' Cinema Romantico: A Digression: The Boss Hasn't Retired Yet

Friday, February 05, 2010

A Digression: The Boss Hasn't Retired Yet

The most recent Springsteen album, "Working On A Dream", was the nightmare I had long feared, wherein as each song passes the realization becomes more and more clear: "Oh no, this isn't good. This is disappointing. This is not enjoyable. This is a Springsteen album and I want to force myself to like it but....I can't. I can't and there is nothing I can do about it." I still listen to it every now and then with the misbegotten hope it will somehow reveal everything it did not on the first 107 painful listens, that "Queen of the Supermarket" will stop being the worst Springsteen song since "Real Man" (a song which makes me want to pour gasoline over myself in the presence of a pyromaniac) and come into focus as a pop oriented Brahms' Symphony but....then the album finishes and I realize I still don't like it. And then I curl up in a ball under my coffee table, certain Bruce's days of decent album making are firmly in the past.

Thus, when I heard Bruce had performed a new song called "Wrecking Ball" to open each show of his Giants Stadium stand last fall I stayed away from it, fearing the worst. But recently I found myself on ITunes and saw "Wrecking Ball" dangling itself in front of me for a mere 99 cents and thought "Well, hey, it's Bruce, I suppose I could give it a chance" and then I bought it and hit play and breathed deeply and closed my eyes, ready for another nightmare, but....a most funny thing happened. I found myself believing in the Church of Bruce again, believing like I haven't for several years.

Now make no mistake, this is not a great Bruce song. Goodness, no. We're still a long, long way from the lo fi perfection of "Nebraska" and the awesome overwrought romanticism of "Born To Run" and the incomprehensibly brilliant introspection of "Tunnel Of Love". The lyrics are terribly clunky. I mean, for crying out loud, Bruce rhymes "balls" with "ball" and "rust" with "dust". (But, frankly, I don't think Bruce has it in himself anymore to write great lyrics. I think he's exhausted all his ammo. I always envision him sitting around his sprawling Jersey mansion with a notepad and pen and he's writing a new song and he's written this little bit he thinks is great - just great - and he calls in Patti and tells her and then he reads her the line: "You can leave me tonight but just don't leave me alone." And then Patti gets this look and Bruce realizes it instantly and says, "Oh no, I already wrote that line, didn't I?" And Patti says "Yup. Thirty five years ago." And Bruce rips up the page and sighs "Oh well, I guess I'll just rhyme lips with kiss and rust with dust again.") But for once you don't hear him trying to be great. All those lyrics on "Working On A Dream" make it sound like a struggling English major pouring over them again and again, adjusting, changing, re-working, and failing miserably. ("He who waits for the day's riches will be lost / In the whispering tide." I mean, the whispering tide? Is he collaborating with Sheryl Crow now?) "Wrecking Ball" just sounds like he came up with something he wanted to say backstage, wrote it down on a cocktail napkin, read it, said to himself "who gives a crap if its cornball?", rehearsed it at sound check, and then played it. And the song benefits so much because of it.

The shows Bruce and The E Street Band played at Giants Stadium were the last prior to its scheduled tearing-down this year for the new palace next door. So the song is sung from the stadium's point of view, in a sense, daring the powers-that-be to "bring on your wrecking ball". It's packed wall-to-wall with little football references. "Your game's been decided and you're burning the clock down." But his voice! It's urgent! It's fierce! And I do love the line "All our hopes and victories turn into parking lots." It makes me think of Julie Delpy in "Before Sunrise" talking about her father turning her "fanciful ambitions into some practical moneymaking venture." (Or is that just me?)

What I really love about the song, though, is the band. That's The E Street Band, people. Rockin' out. Like they're supposed to. It starts out acoustic and then the synth comes in with one of those familiar wistful riffs you so often find in the Springsteen canon, that only a Springsteen song knows how to employ, and then the Roy Bittan piano. Oh, the Roy Bittan piano. God help me, I do love it so. In the hands of Springsteen's 00's producer Brendan O'Brien the Roy Bittan piano so often gets the shaft in favor of a guitar-driven troika with loads of overdubs. He overproduces everything. This is okay on the Spector-ish pop songs like "Girls In Their Summer Clothes" but, say, "Radio Nowhere" sounds so much better live when it doesn't have 28 unnecessary layers added to it. It's The E Street Band, man. Just let them be. (It's like trying to Auto Tune Neko Case's voice. Uh....sorta not necessary.)

So many of my favorite Springsteen songs have the Bittan piano at the forefront. Can't we ever get that again? His piano is so beautiful and, most especially, so elegiac. You can hear the ode to Giants Stadium in that piano on "Wrecking Ball". More than that, you can see it. You can see Lawrence Taylor coming off the edge and you can see Curtis Martin dragging a tackler for a few extra yards (I didn't forget you, Jets fans) and, why, you can even see Elaine Benes and Joel Rifkin ("He's not the murderer") if you look really close. And then when the whole band kicks in and rocks it and Clarence's sax is calling out like a North Atlantic lighthouse and O'Brien isn't there to add god-knows-what and, well, if you're an E Street Disciple you're just in high heaven, even if the lyrics are clunky. "Wrecking Ball" trades that studio-made meticulousness for indomitable spirit. God, there's just so much....so much....so much....feeling.

Then about three-fourths of the way in the song does a curious thing. Bruce sings the line from the chorus: "Bring on your wrecking ball." But then Little Stevie Van Zandt (in that voice of his, the most beautiful out-of-tune voice there ever was) sings it, too. And then Bruce sings it again. And then Little Stevie sings it again. And now you realize the point-of-view is shifting from the stadium to these two. And it gives me chills. Bruce and Little Stevie, one sixty, one fifty-nine, best friends for life. And you realize that finally, finally, Bruce isn't singing about 9/11 or about the Iraq war or about the Bush Administration or migrant workers, no, he's singing for himself. He's singing, by God, out of defiance.

You think I'm over the hill, he seems to be saying. You think I'm past my prime? You think that "guacamole dip" line from the Super Bowl was terrible? You think I'm Old Man River just because I got one of them Kennedy Center Honors they only give to dudes whose relevancy is long done gone? Is that what you think? Yeah? Screw you. Bring on your wrecking ball.

And I listen and I smile and I wonder if maybe, just maybe, Bruce Springsteen has one great album left him in yet.

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