Bruce Springsteen’s new album and a keynote speech

I’ve been listening to Bruce Springsteen’s new album, Wrecking Ball, currently riding high in the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.  Some have compared it to his 1984 album, Born In The USA, in that both are ‘state of the nation’ collections.  Wrecking Ball‘s  dominant theme is the economic hardship being experienced in America after the banking crash.  Overall, I’ve been rather disappointed, though the album does contain three songs that rank among the very best that Springsteen has recorded, so perhaps I shouldn’t grouch.  However, despite Springsteen’s heart being in the right place politically with almost every song raging against the banks and the lives wasted by unemployment, musically too many tracks sound bombastic and synthesised, while the songs just aren’t as well-crafted as they once were.

The classic Springsteen songs have at their heart verses that tell compelling, personal stories of characters with whom we can empathise.  Around the verses Springsteen would build his inspiring choruses that expanded the personal vignettes with images or metaphors that made them universal. He once summed up the approach as ‘the verses are the blues, the chorus is the gospel’.

On Wrecking Ball the anthemic choruses have drowned out individual stories on most of the songs. The music is bombastic and Springsteen seems to shout the lines. A telling case in point is the song ‘Death To My Hometown’ which bears obvious similarities in its title to ‘My Hometown’ on Born In The USA. The latter song gained its strength by personalising  the theme of industrial and urban decline with a story that spanned two generations:

I was eight years old and running with a dime in my hand
Into the bus stop to pick up a paper for my old man
Id sit on his lap in that big old Buick and steer as we drove through town
Hed tousle my hair and say son take a good look around
This is your hometown …

Now main streets whitewashed windows and vacant stores
Seems like there aint nobody wants to come down here no more
They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they aint coming back to
Your hometown, your hometown, your hometown, your hometown

Last night me and Kate we laid in bed talking about getting out
Packing up our bags maybe heading south
Im thirty-five we got a boy of our own now
Last night I sat him up behind the wheel and said son take a good
Look around
This is your hometown …

But ‘Death to My Hometown’ just rants:

They destroyed our families’ factories and they took our homes
They left our bodies on the plains
The vultures picked our bones
So listen up, my Sonny boy
Be ready for when they come
For they’ll be returning sure as the rising sun
Now get yourself a song to sing and sing it ’til you’re done
Yeah, sing it hard and sing it well
Send the robber baron’s straight to hell
The greedy thieves that came around
And ate the flesh of everything they’ve found
Whose crimes have gone unpunished now
Walk the streets as free men now
And they brought death to our hometown, boys

Similarly, the opening track, ‘We Take Care Of Our Own,’ mirrors the title track of Born In The USA (and, although it’s actually a call for a more caring, inclusive nation, will probably have its politics misconstrued in the same way, due to its chorus of ‘Wherever this flag’s flown/We take care of our own‘).  But, unlike the 1984 song,  has no story to tell – it’s all chorus (and to a European ear its patriotism, even if it’s the patriotism of the common man, sounds disturbing).  All of this suggests that good politics doesn’t necessarily produce great songwriting.

If there’s a common theme to these songs, apart from the depredations of ‘the fat cats’ up ‘on bankers’ hill’, it’s the virtues of hard work and sweat: it would be interesting to count the number of times those two words crop up across the collection.

However, the last three songs on Wrecking Ball are much better, and redeem the earlier, rather indifferent tracks. ‘Rocky Ground’ is musically inspired, incorporating horns, a sample from an Alan Lomax field recording, and gospel singer Michelle Moore on both the chorus and a closing rap.  The lyrics are overtly religious, as Springsteen draws on his Catholic upbringing for inspiration:

Forty days and nights of rain have washed this land
Jesus said the money changers in this temple will not stand
Find your flock, get them to higher ground
Flood waters rising and we’re Canaan bound
We’ve been traveling over rocky ground, rocky ground …
Rise up shepherd, rise up
Your flock has roamed far from the hills
Stars have faded, the sky is still
Sun’s in the heavens and a new day’s rising

You use your muscle and your mind and you pray your best
That your best is good enough, the Lord will do the rest
You raise your children and you teach ‘them to walk straight and sure
You pray that hard times, hard times, come no more
You try to sleep, you toss and turn, the bottom’s dropping out
Where you once had faith now there’s only doubt
You pray for guidance, only silence now meets your prayers

There’s a new recording of ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’, first released on the Live in New York City album. This studio version is superb, and acquires a special significance when midway through the song, Clarence Clemons contributes his only saxophone solo on the album.  This was his last recording.

The closing track, ‘We Are Alive, has a similar concept to ‘The Rising’: the dead rising from their graves. Here, Springsteen celebrates Americans who died fighting for a better future: railroad workers who took part in the Great Strike of 1877, civil rights activists and migrants seeking a better life in El Norte:

We are alive 
And though our bodies lie alone here in the dark 
Our spirits rise to carry the fire and light the spark 
To stand shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart 

A voice cried out, I was killed in Maryland in 1877 
When the railroad workers made their stand 
Well, I was killed in 1963 one Sunday morning in Birmingham 
Well, I died last year crossing the southern desert 
My children left behind in San Pablo 
Well they left our bodies here to rot 
Oh please let them know 
We are alive 
Oh, and though we lie alone here in the dark 
Our souls will rise to carry the fire and light the spark 
To fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart

One of the most insightful reviews of the album was by David Fricke in Rolling Stone.  He begins:

Wrecking Ball is the most despairing, confrontational and musically turbulent album Bruce Springsteen has ever made. He is angry and accusing in these songs, to the point of exhaustion, with grave reason. The America here is a scorched earth: razed by profiteers, and suffering a shameful erosion in truly democratic values and national charity. The surrender running through the chain-gang march and Springsteen’s muddy-river growl in “Shackled and Drawn”; the double meaning loaded into the ballad “This Depression”; the reproach driving “We Take Care of Our Own,” a song so obviously about abandoned ideals and mutual blame that no candidate would dare touch it: This is darkness gone way past the edge of town, to the heart of the republic.

Rolling Stone also has a feature in which Springsteen explains the album.

Meanwhile, Bruce Springsteen gave the keynote speech at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.  In an sometimes halting performance that alternated between the inspiring and the mundane, he surveyed the musical influences that have shaped his music, and ended with a stirring rallying cry that reads better on the page than it sounded when Bruce delivered it:

Rumble, young musicians, rumble.  Open your ears, open your hearts. Don’t take yourselves too seriously and take yourself as seriously as death itself.  Don’t worry. Worry your ass off. Have iron clad confidence. But doubt! It keeps you awake and alert. Believe you are the baddest ass in town and you suck. It keeps you honest. Be able to keep two completely contradictory ideas alive and well in your heart and head at all times. If it does not drive you crazy it will make you strong. Stay hard, stay hungry and stay alive.

Springsteen recited a litany of musicians who helped shape his music and his politics and his sense of what made a great rock song.  In particular he singled out the Animals, crediteding the band with introducing him to the idea that politics and social anger had a place in popular music.  Springsteen picked up his guitar and sang a few verses from the Animals’ hit ‘We Gotta Get Out Of This Place’. Finishing, Springsteen said:

That’s every song I have written. That’s all of them. I’m not kidding either … it was the first time I felt I heard something come across the radio that mirrored my home life and my childhood.

For Springsteen, Soul, Motown, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Hank Williams and country music were all formative influences. Country music had taught him the importance of focussing on telling the stories of ordinary men and women in his songs. ‘In country music I found the adult blues. I found the working men and women’s stories I had been looking for,’ he said (though he added that it lacked the political bite that he sought: ‘Country seemed not to question why. It was about doing then dying, screwing then crying, boozing then trying’.  He found the perfect combination in the work of  Woody Guthrie: ‘Woody’s world was a world where fatalism was tempered by a practical idealism … he is a big, big ghost in the machine’.

Clarence Clemons: ‘And the big man joined the band’

When the change was made uptown
And the big man joined the band
From the coastline to the city
All the little pretties raise their hands
Im gonna sit back right easy and laugh
When scooter and the big man bust this city in half

Bruce Springsteen’s song, ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out’, the second track on Born To Run, loosely tells the story of the formation of the E Street Band. In the third verse, the song’s protagonist, ‘Bad Scooter’ (a pseudonym for Springsteen himself) tells how the ‘Big Man’ joined the band.  This was Clarence Clemons, saxophonist, whose death this weekend following a stroke is a huge loss.  It’s difficult to imagine the E. Street Band without him.

On stage with the band, Springsteen seemed to reserve a special place in his affections for Clarence.  He would  often launch into an extended monologue to introduce ‘The E Street Shuffle’, in which he described how he and Steve Van Zandt encountered ‘The Big Man’, after a particularly discouraging gig on a wet and windswept night sometime in September 1971, all 6 foot 4 inches of him heading along the boardwalk straight for them:  ‘Walkin’ like there ain’t no rain, no wind.. ‘. Springsteen recalls how ‘when we touched it was like sparks fly on E Street’.

Some kind soul has uploaded this monologue to YouTube, recorded at a legendary show at the Bottom Line in Greenwich Village in August 1975:

In an interview, Clemons once recalled their first meeting somewhat differently:

One night we were playing in Asbury Park. I’d heard The Bruce Springsteen Band was nearby at a club called The Student Prince and on a break between sets I walked over there.  On-stage, Bruce used to tell different versions of this story but I’m a Baptist, remember, so this is the truth.  A rainy, windy night it was, and when I opened the door the whole thing flew off its hinges and blew away down the street.  The band were on-stage, but staring at me framed in the doorway.  And maybe that did make Bruce a little nervous because I just said, “I want to play with your band,” and he said, “Sure, you do anything you want.”  The first song we did was an early version of “Spirit In The Night”. Bruce and I looked at each other and didn’t say anything, we just knew. We knew we were the missing links in each other’s lives. He was what I’d been searching for. In one way he was just a scrawny little kid. But he was a visionary. He wanted to follow his dream. So from then on I was part of history.

Yesterday Springsteen said this about Clemons:

Clarence lived a wonderful life. He carried within him a love of people that made them love him. He created a wondrous and extended family. He loved the saxophone, loved our fans and gave everything he had every night he stepped on stage. His loss is immeasurable and we are honored and thankful to have known him and had the opportunity to stand beside him for nearly forty years. He was my great friend, my partner, and with Clarence at my side, my band and I were able to tell a story far deeper than those simply contained in our music. His life, his memory, and his love will live on in that story and in our band.

Another YouTube tribute begins with Bruce  giving one of his typical on stage introductions to the saxophonist, before offering a performance of ‘Sherry Darling’ that features a great solo from Clemons:

Clemons’ father was a fish market owner in Norfolk, Virginia.  More significantly, perhaps,his grandfather was a Southern Baptist preacher so he grew up listening to gospel music. When he was nine, his father gave him an alto saxophone as a Christmas present and paid for music lessons.  His uncle also influenced his early musical development when he bought him his first King Curtis album. Clemons formed his first band, The Vibratones, in 1961 and for about four years they played James Brown covers. It was while playing with The Vibratones that he moved to Newark, New Jersey to work with emotionally disturbed children. Playing music in the clubs along the Jersey shore by night, he was moving among the same circle of local musicians as Springsteen. History was about to happen.

In addition to his work with the E Street Band, Clemons recorded with many other artists and, in 1981, formed his own band, Red Bank Rockers. Their second album, Hero, included a duet with Jackson Browne, ‘You’re a Friend of Mine’, featured on this YouTube tribute:

Them boys are still on the corner, loose and doin’ that lazy E Street Shuffle
As them sweet summer nights turn into summer dreams
Little Angel picks up Power and he slips on his jeans as they move on out down to the scene
All the kids are dancin’…

Links

Luton, actually

Recently I finished reading Sarfraz Manzoor’s Greetings From Bury Park, a warm and tender account of growing up in the Bury Park neighbourhood of Luton in the 1970s, in which the broadcaster and writer intertwines a memoir of growing up in a Pakistani and Muslim family in modern Britain with an account of his total devotion to Bruce Springsteen (the title itself a pun on that of Springsteen’s first album).  In this book and other writings, Manzoor has contributed to the ongoing debate about multiculturalism, reactivated again this weekend with the unfortunate coincidence of the English Defence League march in Luton and David Cameron’s speech in Munich.

It’s the Springsteen thread that gives structure to Manzoor’s book,  each chapter heading referencing one of his songs. At first, this aspect seems the less interesting aspect of the book.  But gradually you realise that Springsteen provided the essential element of Manzoor’s personal liberation – just as Dylan, say, or Lennon did for my generation. What is remarkable, though, is that the words of the working-class hero from Asbury Park, New Jersey, reached out to the Urdu-speaking teenager born in 1971 in Paharang.  But, in the 1980s,with no Pakistani working-class heroes with whom he could identify, Manzoor’s life was transformed by the music of ‘The Boss’.

So this is a story familiar to us all – of the gradual assertion of individuality and negotiation of personal freedom from the ties that bind: family, tradition, community. Manzoor engagingly describes growing up in Luton, where his father worked in the Vauxhall car plant for a decade before he had earned enough to bring his wife and young children to Britain in May 1974. Sarfraz and his siblings were under pressure to conform in body and soul – the generational divide in the Pakistani community being not entirely unfamiliar to those of us who grew up in white working class Britain in the 1950s.  Manzoor writes:

The biggest lie that I was told when I was growing up was that there was only one way to be a Muslim. That way was to be obedient, deferential and unquestioning; it was to reject pleasure and embrace duty, to renounce sensuality and to never, ever ask why. Even as a young boy this did not appeal and so I spent my life thinking that I was a bad Muslim. The irony was that for all the temptations I never actually did anything too bad: I did not drink, I did not renounce my parents, I did not become involved with any extremist groups. I kept believing in an Islam which was more tolerant, which did not take itself so seriously that it burnt the books of those it did not approve of. I wanted to be a Muslim like Philip Roth was a Jew or Bruce Springsteen was Catholic. When I was young, that did not seem possible, and so I ran away from my religion. But, eventually, it caught up with me. I still hope to find my reason to believe.

What Manzoor means when he writes ‘eventually, it caught up with me’ is September 11:

Osama bin Laden changed my life. For the first thirty years of my life I had been running away from my religion but on 9/11 my religion caught up with me. There was nowhere left to hide. A few days after the attacks on the World Trade Center I was having a drink with Amolak in Luton town centre. ‘You realise what this means, don’t you?’ my friend asked me. ‘It means that America isn’t ours any more.’

I said nothing but understood.

‘Me   and   you,   Sarfraz,   we   always   thought,   fuck   this country; if Britain doesn’t want us we always have America. Not any more, mate, now we are going to have to do what We can in this here country because you know that the second you try to land at JFK they are going to haul your arse into jail. They’re not going to bother with questions. My friend, we are fucked.’

Manzoor tells his family’s story engagingly, with occasional dashes of sentimentality or comedy. There is a wonderful scene where he returns home with his hair in dreadlocks. When he takes off his hat, his father, unimpressed by the new style, asks sarcastically: ‘Is that another hat?’ His mum, just as as sarcastic, retorts: ‘Don’t you understand? Your son wants to be Jamaican. He doesn’t want to be a Pakistani, he is not a Muslim. He wants to be black. Congratulations; two Pakistanis have given birth to a Jamaican son.’

What their son found in the music he listened to, especially in the songs of Bruce Springsteen, was solace for and recognition of the trials of growing up.  While Manzoor and Springsteen grew up a world apart culturally, they both shared the experience of weathering similar clashes with their fathers.

Well Papa go to bed now it’s getting late…

Cause the darkness of this house has got the best of us
There’s a darkness in this town that’s got us too…

Now I don’t know what it always was with us
We chose the words, and yeah, we drew the lines
There was just no way this house could hold the two of us
I guess that we were just too much of the same kind…

Papa now I know the things you wanted that you could not say
But won’t you just say goodbye it’s Independence Day
I swear I never meant to take those things away

Later, both men came to recognise what they had missed in these struggles. Manzoor writes:

When I was younger, I didn’t want to know who my father was because [he] had nothing to do with me. How wrong can a son be? … Where once it was resentment which inspired me, now it is the hope that in my own life I can do his memory proud. These days I am a willing prisoner of my father’s house.

In an article for The Guardian, ‘You’re Muslim – You’ll Never Be English‘, Manzoor elaborated on the tensions he experienced as a teenager in Luton:

Achievement was everything, but it had to be in certain, primarily academic activities. I remember coming home after school, aged 14, after getting my maths test results. I told Dad excitedly that I had got 87% in the exam. “What happened to the other 13%?” he wanted to know. The success of their children was used by the working-class parents of my father’s generation to convince themselves, and the community, that they had made good.

Surrounded by white friends, listening to pop music and watching British television, my parents must have feared that their values were continually being threatened. They had left the motherland laden with the moralities and prejudices of the old country. “Never forget that you are different,” I would be told. “Whites will work with you, but they will never play with you.” What the first generation wanted was to progress economically but remain rooted culturally; they feared freedom. But once unleashed, progress, like freedom, is frustratingly difficult to restrain.

Islam was part of the backdrop against which our lives were played out; it affected everything we did and it defined what we could not do. My parents did not insist that I go to mosque after school – I learned the Koran at home – and, unlike other Muslim children, I was not packed off to Pakistan each year during the summer holidays. Religion was applied to support the arguments of my parents. If I was spending too much time with English friends, or watching too much television, my father could say, “You’re Muslim, remember; you’ll never be English.”

But even as a teenager, I was troubled by the moral certainties that religion demanded, and sceptical of the monochrome world-view that my parents tried to paint. Once in a while, my father’s friends would pay us a visit. Mum would make Asian-style tea, letting the teabags stew in the boiling water, and the men would sip the tea and chew on egg biscuits. The conversation would turn to worries about their children. There would be much shaking of heads. Everyone would agree that this was not a good country in which to raise children: too much temptation and not enough respect.

What were the children doing that was so bad? I used to wonder. In truth, I think we were doing nothing more than slowly and awkwardly learning to be British.

When I was young I used to fantasise about renouncing my British passport and moving to the United States. I was fascinated by the idea of the American Dream, the suggestion that everyone had an equal chance to make something of their lives and to be considered equally American. Bruce Springsteen seemed to be the very embodiment of that dream: someone who had been born to a working-class immigrant family and who had, through his talent and tenacity, reached the very peak of his profession. Bruce Springsteen changed my life because in his music I saw the promise of hope and escape and self-improvement, but where once I longed to escape to the United States, these days I’m convinced my father did the right thing coming to Britain.

In 2005, the BBC broadcast Manzoor’s film, Luton, Actually.  It was the story of his family and about what it was like to come from Luton, a much maligned town that had recently been voted the crappiest place to live in the country.

Since 2007, when Greetings From Bury Park was published, Sarfraz Manzoor has written many articles on Britishness and multiculturalism.  He is often called upon to do this, by TV and newspaper editors, as a consequence of his growing up in Luton, the departure point of the 7/7 bombers, birthplace of the English Defence League, and home of the Stockholm suicide bomber.  In ‘Luton has come to embody the failures of multiculturalism‘, Manzoor wrote:

What has gone wrong in my home town?  There are no simple answers but I would cite three main factors: education, economics and representation. There are schools – and streets – in Luton that are ominously monocultural: the school I attended as a young boy was multicultural, that same school is now 96% Asian. Living in such bubbles – white or Muslim – can breed ignorance which can then spill over into intolerance. […]

The second factor is economics. Luton is a working-class town where for decades the largest employer was the Vauxhall car factory. That was where my father worked  … In Vauxhall you would get workers from different communities all together… and that had a positive impact on community cohesion – but it’s not there any more.  Vauxhall was the glue that held the town together and it’s with its demise it has come unstuck.

Today the average workplace salary is £24,585 – below the national average – and those earning the best wages in the town tend not to live in Luton. Given such issues around poverty it is easy for persuasive extremists to win support by claiming that others are being offered preferential treatment or that the reasons for poverty are related to race and religion.

The final issue is one of representation. …  The white working class in Luton have been ignored. Into that void stepped the EDL, helped by equally unrepresentative Muslims who took to the streets to scream at returning British soldiers.

Though the headline on that article might suggest otherwise, Manzoor is a champion, not a critic of, multiculturalism. In another piece, for The Observer, he wrote:

The recent attacks on multiculturalism make me feel uncomfortable, not because I do not agree that Muslims need to make more efforts to integrate but because the criticisms feel like coded attacks on the idea of Britishness being a diverse and multicoloured story. What is reassuring is that the country seems more at ease with the impact of multiculturalism than do some politicians and commentators.

A BBC poll last week found that 62 per cent of respondents agreed that multiculturalism had made Britain a better place to live. The survey also found that Muslim respondents were more enthusiastic than others in agreeing that new immigrants ought to learn English and pledge primary loyalty to Britain. […]

Like any home, it sometimes needs a makeover, it demands maintenance and to be treated with respect. Whether they are called British Muslims or Muslim British, the most effective means to help them feel wholeheartedly British is to convince them that they have a part to play in the story of modern Britain, that their voice is part of the choir. British Muslims have a role to play in that but so does everyone else. In addition, they need to remember, and the government ought to encourage and remind them, that this country is our home: we are not tenants.

At the conclusion of Greetings From Bury Park, Manzoor sums up the meaning of his personal journey:

It has taken me three decades to realise that there is only one country which is truly mine.  The life my father had built, the family he raised and the life I have fashioned are all due to living in Britain. Every opportunity, every job and every chance to pursue my dreams has been offered by this country, not by America, and not by Pakistan. My father used to tell me he regretted coming to Britain, but in truth it was the greatest gift he gave his children. I was born in Pakistan but made in England; it is Britain which is my land of hope and dreams.

I enjoyed Sarfraz Manzoor’s thoughtful and entertaining book – and for a personal reason, too.  There are family connections to the very places Manzoor writes about in his book.  My wife grew up in Sundon Park, and we often visited her parents there.  Manzoor and his brother and sister went to Lealands High School in Sundon Park. (One of the telling passages in his book tells of his sister being kept off school because their father would not allow her to comply with the school uniform that required her to wear a skirt; eventually his sister became the first girl the school allowed to wear trousers).  The family’s first home was in Bury Park, and I remember the slow journey into the centre of Luton on the lumbering, wide-bodied Crosville buses as they crawled slowly along Leagrave Road.  Later they moved to Marsh Farm, whose tower blocks loomed over Leagrave common where we would walk the dog. And it was in a record shop near the ABC cinema on Leagrave Road that I bought Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run.

Springsteen: The Promise fulfilled

Back in late 1970s Liverpool, a regular gathering place for every variety of leftist – socialists, libertarians, anarchists and feminists – was Liberty Hall, where every Sunday night, downstairs in The Everyman Bistro, there would be an ever-changing programme of performance, music, talks and debates. After the main event, a dee-jay would spin discs, and the most popular for some while was Patti Smith singing ‘Because The Night’.

That magnificent rock anthem was, we understood, written by Bruce Springsteen; but what none of knew was that not only had Springsteen given away one of his best songs to Patti, but that it was just one of over 70 tracks, many of equal quality, that he had recorded but discarded on the road to releasing his third album, Darkness On The Edge Of Town.

Late last year, Springsteen finally released a double CD’s-worth of those discarded tracks – The Promise – and I’ve been listening to it a lot since receiving it as a Christmas present from a daughter who knows what kind of music her dad likes.  It’s crammed with the kind of songs I used to hear in the very early sixties on Radio Luxembourg in my bedroom at night with the radio’s tuning dial and valves (valves!) glowing in the darkness.  Beautiful, spine-tingling, magical sounds poured from the radio – the Drifters, the Phil Spector-produced singles, Freddy Cannon, Ben E King and Gary US Bonds. Those are the sounds that Bruce Springsteen heard in his head and captured on these tracks.

Last night BBC4 screened the hugely enjoyable The Promise: The Making of ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’, a documentary directed by Thom Zimny (who also directed Wings for Wheels: The Making of ‘Born to Run’).  The film uses intimate footage of Springsteen and the E Street Band working relentlessly in the studio, sometimes until they fall asleep where they stand.

The film tells how, due to legal problems, Bruce Springsteen was unable to follow-up his breakthrough success with Born to Run for three years. The footage was shot in the period between 1976 and 1978, when Springsteen was barred by court order from the recording studio while the legal attempt to seize back control of his work from former manager Mike Appel ran its course. After a period in which the band survived financially through live performances, they were finally able to return to the studio and lay down the recordings that eventually became Darkness on the Edge of Town, as well as dozens more, some of which we can now hear on The Promise.

From the 70 or so tracks that came out of these sessions, Springsteen deliberately selected 10 tracks for Darkness on the Edge of Town that shared a common landscape and cast of characters – working class men and women who had little, and were in danger of losing even that. Their only hope for redemption lay in working harder, and their only escape lay in driving the highways and backroads.

I’ve done my best to live the right way
I get up every morning and go to work each day
But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold
Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode
Explode and tear this whole town apart
Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart
Find somebody itching for something to start
– ‘The Promised Land’

There was fury and pessimism in these songs but also a maturity, an adult perspective, that Springsteen was striving for – depicting lives burdened by work, family and social obligations, and individuals haunted by their errors or the possibility that their life might have been different.

Talk about a dream
Try to make it real
You wake up in the night
With a fear so real
Spend your life waiting
For a moment that just don’t come
Well, don’t waste your time waiting…

Workin’ in the fields
Till you get your back burned
Workin’ ‘neath the wheel
Till you get your facts learned
Baby I got my facts
Learned real good right now…
– ‘Badlands’

In Zimny’s film, Springsteen talks eloquently about his ambitions for the Darkness album.  He tells how ‘Factory’ emerged as a song honouring his father, whose hearing loss was the consequence of years working in the deafening noise of a plastics factory: ‘Honouring my parents and their history and the people I knew. These things weren’t being written about’.

Through the mansions of fear, through the mansions of pain,
I see my daddy walking through them factory gates in the rain,
Factory takes his hearing, factory gives him life,
The working, the working, just the working life.

End of the day, factory whistle cries,
Men walk through these gates with death in their eyes.
And you just better believe, boy,
Somebody’s gonna get hurt tonight,
It’s the working, the working, just the working life.
– ‘Factory’

He wanted the album to celebrate the place from which he came:

We all carry our landscapes within us. I felt a sense of accountability to the people I had grown up alongside. … It’s a reckoning with the adult world … with a life of limitations and compromises.  I was interested in my sense of place and there was a narrative there. I wanted to tell that narrative. … It was the beginning of a long narrative … a long conversation I’ve had with my fans that’s been one of the most valuable things in my life’.

For all the shut down strangers and hot rod angels
Rumbling through this promised land

Tonight my baby and me we’re gonna ride to the sea

And wash these sins off our hands

– ‘Racing in the Street’

Springsteen was meticulous to the point of obsessive in creating his imagined soundscapes on Darkness. Engineer Chuck Plotkin remembers how Bruce wanted the listener to experience the opening of ‘Adam Raised a Cain’ – as if, in the cinema, watching a scene of young lovers at a picnic, the camera abruptly cut to dead body.  And we do.

Darkness, Springsteen says, ‘was an angry record. I took the ten toughest songs I had. I didn’t want to cut that feeling’.

Some folks are born into a good life
Other folks get it anyway anyhow
I lost my money and I lost my wife
Them things don’t seem to matter much to me now
Tonight I’ll be on that hill `cause I can’t stop
I’ll be on that hill with everything I got
Lives on the line where dreams are found and lost
I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost
For wanting things that can only be found
In the darkness on the edge of town
– ‘Darkness On The Edge of Town’

So the songs that Bruce discarded were ones that did not fit the tough, angry template, the exploration of adult themes. Richard Williams has remarked:

The ambition was to make his audience view him in a different light: as a man of conscience rather than a mere purveyor of exuberant revivalist rock’n’roll, the guise in which he had made his appearance earlier in the decade.  How deliberate it reveals the parent album’s hard, lean, bleak tone to have been. … “Lean”, “angry” and “relentless” are the words Springsteen now uses to describe the feelings and sounds he was trying to capture in the follow-up to Born to Run, the hit album that landed him on the cover of Time and Newsweek and led some to write him off as just another victim of record-company excess. Delayed by a bitter legal battle over his management contract, he finally presented the public with a version of Darkness from which all traces of joy and release had been purged, replaced by a sense of desperation. The claustrophobia of ordinary lives trapped by work and family ties provided his metaphor.

What were discarded were not demos, but fully-formed band recordings, many of which rank among his best work.  Where most differ from the Darkness tracks is that they are joyful pop tunes, echoing the era of classic American pop, and celebrating youthful exuberance and romantic entanglements.  There’s a scene in Zimny’s film that captures this: Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt are working out an embryonic version of what became  ‘Talk to Me’ or ‘Sherry Darling’. Bruce is on piano while Steve drums against a rolled-up carpet, and they are having the greatest fun. Elsewhere in the documentary, Van Zandt claims that Bruce ‘could have been one of the great pop songwriters of all time’ – and you believe him.

Towards the end of the second CD there’s a song, ‘City of Night’, the apotheosis of the landscape of urban streets, movie houses and bars where young lovers meet that Springsteen has created in these songs:

Taxi Cab, Taxi Cab, at the light
Won’t you take me on a ride through this city of night
I got some money and I’m feeling fine
I ain’t in no hurry so just take your time
Some people wanna die young and gloriously
But Taxi Cab driver, well that ain’t me
I got a cute little baby down at 12th and Vine
And she opens for business just about closing time

Well we busted out of class
Had to get away from those fools
We learned more from a three-minute record
Baby, than we ever learned in school
– No Surrender

In his introduction to the collection, Springsteen recognises what inspired this aspect of his music in the mid ’70s:

I was still held in thrall by the towering pop records that had shaped my youth. Echoes of Elvis, Dylan, Roy Orbison, the full-voiced rockabilly ballad singers of the Fifties and Sixties along with my favourite soul artists and Phil Spector, thread throughout. As I page through my thirty-year-old Darkness notebook, I see a young man filled with ambition, a local culture/B-movie-fuelled florid imagination, and thrilled to be a rock ‘n’ roll songwriter. The nights of listening to Lieber and Stoller, Goffin and King, Barry and Greenwich, Mann and Weil, the geniuses of early rock ‘n’ roll songwriting had seeped deep into my bones.  Their craft inspired me to a respect and love for my profession that’s been the cornerstone of the writing work I’ve done for the E Street Band and my entire work life. Music, music, music, big choruses, big melodies, rich arrangements…

The fifth track in, ‘Someday (We’ll Be Together)’, is definitely one of that breed – an anthemic pop ballad that sounds like something The Ronettes might have sung – while the hilarious and joyous ‘Ain’t Good Enough for You’ is an infectious handclap, call-and-response celebration that could have been sung by Gary US Bonds.  On ‘The Brokenhearted’, Bruce turns in a superb vocal performance channeling Roy Orbison, and Orbison’s spirit also haunts ‘Breakaway’, not least in the drum figure that recalls ‘It’s Over’.  ‘Outside Looking In’ has a galloping rhythm that recalls Buddy Holly’s Peggy Sue, while best of all is ‘Gotta Get The Feeling’ , a celebration of being alive that brings to mind the Phil Spector singles,  something by the Four Seasons, or perhaps Ben E King’s  ‘Spanish Harlem’:

Yeah girl, now won’t you come on out tonight
Yeah girl, where the stars are shining bright
Gotta get that feeling…

Tonight, we ain’t got money but we don’t care…

Oh – and don’t overlook the beautiful hidden track, ‘The Way’.  It’s testament to Springsteen’s determined commitment to his vision for Darkness that he should kick a classic song like this into the long grass.

There are a few songs here that would sit more easily in the company of those on Darkness On The Edge of Town – most obviously the title track, ‘The Promise’, about the crumbling of the dreams articulated on Born To Run:

Johnny works in a factory. Billy works downtown.
Terry works in a rock and roll band looking for that million dollar sound.
Got a job down in Darlington. Some nights I don’t go.
Some nights I go to the drive in. Some night I stay home….

All my life I fought this fight, the fight that no man can ever win
Every day it just gets harder to live this dream I’m believing in..

There’s a beautiful meditation by Joe Posnanski on the personal meaning of this song on his blog (brilliantly-titled Joe Blogs).  I prefer the version that Bruce recorded for 18 Tracks with just piano accompaniment, and I’m also not that keen on the alternate version of ‘Racing In The Street’ that opens the album – it’s a bigger, more orchestrated rendition, and I prefer the leaner version on Darkness.

There was a telling moment in last night’s documentary where co-producer Jon Landau points to Springsteen’s bulging song notebook, as the band sprawl in exhaustion: ‘The only thing that can come out of this book is more work!’ he pronounces, only half-joking.  The film is testimony to Springsteen’s exhausting discipline and dedication to his craft.

The Grapes of Wrath and Route 66

The Guardian has, this last few days, been running a series The Grapes of Wrath Revisited, a journey along the old Route 66 – following in the footsteps of the Joads, the central characters in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath who fled the Oklahoma dustbowl for California – to see whether the tragedy and despair witnessed in the Great Depression is a long-forgotten nightmare or a present-day reality still haunting Barack Obama’s America.

Four classic images from Dorothea Lange are a reminder of the circumstances that inspired Steinbeck’s novel:

The first article in the series began:

Seven decades later, the machine grinds on. It remains as faceless as back in the 1930s when John Steinbeck described the banks which forced Oklahoma’s destitute subsistence farmers from their land as institutions made by men but beyond their control.

“The banks were machines and masters all at the same time,” explains one of the land owners come to evict tenant farmers in the Grapes of Wrath. “The bank — the monster has to have profits all the time. It can’t stay one size… When the monster stops growing, it dies.”

The evictions set the fictional Joad family on a trek west to California that was the real experience of hundreds of thousands of Americans escaping drought and the towering clouds of soil carried on the wind across the midwestern dust bowl and from the mass unemployment of the great depression in northern cities. The road they flooded, Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles, later became a symbol of prosperity and the new found freedoms of the rock’n’roll era. But in the 1930s it played host to years of misery as destitute families, some on the brink of starvation, struggled along in search of work.

Then the poor looked to President Franklin Roosevelt as a shield from the excesses of capitalism and his New Deal to alleviate the worst hardship. Today, from Oklahoma to California, there is suspicion and outright hostility with even some of those who arguably have most to gain from liberal policies and social programmes speaking of all government as if it is the enemy.

The Joads began their journey just outside the small Oklahoma town of Sallisaw. Richard Mayo was 10 years old when Henry Fonda and the cast arrived in 1939 to make the film of the book. He said the townspeople resented the Grapes of Wrath for making Oklahomans appear ill-educated and backward.

“There was a lot of anger at the book, anger toward John Steinbeck: that’s not us, that’s not the way we are. I don’t think the anger subsided until the sixties. But there was a truth to the book”.

Each episode of the series has featured photo galleries (from which the images on this page are taken) and telling extracts from The Grapes of Wrath:

Highway 66 is the main migrant road. 66—the long concrete path across the country, waving gently up and down on the map, from Mississippi to Bakersfield—over the red lands and the gray lands, twisting up into the mountains, crossing the Divide and down into the bright and terrible desert, and across the desert to the mountains again, and into the rich California valleys.

66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of  Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the kind and steel what little richness is there. From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight…

The owners of the land came onto the land, or more often a spokesman for the owners came. They came in closed cars, and they felt the dry earth with their fingers and sometimes they drove big earth augers into the ground for soil tests. The tenants, from their sun-beaten dooryards, watched uneasily when the closed cars drove along the fields. And at last the owner men drove into the dooryards and sat in their cars to talk out of the windows. The tenant men stood beside the cars for a while, and then squatted on their hams and found sticks with which to mark the dust.

In the open doors the women stood looking out, and behind them the children—corn-headed children, with wide eyes, one bare foot on top of the other bare foot, and the toes working. The women and the children watched their men talking to the owner men. They were silent.

Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do. and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves…

The cars of the migrant people crawled out of the side roads onto the great cross-country highway, and then took the migrant way to the West. In the daylight they scuttled like bugs to the westward; and as the dark caught them, they clustered like bugs near to shelter and to water.

And because they were lonely and perplexed, because they had all come from a place of sadness and worry and defeat, and because they were all going to a new mysterious place, they huddled together; they talked together; they shared their lives, their food, and the things they hoped for in the new country. Thus it might be that one family camped near a spring, and another camped for the spring and for company, and a third because two families had pioneered the place and found it good. And when the sun went down, perhaps twenty families and twenty cars were there.

In the evening a strange thing happened: the twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all. The loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream...

And it came about that owners no longer worked on their farms. They farmed on paper; and they forgot the land, the smell, the feel of it, and remembered only that they owned it, remembered only what they gained and lost by it. And some of the farms grew so large that man could not even conceive of them any more, so large that it took batteries of book-keepers to keep track of interest and gain and loss; chemists to test the soil, to replenish; straw bosses to see that the stooping men were moving along the rows as swiftly as the material of their bodies could stand. Then such a farmer really became a storekeeper, and kept a store. He paid the men, and sold them food, and took the money back. And after a while he did not pay the men at all, and saved bookkeeping. These farms gave food on credit. A man might work and feed himself; and when the work was done, he might find that he owed money to the company.  And the owners not only did not work the farms any more, many of them had never seen the farms they owned.

And then the dispossessed were drawn west—from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico; from Nevada and Arkansas families, tribes, dusted out, tractored out. Carloads, caravans, homeless and hungry, twenty thousand and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand. They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless – restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do – to lift, to push to pull, to pick, to cut – anything, any burden to bear, for food. The kids are hungry. We got no place to live. Like ants scurrying for work, for food and most of all for land…

There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success.  The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates – died of malnutrition – because the food must rot, must be forced to rot.
The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quicklime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage…

And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed…

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck was published in April 1939. The book and the film must, I think, have had a big impact on the development of my political outlook in my early teens. When it was published, Steinbeck’s novel had an enormous impact – it was widely read, debated and denounced by right-wing and business groups as communist propaganda. In 1962, the Nobel Prize committee cited The Grapes of Wrath as a ‘great work’ and as one of the key reasons for awarding Steinbeck the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The film version, starring Henry Fonda, was directed by John Ford in 1940. In the same year, Woody Guthrie composed his ballad, Tom Joad, which told the whole story in one song. In 1995, Bruce Springsteen’s The Ghost of Tom Joad incorporated lines from Tom Joad’s famous speech:

I’ll be all around in the dark. I’ll be everywhere, wherever you can look. Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready and where people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build. I’ll be there, too.

NY Times Critics’ Picks: The Grapes of Wrath

Bruce Springsteen: The Ghost of Tom Joad

Men walkin’ ‘long the railroad tracks
Goin’ someplace there’s no goin’ back
Highway patrol choppers comin’ up over the ridge
Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge
Shelter line stretchin’ round the corner
Welcome to the new world order
Families sleepin’ in their cars in the southwest
No home no job no peace no rest

The highway is alive tonight
But nobody’s kiddin’ nobody about where it goes
I’m sittin’ down here in the campfire light
Searchin’ for the ghost of Tom Joad

He pulls prayer book out of his sleeping bag
Preacher lights up a butt and takes a drag
Waitin’ for when the last shall be first and the first shall be last
In a cardboard box ‘neath the underpass
Got a one-way ticket to the promised land
You got a hole in your belly and gun in your hand
Sleeping on a pillow of solid rock
Bathin’ in the city aqueduct

The highway is alive tonight
But where it’s headed everybody knows
I’m sittin’ down here in the campfire light
Waitin’ on the ghost of Tom Joad

Now Tom said “Mom, wherever there’s a cop beatin’ a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there’s a fight ‘gainst the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me Mom I’ll be there
Wherever there’s somebody fightin’ for a place to stand
Or decent job or a helpin’ hand
Wherever somebody’s strugglin’ to be free
Look in their eyes Mom you’ll see me.

Woody Guthrie: Tom Joad

Crepuscular rays

Crepuscular rays

I took these photos looking out over Cardigan Bay in the early evening while we were staying with Annie in Harlech. My cloud book tells me the phenomena captured here are crepuscular rays.

Crepuscular rays

They are rays of sunlight that appear to radiate from a single point in the sky. These rays, streaming through gaps in clouds are parallel columns of sunlit air separated by darker cloud shadowed regions. The rays appear to diverge because of perspective effects, like the parallel furrows of freshly ploughed fields or a road apparently narrowing with distance. Airborne dust, inorganic salts, organic aerosols, small water droplets and the air molecules themselves scatter the sunlight and make the rays visible.

The variety seen here, streaming downwards from the sun, is sometimes known as ‘Jacob’s Ladder’, taking its name from the episode in Genesis in which Jacob dreams of a ladder connecting earth to heaven, on which hosts of angels could be seen ascending and descending. Depicted here by William Blake:

William Blake, Jacob's Ladder, c 1799
William Blake, Jacob’s Ladder, c 1799

Bruce Springsteen & The Seeger Sessions Band: Jacob’s Ladder

We are climbing, Jacob’s ladder…
Every rung goes higher and higher
We are brothers, sisters, all…

(Traditional)

Glastonbury 2009

Sitting at home in front of the TV this year’s Glastonbury looked like the best-ever (at least to an oldie). Neil Young played on the Friday night and the BBC showed 50 minutes-worth. It was a blistering performance,  concluding with Keep On Rocking In The Free World with several false endings and his encore of A Day In The Life that was both unexpected and majestic.

The Guardian commented:

Neil Young arrives trailing a 40-year reputation for unpredictability: he’s been on relatively crowd-pleasing form recently, but as any long-term fan will tell you, what Young has been doing recently is no guarantee as to what he’ll do next.

A certain trepidation might explain why the audience takes a while to warm to him, but as it gradually becomes apparent that he’s going to roll out the classics, the response becomes more fervent, his performances increasingly tumultuous, the endings of every song drawn out into ever-longer, ever noisier codas. By the time he performs Rockin’ In the Free World, his ornery old face has been split by a huge grin: he keeps returning to the chorus over and over again, organising the crowd into an arm-waving mass. When the song finally ends, and the crowd roars, Young grabs the microphone and roars back at them, his fists raised in triumph.

An encore of the Beatles’ A Day In the Life is even more spectacular. It concludes with Young ripping the strings off his guitar and beating it with a microphone stand, before running to the back of the stage and unexpectedly performing a vibraphone solo. It sounds slightly bathetic, arriving as it does on the heels of a blizzard of feedback that feels like the end of the world: you rather get the impression that he just doesn’t want to get offstage, and having rendered his guitar unplayable, is desperately casting about for something to do. Improbable as it may sound given his grouchy reputation, Young appears to be having a Glastonbury Moment.

Q commented:

Michael Eavis has tried and failed four times previously to get Neil Young to play at his little party down on Worthy Farm dating right back to the days when local stores would put ‘No Hippies Allowed’ on their windows.

Why Old Farmer Eavis has been so determined to book him is apparent from the moment Neil Young hits the stage. There’s no farting about, his trusty scarred Gibson Les Paul, Old Black, comes straight out and he clangs straight into My My Hey Hey. Seldom has the lyric “better to burn out than fade away” been more pertinent than the day after the death of a King. But also because at this festival of legends there are some here who have faded beyond repair. What this set proved more than anything is that Neil Young isn’t among their number.

Johnny Rotten and punk rock was supposed to get rid of people like Neil Young with their denim and lank hair, and their extended 12 minute versions of hoary old anthems. Thank God it didn’t. You want punk rock? Neil Young is living evidence that it’s still among us.

Anyone who suspected that we might have been in for some curmudgeonly latest album set was sorely disappointed as classic followed classic – Spirit Road, The Needle & The Damage Done, Heart Of Gold – no words or gestures needed from the stage, we were all on board the rock train.

Young’s no sprightly plastic surgery regenerated has been, the lines of age, the balding head, the slack dressing are all the polar opposite of what the outside world may consider cool. At one point he shrugs off a sleeve of his shirt but keeps on playing regardless – two guitar changes and four songs later he is still rocking the half-shirt. It’s not that he doesn’t care, it’s just that he’s in there right inside his music. Who cares about the fucking shirt, there’s rock to be done.

Neil Young and his sterling band have mastered many things (making songs like Cinnamon Girl and Down By The River sound both angry and intricate being one, the end song huddle being another and best of all the false ending). Keep On Rocking In The Free World features four false endings (possibly five, I lost count). A mischievous grin flashing across Young’s mouth as he returns for one more blast of the chorus.

As his set ends you think that it can’t get any better but he returns for one crowning end. The theory that no one can claim a Beatles song as their own is blown away by his encore of A Day In The Life which turns Lennon & McCartney’s whimsy into a multi-layered masterpiece that’s closer to Laurel Canyon than Blackburn, Lancashire. My, My. What a night.

Setlist:

  • Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)
  • Mansion On The Hill
  • Are You Ready For The Country?
  • Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
  • Spirit Road
  • Words
  • Cinnamon Girl
  • Mother Earth
  • The Needle And The Damage Done
  • Comes A Time
  • Unknown Legend
  • Heart Of Gold
  • Down By The River
  • Get Behind The Wheel
  • Rockin’ In The Free World
  • A Day In The Life

Pity the BBC showed only 5 songs!

Then there was Bruce.  He appeared to be in top form and the BBC was more generous with his set – which went on beyond curfew time, and as a consequence Bruce (or someone) had to pay a hefty fine of several thousand ponds to the local council.

Q commented:

The festival headline tradition is hit’em like an avalanche from the off… but Springsteen didn’t. Instead he walked on with saxman Clarence Clemmons and sang one for the cognoscenti: Joe Strummer’s song about a Glastonbury encounter, Coma Girl.

But after that poignant opening, it was all “1, 2, 3, 4” and the “pants-dropping, love-making, Viagra-taking” E Street Band rocking Life and Death and things more important than that. Everyone got sore throats howling the big choruses as they rolled and tumbled down Badlands, Prove It All Night, Because The Night, No Surrender (duetted with Brian Fallon from New Jersey newcomers Gaslight Anthem), Promised Land, Born To Run and more, powerhouse piledrivers no one can match.

For casual Springsteen observers momentum was all. A couple of times when he stopped singing to invite the masses into taking a verse all he got back was a murmur as the passionate front rows piled in and the rest said, Er… sorry. Eventually, he noticed and laughed, but that disconnect didn’t amount to a hill of beans compared to the big fun and the search for a moral compass to guide us through dark times.

Right from the start Springsteen was yelling his catchphrase for the night, a line from Radio Nowhere, “Is there anyone alive out there?” – demanding that, amid all the singing and shouting and bouncing, mortality got its oar in. Knowing “what it’s like to live and die” in Prove It All Night and enduring loss of work and home and love in Johnny 99, The River, and The Ghost Of Tom Joad, and telling whoever’s handy to “take your knife and cut this pain from my heart” in Promised Land.

But then his keynote speech in pastiche TV preacher tones during Working On A Dream vowed that “Right here in this field we want to build a house of love – that’s our job” and that’s why that whole irresistible E Street force is right behind every song that comes through with an “I believe in the hope that can save me” (Badlands) and “I believe in the promised land”.

Even in front of the tens of thousands he didn’t really know, Springsteen could still pull off the beautiful grace of the 19th-century gospel encore Hard Times Come Again No More and The Rising’s mystical response to the 9/11 catastrophe.

So, delivered and received at different levels, and magnificent every which way. That house of love project? Job done.

Set list

  • Coma Girl
  • Badlands
  • Prove It All Night
  • My Lucky Day
  • Outlaw Pete
  • Out In The Street
  • Working On A Dream
  • Seeds
  • Johnny 99
  • Ghost of Tom Joad
  • Raise Your Hand
  • Because The Night
  • No Surrender (with The Gaslight Anthem)
  • Waitin’ On A Sunny Day
  • The Promised Land
  • The River
  • Radio Nowhere
  • Lonesome Day
  • The Rising
  • Born To Run
  • Hard Times
  • Thunder Road
  • Land Of Hope And Dreams
  • American Land
  • Glory Days
  • Dancing In The Dark

Links

Happy birthday, Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger birthday

Pete Seeger is 90 today and BBC radio 4 marked his anniversary with an excellent programme in which Vincent Dowd celebrated the life and work of the folk singer and activist. Drawing on BBC archives and new interviews, he explored Seeger’s views on a range of issues and his hopes for the future under the leadership of Barack Obama, at whose inauguration he performed. The show featured an unplugged version of This Land is Your Land from Seeger himself, but Seeger maintained that his greatest joy as a performer is to lead others in sing-alongs: the only way music can effect change is through participation.

At his 90th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden tonight he must have been ecstatic since for nearly four and a half hours he and 51 other artists transformed the massive arena into an intimate campfire sing-along, where toddlers, senior citizens and everyone in between belted “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” “This Land is Your Land,” “Turn Turn Turn” and many others songs Seeger wrote or popularized over his seven-decade career. “There is no such thing as a wrong note,” Seeger said after leading a group rendition of “Amazing Grace” midway through the show, “just as long as you’re singing along.”The concert was a benefit for Seeger’s Clearwater environmental group that works to clean the Hudson River. A long evening of musical collaborations included Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, Taj Mahal, Richie Havens, Arlo Guthrie and others playing in many permutations. According to the Rolling Stone blog, highlights included Taj Mahal doing “Waist Deep In The Big Muddy,” The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and Pete’s grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger doing Seeger’s anti-war tune “Bring ‘Em Home,” and Joan Baez and others singing “Jacob’s Ladder”.

“Pete is a walking, singing archive of American history,” Springsteen said during a long, moving speech. “He had the audacity and courage to sing in the voice of the American people. At 90, he remains a stealth dagger into the country’s illusions about itself.”

For the finale, every performer of the night crammed onto the stage for “This Land Is Your Land.” “I give you the words and you sing along,” Seeger told the crowd. As he did at Barack Obama’s inauguration, he included the often skipped verses about the relief office and the private property sign. After leaving the stage to “This Little Light Of Mine,” everybody returned for “Goodnight Irene” – which Seeger’s group the Weavers took to Number One in 1950.

Happy 90th Birthday Pete Seeger from Smithsonian

Pete Seeger/Tao Seeger/Preservation Hall Jazz Band, 24 April

On Friday, April 24, 2009 New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band was joined by legendary American singer/songwriter Pete Seeger, his grandson Tao, and their band for a very special recording session. Recorded a week before Pete’s 90th birthday celebration, this video shows a man who is still moved by the power of song.

“In addition to being America’s best-loved folk singer and an untiring environmentalist, Pete Seeger is a national treasure. He has been at the forefront of the labor movement, the struggle for Civil Rights, the peace and anti-war movements, and the fight for a clean world. He has been a beacon of hope for millions of people all over the world…” (from the Pete Seeger appreciation page – http://www.peteseeger.net)

The Water is Wide

John Gorka sings ‘The Water is Wide’ for a FolkAlley.com Extra in honour of Pete Seeger’s 90th Birthday.

The water is wide, I cannot cross o’er,
But Neither have I the wings to fly.
Give me a boat, that will carry two,
And both shall row, my love and I.

Where love is planted, oh there it grows,
It grows and blossoms like a rose.
It has a sweet and pleasant smell
No flower can it excel.

A ship there is and she sails the sea,
She’s loaded deep as deep can be,
But not so deep as the love I’m in
I know not if I sink or swim.

I leaned my back against a young oak,
Thinking he were a trusty tree,
But first he bended and then he broke,
Thus did my love prove false to me.

O love is handsome and love is fine
And love’s a jewel when it is new
But leave it alone, it grows so cold
And fades away like morning dew.

Arlo Guthrie & Pete Seeger: If I Had A Hammer, August 1993


Folk America

BBC 4’s Folk America season finished tonight with a concert from the Barbican reuniting some of  the talents to emerge from the clubs of New York’s Greenwich Village in the sixties. Billy Bragg introduced Judy Collins, Roger McGuinn, Eric Andersen and Carolyn Hester, performing songs of their own and from their contemporaries.

The three Folk America documentaries that formed the centrepiece of the season were a little disappointing – covering familiar ground, with familiar clips and, rather surprisingly, finishing at the end of the sixties. Yet the best episode, the first, had explored the origins of folk in the various strands of American roots music in the twenties and thirties – what now is often classed as Americana. It would surely have been interesting to trace the way the Americana musicians of the last decade have often taken their inspiration from earlier folk music. And it seemed odd that the series focussed quite a bit on Pete Seeger, yet there he was performing at Obama’s inaugural concert and being honoured in Springsteen’s We Shall Overcome album and tour.

The opening Barbican concert of the season, Hollerers, Stompers and Old-Time Ramblers was hosted by Seasick Steve and showcased acts that represent the revival of the old-time musical traditions first recorded in the American South in the 1920s: Appalachian mountain string band music, vaudeville swing, junk shop blues, creole dance tunes and folk country ballads.  The standouts, I thought, were CW Stoneking (new to me) and Diana Jones.

Introduction to the documentary series

This segment features Alan Lomax, Leadbelly, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie.

Links

In praise of Pete Seeger

On Sunday Pete Seeger performed with Bruce Springsteen at the Obama pre-Inauguration concert (see previous post).  He sang  This Land is Your Land,  the “greatest song about America ever written” (Bruce Springsteen’s words) before 500,000 people and tens of millions more on television. Continue reading “In praise of Pete Seeger”

Jubilee

jubilee

Jubilee, n: any season of great joy and festivity; joyful shouting; exultant joy. In the book of Leviticus, every fiftieth year a Jubilee year, in which slaves and prisoners are freed, debts forgiven, proclaimed by the sound of a trumpet. Continue reading “Jubilee”

Springsteen: Chords for Change

Bruce Springsteen

This article by Bruce Springsteen, first published in the New York Times on August 5, appeared in the Guardian while we were in Catalonia. The Boss for Pres!

A nation’s artists and musicians have a particular place in its social and political life. Over the years I’ve tried to think long and hard about what it means to be American: about the distinctive identity and position we have in the world, and how that position is best carried. I’ve tried to write songs that speak to our pride and criticize our failures.

These questions are at the heart of this election: who we are, what we stand for, why we fight. Personally, for the last 25 years I have always stayed one step away from partisan politics. Instead, I have been partisan about a set of ideals: economic justice, civil rights, a humane foreign policy, freedom and a decent life for all of our citizens. This year, however, for many of us the stakes have risen too high to sit this election out.

Through my work, I’ve always tried to ask hard questions. Why is it that the wealthiest nation in the world finds it so hard to keep its promise and faith with its weakest citizens? Why do we continue to find it so difficult to see beyond the veil of race? How do we conduct ourselves during difficult times without killing the things we hold dear? Why does the fulfilment of our promise as a people always seem to be just within grasp yet forever out of reach?

I don’t think John Kerry and John Edwards have all the answers. I do believe they are sincerely interested in asking the right questions and working their way toward honest solutions. They understand that we need an administration that places a priority on fairness, curiosity, openness, humility, concern for all America’s citizens, courage and faith.

People have different notions of these values, and they live them out in different ways. I’ve tried to sing about some of them in my songs. But I have my own ideas about what they mean, too. That is why I plan to join with many fellow artists, including the Dave Matthews Band, Pearl Jam, R.E.M., the Dixie Chicks, Jurassic 5, James Taylor and Jackson Browne, in touring the country this October. We will be performing under the umbrella of a new group called Vote for Change. Our goal is to change the direction of the government and change the current administration come November.

Like many others, in the aftermath of 9/11, I felt the country’s unity. I don’t remember anything quite like it. I supported the decision to enter Afghanistan and I hoped that the seriousness of the times would bring forth strength, humility and wisdom in our leaders. Instead, we dived headlong into an unnecessary war in Iraq, offering up the lives of our young men and women under circumstances that are now discredited. We ran record deficits, while simultaneously cutting and squeezing services like after-school programs. We granted tax cuts to the richest 1 percent (corporate bigwigs, well-to-do guitar players), increasing the division of wealth that threatens to destroy our social contract with one another and render mute the promise of “one nation indivisible.”

It is through the truthful exercising of the best of human qualities – respect for others, honesty about ourselves, faith in our ideals – that we come to life in God’s eyes. It is how our soul, as a nation and as individuals, is revealed. Our American government has strayed too far from American values. It is time to move forward. The country we carry in our hearts is waiting.

Link to original NY Times article