen to any of the tracks on Nebraska and then listen to any of the tracks from Joad–take away the sense of fear, the raw production, the foreboding darkness of the Nebraska album, and you get the Joad album. 

I don’t doubt that The Ghost of Tom Joad was a passion project for Springsteen; he doesn’t know how to make music any other way. For me, there’s just not enough of that passion on the record itself.

Rank the Rekkids: Bruce Springsteen 

18. Human Touch
17. The Ghost of Tom Joad
16.
15.
14.
13.
12.
11.
10.
9.
8.
7.
6.
5.
4.
3.
2.
1.

 

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The Crushed Metal of Your Little Flying Machine

“You’ll Be Coming Down” is a song about winning the world and losing your soul. It’s a portrait of a pop idol who wants everything, and maybe she gets it…but she can’t hang onto it for long. It’s a vision of the world as a hollow parade of sparkly baubles that may be easy to grab, but can only disintegrate in your hands.

I’ve always wondered why “You’ll Be Coming Down” wasn’t a staple of the Magic tour shows. It’s one of my favorite songs from that record. I’ve heard lots of complains about Brendan O’Brien’s production, but the flatter, loud mix isn’t a bad thing to my ears. There’s a hot treble on this record that demands a certain volume and frequent play in automobiles with the windows cranked down. I have no trouble picking out the instruments; there’s space there, but bleed too.

It’s a bit of a detour for an album like Magic, which seems preoccupied with social and political concerns…but of course, Springsteen’s always been masterful at finding ways to connect disparate stories and themes together into a unified whole. The Magic album deals with illusions of all kinds, and consequently, the search for truth. Sleight of hand is “easy street, a quick buck and true lies,” whether it’s in politics, love, or pop music.

Does the subject of Springsteen’s scorn earn this level of disdain? It’s hard to say. There’s moments of casual cruelty here that suggest the song has a personal dimension. You have to imagine he’s injecting some of his own experiences into it; the character’s never explicitly defined as a woman, although the “pretty face” bit seems to suggest that she is. He could just as easily be talking about himself, and the obstacles he faces as a journeyman rocker who’s had plenty of success but isn’t quite riding the top of the charts as he once did.

Actually, the “pop idol” bit is a leap in itself; it’s just as easy to imagine this character as one of the vapid, unprincipled politicians who’ve marched their way through Washington over the past few decades. Is there idealism in the opening verse? Or is it just naked ambition? Turn on the TV news any night of the week, and you’re sure to see plenty of “smiles as thin as those dusky blue skies.”

Whether he’s indicting the empty theater of modern politics or the empty pageant of modern pop music, Springsteen sings the song, and so he gets the ending he wants; the character gets her comeuppance. Her cinnamon sky goes candy-apple green. It all falls apart with no warning.

You Can’t Touch Me Now

Fathers loom large in Bruce Springsteen’s songs, and in his own personal mythology. Rosalita’s father is blowing his last chance to get his daughter in a fine romance. A father puts his boy up on his lap behind the steering wheel and says, “Son, take a good look around…this is your hometown.” And nearly twenty-five years later, in “Long Walk Home,” the singer’s father says,

Son, you’re lucky in this town
It’s a beautiful place to be born
It just wraps its arms around you
Nobody crowds you
Nobody goes it alone

If those lines effectively encapsulated Springsteen’s vision for what our American society should strive toward, they also say something about what Springsteen needed from his own father–an unconditional love with the distance and wisdom to let Bruce make his own mistakes.

Instead, the two seemed ever at odds, especially as chronicled in Springsteen’s two great songs about fathers, 1978’s “Adam Raised a Cain” and 1981’s “Independence Day.” Throughout that legendary era from Darkness on to Born in the USA, fathers played a starring or supporting role in several lyrics, from “Mansion on the Hill” to “Factory.” But “Adam” and “Independence” seem to function almost as bookends, the starting point and destination of a journey from rage to pity, from confusion to understanding.

It’s a striking, impenetrable image: The son and the father, facing off, one inside and one out, “with that same hot blood burning in our veins.” The distance is insurmountable; the barriers too strong. It’s never over; “it’s relentless as the rain.” Echoes of the closing lines of “Factory”: “You just better believe it, somebody’s gonna get hurt tonight.” And yet, they’re not just prisoners of circumstance, or the working class; they’re “prisoners of love, a love in chains.” Love can liberate, it can empower, it can free you…but it can shackle two men together who may never find a common ground. Like a father and a son.

For me, the musical journey Springsteen explores with regard to fathers comes to some kind of resolution in “Independence Day,” with the line, “Papa, now I know the things you wanted that you could not say.” It’s a moment of understanding and mercy; one can only imagine that Springsteen himself internalized the rage that filled his own home, and through working beyond that rage, came to realize what may have motivated it. Springsteen’s own ambition pushed him out of his home and into the world from a fairly young age, and in running down his own dream, he must have at some moment realized what his own father sacrificed to build his family and provide.

I don’t know if there’s forgiveness in this song, or even anywhere in Springsteen’s music, for the fathers that fail their sons. But that understanding is something. And it’s an understanding that cuts both ways; “we chose the words…we drew the lines.” It was a relationship built on a darkness that could not be easily overcome by two emotionally immature men. It’s also a rare moment of liberation for a Springsteen narrator, even if that freedom from his home ultimately leads him to walking a dark and dusty highway, all alone.

Years later, in “Living Proof,” Springsteen would sing of his own experience encountering fatherhood for the first time. There’s little recrimination, or acknowledgement of his own father haunting the hallways of his soul. Instead, having a son is transformative for him personally, forcing him out of himself and into a relationship with another person that can never be denied. And if Douglas Springsteen was rattling around Bruce’s head as he lived those moments, or wrote those words, we’ll never know–but it certainly seems as though Springsteen’s escape down life’s highway has left him free to embrace the fullness of his own life.

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.

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.

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.