Friday, November 17, 2006

Meet the old boss


A record album is our contemporary equivalent of Proust's tea-soaked petite madeleine. Listen to an album that you got to know at an earlier stage of your life and the years fall away, you slip back in time, and today is yet to come, far in the future. It's not just the tune or musician, but the very sound of the instruments (does anyone still play psychedelic-style guitar licks like Barry Melton on the first couple of Country Joe & the Fish albums?), the arrangements, maybe even the microphones or tape recorder that was used — the whole sonic signature can date a piece of music like the cut of clothing. (And I don't mean date in a put-down sense, but placing it in a temporal and psychological space.)

Listening to an old album you've known for years is one thing, but a more eerie experience is hearing an album recorded long ago, but is new to you, although in a genre or by an artist you're familiar with. If anything, that amplifies the "you are there, you are then" feeling.

Columbia, now part of the Sony empire, has released a two-CD set of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, recorded at a concert in London, 1975. Not to be subtle, it's magnificent.

The set captures Springsteen and his band at a peak moment, about the time Born to Run was released. Springsteen's muse was cranking as never before and not that often since. These sides have a flamboyant lyricism and exhilaration that have rarely been equalled in the history of rock. Has anyone drawn pure poetry from such an unlikely environment? — rundown East Coast seaside towns in the heavy sultry air of summer, seedy bars with spluttering neon signs in the windows, guys hanging out and eyeing the chicks who pretend to look through them and taking corners too fast in cars with rusting bodies and crumpled Budweiser cans in the back, weeds growing in railroad tracks that haven't seen a train since 1935 but weren't worth demolishing, billboards and steel water towers and stars and rain. Damn if The Boss and his band didn't make all of it deliriously sexy.

This is roots rock, not in the corny meaning of someone imitating earlier styles, but of tradition built upon and extended. Springsteen took what he wanted from jazz, soul, '50s romantic rock, and no doubt much else, and then added his own ingredients. It's amazing to hear music that is so easy to connect to because of its familiar elements, and exciting (even after all these years!) because they're adapted so freshly and fluently.

I think all of the songs performed live here have been released on studio albums (certainly most of them have), but they're well worth acquiring in these versions as well. Too many live albums are just the studio arrangements played more sloppily, but that's anything but the case here. It was the Springsteen band's first concert tour in the U.K., where they perhaps still had something to prove, or they were stoked to be in London after years of playing in New Jersey dives. Or maybe they were just that good in concert all the time in those days. Whatever the reason, you can feel the impact almost as if you were there.

But it was something more than just lots of energy; after all, most rock bands have had plenty of that. Something more even than the quality of the songs and the lyrics, or Springsteen's veering between Jovian thunder and hushed intimacy in the vocal delivery. No, in listening to this release I realized more than ever before how the E Street gang (augmented here, I think, with a few sidemen brought along on the tour) were extraordinary musicians. In these tracks, it's not just the standard intro-chorus-instrumental break-chorus-quick solo-outchorus; they are thought-out, disciplined arrangements and the players stretch out.

As if that weren't blessing enough, the recording is remarkbaly immediate and detailed, especially surprising considering it was taken in a concert setting. I don't know what purpose it was recorded for — probably not for an album, or it wouldn't have sat around for three decades before release — but whoever engineered it knew what he was doing, and deserves our thanks. So, no doubt, do the Sony technicians who remastered it for CD. And kudos to the bright spark of a producer who rescued the tapes from whatever obscure warehouse they were sitting in and enabled us to hear them.

Springsteen has gone on to do much else, some of it very good, and he may have more in him yet. But this CD preserves what are surely among his finest hours of musical brilliance.


Pastorius said...

Alright Rick Darby, you sold me. I hate Springsteen, but I bought this and will give it a shot because of your great writing here.


Pastorius said...

So, I downloaded and listened to about half the album last night. I really concentrated. I downloaded the lyrics for each song and read along.

I have to admit I did enjoy it, and I owe you a debt of gratitude for opening my eyes a bit.

Here are some of the things that I have always disliked about Springsteen. His performance seems calculated, schmaltzy and gimmicky. His songs have a crying in your beer quality to them. It always seemed to me that all his songs were negative and/or appealed to base human emotions such as resentment of one's situation in life.

Having listened to this performance, it seems to me that his early work was not as rife with those qualities I found to be negative. Additionally, there is a feeling that transcendence is possible. In fact, that's what his music was all about at this point.

I would compare his music to Thomas Wolfe's writing. You know, like Look Homeward Angel. It's very lyrical, with a feeling of wanting to reach out and grasp the whole world in a big embrace. Very passionate. Maybe, a bit overly so, but it is transmitting an emotion perfectly well. It is romantic music as opposed to analytic music. And, that's great.

So, now I think I understand the Springsteen phenomenon. It only took me thirty years, huh?

Hey, what do you think of The River and Born In The USA?

Rick Darby said...


You correctly discerned one of the points I intended in this posting: that there was an astonishing rough lyricism about Springsteen and his band back in those days, and this album is a remarkable document of his sensibility at the time.

I empathize with your feelings about Springsteen in subsequent eras. His fourth album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, released two or three years after the period of the London live album, is very good. I don't remember what came after that until Born in the USA: I've never cared much for the title track which everyone seems to rave about -- to me it's Springsteen at his most obnoxiously calculated and pose-striking, not to mention an ugly song -- but on the whole the album is another high point for him in which he made the transition to synth-rock with considerable grace.

I'm reluctant to comment on what he's done since because I'm not very familiar with it (only a 20-year gap, I'll catch up sometime). There was another live album recorded recently at Madison Square Garden that struck me as unimpressive, having none of the vitality of that '75 concert.

His political comments that I've read are stupid, but that's pretty much par for the course among rock musicians, I'm afraid. They are not analytical thinkers, and their talents just lie elsewhere. I don't let it interfere with enjoyment of their music.

Pastorius said...

Rick Darby,

You said: I don't let it interfere with enjoyment of their music.

I say: Yes, that is wise.

Have fun in Rome.