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

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Summer of Springsteen Part One: Jersey Shore Boardwalk Poet

For my birthday this year I bought tickets to see Bruce Springsteen play here in Jersey at MetLife stadium on Labor Day weekend. I normally avoid stadium shows, but the Boss is near and dear to my heart and I have yet to see him perform. To prepare, I decided to listen to all of his albums in order and write about them. (I did the same for Bob Dylan a couple of years ago.)

Each post in this series will group his album into periods since it’s one of my favorite historiographical hobbies. Plus, why should Taylor Swift have all the eras fun? (Both artists like to play three hour sets, had conflicts with their management, and have had struggles with depression, so they are not so far apart as you'd think.)


Springsteen had been playing music in the Jersey Shore scene for a long time before his first album. His stories of this world are some of my favorite parts of his memoir, especially Danny Federici constantly running out of gigs so cops couldn’t serve warrants on him. He even fronted a heavy rock band called Steel Mill that sounds far different than the Boss we know. He also tried and failed to go West and join the San Francisco scene. If you listen to “He’s Guilty” you can tell that Springsteen could have had a career as a guitar hero for hire if he had never made it big on his own.

Instead of going to Haight-Asbury, he stuck to Asbuty Park, which made an immense difference. The Shore is its own unique place, and in the 1970s it was on the skids. Highway travel and a more affluent society meant more people could travel to Florida and other points instead of the shore beaches. The Shore became a haven for young people, but also for a rougher, less tourist-friendly culture. Asbury Park itself was impacted by rioting rooted in deindustrialization and racism. It was a place for working-class bohemians, not the usual hippie crowds. As always in Jersey, New York City lurked just over the horizon, the center of the world pulling with immense gravity. It too was on hard times in the 70s, a place like the Shore that sat outside of the dominant suburban culture.

Springsteen’s first three albums are embedded both in the grimy counterculture of the boardwalk and in the streets of 70s New York. His next periods would try to speak to working-class America writ large, but these records are some of the best evocations of a specific time and place put to wax.

Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. (1973)

When Springsteen finally broke out of the Shore bars and small NYC clubs with this major label release, he was billed as one of many “New Dylans.” The early 70s was the apex of the singer-songwriter and the record labels were always searching for new ones. This album suffers a bit because deep down, Springsteen loves the old-time rock and roll and its heavy R&B bedrock. Here he is in folk singer with a guitar mode but with Vini Lopez’s drums and Clarence Clemons’ sax hinting at a raucous rock and roll potential.

Despite the arrangements not being what they should, Springsteen makes a strong debut. “Blinded By The Light” kicks things off brilliantly with a youthful energy that’s still infectious today. That spirit remains throughout the album's scenes of the Shore and the streets of New York. The latter brings a harrowing story of killing, in "Lost in the Flood," a precursor to Springsteen's later ballads of despair. Despite songs like this and "Mary Queen of Arkansas," Springsteen returns to exuberance on "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City," a fine album closer.

Rating: Four Bosses (out of five)

The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle (1973)

Here Springsteen gets the rollicking E Street Band sound missing from his debut. It's his last album with Vini Lopez on drums and David Sansious on keys in the E Street Band, and the best glimpse of what Springsteen must have sounded like playing some Shore bar on a hot July night. It's also the most Shore of any of his albums. "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" is his true Jersey Shore anthem, referencing specific places that still stand in Asbury Park. It pretty directly addresses the Shore's decline, the feeling that it is a place that time has left behind. You can hear the narrator wondering if he needs to get out, which I think was on Springsteen's mind at the time, too. 

Despite that brooding, the album also contains "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)," a burst of true joy that never fails to put a smile on my face. While Springsteen's career struggled at this point, the song's narrator can barely contain his happiness over getting a record deal. 

This album is probably Springsteen's most overlooked of his early career, but it rewards listening. The longer and more complex songs also hint at the great leap forward he's about to take. 

Rating: Four and a Half Bosses

Born to Run (1975)

This is where it famously all came together. Springsteen spent months perfecting the title track and ended up on the covers of Time and Newsweek, touted as the "savior" of rock and roll. It was quite a turn of events for the kind of guy who was a "critic's artist" after his first two records. 

It is still sounds like nothing else, a unique musical monument. I have heard it so many times, but it still staggers me every time. While the character in "Sandy" wondered if he still belonged on the Shore, the narrator of the album opener "Thunder Road" knows that he is "pulling out of here to win." When I moved from Texas and quit academia to live in New Jersey with my wife, it was the song I cranked from my car as I put that town in the rearview mirror. 

That moment in my life tested me, and Springsteen passed his own test with this one. It literally saved his career and made him a star. The Shore could no longer hold him. That's the theme of "Thunder Road" as well as "Born to Run": the need to escape the crushing circumstances of daily life. Having grown up in a small town I longed to leave, these songs still send a chill down my spine. Springsteen became a star with this album because he tapped into people's need for the fun of rock and roll that had been lost in the turgid arena rock of the era, and because he spoke to the kind of longings in our hearts that get heated up to the point of emotional insanity. 

Beyond that, "Backstreets" and "Jungleland" are operatic in the best sense, and "She's The One" rides a Bo Diddley beat harder and better than anyone has other than Bo himself. The Jersey Shore Poet shot for the sky and made it, something those of us hiding on the backstreets can find hope in. 

Rating: Five Bosses

Monday, August 7, 2023

Wall of Voodoo, "Mexican Radio" (Track of the Week)

Every now and then I have to hand it to TikTok and YouTube because it will promote old songs I like in ways that my kids can appreciate. Just the other day, one of my daughters was singing the chorus to "Mexican Radio" and I was both delighted and puzzled. My daughters usually turn their noses up at my music, but if they encounter it on their own, they dig it. 

"Mexican Radio" was a rarity, a weird underground song that somehow managed to hit the mainstream in the benighted 80s, an era of conformity without an internet safety valve. When I first heard it, I thought it was a joke, with the keyboards reminiscent of a ranchera accordion sound and the spliced in dialogue from a Spanish-language broadcast. Since then, I have found the song's deeper meaning.

At base, it's a song about the unknowability of other cultures. Mexico is not far from LA, and you can pick up its radio stations, but they sound like broadcasts from another planet if you don't know Spanish. You are confronted with the uncanny feeling that the world is a big place and that what you know of it is actually pretty small. Anyone who has traveled abroad by themselves knows this sensation. You find yourself in a whole other world where people literally do not speak your language. It's disorienting in the extreme, a "riddle" as the song goes. 

There are a lot of headlines about social studies education being under attack, but I have witnessed a more silent strike in education against learning foreign languages. Schools and universities across the country are closing their language programs, and students seem less interested in learning about them. That's a shame for so many reasons, not least because if language shapes our reality, learning new a language allows you to live in a different reality. The alternative is to be like the song's narrator, intrigued, but unable to comprehend the world next door. 

Saturday, August 5, 2023

Notes on a Trip to Small-Town America

 I haven't been posting due to being on the road. I went on a cross-country journey to my Nebraska homeland, where we wrapped in a trip with my parents to the Black Hills. I wrote about it in a Substack post that I am pretty proud of, and would like you all to take a look. I used my own hometown to discuss the realities of these places, not the mythical versions we encounter in pop culture.

I muse a lot about politics, and I will offer an insight here that I did not include in the original article due to its growing length. While I was there, I noticed that Wal-Mart was one of the few crowded public places. I also noticed how so many people had a worldview shaped by Fox News, and I see a connection. Small-town America used to be much more varied and diverse. Small towns in different regions could be wildly different from each other. While each town is different, national institutions like Wal-Mart and Fox have created a kind of national small-town culture. This new culture has replaced the small-c conservatism of my town with the usual MAGA stuff. That terrible Jason Aldean song speaks to the self-narrative of this newly nation-wide small-town culture. 

As I write about in my piece, however, there's a lot more than this going on in my hometown. Give it a read!