by request: the last picture show (peter bogdanovich, 1971)
opening night

music friday: bruce springsteen, “jack of all trades”

I’ve often said that one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me was when we decided Bruce Springsteen was worth checking out. That was in 1975, and from that first concert, he won us over. By the time we’d done our West Coast road trip in 1980, it was clear that he was “our” favorite. I say we were lucky, because most times, especially with music, if you pick a favorite when you are 22 and he is 26, the likelihood is that as you grow old together, you’ll learn to settle for nostalgia and the occasional Greatest Hits tour. Those folks whose concerts show up on PBS pledge nights were vital artists at one point in their career, and they remain professionals, but there’s not much going on besides revisiting the past.

The most you can hope for is that your favorite manages to be one of the few who tosses in a few surprises as the years pass. Bob Dylan made some mediocre albums for a decade or more, but there was often a track that stuck, and then all of a sudden he made a handful of fine albums. But more often it’s something like “The Who” playing Tommy without Moonie or the Ox, or the Stones, who can still put on fine concerts, but who only make albums so they’ll have a couple of new ones to sing.

Bruce Springsteen’s last great album was in 1988, and that’s a long time ago. But he’s managed to avoid nostalgia for the most part, he’s managed to make some albums that were almost-great on occasion, and once or twice he’s even “mattered” again. The best example is probably The Rising, a fine album, well-promoted, that spoke to a particular moment in America. But even when his offerings are slight (Magic, Working on a Dream), there have been gems buried within the albums.

And his concerts … well, he’s still going strong in his 60s, still impressive, still able to delight an audience with his energy. I’ve seen him more than 30 times since 1975, and one of the best of those shows was in 2008.

For all of these reasons, a new Bruce Springsteen album is still something to look forward to. At this late date, I’d be surprised if he turned out a masterpiece, although he’s certainly capable of it. But I’d be even more surprised if he turned out a dud. And Wrecking Ball is no dud.

The album sounded good to me from the first listen. After a few weeks, some songs stand out more than others, and the rush of initial enjoyment has subsided, so that I think of it on the level of The Rising (which is no insult). I can also imagine some good concert performances of these songs, and I hope he plays them … I’m not immune to the old stuff, I assure you, but, to take that 2008 show as an example, that night he played “Born to Run” and “Badlands” and “Glory Days” (although not “Thunder Road”, one of his greatest songs but one which has lost the most through being over-played). But he also played “"Long Walk Home” and “Gypsy Biker”, and his oldies included “Incident on 57th Street” and even “Something in the Night”.

I understand that this is more a mini-essay on Bruce Springsteen than it is an album review, but you can’t look at someone like Bruce, who has been making albums since 1973, without thinking of the big picture.

I’ve chosen “Jack of All Trades” for Music Friday for a couple of reasons. First, my son likes it very much. Second, I get the feeling people who aren’t big Bruce fans think this shows him at his worst: dirge-like music, downbeat song about the oppressed working man, full of good intentions but poor musically. Me, I don’t think it’s poor at all, I don’t mind the occasional dirge, and what’s wrong with Bruce singing about the working man?

Even hardcore fans seem to have identified this as the “beer song” (or “piss song”, or whatever you do when it’s a long concert and you need a break). They probably complained about "Drive All Night" in 1980 (and now they wish they could hear it).

I think anyone who skips “Jack of All Trades” is missing something, because this is a great song. The first verse makes me want to cry … it reminds me very much of our late friend Rob, who was our own jack-of-all-trades:

I’ll mow your lawn, clean the leaves out’ your drain
I’ll mend your roof, to keep out the rain
I take the work that God provides
I’m a jack of all trades, honey we’ll be all right

There’s a mention of the banker man getting fat on the working man’s labor, and each verse returns to the phrase, “we’ll be all right”. Bruce sings it with such resignation, you don’t really believe we’ll ever be all right. It’s a return, not to Tom Joad, but to Nebraska.

And, when you think he’s pulled every ounce of misery from the song, in the last verse, things move suddenly right into the center of Nebraska country … the singer isn’t as resigned to things as we might believe:

If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight
I’m a jack of all trades, we’ll be all right

Here it is, from Jimmy Fallon’s show:


(For a couple of excellent reviews from hardcore Bruce fans who also happen to be fine writers, check out Matt Orel’s “Wrecking Ball” and Caryn Rose’s “Record Review: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Wrecking Ball’”.)