Springsteen, The River, And The Mixed Legacy Of Pop Music

bruce_springsteen_tiesSo, I’ve been listening, on Spotify, to the just-released box set of Bruce Springsteen‘s 1980 double studio album The River, titled The Ties That Bind: The River Collection, which includes the remastered original album, the shorter single album version that was almost released instead of the double album, a bunch of outtakes, and…

…it’s really a mixed bag.

There is undeniable explosive energy in many of these songs, some of the lyrics are as good as anything Springsteen wrote before or since, and the musicianship is solid, the product of indisputable talent.

And yet…

The most persistent impression I got as I listened was that Springsteen was reaching for a sound reminiscent of early Rock & Roll from the 1950s, with a touch of Phil Spector’s early 1960s Wall of Sound studio approach, and I think it’s important to note that Rock & Roll, during that period, still had one foot in the often cheesy pop music that it grew out of.

There are two elements, in particular, that stand out to me, one related to the studio production, and the other to specific instruments.

First, the studio production, the most pervasive element, affecting every single song on the record. The best way I can describe it is that the album sounds incredibly thin, even on a good sound system or using good headphones, as if it was playing on those cheap metal speakers they had at old drive-in movies.

And while it may have seemed like a clever homage at the time, it gets old real fast, and it feels inexcusable, given that Springsteen had the very best studios and engineers at his disposal. I found myself wanting less reverb and a lusher mix, with the mids and trebles tamed and the low-mids and bass enhanced.

Second, the single most-noticeable instrumental element that stands out is the way keyboards are used on this album. Not THAT they are used, but HOW they are used, which is to say that they, unfortunately most of the time, DOMINATE and therefore detract.

This is also a tragedy of the studio process, as it turns out, because if you check out on YouTube some of the awesome footage from The River tour, you can hear that, onstage, the keyboards are WAY less forward in the mix, and the guitars and the bass, fortunately, stand out, giving the songs more bottom end and an edgier power, as opposed to the bubble gum sheen that the keyboards gave to the same songs on the album.

There’s no better example of this than the song Ramrod.

Here’s the cheesy studio version:

And here’s a live version from the tour:

If Springsteen released a live album from The River tour that had all of the songs from The River on it … well … I’m not saying it would be as great as his first four albums, but it would sound like it belonged in their ranks.

SO many of my favorite rock musicians were inspired by early Rock & Roll and give credit where credit is due, to artists who blazed a new trail.

But, there is a reason why that early Rock & Roll music sounded SO much better, to me at least, when played by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who and other British Invasion bands, and it’s because they either reduced or left out entirely the cheesy pop elements and they rocked the shit out of the songs.

Video Fridays: Happy 50th Birthday, Highway 61 Revisited!

highway61This is quite the week for masterpiece Rock & Roll album anniversaries!

Tuesday, as I mentioned in that day’s post, was the 40th anniversary of Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run.

And this coming Sunday, August 30th, is the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan‘s Highway 61 Revisited.

Both albums blew me away when I first heard them, and both remain deeply embedded in my psyche and soul. It could be said that Born To Run propelled me out of New Jersey, even while I was still living there, and Highway 61 Revisited provided a route along which I’d eventually encounter the many mysteries and contradictions, the grandeur and grotesquerie, the heroes and villains of America.

As with my Born To Run post on Tuesday, I could go on and on about how much I love Bob Dylan, and Highway 61 Revisited in particular; how every time I hear that snare drum crack kickoff to Like A Rolling Stone I get chills, seriously, I do; or how Dylan’s voice on this record, no matter how cryptic the lyrics might seem, sounds to me like the purest, most honest, uncompromising, risk-taking voice in music history; or how, to me, Dylan’s choice to, with this album, fully commit to electric Rock & Roll music, despite the backlash from folk music purists, was one of the bravest artistic commitments in music history; but I don’t think I could really do Highway 61 Revisited justice anywhere near as well as Rob Sheffield does in an article at RollingStone.com today.

It’s an inspired piece of writing, a true homage, laced with deftly placed lyric references, fully capturing the depth and majesty of Dylan’s masterpiece.

I mean, check out this small sample:

It’s an album that begins with a warning to pawn your diamond ring and save your dimes and keep track of all the people you fucked over yesterday, because they’re the same people you’ll be begging for hand-outs tomorrow. But it’s also an album that ends with a man signing off a letter telling you that he’s seen too much depravity in the city to read any more of your letters from home. (“When you asked how I was doing, was that some kind of joke?”) The album begins by laughing at a stuck-up young kid who never thought she’d wind up on Desolation Row; it ends with a no-longer-young kid who’s given up hope he’ll ever get out. The album begins by mourning all the two-bit friends you met in the big city who ripped you off for drugs and sex and money, the “beautiful strangers” who turned out to be Not Your Friends; the album ends by cheerfully promising that you can’t go back home to your old friends or family either.


Of course, a post about a classic Rock & Roll album wouldn’t be complete without some actual music, so here’s a precious jewel of a video clip, the Highway 61 Revisited title track performed with The Band, four years and a day after the album’s release, at the legendary 1969 Isle of Wight Festival, and in classic Dylan fashion, with a totally different arrangement than the original, and a gloriously gritty and raucous arrangement it is.

Enjoy, and Happy Weekend, everyone!

Happy Born To Run 40th Anniversary Day!

Born-to-RunForty years ago today, Bruce Springsteen‘s third album, Born To Run, was released, an epic masterpiece born of desperation.

As a piece out today at The Week recounts, Columbia Records had given Bruce one last chance to make it, and the intensity of what was at stake for him can be viscerally felt in the opening lines of the first song recorded for the album, the eventual title track:

In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream
At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines
Sprung from cages out on highway 9
Chrome-wheeled, fuel-injected and steppin’ out over the line
Baby this town rips the bones from your back
It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap
We gotta get out while we’re young
`Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run

I could go on and on about my love for Springsteen and Born To Run in particular, but, the thing is, I’ve already done so, in June 2011, on the occasion of the sad loss of E-Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons.

And so, here’s that post in it’s entirety:

When I learned on Saturday of the passing of Clarence “Big Man” Clemons, the great saxophonist with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, I was filled with deep sadness.

As I wrote in November 2010:

You can’t grow up in New Jersey, like I did, when I did, and not have a strong connection to Bruce Springsteen. Oh, you might not be the biggest fan, you might even hate the guy and his music, but he’s a New Jersey icon, the airwaves were saturated with him, and in the summer before I entered high school, Carol Miller, a DJ at WPLJ in New York City, waged a campaign to make Springsteen’s Born To Run the official state song of New Jersey.

Born To Run was one of the very first albums I ever owned, and I can, without doubt or second guessing, credit that record for having inspired in me a deep passion for music, to the point where music became as important to me as food, water, even air. Springsteen’s songs were my window on the real world outside my fake suburban wasteland of a hometown; a world full of terrible and beautiful things, scary things, adventurous things, romantic things, tragic things.

And Clarence, well, his tenor sax was like the icing on the cake of one of the greatest bands in Rock & Roll history. Guitar-centric groups were a dime a dozen, but the E Street Band had its own direct connection to John Coltrane and Dexter Gordon and Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins; Clarence evoked the deep New York City Jazz and Rhythm & Blues traditions.

And you know, the warmth of the friendship between Bruce and The Big Man — a friendship made mythic by the wonderfully embellished stories of their meeting, stories that Bruce would tell with drama and humor during concerts — modeled for me interracial harmony without ever framing it as such, as it should be, as if it is the most natural thing in the world for a white man and a black man to be close.

When another longtime E Street Band member, keyboardist Danny Federici, died three years ago, it was sad, and it took a while to accept that Springsteen had to replace him and carry on.

And yet it is nearly impossible to imagine an E Street Band without Clarence.

Whether Bruce will keep the band together, reinvent it, or form an all-new band remains to be seen. In the meantime, it feels like the only fitting way to end this post is with Springsteen’s touching public statement on the loss of his friend, and a video of a song that contains Clarence’s most notable solo, a nearly 3-minute, achingly beautiful melody in the operatic closer to Born To Run: Jungleland.

Clarence lived a wonderful life. He carried within him a love of people that made them love him. He created a wondrous and extended family. He loved the saxophone, loved our fans and gave everything he had every night he stepped on stage. His loss is immeasurable and we are honored and thankful to have known him and had the opportunity to stand beside him for nearly forty years. He was my great friend, my partner and with Clarence at my side, my band and I were able to tell a story far deeper than those simply contained in our music. His life, his memory, and his love will live on in that story and in our band.