At age 62, Bruce Springsteen is on tour, and the young bucks (or semi-young bucks) of today, including Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, are joining him on stage.
Good to see, and great to read a full-scale feature on Springsteen by the editor of The New Yorker (especially meaningful given how much space the mag has given of late to the corporatized hit-making machine of today, which can be depressing for those of us who value authenticity over flash/money).
Rock music has many fine songwriters, but Springsteen is without doubt the music's greatest storyteller. The stories he tells the crowd on stage evolve into his songs, until the singer becomes the man in the chorus. (Although the singer looks more muscular than the character -- his vulnerability is expressed in his lyrics, not in his look.) Still, no one embodies himself in his work more fully than Springsteen:
Remnick includes a story from Springsteen on stage in l976:
My mom, she was a secretary, and she worked downtown. . . . And my father, he worked a lot of different places. He worked in a rug mill for a while, he drove a cab for a while, and he was a guard down at the jail for a while. I can remember when he worked down there, he used to always come home real pissed off, drunk, sit in the kitchen. At night, nine o’clock, he used to shut off all the lights, every light in the house, and he used to get real pissed off if me or my sister turned any of them on. And he’d sit in the kitchen with a six-pack, a cigarette. . . .
He’d make me sit down at that table in the dark. In the wintertime, he used to turn on the gas stove and close all the doors, so it got real hot in there. And I remember just sitting in the dark. . . . No matter how long I sat there, I could never ever see his face. We’d start talking about nothing much, how I was doing. Pretty soon, he asked me what I thought I was doing with myself. And we’d always end up screaming at each other. My mother, she’d always end up running in from the front room crying, and trying to pull him off me, try to keep us from fighting with each other. . . . I’d always end up running out the back door and pulling away from him. Pulling away from him, running down the driveway screaming at him, telling him, telling him, telling him, how it was my life and I was going to do what I wanted to do.
You can hear this especially well in the central lyric in his underappreciated Downbound Train, from Born in the USA record (although actually written for Nebraska). A young band named Roadside Graves, invited to pay tribute to Springsteen, was asked to record Downbound Train. Their version, available via Aquarium Drunkard, is a little 80's for my taste, but lead singer Johnny Gleason wrote thoughtfully about the song (here slightly edited):
"I immediately knew I had to tinker with the lyrics a bit, the last verse has always bothered me because I couldn’t see the character working at a car wash and then swinging a “sledge hammer on a railroad gang”. I prefer leaving the character after the third verse, dreamlike running to his empty house."
Agreed, but Gleason did not change and could not improve the central verse. No one could:
Last night I heard your voice
You were crying, crying, you were so alone
You said your love had never died
You were waiting for me at home.
Put on my jacket, I ran through the woods
I ran till I thought my chest would explode
There in the clearing, beyond the highway
In the moonlight, our wedding house shone
I rushed through the yard, I burst through the front door
My head pounding hard, up the stairs I climbed
The room was dark, our bed was empty
Then I heard that long whistle whine
And I dropped to my knees, hung my head and cried...
And here's a typically strong live version, from July in Paris this year: