I have no aversion to Roots Rock! In fact I love Roots Rock. The Band, Van Morrison, The Clash, The Mekons, The Gun Club. I'm there, at the metaphorical bar, swigging jack. Yes mate.
Combing through all these online internet databases and Bruce Springsteen is as unavoidable as he was in those Rolling Stone "greatest records" issues and books like Paul Gambaccini's Top 100 Albums. People like this stuff; and some of the people who like this stuff are insightful, sensitive, functioning human beings. So what if the alternative music church are frequently disparaging about a mainstream icon like Bruce? Honestly I don't care what these people think - never have... You never cared either. None of us care. We're too old and cool to care about petty obscurantism. And something as supposedly awesome as these records are supposed to be needs to be engaged with. I even got the feeling I was missing out on something really great.
Bruce is certainly a character to be reckoned with. His recent autobiography - I didn't read it - but I read the reviews - he seems like he's a genuinely tortured soul. Was properly depressed and massively insecure right through the peak years of his fame. And this is himself admitting it, he's not being outed by a researcher, which is hardcore. I reckon it'd be quite a good read. And Bruce, he openly reveres Suicide doesn't he? He covers them! That's pretty great in someone so famous too.
So guess what? It's Bruce O'Clock.
I bought this box-set on eBay. A startlingly cheap £16 for literally all his "great" recordings. I could have listened on Spotify, I suppose, but I find I often fail to properly engage with music if I don't fully invest in it. Listening to Spotify can make me feel empty, like I'm in a queue. Sounds a bit shit too. Thus equipped I set out on the journey to the heart of Bruce. Like Dick fucking Whittington. I sit there through hours of the stuff. Waiting to be touched.
The Bruce aficionados argument goes like this: "Doh! It's meant to be bombastic and pompous, dummy! It's a ritual intensification of the mundane! It's deliberately over-the-top!" Mmm yeah, I guess. And I suppose there needs to be a place for the epic in music. But somehow my taste for it reaches to things that are often monumentally emotionless and inhuman - like giant craggy windswept landscapes or which represent awesome distances - things like La Monte Young, The Black Dog or possibly Neu! Music which somehow alludes to the immense scale of nature or the power of machinery - things which are beyond the reaches of the human. To me that seems a better fit with the epic than over-blown romanticism. I just end up feeling very alienated by someone "emoting" like this in my face - it makes me want to withdraw, rather than participate. Or, rather, skip.
The earlier albums, Greetings from Asbury Park N.J. (1973), The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle (1973) are like Dylan with a bar-room band. There's the same fixation with "characters". From the first two LPs I only really enjoyed "Growin' Up", which is (unsurprisingly) nicely understated and "Wild Billy's Circus Story", evocative of a very hot day at the fair with its eccentric tuba part, for the same reason.
Born To Run (1975) utterly baffles me. In the past people have said to me that they don't "get" Bob Dylan. Quite a few people! Generally I'm a bit sad for them. Or perhaps, more truthfully, I suspect that they don't have a true feel for music at all. But I'd have to re-evaluate any disparaging thoughts on other people's taste on the basis of Born To Run - because how can such a universally lauded piece of music leave me so utterly unaffected and cold? There's only two kinds of music right? But I too don't "get" it. I don't even think I'd enjoy it if I was steaming drunk.
To my mind this isn't Rock'n'Roll - the sounds are in all the wrong places - it's more like vaudeville or even a kind of cod-classical music - albeit built from the materials of Rock. Springsteen here is like Dean Martin or Gene Kelly. On the title track, stepping down a infinite staircase waving a top hat. Heaping on insults: he's like the Elvis Presley of movies. Born To Run is like the TV soundtrack music from an urban soap opera... with cops in it.
Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978) is simply not a good record. Even the tunes are weak - something you can't easily level at Springsteen. The River (1980) jangles and swings like a New Wave or Power-Pop record - in fact, purely in sonic terms, his detente with eighties music is more convincing and natural than that of many seventies superstars. It sports a curious mix though, at once it has all the baroque, symphonic touches of Born To Run, but the sound is somehow recessed as though Springsteen is aware the same pomposity just won't cut it with that cynical generation. The effect is ultimately unsatisfactory - at least Born To Run was what it was. There is a hint of future possibilities though with the catchy, retro-rock'n'roll pop-romp of "Cadillac Ranch".
From earlier forays (skirmishes?) into Bruce territory, I'd always concluded that Nebraska (1982) his solo Tascam 4-track effort was the only record worth taking seriously. Nebraska is great - not perhaps a stone classic because, although we aren't subjected to the same overbearing Wall of Sound, Springsteen's mannered Americana is often a bit groan-some. He is always looking for and overemphasising what he feels is the epic and eternal, without allowing the material to simply breathe. But criticisms aside, Nebraska is pretty fucking great - a powerful gesture in and of itself, exquisitely desolate and in the best way, romantic. "State Trooper" in particular, minimal to its core, could be an Alan Vega effort right down to Bruce's own tortured screams.
Finally, Born In The USA (1984) I will always have a soft spot for. I bought it and listened to it as an incredibly awkward, isolated and unhappy teenager. It and Dire Straits' Brothers In Arms (1985) bring those difficult and uncomfortable times back to me. This was just before I discovered The Velvet Underground and, I suppose, found a new family in sound.
Picking up from some of the more upbeat numbers on The River, Born In The USA works as pop music pure and simple - undeniably hooky song-writing. Beyond the actual hits I always loved the nouveau rockabilly of "Working On The Highway" Springsteen's voice to me never sounded so good here as it shimmers with slapback echo. "Glory Days" - another great tune - too takes us "Back To The Future" to that eighties version of the fifties. The past here serves as a useful peg for his epic inclinations, the sweet sadness of nostalgia nicely undercuts his tendency towards bombastic sentiments.
The penultimate track of this whole eight album collection - "Dancing In The Dark", with its synth pads and five-note motif, sounds surprisingly, refreshing, of its time. Perhaps you know it or think of it as pabulum for MTV. But something happened here. It's as though Springsteen has emerged from a long dark tunnel. At once the least rock'n'roll sounding and most rock'n'roll track he has made to this point. Rock'n'roll because, finally, he is dealing with truths.
Seemingly an honest reflection of what we now know was his actual emotional state at the time, Bruce stops trading in gestures and for once gives us a glimpse of who he actually is - not the "authentic" man of the streets he has spent his career projecting.
"I ain't nothing but tired, man, I'm just tired and bored with myself. Hey there baby, I could use just a little help."
"Wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face."I was, after all waiting to be touched, but was not expecting to be moved to tears. It's a message belied by its ostensibly upbeat video but here it is anyway. Maybe stick it on another tab and keep browsing.