Black and White
I’ll start this post with Roy Orbison, though it isn't really about him. On 30 September 1987, along with contemporary luminaries Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, kd lang, Bonnie Raitt, and Elvis’s TCB Band, Orbison gave a concert to a select crowd of celebrity fans and well-wishers at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles. It would be broadcast early in the new year as Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night, and it was indeed shot in black and white. I remember it well, not least because my Dad was quite a fan of the ‘Big O’ and I’m pretty sure I would have watched the concert with my folks when it was broadcast in the UK, when I was home from university. Most of the songs are now on YouTube and look, and sound, wonderful, Orbison’s voice at age 51 as powerful and smooth as in his prime. And what a prime that was: from 1961 to 1965 he had hit after hit after hit in the UK and the US, culminating in ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’, his most famous number, which spent 18 weeks on the UK chart, sold over a million singles in the US and was a global hit. It was also pretty much his last; with the growing dominance of beat groups, Orbison’s star waned rapidly and by the 1970s he could hardly sell a record. It wasn’t until the late 1980s, with A Black and White Night, and his involvement in the Travelling Wilburys (and a Jeff Lynne-produced album, Mystery Girl that posthumously hit no.2 on the UK album charts and no.5 in the US in 1989) that his career was belatedly revived.
Watching A Black and White Night now, it’s interesting to see how such a seemingly shy, unimposing figure as Orbison completely dominates the proceedings. Cutways to Springsteen often see him noodling fitfully on his guitar or gazing awe-struck at Orbison’s singing; only on ‘Dream Baby’ and ‘Pretty Woman’ does he come forward to share the stage. Costello is similarly limited to strumming a jumbo acoustic, though he’s given a harmonica-solo spot in one song. The year before, with pretty much the same TCB band, Costello had cut King of America (for me, his most enduring album); in 1987, Springsteen had eschewed the E Street Band to release Tunnel of Love, and on the front of that album, Springsteen himself is in black and white: black jacket and trousers, white shirt and bootlace tie, his hair brushed back in something like a quiff, anticipating the late 50s/ early 60s look and feel of A Black and White Night. While Costello had styled himself as ‘L.H.C’ (the ‘Little Hands of Concrete’, so-named because he broke lots of strings while thrashing away at his guitar) on King of America, Springsteen is a very gifted guitarist himself and duels with James Burton on an extended ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’. His self-deprecation is rather located in his awareness of the limitations of his voice (in stark contrast to that of Orbison): in his recent autobiography, Born to Run, Springsteen notes that he never had that much of a pure voice, he was more of a shouter, but what he did have was durability: he could sing for three hours a night, every night.
I went back to A Black and White Night because I’d just finished Springsteen’s book, and last year I’d read Costello’s Unfaithful Music and Invisible Ink which, I’m afraid, sealed a rather negative deal: I’d fallen out of love with Costello’s music in the preceding years and the persona he presented in the book I didn't like much either. The covers of both books are also in black and white. On Born to Run, a photo by Frank Stefanko, possibbly from the session that produced the Darkness on the Edge of Town cover in 1978 (and that of The River in 1980), with Bruce propped up against a muscle car on a wintry suburban street; on Unfaithful Music, Costello laying on a hotel bed, also around 1978, his Fender Jaguar wired up to a portable Vox amp, one arm cocked behind his head. Both images present a kind of restlessness, the male singer/guitarist still but coiled in energy, brain whirring, expression blank. And both books present a pretty unvarnished picture of a largely unpleasant masculinity: selfish, sexist, aggressive, surrounded by fellow fucked-up males, who blow off steam in a variety of morally dubious ways. Such is rock and roll, at least in the 70s, I guess. But in lots of ways the books are quite different. As I read Unfaithful Music, I began to feel that Costello’s (post-)punk ‘rebelliousness’ masked a deep longing for acceptance and validation by not only his peers, but also established older musicians who were highly successful in their own areas. So Costello wrote and played with McCartney in the late 80s; then with Burt Bacharach; then with Allan Toussaint; and with Tony Bennett. In the back half of the book I got a bit bored with the name-dropping, having got a bit bored with his self-presentation beforehand: ‘when I was cruel’ (the name of a later album) seemed to be the theme of his personal relations, from wives and girlfriends to band members to journalists. This leads to the most notorious moment in Costello’s career, which dominates the entire book (though he dismisses it, having said that he apologised for it ad nauseum before and anyway, he was drunk and fucked-up): when he called Ray Charles an offensively racist word.
Now, I don't think Costello has to apologise once again for this incident. He’s done so many times and I can only imagine that he feels genuine remorse and horror at its recollection. In fact, his 1980 album, Get Happy!!!, can be seen as a soul/ r’n’b tribute album from songs to packaging (and I love it: it’s one of his best) that is a musical mea culpa. But what you don't get in Unfaithful Music is the question I wanted him to ask himself, the question I’d ask if anyone I knew (or God forbid, myself) said such a horrendous thing: why, if you’re a good man, if you’re not racist (and his works suggest that he isn't), if you’re ‘not like that’, why would you say it? I’ve been drunk and angry many times but have never said something like that. Why did he? Being drunk, or provoked, or ‘cruel’, isn't really enough of an answer. And that, for me, left a gaping hole in the middle of the book. In the end, it seemed that Costello couldn't really look that moment in the face.
Springsteen doesn't spare himself, but he has no such moment to answer. There is his divorce from Julia Phillips in the late 1980s, of course, and his relationship with Patty Scialfa which dominates Tunnel of Love (and which makes it my favourite album of his, in all its lovely melancholy and hurt): Springsteen is pretty scathing about his behaviour, though unapologetic about falling in love with Scialfa (a marriage that endures). In fact, he’s pretty scathing about himself throughout, a result, one might think, of his later recourse to therapy. (That’s much more present, I think, in some of his responses to Marc Maron in the recent long interview.) It’s also a result of his relationship to his Dad, the other dominant theme of Tunnel of Love, a difficult man and father who was later diagnosed with mental illness. Springsteen also suffers from depression, and lost a number of years in his early 60s – just a few years ago – to the illness; he’s forthright about that, and about his struggles with his ambivalent feelings towards his father.
But where Costello’s immersion in, and love for, black music is mediated through this unhealed wound, for Springsteen ‘rock and soul’ is precisely the raison d’être of his music and the E Street Band. That’s why Clarence Clemons, the ‘Big Man’, looms so large in the book, literally, and his loss (and part-replacement in the ‘family’ by nephew Jake) is a moment of necessary coming to terms in the book, for Springsteen and the band as old fellas who rock. Right at the end of the story, when they’re thinking about who might replace the Big Man on tour, Springsteen chats about it with his friend and sparring partner Steve van Zandt (Little Steven). ‘Steve on Jake: “He’s black. He plays the saxophone. His name is Clemons. He’s the guy! He’s the only guy!” Steve dismissed the other candidates as … white’. The racial politics of the E Street Band are central throughout: Springsteen thought, he knew, they had to have an African-American man at the core of the band. (It’s Clemons and Springsteen, of course, on the iconic cover of Born to Run, the 1975 breakthrough album.) While Springsteen is only too aware that most of his audience was and remains white – he mentions towards the end that, playing for Obama, the predominance of black faces in the audience was for him an unusual and thrilling development – he is concerned to assert that without black music, without soul and blues and r’n’b and even pop, there would be no Springsteen, and no E Street Band.
So: A Black and White Night, recorded in 1987, the year Springsteen needed to move away from the band and record with other musicians; he wouldn't release another E Street Band album until 2002’s The Rising, another kind of reckoning. And watching it again, even though they’re playing Orbison’s songs, which were produced out of doo-wop and rock’n’roll and r’n’b and Elvis Presley (rather than Elvis Costello, though they do play one of his compositions, ‘The Comedians’), all suffused with black music, the performers are white. Tom Waits, kd lang, Bonnie Raitt, Elvis’s TCB Band, Jackson Browne, Costello, Springsteen, Orbison: a black and white night indeed.