Monday, February 02, 2009

Springsteen at the Super Bowl

Stewart Francke writes:

All the sanctimonious hype around Bruce Springsteen playing the Super Bowl rubbed me the wrong way. Why is anyone shocked or surprised by Bruce playing the Super Bowl? What is there to "come to terms" with? Name any major successful act and he's made exactly the same mercenary concessions to sales and fame and money that any other act has--maybe even moreso than others. The only thing that's different is that they don't make claims otherwise. If you listened to him at the press conference, he doesn't either, yet his fans seem to make them for him and get all hung up on the past.

He plays stadiums and has for 20 years; he pushes singles and records with more media concentration than anyone; he releases a Greatest Hits to the highest bidding retailer; he charges an arm and a leg to see him; he lets his music be cut up with football sounds--- wherein all this is there a "shock" he's playing the Super Bowl? And his 12 minute mini-set, in the end, was fabulous.

I guess it's because the biggest difference--and this is a big one--is that the music's a ton better, and a ton more meaningful and enduring than with other acts. His music has defined and framed our lives. But is it "selling out?" That's absurd. I have no problem paying an arm and a leg to see him; it's worth it, one of the few things in American life where that's so. But I don't get why the world keeps expecting him to behave like some fringe artiste, making decisions based on principles that would keep him out of the limelight. Everything he does is admittedly about the limelight. And it really should be no other way--the music is to be shared. And it's beautiful music. I'd do it exactly the same way, with as much honesty and class as he's displayed recently--he's doin all this cuz he loves it and needs it and wants the world to dig the music. No harm, no foul. As Greil Marcus famously wrote, and I paraphrase, the game of pop is not worth playing on a limited basis.

All the erroneous rhetoric in Bob Lefsetz's bitter pollyanna trip--two columns worth of kvetching over Bruce "selling out," bemoaning rock's lost innocence. Hell, I'm a long time fan and I'm happy Bruce is so exposed currently--I get to see more of him and hear more of his music. He's pimpin a killer new record and a great body of work...what's the problem? Great things are hard to find in this world.

I have to say I was turned off with the first couple listens of Working On A Dream. Now I've lived with it in my car for some long drives and many listens, and in a lot of ways it's the Bruce album I've been waiting for. I bitched about him doing the dry-as-dust cowboy songs when he was capable of such florid, ornate and moving music...and now he's done it. I really like a lot of the same things as a songwriter and record-maker: The fluid string arrangements (with real strings), the simple groove, the arcing, long melody lines, the arpeggiated guitars often doubled, the piano as response to the vocal, played on the upbeat; the harmonic innovation (this is what's really blowin my mind with this new record) and the lyrics about contentment--which is to say you gotta know the other side of contentment before you can write about it. You gotta know suffering to sing wisely of contentment.

I made my homage to the Beach Boys with Sunflower Soul Serenade, and it's hip to hear Bruce mining those same sounds in intros and bridges--the bass lines built on thirds (straight outta the Carole Kay/Brian Wilson cookbook) the spry quarter note piano stabs, doubled by harpsichord and organ, the sleigh bells and glock (nothing new to Bruce of course) and of course the lovely vocal arrangements.

"This Life" and "Kingdom of Days" are songs I wish I'd written and, in a weird way, songs I feel I've tried to write--"All The Love In a Day" and "Famous Times."

I wrote to my friend Danny Alexander that at first the songs seemed impersonal and benign. But I was wrongheaded with my first couple listens--It's maybe his most personal record since Tunnel Of Love, and the best lyrical commentary on a happy marriage ever in rock. Maybe it's the flipside to Blood On The Tracks or Shoot Out The Lights, those sad song cycles of marriages falling apart in bitterness and desperation.

But it's the melodic and harmonic construction, along with the lead vocal timbre, that makes me say Home Run. From the relative "ease" of "Surprise Surprise"--a major key melody built around flatted fifths that is as fine as any Bacharach or McCartney melody--to the descending flow of "Kingdom of Days," these are melodies that not only resolve--they anticipate the melody line to come. Brilliant gifts that he lets shine through by getting out of the way in the writing process.

It's almost not fair--just when you think of Bruce as a non-melodic "talking" songwriter, he pulls all these languid, gorgeous songs out. I could go on of course, about all the songs, but I really need to listen more. I don't really give a fuck if he plays in a Wal-Mart parking lot if he keeps making records this vital, this beautiful. I've always aspired to make "beautiful" music, because to my ears it works and there's a shortage of it in rock'n'roll. I hope he puts another another out in the fall. Keep 'em comin'.

I do have to say I don't get "Outlaw Pete," if there is anything to "get." I know the image of a baby in a diaper robbing someone is funny, but I'm not sure it's supposed to be funny. I can't imagine writing a song like "Outlaw Pete" in a zillion years, but if I did I woulda made the baby have a dirty diaper on top of it all. The music is epic--a lost cross between Kris Kristofferson and Morricone.

I initially thought this record would comment on our troubled times. Is it me or is this the longest, coldest, snowiest winter in 30 years? With the constant drone of job cuts, lawsuits, bailouts, plant closings, foreclosures and city corruption here in Detroit, this is a Turgenev Russian winter. Stark, lonely, frightening on one hand; on the other I see families and friends pulling together and at least trying to weather this. They talk about it being so bad in '82, but this is far worse to me. Dow cut 15% of its white collar jobs last week. We're all trying to find gigs but the climate is one of fear and abjuration. Everyone's just hangin on, and that includes me and my family, my band, many of my friends.

At first, truth be told, I was miffed with Bruce putting out such a record in these times, seemingly without comment on how fucked up we are. Then I got it--this is the kind of record we need. We don't need more headlines and portrayals of lives betrayed in meager economic times; they're everywhere around us. This record is a reminder about life's bittersweet longing--a personal statement that is inclusive in its vision and breathtaking in its scope. It's such a deeply felt, (and I hate this term but it really really applies) life-affirming circle of songs. Shaped like a life-saver for a reason. As passionate about life and living in its totality as those great lines in "Badlands."

Remarkable, really, when you think about how his motivation could so easily wane. More than any mythical thing surrounding him, or deals with stores, or support of labor, or the legendary 4 hour shows, or the legions of fans...the beauty and clarity and discipline and work ethic in these late-in-life records prove beyond any doubt how he's in it for the music, and only for the music.

I'd like to think if I had all the money in the world and access to private jets etc that I'd still make a record a year and tour all year. But a part of me thinks I might drink at a small cafe in Majorca for 6 months. Nah...I only care about music and family and town too. It's just as hard to maintain discipline when you're broke. In the end, I'm happy Bruce wanted to play the Super Bowl. It was an iconic meeting of American institutions. For 12 minutes I forgot it was winter in Detroit.

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Anonymous Jeff Shoemaker said...

Multiple Amens,brother.Bruce was great,the record is great,this IS the worst winter in yours and my life,I still can't get a job in Detroit(or anywhere else,for that matter,which makes this WORSE than 82)and if it wasn't for Bruces new record and Stewart Francke Alive and Unplugged at The Ark I would've been Johnny 99 by now.I'm tired of paying dues...I've been paying em all my friggin' life.Where's MY silver lining?

6:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

best review of working on a dream yet... informed, passionate, detailed. great stuff. thought i'd link you to my review if you're interested:

1:36 PM  
Blogger cheyanne said...

Thanks for this blog post....I enjoyed reading your Bruce opinions. Being a native Pittsburgher this Super Bowl was the ultimate in Super Bowl history for us. Bruce playing was the icing on the Superbowl cake.

Secretly I know Bruce was thrilled the Steelers won. He has a lot of peeps in the Steelernation that adore him. His music echoes what many of us have lived. His songs about the common working man/woman especially the song "It's Hard To Find A Good Man" written about a Pittsburgh woman are proof postive Bruce like the Burgh.

Lastly, the name of your blog is what initially got me here....So I'm hollering and yeah I hear ya.
Maybe this is part of some "Radio Nowhere" Outlet Nation thing.

Check out my blog: if you have time.....there's music stuff there amongst other things.

10:19 PM  
Anonymous Scott Pellegrino said...

I think Bruce (and any stars privileged with huge platforms) should have spoken up for the people who his buddy Obama (after taking the reins from Bush) is now murdering in Pakistan and Palestine (via America's mid-east outpost Israel). I've had it with cowardly mega-stars (Who, Stones, and so on) pretending these atrocities don't exist while the soul-kiss big political ass. Shame on them all.

Scott Pellegrino

3:52 PM  
Anonymous WOAD fan said...

Yeah - you got it Eric - WOAD is just awesome it really is. I don't think i have liked a song so much as Kingdom of Days since w...well Thunder Road which i first heard 30 odd years ago. This Life as well ...fingering the hem of your dress, my universe at rest ....isn't that the perfect conclusion later in life conslusion to the youthful virginal (for me anyway) yearning of thunder Road.

And yes he sings like there's beauty in just singing. I honestly believe the concerts based around this album or going to be outstanding.

10:06 PM  
Blogger K. said...

Someone once complained to me about the price of a Bruce show. I shrugged and pointed out that there were no corporate sponsors, that he likely paid union wages to his road, and that the best band in the world didn't come cheap, nor should it.

Having said that, I find Dream to be a complete misfire, the artistic embodiment of shooting blanks. It sounds like what it is: Songs that didn't make it on Magic, which at least attained mediocrity. Whatever his merits, Brendan O'Brien is exactly the wrong producer for Springsteen, gussying up filler material with fussy, unconvincing arrangements.

One day (I hope), Bruce, Little Steven, a drummer, and a bassist will hole up in Bruce's home studio. They'll release a self-produced (or Van Zandt-produced) album of 8-10 originals and 3-5 covers. There will be some sizzling guitar workouts and duels, include a few of the extended variety. There will be no extraneous dubbing or misguided touches by a producer whose ego won't let him step back.

Hey, every album can't be great. As many novels as he wrote, even William Faulkner was at the height of his powers less than half a dozen times.

12:01 AM  

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