Who is this artist, Bruce Springsteen? How should his work be judged, and what's to be made of it? The final stretch of 2014 brought legacy releases from him and others that may make finding answers to these questions more interesting, if not necessarily any easier, given the nature of the musicians at hand, the sounds they've produced, and the roles they've played in culture.
The comparisons Springsteen faces have frequently been to Bob Dylan. This was and still is misguided. The newly definitive edition of The Basement Tapes, casual fragments bracketed on both ends by Dylan's most compelling work, shows this in spades. Once surreptitiously bootlegged as The Great White Wonder and always heard as a spiritual embodiment of colloquial American tradition, nothing else near the genres upon which these bootlegs riff on even come close to it. (Unless, of course, one goes straight to the source, and that's of another matter entirely.) Dylan is indisputably first after those who had truly come first, and the transformation he underwent through a gnostic wrangle with musical logic, with the Band at his side and on equal footing, is as tangled as it gets. Fitting given their apocryphal legend, The Basement Tapes are Alpha and Omega, covering all that between. Dylan might recognize the word for this middle ground as ehmet. What he experienced there and returned with irrevocably changed him, and there's a profound message to be heard in The Basement Tapes if one is willing to listen.
Springsteen has always been more Catholic in his tastes, once finding a motherlode of inspiration in homegrown garage mayhem, shlocky monster-mash dramaturgy, and mock-heroic teen anthems, the latter being the music of his youth heard on the radio. Accordingly, his primary sources were openly mercantile rather than strictly vernacular, and this is where he and Dylan have always differed in applying the ethos common to their trade as song-and-dance men. It's a pivotal point that's nearly lost today, where artists roll in the hay with software companies and coyly cock-block digital streaming services to better position their product, and is therefore almost impossible to make. To Springsteen's everlasting credit, there was an infectious joy found in his love for those nearly forgotten tunes that his willful earnestness could never quite efface. It's rarely heard in the artist's late work, shackled as it is to broadly generic themes like "dreams" and "hope" that unduly circumscribe the expressive options upon which he may draw, where a fustian kind of therapeutic holy activism gamely masquerades as spectacular arena rock.
Was it always like this? Given the immense shadow Dylan cast, it was nigh impossible to strip the hype from Springteen's earliest recorded efforts and gauge the music on its merits unless, as lore attests, one caught him live. With Springsteen, this is where the essential was always glimpsed. Given his impeccable showmanship and the milieu from which it sprung, today it may abruptly dawn on any discerning listener that Springsteen's closest peer is and has always been another undisputed master of dazzling stagecraft: David Bowie.
If this comparison once seemed counterintuitive, by now it should be quite clear. The two have always warily admired one another from a distance, since their first meeting at Sigma Studio in Philadelphia, where Bowie was laying down the limey R&B pulp that would become Young Americans. Following on the heels of the release of Dylan's complete Basement sessions in 2014, December 2014 retrospective sets from both Springsteen and Bowie further elucidate their affinities. The two are unquestionably among the greatest heirs to Dylan's achievement, yet for their strong similarities Springsteen ultimately differs from Bowie in subtly crucial ways that are performative, affective, and ultimately symbolic.
Bowie reflects on fifty years of artistry with his new career compilation, Nothing Has Changed, a slyly formatted three-version offering which includes various remixes along with bonus tracks. Each of the three editions of the album highlight the glamourous snarl, plastic soul, and remorseless chill that have always animated his gambit as the quintessential postmodern Übermensch. One of the set's three sleeves portrays him before his dressing mirror as an elegantly tailored beneficiary of the Third Way, reserved, self-possessed, perhaps bemused, and with an unsettling blind spot predominant behind the artist's flawlessly combed head. It's a fatally honest portrait, and utterly disarming in its putative sincerity, something of which Springsteen knows much.
Unlike that of Ziggy, the Thin White Duke, or the Man Who Fell to Earth, the Springsteen artifice hasn't been built upon avant-garde role play or the tempering of immaculately forged technique into tenebrously enigmatic cunning, the cynically winking ruse, the wryly knowing conceit. All signs point to quite the opposite. Nonetheless, Springsteen's 42-year run has been as blocked as a Sunday matinee, presenting a figure of authenticity upon which the perception of his constructed persona as humble, hardworking Everyman has always depended.
Do insinuations of Machiavellian influence lurk behind the proscenium of this production? Since Springsteen's heralded breakthrough in 1975 they have and do, but those objections don't much pertain to the machinations of simply getting things done, the de facto dogma of neoliberalism, the economic regime under which the Springsteen outfit has earned its keep. This past year alone, the famiglia known in fan circles as Bruce Inc did its job well, and reaped more wheat than there is in Kansas. Indeed, take these words to heart: pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Springsteen himself has admonished his admirers as much of late. This said, there's likely no better chronicle of deskilling and its social ravages than the one he'll leave to a nation decimated by the sleight of hand endemic to those policies.
So where is focus directed? Towards the figure in the world? Towards the artist's status in society? Or towards the blunt facticity of the art? The art forms the foundation upon which a legacy rests, and how a reputation will one day be judged. The art and its magic, which is the significant, meaningful part, must bear this kind of scrutiny. Spectatorship and posterity guarantee this, something of which Bowie has always had a brilliant grasp and which Dylan understood long before anyone else had a glimmer of avowal. Yet in Springsteen's case, cardinal discrepancies have shaped the work from the beginning, complicating its form, its reception, and most tellingly, its meaning.
Springsteen's new box set presents his first seven remastered LPs in the starkest terms possible. Bruce Springsteen: The Album Collection: Vol 1, 1973-1984 offers no alternatives or embellishment to its content, and appears assembled with the intention of dispelling any lingering skepticism about the artist's current place while obliquely assessing his future. In this sense, and against all logic, it doesn't look back.
This volume rightly frames Springsteen during his classic period as a principled artist who increasingly spoke only when he had something to say, in terms that were fiercely his own and not easily lent to others. This was the self-professed samurai code which informed the isolation of Darkness on the Edge of Town and the promise that it held, but the peak of this mindset came with the bleeding emotional candor on display at "The Night for Veterans" in 1981, with Springsteen and the E Street Band on tour in support of The River.
While the premise behind the show was of negligible risk following the box office victories of Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter and Hal Ashby's Coming Home, that bonafide gesture of empathetic solidarity from a critically lauded cult figure shared with those still thanklessly cast as a nation's pariahs laid the foundation for the visionary lo-fi pathos of Nebraska, and for the massive commercial coup of Born in the USA. The boldly calculated moves of those two successive LPs by an artist in complete command of his metier eventually left an iconic Springsteen, by the wrap of his red, white, and blue blockbuster USA tour, arguably the second-biggest pop star in the world, precariously untethered from both his life and his art, and by his own weary description: "Bruced out".
The structural underpinnings of this identity crisis were to be found in the '70s, but it took ten years for them to fully surface before being promptly elided by the artist's tremendous, sudden celebrity. The seven albums of this Album Collection, taken as a whole, thus mask a conflict Springsteen labored mightily to resolve as he sought a mature voice. When signed to Columbia by John Hammond, Springsteen was a preternaturally gifted beach bum, and perhaps the most driven raw genius to ever pick up a guitar, one whose terrific ambition away from his natural home on the boards often threatened to swamp his alienated monomania in the studio. In disingenuously accepting to oversee the career of a scruffy solo act who also played killer music with a pesky hangdog band, Rolling Stone critic and Born to Run co-producer Jon Landau recognized a mercenary opportunity to further his interests by stoking the narcissistic insecurities of a provincial autodidact. In the process, he took the artist under his learned wing, flattering Springsteen into believing that big was important, important was serious, and serious was scarce.
Without doubt, by 1978 it was the newly appointed manager's imperative to impress upon his client that it was him, Springsteen, above all, that was most important. Given time, the columns didn't lie, yet they obscured a deeper reality far from a solely statistical truth: Springsteen was absolutely incomparable and at his unabashed best fronting the indispensable group he led. This fact that has never really come through on his records, even as a celebrated slew of pirated live leads one to question why that is the case. Eventually, the strategy Landau devised to promote Springsteen as a uniquely worthy musician of individual knack ultimately splintered what may have been the best act to ever simply plug in and play. This served the artist badly in the creative long term, when admittedly wanting it all quickly became scarcely enough.
The serious problem with that desire and the means available to fulfill it is that there's always more to be had. Perhaps it's easy to blame the pernicious influence of another '80s phenomenon, MTV, and the undue pressure the network exerted on artists to hew to its formula. The MTV model is one that leveraged a distinctly fabricated style in its capricious arbitration of taste, with novelty exponentially factoring the rewards promised. If this somehow looks like two steps sideways around the '50s scandal of payola, with those involved at each level equally complicit, then in hindsight it's certain that for all of Springsteen's winning charisma and dogged intensity, he wasn't particularly well-suited for the short-form promotional video.
The MTV music video format served to polish a one-dimensional image of the artist dimly held in the mainstream imagination to this day, casting Springsteen as a corporate character always "playing Springsteen" in some fashion from that moment forward, with the distilled complexities of his band adroitly blended into a smoothly synthetic brand. This may be where Springsteen handily matched Bowie, and perhaps even bested him at his own game by enacting a critique that doubled the thing being critiqued.
To wit, the Boss, always a dubious moniker which Springsteen himself allegedly hated, chose at that professionally challenging juncture in 1984 to become completely inauthentic, ostensibly in order to be seen as, well, "authentic". If expressive of the zeitgeist, with actor Ronald Reagan in the White House and attempts to co-opt Springsteen's visibility for political gain the depressing norm, there was a hefty price to be paid for this manufactured mass appeal. Something vital of his art, the pure E Street profile, the lightning in the bottle, was exchanged for wider recognition. It was exactly this dilemma that pushed long-time consigliere, guitarist and co-producer Steven Van Zandt, into the street on the eve of the band's biggest payday, and into a grass-roots global activism. Always deeply self-directed, and apropos of this paradox, Springsteen later asked with faux-messianic aplomb, why cross the desert and not climb the mountain? Following its client, Bruce Inc. ascended beyond the management of a mere rock and roll star into the more rarefied air seemingly beyond both art and politics.
That rhetorical question Springsteen posed about what he'd once quipped was his "vocation" shouldn't pass without comment in any assessment of the artist's career. At the very least, it's one freighted with the Elvis Presley obsessions that have preoccupied him and entertainers like Dylan and Bowie for the bulk of their creative lives. Springsteen couldn't imagine anyone not wanting to be Presley. While fantastically rich but not quite the King, what became increasingly dicey for Bruce Inc following Springsteen's superstar close-up was that their client held an uncontested spot atop an industry heap soon set to crumble. Since releasing the introspective masterpiece Tunnel of Love in 1987, an album strangely deemed outside the purview of this survey despite containing his most devastating writing, Springsteen has incessantly gambled with his ability to conjure any convincingly original territory between the expansive and the intimate. This is where one finds the dynamic tension, or as the purported "New Dylan" manqué put it early on, the recklessly defiant affirmation of sheer blinding fun, that even in its bleakest moments has always animated his triumphantly best work, where better days always seemed to beckon.
In 2014, by taking a long view and presenting these seven albums as the initial volume in a presumed series, Springsteen plays it forward by offering possibilities to hear them afresh. It's pressing we do so, and they couldn't have arrived sooner. As much as could be said for all Vol. 1 has to recommend it, the music Springsteen made in those eleven years, and this is but a slight fraction he's chosen to release over his storied run, has kept a fragile secret close to the author's vest. While deeply nostalgic, these LPs reckon with a time when the present hadn't yet slipped into the past, and a wild diversity of sounds coexisted as one very big sound, perhaps one of the biggest ever made by humankind in its history.
Addressing the relationship of popularity to populism, or more accurately, that of the common to the communal, in both personal and political terms, have always been at the core of Springsteen's concerns. With this in mind, these are fundamentally records of voices, his and those of countless others, with the music designed in its stunningly magnificent complexity to rival the great hits of the mythic '60s. If Springsteen has any regret, it may only be he made it to the party a bit late, but this is unlikely. The sounds he's made are unforgettable. Written with an unwavering commitment, sung with a stylish assurance, and performed almost to a fault with a shit-hot band, Springsteen's best songs here are brashly celebratory yet rife with restless dread, haunted by specters which have stalked this land since its birth and with whom we each must find our peace.
The album most evocative of that intuition, The River, cuts a great sonic swath through the set, carrying its metaphors forward in the grand sweeping arc of tradition founded by the ancients, making it impossible to be heard the same way twice. There's a prescience in the wisdom of this gift that's beyond compare, which is how this music deserves to be heard, at its most profoundly elemental and its most ecstatic, beside ourselves and out of our heads, where the everyday turns round and begins to fade away before us -- just so, but not quite yet.
A new archival series of concert recordings aims to rectify live albums long overlooked by a casual audience. One of the first to garner attention, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band: The Agora Cleveland 1978, is a remastered set selected from a legendary tour rightly cherished by hardcore followers. Superlatives aside, this is a historic performance, not the least due to the clubby "you are there" quality that comes across in its hearing even today.
Artist: Bruce Springsteen
Album: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band: The Agora Cleveland 1978
US Release Date: 2014-12-24
UK Release Date: 2014-12-24
Frequently bootlegged for years, the date is part of a holy trinity of bang-up Cleveland moment, the first being Alan Freed's "Moondog Corporation Ball", universally recognized as the world's first rock 'n' roll concert, with the second being the infamous "Beer Night" riot at the old Municipal Stadium, where Texas Rangers manager Billy Martin grabbed a fungo bat and went mano-a-mano against a few thousand fractious Tribe fans. Conceived as an exultant one-off, Springsteen's appearance at Hank LoConti's legendary venue uncannily reflected the attitude of the city at that specific juncture, before working-class aspirations went completely to shit and the Disneyfication of the post-industrial landscape commenced apace. No private party: No Bobby, no Jack, no Marty, no Warren in the house, no one but a fervent crowd of unruly blue-collar fans packed into a local bar with a blistering group headlining.
The cymbal splash and cracking snare, the tambourine, and the chugging slapback riff of "Summertime Blues" announced the just intentions of an act enamored of their calling, with nothing to lose and mercilessly willing to prove it. The band and its audience were nearly out of control by the encores -- "Willoughby sucks!". The original radio broadcast was three hours of sweat and muscle and thunder and lightning, utter delirium going out over the airwaves to three million souls, thanks to the Kid and WMMS. While not exactly a dangerous gig, the potential for chaos among what was then still Springsteen's familiar cohort is what distinguishes this performance as unique.
That August evening on the cusp of autumn was when the artist sensed all wasn't right with the Republic, and the wheels began coming off his imagination of the American carnivalesque, with those present sharing in his desperation and his fury. The fourth wall seriously buckled, as with punk, yet there was a magic in that night that made this show special. One doesn't just hear it. Given a close listen, it can actually be felt, not just in the music, but also in its reception.
What exactly is that "it"? Can't say for sure, but The Agora, Cleveland 1978 is mysteriously righteous in ways unlike any show of its time, or any other since.
For another examination of The Album Collection Vol. 1, see Sean Murphy's "A Portrait of the Boss as a Young Man".