My ‘phone has been chirping every few minutes, signaling an alert each time someone posts or tweets. So, it being a beautiful Saturday morning, and me with nothing of any great urgency ahead of me, each time it does I use the excuse to put down whatever I’m doing and check it out. Many of the alerts are reactions to the concert.
During this past weekend Bruce Springsteen played at Ottawa and several of my friends had the privilege of being in attendance. By all accounts it was an excellent event. ‘The Boss’ was, as usual, in great form and treated the audience to an excellent sample of his music, his songs and, perhaps, his great presence. Numerous Facebook and twitter posts attest to the great feeling in the crowd and, perhaps the unspoken camaraderie that, for a time at least, united everyone there.
It takes me back a whole generation of time. It was late fall, 1980. As an avid ‘Rolling Stone’ subscriber I had been reading about Springsteen’s upcoming project. It was rumored that he would be combining some leftover material from previous albums with some new songs. As the release date got closer and closer, though, you could just feel that this one would be different—better somehow.
I certainly hoped it would be.
Frankly, up to that time, I had never been much of a fan at all. The music seemed to me a little bland; just about ordinary things; certainly stuff not worth writing about, for sure! My tastes ran more toward the new-wave stuff, especially ‘The Clash’ whose ‘London Calling’ album had utterly transformed me the year before or maybe to Pink Floyd—he thoughtful eerie music and lyrics had captured me since I’d been given ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ as a gift. At that time I will still in raptures over ‘The Wall’ and really could not see Bruce’s ‘ordinaryishness’ doing much for me. But still, Rolling Stone was a mag I trusted and if it said this new album was going to be great, that was enough for me…or at least the hipster in me. I would get the album as soon as I could. If I did not like it then at least I could be trendy. Hey—I was only 19!
So, one Friday evening after class, off I went; got the #3 Metrobus and headed straight to Fred’s records where I purchased the double album. I can’t recall if I was in much of a hurry to get back to res or not. Fred’s was located in the largest Mall in the city; the mall also contained friends, pretty girls my age, food, two bars and five movie theatres. Why rush? At some point I got back to my room whereupon I put side one of record one on and listened until I’d gotten through side B of record 2.
To say I was instantly transformed would be a lie. Well, it would be more accurate to say that it might be a lie. The fact is that I don’t actually recall playing the album for the first time at all. What I do recall, though, is playing that album repeatedly for all who would listen. Um…and even for those who did not want to listen. (Sorry guys, I know I played my music very loud—and often late into the night—and that was very inconsiderate. But, like I said, I was only 19—how could I be expected to really have a clue, especially when nobody demanded that I turn it down! Uh—oh, yeah, sometimes I was asked to turn it down. Sorry, like I said, inconsiderate on my behalf.) Even now, in my mind’s eye I am back in room 201 SJC and I can see my hands taking one of the records from the sleeve, placing it on the turntable, cleaning it with the Discwasher and then carefully lowering the needle. Those same hands then retrieve the lyrics sheet or the record sleeve … and then the memories lose the vision part, turning instead to the beautiful musical tapestry that was/is Springsteen’s ‘The River.’
Nobody ever asked me to turn down the volume when Springsteen was playing.
It was transformative, but not immediately so. While taking its own sweet time, ‘The River’ caused me to take a careful second look at, not only Springsteen, but also my whole approach to life. ‘The Ordinary’ took on a whole new meaning. In effect, the blinders began to lift from my eyes; eyes turned, for too long, inward, and I began realizing that it wasn’t that ‘the ordinary’ was uninteresting at all. The reality was that, I was simply spending too much time inside of my own head, thus remaining oblivious to the reality of life all around me. So ‘Born to Run’ got another look/listen, as did ‘Darkness at the Edge of Town.’ The ordinary was gone…forever.
A good friend once told me that Springsteen is a poet of the people. As time goes on, the sheer profundity of what that means becomes ever more apparent. The title song from ‘The River’ was written about Springsteen’s brother in law and the difficulties he contended with when faced with a recession and subsequent layoff in the mid-seventies. It serves as a gentle reminder of the fine line that always exists in our lives between joy and despair. ‘Highway Patrolman’ is a testament to love and loyalty between brothers. The haunting but beautiful sparseness of ‘Wreck on the Highway’ jars you right off your high horse and back to ground then covers you in cold sweat. “Live in the moment—you can so easily lose it all!” The list goes on leaving you at times joyful or defiant (Cadillac Ranch), sad (The Factory or You’re Missing), angry (anything on Wrecking Ball), even remorseful (The Promise) . Sometimes you may be just left with that complex mess of emotions—remorse and anger, but still filled with an edgy hope—when you realize that, you know, the earth really does not have a rudder at all; it’s up to us to carve our own path and the hell with it all (Racing in the Streets).
But, there are more people and thus, maybe, more poets. Any fan of Springsteen has to notice the whole spirit of continuity that helps to define his music. Young and old attend his concerts. Young and old perform at his concerts. But it runs deeper. Woven through his work are threads carefully reworked from elsewhere. Can’t you just sort-of hear Pete Seeger sometimes in there? Woody Guthrie too? Watch Springsteen perform. Sometimes he closes his eyes a bit, or at least throws them out of focus. The left hand drops down and the artist takes on the appearance of a gunslinger—guitar body higher than the head stock. Can’t you seem him channeling the voice, the intent, the spirit even of many who came before him?
I can’t recall the source exactly, but sometime in the late seventies or early eighties I recall reading an article about the young (at the time) Bruce. The author contended that the whole weight of the future of rock music rested on his (at the time) skinny shoulders. Hyperbole perhaps, but time has proven that author correct. The future of music did, to a large extent, depend on Springsteen. As his shoulders have broadened, so, too has his influence. But time has passed and, though young at heart, at age 63, Springsteen is no longer young in the physical sense. Though the wisdom and beauty of his work is undiminished with time there is no denying that he now ranks with the seasoned veterans.
So is that it, leave a few memories and just fade away?
Turn on your FM radio and tune it to any local station playing ‘top 40’ music. Chances are the music will sound rather … mediocre. It will be fairly well performed and produced but generally having too much familiarity; something that could have been punched out of any synth with just a few lines of code. Oh: the lyrics…uninspired, if not just plain stupid. Based on this alone you might be tempted to go on and say what a shame it is that modern music is so crappy and how awful it is that young people don’t get exposed to such great talent as we were. Where, in the current mess of over-packaged, over-produced bland slop is the raw quirky genius that can mature into the thoughtful Springsteen?
But, of course, that’s silly. Rock artists may be minor gods, but they are not gods. Popular music—in any period—has mostly been made up of the bland, uninspired—but salable—crap that we despise even today. Even ‘The River’ had its share of the frivolous!
And Springsteen was, by no means, the only poet of his generation. Lightfoot, Mellencamp, Young, McLachlan, Chapman, King…the list is long. What’s more, the generations go back…and back. Not that he’s trying to copy them, mind you; he makes his own footsteps. But still—could there have been a Springsteen or a Dylan, had there not been a Guthrie or Seeger, or even others like them?
So, too, with the present. Despite what the old timers may say, good, thoughtful music that reflects the times is still with us. What’s more it’s not just produced by the old folks. Young musicians now, as always, are still crafting songs worth listening to. If we don’t hear them on the radio or on the TV that’s not THEIR fault—it’s ours. Young people have, for the most part, moved on to newer media. The stuff is available for download right off the artists’ website or maybe even freely available (legally or not) from places such as YouTube. Either way, it’s out there to be found. Think about it it—THAT’s nothing new; using new media I mean. The artists who first used records were considered renegades. Bing Crosby, now considered an ‘old person’s old person’ was quite innovative in his day. He was one of the first who learned the power of an awesome new instrument—the microphone. He was one of the leaders who led the ‘new wave’ 40 years before the term was even coined. His transformation, though, was even more profound. Crosby taught a whole new generation of singers that they didn’t need to use their ‘big voice’ any more. The mike allowed you to make use of the whole dynamic range. Soft ‘jazzy’ or ‘crooning’ was something totally new for the masses!
It didn’t stop there. What Crosby and others did for voice, Leo Fender and Les Paul (and others) did for the guitar…
And on it goes. Music moves with the times. Or does it move the times? Who knows?Last year my son gave me a Dallas Green CD for Christmas. It was a month or more before I even bothered to play it. At least six more months passed before I realized how much I loved this ‘new’ artist’s work. That’s the way it is with music. We all have our stuff that we want to hear, and we really resist the intrusion caused by new stuff; it drags us out of our comfort zone and—face it—don’t we mostly want music to cement us into that zone? We really make up and coming artists work for their money! But then, one day, we realize that this so-so song…isn’t. So-so, that is. No, it goes from ‘whatever’ to ‘ear-worm’ and, once again, we are transformed by a new voice; a new spirit.
Pete Seeger, meet Bruce Springsteen. Bruce, meet Dallas Green. On and on.
Just the other day my son’s friend tweeted a video to a song that had become quite stuck in his ear. I brought up the link and liked it somewhat. I shared with another son and thought it was okay. Then I shared it with a friend and started liking it. Lord save us—as I write this, THAT song is just going through my head. Another ear worm. Hmmmm—this one was quicker than usual. Is that a sign? Dallas Green, meet Philip Philips.
Oh—and anyone who needs to give me a gift: hint hint.
A few years ago a friend gifted me with ‘The Seeger Sessions,’ an album in which Springsteen performs a bunch of well-know Pete Seeger standards. The accompaniment is loose. I believe it was a group of on-hand local musicians and little, if any, rehearsal was done prior to the recording. The result, though, is pure magic. The rendition of ‘We Shall Overcome,’ in particular catches the spirit of past (Seeger), present (Springsteen) and future (the very talented backup musicians.)
The future is looking better, isn’t it?