Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Long Walk Home

By Jay Stringer

Time to check off another of Dave’s list of blog cliché’s. I’m going to write about tone of my favourite musicians.

Our relationships with art change over time; our states evolve and expand. Sometimes they narrow. Something that you liked ten years ago might be something that you hate as an adult. In another ten years you may like it again.

That said I couldn’t imagine any point in that timelines when I’ll accept Hootie and/Or The Blowfish.

But something that fascinates me is those artists who stay with you, the touchstones. Sometimes it’s out of nostalgia. I can always put on Heartbreaker and be transported back to the early hours of the morning when I was 20/21 and heard it for the first time. I sat up until sunrise playing it over and over again. It doesn’t really matter that I have little time or taste for what Ryan Adams became after that point, I still have that album to act as a transporter. Likewise anytime I listen to The Clash there’s always going to be a part of me that’s back in my in bedroom at my patents house, getting ready for a night out.

Bands, too. My friends may get sick of my obsessive love for Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, and the pilgrimages to their annual gigs, but it taps into something from another time. It’s reminding me of where I’ve come from, not where I’m going.

But there are some artists whose places in my heart have evolved as I have. They’re still just as important to me; their songs still resonate as strongly within me, but sometimes for different reasons. I can barely imagine what it must be like for these guys, to still be singing songs they wrote when they were 24. The meaning surely must shift for them, too?

Interestingly, for me at least, is the way I’ve been looking at them recently. As I shift more and more into being a writer, I’ve found that I analyse a different aspect of these songs and artists. You guys came very close today to an epic essay that also talked about Waits and Westerberg, but I thought I’d give you an edited version.

Bruce Springsteen.

Growing up smack in the middle of England, and coming of age during brit-pop, it was never cool to like Bruce Springsteen. I’ve treated the return of the ‘Boss’ persona to pop culture these last few years with a degree of mistrust, simply because it feels so different to what I knew. The rockers in the midlands were too busy wearing black and learning riffs, the brit-pop guys were too busy wanting to be Lads or art students, and everyone else was just too straight faced. Bruce was just some strange sweaty guy, who was only half remembered for a few pop hits that nobody understood, and he was way to open and sincere for my friends British souls to cope with. What I saw as a teenager was the fun, and the spontenanety. I saw cool lyrics, and, nice sounding guitar. It was just so different to everything else around me. And it was the anti-cool. That was probably very important to me at the time. And, okay, he sang about strange places in New Jersey, and some thing called a ‘highway’, but growing up in a region that had been decimated by the death of engineering, industry and coal mines, I didn’t have a hard time transplanting his world into mine.

Later on, as a budding (re: pathetic) musician, it was his craft that I grew to like. The way he owned the stage and the work that he put into it. And the Telecaster. Man, it never seems okay to say this, but that guy can play. Listening to that guitar on Darkness On The Edge Of Town, and the live bootlegs from that era, was a whole new guitar sound for me. He never showed it off. He never manufactured an image of being a ‘guitar god’, but it was clear that in the few moments he chose to let rip, there were few who could live with him. And that restraint was something I liked, that ability to choose which approach best serves the message. That’s something that’s become far more important as I’ve grown.

Lately what it is that resonates with me? Well, it’s still his craft in many ways, but from different point of view. Looking at my relationship with his music is in many ways like looking at the history of rock’n’roll. It was escapism and rebellion. There were other forms of music for telling stories or spreading messages. Bur rock’n’roll grew out of lust, and dreams, and youth, and all of those things that bundle up tight in your belly when you’re 16. It was about a lie, and escapism. Springsteen was one of the people who brought it down to earth and connected it again with reality. There was a disconnect between what went on in pop and rock songs, and what people actually encountered in real life, and he was one of the songwriters who realised that and bridged the gap.

His first two albums had been free-wheeling affairs, jangling guitars and freestyle music, beat poets, circus acrobats and kids standing under street corners waiting for that one perfect kiss. But as he gained more focus, and found something new in his voice as a writer, things changed. Born To Run as an album started to bridge the gap between everything that rock had promised, and the things it had failed to deliver. It was an album about making choices. There was an acceptance of compromise and a need for simple survival in lines like; “show a little faith, there’s magic in the night, you aint a beauty but hey, you’re all right

Then with Darkness On The Edge Of Town the darkness of the title seemed to come in the form of Bruce’s dwindling twenties. He reached that point and wrote about it. Suddenly he was singing about trying “to get away without getting hurt” and about reliving the same trap day after day and night after night. Through it all though, and this is where he differs from the many imitators, he found a defiance, and some lingering hope. It was music about living with the choices that you’ve made. He sang about there being a meanness in the world, and having "debts that no honest man can pay," but through it all, the words and the songs found some reason to believe. And it felt –and feels- real. Over the years he’s expanded. He’s researched about immigrants and poverty and given us character studies, he’s been through divorce and sung about the dark side of love, and he resurrected ‘The Boss’ in a decade that needed some large music about redemption.

He put out an album about 9/11. And while everyone else who had tried fell into the ‘worthy trap’, with tub-thumping our heart-on-sleeves rock, he did what a writer should do; he looked at people. He wrote about people surviving after something awful has happened.

And his drive to be the best he can doesn’t always lead him down a popular path. He was nearly jeered off stage in the early 2000's for performing American Skin, a song about an immigrant who was shot 41 times by plain clothes police. It was a song that tried to chart the tension minority communities and the police, and it was a bold move for an artist who would have stopped making such moves a long time ago. Add a few extra word and characters, and you have the basis of a George Pelecanos book.

“Lena gets her son ready for school

She says "on these streets, Charles

You've got to understand the rules

If an officer stops you

Promise me you'll always be polite,

That you'll never ever run away

Promise Mama you'll keep your hands in sight”

I realised much later on, that part of the image problem he had when I was young was because of his imitators. Out of his particular and unique voice grew a genre. There have been stadium arena’s packed out for over thirty years now with musicians singing about being half way there, or living on prayers. Their fists thump the air with their worthiness. On a smaller scale, there are any countless number of musicians who plod a particular path, that has become somewhere near to the middle of the road while they sing about important issues. Hell, I’ve not been shy in my opinion that the album Bruce put out last year was nothing but a tribute to this kind of music, even down to it’s title Working On A Dream. The ‘worthy trap’ is a tiresome one.

But none of this takes away from what he’s done, and the body of work he can look back on. The Cryuff turn could only really be carried off by Cryuff. Marlowe could only be done by Chandler. Stew could only be done by my Nan. Anybody else trying it is like a writer who is aping someone else’s voice.

Where am I going with this? Well, a phrase thrown about often here on DSD is social fiction. We quite like to drop that into conversation, and with good cause. Writers like Pelecanos get the props that they do because of the life they can capture on the page. It’s not the fantasy of Chandler, nor the despair of Goodis. It’s something that bridges the gap, and lends weight to the stories and life to the characters.

And this is what I get from Springsteen. It’s social fiction with guitar.


Paul D Brazill said...

Darkness On the Edge Of Town was the first tunes from The Gaffer's that I got anything from.

I'm still not a big fan but every now and then I'l hear something that I like -Devils& Dust for example - and he makes sense.

I can't watch clips of him live though. He still looks like a CEO on a night out to me.

John McFetridge said...

^ Ha, yeah, Paul, that's the curse of the imitators Jay's talking about.

One thing that Springsteen has in common with Bob Dylan is that as they've matured as musicians they haven't left the music behind - it's become more sophisticated, subtle, layered, whatever you want to call it - and at the same time the lyrics have become more to the point, using fewer words.

(of course, they've gone in different directions, Springsteen starting with a big band and slimming down and Dylan causing all that uproar bringing a band on stage, so that now we except anything from them, and sometimes even accept it ;)

But the fewer words can be striking. Those first few Springsteen albums had enough words on them to be novels, just like early Dylan, but as they wrote more they wrote less.

That's a good lesson for novelists, too, I think.

Chris said...

When I reach for Springsteen, I reach for Nebraska. A lot of his other stuff is a bit overwrought for me, but on this record it's just so stripped down and raw. I love it. Think I'll listen right now, in fact. . . .

Scott D. Parker said...

Bravo, Jay. Great post. And, John--great point about writing more using less words.

As a writer, I'm amazed at the ability of Bruce to write stories in so few words. His acoustic albums (Nebraska, Tom Joad, Devil and Dust) are basically anthologies, snapshots of life at certain times. The moments are sharp but ones to which I can rarely relate. The Rising, however, is different. We all felt the horror of 9/11 and Bruce captured the pure anguish of life in the aftermath. I rank the album high in Bruce's oeuvre, sometimes as high as #3 or #2.

I remember when I first realized how good he was, I actually listened to the words he sang on "Born in the USA" and "Dancing in the Dark," among others. I couldn't believe his lyrics were so dark and, yet, the music was so alive. It's just his gift to do it in a rocking fashion.

Jay Stringer said...

great points about his sparse writing. He can tell a story in two lines, which is something i want to bring to my fiction (though on a bigger scale).

"Well i'm tired of coming out of the losing end,
So last night i met this guy and i'm gonna do a kittle favour for him."

"It was a small town bank, it was a mess,
Well i had a gun, you know the rest."

And yes, Nebraska is a high water mark. Some days i can't see past that, except to pick up the follows ons that Scott mentioned. But at the same time, i think there's something about the E Street Band at their best that just elevate what he does, such as DOTEOT and The Rising.

Paul D Brazill said...

I think that's the test of a lot of songs- how it stands up when it's stripped down.

I do love a story song and thos lyrics that Jay posted are brilliant.