Saturday, December 30, 2023

Predictions for 2024 and the Best of the Blog of 2023

Over on my Substack I made some predictions for 2024. To sum it up, film audiences will continue to embrace non-blockbuster movies, voter turnout will drop, the Constitutional crisis will intensify, social media discourse will continue to fragment, but there will also be signs of a new consensus. 

As I do every year, I like to boost what I consider to be the best of what I've written this year. To start things off, I am most proud of my chapter in The Power and Politics of Bob Dylan's Live Performances: Play a Song For Me, now out with Routledge. It was years in the making and an enjoyable project to complete. 

As far as my online writing goes, here's some things I wrote worth checking out last year:

The Need For A Values Conversation From The Left

I wrote this over at Substack on how the Left has ceded talk of "values" to the Right. This is bad for many reasons, not least that it prevents discussion of the moral failings of capitalism. 

The Crisis We See But Can't Name

I wrote here about the reports of increased mental illness and depression in young people as well as lowered life expectancy. It pairs well with the last post in terms of naming the ways unfettered capitalism is undermining our social fabric. 

The Lockdown Insights Worth Salvaging

I wrote this one staying at my friend's cabin in March, reflecting on what we could get out a pandemic world that had passed. 

ChatGPT and the Monstrousness of Silicon Valley Ideology

I mostly avoided AI discourse because this is all I have to say about it. 

Track of the Week: Fountains of Wayne "Sick Day"

One of my favorites in this series this year

What America Feels Like After A Weekend in Canada

Spending some time in Montreal highlighted what ails the US.

Notes on a Trip to Small Town America

I wrote this after visiting my rural Nebraska homeland. As with the prior post, travel highlighted the challenges we face. 

'Tis the Season for Narragansett Beer

Every now and then I like to extoll the virtues of a favorite low-rent product. 

We Need Languages

Language learning is being attacked across the board, a huge loss as I argue here. 

That Last Day of School Feeling

One of the great things about being a teacher is getting to have the rush of the last of school still in my life. 

70s Airport Movies as Pre-historic Blockbusters

I got into some weird rabbit holes this year, including the airport movies of the 70s.

What the Way July 4th is Celebrated Says About America's Divides

Wrote this one at the request of a longtime friend and reader. It is an interesting way to see the rural-urban split. 

Summer of Springsteen

I did a series this summer where I listened to all of the Boss's albums in order and wrote about them. I think it's pretty great! I capped it off with a Substack about the concert where I finally got to see him.

What I Saw on the Last Day of the Mets Season

My favorite baseball writing of the year. 

Shane MacGowan and the Sadness of Diaspora

Another music essay I am proud of. 

Tuesday's Election Illustrates Why Republicans Gerrymander and Suppress the Vote

This was me beginning to think through my theory that we actually do have a potential consensus on issues like abortion.

Seeing Bob Dylan on a Rainy New Jersey Night

Another great geezer rock show that prompted thoughts on persistence and mortality. 

2023: The Year Reality Died

I am really proud of my framing here. Write your local pundit to get them to adopt it, too!

Saturday, December 23, 2023

Tom Waits, "Christmas Card From A Hooker in Minneapolis" (Track of the Week)

This last week has been a real roller coaster. My winter break began, and on Wednesday I got to see a bunch of my former students at an event at my school. On Thursday, I got to bum around New York City for the day. When I got home, I went into the basement and saw that our boiler was leaking and our heat was off. Turns out we need a new one! Merry fucking Christmas.

In a strange twist of events, this whole fiasco has me feeling more optimistic than I have in awhile. Yeah we are confronted with an annoying and expensive problem, but we are going to fix it. I was also able to find a way to travel with my family instead of being stuck here waiting to get the boiler fixed, so Christmas has been saved, too. In a fit of good feeling I wrote a Substack piece on establishing some good habits for engaging in politics in 2024. The fascists want us confused and hopeless, we need to put our shoulders to the wheel and ignore the bullshit. 

I have to get up at 3AM tomorrow for my flight so I am trying to relax myself by drinking a Manhattan and listening to Tom Waits music from the 70s. I don't think he really showed his true genius until the 80s, but in the polyester decade he cut one of the great sad Christmas songs, "Christmas Card From A Hooker in Minneapolis." It's resonating with me because it's about persevering through some shit times. After every crappy day comes sleep and then a new morning. Maybe that new day will be shit too, but perhaps it won't. 

The whole premise of the song is a dark joke. Christmas cards that come with a yearly round-up of life events usually come from middle-class families wanting to brag on Susie's grades and Bobby's position on the varsity squad. They don't come from sex workers living a hand to mouth existence on the margins of society. The narrator's life is hard. She talks about a record from the person she's writing to, but also that her record player had been stolen. She tried going back to live with her parents in Omaha but "everyone I used to know is either dead or in prison." Now's she's back in Minneapolis "and I think I'm going to stay." By the end she admits she's in jail and needs help. In the worst and most desperate straits, she's still thinking that things can turn around. After all, "I'll be eligible for parole come Valentine's Day." 

The holidays are a time of reflection, which can often make us rue the ways our lives didn't turn out the way we thought they would. But even in the worst circumstances, people still find ways to keep on living. My busted boiler is pretty minor in the grand scheme of things. Tomorrow is another day. 

Sunday, December 17, 2023

The Holdovers and Alexander Payne's Cinema of Life

Yesterday I had the good fortune to see The Holdovers in the theater. It's been out for awhile, so I saw it in a small box inside of a small-town independent movie theater, which was pretty much the perfect combination. 

I had seen the trailer multiple times, and I knew the movie would be catnip for me. Not only was one of the main characters a history teacher at a private school (like me), it was about the melancholy side of the holidays, it was set in the 1970s, and it was directed by Alexander Payne. What a combo! I was glad that it exceeded my expectations.

Payne has long been one of my favorite filmmakers, and not just because he's a fellow Nebraskan. He started out making wicked satires like Citizen Ruth and Election, but since About Schmidt has mostly made films about life itself, in particular how we deal with its inevitable pains and disappointments. As I have entered middle age, that subject has felt much more real. I have probably never cried harder in a movie theater than I did when I watched Nebraska because it so perfectly represented the world where I am from and I had never imagined ever seeing its stilted emotional landscape being put up on a big screen for all the world to see. 

I cried a lot at the movie theater yesterday, too. I knew that mourning a loved one was a theme because of the school's chef losing her son in Vietnam. I did not know it was also about the experience of mourning a loved one while they are still alive because a mental illness has made them into someone else. (I won't give away any spoilers beyond that.) That's a kind of mourning I am very familiar with. 

The pains and disappointments of life are often followed by resentments, something Payne explores deftly in this film and others. Giamatti's teacher character resents his wealthy students for their privilege, even more for their obliviousness to it. He may live in a campus apartment and drive a shit car, but he gets to put them in their place when he fails them on their exams. Of course, this is not a healthy way to go through life. I think too of his character in Sideways, the father in Nebraska, and the title character in About Schmidt. All of them seem beaten down by life's unfairness and the feeling that things should have turned out differently.

The other characters in The Holdovers have ample reasons for resentment. Angus is stuck alone on the holidays because his mother would rather vacation with her new husband. Mary had her son's promising life snuffed out by a stupid and unjust war. In middle age I have learned that resentment is the soul killer. Life is unfair and heartless but dwelling on it will make you insane. If I think too long about how I work hard to teach students who are often blase about an education that costs more than my old yearly salary as an assistant professor I get paralyzed. 

We all have to find ways to overcome the dynamic of disappointment and resentment because there are only a blessed few whose lives turn out the way they want them to. Even then, bad things happen. I heard this week that an old classmate of mine who was a good dude and had gone on to be a highly successful basketball coach is beset with a painful, deadly illness. For some cruel reason the hardest and most untimely losses of life among people I care about have happened in December, so I can't get through the holiday season without thinking about how some people are robbed of the time they should have had on this earth. 

I appreciate Alexander Payne's cinema of life because he gets at the dailiness of these emotions. Certain feelings are always with us, sometimes as a barely perceptible ache, sometimes as an all-consuming fire. I also appreciate how the endings are never neat. The characters in The Holdovers find ways to survive and gain some needed perspective, but there's no guarantee that they won't get pulled back into the undertow of disappointment and resentment. We can only try to handle it as best we can. I hope Payne keeps making movies like this because they've helped me with my own process. 

Saturday, December 16, 2023

2023: The Year Reality Died

 Over on Substack I wrote something I am pretty proud of called "2023: The Year Reality Died." 

As I mention, it's the culmination of almost twenty years of major changes in how we understand and interact with the world. The rise of AI and the destruction of Twitter are two things I see as key in this development. 

I also recently got a book chapter published! It's about Bob Dylan's engagement with the 1976 Bicentennial, available in the new Routledge book The Politics and Power of Bob Dylan's Live Performances: Play a Song For Me

I'll have more things coming on this site for the end of year festivities. 

Sunday, December 3, 2023

The Pogues, “Dirty Old Town” (Track of the Week)

Shane MacGowan’s death has hit me hard, which has been a bit of a surprise. I love his music, but I can’t say the Pogues were one of my top bands. Based on his legendary hard living it’s a miracle he even made it to 65.

After thinking about it, I realized I was reeling because it’s especially hard when people who are truly bursting with life leave us. Even their bright flame must eventually be snuffed because all of us mortals live under death’s dominion. We try to avoid that hard fact but a death like his makes it impossible to forget.

While accomplished songwriters like Bruce Springsteen have been praising MacGowan’s abilities as a songsmith, I’d like to highlight his capacity for interpretation. Making a song your own doesn’t just mean writing it.

Dirty Old Town” was the signature song of folkie Ewan MacColl. He sings of his industrial hometown of Salford, spinning a tale of love and longing. There are kisses, but also old canals, a gasworks, and factory wall. Anyone who is from an obscure place and who has left it behind with fond attachments will understand the feeling of this song.

MacGowan’s bedraggled growl gives it a fitting grit for a song about a grimy industrial town. The Pogues give it some country flavor, keying into that genre’s own long history of songs longing for home. I heard it today and the radio and felt tears welling up in my eyes. It was partly sadness over death, but mostly my complicated feelings about my own hometown.

A lot of the sadness over his passing that I’ve heard online and in person is rooted in the longing baked into diasporas. MacGowan grew up in the London area, but spent summers back in Ireland with relatives (his parents were immigrants.) Being in a diaspora means never being totally rooted where you are because an important part of your soul lies across the sea. It is a sadness a lot of people experience but so few could articulate like Shane MacGowan. Pour one out for a real one.

Thursday, November 30, 2023

Kissinger is Dead But Realpolitik Lives On

The internet is abuzz with the news of Henry Kissinger's death. Amidst all the jubilation and snark, I have seen little analysis of his actual legacy. I think this might be because those celebrating his demise are well aware that his ideas and approach to foreign affairs are still making their mark on the world.

Back around 2007 I was living in Grand Rapids, and Kissinger came to town to deliver a talk. I showed up out of curiosity and to see what this man was like in the flesh that I had heard so much about. For years I had heard about his charisma and skill with romance, which seemed inexplicable until that night. When he took the stage, the man talked with a striking air of certainty and obvious erudition. While I strongly disagreed with the conclusions of his analysis, I understood in that moment why he had been such a successful diplomat and political operator. 

He was more of a legend to me to that point, a figure I had seen on television since my youth. In college I took some classes on international politics, where I learned that he was more than a diplomat. Kissinger was a thinker, probably the most important modern proponent of "realism." He referred to this viewpoint with his famous statement, "America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests." A modern day Bismarck, Kissinger defended the doctrines of Realpolitik in a time when international institutions and connections undermined the old certainties of nation-state politics.

When I took that class in the late 1990s, Kissinger's realism felt very antiquated, the political science equivalent of a leisure suit. The end of the Cold War opened up the possibility of a more global world where peace would be achieved by international cooperation, rather than the machinations of "balance of power." 

9/11 and especially the "war on terror" shook that certainty. The Bush administration's murderously idealistic attempt to remake the Middle East not only discredited neoconservatism, it undermined the belief in globalist, idealist solutions among a lot of people. (Kissinger supported the Iraq invasion, although on different grounds than the neocons.)

As the neocons have faded, a Trumpian "America First" nationalism dominates the Republican Party. That's certainly not Kissinger's methodology, but both America First and Kissinger's more diplomatic global Realpolitik are rooted in a belief that no moral or legal considerations ought to restrain the government in pursuing the perceived interests of America. Many world leaders from MBS to Putin to Xi to Netanyahu practice Realpolitik with gusto. Kissinger may be dead, but his spirit lives on. Amid the grave dancing we ought to be paying attention to that. 

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Coping with Winter's Onset

Thanksgiving came, and with it, winter. Night falls hard, the darkness at 5 making it feel like ten o'clock at night. The wind bites, stabbing through the buttons of my coat. Even when the clouds clear, the sunlight feels feeble, cut at an angle. 

I feel the transitions in the seasons more than most people. My clothing, diet, and even music choices change radically this time of year. The outdoors goes from something to be enjoyed to something to be endured. I embrace the holiday season as a fun distraction, but that makes the first two and a half months of the year even more bleak. Knowing I will soon have to live through them is already weighing on me.

I have well-worn coping mechanisms, but a little perspective is helping me face this winter. It hit me today that we are almost four years away from the anniversary of the first COVID-19 cases in Wuhan. I suddenly remembered the awfulness of the winters of 2020-2021 and 2021-2022. The deaths, the disruptions, illnesses and uncertainty are something I never want to revisit. Last winter I was still waiting for the axe to drop. This winter, for the first time in years, I can just have the good ole winter ache without a big blast of fear. Maybe things will go south and we will have another outbreak, but I am at enough peace right now to not get antsy about it.

As those of us in the northern latitudes face winter I'd like to share some of my traditional coping mechanisms.

Root Vegetables

To get through winter you've got to stay healthy, and as quality fresh fruits and vegetables get scarcer with the change in temperature, root vegetables are there for you. Throw those parsnips in your stews, boil and mash up a rutabaga with some carrots and your stomach will since a happy song. 

Canadian Folk Music

I listen to inordinate amounts of Gordon Lightfoot, early Leonard Cohen, and Ian & Sylvia in winter. Who knows better how to weather the cold than Canadians? The music soothes me to boot. No song embodies winter to me more than Gord's "The Way I Feel," either the acoustic or electric version


When you've got to shovel your walk there's no better prep or reward than a shot of bourbon. The whiskey keeps you warm, and that complex bourbon flavor has the depth to match the emotions of the winter months. Putting it in a hot toddy? Even better. 


Feeling chilly when you want to be cozy? Put on a cardigan and all your problems are solved, baby!

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Seeing Bob Dylan on a Rainy Jersey Night

Tonight I got to see the last show on Bob Dylan's Rough and Rowdy Ways tour. As I wrote about on my Substack, I have been anticipating this for months now. I was not disappointed. 

His band set a perfect smoky vibe with Dylan behind the piano. I was in a large theater but it was a performance meant for a cozy club. Moody selections from his most recent album mixed with old chestnuts of the kind normies don't know. He started with "Watching the River Flow" and ended with "Every Grain of Sand." On the latter, he played a harmonica solo, a surprise where I could hear echoes of Woody Guthrie and freedom songs in the Mississippi heat.

It was hard to believe I was hearing an 82 year old; he played like a man reborn. The time in the hourglass is running out, but like his namesake, Dylan raged against the dying of the light. As I look at my own 48 years on this earth it's hard to believe there's anything coming that I haven't already seen. This show made me believe there's still surprises in store. 

We all have only one life to live, and each one is a fragile flame, ready to be blown out at any moment. In the meantime, we live and try to flourish. 

Thursday, November 9, 2023

Tuesday's Election Illustrates Why Republicans Gerrymander and Suppress Votes

Over on Substack before Tuesday's election I was remembering the anniversary of Obama winning the 2008 election. I argued that the current anti-democratic, white nationalist Republican Party has its origins in that time. The 2007-2008 economic collapse helped undermine belief in Reaganomics, even among conservative voters. Trump figured this out, and won Republican support while giving out free money during COVID and assailing free trade. Sarah Palin's "Real America" talk in 2008 was a harbinger of the future. 

As the Republican Party has become the party of populist nationalism, it has come to rely on a shrinking demographic of aging white people, many of them living in declining rural and Rust Belt areas losing population. This has made it necessary for Republicans to tilt elections and use the non-democratic institutions in our system to maintain power. It's why they try to suppress votes and aggressively gerrymander. It's why they managed to rig the Supreme Court to overturn reproductive rights despite winning the presidential popular vote only once since 1988. The electoral college allowed them to put in two losers of the popular vote with disastrous consequences this century.

Writing two days after the election, I now see that the Republican agenda is even more unpopular than I first realized. In red Ohio voters decisively approved of voting rights and legal weed. An anti-abortion Republican challenger for the governor's mansion went down in flames in red Kentucky. Virginia Republican governor Glenn Youngkin's attempt to get control of the state legislature ended in embarrassment after he floated a 15 week abortion ban "compromise."  

This is part of a larger and longer trend. In many states with Republican state houses, voters have passed ballot initiatives to overturn laws passed by Republican legislatures. Voters have approved Medicaid expansion, raises in minimum wage, and abortion rights. In my home state of Nebraska, voters have approved an initiative to be put on the next ballot to overturn a law diverting money from public to private schools. In some of these states gerrymandering has all but eliminated free and fair elections. Tuesday night's referendums, which circumvent gerrymandering, show why.

Intriguingly, there also appears to be a significant number of people who vote for Republicans while voting against some of their core priorities when given the chance. If Democrats can solve this riddle, they have the chance to make big gains in places assumed to be hostile territory. For a long time conventional wisdom said that opposition to abortion explained why so many voters in red states could disagree with Republican economic policy yet for politicians who prioritized the interests of the wealthy. The recent abortion referendum votes show this is not the case at all. Perhaps the core issue is actually white resentment, perhaps not. As Andy Beshear illustrates in Kentucky, it is not impossible for Democrats to do well in red states while still governing as Democrats and not Mancin-style Republican Lite. 

Just as Donald Trump changed the older political coalitions with his focus on nationalism, abortion has the chance to reorient things in another direction. Basic assumptions are changing. Opposition to abortion, unions, higher wages, LGBTQ rights, and public educators are not winning issues anymore. The Reagan era was a long time ago. A normal political party would react by moderating their positions, but I expect the maximalist current version of the Republican Party will just double down on diluting the people's voice. After all, the people who vote against them aren't "real Americans."

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Missing the Halloween Spirit This Year

One of the things I like about the town I live in is how people go all out for Halloween. We usually get a ton of trick or treaters and it's just a blast overall. I was having fun in the leadup to this week, but suddenly I've lost the spirit.

Part of it has to do with the ridiculous obligations in my life right now, both in terms of work and parenting. I am just tired, all of the time. During the few moments I have to rest my mind is preoccupied with the sad, depressing state of the world. This month has brought war in the Middle East, related murders in this country, a mass shooter, a radical anti-democratic gerrymander in North Carolina, and an election-denying Christian nationalist weirdo being elevated to the Speaker of the House. (I wrote about the latter on Substack.)

This is all being experienced through a media filter that constantly promotes lies and manipulations of all kinds. It's getting hard to tell the truth, and soon people will stop trying. Once that happens, there's no bottom.

I can't escape the feeling that everything is collapsing. On inauguration day in 2021, I cried tears of relief and joy, hoping we were through the Trump years. I had been vaccinated against COVID the day before and the two events together felt like two horrible crises might finally be ending. Looking back I can't believe my naivete. Trumpism and COVID are not past. They were tipping points knocking down a rotten and rickety American and world social order that had been teetering for decades. 

Neoliberalism hollowed everything out, including basic social obligations and connectivity. We've lost the capacity for positive collective action and the privations of COVID have made us even more angry and suspicious. We interact through social media, which only brings out the worst in us. In the face of all of this progressives have retreated into making self-righteous statements ("In this house we believe...") because deep down they know there's nothing that can be done about it in any material sense. Social movements have adopted a "leaderless" model allowing them to take to the streets while accomplishing nothing. 

The scariest thing this Halloween is the world we are living in. I once believed in the capacity for change, but right now my main focus is trying to survive the coming onslaught. Just take the shooting in Lewiston, for example. We know there's absolutely no chance that we will regulate guns, and that our society is awash in so many guns and gun nuts that any attempt to regulate them would be useless. A conservative Supreme Court would strike that down, anyway. We talk about the 2024 election as if it's a referendum on democracy, but democracy already lost. 

I tried posting about this on Facebook and people assumed my feeling that Halloween had no joy this year is curmudgeonly, not the result of existential dread over the state of the world. Don't worry, you'll probably be feeling the same way by next Halloween.

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Geezer Rock Sweepstakes

 Last week on my Substack I wrote about how both Mick Jagger and Madonna are trapped in a rebellious image dated to the epochs when they were the "it" figures. Some of the inspiration came from things I've written on this site. This week I am planning on looking at the implications of what is happening in the House.

Writing last week's piece got me thinking about "legacy" musical artists who have actually managed to endure and flourish in old age. I've noticed some distinct approaches that I will name here.

The Dolly Parton Approach

Dolly has been a pop culture figure my entire life but I don't think she's ever been as revered as she is now. Lots of people who never seemed to like country music have a lot of affection for her. Beyond opening up to new musical styles and going with the times, her philanthropy has burnished her reputation. Turning yourself into a cultural figure rather than a musical artist seems to pay dividends, especially if it looks like you aren't trying that hard.

The Bob Dylan Approach

Dylan has kept touring consistently for decades, which I think has kept his music fresh. He's been willing to explore new avenues in ways that keep his fans invested while occasionally confounding them. Ever since he sloughed off the "voice of a generation tag" he's also not been interested in stardom. By not caring what people think he's avoided the trap of Madonna and Jagger, who seem painfully addicted to adulation. 

The Smokey Robinson/Paul McCartney Approach

Keep playing, keep performing, keep your smile and good nature and keep making your fans happy while never getting too predictable or pretentious. This is the simple path and I don't know why more legacy don't do it.

The Tom Waits Approach

Put out a great album, take a step back, and say nothing. Don't officially "retire," just enjoy life out of the spotlight and people will talk and say "Are they going to ever put another album out?" and "Gee, I miss them." Waits never hurt his reputation by putting out lame records to support cashgrab tours and I respect that. 

Monday, October 16, 2023

Putting the House Republicans' Disorder into Historical Context

Over at Substack I wrote about the current fight in the Republican party over the Speakership. We are so used to seeing political events in a decontextualized 24 hour news cycle that many miss how McCarthy's fate mirrored those of Boehner and Ryan because the same dynamics are at play. I basically argue that Gingrich broke the House as a legislative body, and that it's impossible for a Republican Speaker to be both his party's ideological firebrand and an effective legislator. 

I mention the power of conservative media in the piece, and I after I wrote it I read that Sean Hannity is whipping votes for Jim Jordan. I guess I'm pretty smart. 

Saturday, October 7, 2023

October Baseball

Last Sunday, I went to the last game of the Mets' season and wrote about it over on Substack. I tried to articulate the feelings of both disappointment and longing on the last day of the season when you root for a losing team. I wish things had turned out better, but I am already longing for April and new beginnings. There's always next year.

In the meantime, I get to watch some high-stakes games in October without the anxiety of my own team's performance hanging over me. Last year I spent the first round of the playoffs ripping my hair out over the Mets' collapse. I would listen to late-season and playoff games on my headphones during my daughter's autumn travel-team softball games. Her coach, a fellow Met fan, wanted the scoring updates. At least I had a fellow sufferer when I delivered bad news. This year, I can just enjoy some baseball.

When your team is out of the running it still helps to watch the games with a rooting interest. I find it hard to be some impersonal observer of baseball so I still insist on investing myself in at least one team still playing. While this can bring more disappointment, it also pays dividends. Back in 1988, I decided I wanted the underdog Dodgers to best the dominant As. When Kirk Gibson hit his improbable home run in game one I felt part of the collective joy and the baseball moment that is closest to a real-life myth. An injured player coming off of the bench so feeble that he can barely manage his eventual home run trot winning it all? That has to be made up. 

I also just enjoy the intensity of October baseball. The change in the weather reflects a radically altered vibe. In the regular season, baseball is the Summer Game (in the words of Roger Angell.) Like those long, languid, sunshiny summer days, the season seems to stretch on forever. There are 162 games, and none in the summer seem make or break. You want to win, but if you lose, there's another chance tomorrow. When the leaves start to fall and the temperature drops, things suddenly change. Losing games means having to go home. The grass browns, the trees shed their leaves, night falls early, and the baseball season wanes. 

When the baseball games matter more in October, the late innings have an emotional intensity that is not matched by any other sport. In other team sports, a late lead is safer because the clock is on your side. In baseball you must get the other team out. Dennis Eckersley could not take a knee or get a trip to the free throw line. He had to pitch to Kirk Gibson. I love those late inning moments, pitchers and batters staring each other down, the tension between pitches reaching an almost unbearable level.  

As an 11 year old I stayed up late by myself to watch game six of the 1986 World Series. I was not an official Mets fan yet, but I decided that I liked their swagger and players like Gooden, Hernandez, Carter, and Strawberry. It looked like they were going down. Infamously, in the 10th inning, the Shea Stadium scoreboard briefly flashed a message of congratulations for the Red Sox, assuming it was all over. What followed is legendary and confounded any sane expectations a Mets rooter could have had. I was a casual baseball fan going into that game; afterward, I was hooked for life.

In '87 I saw an intense seven-game series between the Twins and Cardinals. In '88 I witnessed that mythic Gibson homer. In '89 there was a freakin' EARTHQUAKE during a World Series game. In this era the Super Bowl, by contrast, was a ridiculous blowout of whatever weak AFC team had the misfortune to be a sacrificial victim. There have been some other memorable Octobers since, few of them featuring my White Sox and Mets. No matter, I can still dig that October baseball feeling, its triumphs and tragedies. In 2006 I was living in Michigan and swore I heard a statewide collective cry of anguish when the Tigers made their last out. Ten years later I experienced such joy when my many Cubs fan friends and relatives finally got to celebrate. I am looking forward to more October baseball, and for my Phillies, Orioles, and especially Twins fans friends to have something to cheer about. 

Saturday, September 30, 2023

John Lennon, "Working Class Hero" (Track of the Week)

I've written less for this blog in the past month than I have since I first started writing it. The truth is, I am just too tired most evenings to sit and write, or I have other work to do. The start of the school year this year has been especially rough. 

Music is seasonal for me, and every autumn I keep coming back to a playlist I made of songs from the Beatles' first solo records. The shift from summer into fall is mirrored in these songs by the kings of the pop music scene descending out of Beatlemania. In the words of one of Lennon's songs from the era, "I was the walrus, now I'm just John." Fall is a time of reflection for me, and these albums are full of reflective feelings about spending a decade in the eye of the pop cultural storm. Lennon's Plastic Ono Band is the most famously reflective of these albums, with literal primal screams. While most of the songs are painfully personal, he gets political on "Working Class Hero." 

Like the rest of his generation, Lennon was the product of the long post-war economic boom in the West, one still not over when he wrote this song. In Britain, it was the era where PM Harold Macmillan could taunt a heckler by saying "you've never had it so good!" The class struggles of the preceding decades seemed to have been drowned in a tidal wave of cheap consumer goods. This song questions what workers actually got in the bargain. Instead of the sunny vistas of postwar consumerism, Lennon sees children cowed by punitive schools, locked early into unfulfilling careers, and working unsatisfying jobs leavened only by the opiate of television at the end of an awful day. 

Lennon uses an old folk riff on acoustic guitar, sounding like the finger-pointing Dylan of "Masters of War." The first lines still hit me in the face, "As soon as you're born they make you feel small/ By giving you no time instead of it all." This month, when I just don't seem to have the time or energy to write, I am feeling it really hard. 

This song does not lay out any specific political plan, but encourages the listener to dump the ideology that keeps them from questioning and changing the system. That's the first, crucial step. In the past decade, I have noticed more and more people refusing to reduce themselves to their job, a process that accelerated during the pandemic. Whereas striking workers were once treated almost as outlaws by normie types, there has been an outpouring of support for the picket lines in recent strikes. Many people are realizing the raw deal that neoliberalism gave them once the "boom years" ended. Over fifty years after writing this song, Lennon smirks from the grave. 

Monday, September 25, 2023

2016 All Over Again?

On my Substack I recently wrote about how many of the large factors influencing the 2024 election are similar to those in 2016. The point is not doom and gloom, but for progressives to act proactively to mitigate them instead of failing to see the issues. (This was the mistake of 2016.) 

I did not talk about the Dobbs decision in my piece, as a friend on Facebook rightly pointed out. It certainly represents a major change from 2016, but I am not sure it is entirely in Democrats' favor. The fact that Dobbs came AFTER Biden's election seemed to underscore the futility of fighting a conservative movement that has decided to use non-democratic means to stay in power. The young people I know seem more fatalistic now, and far less politically committed. One thing that can doom democracy is a feeling that participating in it just doesn't matter. 

Again, I am not saying that Trump will definitely win in 2024, but I consider it a coin flip, which is fearsome enough. 

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Catching Up and Thoughts on Rock Geezerdom

The start of the school year had me on the longest hiatus of my blogging career, I think. I have had a ten megaton stress bomb detonated on me and it's been hard to do anything other than just maintain. I have written a couple of things over on Substack, however. One essay gets into the ways that we have failed to reckon with 9/11 and the wars that followed. Another is about how seeing Bruce Springsteen live motivated me for the school year

That was such a fine experience that when Bob Dylan tickets for shows in Jersey this coming November went on sale Friday, I snatched them up. As I have written about before, people my age (born in the mid-70s) have a strange emotional attachment to the music made by the generation before us. It was a product not just of the long Boomer shadow, but of growing up in the 80s corporatization of the radio waves. I could listen to one station and hear "Sussudio," or another and hear "Whole Lotta Love." The choice wasn't hard.

These days it's easy to wonder how long my most beloved geezer rockers will keep running. I bought Springsteen tickets -despite disliking stadium shows- because I wondered if this was my last shot. I am hearing similar rumors about Dylan's upcoming tour. I am also beginning to think I need to find a way to see Neil Young soon, or to finally catch the Stones. 

In recent years I have gone out of my way to listen to new music, and most of what passes through my Spotify is indie stuff by people in their 20s and 30s. While I enjoy seeing new bands live on their way up, seeing the geezer gods live gives me a feeling on a different level. The Springsteen show, for instance, was like a religious experience. I felt the same way when I saw Dylan the day after the 2004 election and he played "It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding" and sang "Sometimes even the President of the United States must stand naked" with a barbed intonation. 

What I also find interesting is that some of the geezer gods still make great and interesting new music, and others don't. Rough and Rowdy Ways is one of Dylan's best albums, in my opinion. Springsteen's more recent songs did not sound slight when played live next to his oldies. I really enjoyed Paul McCartney's last album, especially how much he experimented. Contrast this with The Rolling Stones, who have not put out an album of new material since 2006. They just put out a single, "Angry," that is, shall we say, suboptimal. It sounds like an outtake from Voodoo Lounge, and very well might be. Mick's posturing is parodic, and the production sounds dated, but not dated to the Stones' heyday. 

It's telling that the video features the young actress Sydney Sweeney dancing beneath images of the Stones' glorious past. The Stones simply aren't allowed to grow old, and self-reflection is anti-thetical to their music. Springsteen's concert was full of references to mortality, aging, and dedications to the departed. I wonder if the next Stones tour will do much to reckon with Charlie Watts' absence. 

I still love those old Stones records, but as I age I have less patience for people who try to fool the world that they are forever young. Springsteen and Dylan have crafted some profound songs in their later years about being old, songs I bet I will keep with me when I reach their current age and they are long gone. Maybe just maybe we can convince Mick and Keef to be a little vulnerable and admit that death's cold hand is soon coming for them, too. 

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Summer of Springsteen Part Six: Living Legend

I was worried that I was not going to finish this project by Friday, when I will finally be seeing the Boss live. What helped was that I generally really like his most recent work. I did a listen of Dylan's albums two years ago, and there were wild swings in quality. Listening to his whole catalog, I was struck by how Springsteen managed to maintain such a high standard. While I won't be revisiting some of his albums, none of them could be called bad. 

Springsteen has embraced his status as a living legend in his most recent phase. He wrote a memoir, told his story on Broadway, and hosted a podcast with Barack Obama. He has also been less predictable in his musical styles, which I think has really paid off. He is one of the few rock legacy acts (along with Dylan) who is making new music worth listening to that explores new directions.


Springsteen on Broadway (2018)

I said before that his 80s live box was the only live album I was going to cover, but this one demands to be addressed. A rock star on Broadway seems like a contradiction in terms, but his autobiographical show fits with his turn inward, also marked by his excellent memoir. After a flurry of activity from 2001 to 2014, Springsteen took a step back from new music and toured the side roads. 

I regretted not seeing this show, and for that reason never listened to it or watched the film because of the intense FOMO. I can say now that it is a true career highlight. Springsteen's memoir proved he's a great storyteller outside of songs, and his stories here make a similar impact. His intro to the acoustic version of "Born in the USA" is one of the most moving things I have ever heard. He talks about reporting to the draft office the same day as two other musicians he knew in the Jersey Shore scene. Springsteen was not taken, but his friends were, and neither of them came home from Vietnam. He then wonders about the person who took his place. The rendition of the song that follows will just rip your heart out. 

There's also plenty of humor. He starts by admitting he never worked a day in a factory. At first this seems flippant, then you realize he was trying to articulate his parents' experiences. The vignettes of working-class life in small-town Jersey are incredibly vivid. Also, as I have said before, Springsteen might be at his best when it's just him and an acoustic guitar. I will definitely be returning.

Rating: Five Bosses (out of five)

Western Stars (2019)

I saw a lot of praise for this one when it came out. I listened to it for the first time on a Western road trip, anticipating a perfect marriage of sound and experience. Unfortunately, it left me flat. I was excited to hear Springsteen dig into a more country sound, since that had always been an under the radar influence on his music. For some reason, it felt flat.

For this project I listened to it while going on a long walk, and it totally clicked. Much of the record feels like a concept album about a drifter alone out west, and it drew me in. Many of the songs have an understated beauty to them, like looking at the Western sky. I am probably the target audience, considering that I grew up in rural Nebraska right where the Midwest meets the West. 

At the same time, this album has some of Springsteen's 21st century album issues. Some songs are a little flight, and the production is too distracting in others. Those issues don't sink the album, one that successfully looked to new artistic vistas.

Rating; Four Bosses

A Letter to You (2020)

In the beginning of the pandemic here in Jersey they did a telecast honoring and fundraising for health care workers (I don't know if it was televised elsewhere.) Various people Zoomed in from their homes. Jersey guy John Stewart hosted, but the highlight was Bruce Springsteen and Patty Scialfa playing and singing some songs on acoustic guitar from their living room. In that very dark time, when hundreds of people in my state were dying every day, it was a bright spot of hope. This album came out of that time, and out of a demand to make sense of it. Not surprisingly, there are plenty of songs about death and aging.

"Ghost" particularly good. Its hard-rocking surface almost obscures the theme of missing a departed loved one. Springsteen has been performing it at every show on his current tour, with good reason. We all remember that pandemic feeling of intensely valuing life and the people in it brought on by the knowledge of life's fragility. Springsteen appropriately reunited with the E Street Band, and this song and others feel like more "band" efforts than he has had in awhile. 

As with his other recent records, there are some inconsistencies but this time around the production style feels much better suited to the material. 

Rating: Four Bosses

Only The Strong Survive (2022)

This is his second covers record, with the first being The Seeger Sessions. While that album reinterpreted the classics with flair and originality, this one mostly plays it straight. It's not nearly as good, but Springsteen's deep love for the soul material he sings at least makes this listenable. The backing sound and production are more fitting for a karaoke machine, but the Boss can still make a meal out of these songs. 

Springsteen's earliest records are steeped in R&B, and it's something still alive in his live sound but not really on his records since Born to Run. It's great to hear him in this mode. The songs might not be interpreted originally, but I commend the Boss for his choice of tunes. I also think he breaks out of karaoke into something more stunning with his versions of "I Wish It Would Rain" and "Seven Rooms." 

This is a slight album but a fun performance. To quote an earlier song of his, "It ain't no sin to be glad you're alive."

Rating: Three Bosses

Monday, August 28, 2023

Summer of Springsteen Part Five: Rising Back

After his quiet 90s, Springsteen came roaring back in the 2000s. His comeback was intimately tied to 9/11, and his music of the era is some of the little we have that is genuine in discussing the terror attack and the wars that followed. While Springsteen achieved critical acclaim in this period, he was starting to spin his wheels a bit. Part of this had to do with a production style that did not serve the songs very well. Springsteen ended this run with a strong album in Wrecking Ball, then switched gears and went Broadway.


The Rising (2002)

The fact that songs on this album were connected to 9/11, either in their themes or lyrical content, was much discussed at the time. Despite all of the talk and public ritual, I do not think this country has really dealt with the real trauma of that day. I feel like these songs, especially "Empty Sky," actually do. Springsteen brought back the E Street Band for this one, but you really can't tell from the music. He achieved a kind of compromise where he would bring these "blood brothers" back, but he would continue to make the music he wanted to make. The album holds up surprisingly well, but it has a bloat problem endemic to his 21st century albums. Just because a CD can fit more songs it doesn't mean they all belong there. 

Rating: Four Bosses

Devils and Dust (2005)

Fitting with his pattern, Springsteen followed a massive popular success with an acoustic album. This one is not as good as Nebraska and Ghost of Tom Joad, but it's still excellent. The title song, from the point of view of an American soldier in Iraq, is about how the country bears the guilt for the killings it sends people to commit in their name. Some of the songs give us a glimpse into Springsteen's spirituality as well. As you can probably tell by my ratings, I really enjoy this side of Springsteen.

Rating: Four and a half Bosses

We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006)

I have loved this record from the second I first heard it. Revisiting it, it somehow sounded even better. Springsteen's folk influences, there from the beginning, get fully indulged here. It's a covers record of songs interpreted by folkie godfather Pete Seeger, but Springsteen makes them all his own. What I appreciate is that he turns folk from "serious guy with an acoustic guitar" into rollicking, good time music. The "folk" have to break their backs all day long for the boss, they need to party in their downtime! If there is such a thing as a folk song party record, this is it. If you are feeling down and need a burst of energy, listen to this. 

Rating: Five Bosses

Magic (2007)

I remember this album getting a lot of love when it came out. Springsteen is back with the E Street Band, but it's not quite as memorable as The Rising. The lead single "Radio Nowhere" had a hard sound to it that intrigued me, but no hooks. He is still railing against the Bush administration's "war on terror," one of the few to do it this effectively. While it's not strong top to bottom, songs like "Long Walk Home" stand out. This album establishes a pattern for a lot of his later records. They are less consistent than his early work, but still have songs worthy of his career best. 

Rating: Three and a half Bosses 

Working on a Dream (2009)

Springsteen recorded this one during tour breaks, which gives it a looser feel. The songs aren't as strong however, as some of his other releases. I do like the experiments with a Beach Boys sound at one point, a sign that Springsteen was still trying to do new things. "Good Eye" is hardcore blues of the kind we've never heard from him before. He might not be as obvious about it as Bowie or Madonna, but Springsteen is quietly one of the more unpredictable major rock stars. This is not a great record but it's a fun one to listen to.

Rating; Three and a half Bosses

Wrecking Ball (2012)

After getting looser with his last album, Springsteen came out swinging on this one, a statement about the Great Recession, another trauma like 9/11 that we have failed to reckon with. The production is far more focused than Magic and Working on a Dream. At times, there's the spirit that made The Seeger Sessions so great, as on "Death to My Hometown." While it still has some fat on it, the number of strong songs is really high. I hadn't listened to this album since it came out, and I was struck by its vitality. It's easily the best of his original studio albums of this era. 

Rating: Four and a Half Bosses

High Hopes (2014)

This is a weird one, since it consists of songs that were performed only live before, out-takes, and covers, but all re-recorded. The reviews made it sound really slight, but I actually enjoyed listening to this hodgepodge. The addition of Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello brings something new and vital to the mix and Springsteen sounds energetic. The production styles are a bit confounding, however. Some songs sound like they are straight out of 1998. This doesn't cohere much as an album, but individual songs stand out well. By bringing together out-takes from the prior decade, Springsteen was putting a bow on his 21st-century revival. After this he would head in new directions, from Broadway to the Western plains. 

Rating: Three and a half Bosses

Sunday, August 20, 2023

Summer of Springsteen Part Four: 90s Sidetrack

After becoming a superduperstar in the 80s, Bruce Springsteen took a step back in the 90s. He married the love of his life and became a parent, something I know from personal experience makes you less invested in external validation. He only put out three studio albums in the 90s, and none between 1995 and 2002. In 1995 he released a greatest hits album and an acoustic record full of sad songs. The former showed signs of slowing down, the latter signaled that Springsteen wanted to break the mold.


Human Touch (1992)

In 1991, Guns N Roses put out the two Use Your Illusion albums simultaneously, an innovation that Springsteen followed the next year with Human Touch and Lucky Town. I am actually surprised more artists haven't followed this early 90s trend, which allows them to craft different vibes on different records in the same creative moment. In Springsteen's case, he had been working on Human Touch for years, and as he went back into the studio to complete it, he had a burst of creativity that became Lucky Town. As you can probably guess by the story of its genesis, Lucky Town is the superior album. 

Human Touch gets off to a fantastic start with the title track and lead single. one of the Boss's catchiest. Its longing for love and connection fits with his traditional themes, too. Unfortunately, there is no other track on the record that is close to being this good. I've seen many rate this as his worst album. I can't say that yet for certain, but it is definitely his first average album after a run of excellence. In the context of the time, it didn't help that he had recorded much of it in 1989-1990, at the height of overproduction. He also recorded it with crack studio musicians instead of the E Street Band. 1991 brought multiple major changes in rock music, from REM's embrace of the acoustic, U2 bringing in the Madchester beats and electronics, and most importantly, Nirvana's grunge explosion. This album sounded like a relic the day it was released. 

All that being said, if you listened to the album without knowing the artist you would think it was pretty dang good. Despite what a lot of people say online, "57 Channels and Nothing On" was a great little novelty song in the context of the proliferation of cable in the 90s. This is not a bad album, it's just not memorable and not up to the Boss's standards.

Rating: Three Bosses (out of five)

Lucky Town (1992)

While Human Touch feels overly crafted, Lucky Town feels fresh and spontaneous. "Better Days" kicks things off with a bang, and can even be seen as a kind of meta-commentary. After years of studio tinkering on Human Touch, here Springsteen is letting it ride, breaking out of a creative funk. Crucially, studio musicians are less prominent here, helping to de-slickify the sound. It's almost as if Springsteen saw the way music was changing and needed to quickly reorient himself. 

Considering its origins, it still feels like a coda to Human Touch, rather than its own creation. That said, it is worth a listen. 

Rating: Four Bosses

Greatest Hits

I am not reviewing the entire album, just the new tracks Springsteen recorded. He reunited with the E Street Band, raising hopes that he would return back to his old ways after a disappointing sojourn on his own. This album also included "Streets of Philadelphia," a single from the soundtrack to the film Philadelphia sung from the point of view of a man dying of AIDS. It is one of his most affecting songs, especially considering the stigma at that time around the disease and the lack of life-saving drugs. It gets me every time.

"Murder Incorporated" rocked hard, but was recorded back in 1982. "Secret Garden," "This Hard Land," and "Blood Brothers" were newly recorded but not necessarily newly written. "Secret Garden" was like an outtake from Tunnel of Love, but if Springsteen wasn't sad. "Blood Brothers" and "This Hard Land" were alright but not up to the standards of the rest of the record. "Streets of Philadelphia" is an all-timer, but the rest isn't that memorable.

Rating: Three and a half Bosses

The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995)

I have listened to this album many, many times, more than any other Springsteen record after his "classic" period. It had been awhile since I'd heard it, however, and I was glad to see that it still met or even exceeded my former love for it. 

This album came out in late 1995, perhaps the high water mark of the "End of History" feeling after the collapse of communism. The economy was growing again, and very few people wanted to address the ways that America's inequality paradoxically worsened in that period. On my college campus there was no activism, and my leftist political outlook was pretty rare. It was exciting to hear an album like this, where Springsteen returned to the Woody Guthrie mode of Nebraska

The issues reflected his move to California, with multiple songs about the US-Mexico border, an issue that has come to dominate national discourse. He seems well aware of the times on the title track, which sounds like a lonely cry for justice in a neoliberal wilderness. That song and "Youngstown" are for my money two of the best that he ever wrote. "Youngstown" tells the story of the Rust Belt with such power that it brings a tear to my eye every time. 

As with Nebraska, Springsteen has songs from specific points of view like "Straight Time," which goes inside the mind of an ex-prisoner who feels let down by daily life on the outside. It is a quietly profound song that embodies the kind of intrusive thoughts we all carry in our heads. 

This album's critical reputation is not as high as my love for it. I see critical comments about the quiet, almost choked way Springsteen sings these songs. It's obviously intentional, and I actually think it works. It's the sound of a man telling truths so against the grain of the time that they are literally hard to hear. Based on his acoustic albums, if Bruce had never fronted the E Street Band he would have ended up being one of this nation's greatest folk singers. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Summer of Springsteen Part Three: Reluctant Superstar

In this installment, I will be looking at Born in the USA, Live 1975-85, and Tunnel of Love.

On Nebraska Bruce Springsteen crafted a quietly searing critique of life in America at the dawn of the Reagan Era. In 1984 Reagan himself would try to claim Springsteen as his own as millions embraced the Born in the USA album as an unironic badge of patriotism. The Boss shot into the pop stratosphere with the 80s pantheon of Michael Jackson, Prince, and Madonna. By the time Tunnel of Love came out, it was obvious that he wanted off the ride. 


Born in the USA (1984)

For those who weren't around, it's hard to convey how big this album was in the mid-80s, especially in the small-town Midwestern world I grew up in. A record-tying SEVEN songs from this album went top ten, including "Cover Me" and "I'm Goin' Down," which are not classic rock radio staples (unlike the rest). The cover became its own iconic image and shorthand. Listening to this in the context of Springsteen's earlier albums, the change is jolting. The big drum sound and synths on the opening title track were perfectly in line with Top 40 at the time. For almost 40 years now, that sound and the song's chorus have tricked people into thinking it's a patriotic ditty and not an indictment of how this country sent its young men to kill, die, and be broken in a useless war. For years I blamed this on the stupidity of the masses, but as Jefferson Cowie has pointed out, by cloaking this song in the pop language of the time, Springsteen contributed to the confusion. 

This whole album tries to have it both ways, and actually manages to get away with it. There are some really powerful commentaries on the state of post-industrial America in the title track and "My Hometown." "Dancing in the Dark" is one of Springsteen's ultimate songs of the emotional insanity caused by longing. Anyone who like me has ever had to pick up their life and move alone to a strange place where they feel lost knows the feeling of this song. That same feeling of longing to the point of emotional breakdown comes through on "I'm On Fire" as well. Desperation without longing is there in "Cover Me" and "I'm Goin' Down." 

As on the The River, Springsteen blends in some good-time fun songs like "Darlington County" and "Glory Days." The latter is about how much aging sucks, but like "Hungry Heart" that sentiment is buried under a catchy riff, fun vibe, and a bit of humor at the narrator's expense. There is darkness here, but the poppy production and catchy hooks made it all palatable for the Reagan Era masses. I have heard these songs so many times that I never really feel the need to put the album on. Listening to it front to back, I can appreciate how it blended Springsteen's perspective with the pop music tropes of the time. Hearing it again with fresh ears I understand why this album made such an immense impact. I can also hear why Springsteen would retreat from this mode afterward. 

Rating: Five Bosses (out of five)

Live 1975-85 (1986)

I am not listening to any other Springsteen live albums for this project, but I included this one because it is an essential moment in his career rather than a tour memento, as the other live records are. It came out at the height of Springsteen's fame and became another huge hit despite carrying a hefty price tag due to its five (!) LP breadth. Back in the 70s rock artists would regularly put out double live albums, none had the ability to release something this massive and expect people to buy it. 

Springsteen had the best reputation as a live performer of any rock star of his generation, and this set shows why. Many famous songs sound even better live here, especially the songs from his Jersey Shore Poet days. He released his cover of "War" as a single, quite a statement at the height of Reagan Era Cold War bluster and debates over intervention in Central America. Despite becoming an American icon to the type of people who don't question the country very much, he refused to drop his critical voice.

Above all, the version of "The River" here is one of the best live cuts by any artist ever. Springsteen prefaces it with a story about his conflicts with his father in his youth, and how despite that, his father was glad when Springsteen failed his draft physical during Vietnam. It'll bring a tear to your eye, and then he launches into the monumentally sad song, with the words "They bring you up to do just like your daddy done" carrying extra bite. Essential listening.

Rating: Five Bosses

Tunnel of Love (1987)

As with Nebraska, Springsteen responded to greater popularity by taking a left turn. The old E Street Band sound, already quite faded in every record since Born to Run, is almost completely absent here. That makes sense, because its members hardly play on this album dominated by synths and drum machines. When I was a dumb orthodox rockist youth, I wrote this album off for those elements, which I had rejected as the height of 80s tackiness. Now that times have changed and recent acts like The War on Drugs have resurrected this style of 80s rock, I can appreciate it more.

The music is not the only big change. Instead of documenting the blue-collar world, Springsteen dug into affairs of the heart. He wrote this album as his marriage to his first wife Julianne Phillips fell apart. He seemed ready to put the E Street Band and his position as an American icon behind him, too. Songs like "Tunnel of Love" and "Brilliant Disguise" still had pop hooks, but the singer felt emotionally naked in ways you'd rarely hear on Top 40 radio. He seems desperate to escape superstardom and to live a different life.

This album's reputation has only grown over the years, and justifiably so. I have see multiple people rate it as Sprinsteen's best. I can't go that far because the 80s production can't be fully overcome, but it's still a testament to his versatility and unwillingness to stick with the familiar. 

Rating: Four and a Half Bosses

Monday, August 14, 2023

Summer of Springsteen Part Two: Rust Belt Jeremiah

In this installment of Summer of Springsteen I am looking at the Boss's trio of late 70s-early 80s albums: Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, and Nebraska. In this period, he stepped away from his original Jersey Shore/New York Street Poet persona and started writing songs about a broader and less bohemian working-class experience. Musically the E Street Band's R&B roll subsided and the harder rock came to the fore, with flashes of country music thrown in. These albums coincided with a period of harsh deindustrialization and economic hardship as well as the rise of Reaganomics, which would leave those struggling to drown. These records are some of the best documents of that dark time.


Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978)

Springsteen had to take a three-year break between albums due to legal issues with his former manager. Back in the 70s, when artists put out a new album every year, this was an eternity. The album cover told the story of a changed man. On Born to Run's cover, Springsteen is all smiles and swagger as he leans on Clarence Clemons. On the cover of this album he looks sad and haunted, standing in what I remember to be a typical working-class kitchen of the late 70s. 

This is a top three Springsteen album for me, and I have written about it more extensively before. This time around, hearing it in the context of his early career, I was struck by a new emotion in his songs: anger. "Adam Raised a Cain," about his difficult relationship with his father, is absolutely seething. Springsteen's new musical direction, with shorter songs and simpler arrangements, also reflected the changing musical landscape of punk and New Wave, including its spikiness. This is clear right off the bat with the album opener, "Badlands," not to mention that he wrote "Because the Night" in this era for Patti Smith.

In Stayin' Alive, Jefferson Cowie's account of the working class in the 1970s, he writes far more brilliantly than I can of how this album reflected the travails of blue-collar workers and a sense that hard-fought economic security from the New Deal and postwar expansion was fading away. "Factory" shows that even when times are good and jobs are plentiful, that factory work ultimately eats the soul. The unbearable weight of daily life is also present in "Racing in the Street," a song that makes me cry almost every time I hear it. What happens if you try so hard to avoid the trap of birth-school-work-death and still fail? 

"Promised Land" and "Prove It All Night" offer some hints of optimism, but there is desperation in these songs' characters. It ends with the title track, a song that will resonate deeply with anyone who has ever felt trapped in an isolated small town. You can drive out to the edge of town, but all you will see is darkness. 

As I mentioned last time, Springsteen's magic is to embody those feelings of longing so intense that they make us crazy. He does this multiple times on this record: "Badlands," "Candy's Room," "Racing in the Street," "Promised Land," "Prove It All Night," "Streets of Fire," and "Darkness on the Edge of Town." Take this album and cut the pain from my heart. 

Rating: Five Bosses (out of five)

The River (1980)

I will fully admit that this is the "classic" Springsteen album I have listened to the least over the years, even though the title track is a top five Springsteen song. Part of the issue is that I tend to shy away from double albums, since even the best (like the White Album) have filler. In this case there are a handful of songs too indistinguishable to justify the long running time. 

Make no mistake, it's still really damn good. The more prominent keyboards and tighter sound reflect how Springsteen adapted to new wave, bridging musical eras in ways so many of his peers never could. He also used the double album format to blend different vibes together. There are plenty of songs of woe and desperation, like "The River" and "Wreck on the Highway," but they are mixed in with little moments of joy. When times get tough, sometimes you cry but most of the time you try to laugh. The country influence, especially on "Drive All Night," might be deeper here than on any of his albums until the recent Western Skies

He also had a top ten hit with "Hungry Heart," a funny, bright song with an undercurrent of danger apparent from the opening lines: "Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack/ I went out for a ride and I never went back." The glowing piano and chorus hide the character's desperation pretty effectively. That feel-good vibe really shines in "I'm a Rocker" and "Cadillac Ranch," too. It's not an album I like to listen to front to back, but most of the songs are great.

Rating: Four and a half Bosses

Nebraska (1982)

I have also written a lot about this one elsewhere, and I am going to try my best not to start gushing here. This is one of the all-time great left turns in rock history. After gaining fame for his big fun three-hour concerts where everyone looks like they are having the time of their lives (just check out this performance of "Rosalita"), Springsteen did an acoustic album about the hard times of the Reagan era full of songs about murder, loss, inequality, and hopelessness. Evidently, a lot of these were written and recorded around the same time he was working on the Born in the USA album, which would present a very different image to the world. 

I have listened to this album a million times, but hearing it right after The River really helped me see the depth of Springsteen's statement. There are no love songs here, unless you count "Highway Patrolmen" as an example of brotherly love under the harshest circumstances. The open road of "Born to Run," full of adventure and life, has become the claustrophobic, violent and dark space of "State Trooper." The boardwalk and fun at the Jersey Shore has become "Atlantic City," where the song's narrator has "debts no honest man can pay" in the famed seaside town.

Along with the murder ballads of the title track and "Johnny 99," there are songs about the pain of growing up poor and "less than" like "Used Cars" and "Mansion on the Hill." There's "My Father's House," a tenderly despondent song about the regret that comes from broken family relationships. It all ends with "Reason to Believe" a song for the existential philosopher in all of us. In the verses, Springsteen tells us that this world is cruel and senseless, with no rewards for the just and the good. Nevertheless, the chorus tells us, with tremendous bitter irony, that "At the end of every hard-earned day people find some reason to believe." That is either inspiring or pathetic, depending on where you stand. 

This album doesn't just stand as a document of horrible economic transition of the Reagan Era, it speaks to the human condition in ways normally suited for theologians, poets, and philosophers, rather than rock stars. Of all Springsteen's albums, this will be the one that will be listened to the longest. 

Rating: Five Bosses