On this date in 2005, we saw Bruce Springsteen on the Devils and Dust tour. At the time, I wrote:
Next up was the weirdest version of "Reason to Believe" in history. He stomped his foot for a drum, played harmonica, and sang into some oddball mic that distorted his voice beyond recognition, so even someone like me, who knew it was coming, didn't recognize the song until it was almost over. Try to imagine Captain Beefheart singing Delta blues from the bottom of a swamp ... it was downright scary sounding.
Here he is performing it a month later, to give you an idea:
Two years later, it had morphed into this stunning version:
Seen a man standin' over a dead dog lyin' by the highway in a ditch
He's lookin' down kinda puzzled pokin' that dog with a stick
Got his car door flung open he's standin' out on Highway 31
Like if he stood there long enough that dog'd get up and run
Struck me kinda funny seem kinda funny sir to me
Still at the end of every hard day people find some reason to believe
I was listening to Bruce Springsteen’s recent concert that we attended in Oakland, part of his “River Tour”, wherein he plays the entire River album in order. There is a lot of talk these days about how fragmented our listening habits have become. We don’t listen to albums anymore, we just hit shuffle play and let the software choose from a million different songs. Maybe you have a favorite artist ... say, in my case, Bruce Springsteen ... and you have a playlist consisting solely and entirely of every song Bruce has ever recorded. I’ll listen to that playlist, but when I do, I’ll use shuffle play. The result? Let me do an experiment, I’ll shuffle that playlist and see what comes up.
There are close to 500 songs on the playlist. For this particular shuffle play, we start off with “My Best Was Never Good Enough”, a favorite track of mine from The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995). Next comes “I Wanna Be With You” (1979), one of the outtakes that ended up on Tracks. Then the Roy Orbison song “Oh, Pretty Woman”, from the 25th Anniversary Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Concert in 2009, with Bruce joined by John Fogerty.
That’s followed up with the “Detroit Medley” from the 1975 Hammersmith Odeon concert. Finally, closing out the first five songs is “Blood Brothers”, recorded in 1995.
You get at least a glimpse of what makes Bruce “Bruce”. Cover versions of 60s rock classics, an acoustic track, and two lesser-known tunes. Nothing from his most famous albums, nothing that’s one of his hits. But all of it is recognizably Bruce Springsteen.
The artist is the only thing that brings this disparate material together. Those five songs do not resemble an “album”, or even an EP. An album has its own coherence. At least, that’s how it used to be. It might still be true, but the audience doesn’t necessarily treat it as such.
What I thought while listening to the Oakland show was that Bruce was forcing us to return, not just to 1980, but to a time when an album was an album. He has played many River songs in concert over the years ... to use one example, at the show I saw most recently before Oakland 2016, he sang “Hungry Heart” and “The Ties That Bind”, separated by several other songs, of course. This tour, though, we got it all, track by track, in order. Just like we were listening to the album.
Well, if we were listening to the album with 35+ years on us. Clarence and Danny are gone, Jake and Charles and Nils and Soozie (and sometimes Patti) are with us. The crush of nostalgia lies heavily over the concert, to be sure. But as an experience in hearing an album, it was different.
“Sherry Darling” had an interesting history. In the old days, Bruce was always tossing a few new songs into his shows. At the famous Winterland concerts in 1978, he played “Ties That Bind” and “Point Blank”, even though he was touring behind Darkness and The River was two years away. So we knew those songs before they ever turned up on an album. “Sherry” was another of those songs ... while he didn’t play it for us, he trotted it out enough times that we heard bootleg concert versions.
When The River was released, I was wary. Darkness on the Edge of Town was indeed dark, and in fact that fit well with my personal experiences of the time. But I also knew that my favorite parts of his concerts were the joyous ones. “The Ties That Bind” was the first track on The River, and it was good, but I feared the darkness was returning. So when “Sherry Darling” was the next track, with its goofy lyrics and pseudo-crowd noises, I was so happy I could cry.
You’ll note from the above video that in 1978, Bruce wanted the crowd to make noise (“fraternity rock”), but he couldn’t expect anyone to sing along, since the song had never been released. In 2016, though, it is expected that we will know the words, and we will sing them:
We are hearing the song in the context of the original album. But we can’t replace the newness of those first times we heard those songs in 1980. Bruce approximates the experience of listening to an album, but nothing more. And there’s the added fact that some of the most noteworthy performances on this tour have been non-River songs, like his tributes to Bowie and Prince, “Rebel Rebel” and “Purple Rain”.
I normally save the setlist junkie stuff for the end, but this time, we can learn something from examining the setlist.
Last night, Bruce played 35 songs, including the entire album The River, which has 20 tracks.
In October of 1980, my wife and I caught five shows in a week on the River tour.
Of the songs we heard last night, 18 were songs we heard at every one of those five shows. Another 5 were songs we heard four times. One we heard three times, one we heard once. So we heard 25 of last night’s 35 songs at least once on the 1980 tour, most of them all five nights.
Of the ten songs from last night we never heard in 1980, seven came from The River era or earlier (including “Shout”, which I assume Bruce and the band knew back in 1980, whether they played it or not).
Of the three remaining, one was from Born in the USA, two were from The Rising.
My point in all of this? This tour is centered on The River album. But there are 15 other songs, and 12 of them could have been played on the 1980 tour. Bruce hasn’t just revisited The River; he has revisited the 1980 tour.
Now, there are a lot of Bruce fans who didn’t catch him in 1980, for whatever reason, so I’m speaking only of my wife and I ... and all the other people from back in the day. There was very little last night that we couldn’t have experienced in 1980 ... for the most part, we did. Which makes last night’s concert arguably the least-adventurous of all the 36 Bruce shows we have attended since 1975. Ignoring for a moment the more than 35 years since The River Tour, what we saw last night was effectively our 6th River Tour show.
Of course, the above makes it sound like we had a bad time. But that River Tour was one of the most memorable times of our lives. The E Street Band probably plays “better” now than they did back then. Bruce still has remarkable energy ... not as frantic as he used to be, but there aren’t a lot of 66-year-old rockers who can still put on a 3 1/2 hour show without flagging. Amazingly, five of the people on stage were also on stage in 1980, and the “new” folks are wonderful. Soozie Tyrell isn’t given enough to do on this tour, but her violin is welcome when she gets to play it, as are her backup vocals. Same goes for Nils Lofgren, who did his trademark whirlybird solo and added his lovely backup vocals. More important for this tour are the two “replacements”. Charlie Giordano has more chops than Danny Federici ... he’ll never replace Danny as an original, but they lose nothing on keyboards with Charlie in the mix. And in one of the great twists of fate, Clarence’s nephew Jake Clemons is a great sax player in the Big Man mode, and as my son noted, he is fully integrated into the band at this point, playing Clarence’s famous solos while adding his own personality to the mix. (He’s also the baby of the group ... in fact, Jake was born the year The River was released.)
You’ve got great songs played by a great band, a crowd wired for a great time ... why ask for more?
A few extra notes:
Bruce no longer sings in his higher range. He did his falsetto once, but mostly, he rearranges songs to avoid those high notes. If you weren’t expecting them, you wouldn’t notice ... other than that, Bruce is in fine form, and hey, Tony Bennett rearranges his songs, too.
There was a couple in front of us who danced and hugged and kissed the entire show. Afterwards, I had to ask them how old they were ... it would have been too perfect if they were 27, like my wife and I in 1980. They were a couple of years older, but it was fun seeing people younger than everyone on stage having such a great time.
A friend was sick and couldn’t attend. She offered her tickets to anyone who could make the show on short notice, saying she didn’t want money, just wanted to know the tickets got into good hands. Mission accomplished ... a true Bruce Community Moment.
(On the darker side, another friend got last-minute tix and found at the door that her tickets were fake. The person who sold those fakes is not in the Bruce Community.)
I often measure Bruce shows by how often I cry. But this time, I kinda knew where that would be focused. Many fans have never seen him play “Drive All Night”, and they were guaranteed to get it on this tour. We saw him sing it almost every night in 1980, but never since. It is a favorite of mine. Even though I not only knew he would sing it, I knew when it would come (he was playing the album in track order), I lost it when the first notes came. To make matters worse, in the middle, he threw in a bit of “Dream Baby Dream”, another favorite, and quite appropriate. Was it the highlight of the evening? It was for me.
Finally, the last of the setlist junkie stuff. We heard three songs that were new to us at Bruce shows: the River outtake “Meet Me in the City” that kicks off the show, “Fade Away” (the only River song we had never seen), and “Shout”, an oldie we’d missed in the past. “Born to Run” remains the song we’ve heard the most.
Oh, and “Rosalita” is my favorite Bruce song, but I don’t need him to just walk through it. He played it at the first ten shows we saw, but it’s more rare since. The one time since those early days that I was really delighted came when he pulled it out at the Pac Bell Park concert. Last night’s version was great fun, goofy and sloppy just as it should be. I’m glad it was there.
Sunday, Bruce Springsteen’s “River” tour comes to Oakland. At this show, he will play the entire album The River. In 1980, we took our only extended Bruce vacation, seeing him in three cities in two states, five shows in seven nights. He was touring behind The River, of course, so we saw him perform those songs night after night. For some reason, he never played “Fade Away”, so we’ll have one “new” song on this tour. Along with anything else he tosses in.
This will be my 36th Bruce show, dating back to 1975. Robin missed a couple of those. Bruce’s first tour since this blog began was The Rising Tour in 2002, and I took that time to write about my experiences with him over the years. Here is what I wrote about The River album:
We all grow up eventually, even Steven Rubio and Bruce Springsteen, but it always struck me as odd that someone with as much adolescent energy as Bruce Springsteen also always seemed older than his years. If he was 30 when he made The River, he sounded lots older on songs like "Point Blank" and lots younger on songs like "Sherry."
Tunnel of Love was Bruce’s Blood on the Tracks. I’m far from the first person to say that, although when I wrote about it during the very first year of this blog, I compared it to Planet Waves. “Brilliant Disguise” was released as a single before the album came out. Understand that in 1987, Bruce was coming off of Born in the U.S.A., which sold upwards of 30 million copies, and a live box set that was one of the biggest-selling live albums of all time. (This evidence is anecdotal, i.e. it’s what I remember but I don’t have the energy to look it up, but I feel like the story was a lot of people bought CD players so they could play the live set.) It is safe to say anticipation was high for Tunnel of Love.
And the first thing we heard was this:
Tonight our bed is cold
I’m lost in the darkness of our love
God have mercy on the man
Who doubts what he’s sure of
Tunnel of Love was a great album, and “Brilliant Disguise” is a great song. But, as I noted back in 2002, “Tunnel of Love reeks with despair over love (never was a album dedication more ominously plain than this one: "Thanks Juli"). Juli was his first wife, Julianne Phillips, and it’s rough, that he thanked his wife in the notes for an album filled with the traumas of love.
The album closed with “Valentine’s Day”, one of my favorite Bruce songs. “Brilliant Disguise” was a #1 single, but I last saw him play it in concert in 1992, and I’ve seen him 18 times in the 23+ years since then. It’s as if once his marriage ended, and he began life anew with Patti, he didn’t like returning to those earlier times. (In the last five shows I’ve seen, going back to 2008, he hasn’t played a single song from Tunnel of Love.) But at least I got a handful of “Disguises”. “Valentine’s Day” is one of the rare Bruce songs I have never heard him play live. And I don’t expect to hear it when I see him next month, either.
“Valentine’s Day” doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the album at first. It’s the closing track, the story of a guy who misses his girl. He’s on the road (it’s a Bruce song, after all), driving back to see his honey. It isn’t ironic ... Bruce rarely is ... you can tell he really loves her and really misses her and really wants to get back home to her.
But it’s also the most melancholy version of love. This guy is terrified: “I got one hand steady on the wheel and one hand's tremblin' over my heart ... What scares me is losin' you.” Even when he finally gets to her, a feeling of sadness lies over everything: “So hold me close honey, say you’re forever mine, and tell me you’ll be my lonely valentine.”
Thirty years ago today, we saw Bruce Springsteen for the 12th time. It was our first Bruce Stadium show ... he was still touring behind Born in the USA. Here’s “Stolen Car” from that show.
And I'm driving a stolen car
On a pitch black night
And I'm telling myself I'm gonna be alright
But I ride by night and I travel in fear
That in this darkness I will disappear
Here’s the audio to the entire show (3+ hours):
Here are some cover versions of “Stolen Car”. Patty Griffin:
And Owen with “Stolen Bike”:
Last night, we attended a Litquake show, “Born to Read: Celebrating the Lyrics of Springsteen”. Here’s how it was described on the website:
[A] one-of-a-kind celebration, including personal reminiscences and dramatic and musical interpretations. With rock critic and author Ben Fong-Torres, musician Tom Heyman, author/humorist Beth Lisick, San Francisco poet laureate Alejandro Murguia, poet Daphne Gottlieb, rock critic Joel Selvin, and music biographer and musician Sylvie Simmons.
There were a couple of cute “reminiscences” before the start of the actual show, which was hosted by Fong-Torres. He was one of the best things about the show, and I actually learned something from his performance of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”. Fong-Torres said the song exposes some of Springsteen’s admitted influences, and he proceeded to start singing the song in the voice of Bob Dylan. His Dylan impression could use some work, but it served its purpose, showing how Dylan-esque Bruce’s lyrics remained on his third album.
What followed was a mixed bag. Part of the problem is down to taste preferences, as usual. I don’t much care for treating song lyrics like poetry. Song lyrics don’t stand alone ... remove the music and you change the meaning. The lyrics of “She’s the One” on the page are lacking the central point of the song: the Bo Diddley beat, with the volume cranked up at the start of the second verse. So the songs where the performer did a reading of the lyrics were not my cup of tea. Alejandro Murquia did what he could with “Meeting Across the River”, but any insights came from having the voice of a Latino behind the words. Joel Selvin sped through “Night” in about 45 seconds ... I assume he was trying to convey the rush of the song, but again, absent the music, he just sounded silly. “Backstreets” has great lyrics, sure, but the meaning of the song is told through the piano and the guitar and the way Bruce channels Van Morrison.
Tom Heyman, a working musician, had a tough job. At least he got to sing and play guitar. But the songs he was given, “Born to Run” and “Jungleland”, don’t lend themselves to an acoustic rendering (even Bruce struggled with this when he sang “Born to Run” solo on one tour). Similarly, Sylvie Simmons was never going to be able to turn “She’s the One” into a ukulele classic (see above). It’s not that these musicians were bad, it’s that their reworkings were doomed to failure from the start. Honestly, Frankie Goes to Hollywood had a better handle on “Born to Run” than Heyman.
Out of all this, one performance rose above the rest. Beth Lisick performed “Thunder Road” as a woman listening on headphones. We couldn’t hear the actual track ... we only heard Lisick, singing (too loud, and just a bit off-key, the way we all do when we sing with headphones on). For once, we sensed the joy that Springsteen’s work provides to his audience, as Lisick danced awkwardly, screwing up the occasional lyric, and then, best of all, acting out the instrumental fadeout. You could hear the instruments in your head, even though no sound came from Lisick. And then, in the single most winning moment of the night, she mimed the Professor playing his little piano phrase. It’s the kind of thing only a hardcore Bruce fan would understand, and it was a roomful of hardcore Bruce fans. The communal feel of recognition was sublime.
A friend who lives in the Northwest felt bad for missing the show, but he offered to read the lyrics in his backyard if anyone wanted to do a road trip his way. I wish “Born to Read” had a bit more of that spirit.
(I should add that I wasn’t keeping notes, so I may have mismatched performers to songs. My apologies if this is true.)
So while we congratulate ourselves on not having political prisoners like China or Cuba, we do have what we might call prisoners of politics. Again, Obama described the incarceration crisis as “containing and controlling problems that the rest of us are not facing up to and willing to do something about.” Politicians have not been willing to face up to and do something about the underlying problems and all too willing to seek means of “containing” them—i.e., warehousing the people left behind. The political decisions made in the age of neoliberalism and globalization, concurrent with the War on Drugs, have resulted in a surplus population that cannot be absorbed by the sort of economy advocated by Washington and a severe criminalization of the one economy that does work in communities left behind.
-- Matthew Pulver, “Why America’s prison problem is so much worse than Barack Obama wants to let on”
“Some folks are born into a good life. Other folks get it anyway, anyhow.”