Sunday, October 20, 2019

Favorite Artists, Part 7: About Bruce Springsteen (and, sadly, politics)

I knew when I first conceived of this Favorite Artists series that this was going to be the most difficult entry to write. The reason is simple: it forces me to do something I absolutely hate to do -- mix music and politics.

Those of you who have known me over the years know that this is abhorrent to me. The reason is simple: to me, music should be something that brings us all together. Yes, we all have our own tastes, and our own musical likes and dislikes. But in the end, music is a unifying force. Or at least it can be, as long as you're not being a butthole about it. ("Dude! Your music sucks!")

Politics, on the other hand, inevitably drives us apart. Maybe it's always been this way. In my lifetime, I've seen the tumultuous sixties, the Nixon impeachment attempt and his subsequent resignation in the seventies, the Clinton impeachment in the nineties, and the entire Trump era which has ended friendships and turned family members against one another.

This is why, when I used to run the longislandmusicscene online Yahoo group, I did my best to enforce a policy of no politics of any kind, unless it was something where you absolutely couldn't help but to touch on a political subject. So, for example, if your band was playing at a show that supported some sort of political cause, you could advertise the show, but you couldn't proselytize for or against the cause. It was a lot of work, because most people are so convinced of the rightness of their beliefs that they often can't even see when they're being disrespectful to people who don't share those beliefs. But ultimately, I think it made the list, and the Long Island Music Coalition that sprang from it, a much more peaceful place, because it kept people focused on promoting the music. Which is what the list was created for in the first place.

Alas, in the real world, it's much less easy to keep music and politics separate. As someone who falls somewhere in the conservative-to-libertarian range, at some point I found it became increasingly impossible to just go out and enjoy a night of music. This is because within the musical genres that I most enjoy, the majority of artists fall on the opposite side of the spectrum from me(which is fine), and many of them feel entitled, or sometimes even obligated, to advocate for those beliefs from the stage, often in ways that are insulting (often deliberately so) to people from the other side of the aisle. This puts me, as a musical fan (and consumer) in the position of needing to rethink whether I'm willing to attend live music any more. And it also forces me to evaluate whether I'm willing to support people who actively push political agendas which fly directly in the face of my own values. Which brings me to Bruce Springsteen.

Unlike all of the other artists I've previously written about in this series, Springsteen is someone whose music I came to when I was already a young adult, when many of my musical tastes were already pretty well formed. Now if you're reading this as an adult music fan (which I think is the case with most of my readers), maybe you can relate to this. When you're young, everything is new and exciting. As I grew up, in the late sixties and early seventies, there was so much great music going on that it was almost a sensory overload. I can remember spending hours browsing through record stores, looking at all of the colorful album art, promising myself I was going to buy this album or that one whenever I saved up enough money from my allowance.

But as we get older, we get more jaded. Once we've established a kind of baseline of the music we like the best, it gets harder to impress us. The colors don't look quite as bright, and the sounds don't sound quite as innovative. We hear something new, and we're like, "That's pretty good," but it's more of a mild pleasure than something that rocks our world. So when an artist comes along who really, truly excites us, who can make us feel that passion we felt when were still just forming our tastes, it's a rare and precious thing. And for me, Bruce Springsteen was such an artist.

In 1974, I was mostly into British prog rock. ELP's Brain Salad Surgery was released in '73, and Jethro Tull's Warchild in '74, and this was typical of the kind of music I was listening to at the time. That May, I was finishing up my junior year of Holy Cross High School in Queens, and WNEW-FM radio was an incredibly important part of my life. And on WNEW-FM (I'm pretty sure, as I can't imagine where else I'd have heard this), an incredibly audacious piece of music hype worked its way into my consciousness regarding a young singer from nearby New Jersey. It came from a credible music critic, Jon Landau of Rolling Stone magazine. It was a one-line quote from a review of a live show he'd seen in Cambridge, MA. And the quote was this: "I saw rock and roll's future and its name is Bruce Springsteen".

Wow. Pretty brazen.

But it caught my attention. WNEW didn't play Springsteen all that often back then. But when they did, I started listening. And I was intrigued by what I heard. At the time, Springsteen had released just two albums, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. And as 1974 wound into 1975, and I started getting closer to graduation, my favorite radio station started playing more and more Springsteen music, in anticipation of the release of Springsteen's forthcoming album. And I started to get more and more beguiled. Songs like "Growin' Up", "Spirits in the Night", "4th of July, Asbury Park" (aka "Sandy"), and especially "Rosalita" began to flood my sensibilities, and to touch my soul. The music was more raw than the prog rock stuff I'd been listening to, more basic and vital. So when Born to Run was finally released in August of 1975, I was practically delirious. I bought it the day it came out, and I thought it was the greatest thing I'd ever heard.

I can't tell you too much about those next three years, except that over the course of that time, while The Boss was embroiled in a legal battle with his ex-manager Mike Appel that kept him out of the recording studio, I wore those first three albums out. It didn't hurt things at all that Springsteen sang in my key, so I could comfortably (and joyfully) sing along with just about all of his songs. Bruce Springsteen became my favorite artist, and if you'd have asked me at that time, I'd have told you that Born to Run was the greatest album of all time. (And although I no longer rank it at #1, I still have it pretty far up there -- it's one of only fourteen albums I've rated at 5 out of 5 stars on the Sputnik Music website).

It seemed like it took forever, but when Darkness on the Edge of Town was released in June of 1978, I was more than ready, and I bought it within a week of its release. I actually ranked it higher than Born to Run on my all-time album scale (and I still do). I went to work as a drama counselor that summer in a small children's sleepaway camp in Suffern, NY, and I remember repeatedly booming the album at full volume from the little wooden playhouse during the day, as I swept the building between drama classes. And later that summer, when the guy who stole my girl at the camp invited me to head into the city with him and his older brother to see Springsteen live at Madison Square Garden, I accepted in a second, and felt I'd gotten the better of the deal. (OK, full disclosure -- she was never really "my girl", she was just the girl that I had a crush on. But he was a pretty cool guy, and that concert more than made up for the disappointment of finding out that the two of them had a fling. It was kind of like, "You rat bastard, you stole Jodi from me! Springsteen tickets, did you say? OK, we're good!") Anyway, for me, that was Springsteen at the height of his powers, and that concert still ranks up with there with my favorite concerts of all time.

Now in 1980, when Bruce released The River, I have to admit that the bloom came off the rose just a little. Don't get me wrong, I still really liked the album. Just not as much as the some of the other Springsteen enthusiasts who were friends of mine. There were still some truly terrific tunes on the LP, stuff like "Sherry Darling", "Drive All Night" (which he'd pulled together out of something he used to work into another track, I forget which one, but I'd seen him perform it during that MSG concert), and the heartbreaking title track. But as a double album, there was also a fair amount of filler material (I'm looking at you, "Ramrod"), so I've only got this one ranked at four out of five stars.

It was in the eighties that I started becoming more politically conservative, although Bruce and I were still good then. (I'd voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976, and his Presidency had a lot to do with my disillusionment with the left.) I knew that "Little" Steve Van Zandt, Springsteen's guitarist, was a pretty left-wing guy, but that was no big thing -- a lot of musicians were. But musically, Bruce and I had started to grow apart.

When Springsteen released Nebraska in 1982, without the E-Street band, I was just a little horrified. I had been drawn to his music for its energy, its vigor and its bright colors. But somewhere along the way, he'd traded in those wild stories of bikers and street thugs, The Magic Rat and Spanish Johnny, for this music of dreary rural desperation. Granted, the change had begun on the Darkness album, which I'd loved. But on this one, the music itself was suddenly bleak and low-key. The critics mostly loved it. I just didn't get it, except maybe for the track "Atlantic City", which at least has a little life to it. Nebraska is OK, I guess, it's not terrible music. But it didn't rouse me at all, nor did it connect with my life on any level. And in retrospect, I think it's biggest lack was this -- it was missing the Big Man, Mr. Clarence Clemons.

The E Street Band was (and is) a great band. Springsteen and this amazing group of musicians have always had some sort of primal connection, something where the whole was something way more than the sum of its parts. The mid-'70s lineup was magic, and included Van Zandt, "Professor" Roy Bittan on piano and keyboards, Danny Federici on organ and other keyboards, Garry Tallent on bass and tuba, and "Mighty" Max Weinberg (later of The Conan O'Brien Show fame) on drums. But perhaps the most important member of all, other than Springsteen himself, was Clarence Clemons. His powerful saxophone lent Springsteen and the E Street Band's music a special kind of magic that elevated them from merely great to iconic. I could grant The Boss one album like Nebraska to get this cheerless solo music out of his system. But in retrospect, let's face it -- Springsteen was never fully Springsteen without Clarence Clemons.

Anyway, the next album, Born in the U.S.A. (1984), took Springsteen and the E Street Band to their greatest heights of national (and international) popularity. But to me, it was like when U2 did Joshua Tree. The general public was just fully catching on, but the band's truly greatest work was already behind them. As for me, I had moved on, and while I still had a special place in my heart for The Boss, by this point, I was mostly listening to (and loving) British (and sometimes American) new wave.

Tunnel of Love (1987) was OK, but nothing special. For me, it was most memorable for being one of my first two CDs, which my brother gave me as either a birthday or Christmas present. I remember kind of jokingly cursing him out for it, since I had already turned over my original vinyl LP collection into a cassette tape collection, and now he was kind of forcing me to do it all over again with CDs. (Wonder why I was so resistant to mp3 files for so long?)

After this, the Boss got increasingly mediocre. It would be easy to just blame this on poor Patty Scialfa, which some have done, much as people in the eighties blamed Christie Brinkley for the deterioration of Billy Joel's music. The timeline fits. But I think it's unfair (more so for Bruce than for Billy, heh heh.) You see, when Springsteen released Lucky Town and Human Touch in March of 1992 he was, by then, 41 years old. And let's face it, rock is a young man's game. Whatever the reason, of the eleven albums Springsteen has released since 1992 (including Lucky Town and Human Touch) I've given ten of them ratings that ranged from 2 to 3 out of 5 stars, a far cry from the 4's and 5's I was giving those first five LPs of his.

I don't hold that against him, though. Almost all of my favorite artists (and most musicians and bands in general) had a peak period in their early years, followed by decades where they only showed the briefest of flashes of their former glory. What I did have a problem with, though, was his increasing outspokenness and activism in favor of left-wing political causes.

Somewhere during the W. Bush years, Springsteen and a lot of other artists started to get (from my point of view) a little crazy. It wasn't just that they disagreed with me. (Although never do that. I'm pretty much always right. Jk. Or am I?) It was that they became so smugly sure of themselves about the correctness of their positions that they decided they had to start preaching their thoughts (or in some cases, what passed for thoughts) to the point where they were shoving them down other people's throats.

Some artists, at least, were nuanced about it. Since I brought up a U2 comparison earlier, Bono, for example, has always been a left-wing guy. But at least he was able to give W. Bush some credit for his efforts at wiping out crippling diseases in Africa. Bruce, unfortunately, not so much. From the Bush era on, he suddenly became very active at promoting causes, and especially people, that I abhorred. I always kind of blamed Van Zandt for getting in his head about this stuff, but I could be totally wrong there. In any event, this artist, who had once been my favorite musician, and who didn't seem interested in politics at all when I first got into him, began promoting a left-wing agenda that I found heinous, and doing it in the most empty-headed of ways. And after seeing the recent Springsteen on Broadway show on Netflix (well, actually I heard the album first, but you know what I mean) I kind of understand why. But more on that in a minute.

In any event, I'm not someone who feels comfortable supporting artists of any medium who are really strident about beliefs that I don't respect. I would never pay to see a Jane Fonda film, and as you might imagine, the list of actors, actresses and directors whose films I won't support has grown in recent years. And so, because of Bruce's increasing "wokeness", combined with his increasing inability to create first-rate music, I stopped buying his albums for many years.

But this was my guy, The Boss, the man who was once my favorite musical artist. So at some point, I got nostalgic and became curious about what he'd been up to musically over the years. So I compromised, and bought all of the back albums I'd missed used off of second-hand vendors on Amazon. I told myself, "Well, I'm not directly supporting him, right?"

Interestingly enough, there are artists way to the left of Springsteen that I've had no such qualms about over the years. Larry Kirwan of Black 47 is basically an Irish Republican radical who shares Marxist views on class and race wars. And yet somehow, even though I knew this about him from the beginning (or maybe because I knew this about him from the beginning), I've always been able to separate who he is politically from Black 47's music. (I don't think much of their ideological songs, although I kind of like a few of the ones about rebels like Michael Collins, aka "The Big Fella" -- but I really do love their funnier, and often self-deprecating, character studies like "Funky Ceili", "Czechoslovakia"  and "Izzy's Irish Rose"). I think it's because I never let a band like Black 47 get as close to my heart as I did with the Boss. I feel like he bait-and-switched me. He drew me in with his music, then suddenly turned into this quasi-communist that I didn't recognize.

Creepy as it sounds, in some ways, I feel like a scorned ex-girlfriend. We used to be so close, but now he's off whoring around with people like Obama and Hillary. This is something that I have in common with poor, pathetic Chris Christie, the ex-governor of New Jersey, who has always worn his heart on his sleeve about his love of Springsteen, even as Bruce has repeatedly and callously publicly rebuked and spurned him.

My most interesting (and fun) reaction to my breakup with Springsteen occurred when he decided to try his damnedest to get Bush out of office by doing a hugely promoted concert tour to benefit John Kerry's campaign during the 2004 election season. I had my radio show on WUSB at the time, and all of the many left-wingers at the station arranged for WUSB to carry Springsteen's Meadowlands show, in an attempt to build support for Kerry. I complained to the station about getting involved in the Presidential campaign in such a one-sided way, and the station manager, Norm, did what I always did when somebody suggested some great idea for something they wanted to me to spend a bunch of time and effort on for the LIMC -- he offered me the opportunity to either put up or shut up by putting together my own show to promote the other side.

The result was the most bizarre -- and one of the most fun -- moments in my radio career. To counter-program the so-called Rock for Change concert, I put together a special to give not only Bush proponents, but spokespersons for virtually every other party in the race, a chance to come on the air and say their piece about their own candidate of choice. (I wanted to call the special Anyone But Kerry, the idea being that Kerry had already had his moment on the station, so this was everyone else's chance to shine, but Norm vetoed that name as too partisan. So I think we went on the air without actually naming the show.)

The result was several hours of weirdness and hilarity. I started it by having a spokesperson call in from one of the more far-right parties. It might have been the Constitution Party, I'm not sure. The one thing I remember about their campaign literature was that it occurred to me how you seldom read words like "sodomite" anymore. The guy called in very suspiciously, absolutely certain that I was some college radical who had invited him on either to scream at him or to laugh him off the air. When I asked a few innocuous questions, and just let him say what his candidate was about for fifteen minutes, he sounded totally confused to not have been attacked.

I filled the rest of the special with friends who supported all sorts of different ideas and candidates. I had Bruce Allen Martin, who did the WUSB weekday afternoon libertarian show, along with his son, to promote the Libertarian Party candidate. I had Jeff from the Pisces Cafe (and maybe Chaka from the Pisces, also, it was a long time ago) to talk about both the Green Party and the Socialist Party candidates. And I had conservative local musician Todd Shea (I think it was before he moved to Pakistan, but I have a vague memory that he was somewhere out of state at the time), and Peppi Marchello of The Good Rats, both call in to promote the candidacy of President Bush. It was ridiculous and funny in equal measures. By the time we were finished, the hip-hop guys in the WUSB lobby, who were patiently waiting to come on the air and do their own show, weren't sure whether to laugh or beat the hell out of me. ("I be illin'" was the way one of them described their reaction.) Happily, they decided on the former, and I got out of the station alive. All of this in reaction to Bruce Springsteen's John Kerry benefits.

I said earlier that I felt I understood some of Springsteen's later life political activism after listening to the Springsteen on Broadway album, and it's this. Bruce Springsteen has many talents. He's a terrific songwriter, and an even better performer. He's charismatic. He's a great story teller. What he isn't is especially bright, at least in the conventional sense of the word. And he's also a bit of a fraud.

Let me say very clearly that I'm not saying this because he's a left-winger. There are many progressives who are brilliant people. Just because I don't happen to agree with them doesn't mean I think they're stupid. I've been beating the U2 comparison to death, so I'll stick with Bono. Bono, as far as I can tell, is a very smart man. So is Sting. So are many left-wing spokespeople and artists.

Bruce is different. If you listen to him tell his life story in the special, you begin to realize that he's been making a lot of it up as he goes along. For example, after all of those brilliant songs that I fell in love with about The Magic Rat, and gang shootouts in Manhattan and The Bronx, it turns out that when he wrote them, although he grew up an hour-and-a-half away on the Jersey Shore, by his own words, neither he nor anyone he even knew had ever so much as visited New York City. And after 45 years of writing about the common working man, as it happens, the man has never held a regular job in his life! He's made a living in music since he was a minor. It was a meager living at first, before it all took off for him. But although he comes from a working class background, he himself has never been a regular working man.

What he is, instead, is an incredibly talented writer of musical fiction. He's ridiculously intuitive, so he's able to make songs up that feel real. Write what you know, they say? Hah! Throw that right out the window. This is a man who has spent his life writing about what he doesn't know, but doing it so well that it feels real. And he's gotten rich off it, and deservedly so.

He's also a guy who has a tremendous desire to be loved and adored. He needs the energy, and the wild approval of the crowds. And my theory is that that's how a kid who started out seemingly without a political bone in his body eventually grew into the John Steinbeck of rock and roll. You have your big-ass theory, Charles Darwin? Well this one is mine! I think that after years of surrounding himself with left-wing musician types, he was eventually convinced that he had to stand up for all the "correct" causes, whether they were really his own or not. Like I said, I blame Steve Van Zandt. But really, it was probably a lot of Van-Zandt-like voices in his head over the years.

And you've got to hand it to him. Even though he's well past his prime, like Kirk Gibson in the 1988 World Series, he can still crank one out of the park once in awhile, to the extent that even a right winger like me can listen to a song promoting an agenda I don't agree with, like "American Skin (41 Shots)", or the full-band version of "The Ghost of Tom Joad", and begrudgingly admit, "Damn! That's a great song!"

So there you have it -- my relationship with Bruce Springsteen. It's a bittersweet tale. It began with pure, unadulterated joy, but has since turned into a tortured love-hate relationship. I love his music. I hate many of the things he stands for.

This year, Springsteen put out a new album, Western Stars. It's his first new studio album in five years. It's also the first Springsteen LP I've bought new in nearly twenty years, and the first one I've rated as high as 3.5 stars since Born in the U.S.A. in 1984. It's a low-key but powerful release that sees Bruce trying on yet another new identity that he has no firsthand experience with -- that of a cowboy/drifter in the great American West. It's good. So good, in fact, that it appears that it's more than likely to make my Top 10 Albums of 2019 list. God damn him!