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.