A rich man in a poor man's shirt (Springsteen part 2)

In 1984, Bruce Springsteen released Born in the USA, which broke him as a major star in Britain. I’ve never been a particular fan of the title song, nor of ‘Dancing in the Dark’, and the latter seemed to anticipate a wider shift in the charts to an American pop and AOR that I had no love for. Two of my formative music shows of the early 1980s, The Tube and Whistle Test, both eclectic and with regular live performances, were soon to be cancelled, the latter in favour of a horrid Jonathan King confection called No Limits, full of pap. I remember hearing people on the radio who had been to Springsteen’s live shows and were wowed, but the rhetoric of ‘the Boss’ put me off. That is, until I heard ‘I’m on Fire’ on Top of the Pops, when it showed a couple of minutes of the video as it became a minor hit. And I thought: this is subtle, especially compared to the bombast of ‘Born in the USA’; I liked the dark persona, the spare instrumentation of ticking rim- shots and picked guitar. And I thought: I’m going to have to reconsider Springsteen if he’s capable of this.

My friend Ed, throughout the mid- to late-1980s, embarked on a series of compilation tapes that largely reflecting his love of 1970s hard rock and metal, but there was also a strong thread of Americana, particularly in his love for Tom Petty. Ed bought the Springsteen Live 1975-85 box set, and quite a few songs made it onto the tapes, which were played incessantly in another friend’s Ford Cortina. He also bought Tunnel of Love, and we went to see Springsteen at Villa Park when we were both at university. I enjoyed it, but thought the stage set and the patter with Clarence Clemons a bit cornball, to be honest. In retrospect, not having much of a grasp on Springsteen’s back catalogue was also a bit of a handicap for a three-hour concert. And so, yes, enjoyable, but it wasn’t what I was really into. And then Springsteen didn’t release another album for five years.

Human Touch, one of the two albums he released on the same day in 1992, is considered to be one of Springsteen’s worst albums, if not the worst. Reviews I’ve read cite its inconsequentiality, and compare it unfavourably to the higher-rated Lucky Town.  But I’ve always quite liked it. It’s got one of my favourite tracks, ‘With Every Wish’, on it; the title track is good; and while there are some slightly run-of-the-mill tracks, it’s fine. But, critics say, there’s a song about television, for goodness’ sake! ’57 Channels’ is cited as a sign of the failure of inspiration, and a marker of the throwaway nature of the album. And yes, it’s light-hearted, but the way he sings ‘I bought a bourgeois house in Hollywood hills/ with a trunk load of thousand dollar bills’, as ‘boo-jwah’, is kind of self-reflexive, a moment of revelation: Springsteen and Patty Scialfa had just moved to LA, and he was well aware of the accusations against him. These charges (‘what do you have in your defence, son?’) are to do with Springsteen’s blue-collar persona, the worst thing that can be said of someone invested in a politics of authenticity: that he’s a sell-out.

Springsteen knew it. On ‘Better Days’, the first track on Lucky Town, he sings 

a life of leisure
and a pirate’s treasure
don’t make much for tragedy 
It's a sad man, my friend, 
who's living in his own skin 
and can't stand the company

and the both this and the line ‘a rich man in a poor man’s shirt’ is a kind of self-indictment. (Springsteen quotes both lines in his autobiography.) But, of course, Springsteen is a rich man: the question is, what do you sing about once you’re a superstar celebrity? The rock catalogue is littered with albums by artists who write about the trappings of fame because there's nothing else left to write about. Neither Human Touch nor Lucky Town finds the answer, but it’s not surprising that Springsteen had broken up the E Street band in the late 1980s, had largely made these albums and Tunnel of Love without them. By the 1992 albums, he’s searching for something to sing about, and a style in which to perform. He wouldn’t begin to find an answer until The Ghost of Tom Joad, where he recuperates the musical tradition of political dissent: folk music. (What would become The Seeger Sessions were begun a little bit after.)  Springsteen has said the 1992 albums were not popular because they were ‘happy’, but I see them as deeply anxious works, Springsteen fretting that he had indeed sold out.

All of which is in deep contrast to the album that precedes them, Tunnel of Love.  This is my favourite Springsteen album of all (and the last to be sequenced with ‘sides’, before the dominance of the cd), full of wonderful songs and, of course, a rather heartbreaking thread of melancholic reflection on broken relationships. This is an album that makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, and that makes me cry: when Janey takes her baby son to the riverside, thinking to lay him in and ‘let the river roll on’, before she ‘lifted him up and carried him home’,  on ‘Spare Parts’; on ‘Cautious Man’,  when Bill Horton ‘woke from a terrible dream, calling his wife’s name/  she lay breathing beside him in a peaceful sleep, a thousand miles away’; or in ‘Walk like a Man’, which begins ‘I remember how rough your hand felt in mine/ on my wedding day’, where it’s the feelings of sons for fathers, loving but ambivalent feelings, coloured by sense of loss or not matching up to one’s sense of oneself, that is crucial. (He is much more explicit about this in the autobiography.) 

On ‘One Step Up’, he sings: ‘when I look at myself I don’t see/ the man I wanted to be’, and that sense of disappointment with oneself, that somewhere the persona ‘slipped off track’, is a keynote for the album as a whole. It’s also a marker for where Springsteen was in his career: with huge albums and huge tours behind him, a global superstar mis-quoted by his own President (the autobiography is pretty scathing about Reagan’s nods toward ‘Born in the USA’), he’s deeply troubled and unhappy. In a sense, Springsteen ‘slips off track’ for about 10 years. Taking off again is no solution; like Bill Horton, when he gets to the highway, ‘he didn't find nothing but road’.

Despite my continued lack of enthusiasm for the two big hits from Born in the USA, the rest of that album reflects a more sadly romantic, sometimes melancholic, outlook than one might suspect from its popular reception in the mid-80s. ‘Downbound Train’ is another track that makes the hair stand on my neck, for similar reasons to the Tunnel of Love material: it’s about loss, and hopelessness, and little lives. This is typical of the Springsteen mode, of course, prior to Born in the USA, particularly on albums such as Darkness At The Edge Of Town (1978). In some ways, it’s the dance-band arrangements of the Born in the USA tracks – some, like the title song, originally worked out on acoustic guitar in the manner of Nebraska (1982) – that give it its energetic, even optimistic sheen, one that runs counter to the melancholy of some of the lyrics.

The difference between the sparseness of Tunnel of Love or Devils and Dust (2005) and the widescreen, E Street band arrangements of Born in the USA or The Rising (2002) is stark.  Much as The Rising is an excellent album, rousing and anthemic, I tend to prefer the subtlety and quietness of the solo albums (although many feature regular band members in small roles, of course). Devils and Dust, for instance, a parched Western album, finds Springsteen in a rather twangy, country voice, and on ‘Reno’ sings sexually explicit lyrics that will be out of place on a more mainstream, rock album.

I sometimes feel that there is a conservatism about the E Street arrangements which can, at worst, give the albums somewhat over-familiar feel, and reveals (rather than helps to mask) any deficiencies in the songwriting. Magic (2007), for instance, is very much like The Rising in tone: ‘Girls in Their Summer Clothes’, the most anthemic pop track on Magic, reprises The Rising’s memorable melodies and singalong dynamics, but with a sunnier outlook than that of the post-9/11 ‘uplift’ album. 

Since Springsteen reconvened the E Street Band for The Rising, it does sometimes feel as though he’s going over well-travelled ground. This might have something to do with how he records these days, too: he lays down tracks while touring, rather than spending weeks or months holed up (as with The River) getting a particular and different sound. The E Street Band are, of course, a marvellous live proposition – check out the extemporised covers they do on YouTube – but latterly, Springsteen’s albums are both a bit homogenous in sound (you can't really tell what album a track might be from, the way you can with Darkness or The River or Born in the USA) and lack in coherence and consistency as an album, a set of songs. When Tom Morello comes aboard for High Hopes (2014), this gives the guitar work a different sound and style, but the overall arrangements aren't that different to what came before. In a sense, Springsteen is where he was before he broke up the band; but now he’s in his 60s, and more comfortable with what the E Street Band provide.

Working on a Dream (2009) is a diagnostic text for my sense of Springsteen’s career ever since Born in USA: the mastery of Heartland Americana, of big rock dynamics, remains in tension with a desire or need to do different, to find another style, another voice. This speaks to restlessness that I find quite attractive and winning, and is something that Springsteen returns to again and again in his autobiography. If Human Touch is accounted Springsteen’s worst album, for me, Working On A Dream is a bigger failure; I didn’t listen to it much when I first got it, and having giving it a few plays more recently I first thought that the vocal tracks were sometimes ill-matched with the music, and though this feeling has faded a bit, the diversity of styles make it difficult to get a handle on. Thinking about it, Working On A Dream works best as Springsteen’s homage to the 1960s: ‘My Lucky Day’ is British- invasion beat combo stuff; ‘Good Eye’ is heavy psychedelic blues; ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ (note the title!) is Dylan sings Glen Campbell; ‘Surprise, Surprise’ pure 60s pop. The arrangements are lush with a surprising use of strings and notes to Brian Wilson vocal harmonies. But it tends to end up as pastiche, a kind of musical tourism. He returns here to the old to find something new, and it doesn't quite work.

Springsteen hasn’t settled for remaking Born in the USA over and over, as he could have done, even in the later albums with the E Street Band (Wrecking Ball is probably my favourite of those). Just has he has become more vocal about economic injustice and class politics (as well as blue-collar lives), what the autobiography reveals is a deliberate turning away from interiority and domesticity towards the social and communal. For an individualist ‘born to run’ like Springsteen, who presents himself as someone in need of being in control, in need of the road and the new challenge, but who has drawn a tight-knit ‘family’ of musicians around himself, the tensions are self-evident. ‘I hope when I get old I don’t sit around thinking about it’, he sang on ‘Glory Days’, ‘but I probably will’.  Not yet - and for that I’m grateful, and I admire him for it.


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