The Modernization of Bruce Springsteen

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By Michael Goldberg.

An artist who was once at one with the times tries (again) to reinvent himself.

Bruce Springsteen was once a myth, a myth we all could pretend was real. He was a myth the way Bob Dylan was a myth, is a myth.

During the Sixties it stopped being OK to be an entertainer. Musicians got onstage wearing the same jeans and t-shirts they wore around the house. It was cool to keep it real. But it turned out that the jeans and t-shirts were as much a costume as Elvis’ crazy stage garb.

So when Bruce Springsteen showed up in the early ‘70s with his leather jacket, his jeans and his motorcycle boots singing about the Jersey shore – one of the ‘New Dylan’s’ that were appearing with frequency — we wanted to believe it was real.

And I did believe it.

I didn’t think of Springsteen as a writer creating a persona, a cast of characters and a story that was ultimately spread across seven albums. I thought he was the guy singing stories from his crazy youth: ‘Rosalita’ and ‘Mary Queen of Arkansas’ and ‘Blinded By The Light’ and ‘Thunder Road’ and ‘Born To Run’ and all the others. Sure he was writing in an almost embarrassingly derivative style that owed everything to Dylan’s mid-60s surrealistic word games, but Springsteen pulled it off. And by 1973 the real Dylan seemed to be losing his luster anyway. (And soon enough Springsteen settled into his own voice and sound.)

I found a version of myself in Springsteen’s songs. When he sang in ‘Thunder Road,’ “It’s a town full of losers, I’m pulling out of here to win,” I knew that was me. Fuck yeah, I was going to become a successful writer, write for the New York magazines, leave all the chumps I’d put up with in high school and college behind.

Sure I was working as a copy boy at the San Francisco Chronicle in 1975, but that was gonna change. That was temporary, a way to pay the bills until I broke into the writing business.

In the late fall of 1975, two months after the release of Born To Run, Bruce Springsteen toured the west coast. There were five of us loaded into Karen’s car the night of October 29, 1975, Our destination was the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium in downtown Sacramento, the state capital, a two-hour drive north east of San Francisco. Two hours? We didn’t care. I mean this was our chance to see Bruce Springsteen!

In the car were me, my girlfriend Leslie, my best friend Dave, Dave’s girlfriend Karen and another friend, Dana, who co-led a band with Dave. Springsteen was also playing at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, but that show was sold out, and anyway, there was something romantic, Springsteenesque even, about driving two hours in the early evening to Sacramento, a town seeming stuck in the past. The Sacramento Memorial Auditorium, after all, had been built in 1926, and it looked it. It was like time-traveling when you passed through the front doors – it’s one of those grand old theaters.

The great Sixties record producer Phil Spector described his sound as ‘a Wagnerian approach to rock & roll: little symphonies for the kids.’ Springsteen, first with manager Mike Appel, and then with former rock critic turned manager/ producer Jon Landau, created his own ‘Wall of Sound.’

By the time Springsteen and Landau created the album Born To Run (only the title track was produced by Appel), the artist had fashioned a terrific rock ‘n’ roll sound. Sure he’d borrowed from a list of influences (Dylan, Roy Orbison, Spector, Elvis and others), but at the time it didn’t sound retro.

Well, that’s not quite true. Somehow that album managed to remind us of all the artists it referenced, while at the same time sounding timeless. And many of those songs have proven to be timeless. Recently, when Springsteen sang ‘Thunder Road’ in Perth, Australia (the crowd singing along), the song spoke to the needs and desires of 2014 teens and twenty-somethings, just as it spoke to my needs and desires nearly 40 years ago when I witnessed Springsteen sing that song in Sacramento.

In concert that night, Springsteen and the E Street Band were phenomenal. Maybe the best rock band on the planet. There in Sacramento, Springsteen delivered his songs with that deep, distinctive voice. What played out on the stage that night was a rock ‘n’ roll teen opera. Springsteen sang us the story of a young man beating it out of town in pursuit of dreams his friends couldn’t even imagine.

For six albums – Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J, The Wild the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, Born To Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, Nebraska and the huge breakout, Born in the U.S.A. – Springsteen unreeled installments of his rock ‘n’ roll teen opera. And beginning with Born To Run he found his own sound, Phil Spector on steroids.

Springsteen’s sound was originally made using old school rock ‘n’ roll instruments. Organ, piano, saxophone, guitar, bass and drums. Sure the sound was huge and dense, but it was a real time analog sound. What you saw up on the stage was what you got.

Born in the U.S.A. made Springsteen a superstar, but it was also a turning point. On ‘Dancing in the Dark,’ the first hit off the album, Springsteen modified his sound, incorporating a synth into the mix. While it seemed minor at the time, it signaled the beginning of an unfulfilled quest for something new that to this day hasn’t ended.

That’s good, right? The artist wanting to mix things up. Sure, but only if the artist can deliver. By 1987, with Tunnel of Love, Springsteen had abandoned the teen opera and was on this way to firing the E Street Band. Ever since that album, he has been struggling to find something new while keeping his enormous fan base happy. And ever since he’s failed to deliver another album as great as that string of ‘70s into early ‘80s albums that continue to define his career.

I’ve watched quite a few videos from Springsteen’s recent shows in Australia and usually, when he sings his classic songs – ‘Born To Run,’ ‘Thunder Road’ and others – his fans sing along. It’s a nostalgia trip. It’s as if, in 1966, while Bob Dylan and the Hawks were out tearing up stages around the world with a sound no one had heard before, Frank Sinatra was playing to an arena of one-time bobby-soxers. Springsteen himself can’t sing the old songs the way he used to sing them. When Born To Run came out in 1975, Springsteen was 26 and he was running from his demons. He’s a 64-year-old multi-millionaire now.

Bruce Springsteen’s latest, High Hopes, continues his struggle to find a new sound and make relevant contemporary music, this time by bringing in a ‘modern’ guitar player, Tom Morello, best known for his work in Rage Against the Machine. Springsteen co-produced the album with Ron Aniello and Brendan O’Brien, producers he’s turned to previously since Jon Landau vacated the producer’s chair.

I can tell you I like High Hopes OK – some of it anyway. I like it not because it’s a great Bruce Springsteen album, but because it’s an album by an artist I like based on albums he made 30-plus years ago. Yes, there are some good songs, and some great performances of those songs, but this is not up there with Born To Run or The River.

When one looks at the great rock artists, every one of them eventually hit a wall. Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Neil Young, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Elvis Costello… There comes a time when the songwriting, which flowed so spontaneously and yet was pure genius, becomes hard work. And after that a lot of the new, forced songs aren’t so good. The music and the words just don’t cut it. Springsteen hit his wall more than 20 years ago.

Tell me, do you really ever listen to Magic, or Working on a Dream?

With High Hopes, it would seem Springsteen was up against the wall. Rather than write a new album, he took a bunch of songs he hadn’t completed, some covers and some previously recorded old songs, brought in Tom Morello, and with a wish and a prayer, tried to fashion an album.

High Hopes isn’t an album in the way we think of a modern rock album. The songs don’t seem to fit with each other. It’s more like those albums from the early ‘60s that contained a bunch of unrelated songs. This is an odds and sods collection.

Springsteen didn’t even write three of the 12 songs: ‘High Hopes,’ ‘Just Like Fire Would’ and ‘Dream Baby Dream.’

Some of the songs – the title track, ‘American Skin (41 Shots)’ and ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’ — are remakes of songs that appeared previously. A version of ‘High Hopes’ was on the Blood Brothers EP, an earlier version of ‘American Skin (41 Shots)’ was released in 2001 and ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’ was the title track of Springsteen’s 1995 solo studio album. There’s nothing wrong with those last three songs, it’s just that we’ve heard them before.

The best songs on the album are the title track, ‘American Skin (41 Shots)’ and ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’ and that’s a big drag. Other standouts are ‘Harry’s Place,’ which sounds like it was inspired by Bobby Womack’s ‘Across 110th Street,’ and ‘The Wall,’ a quiet ballad about a Jersey rocker who died in Vietnam – it’s very powerful.

The problem with High Hopes is bigger than the song selection. It’s bigger than simply another so-so Springsteen album. It underlines Springsteen’s eternal dilemma. Long ago he lost interest in adding to his teen opera. He also felt he’d taken his ‘70s/’80s E Street Band sound as far as it could go. But utilizing synths and drum machines and Tom Morello hasn’t delivered the great new Springsteen sound. It’s just diluted the power of a sound that was once singular and powerful.

Damn, I mean in the late ‘70s I could leave a three-plus hour Springsteen concert and feel like I wanted more.

In the midst of ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad,’ Springsteen sings, “Well the highway is alive tonight/ But nobody’s kidding nobody about where it goes.”

And that’s the problem. It’s been a long time since we could believe those stories Springsteen sang in ‘Rosalita’ and ‘Born to Run’ and ‘Thunder Road.’ A long time since the chance to hear Springsteen live would motivate me and my friends to take a two-hour drive to Sacramento. The album ends with Springsteen’s cover of Suicide’s 1979 single, ‘Dream Baby Dream.’ But maybe he should have covered John Lennon’s ‘God’ instead. That’s the one that ends, “The dream is over.”

Brian Wise

Brian Wise was the Editor of Addicted To Noise‘s Australian site from 1997 – 2002. The site won two ONYA Awards as Best Online Music Magazine in 1999 & 2000. He has also been Editor since its reincarnation in 2013. He also presents the weekly music interview program Off The Record on 102.7 Triple R-FM (rrr.org.au) in Melbourne. It is networked to 45+ stations across Australia on the Community Radio Network and is a four-time winner of the Best Music Program Award from the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia. In 2012, it was nominated as a finalist in the Excellence in Music Programming category. Brian was also the Founding Editor & Publisher of Rhythms Magazine and is now its Senior Contributing Editor.

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