Tag Archives: Bruce Springsteen

Remembering The Man in Black

I missed the anniversary of his death a few days back, but it’s still hard to believe that Johnny Cash died eight years ago. A year or so before he died I watched the video for “Hurt” with some friends in college. “He’s going to die soon,” Someone said. Everyone was silent. He had said what everybody else was thinking, but no one wanted to acknowledge. We were possibly witnessing what could very well be Johnny Cash’s final moment on screen.

About a decade earlier, when I was in middle school I got my first introduction to Johnny Cash. I was watching a music special on PBS with my parents. The announcer said the performer’s name was “Johnny Cash” to a loud applause. I laughed a little bit at the thought. That can’t possibly be that dude’s name, I thought. When Cash actually appeared on screen, he was totally different than anything I was expecting. There was something commanding about him. The look in his eyes exuded a certain coolness.  Slinging his guitar across his shoulder, he launched into “A Boy Named Sue”.  To say, I had never heard anything like it would be an under-statement. It had everything – revenge, a misunderstood kid and a sense of humor.

I borrowed a collection of Cash’s greatest hits from my brother. Musically, it was different than anything I was listening to at the time. I did not want to listen to anything remotely associated with country. Billy Ray Cyrus and Garth Brooks were still huge at the time. I would never admit to any of my classmates, but I secretly liked it. There was an element of danger in Cash’s lyrics. He took a shot of cocaine? Damn, this guy is out of his mind. And then he shot his woman down? 

Thanks to Rick Rubin’s American series, by the time I got to college it was cool to like Johnny Cash again. Several of the American albums were constantly played in the background as parties winded down. The stripped down covers brought out the best in Cash’s aged voice and sometimes even bettered the original – “Personal Jesus” being a perfect example.

The night after he died, I went to see Bruce Springsteen in DC. When we running a bit late, but as we climbed the stairwell we could hear Springsteen open up the show with a solo rendition of “I Walk the Line”. It was a beautiful arrangement, and a poignant moment. Springsteen’s voice seemed to ache as he sang the words. “I Walk the Line” was transformed from a declaration of love to a goodbye.

It seems that in the eight years since his death, Cash’s popularity has only increased. He was of the few American musicians whose influence and adoration reaches across generations and genres. Country artists love him as much as hip-hop artists. The photograph of Cash with his middle finger in the air, face snarling has become such a popular t-shirt image that it has almost replaced the Ramones logo shirt in popularity.  It’s also obligatory for people to say they like all kinds of music but country  – “except for Johnny Cash”.  Even my mother likes Johnny Cash – which is totally surprising.

Certainly Cash’s outlaw image has played a significant part in this popularity so. His infamous “Reno” line has become something of the musical equivalent of Scarface. But more than that, Johnny Cash represents a certain defiance with an every-day attitude. Playing for prison in-mates wasn’t just an act of going against conventional wisdom, but one of solidarity.

And that, I think is the real reason people love Johnny Cash so much. You never got the idea that he was faking it.

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RIP Clarence Clemons

Rest in peace, Big Man.

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Revisiting Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising”

Since it’s getting warmer out, it’s the perfect time to listen to Bruce Springsteen.  For me, he’s always been one of the quintessential “summer artists”.  He’s the guy you go to when you’re driving around with the windows down, thinking about the possibilities of the open road.  Listening to Born to Run, simply taking off not only seems romantic, but feels like it could be your destiny.

So last week I put on the usual Springsteen albums, taking in the warm weather – Born to Run, Greetings from Ashbury Park New Jersey, E-Street Shuffle, and the Hammersmith Odeon Show in particular.  While I enjoy his newer albums, I tend to gravitate towards his older music. For whatever reason, sometime last week, I reached for The Rising, which I admit I haven’t listened to in a good few years.

And at first, I listened to it casually.  Production-wise I think it’s one of his best sounding albums.  There’s a warmth and comfort to it, musically.  As I listened to it, I found myself enjoying it more than I ever have.  Perhaps I never really gave it a listen, I thought.  This seemed odd considering I’ve listened to it dozens of times over the year.  And then it hit me, that maybe I had subconsciously started listening to it, as a result of the biggest news story of the past few years.

The Rising was an album only Springsteen could write and make.  Like thousands of others in the New York/New Jersey area, Springsteen saw first-hand the devastation.  As New Jersey’s Favorite Son, it makes sense that he would be the one to put these feelings into a record. It’s an Rising filled with confusion, loss, sadness, and most of all hope.  Springsteen has always had a penchant for creating seemingly real characters out of fictional ones.  On The Rising he composites real stories of the heros and lost loved ones of 9/11.

The Rising provided a comfort for many people when they couldn’t make sense of the world around them.  And like the best Springsteen records underneath the sadness, he also tells us that it’s okay to continue on.  There might be darkness on the edge of town, but the American people are resilient, and that’s at the heart of The Rising.  Even so, when Springsteen invites us to Mary’s Place for a party, he asks: “how do we get this thing started?”  He doesn’t know.  He’s just sending out the invitations.  It’s up to us to follow and be united.

Listening to it now is entirely different beast though.  At the time of its release it guided us through tough times.  Now it’s a reminder of the way things were in the first few years after the attacks.  For some , now there’s a sense of closure in what happened on May 1st/2nd, but the turmoil still remains. We’re still waiting for a sunny day and counting on a miracle, even if the clouds have lifted a little bit.

The Rising offers a view of unity that hasn’t been felt for some time.  Everybody dealt with tragedy in their own way, but there was a sense of solidarity.  It’s present in the music – not just the lyrics.  Springsteen may have considered reuniting The E-Street Band for an album (they got back together for a tour in 2000) before he wrote these songs, but the very idea he bought back the members he fired an severed ties with a decade before got back together also speaks volumes.  The E-Street Band was back and the old feeling were gone.  There was work to be done, and stories to be told – and it could only be told through the power of a family.

After listening to it again, with a bit of perspective, I’ll rank The Rising up with the best of Springsteen’s albums.  It may not have changed the face of rock and roll in the way that his earlier records did.  There’s no romanticism, just real-life.  And sometimes, that’s just as good, if not better.

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Dear Artist: I’ve broken up with you. Please Don’t Cry

NPR has a pretty funny feature on breaking up with your favorite band.  When you become obsessed with an artist, it’s inevitable that at a certain point you might shake your head and wonder what the hell they’re doing.  Here’s a short list of artist I’ve broken up with.

The Killers

 The Killers started out like a great hook-up that keeps going – their songs were fun, and they seemed to be ready for a good time whenever you wanted it.  Then they discovered Bruce Springsteen, and like many hook-ups that last too long – got serious.  They made the Springsteen-esque  “Sam’s Town”, an album which is easily the most hubristic album of the 2000s.

The Strokes


Despite my inclusion of The Strokes in the 10 Greatest Artist of the Last Decade, The Strokes and I had a pretty bitter break-up.  Is This It was loud, brash, and exciting.  They cared so much about not caring, that in the end, nobody cared.

Kings of Leon


The worst offenders on this list.  As I’ve mentioned many times on this blog, I discovered Kings of Leon around 2005 or 2004, and they were the illegitimate children of the Stooges and The Allman Brothers.  The music had a country-twang, but was played at breakneck speed.  And then like The Killers, they too, got serious and needed somebody.  In a few short years they went from sounding like no one, to sounding like everybody else.

Lady Gaga


 Gaga’s antics didn’t really bother me until she decided to call herself a spokesman of a generation (or something like that).  You can’t declare yourself to be the spokesman for people or a group – they have to decide for you.  Even Madonna had a sense of humor – something Gaga should think about lifting as well.

What artists have you broken up with?

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Looking Back At Oscar’s Best Original Songs

Since this Sunday is Oscar night, I’d thought I’d take a look back at a few “original songs” that have been nominated (or won) for an Oscar.  (As I’m looking through the list, I am shocked that nothing from Simon & Garfunkel’s soundtrack to The Graduate was nominated.  As Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers has been saying lately, “Damn you Oscar!”)

Bruce Springsteen – “The Streets of Philadelphia” (Philadelphia, 1993)

I would have picked “The Wrestler”, but shockingly it was not nominated for Best Original Song.  (Damn you Oscar, again!)  Streets of Philadelphia does some quality lyrics from Springsteen: “I heard the voices of friends vanished and gone” that captures the image of a man wandering around the streets desolate and alone.  However, musically I find it to be pretty bland – it sounds like Springsteen just discovered a drum-machine.

Elliot Smith – “Miss Misery” (Good Will Hunting, 1997)

If there are any other reasons for hating “My Heart Will Go On” other than the fact it’s trite and soul-less, it’s Smith losing “Best Original Song” to it and Celine Dion.  A heartbreaking song from Elliot Smith (who wrote quite a few of those) about a break-up.  Trying to come to terms with it, he asks the girl whether she actually does miss him, or in fact lying to herself.  He tells her that he “keeps a good attitude”, but meanwhile drowns his sorrows with Johnny Walker Red.  Without a doubt, Smith’s best known song and though it’s the “popular one”, it’s among his best.

Bob Dylan – “Things Have Changed” (Wonder Boys, 2000)

“I’ve been trying to get as far away from myself as I can,” Dylan declares half-way though this song.  A good portion of this song is extremely cynical – “I used to care, but things have changed”, “All the truth in the world adds to one big lie”.  But there’s also some humor beneath the cynicism – “I’m well dressed, waiting on the last train”, and the image of Dylan dressing in drag and then later picking up a woman and pushing her around in a wheel-burrow is hilarious.  Overall, in contrast to his younger self, Dylan tries to convince himself that it’s easier not to worry about the problems of the world.

Eminem – “Lose Yourself” (8 Mile, 2002)

When this song came out, who knew that Eminem could write a song that was inspiring and positive?  While Eminem has plenty of good songs, this is the closes thing he came to perfection. The intro is one of the most famous pieces of music from the past decade, and a hook that is triumphant and catchy.  He starts out nervous: “His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy, there’s vomit on his sweater already”. As the song gains momentum, he gains confidence and realizes this is life or death: “Success is my only motherfucking option, failure’s not”.   While the song will always be linked to 8 Mile, it took on a new meaning when it was used in the Chrysler commerical earlier this year.

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5 Rarity/Unreleased Collections

Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series 1-3


The Basement Tapes had already proved that Dylan had a tendency to leave some of his best material in the vaults – which I’m not including because I could write an entire post on the subject.  This is certainly true on this first installment of his famous Bootleg Series. “She’s Your Lover Now”, “Talking John Birch Society Blues” rank among with some of his work from the 1960s.  Elsewhere, “Blind Willie McTell“, “Foot of Pride”, and “Series of Dreams”  show that no one could write a song like Dylan, despite decent but not earth-shattering albums such as Infidels and Oh Mercy. But for me, the real revelations comes from alternate versions of familiar songs.   The original version of “Tangled Up in Blue” opens up like a novel becomes even more poignant and devastating than the original.  “Idiot Wind” loses some of its bite from the scathing version found on Blood on the Tracks, but the sting is worse.  Dylan seemed more wounded here than the possessed.  “If Not For You” gets some extra help from George Harrison – who would later take this arrangement for his own cover of the song on All Things Must Pass. Many artists would kill to have songs Dylan just seems to leave on the cutting-floor.  And this isn’t even my favorite installment of the Bootleg Series – that would go to Volume 8 – Tell Tale Signs.

The WhoOdds & Sods


I admit to not having listened to Odds & Sods in a few years until the other day since I’ve come out of my Who-phase.  This was one of the first of these collections that I bought.  In high school, I was obsessed with The Who – they’re the perfect soundtrack for teenage angst.  The original material is interesting and worthwhile for Who fanatics.  The kid’s story of “Little Billy” is a  anti-smoking ditty with some of Keith Moon’s best drumming.  The Lifehouse center-piece “Pure and Easy” has border-line pretentious existentialist lyrics, which is saved bv the music which contains some of the Who’s best 1970s harmonies and a pretty awesome fade-out.  But the real highlight of the set comes from the early R&B covers including frenzied versions of “Baby Don’t You Do It” and “Leaving Here”.  With these versions The Who rightfully secure their infamous “maximum R&B” tag.

Bruce Springsteen – The Promise


I don’t have Tracks, so I can’t comment on that particular set.  But The Promise, unlike a lot of similar collections is a full-realized work albeit in different ways then its spawn, Darkness on the Edge of Town.  While there is some of the bleakness on The Promise (particularly the title track) many of the songs show Springsteen’s affection for early rock and roll and pop songs from the 1960s.  The backing vocals on “Gotta Get That Feeing” recall some of the early Phil Spector singles.  “Wrong of the Side Street” is rocking fun in the best possible E-Street Band way.  The inclusion of Springsteen’s version of “Fire” and “Because the Night” are a nice addition, but Patti Smith’s version of the latter remains the definitive version.  What is most interesting about The Promise though is that Springsteen ditched some of his most accessible work here in favor of the more challenging songs found on Darkness. What would his stature be like if he had released some of these songs between Born to Run and Darkness?  It’s hard to say.

Pearl Jam – Lost Dogs


Lost Dogs is a collection that won’t bring any converts to Pearl Jam.  But it does contain some stellar material that showcases Pearl Jam taking on a wide variety of styles thats not always apparent on their proper albums.  The Howard Zinn inspired “Down” is one of their catchiest songs.  “Alone” is Ten-style rocker that should have replaced “Deep”.  Surprisingly for Pearl Jam there are a lot of songs that are pure fun.  Guitarist Stone Gossard takes lead vocals for the crunchy rocker “Don’t Gimme No Lip” which has very few words outside of the title.  “Whale Song” contains some cool guitar effects to recreate the sound of whale calls.  And then there’s “Dirty Frank” a ridiculous ode to one of their bus drivers.

R.E.M. – Dead Letter Office


By no means a great collection and Peter Buck admits as much in the liner notes.  But I have a soft spot for this collection since it was one of the first ones of these I owned and it introduced me to the Velvet Underground with three covers – “Femme Fatale”, “There She Goes Again” and “Pale Blue Eyes“.   Like Lost Dogs, R.E.M. show their playful side here with the surf inspired “White Tornado”, and the hilarious “Seven Chinese Brothers” alternate take, “Voice Of Herald” which finds Michael Stipe singing lyrics off of an old Christian LP.  A must!  Worth having because the CD version contains their first LP Chronic Town.

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Lady Gaga’s Battle With Sincerity

When Lady Gaga took the stage for her acceptance speech on Sunday night at the Grammys, I was shocked at how sincere she was.  It was almost painful.  Tears were flowing.  She talked about how she imagined Whitney Houston singing her new song “Born This Way”.  Even Bruce Springsteen and Bono (two of rock’s most sincerest performers) have showed some humor when accepting awards.  And even Madonna, who Gaga models herself after – “Born this Way” is a re-write of Madonna’s “Express Yourself” – never gave a performance like that.

Most of Gaga’s previous songs I enjoyed because I always got the sense that there was some sense of irony in her performances.  There’s no way you could take songs like “Pokerface” and “Bad Romance” at face value. That seemed to be part of the appeal.  Unlike a lot of other pop that has been coming out of the airwaves, Gaga seemed intent on being mysterious.  Every interview I’ve ever read with her though, the opposite is true.

But on Sunday night, when Gaga accepted her award, her demeanor was more like a country-artist.  She had to let everyone that she was “thankful” and that everything that she does is for her fans aka the “little monsters”.  Despite her outward appearances and masks, the real Gaga is just a little girl looking for acceptance.

This sincerity is why “Born This Way” might be Gaga’s worst song, even over the tepid but hilarious “Boys Boys Boys” off of The Fame. It’s already been called a “gay anthem” and Gaga herself make claim that she is writing this for the outcasts everywhere, but its clearly about her own anthem for acceptance. Outward it seems as if she’s telling everybody it’s ok to be slightly freaky and different, but the reality is Gaga seems a bit insecure and “Born This Way” is her way of reaffirming herself to society.  Gaga has also claimed that she wrote the song “in 10 fucking minutes”, which sounds nice on paper, but the lyrics seem too forced for it to be written in such a fashion.  She clearly thought everything through several times.

Lady Gaga seems to be caught between two worlds: the post-modern kitschy trash of her wardrobe and stage antics, and the open heart of her real personality. She can’t have it both ways.  She desperately wants to be cool, and she was definitely not “born that way”.

 

 

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