music friday: born to read

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.)

get it anyway, anyhow

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.”

music friday: favorites through the years

If I were to make a list of my favorite musicians over the years, the only easy selection would be Bruce Springsteen at the top. But I wonder if perhaps I could offer a chronology of favorites over the years.

One of my first memories (meaning it is entirely untrustworthy) is being a little boy and having to get a shot at the doctor’s office. I cried and ran around the room until my dad promised I could buy an Elvis Presley 45 after we left the office. My memory is it was “Hound Dog”, although that is probably the most untrustworthy part of this whole story. Since I’m trying to concoct a chronological list of favorites, I can’t really use this memory to place Elvis in first place. I didn’t have an Elvis fixation, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was merely the only rock and roller I’d heard of at that young age. I lost interest in him after that, and only really started paying attention to him after Greil Marcus’ book Mystery Train. That book took me to the ‘68 TV special, and if you want a favorite, there you are … whenever I fill out one of those “if you could pick one moment in time, where would it be” memes, I choose to be sitting in the audience as The King and his friends played in the summer of 1968. From there, I went on to write my college honors thesis on Elvis, and I’ve never lost my fascination with him. Truthfully, though, it’s the ‘68 Elvis-and-Friends sessions that affect me emotionally … everything else for me is more academic. So Elvis is a favorite, to be sure, but it’s hard to place him chronologically … 1968, when I didn’t notice him? The mid-70s, when Mystery Train came out?

I had a few 45s when I was a kid … there was Bobby “Boris” Pickett with “The Monster Mash”, Link Wray and “Jack the Ripper”, a few more that are long forgotten. The first LPs I can recall (some gifts, some bought by me) include Herman’s Hermits On Tour, Bringing It All Back Home (for “Like a Rolling Stone”, the first Dylan to grab my attention … of course, that album did not include “Rolling Stone”), and the first two American Yardbirds albums, For Your Love and Having a Rave Up with the Yardbirds. It would be accurate to say that The Yardbirds were my first “favorite” musicians. I put “favorite” in quotes because The Beatles ruled over everything by then, and I was not immune. (I can remember buying Revolver right when it came out, and someone asking me how I knew it was good before I’d even heard it. “It’s the Beatles!” was my reply.) Finally, to complete this time frame, I had an older brother who lived at home until 1964, and his tastes were very influential on me, plus he had lots of records.

The Yardbirds, “I Wish You Would” (Eric Clapton on guitar)

For the rest of the 60s, my favorites were identified more by albums than by artists, although the Beatles and Rolling Stones were always there. Representing the “San Francisco Sound” were Surrealistic Pillow, Children of the Future, Electric Music for the Mind and Body, and the first Quicksilver album. Oh, and the Firesign Theatre. But I don’t think any of these artists were favorites beyond their best albums. If I had to list a favorite, let it be Jack Casady. One album, though, made such an impression on me that it lifted the artist to a favored spot: Astral Weeks by Van Morrison. His first four solo albums (through His Band and the Street Choir) were often played, and there was plenty to like after that. I finally saw him live in 1998.

Van Morrison, “Cypress Avenue

Not sure I had a favorite for the next few years. Listened to a lot of The Moody Blues in the late-60s. Allman Brothers. Boz Scaggs’ “Loan Me a Dime”. No, the next My Favorite came when I re-discovered Bob Dylan around about the time of Planet Waves. I had liked him since long before that, of course, and The Band was always thisclose to being a favorite … in hindsight, I don’t know if there is a double whammy I love more than Big Pink and the second album. Robin and I saw them on the Before the Flood tour, our first concert together after we were married … we saw Dylan twice more over the years, The Band once more (they were/are a favorite of hers, as well). I buried myself in Dylanology, reading everything I could find, going back to the earlier albums. Then Blood on the Tracks and The Basement Tapes followed … it was a great time to be a Dylan fan. Things went downhill after that … we saw him on the Street Legal tour, and it wasn’t the same … we didn’t see him in concert again for 20 years. It’s hard to get mid-70s Dylan on YouTube (The Band is easy to find), so here’s what I (along, I’m sure) consider the best use ever of “All Along the Watchtower”, the culmination of its use in Battlestar Galactica:

BSG, Starbuck

Then came Bruce … do I really need to say more? My various stories are scattered throughout this blog. My favorite of his songs after all these years is still “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”, and it was 1978 that cemented his place forever in my heart. So here’s “Rosie” from 1978:

Bruce Springsteen, “Rosalita

Punk was probably the musical movement I most loved. Patti Smith could be on this list. But my true favorites were The Clash … it’s really not even close.

The Clash, “Safe European Home

Lou Reed is in there, too … we saw him quite a few times then. The Velvet Underground belongs on this list, but as with Elvis, I don’t know where to place them. We listened to the first album all the time when it came out, and I was aware of the other albums. But it took a long time for me to realize that they were my favorite band, by which point they had long since broken up. The real favorites of the … what do I call it, post-punk era? College rock? Anyway, the favorites were Hüsker Dü. I would vote for the Velvets over the Hüskers overall, but in the context of this post, Hüsker Dü is the right choice. And my favorite of their songs is an easy choice. “So now sit around staring at the walls. We don't do anything at all. Take out the garbage, maybe, BUT THE DISHES DON’T GET DONE!”

Hüsker Dü, “I Apologize

Predating Hüsker Dü by a bit (and thus throwing off the chronology a bit, but I wanted Hüsker Dü in with the punks) was their fellow Minnesotan, Prince. He would be the frontrunner if I decided I had to pick a #2 favorite. Seeing him in a small club in 1981 ranks as one of the finest concert moments of my life. For most of the 80s, he was crucial, and he has never really gone away … saw him in concert just a few years ago.

Prince, “Uptown

Don’t think I haven’t noticed that the above are all guys. I’ve loved many women rockers over the years, going back at least as far as Aretha in the 60s. I mentioned Patti Smith earlier … and there’s Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams, and more. But they weren’t my favorites the same way acts like Bruce and Prince were.

And then came Sleater-Kinney. I saw them for the first time in 1998, after Janet had joined the band and Dig Me Out was their most recent album. The first S-K song I can remember loving was “Good Things” from the second album, but Dig Me Out was and remains iconic for me, especially “Words + Guitar” and even more especially “One More Hour”. I don’t think I knew right away how much I would love them. It had been more than a decade since I truly obsessed over a new act … I was 45 years old in 1998, I had Bruce, I didn’t need more. But there was something about Sleater-Kinney. Their concerts were very interesting … I want to tell you what a great live act they were, but the truth is, I could barely distinguish a lot of the noise (Janet’s drums always came through, though). It’s the way they formed a real group out of three women with distinct personalities on stage. In the earlier years, Corin tended to be relatively calm, letting her colossal vocals do the work of expanding her presence to the audience. Janet was simply the best rock drummer since Keith Moon. Meanwhile, Carrie took care of the rock star charisma, and she had it in abundance, her bangs always in her eyes, her energy at once coiled and explosive. On record, Corin’s voice got my attention, and I had a fan’s crush on Janet’s drumming. But the fact was, I could barely take my eyes off of Carrie. They made seven albums, and all of them were good (sample: Christgau gave the albums grades of A-, A, A, A, A-, A, A). I made an S-K playlist for a friend … I ended up including more than 40 songs. The last album, The Woods, was arguably their best, as they released their inner Blue Cheer. And the concerts rolled on … over the course of just under eight years, I saw them 12 times. There was the time they played “Promised Land” on Bruce’s birthday, the many times they would man their own merch tables and I’d get tongue-tied in the presence of Janet.

And then they went on “hiatus” … that was in 2006, and I just about cry every time I think of it. By that point, I was 53 years old, and this time I was sure of it, I would never love another new act the way I loved Sleater-Kinney. “One More Hour” was the last song they ever played together … “i know it's hard for you to let it go, i know it's hard for you to say goodbye, i know you need a little more time”.

Sleater-Kinney, “One More Hour

Another woman has snuck in, though … I don’t obsess over her the way I did with Sleater-Kinney, those days are indeed probably gone. But I’ve seen her five times (the second at the Fillmore, two years after I’d seen S-K there) … she’s just about the only person left not named Bruce who can get my now-61-year-old ass to a show. Pink.

Pink, “So What

So, there’s my slightly botched timeline of my favorite musicians over the years:

  • The Yardbirds
  • Van Morrison
  • Bob Dylan
  • Bruce Springsteen
  • The Clash
  • Hüsker Dü
  • Prince
  • Sleater-Kinney
  • Pink

friday random ten, 1992 edition

One last quickie … we’ll be back by the time next Friday rolls around.

1. Bruce Springsteen, “I Wish I Were Blind”. “Though the world is filled with the grace and beauty of God's hand, oh I wish I were blind when I see you with your man.”

2. 4 Non Blondes, “What’s Up? “I am feeling a little peculiar.”

3. Sir Mix-a-Lot, “Baby Got Back”. “Oh, my, God. Becky, look at her butt!”

4. Kris Kross, “Jump”. “Kris Kross will make you jump jump.”

5. House of Pain, “Jump Around”. “I got more rhymes than the Bible's got Psalms.”

6. PJ Harvey, “Sheela-Na-Gig”. “Put money in your idle hole.”

7. Radiohead, “Creep”. “You’re so fucking special. I wish I was special. But I’m a creep.”

8. En Vogue, “Giving Him Something He Can Feel”. “Livin' in a world of ghetto life.”

9. Dr. Dre, “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang”. “It's like this and like that and like this and uh …”

10. The Cranberries, “Dreams”. “Moong joong yun yut fun joong po gun.”

and the reviews are in

Jim Harrington in various local papers (I’ll link to the Tribune, but he’s syndicated or something):

Springsteen was joyful to the point of near-giddiness. The 63-year-old star shook hands, let fans strum his guitar, mugged with his E Street Band members and exuded more energy than most artists half his age -- all of which, I realize, are trademarks of his live show. Yet, the way he conducted himself seemed particularly genuine and natural on this night. He acted like he was having the time of his life as he performed before the capacity crowd.

And the feeling was most definitely mutual. Fans ate up pretty much everything Springsteen had to offer, which added up to 27 songs over the course of three-plus hours. …

The song that fans will still be talking about today, however, came at the start of his typically generous encore. He opened the five-song set with an epic version of "Kitty's Back," a treasured "deep cut" from 1973's "The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle." It stretched 12 minutes, roughly five more than found on the record, and was filled with more interesting jams than one would find during an entire String Cheese Incident tour.

The crowd had a blast. Yet, Springsteen seemed to be having at least as much fun as anybody. is the top site for hardcore fans, with reviews of every show for more than a decade. Jonathan Pont had this to say about Oakland 2012:

Take an old building in a hard-luck city and fill it with a Friday night crowd that began cheering when the lighting guys climbed their ladders a half-hour before the music began. That was the setting in Oakland, where a hard rain had fallen all morning before letting up just after noon, something that didn't appear lost on Bruce Springsteen.

He followed the E Street Band on stage at Oracle Arena, and with the lights up, "Land of Hope and Dreams" opened the show. Putting his newest old song (or oldest new one) first may seem like a novelty, but it takes Springsteen out of his comfort zone. …

[I]t's worth noting that Springsteen didn't let up … All night, he was strong in voice, strong in spirit, and made so many trips to the mid-floor riser I thought they actually might start asking to see his wristband. His crowd surf during "Hungry Heart" took longer than usual: Springsteen kept pointing toward the stage (really, people: is there someplace else to pass him?) and at one point he asked, "What the fuck?" with surprise in his voice. A lot of first-time attendees made themselves known at this show, and a few revealed a long-standing interest in Springsteen's music. If one had to guess, they'll be back.

bruce springsteen concert #35

Show #35 was another good one. Bruce never lets us down, but over the past five years or so, he has reached a consistent level as high as any in the long period we’ve seen him, going back to 1975. The band is tighter, the newer additions smoothly integrated, and Bruce still seems genuinely happy to be there after all these years. The key phrase is “consistent level” … at this point, there isn’t much I can say that I haven’t already said before. This was the second time we’d seen him on the Wrecking Ball tour, so the novelty of hearing those songs, and the new makeup of the band (three backup singers plus a fourth who doubles on percussion, five-piece horn section) is something we have quickly become used to. Jake Clemons has settled in more than nicely. The newness of his stepping into his uncle’s place is still there, but he has taken on a larger role in the proceedings since we saw in April. I wondered what the other four horn players might be thinking, realizing that Jake got so many opportunities to step forward on his own. But he plays all of Clarence’s old solos, he has a fine stage presence of his own, and he does as good a job as anyone could hope of trying to fill the Big Man’s big shoes.

The set list was mixed up nicely. No tour debuts, but “Devils and Dust” had only been played once before on this tour. There were two songs that might have been personal debuts for me, although I doubt it. I have the complete set lists for 33 of the 35 shows I’ve seen, and “The E Street Shuffle” and “Kitty’s Back” do not appear on any of them. But the two missing lists are the first two, from 1975-76, when Bruce only had three albums to pick from. I’d have to guess we heard “Kitty” both times, “Shuffle” probably both times as well. To be honest, I was surprised I hadn’t heard “Kitty” in all those years.

This report sounds a bit dispassionate, which couldn’t be further from the experience itself. It’s just that, as I said above, he is consistently great these days, and so the changes in the set list are the main things to talk about that separate one show from another. Some highlights (all videos from medolyns):

“Land of Hope and Dreams” made an interesting and effective opener. The previous eight times we’ve seen this one going back to the Reunion Tour, it was a finale, or close to the end. But it worked very well to kick off the show.

That was followed by “Cover Me”, “Adam Raised a Cain”, and “Something in the Night”. Two Darkness songs in the opening four was a nice surprise, and made for a very intense beginning. Then came “Hungry Heart” with the body surfing, and our friend Diana will be glad to know that Oakland wasn’t a lot better at this than Vancouver was (as medolyns notes, these videos were taken from a good spot, but outside of the interesting perspective, this particular video didn’t work quite as well as hoped):

“My City of Ruins” was the most overt example of Bruce the Revivalist Preacher, and the first mention of the absence of Clarence. As noted, I liked hearing “E Street Shuffle” after all these years. And then came the signs. He didn’t just take them from the front of the pit … he wandered back to the barricade between pit and the rest of the floor, grabbing signs all the way, until he had a lot of them. When he returned to the stage, he rummaged through the signs, and pulled out the one about the Hungarian dancer I mentioned in an earlier post. He called her onstage, and while she danced, he commenced to playing “Pay Me My Money Down”, which I thought was a sign request, but she hadn’t really asked for any song in particular, and the song was on the original set list, so the band was ready:

“Devils and Dust” was perhaps the most surprising of the sign requests:

“Shackled and Drawn” was one of my favorites of the night, which I expected (the video starts dark, give it time):

“Kitty’s Back” was a monumental, 13-minute rendition with plenty of solo time for all, especially Roy Bittan:

The most emotional moments for me were predictable: “My City of Ruins”, “Born to Run” … “She’s the One” worked as great as it always had going back to 1975 … given the intense opening to the show, I have to agree with Neal, who said this was a mostly happy show. There’s no use rating these things … I suppose it was my second-favorite of 2012, but I guarantee that anyone seeing this tour for the first time was thrilled, as was I. Robin sat next to a Bruce Concert Virgin, and it’s delightful to know that even now, people are still coming to see for the first time what all the fuss is about. They are never disappointed.

I do not consider myself a religious man, or a believer in much of anything outside of the concrete. But all of that goes out the window when I am seeing Bruce Springsteen in concert. I have been blessed this year with many things: a new grandson added to a family that is better with every year, and let’s not forget a certain baseball team winning the World Series for the second time in three years. Tonight’s concert, and the one in April, make that list, as well. We took Neal and Sara to their first Bruce show in 1988; Neal was there again tonight. I can only wonder if Bruce will still be doing this when Félix is old enough to join us.

Neal said he likes grades, so, grade for concert: A.

bruce in oakland, set list

Going to bed, don’t have time for more than just the set list for now.

1. Land of Hope and Dreams
2. Cover Me
3. Adam Raised a Cain
4. Something in the Night
5. Hungry Heart
6. We Take Care of Our Own
7. Wrecking Ball
8. Death to My Hometown
9. My City of Ruins
10. The E Street Shuffle
11. Pay Me My Money Down (Sign Request)
12. The Ties That Bind (Sign Request)
13. I'm Goin' Down (Sign Request)
14. Devils and Dust (Sign Request)
15. Because the Night
16. She's the One
17. Shackled and Drawn
18. Waitin' on a Sunny Day
19. Raise Your Hand
20. The Rising
21. Badlands
22. Thunder Road
23. Kitty's Back
24. Born to Run
25. Dancing in the Dark
26. Santa Claus is Comin' to Town
27. Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out

Note: It’s a bit off to say #11 was a sign request. It did result from a sign request, though. After “E Street Shuffle”, Bruce gathered up a bunch of signs. One of them read, “Dance with a Hungarian Girl” with a down-arrow followed me “Me”. “I’m gonna do that first!”, Bruce said, and cajoled the Hungarian girl onstage. She started dancing, and to accompany her, he started strumming his guitar, playing “Pay Me My Money Down”. The band kicked in and they played a full version, with the Hungarian girl dancing away.

music friday: a buncha bruce

Last week’s Music Friday featured Bruce Springsteen, this week’s Music Friday features Bruce Springsteen, next week’s Music Friday will feature Bruce Springsteen, and the week after that? I’ll be seeing Bruce in concert for the 35th time. Which makes me a rookie, compared to many fans.

First, here’s a video of “Shackled and Drawn” from two months ago, shot by the remarkable MagikRat, who posts these amazing YouTube videos that are so far above the usual “I got a video with my cell phone” that you can’t believe what you see.

The Other Band, just because everyone likes to pretend they never existed, with “Light of Day”:

And for those who want to wallow in the greatness that was Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in 1978 … “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”:

music friday: bruce springsteen, “we take care of our own”

While this is something of a repeat, it is tied to current events.

Back in January, when this single was released in advance of Bruce’s album, Wrecking Ball, I chose it for a Music Friday entry:

The repetition of the title, “We Take Care of Our Own”, hammers home the irony of the place where the flag is flown (this throws us off, because Bruce is usually the least ironic of artists). There would seem to be no way to take it other than ironically: good hearts turn to stone, there ain’t no help, the promise from sea to shining sea is gone, but “wherever this flag is flown, we take care of our own.” No one is being taken care of … he can’t get much more clear than “there ain’t no help”.

Yet some folks are apparently unearthing a hopeful message from all of this, as if the mere existence of a Bruce Springsteen song in these dark times is reason to hope (I’m regularly guilty of this idea, myself). … There may be hope elsewhere on the album, and Bruce has a long tradition of finding hope in the midst of despair. But it ain’t here.

The always trustworthy Matt Orel locked onto this at the time:

It didn't take long for history to repeat. Already this morning, a piece in Los Angeles Times was titled, "First take: Bruce Springsteen's patriotic 'We Take Care of Our Own'" According to this misread, the lyrics "offer an affirmation of national glory," and "the title phrase borders on jingoism." Of the chorus, "We take care of our own/Wherever this flag is flown/We take care of our own," the piece concludes, without the barest hint of irony, that it's "about community and pride."

He added, “I hear an accusation, a cry of betrayal from a former believer … the song is one of bitterness, angriness, and is a reminder of who we supposedly were.”

It’s perhaps understandable that some folks would misread this song, as many did with “Born in the U.S.A.” … but this week, a surprising new person jumped onto the Misreading Train.

Bruce Springsteen appeared with Bill Clinton at a rally for President Obama. At that rally, Bruce sang “We Take Care of Our Own”. Afterwards, I wrote an email to a group of fellow Bruce fans:

I was confused when Bruce sang "We Take Care of Our Own" today. He is rarely ironic ... too straightforward for that ... but WTCOOO is one of his most ironic songs, since he is singing about a country that no longer seems to take care of its own. …

He didn't write this song when Bush was president, he wrote it during the current administration.

So when Bruce sang it as part of a pro-Obama performance, I wondered why he seemed to be misinterpreting it, as well.

I understand Bruce endorsing Obama, and playing for him today. I just don't get his use of that particular song.

Once again, Matt Orel was on the case. “We Take Care of Our Own fired up the crowd. Several months ago I suggested that that song slammed Obama every bit as much as his opponents; while I still hold to that opinion, one would never have gotten that impression from Bruce's performance today.”

Here’s Bruce at the rally (you get a bonus, “This Land Is Your Land”):

And here he is, offering up an angrier version of the song (this video comes from TheMagikRat, who turns out the most amazing audience-shot concert videos I’ve ever seen on YouTube):