Tuesday, 7 March 2017

A rich man in a poor man's shirt (Springsteen part 2)

In 1984, Bruce Springsteen released Born in the USA, which broke him as a major star in Britain. I’ve never been a particular fan of the title song, nor of ‘Dancing in the Dark’, and the latter seemed to anticipate a wider shift in the charts to an American pop and AOR that I had no love for. Two of my formative music shows of the early 1980s, The Tube and Whistle Test, both eclectic and with regular live performances, were soon to be cancelled, the latter in favour of a horrid Jonathan King confection called No Limits, full of pap. I remember hearing people on the radio who had been to Springsteen’s live shows and were wowed, but the rhetoric of ‘the Boss’ put me off. That is, until I heard ‘I’m on Fire’ on Top of the Pops, when it showed a couple of minutes of the video as it became a minor hit. And I thought: this is subtle, especially compared to the bombast of ‘Born in the USA’; I liked the dark persona, the spare instrumentation of ticking rim- shots and picked guitar. And I thought: I’m going to have to reconsider Springsteen if he’s capable of this.

My friend Ed, throughout the mid- to late-1980s, embarked on a series of compilation tapes that largely reflecting his love of 1970s hard rock and metal, but there was also a strong thread of Americana, particularly in his love for Tom Petty. Ed bought the Springsteen Live 1975-85 box set, and quite a few songs made it onto the tapes, which were played incessantly in another friend’s Ford Cortina. He also bought Tunnel of Love, and we went to see Springsteen at Villa Park when we were both at university. I enjoyed it, but thought the stage set and the patter with Clarence Clemons a bit cornball, to be honest. In retrospect, not having much of a grasp on Springsteen’s back catalogue was also a bit of a handicap for a three-hour concert. And so, yes, enjoyable, but it wasn’t what I was really into. And then Springsteen didn’t release another album for five years.

Human Touch, one of the two albums he released on the same day in 1992, is considered to be one of Springsteen’s worst albums, if not the worst. Reviews I’ve read cite its inconsequentiality, and compare it unfavourably to the higher-rated Lucky Town.  But I’ve always quite liked it. It’s got one of my favourite tracks, ‘With Every Wish’, on it; the title track is good; and while there are some slightly run-of-the-mill tracks, it’s fine. But, critics say, there’s a song about television, for goodness’ sake! ’57 Channels’ is cited as a sign of the failure of inspiration, and a marker of the throwaway nature of the album. And yes, it’s light-hearted, but the way he sings ‘I bought a bourgeois house in Hollywood hills/ with a trunk load of thousand dollar bills’, as ‘boo-jwah’, is kind of self-reflexive, a moment of revelation: Springsteen and Patty Scialfa had just moved to LA, and he was well aware of the accusations against him. These charges (‘what do you have in your defence, son?’) are to do with Springsteen’s blue-collar persona, the worst thing that can be said of someone invested in a politics of authenticity: that he’s a sell-out.

Springsteen knew it. On ‘Better Days’, the first track on Lucky Town, he sings 

a life of leisure
and a pirate’s treasure
don’t make much for tragedy 
It's a sad man, my friend, 
who's living in his own skin 
and can't stand the company

and the both this and the line ‘a rich man in a poor man’s shirt’ is a kind of self-indictment. (Springsteen quotes both lines in his autobiography.) But, of course, Springsteen is a rich man: the question is, what do you sing about once you’re a superstar celebrity? The rock catalogue is littered with albums by artists who write about the trappings of fame because there's nothing else left to write about. Neither Human Touch nor Lucky Town finds the answer, but it’s not surprising that Springsteen had broken up the E Street band in the late 1980s, had largely made these albums and Tunnel of Love without them. By the 1992 albums, he’s searching for something to sing about, and a style in which to perform. He wouldn’t begin to find an answer until The Ghost of Tom Joad, where he recuperates the musical tradition of political dissent: folk music. (What would become The Seeger Sessions were begun a little bit after.)  Springsteen has said the 1992 albums were not popular because they were ‘happy’, but I see them as deeply anxious works, Springsteen fretting that he had indeed sold out.

All of which is in deep contrast to the album that precedes them, Tunnel of Love.  This is my favourite Springsteen album of all (and the last to be sequenced with ‘sides’, before the dominance of the cd), full of wonderful songs and, of course, a rather heartbreaking thread of melancholic reflection on broken relationships. This is an album that makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, and that makes me cry: when Janey takes her baby son to the riverside, thinking to lay him in and ‘let the river roll on’, before she ‘lifted him up and carried him home’,  on ‘Spare Parts’; on ‘Cautious Man’,  when Bill Horton ‘woke from a terrible dream, calling his wife’s name/  she lay breathing beside him in a peaceful sleep, a thousand miles away’; or in ‘Walk like a Man’, which begins ‘I remember how rough your hand felt in mine/ on my wedding day’, where it’s the feelings of sons for fathers, loving but ambivalent feelings, coloured by sense of loss or not matching up to one’s sense of oneself, that is crucial. (He is much more explicit about this in the autobiography.) 

On ‘One Step Up’, he sings: ‘when I look at myself I don’t see/ the man I wanted to be’, and that sense of disappointment with oneself, that somewhere the persona ‘slipped off track’, is a keynote for the album as a whole. It’s also a marker for where Springsteen was in his career: with huge albums and huge tours behind him, a global superstar mis-quoted by his own President (the autobiography is pretty scathing about Reagan’s nods toward ‘Born in the USA’), he’s deeply troubled and unhappy. In a sense, Springsteen ‘slips off track’ for about 10 years. Taking off again is no solution; like Bill Horton, when he gets to the highway, ‘he didn't find nothing but road’.

Despite my continued lack of enthusiasm for the two big hits from Born in the USA, the rest of that album reflects a more sadly romantic, sometimes melancholic, outlook than one might suspect from its popular reception in the mid-80s. ‘Downbound Train’ is another track that makes the hair stand on my neck, for similar reasons to the Tunnel of Love material: it’s about loss, and hopelessness, and little lives. This is typical of the Springsteen mode, of course, prior to Born in the USA, particularly on albums such as Darkness At The Edge Of Town (1978). In some ways, it’s the dance-band arrangements of the Born in the USA tracks – some, like the title song, originally worked out on acoustic guitar in the manner of Nebraska (1982) – that give it its energetic, even optimistic sheen, one that runs counter to the melancholy of some of the lyrics.

The difference between the sparseness of Tunnel of Love or Devils and Dust (2005) and the widescreen, E Street band arrangements of Born in the USA or The Rising (2002) is stark.  Much as The Rising is an excellent album, rousing and anthemic, I tend to prefer the subtlety and quietness of the solo albums (although many feature regular band members in small roles, of course). Devils and Dust, for instance, a parched Western album, finds Springsteen in a rather twangy, country voice, and on ‘Reno’ sings sexually explicit lyrics that will be out of place on a more mainstream, rock album.

I sometimes feel that there is a conservatism about the E Street arrangements which can, at worst, give the albums somewhat over-familiar feel, and reveals (rather than helps to mask) any deficiencies in the songwriting. Magic (2007), for instance, is very much like The Rising in tone: ‘Girls in Their Summer Clothes’, the most anthemic pop track on Magic, reprises The Rising’s memorable melodies and singalong dynamics, but with a sunnier outlook than that of the post-9/11 ‘uplift’ album. 

Since Springsteen reconvened the E Street Band for The Rising, it does sometimes feel as though he’s going over well-travelled ground. This might have something to do with how he records these days, too: he lays down tracks while touring, rather than spending weeks or months holed up (as with The River) getting a particular and different sound. The E Street Band are, of course, a marvellous live proposition – check out the extemporised covers they do on YouTube – but latterly, Springsteen’s albums are both a bit homogenous in sound (you can't really tell what album a track might be from, the way you can with Darkness or The River or Born in the USA) and lack in coherence and consistency as an album, a set of songs. When Tom Morello comes aboard for High Hopes (2014), this gives the guitar work a different sound and style, but the overall arrangements aren't that different to what came before. In a sense, Springsteen is where he was before he broke up the band; but now he’s in his 60s, and more comfortable with what the E Street Band provide.

Working on a Dream (2009) is a diagnostic text for my sense of Springsteen’s career ever since Born in USA: the mastery of Heartland Americana, of big rock dynamics, remains in tension with a desire or need to do different, to find another style, another voice. This speaks to restlessness that I find quite attractive and winning, and is something that Springsteen returns to again and again in his autobiography. If Human Touch is accounted Springsteen’s worst album, for me, Working On A Dream is a bigger failure; I didn’t listen to it much when I first got it, and having giving it a few plays more recently I first thought that the vocal tracks were sometimes ill-matched with the music, and though this feeling has faded a bit, the diversity of styles make it difficult to get a handle on. Thinking about it, Working On A Dream works best as Springsteen’s homage to the 1960s: ‘My Lucky Day’ is British- invasion beat combo stuff; ‘Good Eye’ is heavy psychedelic blues; ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ (note the title!) is Dylan sings Glen Campbell; ‘Surprise, Surprise’ pure 60s pop. The arrangements are lush with a surprising use of strings and notes to Brian Wilson vocal harmonies. But it tends to end up as pastiche, a kind of musical tourism. He returns here to the old to find something new, and it doesn't quite work.

Springsteen hasn’t settled for remaking Born in the USA over and over, as he could have done, even in the later albums with the E Street Band (Wrecking Ball is probably my favourite of those). Just has he has become more vocal about economic injustice and class politics (as well as blue-collar lives), what the autobiography reveals is a deliberate turning away from interiority and domesticity towards the social and communal. For an individualist ‘born to run’ like Springsteen, who presents himself as someone in need of being in control, in need of the road and the new challenge, but who has drawn a tight-knit ‘family’ of musicians around himself, the tensions are self-evident. ‘I hope when I get old I don’t sit around thinking about it’, he sang on ‘Glory Days’, ‘but I probably will’.  Not yet - and for that I’m grateful, and I admire him for it.


Black and White

I’ll start this post with Roy Orbison, though it isn't really about him. On 30 September 1987, along with contemporary luminaries Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, kd lang, Bonnie Raitt, and Elvis’s TCB Band, Orbison gave a concert to a select crowd of celebrity fans and well-wishers at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles. It would be broadcast early in the new year as Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night, and it was indeed shot in black and white. I remember it well, not least because my Dad was quite a fan of the ‘Big O’ and I’m pretty sure I would have watched the concert with my folks when it was broadcast in the UK, when I was home from university. Most of the songs are now on YouTube and look, and sound, wonderful, Orbison’s voice at age 51 as powerful and smooth as in his prime. And what a prime that was: from 1961 to 1965 he had hit after hit after hit in the UK and the US, culminating in ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’, his most famous number, which spent 18 weeks on the UK chart, sold over a million singles in the US and was a global hit. It was also pretty much his last; with the growing dominance of beat groups, Orbison’s star waned rapidly and by the 1970s he could hardly sell a record. It wasn’t until the late 1980s, with A Black and White Night, and his involvement in the Travelling Wilburys (and a Jeff Lynne-produced album, Mystery Girl that posthumously hit no.2 on the UK album charts and no.5 in the US in 1989) that his career was belatedly revived.

Watching A Black and White Night now, it’s interesting to see how such a seemingly shy, unimposing figure as Orbison completely dominates the proceedings. Cutways to Springsteen often see him noodling fitfully on his guitar or gazing awe-struck at Orbison’s singing; only on ‘Dream Baby’ and ‘Pretty Woman’ does he come forward to share the stage. Costello is similarly limited to strumming a jumbo acoustic, though he’s given a harmonica-solo spot in one song. The year before, with pretty much the same TCB band, Costello had cut King of America (for me, his most enduring album); in 1987, Springsteen had eschewed the E Street Band to release Tunnel of Love, and on the front of that album, Springsteen himself is in black and white: black jacket and trousers, white shirt and bootlace tie, his hair brushed back in something like a quiff, anticipating the late 50s/ early 60s look and feel of A Black and White Night. While Costello had styled himself as ‘L.H.C’ (the ‘Little Hands of Concrete’, so-named because he broke lots of strings while thrashing away at his guitar) on King of America, Springsteen is a very gifted guitarist himself and duels with James Burton on an extended ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’. His self-deprecation is rather located in his awareness of the limitations of his voice (in stark contrast to that of Orbison): in his recent autobiography, Born to Run, Springsteen notes that he never had that much of a pure voice, he was more of a shouter, but what he did have was durability: he could sing for three hours a night, every night.

I went back to A Black and White Night because I’d just finished Springsteen’s book, and last year I’d read Costello’s Unfaithful Music and Invisible Ink which, I’m afraid, sealed a rather negative deal: I’d fallen out of love with Costello’s music in the preceding years and the persona he presented in the book I didn't like much either. The covers of both books are also in black and white. On Born to Run, a photo by Frank Stefanko, possibbly from the session that produced the Darkness on the Edge of Town cover in 1978 (and that of The River in 1980), with Bruce propped up against a muscle car on a wintry suburban street; on Unfaithful Music, Costello laying on a hotel bed, also around 1978, his Fender Jaguar wired up to a portable Vox amp, one arm cocked behind his head. Both images present a kind of restlessness, the male singer/guitarist still but coiled in energy, brain whirring, expression blank. And both books present a pretty unvarnished picture of a largely unpleasant masculinity: selfish, sexist, aggressive, surrounded by fellow fucked-up males, who blow off steam in a variety of morally dubious ways. Such is rock and roll, at least in the 70s, I guess. But in lots of ways the books are quite different. As I read Unfaithful Music, I began to feel that Costello’s (post-)punk ‘rebelliousness’ masked a deep longing for acceptance and validation by not only his peers, but also established older musicians who were highly successful in their own areas. So Costello wrote and played with McCartney in the late 80s; then with Burt Bacharach; then with Allan Toussaint; and with Tony Bennett. In the back half of the book I got a bit bored with the name-dropping, having got a bit bored with his self-presentation beforehand: ‘when I was cruel’ (the name of a later album) seemed to be the theme of his personal relations, from wives and girlfriends to band members to journalists. This leads to the most notorious moment in Costello’s career, which dominates the entire book (though he dismisses it, having said that he apologised for it ad nauseum before and anyway, he was drunk and fucked-up): when he called Ray Charles an offensively racist word.

Now, I don't think Costello has to apologise once again for this incident. He’s done so many times and I can only imagine that he feels genuine remorse and horror at its recollection. In fact, his 1980 album, Get Happy!!!, can be seen as a soul/ r’n’b tribute album from songs to packaging (and I love it: it’s one of his best) that is a musical mea culpa. But what you don't get in Unfaithful Music is the question I wanted him to ask himself, the question I’d ask if anyone I knew (or God forbid, myself) said such a horrendous thing: why, if you’re a good man, if you’re not racist (and his works suggest that he isn't), if you’re ‘not like that’, why would you say it? I’ve been drunk and angry many times but have never said something like that. Why did he? Being drunk, or provoked, or ‘cruel’, isn't really enough of an answer. And that, for me, left a gaping hole in the middle of the book. In the end, it seemed that Costello couldn't really look that moment in the face.

Springsteen doesn't spare himself, but he has no such moment to answer. There is his divorce from Julia Phillips in the late 1980s, of course, and his relationship with Patty Scialfa which dominates Tunnel of Love (and which makes it my favourite album of his, in all its lovely melancholy and hurt): Springsteen is pretty scathing about his behaviour, though unapologetic about falling in love with Scialfa (a marriage that endures). In fact, he’s pretty scathing about himself throughout, a result, one might think, of his later recourse to therapy. (That’s much more present, I think, in some of his responses to Marc Maron in the recent long interview.) It’s also a result of his relationship to his Dad, the other dominant theme of Tunnel of Love, a difficult man and father who was later diagnosed with mental illness. Springsteen also suffers from depression, and lost a number of years in his early 60s – just a few years ago – to the illness; he’s forthright about that, and about his struggles with his ambivalent feelings towards his father.

But where Costello’s immersion in, and love for, black music is mediated through this unhealed wound, for Springsteen ‘rock and soul’ is precisely the raison d’ĂȘtre of his music and the E Street Band. That’s why Clarence Clemons, the ‘Big Man’, looms so large in the book, literally, and his loss (and part-replacement in the ‘family’ by nephew Jake) is a moment of necessary coming to terms in the book, for Springsteen and the band as old fellas who rock. Right at the end of the story, when they’re thinking about who might replace the Big Man on tour, Springsteen chats about it with his friend and sparring partner Steve van Zandt (Little Steven). ‘Steve on Jake: “He’s black. He plays the saxophone. His name is Clemons. He’s the guy! He’s the only guy!” Steve dismissed the other candidates as … white’. The racial politics of the E Street Band are central throughout: Springsteen thought, he knew, they had to have an African-American man at the core of the band. (It’s Clemons and Springsteen, of course, on the iconic cover of Born to Run, the 1975 breakthrough album.) While Springsteen is only too aware that most of his audience was and remains white – he mentions towards the end that, playing for Obama, the predominance of black faces in the audience was for him an unusual and thrilling development – he is concerned to assert that without black music, without soul and blues and r’n’b and even pop, there would be no Springsteen, and no E Street Band.


So: A Black and White Night, recorded in 1987, the year Springsteen needed to move away from the band and record with other musicians; he wouldn't release another E Street Band album until 2002’s The Rising, another kind of reckoning. And watching it again, even though they’re playing Orbison’s songs, which were produced out of doo-wop and rock’n’roll and r’n’b and Elvis Presley (rather than Elvis Costello, though they do play one of his compositions, ‘The Comedians’), all suffused with black music, the performers are white. Tom Waits, kd lang, Bonnie Raitt, Elvis’s TCB Band, Jackson Browne, Costello, Springsteen, Orbison: a black and white night indeed.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Coming Back

Occasionally I get these hobby-horses, obsessions that consume me for a few days. This week, after the anniversary of his death, I've been mulling David Bowie's 1980s 'decline' after Let's Dance, which some narratives of his career figure as terminal. (I don't agree, by the way. Bowie came back twice, with Black Tie White Noise and Buddha of Suburbia in 1993/4, and then with The Next Day in 2013. Some of my favourite Bowie albums are in that 'second' phase, from Outside to Reality.)

In some ways it's not surprising. His next album after the massive hits of Let's Dance was Tonight. Tonight, I have to tell you, is absolute shit. It starts with 'Loving the Alien', which is a good (if a little awkward) track, although in this version it rambles on for 7 minutes (the single comes in at just under 5). And then you get what makes up the rest of Tonight except for the other two 'originals', 'Blue Jean' (a decent minor hit) and 'Dancing With the Big Boys' (a clattering, funky mash-up with DB and Iggy Pop barking phrases at each other, which got a good remix by Arthur Baker, but really could have done with the Trevor Horn/ Art of Noise treatment): what you get is cover versions. Extremely bad cover versions.

There are three Iggy covers on the album, along with two collaborations. The first is 'Don't Look Down', which is insipid, rubbish white reggae. The second is 'Tonight', a duet with Tina Turner, more cod-reggae which takes a large crap on Bowie's work on the album the track originally came from, Lust for Life. The third is 'Neighborhood Threat', which comes across as a bad knockoff of an end-title song from a mid-80s action/war cash-in, Iron Eagle II or similar. Kenny Loggins, but not as good. Between the first two Iggy covers is a version of the Beach Boys' 'God Only Knows' which, in my opinion, is the most rotten track put out by DB as a major artist.

On Pushing Ahead of the Dame, Chris O'Leary calls Bowie's performance on that track 'astonishing in its tastelessness'. (I recommend you read all the reviews of this album to give yourself a good laugh.) Now, while I agree, I'm not too hung up on matters of 'taste': my favourite Beatle is Paul McCartney. Tastelessness in rock is fine, in fact it's part of the deal. But what O'Leary is getting at is the sheer gaudiness, the vulgarity, the offensive gingerbread-work ornamentation of both the track and Bowie's vocal stylings. Compared to the austerity of the Eno albums, it's hard to believe it's the same artist. But in a sense, what you have in Tonight is Bowie's full-Vegas period, his short go-round on the carousel of commercial, mainstream pop. And he falls off. On Tonight Bowie is an 'entertainer' (see the 'Blue Jean' video, his make up shades of Archie Rice), who doesn't entertain. There's nothing there. And I think he knows it. Tonight is a cash-in, no more, no less.

That's why, I think we have all the Iggy covers. Sure, Bowie's doing his mate a favour, and 'China Girl' was a big hit, so why not mine the back catalogue? But there's something else. If Bowie has gone Vegas, he's haunted by Iggy himself, the fukt-Elvis, the rock'n'roller as abject, the self-lacerating self-destructing antithesis of the commercial imperative.

The Iggy covers and collaborations are a sign of Bowie's profound discomfort, I think. Iggy's presence is alchemical, a magical means by which to offset the glittering turds which pile up as you listen to the album. Apparently Bowie had demoed quite a few tracks for Tonight, unusually, nearly all of which didn't make it (some, it is suggested, went on to Iggy's Blah Blah Blah in 1986). But he went for all these terrible, terrible cover versions instead, almost a kind of mea culpa as he's doing it. 'Yes, I'm selling out, this is a cash-in, sorry, but look, here's Iggy...'

Bowie didn't learn his lesson, either. Never Let Me Down's execrable second side ends with a cover of Iggy's 'Bang Bang', and while it's not a horror on the level of 'Tonight', it's still plenty bad.

But the 1984-1987 period isn't all awful, and you can make a decent album out of assorted songs. Last night I fiddled with sequencing some of the decent tracks on the first side of Never Let Me Down, the listenable Tonight songs and other odds and ends from the period (mainly soundtracks), and it's not bad:

Side 1: Loving the Alien / Time Will Crawl / This Is Not America/ Never Let Me Down / Zeroes
Side 2: Day-In, Day-Out / Dancing With the Big Boys / Blue Jean / When the Wind Blows / Absolute Beginners

Ok, it's never going to break the top 10 of a Bowie album poll, but it's not much of a dip from Let's Dance. It's nearly all singles, too. Rather than make Tonight, I suspect he'd have been better off doing a greatest hits package with some new songs thrown in, maybe some live versions - a bit like Nothing Has Changed. And then we might not have had Tin Machine.

But also we wouldn't have had the comebacks, Lazarus-like, returning from commercial death in 1993/4 and then from his ten-year hiatus in 2013. And I think the comebacks are key to Bowie's career. On top of the world in 1983, he was vilified by 1989, laughed at - if you remember, 'Laughing Gnome' topped the phone-in poll of requests on the Sound+Vision tour in 1990. (He didn't play it. But the ChangesBowie retrospective went to no.1 in the UK that same year, the first Bowie cd I bought.) The second Tin Machine album in 1991 gleaned reviews so bad that one, by Jon Wilde, which called DB a 'fucking disgrace', apparently made him cry.

So an artist as talented, as extraordinary, as Bowie, one whose death was a major cultural event, was capable of making very bad work. Work that was so shockingly miscalculated that it was despised or ignored or simply forgotten. And I like that. Not just that he came back, but that he failed, and failed so spectacularly, in the first place. For me, that's comforting, in a way, and a source of hope. Bowie gives us license to screw up, badly, to let us down, and then to come back.