Bruce Springsteen and Allen Toussaint

Kevin Russell recently bought me Allen Toussaint’s album Southern Nights.  Although I was aware of Toussaint, I’d be lying if I said I was much more than that.  A lot of Southern soul, blues, country, and rock made its way into my formative years in the North East, but for whatever reason not a lot of stuff out of New Orleans did.  It took moving to Texas, and especially Russell himself, to make me understand what I was missing.

Southern Nights is an absolutely stunning soul album with great songs and arrangements to die for.  It’s lush and ornamental and almost seems like a grand street in New Orleans turned into sound.

For a bass player who spends a lot of time listening to bass lines, the record a treasure trove of riches.  Every bass line is simple enough where it is memorable, but at the same time played with a impeccable feel.

While I was playing the record, my brother walked in while the song Back in Baby’s Arms was playing.  He said right away, “that’s exactly like Springsteen’s Darkness On the Edge of Town.”  Now Toussaint’s album came out three years prior to Darkness.  Both songs start with an intro that is eerily similar.  They both start the same, and just deviate in the second half of the figure.  It’s not just a melodic thing, they both feature a bass and piano playing roughly the same line.  I don’t know how this came about.  Either Springsteen stole it, or they both arrived at a similar place independently.  They are both possible.  Given that Springsteen is a huge soul music fan, it is entirely possible that he heard it and coopted it for his purposes.  (I’ve never read specifically of the connection between these two pieces.)  However, the line is also simple enough that two people could think it up in two different places in time.

It doesn’t really matter.  Musicians have been stealing all throughout musical history.  Also, there are only so many notes that one is bound to stumble upon the same idea independently at times.

I think what is interesting is how really similar pieces chave totally different emotional landscapes created through lyrics and singing.  Toussaint’s song has a warm feeling to it mirrored by his voice.  Springsteen is singing in his dramatic Roy Orbison inspired voice.  Along with the rest of the album there is a certain bleakness to the song, where people are coming to terms with adulthood.

I think even if Springsteen flat out stole the idea, it is still artistically valid.  Creating something new is nothing more than assembling old pieces in a new combination.  Springsteen has always been someone that took different elements of rock n roll history, soul music, and folk music, and used it to create his own language.  Here he is combining soul music, the drama of Roy Orbison, with a cinematic and literate sense of language.  Although I’m not as educated on Toussaint’s history, there is no doubt one could trace his music backwards to different building blocks.  Although the two pieces start similarly, they end up in dramatically different emotional universes.


Don’t Shut Up, Still Sing

I was just watching several clips of Morrissey on Larry King Now.  I haven’t watched the full program yet.  I will link to it when a link to the whole piece is available.  I was reading some comments somewhere, always a mistake, and someone commented the usual idiotic drivel about, and this could be directed at any number of entertainers, that he should just focus on singing and leave the politics to the “experts”.  But when the “experts” are just as often fuck puppets for corporations spouting buzzword tested groupthink, and not those who have thoughtfully examined a political situation from all angles, is that really what you want?

For entertainers, like all people in all professions, can run the gamut of human intelligence.  Plus someone like Morrissey (or Jackson Browne, Chuck D, Bruce Springsteen, etc.), is extremely well-read, well-traveled, and has spent a great amount of time talking to people of all stripes, often including many of those that actually have some say in our culture.  While many entertainers are grown-children that remain vain mutants, boxed off from reality in a prison of sycophancy, there are often those that are trying to make real sense of this strange world.

It is never who someone is that should make us listen to them.  It is the strength of their argument and the thoughtfulness of their thinking.  Many of us have worked jobs where someone in management or some other position of power hasn’t gotten a clue.  Do you not think that this doesn’t happen sometimes at even higher levels?  Also, the human brain is like a muscle, just because someone has exercised one part of it thoroughly doesn’t mean that the other parts have received the proper conditioning.  A brilliant doctor doesn’t make someone a great thinker when it comes to socio-economic arguments.  Being an entertainer, even if they have traveled and met with people of power, like any other profession, doesn’t make someone smarter, but it doesn’t cancel out what they have to say either.  Meanwhile an entertainer, if they do have a curious mind and a rigorous thought process, very well might have insights that are worth listening to.

But anyone that knows anything knows this.  It is only the daft, those with closed minds, who don’t want their world view inconvenienced, who would say otherwise.  So I say don’t shut up and still sing.

I personally like my entertainment barbed with things like ideas.  Not all of the time, but often, I want my music to be like an intellectual boxing match.  I want to be pushed to the limit and challenged.  And if I get tired of that, and need to turn off the mind for awhile to relax, I can put on some Ted Nugent, and give myself a temporary lobotomy…


Nebraska and Wiseblood

I saw her standin’ on her front lawn
Just twirlin’ her baton 
Me and her went for a ride sir
And ten innocent people died 

From the town of Lincoln, Nebraska
With a sawed off .410 on my lap 
Through to the badlands of Wyoming
I killed everything in my path 

I can’t say that I’m sorry
For the things that we done 
At least for a little while sir
Me and her we had us some fun 

The jury brought in a guilty verdict
And the judge he sentenced me to death 
Midnight in a prison storeroom
With leather straps across my chest 

Sheriff when the man pulls that switch sir
And snaps my poor head back 
You make sure my pretty baby
Is sittin’ right there on my lap 

They declared me unfit to live
Said into that great void my soul’d be hurled 
They wanted to know why I did what I did 
Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.

Lyrics by Bruce Springsteen

I was looking for songs that had a lyric in them about Wyoming (We are spending the night in Laramie.), and when this came up I was reminded of how much I love the song.  In this song you can not only see the influence of cinema on Springsteen’s words, the song is based on the movie Badlands, which is itself a true story, but the language of writers like Flannery O’Connor.  She writes with the same kind of simple, powerful, haunted, almost Old Testament kind of language.  It’s a fallen world, one where you stumble into meanness just as easily as kindness.  In fact the last line in the song recalls a line at the end of O’Connor’s short story A Good Man is Hard to Find.  (A title which Springsteen later went on to use.) I’ve written about the connection between the two before.

More posts on Flannery O’Connor include: Flannery O’Connor On Mystery

More posts on Bruce Springsteen include:  The Dark Dreams of Bruce Springsteen

Three Songs for Memorial Day

In honor of Memorial Day here are three songs that deal with those who went to war, both those that came back and those that didn’t.  All three of these songs feature great writing, with lived in characters that are fully formed.  There is no mindless flag waving going on here.  They all treat veterans like people, not like political imagery.  In the first two there are even some short injections of dark humor.

Johnny Cash – Drive On

Marah – Round Eye Blues

Bruce Springsteen – The Wall

On a personal note I feel mixed emotions on Memorial Day as I scan the headlines.  In our country we are always told to “support the troops”.  But usually after the fact, after we have sent them out to be broken, after we have sent some to the final place they will see.  Nothing to me says support the troops more than not sending them into war in the first place unless absolutely necessary.  On Memorial Day you often read in the news about people getting easily offended over some kind of symbol they find disrespectful or something someone said. But where were these people when we allowed our leaders to send our young men and women to places they should have never been?  Many of them were waving flags blindly.  There are real lives that are damaged, families broken up.  I’m for all kinds of healthcare, etc., when our troops come home.  However, the best way to support the troops is through peace.

Madonna Banned for Age and What This Means For Culture

Madonna Banned for Age

Although I love some of her early singles, I am not what one would consider a Madonna fan.  However, the above article is something I find troubling.  Apparently the BBC have declined to play her latest single due to that fact that her and her audience are too old. 

First of all this is completely senseless.  When I was thirteen I remember listening to the Doors, a band from my parents generation.  Even now many of my favorite artists are decades older than me.  This wasn’t just true of me, but all my friends.   I remember parties in highschool listening to classic rock and early 80’s post punk, despite the fact that even the early 80’s stuff came out when I was a couple years old.  (I was born in 1978.)

People like what they are exposed to.  If you are a kid and you hear something you like, you are going to listen to it if you have any sense of self.  If you don’t hear it, at any age, you aren’t going to like it.  Plain and simple. 

Age, like sex, race, and sexual orientation,  is just another way to divide people. 

Here is what I find particularly troubling about this:  When it comes to a pop artist, although it is still senseless and wrong, it does not necessarily affect the world in any major way.  However,  there are a lot of older artists that are effective at critiquing society, that speak truth to power.  Jackson Browne, Morrissey, Springsteen, Chuck D, and on and on have been effective chroniclers of what is going on in society.  They are all in their 50’s and 60’s at this point.  It is not hard to see someone in power using age to not play music, something that is not always thought of as political, in order to effectively silence political dissent.   “Oh we are not going to play anything off of Jackson Browne’s Standing in the Breach because we don’t play music by older artists.”  This is when Jackson Browne released one of the most intelligent albums of last year, which was also highly political on certain tracks.  The same goes for the rest of that list. 

Divide and conquer.   This is another fictitious way of dividing people, who may have similar beliefs, interests, and passions, in a way that is currently possible without looking like censorship.  Chuck D is much older than most pop stars, but he is the one bringing the thunder, preaching change, speaking truth to power.  A disenchanted kid, if they were to discover him, might be inclined to listen to him over the other music choices they are currently being presented with.  That isn’t to say that kids aren’t smart enough to find and seek things out on their own, but they have a better chance of finding someone like Chuck D the more exposure he gets.  Age is one of the last ways you can openly discredit someone without looking like a neanderthal.  

Valentine's Day by Bruce Springsteen

I’m driving a big lazy car rushin’ up the highway in the dark
I got one hand steady on the wheel and one hand’s tremblin’ over my heart
It’s pounding baby like it’s gonna bust right on through
And it ain’t gonna stop till I’m alone again with you

A friend of mine became a father last night
When we spoke in his voice I could hear the light
Of the skies and the rivers the timberwolf in the pines
And that great jukebox out on Route 39
They say he travels fastest who travels alone
But tonight I miss my girl mister tonight I miss my home

Is it the sound of the leaves
Left blown by the wayside
That’s got me out here on this spooky old highway tonight
Is it the cry of the river
With the moonlight shining through
That ain’t what scares me baby
What scares me is loosin’ you

They say if you die in your dreams you really die in your bed
But honey last night I dreamed my eyes rolled straight back in my head
And God’s light came shinin’ on through
I woke up in the darkness scared and breathin’ and born anew
It wasn’t the cold river bottom I felt rushing over me
It wasn’t the bitterness of a dream that didn’t come true
It wasn’t the wind in the grey fields I felt rushing through my arms
No no baby it was you
So hold me close honey say you’re forever mine
And tell me you’ll be my lonely valentine

Valentine’s Day by Bruce Springsteen.  From the album Tunnel of Love.  Tunnel of Love is one of the best albums ever in terms of dealing with adult relationships.

Kirsty MacColl and the Great Breakup Albums

Those of you that have been reading along know that I have been thinking about Dylan and Springsteen lately.  Their albums Blood On the Tracks and Tunnel of Love are two of the great breakup albums.  If I had to put a third album in there, I would pick Kirsty MacColl’s Titanic Days, without any hesitation.  All three of these albums deal with the loss of a relationship in an adult way.  These aren’t records of teenage dreams, but adults coming to grips with emotional loss in a way that entails the complexity of such situations.  No one, including the singers themselves, is getting off the hook.

The above song Soho Square never ceases to hit me in the gut.  It is a sentimental song, and sentimentalism doesn’t always play well in songs.  (Titanic Days is overall not a sentimental record.)  Sentimentalism can often get in the way of honesty.  But I think MacColl gets the poetry right.  She also writes a melody for the ages.

However, it is hard for me not to hear this song and not be reminded that MacColl’s life was cut short, that she never got to live out the old age of her dreams that she sings of in this song.  Rather than being morose, there is something in the nature of the song that makes it happy and sad at the same time.  The buoyant melody and the way that she sings the song with such spark, makes one realize that she was truly alive while she was here, in a way that so many never are.  Every time this song is loud in my car and I hear the string break near the song’s last chorus, my eyes well up with tears.  However, I can never tell if they are tears of sadness or happiness.  A pop song with many layers, a thing of beauty.

Early 90's Springsteen and the Duality of Human Nature

The cold wet air could best be described as a “shitmist”.  On the way from Oklahoma City to Dallas.   In the back of the van trying to unlock why, even in the midst of his supposed slump, the early 90’s,  Bruce Springsteen was still able to create works that have staying power.  Strip him of his band, bring in a bunch of session players that lack any discernable personality, record things in a way that is somewhat stiff, and there is still something there if you pay attention. 

With every wish there comes a curse

Listen to the song With Every Wish from his Human Touch album.  It has a dark seductive power to it as it examines someone whose dreams fall short.  In fact I think it is because Springsteen never shies away from the hard truths of reality that his songs are more than one dimensional.  

Any life when viewed from the inside, is simply a series of defeats.
     –  George Orwell

In the midst of life we are in death, etc.
     – Morrissey

This is not to say Springsteen’s music lacks hope or love or joy.  In fact his music is often quite life affirming despite how often darkly realistic his lyrics can be.  They often deal with a loss of innocence as someone grows older and comes to terms with the harsh realities of the world.  But even in spite of this, his characters often carry on.  Although there are characters of his that are on the long slide to oblivion, many also often find love or are determined to bear hardship. 

Springsteen is too smart to ignore complexity.  There are no easy fixes.  Love in and of itself will not solve all problems.  Things can be made better, but there is hard work to do if it is to be so.  Dreams can just as easily circle back to haunt you.  He never forgets the passion of the teenager, but he also never ignores the struggle of adulthood.  It is this duality that gives his work power. 

This duality, this complexity in outlook, means that even his lesser albums have moments that are worth recommending.   I think his most misunderstood album, Human Touch,  has many such moments.  Although it does suffer somewhat from the production and choice of musicians, and it is not a front to back masterpiece, there are a lot of songs where the writing is really sharp.  He also writes a lot of great melodies that bring the lyrics to life, whereas the slightly more critically accepted Lucky Town is slightly too sepia-toned for me, despite a couple great songs. 

I think if you are a fan of his, like I am, and you have ignored this period, it is worth revisiting.  There are also some stellar out takes from this period on the Tracks box set, especially Gave it a Name.  It is clear that Springsteen had read Flannery O’Connor by this point, as he adopts some of her haunted Biblical language to deal with these adulthood struggles. 

As one of our country’s greatest artists, Springsteen is often reduced to a caricature, like many larger than life figures.  (He did himself no favors in the propaganda films serving as music videos that accompanied Born in the U.S.A.)  But he has remained someone that constantly searches for meaning in a fallen world, always aware of the light and dark in our national character.  

Stolen Car by Bruce Springsteen

Stolen car- Bruce Springsteen VINYL:

I met a little girl and I settled down
In a little house out on the edge of town
We got married, and swore we’d never part
Then little by little we drifted from each other’s heart
At first I thought it was just restlessness
That would fade as time went by and our love grew deep
In the end it was something more I guess
That tore us apart and made us weep

And I’m driving a stolen car
Down on Eldridge Avenue
Each night I wait to get caught
But I never do

She asked if I remembered the letters I wrote
When our love was young and bold
She said last night she read those letters
And they made her feel one hundred years old

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

I have always love the song by Bruce Springsteen.   Springsteen is somehow able to create a short story with a minimum amount of words.  A song of loneliness and desperation from someone on the margins.  I love the way this song and Drive All Night, both on The River’s second record, are used in the movie Cop Land.  Sylvester Stallone,  playing an uncharacteristically heavy and pathetic small town cop named Freddy Heflin in one of his best performances, listens to the songs with the realization that life has fallen far short of his expectations.  

Over at Rolling Stone – Divesting in Big Carbon and Roy Bittan Interview

Read two interesting articles this morning over at Rolling Stone Magazine

Why We Have to Kiss Off Big Carbon

Above  is an article over at Rolling Stone that is about why it makes environmental and economic sense to divest in companies that contributing to climate change.

Here below is an article that is an interview with E Street band keyboardist Roy Bittan.  For all of the years that I have listened to the E Street Band, I don’t think I have read more than thee or four Roy Bittan interviews.  I’ve always loved the way he played piano.  Interview:

Roy Bittan Looks Back On 40 Years in the E Street Band