RETREAT, NO SURRENDER
By Jim Beviglia
May 22nd, 2010 at 10:11 AM
The Ultimate Springsteen Countdown is almost half over and there hasn’t been a Born in the U.S.A song yet. That changes in this edition (but how far down?) And does Max Weinberg or Teenage Tramps in Skintight Pants steal more of the spotlight from Bruce Springsteen.
And while Springsteen will never cut off your beer sales at a concert like Van Morrison, he was definitely influenced by the man. Learn more in songs 120-111.
Song 120: “Fade Away”
Album: The River
“Fade Away” gets a bit of a bad rap in the Springsteen mythology. It was chosen as the follow-up to Bruce’s first Top 10 hit, “Hungry Heart,” but it failed to reach those same lofty heights, petering out at No. 20 on the U.S. charts. Thus it is also blamed for the fact that The River wasn’t the breakthrough megahit that Springsteen’s supporters wanted it to be.
That’s a lot of weight to hang on one song, let alone a modest one like “Fade Away.” Granted, a tender ballad with Springsteen basically on his hands and knees trying to get back together with his girl might not have been a commercial sure thing. But that doesn’t mean the song wasn’t executed well.
Indeed, the straightforward lyrics show Bruce at his most direct, one of the first signs of a more common style that would serve him well in the years to come. And the music is lovely throughout, spearheaded by Danny Federici’s lonely organ, which expresses yearning and desperation maybe even better than the songwriter himself. When you add the soulful harmonies of Bruce and Little Steven, you’ve got a pretty solid package, top-to-bottom.
All of the negative stuff is just a case of the right song at the wrong time.
Song 119: “The E Street Shuffle”
Album: The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle
First of all, this song wins points for yielding one of Bruce’s all-time great character names: Power 13. It sounds like some obscure Math theorem, doesn’t it? What do you call the guy for short? Pow? Teenie? Do you think his Dad was Power Sr., had 12 other sons, and just did a George Foreman thing when naming them? These are the questions that keep me up at night.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, we can get down to the business of praising “The E Street Shuffle,” the opening salvo off The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, the Boss’ first true masterpiece. From the opening blast of horns, which betrayed a heavy Van Morrison influence, to the wild and woolly outro, it’s one of the band’s funkiest offerings, even 35 years down the road.
Springsteen’s fast-talking lyrics are marvels of interior rhyme and alliteration. Listen to this killer first line: “Sparks fly on E Street when the boy prophets walk it handsome and hot.” These hoodlums get into the same hijinks as some of the doomed souls of other Springsteen opuses, but the good-time music here makes it seem like there are little consequences for them to face.
Indeed, even as Bruce tells it like it is (“teenage tramps in skintight pants”), he finds the romance in the scene: “As the sweet summer nights turn into summer dreams.”
If there’s a negative for me, it’s that the wocka-wocka clavinet that stands out of the mix makes the song seem a tad dated, something you can’t say about much of the E Street Band catalog. We’d like to believe that “The E Street Shuffle” is a timeless dance that kids still do today. All you need is a little soul, a lot of time on your hands, and the indefatigable foolishness of youth.
Song 118: “Candy’s Room”
Album: Darkness on the Edge of Town
Springsteen plays the romantic underdog as well as anyone out there. Here he tells a tale as old as time, and certainly as old as rock and roll. Crooners have been trying to rise above penury to grab their girl away from a rich guy since the dawn of pop music. But Bruce has the E Street Band behind him, and that gives him an edge on the competition.
The band never wavers in the face of Springsteen’s high-tempo construction, as they milk every bit of drama from the situation. Max Weinberg obviously takes the spotlight here, starting things off with the tension-building high-hats before bursting into full sprint joined by his cohorts. Bruce himself tears off a searing guitar solo that rips through the edginess in thrilling catharsis.
The passionate descriptions of the lovers’ encounters are perfectly in sync with the powerful thrust of the music. The narrator knows that Candy is probably a dead end and that her rich suitors will only cause him trouble, but Springsteen’s genius is that he makes his argument so persuasive that you can understand the guy’s reckless pursuit. In that way, he takes one of the oldest song topics in the book and makes it new again.
Song 117: “I’m Goin’ Down”
Album: Born in the U.S.A.
Here we are, 83 songs into the countdown, and we’re making our first foray into the 1984 supersmash, Born in the U.S.A. You think Bruce was at the top of his game for that one or what?
“I’m Goin’ Down” was an unlikely Top 10 hit when it was released as a single in 1985, almost a year after the album’s release. Considering that the song can be considered a relative lark compared to some of the heavier material on the album, the chart success is a testament to both the momentum Springsteen had at that time and to the group’s recording experience of bringing out big things from little songs.
The bar-band swagger brought to Springsteen’s tale of sexual frustration is remarkable. It also helps to leaven what could have been an off-putting character; the guy comes off more like a sad-sack than a whiner, which is saying something if you just judged him based on the lyrics. Check out the little touches here and there which pull the song from the mundane, like the Latin lilt on the acoustic guitars at the start of the song to the vocals and hand-clap breakdown toward the end. This is a band, and an artist, that suddenly understood how to court the radio.
I’m sure a lot of people read some sexual innuendo into the oft-repeated chorus, and I don’t think Bruce would dissuade that reading, even though it’s probably reaching. After so many years of so many great songs going unheard by the public at large, you couldn’t begrudge Bruce pulling in listeners by any means necessary.
Song 116: “Long Walk Home”
In “My Hometown” in 1984, the song ends with a father putting his son on his lap and letting him steer around the streets of their town. It was right of passage his father had done with him, trying to imbue pride in the boy for his home even as the Dad was considering leaving the place. In a “Long Walk Home,” recorded by the same artist 23 years later, it’s easy to imagine that kid, now grown, as the narrator, estranged from all that he loves and unable to recognize the place that he once toured with his father.
The artist, of course, is Bruce Springsteen; This isn’t a Foghat countdown, after all.
“Long Walk Home” is a fascinating example of how Bruce begins with a personal tale of alienation and disillusionment and spins it outward to reveal a bigger picture that is just as bleak.
What begins with a man losing his love widens into a look at America in decline. The man doesn’t recognize the values he grew up with in the residents, now all “rank strangers.” And what’s even more disheartening is that he doesn’t recognize his country anymore, the country that once knew “who we are, what we’ll do, and what we won’t.” By including the opening with the man and woman coming apart, Springsteen effectively shows how the breaking of bonds at a one-to-one level contributes, on some small level, to the deterioration writ large.
The music is a bit generic; it’s like the heartland rock of contemporaries like Bob Seger or John Mellencamp, but there isn’t any bite. Only Clarence Clemons’ sax solo gets through, beautifully conveying both nostalgia for times gone past and sadness that the promise of that past has been broken time and again.
Song 115: “Local Hero”
Album: Lucky Town
Inspired by an actual occurrence in which he spotted a wall-hanging of himself in a local gift shop between those of “a Doberman and Bruce Lee,” Springsteen tackled his mid-life identity crisis head-on in this enjoyably lighthearted track off Lucky Town. It’s somewhat reminiscent of “Glory Days” in both its sing-along chorus and its preoccupation with former triumphs.
It must be a truly odd moment to see your younger self on display. It also must have been especially weird for Bruce considering that he saw the picture in Jersey at a time while he was living in L.A. (hence the shopkeeper’s reply, “He used to live here for a while.”) The rumored price of the picture by the way: $19.99. That’s how much heroes are valued if they’re a tad past their prime.
There’s nothing very memorable about the music save the uplifting melody. The pretty female backing vocals really help to buoy the choruses though, and Bruce’s lack of any vanity about the situation keeps the song a lot of fun all the way through. Only a guy as modest as Springsteen could be as successful as he is and still be surprised to be a collector’s item.
Song 114: “Darlington County”
Album: Born In The U.S.A.
When the first sound you hear is a cowbell, you know you’re in for one hell of a road trip. Written back in 1978, “Darlington County” wasn’t revived until the 1982 sessions that produced a large chunk of 1984’s Born In The U.S.A. (There will be a quiz on this later, and with Bruce’s crazy recording process, if you pass you immediately earn a Masters.)
Give credit to Jon Landau for exerting his influence and helping convince Springsteen that these kinds of good-timey songs deserved a place on the album right alongside the tougher stuff. The album might have still been great without them, but it wouldn’t have had the populist edge that made it such a smash and elevated The Boss to new heights.
“Darlington County” is in South Carolina, which means that the narrator and Wayne had a lot of time to get into trouble on their journey from New York City to find work and females more amenable to their advances. Of course, things don’t work out the way they planned. The narrator ends up deciding to leave Darlington for greener pastures, while Wayne ends up incarcerated as his former road-trip buddy leaves him behind.
It still sounds like they had a good time, though, thanks to the E Street Band’s amazing chemistry. From Bruce’s Southern-fried licks on guitar to Clarence doubling up the “sha-la-la” chorus with his booming sax, it’s a killer effort. “Darlington County” may not have been the right destination, but it’s the getting here that counts.
Song 113: “Mansion on the Hill”
Although they never made it to an album that way, you can imagine many of the songs on Nebraska being turned into full band performances. (Over the years, the band and Bruce have done just that to some of them in performance.) But it’s hard, for me anyway, to imagine “Mansion On The Hill” in anything but the stark, chill-inducing form of the original “Nebraska” recording.
Springsteen based the song on true-life trips he actually took with his dad. Of course, by the time he wrote the song, he was rich enough to be the one on the inside looking out, and to see the “steel gates that completely surround” being as confining to those inside as it was foreboding to those outside.
What makes the song is that Springsteen sings it reverently. Had he allowed irony or the hint of a sneer into his vocals it would have shattered the balance and distorted the reality of the situation. In the final verse, years have passed and the boy, now a man, still looks out at the mansion, still in awe. The boundaries remain unchanged.
“Mansion On The Hill” boasts one of the prettiest melodies on the album, and although it’s a bit of the same thing verse-to-verse lyrically, it almost has to be to convey the level of obsession this character has with the life he’ll never enjoy. Bruce may be playing it close to the vest vocally here, but his sad harmonica conveys all of the longing of those who remain forever in the valley in thrall of a life they can only admire from afar.
Song 112: “Nothing Man”
Album: The Rising
It might be the most harrowing song Bruce has ever released, and that state of despair doesn’t really reveal itself until the final lines. At first glance, it’s a tale about survivor’s guilt, but it doesn’t take much power of deduction to realize that the narrator is a 9/11 responder who was lucky enough to make it out alive. Although, considering the mood of the song, lucky doesn’t seem to be the right word.
After all, this is the tale of a man going through something to which no one could possibly relate, save the few who share his experience. (Hence, his repeated calls for his mate to “understand.”) As if she could.
What makes his predicament worse is the way he is hailed as a hero while carrying around this extreme burden of memory. The world outside stubbornly remains the same while his inner turmoil continues. Even the sky refuses to cooperate, hanging above him in “unbelievable blue.” What a perfect choice of words.
The last verse lays bare the pain so cleverly hidden by Bruce’s straight-faced vocal. When cornered at his local bar by a well-wisher offering thanks for his courage, he snaps back: “You want courage, I’ll show you courage you can understand/The pearl and silver restin’ on my night table/It’s just me lord, pray I’m able.”
The hope so prevalent in Springsteen’s work is absent here, momentarily shut out by the reality of the situation. It’s a chillingly honest portrayal.
The music is just for atmospheric background, and it was wise of Bruce not to pile on a sentimental melody. It’s very to-the-point, Max Weinberg’s rim shots breaking through the fog like a countdown to some unthinkable outcome. When Bruce allows his character some falsetto “sha-la-lys” at song’s end, it’s a well-deserved reverie. The other alternative, expressed by that last verse, is the ending few could possibly understand, nor would they want to.
Song 111: “She’s the One”
Album: Born to Run
OK, so they stole the groove from Bo Diddley. You could make a pretty great countdown of rock songs that have done the same.
The point is that the E Street Band play that groove with gusto and force that they just hadn’t shown at all on their first two albums. If there was any doubt that Bruce had locked into a great band lineup on Born to Run, “She’s the One” answers it decisively.
The thunder that they create is so powerful that it sounds like they’ve got about 20 members instead of the five that actually contribute to the track. Weinberg is fabulous again here, all touch and feel in the open and then crunch and boom for the rest. Roy Bittan is all over the place as well, both in the introspective opening verse and then finding open spaces to add flavor once the heavy guns kick in.
And Springsteen’s guitar-playing, always overlooked, is nothing short of incendiary.
All of that power helps to overcome one of the most trite standbys in the rock songwriter canon, the femme fatale who’s too hot to resist but too wild to keep.
Bruce pays her a bunch of back-handed compliments that may be eloquent but not too sympathetic. She doesn’t ever feel like a three-dimensional character; as rendered, she’s just a finely detailed cliché. But, then again, who cares about the lyrics when you’ve got such compelling rock and roll right in your face?