This month's Band of the Month brings me to college. My next door neighbor, my freshman year, was a New Jersey kid and a Springsteen fan. He had most of the records, if not all of them - though he had them on LP, and, somehow, he and I and our roommates didn't have turntables. But he had also The River on cassette, and we wore it out.
I liked Bruce before I got there - that AOR station I mentioned last month played him, quite a bit actually - especially the first record, I think, because I remember hearing Blinded By the Light, Spirits in the Night and For You more than anything else. They were great songs; and songs from The River turned up on that radio station and others, and I liked them too, without quite loving it - but I was ready for it when I got to college. My first memories of Springsteen were more ambiguous - I read about him before I heard him, and what I heard was colored by the hype. There was that Time Magazine story, which I might have read; I think I remember something in one of those educational magazines they distributed in school (one of the useful ones, with stories about Thor and Jimmy Walker, and Brice Springsteen. Also, the Democratic primary contenders for 1976 - Sargent Shriver! Mo Udall! Jimmy Carter! I wish I remembered what it was.) All this prose was very giddy. When I finally heard Bruce - Born to Run, probably on America's Top 40 - I can't say I understood the fuss. Except - it was a haunting song - that strange, pulsing drone, those murmured/growled/yowled vocals - it didn't sound world changing too me, but it also didn't quite sound like anything else I had ever heard... Anyway - that was that, for a while, until Manfred Mann's Earth Band covered Blinded by the Light - a song (the cover) I dearly loved, at that young age. Again - Casey Kasem played the original, and it was strange and a bit beyond me - but you could hear the cool in it... Over the next year or so, I started hearing more Springsteen here and there - enough to start to get it, though I wasn't a fan exactly. There was a girl in high school who was a Springsteen fan - an Enthusiast. People thought that was very strange then - maybe it was, though when I got to college, well, I became one too.
It was a communal thing - bunches of us would listen to The River, sing along, play air guitar, do what guys do... or we'd listen to the records, which took some negotiation, to find a turntable - but we must have - those records, especially Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, are as familiar to me as The River or Nebraska are. (When Nebraska came out, someone got it on tape again - and I think I must have copied it, because I listened to it for years.) It was intense - and when Nebraska came out - it got more intense. That was not a communal record (though me and the kid from Jersey would listen to it together.) I listened to it alone a lot - or maybe it's just the kind of record that makes you feel alone. I don't know. I worshipped it though - it was one of my iconic records for many years...
But this infatuation with Springsteen, powerful as it was, did not last very long. It lasted roughly until the release of Born in the USA, to be honest. That was a record that came with very high expectations (as had Nebraska) - and it was very disappointing. It's hard to say why, exactly - there are good songs on there (the title track particularly) - but it felt wrong. It was so overproduced - it sounded normal, on the radio, in 1984. (Not a good time to sound normal.) Maybe more than that - it struck me as being a direct continuation of The River, with slicker production and fewer good songs - and it occurred to me that this was the first time Springsteen did not change with his new record. The first six were all different - they all sound different. There's obviously a lot of continuity - but still: the funky folk sound of the first one.... the more melodic, soulful, jazzy approach on the second... the epic rock and roll sprawl of Born to Run, piles of instruments all humming along.... then Darkness, while continuing some of that, moves toward a harder rock sound - think Adam Raised a Cain or Candy's Room... then The River's combination of much rootsier, rock & roll songs alongside the country/folk of the title track, Stolen Car, etc. - which gets stripped to the bone for Nebraska, country, rockabilly, folk.... all of them emphasizing different things, all of them revolving around slightly different musical styles - all of them telling slightly different kinds of stories, too. Moving toward narrative - songs like Blinded by the Light or Growin' Up aren't quite narrative at all; but every record is more story oriented, until you reach Nebraska, which plays like a set of short stories. And different types of stories - different locations (some of the records are very urban; some are very much New Jersey - some are clearly more rural, rural Jersey or PA, etc., and Nebraska is national) - different tones. Types of characters - the noirish songs on Born to Run morph into the serial killers, small time crooks, desperate auto workers shooting up a bar on a spree on Nebraska.... All that - he covers an amazing amount of ground in those records, covers a surprising amount of musical ground as well - and all that seems to be starting to spin its wheels on Born in the USA.
So he lost me. I bought the big live record that came out about that time - which, I thought, and still think, redeems most of the songs on Born in the USA... have I mentioned how much I dislike the production?... But after that - the next couple records were meh... and so? Other groups supplanted Springsteen in my heart... partly, I imagine, because I liked him in college, and I had no money in college, and so managed, despite loving Bruce, and listening to Bruce a ton - to never buy any Springsteen records until I got that big live thing - after I got out of college. And Tunnel of Love, I bought that... and so I didn't have the records around to keep going back to - not until a lot later when I made a point of getting Nebraska and Asbury Park. There you have it. He's tended to retreat in my mind more than even groups like U2, who I loved for a while, then started to love less - but I had those records (see, in college, I was the only U2 fan I knew, until I got my brothers to like them - so I had to buy their records if I was going to hear them. Other people liked Bruce - I could listen to their records.) So I didn't overlook them.
I shouldn't overlook Springsteen. My tastes have changed - he does not fit well with the things I have listened to for the last 25 years (that will be coming in this series - among the songwriting set, Lou Reed, David Thomas and Richard Thompson are going to loom large).... but he was so good in the 70s - the songs, when I listen to them now, still come back to me, how great they are, and how many different ways they are great. A song like Two Hearts or Factory plays now, and I feel what I felt then....
And now - top ten - a very difficult list to compile, for the reasons hinted at above - his consistency as a songwriter, the variety of styles he worked in... but here goes anyway:
1. Atlantic City
2. Blinded By the Light
3. Johnny 99
4. Growin' Up
5. The River
6. Born to Run
7. State Trooper/Open All Night [they are very close to the same song - same riff, one acoustic, quieter, the other fast and electric, thew lyrics echoing each other - one desperate, one hyperactive and joyful, both of them racing through the New Jersey night... though given the general tone of Nebraska, it's hard not to imagine the two of them running into one another out there... though - the mean one comes first; the happy one comes later - corrects it, maybe, who knows. I am counting them as one, no matter what.]
8. 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)
9. Two Hearts
10. Candy's Room
Video - a liver version of Atlantic City:
And Manfred Mann - which doesn't really sound much like Bruce, but gave people a taste of his songs - and is still a pretty good bit of work....
Bruce Rocks - Candy's Room:
And a draft (sounding more like The River) - Candy's Boy:
And - I guess the iconic Springsteen song, Born to Run: