Revisiting Bruce’s Barbaric Yawp, via Louis CK

This righteous, eloquent and not uncomplicated rant by National Treasure Louis CK has, rightly, been getting a lot of buzz this week.

I’m actually working on a separate piece discussing some of the notions Louis CK (who, in case you weren’t already aware, is a GENIUS) addresses, so stay tuned. The issue of smartphones (in particular) and technology (in general) is one thing, but CK’s diversion into an appreciation of “Jungleland” warrants more mention. Fortunately I already did my homework here.

For now, this provides an excellent opportunity to revisit –and celebrate– what might be the best moment from The Boss on the best song from his best album.

The original piece, entitled “The Boss, The Big Man and the Best Rock Song of the ’70s” can be found in its entirety HERE.

Here is where I celebrate The Big Man:

3.54 – 6.13. That is the second it begins and the second it ends: the sax solo that follows what is possibly Springsteen’s finest (and certainly most blistering) guitar solo. We’re talking about “Jungleland”, needless to say. It is a perfect song, closing an album that also begins with a perfect song (“Thunder Road”).

Here is the song.

Here is my take.

And there it is: after a couple of tentative years as an apprentice, this is when Bruce became The Boss, and regardless of how you feel about everything that followed, the work here sufficiently secures his status for all time.

Which brings us back to the Big Man. His contributions (as a presence on stage as much as a player on the songs) going forward were always well-received, but it’s debatable whether he ever blew again like he does on Born To Run. And on the album’s centerpiece, possibly Springsteen’s finest –and most important– moment, Clemons does his finest work. “Jungleland” employs the epic, almost operatic (“Man there’s an opera out on the Turnpike”) strategy Springsteen developed on the first two albums (think “Lost In The Flood”, “Spirit in the Night”, “Incident on 57th Street” and “New York City Serenade”), but this is at a whole other level. From the languid, strings and piano introduction to the gradual build-up  (“As secret debts are paid/Contacts made, they vanish unseen), to the aforementioned guitar solo (3.00 – 3.27), the tension, at once joyous and foreboding, builds and then, instead of crashing, it crests. Enter Clemons. 3.54 – 6.13: the solo. It is extended, totally in charge and almost indescribably affecting. He wails, establishes a groove and then (right around the 5.43 mark) goes to that other place. Finally, just as the strings and piano take over, that last gasp, like a light going out or a life being saved. It is his moment, and in addition to being the best thing he ever did, it ranks as one of the best things anyone has done in a rock song.

All of this sets up the denouement: while the lyrics (some of Springsteen’s very best) and the majestic piano cascades, courtesy of Roy Bittan, finish what they started,  it’s up to the singer to sell this cautionary tale (“In the tunnels uptown/The Rat’s own dream guns him down) turned climactic cry of endurance. And sell it he does. The song could end after the final lines (including the immortal couplet “Man the poets down here don’t write nothing at all/They just stand back and let it all be”), and it would be a tour de force. But as the piano and strings begin to dance in what seems an obvious outro, Springsteen becomes a rock deity. 8.45 – 9.22: those 37 seconds, a wordless cycle of soulful screams, articulate everything Springsteen had spent three complete albums building up to; in that final cry we hear anguish, anger and above all, resolve. There is no fear, not anymore. He has arrived and after this song, there is no chance he could be ignored and even less chance anyone could ever take away his crown.

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I Love Eleanor Friedberger More Than She Loves Playing Guitar

I am very much on the record of endorsing the Fiery Furnaces; indeed, I rank their 2006 joint Bitter Tea as my personal #10 choice for best albums of the previous decade. Check it HERE.

Here’s a taste, including my overall take on their unique sensibility:

Bitter Tea is neither a departure from nor a doubling-down on the eccentricity that marks all of their work. It has some of their most bizarre songs (which, as anyone who knows this band, is saying a lot) but it also has, by far, some of their most immediately accessible and enduring compositions. For evidence of the former, consider “Nevers!” or “The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry“; for proof of the latter look no further than “Waiting To Know You” (which sounds like a Motown nursery rhyme) or “Benton Harbor Blues” (a song that manages to make the state of melancholy sound intoxicating). The rest of the album splits the difference, tiptoeing the line between playful and preposterous. That they are able to do this consistently and in the service of songs that warrant repeated listens is not an inconsiderable achievement. These songs are like a first date who intentionally acts odd to throw you off guard in order to ascertain if you are for real; if you are worth a second date you have to hang in there and see what’s beneath the surface. And that is the clever, if quirky calculus The Fiery Furnaces are making a career out of: music that sounds so bizarre at first it seems designed to turn off non-believers, but reveals layers and myriad rewards for those with patience and perseverance.

Ever prolific, Eleanor is now promoting her second solo album, Personal Record.

I caught her (and fellow Furnaces) live in 2007 and it was a fantastic show.

I remember her being every bit as quirky, cute and seductive as I could have hoped.

I don’t remember her playing a guitar.

She appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon the other night, and it brought to mind what Frank Zappa allegedly once said about Bruce Springsteen: “He holds his guitar very well.”

That was, of course, harsh and unfair, but Zappa did not suffer competition (or fools) lightly. In this regard, Bruce was hardly competition and he’s never been a fool and, compared to many other popular artists, he plays his guitar quite nicely indeed.

Eleanor, despite her other talents, is no guitar player.

But she does hold it very well.

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A Not-So-Modest Proposal

Wouldn’t it be fantastic if, in addition to bumper stickers and salutes at ball games, we supported funding and social programs (and give more than fleeting thoughts) for the well-being of brave, often broken soldiers who have a whole new war to fight when they return home?

More thoughts on PTSD here, here, here, and here. And especially HERE. (An excerpt from the last link, written in 2008, is directly below.)

Movies like The Deer Hunter and Coming Home dealt with Vietnam’s immediate aftermath—the dead or wounded—but not many artists (certainly not enough artists) articulated the dilemma of the working poor who returned from the front line to become the unemployed, or unemployable poor. The vets who ended up in jail, or hospitals, or sleeping under bridges. Or the ones always on the edge (this was, remarkably, a time when shell shock was still a more commonly used term than Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and, as George Carlin astutely pointed out, perhaps if we still called it “shell shock” it might be less easy to ignore), the ones who, by all outside appearances, could—and should—be finding work, and contributing to society, and staying out of trouble. As politicians of a certain party confirm time and again, you cease to be especially useful once you’re no longer in the womb, or no longer wearing the uniform.

On albums like Nebraska and Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen presented stories of the dirty and the desperate, the men and women straddling the line between paychecks and prison, the ones wrestling with the hope and glory inherent in the mostly mythical American Dream. All of them had a story, and many of them were archetypes from small towns and big cities all across the country. But “Born in the U.S.A.” might be the first instance where Springsteen takes a topical dilemma and wrestles with an entire demographic: the veterans with “nowhere to run (and) nowhere to go”.

Of course, in an irony that could only occur in America, none other than our PPP (proudly patriotic president), Ronald Reagan, (or, more likely, his handlers) utterly misread the song and tried to appropriate it as a feel-good anthem for his 1984 reelection campaign. Predictably, Springsteen protested. But what Reagan and his opportunistic underlings heard was, in fairness, the same interpretation so many other Americans shared. And who cares, anyway? It’s just a song after all. And yet, it is a shame that such an effective, and affecting, observation was celebrated as representing the very facile values (unthinking nationalism, unblinking pride) it calls into question. Again, Springsteen and his band deserve no small amount of artistic culpability for marrying such stark lyrics to such a buoyant, fist-pumping, car commercial sounding song. People hear those martial drums and think of John Wayne instead of Travis Bickle.

Why bring politics into it at all, one might ask? Music can be, and certainly is, enjoyed regardless of what it was intended to inspire. If a song moves you, or manages to make sense in ways that directly contradict the artist’s design, beauty is forever in the eye of the beholder. On the other hand, as George Orwell noted, “the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude”. Put another way, “Born in the U.S.A.” is still relevant because the issues it confronts are still relevant. We not only have (entirely too many) struggling veterans from last century’s wars, we will have no shortage of men and women who have fought (or are currently fighting) in this generation’s imbroglio. History only makes one promise, and it’s that it will ceaselessly repeat itself.

And so, even as our ill-advised adventure in Iraq reaches its inevitable endgame (and our unrequited affair with Nation Building in Afghanistan chugs along with no end in sight), we will only be in the initial stages of dealing with the veterans who need care and attention. We won’t count the ultimate cost of “mission accomplished” until we consider the lives lost and the walking wounded, tallied up alongside the untold billions of dollars. The Democrats can’t create miracles, but they can continue to ensure that the people owed the most won’t get the least. (We will concede that when it comes to bumper-sticker braggadocio, no one pays lip service to soldiers, country and Christ like Republicans, but a checkbook and a soul always trump empty sloganeering.)

Remember this, when the small-government-soundbite hyenas crawl out of their tax-payer fortified foxholes to decry liberal “big spending” programs. Remember it’s these programs that, in addition to paving roads, building schools and providing health care, attempt to secure some support and solace for our broken soldiers. And remember, in two, or four, or forty years, these same curs will once again wrap themselves in the American flag; these same armchair generals and couch potato patriots prepared to fight to the last drop of other folks’ blood will be the ones seeking to slash programs designed to save the ones burning down the road.

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The Boss, The Big Man and the Best Rock Song of the ’70s (Revisited)

(6/18/2011: Reposted from two years ago. R.I.P., Big Man!)

When the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band…

The rest was history, wasn’t it?

I am, of course, quoting from “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”, the second song from Bruce Springsteen’s masterpiece, Born To Run.

It seems appropriate, on the occasion of his 69th birthday, to send a shout out to the Big Man, and celebrate what I consider his finest moment –and one of the finer moments in rock and roll history.

3.54 – 6.13. That is the second it begins and the second it ends: the sax solo that follows what is possibly Springsteen’s finest (and certainly most blistering) guitar solo. We’re talking about “Jungleland”, needless to say. It is a perfect song, closing an album that also begins with a perfect song (“Thunder Road”).

More on Born To Run another time, although it’s unclear if anything else needs to be said about it. It does not need anyone to make the case it clearly and indelibly makes for itself: one of the perfect rock albums, no further questions or comments necessary. That it came as the result of a fanatical and obsessive quest on the young Springsteen’s part (he was 25 when it was released) is well-documented. What is less understood and, for younger fans who came to the party during (or after!) the ubiquity of Born In The U.S.A., is that after two critically praised but commercially D.O.A. albums, there was a very real chance that millions of frenzied fans would never get an opportunity to scream “Bruuuuuuce!” at concerts for the next several decades. The desperation, ambition and yearning wrapped inside-out each song was very real, and more than slightly mirrored the state of mind of this scruffy underdog who (not unlike Rush before they made 2112) had the balls to stay true to his vision and figure he would either hit a grand slam or go down swinging.

And the rest is, well, history, isn’t it?

Every element comes together (the lyrics, the energy, the playing, the production) in the creation of rock’s response, mid-decade and post-Watergate (and Vietnam, the ’60s, etc.), to the American Dream. Unlike his first two albums, where the narrators and heroes are kids in the midst of chasing shadows or making mistakes (or trying to escape their environment), on Born To Run many of the protagonists have already seen and done enough to know that, for them, drastic action is required. There is an air of regret mixed with a not-yet extinguished defiance: the dream, whatever it may entail, is not quite dead. Thus the dreamer in “Thunder Road” declaring “it’s a town full of losers and I’m pulling out of here to win” and the defiance of the title track “we can live with sadness I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul” and the affirmations of dudes and/or bandleaders knowing they got what they wanted in “She’s The One” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”.

Of course there are also the ones unlikely to get away or win; the ones for whom the deck is already stacked against them and they are either unable or unwilling to acknowledge it. Despite the driving (pun intended) pulse of “Night” where the everyman (brilliantly identified in the 2nd person since what he is experiencing is so typical and inevitable) escapes the daily boil of his dead-end job and harrowing commute to simply feel alive by driving off to nowhere, at night, with the yellow lines racing by beneath him. And while the restrained bordering on elegaic musical backdrop (just piano, bass and a killer trumpet cameo by Randy Brecker) on “Meeting Across The River” strains in its solemn way to make a hero out of this nobody, the tension of the song is that while he stands to score two grand (his excitement at this modest sum all that is necessary to delineate his lot in life) there is just as good a chance that he is about to get whacked. It’s neither ironic nor patronizing: the action (the song’s working title was “The Heist”) is relayed from this guy’s point of view (“Tonight’s gonna be everything that I said”), and as he concedes, “we got ourselves out on that line.” We don’t get to find out what happens, and whether the setting is 1975, 1875, or 2025, we don’t really need to.

And there it is: after a couple of tentative years as an apprentice, this is when Bruce became The Boss, and regardless of how you feel about everything that followed, the work here sufficiently secures his status for all time.

Which brings us back to the Big Man. His contributions (as a presence on stage as much as a player on the songs) going forward were always well-received, but it’s debatable whether he ever blew again like he does on Born To Run. And on the album’s centerpiece, possibly Springsteen’s finest –and most important– moment, Clemons does his finest work. “Jungleland” employs the epic, almost operatic (“Man there’s an opera out on the Turnpike”) strategy Springsteen developed on the first two albums (think “Lost In The Flood”, “Spirit in the Night”, “Incident on 57th Street” and “New York City Serenade”), but this is at a whole other level. From the languid, strings and piano introduction to the gradual build-up (“As secret debts are paid/Contacts made, they vanish unseen), to the aforementioned guitar solo (3.00 – 3.27), the tension, at once joyous and foreboding, builds and then, instead of crashing, it crests. Enter Clemons. 3.54 – 6.13: the solo. It is extended, totally in charge and almost indescribably affecting. He wails, establishes a groove and then (right around the 5.43 mark) goes to that other place. Finally, just as the strings and piano take over, that last gasp, like a light going out or a life being saved. It is his moment, and in addition to being the best thing he ever did, it ranks as one of the best things anyone has done in a rock song.

All of this sets up the denouement: while the lyrics (some of Springsteen’s very best) and the majestic piano cascades, courtesy of Roy Bittan, finish what they started, it’s up to the singer to sell this cautionary tale (“In the tunnels uptown/The Rat’s own dream guns him down) turned climactic cry of endurance. And sell it he does. The song could end after the final lines (including the immortal couplet “Man the poets down here don’t write nothing at all/They just stand back and let it all be”), and it would be a tour de force. But as the piano and strings begin to dance in what seems an obvious outro, Springsteen becomes a rock deity. 8.45 – 9.22: those 37 seconds, a wordless cycle of soulful screams, articulate everything Springsteen had spent three complete albums building up to; in that final cry we hear anguish, anger and above all, resolve. There is no fear, not anymore. He has arrived and after this song, there is no chance he could be ignored and even less chance anyone could ever take away his crown.

*Your mileage may vary and yes, I’m being deliberately hyperbolic. Who cares what the best song of the ’70s is, especially since we would never arrive at anything approximating consensus. (Which, after all is a good thing.) Put differently, everyone knows “Stairway To Heaven” is the best song of the ’70s, and “Jungleland” stands guitars and saxophones above “Stairway To Heaven”. In other words, “Stairway To Heaven” is the best song, except for the hundreds of songs (including dozens by Led Zeppelin) that are better. And if that fails to convince you, or makes less than a little bit of sense, I am satisfied that my work here is done.

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Compassion*

License registration, no I ain’t got none,
But I got a clear conscience ‘bout the things that I done…

When you find yourself singing Bruce Springsteen lyrics in New Jersey to a state trooper in the hopes of avoiding a ticket, you might as well close your eyes, see what happens:
Maybe you could talk to the cop and explain that it was not disrespect for the rules of the road, but love of—and getting lost in—art that caused you to forget. To forget where you were and who you were, only to find yourself in the unfamiliar role of fugitive.
And maybe he would understand.
Maybe he would engage you in a discussion about music, and how it helps us, how it is always there, and occasionally compels us to do things we would not otherwise do.
And maybe, after everything was said and done, you would stop, and ask him if he was real, if this could ever actually happen.
And maybe he would wink familiarly, as if to say: This is America, ain’t it? Anything is possible.
And maybe you would believe him, even as you heard his footsteps fading away.
And by the time you opened your eyes, maybe you were still rolling down the road, the only reality being the speed and the sky, and the siren song of metal and machinery.

A vision:

Finally, his car needed fuel, he needed fuel; so he had no choice but to stop at the godforsaken rest area. Everyone, it seemed, had stopped at the same rest area: equal parts public toilet, food court and concessions stand. It was at once appalling and extraordinary; it was, in short, America.

Who were they, the people all around him? They were everyone: departing or arriving, leaving for vacation, returning to work, delighted, delirious, above all, anonymous. In New Jersey, or in any small town, or everywhere in America, there are people who find themselves lost; the people with nowhere left to go. A cliché? Sure. But clichés are made, not born. Reality, of course, is a cliché, and we have discovered that clichés—even as they are the enemy of art and authenticity—can be our friends. And so: going to church makes us sense spirituality, so we go; playing carols at Christmas facilitates a feeling of festivity, so we play; falling in love makes us feel loved, so we fall. We need all the help we can find, so we find friends and never look back.
He looked back; he looked around and in front of him, seeing the stereotypes: the ones in his mind that everything but experience had created. Or was the Cliché unfurling itself, the one that perpetuates from a particular place: experience, repetition, pattern, tradition? He saw them, he saw how he wanted to see them, he saw how they saw him, he saw how they saw him seeing them, and so on.
And who was he?
What was he all about? What had he done? Where had he been? Where was he going? Who did he think he was? Everyman? No man? Or worse: the type of person who actually asks questions like this.
Walking away, stomach full and mind clear, he saw her. He could not help noticing the forsaken sister walking in circles, seeking a corner of the room that wasn’t there. How old was she? Eighteen? Eighty? Somewhere right in between? Satisfied with a meek drink in the water fountain, she was the type of person who unthinkingly drank from public water fountains. Does anyone drink from public water fountains anymore? Do they still exist? Does anyone even notice them?
It was hard not to notice her, impossible not to notice that pain.
Pain: Dostoyevsky, disconcerted as he was with crime and punishment, saw all the suffering of the world in a prostitute’s eyes, and sobbed when he witnessed a peasant, hard-pressed with impotent anger, beating his horse to death. He opened his eyes and half expected to see this woman whipping herself while Nietzsche—knowing full well that God was dead— held his head and wept. Who was she, and what was she doing here?
A hooker, a homeless person? A mother, a case of mistaken identity? A human symbol of hope, or Hope herself—a deity deferred, paying the price for us all, all of us sinners and those sins we can scarcely describe.
She’s just like me, a voice inside attempted to say, a voice he very well may have listened to—a voice he had come dangerously close to growing into, under the shadow of the ivory tower—had he opted to make certain decisions along the way.
He walked over, ready to help: offer money, lend a hand, do whatever needed to be done, even and especially the things he had neither the ways nor means to make happen. He walked over and smiled, and she spoke, making him an offer he had no choice but to refuse.
It was enough to make one wonder if (and even wish that) the stories in the bible, and those fairy tales and myths men have made all have a foundation in fact. That the slow, ceaseless suffering some of us occasionally see is in accordance with a plan, a motion picture we have no part in producing. That it was not even personal, all this erstwhile, enigmatic madness, it was strictly business. It was enough to cause the hardest of humans to hope for a beneficent Big Guy (or Lady, but it is asking too much for God to have the decency to be a woman) upstairs, shuffling that proverbial deck. Or cutting and pasting the appropriate pieces of the puzzle, always keeping a wise eye on the endearing idiots underneath, and generally doing and saying the things that the creator of an entire universe says and does.
But how the hell are we supposed to have hope when Hope herself had been reduced to this, turning tricks at a rest stop on the Jersey Turnpike?

*Excerpted from a work-in-progress entitled Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone

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Born In The U.S.A. or, Every Day Is Veterans Day (Revisited)

I. Personal

Remember when Born in the U.S.A. was ubiquitous? The album and the song. Bruce was already big, but he wasn’t over the top. Born in the U.S.A. put him over the top and, to a certain extent, he’s stayed there ever since. Of course, people in the know understood he was already a legend before the ‘70s ended; in the early ‘80s The River and Nebraska cemented that status, but Born in the U.S.A. ensured that no one could ever ignore The Boss.

I already owned scratchy LP copies of Born To Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, as well as original (and shitty sounding) cassette copies of the oft-overlooked but brilliant first two albums (Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, The Innocent, and the E. Street Shuffle), so by the time Born in the U.S.A. hit the market, I was admittedly wary of the frenzied and new-fangled faithful joining the party. But other, more disconcerting forces were at play: the album, as good as it was, wasn’t that good. “Dancing in the Dark”, “I’m On Fire”, “No Surrender”, “My Hometown”? Eh. “Glory Days” was pretty much an instant classic, but (as is always the case with FM-friendly tunes, and never the fault of the artist) overplay hasn’t helped its staying power. But the big hit, the title track, the song that seemed to shoot through the dial 24/7, that one was a love or hate affair. I hated it. If ever there was an arena-ready anthem, this was it. And the muscle-bound Bruce from the video? Give me the spindly Serpico clone from ’78 any day.

(Interesting coincidence: Springsteen had a difficult time getting the track to sound the way he wanted it. Indeed, it was an outtake from his stark solo effort Nebraska. This is not unlike the origins of another overplayed song from the ‘80s, The Rolling Stones’ insufferable “Start Me Up”. That one was originally cut as a reggae-ish romp, before it devolved into the over-produced, if innocuous hit it was destined to be. “Start Me Up”, to be certain, is a lark, and it was—for better or worse—fated to be recycled for eternity at sporting events. “Born in the U.S.A.”, on the other hand, is actually a serious song and, as it happens, is much better than it sounds.)

Perhaps it’s my own fault, but it took several years before I even figured out the words Bruce was singing; perhaps it’s due to his overwrought delivery—equal parts marble-mouthed and shouting. Regardless, this is quite possibly Springsteen’s most somber song—and considering the era (Nebraska) it was written, that is saying a great deal. (And for the curious, it’s well worth checking out the (far superior) demo version that didn’t make the cut for the Nebraska album.) It made all the sense in the world, then, when Springsteen hit the road for his subdued Tom Joad tour in the mid-‘90s, he made the searing, stripped-down version of this song a centerpiece of the show. His hand pounding the acoustic guitar to simulate a heart beat at the song’s coda remains one of the most quietly powerful and emotional moments I’ve ever witnessed at a concert.

II. Polemical

Check it out:

Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up

Born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.

Got in a little hometown jam
So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man

(chorus)

Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says “Son if it was up to me”
Went down to see my V.A. man
He said “Son, don’t you understand”

I had a brother at Khe Sahn fighting off the Viet Cong
They’re still there, he’s all gone

He had a woman he loved in Saigon
I got a picture of him in her arms

Down in the shadow of the penitentiary
Out by the gas fires of the refinery
I’m ten years burning down the road
Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go

This song is, upon closer inspection, a staggering achievement. With few words and admirable restraint, Springsteen captures the cause and effects of the Vietnam war from the perspective of an ordinary American, the afflicted civilian. More, he moves the narrator into the here-and-now, making the uncomfortable point that the war never died for the people who managed to live. Movies like The Deer Hunter and Coming Home dealt with Vietnam’s immediate aftermath—the dead or wounded—but not many artists (certainly not enough artists) articulated the dilemma of the working poor who returned from the front line to become the unemployed, or unemployable poor. The vets who ended up in jail, or hospitals, or sleeping under bridges. Or the ones always on the edge (this was, remarkably, a time when shell shock was still a more commonly used term than Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and, as George Carlin astutely pointed out, perhaps if we still called it “shell shock” it might be less easy to ignore), the ones who, by all outside appearances, could—and should—be finding work, and contributing to society, and staying out of trouble. As politicians of a certain party confirm time and again, you cease to be especially useful once you’re no longer in the womb, or no longer wearing the uniform.

On albums like Nebraska and Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen presented stories of the dirty and the desperate, the men and women straddling the line between paychecks and prison, the ones wrestling with the hope and glory inherent in the mostly mythical American Dream. All of them had a story, and many of them were archetypes from small towns and big cities all across the country. But “Born in the U.S.A.” might be the first instance where Springsteen takes a topical dilemma and wrestles with an entire demographic: the veterans with “nowhere to run (and) nowhere to go”.

Of course, in an irony that could only occur in America, none other than our PPP (proudly patriotic president), Ronald Reagan, (or, more likely, his handlers) utterly misread the song and tried to appropriate it as a feel-good anthem for his 1984 reelection campaign. Predictably, Springsteen protested. But what Reagan and his opportunistic underlings heard was, in fairness, the same interpretation so many other Americans shared. And who cares, anyway? It’s just a song after all. And yet, it is a shame that such an effective, and affecting, observation was celebrated as representing the very facile values (unthinking nationalism, unblinking pride) it calls into question. Again, Springsteen and his band deserve no small amount of artistic culpability for marrying such stark lyrics to such a buoyant, fist-pumping, car commercial sounding song. People hear those martial drums and think of John Wayne instead of Travis Bickle.

III. Political

Why bring politics into it at all, one might ask? Music can be, and certainly is, enjoyed regardless of what it was intended to inspire. If a song moves you, or manages to make sense in ways that directly contradict the artist’s design, beauty is forever in the eye of the beholder. On the other hand, as George Orwell noted, “the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude”. Put another way, “Born in the U.S.A.” is still relevant because the issues it confronts are still relevant. We not only have (entirely too many) struggling veterans from last century’s wars, we will have no shortage of men and women who have fought (or are currently fighting) in this generation’s imbroglio. History only makes one promise, and it’s that it will ceaselessly repeat itself.

And so, even as our ill-advised adventure in Iraq reaches its inevitable endgame (and our unrequited affair with Nation Building in Afghanistan chugs along with no end in sight), we will only be in the initial stages of dealing with the veterans who need care and attention. We won’t count the ultimate cost of “mission accomplished” until we consider the lives lost and the walking wounded, tallied up alongside the untold billions of dollars. The Democrats can’t create miracles, but they can continue to ensure that the people owed the most won’t get the least. (We will concede that when it comes to bumper-sticker braggadocio, no one pays lip service to soldiers, country and Christ like Republicans, but a checkbook and a soul always trump empty sloganeering.)

Remember this, when the small-government-soundbite hyenas crawl out of their tax-payer fortified foxholes to decry liberal “big spending” programs. Remember it’s these programs that, in addition to paving roads, building schools and providing health care, attempt to secure some support and solace for our broken soldiers. And remember, in two, or four, or forty years, these same craven curs will once again wrap themselves in the American flag; these same armchair generals and couch potato patriots prepared to fight to the last drop of other folks’ blood will be the ones seeking to slash programs designed to save the ones burning down the road.

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They Will Rock You, They Are The Champions: The Consummate American Bands (Revisited)

October ’08. In the spirit of two quintessentially American inventions (obsessions, really), baseball and rock and roll, it seemed like a swell idea to merge the two in a lighthearted exercise designed to celebrate the World Series. If one were to imagine fielding the ultimate all-star team comprised of the greatest “players” from the roster of rock music history, how would one begin? Well, for starters, this project could best be understood as falling somewhere in the spectrum of compulsive list making, a passionate engagement with rock music, and the increasingly ubiquitous phenomenon of fantasy teams that exist in the shadow universe of sports freaks. This discussion might begin with the innocent posing of an impossible question: who is the all-time MVP of rock and roll? Or, who are the chosen ones who would find their way onto the roster of any respectable short list? Most people, once the considerable pool of candidates was properly examined, could quickly reach consensus, right? Keep dreaming. The only thing more inimically American than sports and music is our unquenchable compulsion to compete, to choose a side and see what happens.

The whole idea, initially, was simply to have fun with the process. Immediately, I found myself fighting my choices and second-guessing my gut instinct. I realized that an endeavor like this is not dissimilar from what someone (probably a professor) once said regarding the infighting in academia: the battles are so bloody because the stakes are so small. Still, I am, admittedly, one of those idiots who spends an unreasonable amount of time contemplating the various criteria that renders certain artists (and works of art) viable, indelible, immutable. So, the question became: what was I thinking? Especially since I’m the type of person who would probably have an easier time deciding which digit to hack off if the alternative was isolating the one album I could not live without. No man is an island, but my imaginary desert island is all-inclusive: it’s all coming with me or I sink under the weight of its excess, drowning happily with those songs echoing in my mind. In sum, I should have known better. This, of course, is ultimately an agonizing endeavor, and (I know) if I ever saw someone else making a list like this, I’d certainly have a reaction (invariably a visceral one). So with that said, I serve up this offering with the encouragement of any responses, questions, critiques and most of all, alternate suggestions.

The Commissioner

Part Two: The Bench, Bullpen and Pitching Rotation

In the interest of fairness (and sanity), some parameters quickly became imperative. The roster: American bands only. The time period: post 1960. Naturally, and necessarily, this eliminates some of the most important artists, the progenitors. But any competitive team must start with proven leaders, right? We need coaches! Problem solved. Question: who is going to oversee this ultimate all-star team? Answer: why look further than the true godfather and indisputable king of rock and roll, Chuck Berry? He pretty much invented the game, so all of the players are by default his acolytes and apostles. Plus, there is nothing that will surprise or faze him; he’s been there, done that. Also, he is eccentric and irascible, as so many of the great skippers in any sport seem to be. He certainly is not lacking for self confidence: if someone needs to ride the pine due to poor performance, are they going to second guess Johnny B. Goode? Finally, there is always the tantalizing possibility of him duck walking out to home plate to argue a close call with the umpire. (That umpire, incidentally, is Rick Rubin. Who else has successfully mediated so many fruitful proceedings involving some of the biggest egos on the planet?)

Chuck Berry’s coaching staff represents the roots of rock music: the ones upon whose backs the British invasion and whitewashed American imitators climbed for profit. Little Richard, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley make a formidable bunch. The pitching coach is Roy Orbison and the hitting coach is, of course, Jerry Lee Lewis. Buddy Holly, forever young and good-natured, is bench coach. But what about soul brother number one, the fan’s choice as most valuable playa? James Brown, the hardest working man in show business, could be nothing other than Commissioner. As such, he supervises all internal affairs, speaks for the Players Association and oversees the relations with other leagues, including Blues, Funk and Country. (This explains the absence of fellow Commissioners Muddy Waters, George Clinton and Johnny Cash, all of whom have their own franchises and farm teams to organize.) In related news, if the Motown/Soul squad ever got involved, the slaughter rule might need to be put in place. Still, there is one glaring omission. What about the great white hope, Elvis Presley? Elvis, alas, is out: call it the revenge of the Negro Leagues. Not to worry, Elvis—along with Frank Sinatra and John Wayne—is safely ensconced up in the skybox, carousing with the owners and their obsequious entourages.

The Manager

Before introducing the starters and bullpen, let’s give a shout out for the deep and formidable bench, players who could step in at any time to make key contributions. In alphabetical order we have Alice in Chains, The Allman Brothers, The Cars, Kiss, Metallica, The Pretenders, Santana, Sleater-Kinney, Van Halen and Wilco. Our Triple-A affiliates are confident that up and comers such as The Black Keys, The White Stripes, The Fiery Furnaces and Iron and Wine are attracting attention and are all likely to have long and prosperous careers.

And so, without further ado, let’s have a look at the pitching rotation. These are the badasses who can shut down any lineup, and these studs all bring the noise via electric guitar. Starting with the cornerstone, the most important player on the field, our staff ace Jimi Hendrix. Plain and simple, this unhittable southpaw has the best ERA in the history of the game. His career was cut tragically short, but in his prime if you needed to win Game 7 of the World Series, this is the man you wanted on the mound. His complete dominance has never been debatable, and his stuff remains unmatched and inimitable. Next in the rotation is a proud product of Texas, Stevie Ray Vaughn. Another maestro cut short in his prime, he is nevertheless a first ballot hall of famer. Along with Hendrix’s patented machine gun delivery, SRV could always be counted on to release the Texas Flood. The third spot in the rotation is occupied by the quirky and impossibly prolific provocateur, Frank Zappa. Celebrated as much for his guile and élan, Z’s approach was always more cerebral: you never quite knew exactly what he was going to serve up, but more often than not, this long-haired hurler would be laughing at your expense before you realized the ball had left his hand. Vital for more than three decades, there is no question that Zappa was most definitely not in it only for the money. The rotation is balanced out by two insufficiently celebrated living legends, each employing opposite styles to similarly devastating effect. If Vernon Reid can reliably dazzle a lineup with his lightning-fast licks and mastery of an assortment of pitches, Buzz “King Buzzo” Osbourne is the ultimate grinder: his methodical, torrential barrage is on par with the best knuckleball—it is instantly identifiable but exceedingly difficult to master, much less describe.

The Ace

The bullpen is stocked with singer/songwriters, all of whom are masters of finesse, capable of taking over a game in the late innings. The set-up men, Kurt Cobain and Mike Patton, represent two of the more important and influential voices of the ‘90s. Like too many of his teammates, Cobain’s career was cut short, but Patton is settled in for the long haul, and it seems safe to assume that he’ll own many records by the time he hangs up his spurs. As the game winds down, two old school options emerge: from the east coast we have Lou Reed while representing the gold coast is Jackson Browne. Reed tends to give up too many walks, but he lives on the wild side; Browne serves up the occasional long ball when he’s running on empty. Ultimately, despite some less successful outings, these two veterans are there for you when you need them most. Every bullpen needs the situational specialist (sometimes lovingly referred to as the LOOGY, or Lefty One Out Guy), and on this squad Don Van Vliet (sometimes lovingly referred to as Captain Beefheart) always provides enough Electricity to induce that one crucial out. Last but far from least, the team requires a fearless closer to shut ‘em down and seal the deal. All energy, emotion and raw ability, Janis Joplin is an unflappable and intimidating as anyone who has ever played the game. Big Brother and the Holding Company knew how to hold a big lead, and there was never anything cheap about the thrills Janis delivered.

Part Three: The Starting Lineup

And now, the starting lineup, complete with designated hitter (as it would somehow seem less American not to play by American League rules; all of the National League purists are encouraged to join the conversation about how the game used to be played over at Nogoodmusicwasmadeafter1960.com), organized by batting order:

NAME POSITION

Creedence Clearwater Revival SS
Bruce Springsteen CF
Steely Dan 1B
R.E.M. 3B
The Pixies DH
Bob Dylan C
Lynyrd Skynyrd LF
The Doors RF
The Beach Boys 2B

Question: Where are the Grateful Dead? Three answers: First, they are too busy patrolling the concourse, dispensing miracles, to participate in organized games. Second, and perhaps more to the point, what position, exactly, is Jerry Garcia going to play? Finally, the game needs a mascot, and what could be more appropriate than the Steal Your Face guy flying in and around the stadium, at once part of the game and calmly removed from it; like a beach ball, only trippier. Also, instead of the current trend of singing “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch, we’re pumping in Howlin Wolf’s rendition of “Smokestack Lightning” because, frankly, it doesn’t get any more American than that.

Leading off, at short stop, is the hits machine Creedence Clearwater Revival. In their relatively brief, but remarkably productive prime, they were not only a force to be reckoned with, but unparalleled as a positive force in American music. They led the league in hits and batting average over three seasons (1968-1970). Their highlight reel runs constantly on FM radio, and it’s worth recalling that these dudes rocked the flannel look long before it was cool (in the ‘70s or in the grunge 2.0 fashion cycle).

Hitting in the number two spot, in centerfield, is Asbury Park’s own Bruce Springsteen. A promising rookie in ’73 who’d paid some serious dues for several years in the minor leagues, his breakthrough season came in 1975 when he garnered MVP honors for Born To Run. Since then he has seldom been out of favor, cranking out timely singles and infusing the game with his unmatched energy and integrity. If the team ever hits a losing streak, the Boss is often at his best when times seem the toughest: Bruce understands (and does his best to ensure) that the glory days are always in the future.

Spunk In Centerfield: The Boss

Batting third and flashing some serious leather at first base is the quiet but deadly duo Steely Dan. These guys were as close to a dynasty as anyone else in the much-maligned decade of the ‘70s. Perfectionists, oddballs, studio wizards, the Dan put together a string of winning seasons that any band would happily emulate. Consummate team players (never ones to put their faces on albums), Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were such perfectionists that they stopped touring altogether in the ‘70s so they could concentrate on crafting their meticulous string of albums. Every team requires the quietly obsessed, lead-by-example professional, and in the understated Dan, this squad has the perfect player to keep them grounded, and focused on what matters most.

The clean-up hitter and arguably most impressive player on the squad is that most American of bands, R.E.M. Not only the ultimate run producer and homeruns leader (from their rookie season in ’83 through at least ’96, their prime is one extended batting title). Consistency has always been their hallmark, and only the most versatile, fearless and original band could cover the hot corner year in and year out. If they’ve shown their age in recent years, it does not (cannot) diminish their credentials: a longer heyday than any other American band, hands down.

Batting fifth is highly regarded designated hitter The Pixies. This perennial fan favorite would warrant inclusion in the lineup courtesy of their two masterworks Surfer Rosa and Doolittle. But to put their influence and reputation in proper perspective, consider the fact that Kurt Cobain once admitted that on the Nirvana hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, he was “basically trying to rip off the Pixies…I should have been in that band—or at least a Pixies cover band.” Factor in that this is also the band that (sort of) spawned The Breeders, not to mention Black Francis’s metamorphosis into Frank Black, and the considerably satisfactory solo career he’s had. When you contemplate a band that hit long bombs when given the chance (with the strikeouts that are an inevitable part of the DH position), you might be hard pressed to come up with a better slugger. If the bases are loaded with two outs in a tie game, all that needs to be said is “if man is 5, then the devil is 6 and if the devil is 6 than god is 7”. That (rally) monkey’s gone to heaven.

Catcher, Captain and Iconoclast: Bob Dylan

Team captain, and catcher, Bob Dylan hits sixth. To be honest, he could play anywhere and do anything he feels like. It’s rather unlikely that he’d want to be associated with any teams, as he owes allegiance to no one other than Woody Guthrie. Dylan is, in short, the consensus leader of this entire generation: he is the alpha and omega of post-‘60s American music. Everyone from The Byrds to the Beatles and singer-songwriters from Van Morrison to Neko Case are, in their own way, paying homage to everything the bard from Minnesota made possible.

Batting in the number seven slot, it’s the tough-as-nails, first off the bench in a brawl southern boys Lynyrd Skynyrd. And where else but left field for a band that took Neil Young to task for critiquing “sweet home” Alabama, only to befriend him later? Where else but left field for a group with ultimate southern street cred advocating that we toss all pistols to the bottom of the sea (“Saturday Night Special”)? These non-NRA endorsing rednecks wrote songs that were remarkably nuanced (“That Smell”, “Needle and the Spoon”) and unusually sensitive (“Tuesday’s Gone”, “Simple Man”) as well as the obligatory ‘70s anthems (“Sweet Home Alabama”, “Give Me Three Steps”, “Free Bird”). Like too many of their teammates, tragedy derailed their run to glory, but the body of work is versatile, deep and enduring.

Hitting eighth and getting the mojo rising in right field are The Doors. Not too many groups have finished their careers as solid and strong as they began them, but L.A. Woman was almost as perfect a swan song as The Doors was a debut. Overlooked and easy to dismiss (Jim Morrison was to rock music what the oft-suspended and self-immolating prima donnas are to today’s sports), they cast an immense and influential shadow—often on the short list of younger band’s role models. And while right field is arguably the least exciting and uneventful position in the field, when you need that long throw home on a rope, or that perfect song at the end of the night before you slip into unconsciousness, the Lizard King is always ready to light up the fire.

The Hits Machine at Second Base: Brian Wilson

Finally, batting ninth and turning double plays at second base, it’s the forever young angels from the gold coast, The Beach Boys. Obviously, they had enough ammo, early in their career (another runs factory) to warrant serious consideration for inclusion on this team. But some historical perspective is imperative when really assessing the Beach Boys’ place in history: while The Beatles are (correctly) credited with creating rock music’s first commercially embraced work of art with Sgt. Pepper, it is well documented that Paul McCartney’s initial inspiration was to somehow make a record as incredible as Pet Sounds. A second baseman is counted on to stir the pot and produce timely singles, and The Beach Boys delivered some of the most crucial hits ever in postseason play: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?”, “God Only Knows”, and, of course, “Good Vibrations”—the single still hear ‘round the world.
So there it is: the ultimate lineup of American rock music legends. While I reserve the right to second-guess myself (that, after all, is pretty much the point—along with instigating discussion!), I am happy to make the case that this team represents the best possible players, based on the various criteria. What do you think?

Extra innings.

Let’s bat around the order with one indelible moment from each starter.

CCR, “Ramble Tamble” (can you say lead-off scorcher up the middle?):

Bruce Springsteen, “Hungry Heart” (Did Bruce ever sing, write or sound better than he does here?):

Steely Dan, “Bodhisattva” (Can you show me?):

R.E.M., “Finest Worksong” (can you say grand slam?):

The Pixies, “Debaser” (can you say inside-the-park-home-run?):

Bob Dylan, “Positively 4th Street” (He leads the league in strikeouts; he also has the most game-winning hits):

Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Call Me The Breeze” (Yup, they are crowding the plate; I dare you to throw a brush-back pitch!):

The Doors, “Wild Child” (Nothing like a little locker room dysfunction to keep things fresh!):

The Beach Boys, “Hang On To Your Ego vs. I Know There’s An Answer” (Brian Wilson is the man I want at bat with 2 outs, 2 strikes in the 9th inning…):

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Compassion*

License registration, no I ain’t got none,
But I got a clear conscience ‘bout the things that I done…

When you find yourself singing Bruce Springsteen lyrics in New Jersey to a state trooper in the hopes of avoiding a ticket, you might as well close your eyes, see what happens:
Maybe you could talk to the cop and explain that it was not disrespect for the rules of the road, but love of—and getting lost in—art that caused you to forget. To forget where you were and who you were, only to find yourself in the unfamiliar role of fugitive.
And maybe he would understand.
Maybe he would engage you in a discussion about music, and how it helps us, how it is always there, and occasionally compels us to do things we would not otherwise do.
And maybe, after everything was said and done, you would stop, and ask him if he was real, if this could ever actually happen.
And maybe he would wink familiarly, as if to say: This is America, ain’t it? Anything is possible.
And maybe you would believe him, even as you heard his footsteps fading away.
And by the time you opened your eyes, maybe you were still rolling down the road, the only reality being the speed and the sky, and the siren song of metal and machinery.

A vision:

Finally, his car needed fuel, he needed fuel; so he had no choice but to stop at the godforsaken rest area. Everyone, it seemed, had stopped at the same rest area: equal parts public toilet, food court and concessions stand. It was at once appalling and extraordinary; it was, in short, America.

Who were they, the people all around him? They were everyone: departing or arriving, leaving for vacation, returning to work, delighted, delirious, above all, anonymous. In New Jersey, or in any small town, or everywhere in America, there are people who find themselves lost; the people with nowhere left to go. A cliché? Sure. But clichés are made, not born. Reality, of course, is a cliché, and we have discovered that clichés—even as they are the enemy of art and authenticity—can be our friends. And so: going to church makes us sense spirituality, so we go; playing carols at Christmas facilitates a feeling of festivity, so we play; falling in love makes us feel loved, so we fall. We need all the help we can find, so we find friends and never look back.
He looked back; he looked around and in front of him, seeing the stereotypes: the ones in his mind that everything but experience had created. Or was the Cliché unfurling itself, the one that perpetuates from a particular place: experience, repetition, pattern, tradition? He saw them, he saw how he wanted to see them, he saw how they saw him, he saw how they saw him seeing them, and so on.
And who was he?
What was he all about? What had he done? Where had he been? Where was he going? Who did he think he was? Everyman? No man? Or worse: the type of person who actually asks questions like this.
Walking away, stomach full and mind clear, he saw her. He could not help noticing the forsaken sister walking in circles, seeking a corner of the room that wasn’t there. How old was she? Eighteen? Eighty? Somewhere right in between? Satisfied with a meek drink in the water fountain, she was the type of person who unthinkingly drank from public water fountains. Does anyone drink from public water fountains anymore? Do they still exist? Does anyone even notice them?
It was hard not to notice her, impossible not to notice that pain.
Pain: Dostoyevsky, disconcerted as he was with crime and punishment, saw all the suffering of the world in a prostitute’s eyes, and sobbed when he witnessed a peasant, hard-pressed with impotent anger, beating his horse to death. He opened his eyes and half expected to see this woman whipping herself while Nietzsche—knowing full well that God was dead— held his head and wept. Who was she, and what was she doing here?
A hooker, a homeless person? A mother, a case of mistaken identity? A human symbol of hope, or Hope herself—a deity deferred, paying the price for us all, all of us sinners and those sins we can scarcely describe.
She’s just like me, a voice inside attempted to say, a voice he very well may have listened to—a voice he had come dangerously close to growing into, under the shadow of the ivory tower—had he opted to make certain decisions along the way.
He walked over, ready to help: offer money, lend a hand, do whatever needed to be done, even and especially the things he had neither the ways nor means to make happen. He walked over and smiled, and she spoke, making him an offer he had no choice but to refuse.
It was enough to make one wonder if (and even wish that) the stories in the bible, and those fairy tales and myths men have made all have a foundation in fact. That the slow, ceaseless suffering some of us occasionally see is in accordance with a plan, a motion picture we have no part in producing. That it was not even personal, all this erstwhile, enigmatic madness, it was strictly business. It was enough to cause the hardest of humans to hope for a beneficent Big Guy (or Lady, but it is asking too much for God to have the decency to be a woman) upstairs, shuffling that proverbial deck. Or cutting and pasting the appropriate pieces of the puzzle, always keeping a wise eye on the endearing idiots underneath, and generally doing and saying the things that the creator of an entire universe says and does.
But how the hell are we supposed to have hope when Hope herself had been reduced to this, turning tricks at a rest stop on the Jersey Turnpike?

*Excerpted from a work-in-progress entitled Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone

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Born In The U.S.A. or, Every Day Is Veterans Day (Revisited)

I. Personal

Remember when Born in the U.S.A. was ubiquitous? The album and the song. Bruce was already big, but he wasn’t over the top. Born in the U.S.A. put him over the top and, to a certain extent, he’s stayed there ever since. Of course, people in the know understood he was already a legend before the ‘70s ended; in the early ‘80s The River and Nebraska cemented that status, but Born in the U.S.A. ensured that no one could ever ignore The Boss.

I already owned scratchy LP copies of Born To Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, as well as original (and shitty sounding) cassette copies of the oft-overlooked but brilliant first two albums (Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, The Innocent, and the E. Street Shuffle), so by the time Born in the U.S.A. hit the market, I was admittedly wary of the frenzied and new-fangled faithful joining the party. But other, more disconcerting forces were at play: the album, as good as it was, wasn’t that good. “Dancing in the Dark”, “I’m On Fire”, “No Surrender”, “My Hometown”? Eh. “Glory Days” was pretty much an instant classic, but (as is always the case with FM-friendly tunes, and never the fault of the artist) overplay hasn’t helped its staying power. But the big hit, the title track, the song that seemed to shoot through the dial 24/7, that one was a love or hate affair. I hated it. If ever there was an arena-ready anthem, this was it. And the muscle-bound Bruce from the video? Give me the spindly Serpico clone from ’78 any day.

(Interesting coincidence: Springsteen had a difficult time getting the track to sound the way he wanted it. Indeed, it was an outtake from his stark solo effort Nebraska. This is not unlike the origins of another overplayed song from the ‘80s, The Rolling Stones’ insufferable “Start Me Up”. That one was originally cut as a reggae-ish romp, before it devolved into the over-produced, if innocuous hit it was destined to be. “Start Me Up”, to be certain, is a lark, and it was—for better or worse—fated to be recycled for eternity at sporting events. “Born in the U.S.A.”, on the other hand, is actually a serious song and, as it happens, is much better than it sounds.)

Perhaps it’s my own fault, but it took several years before I even figured out the words Bruce was singing; perhaps it’s due to his overwrought delivery—equal parts marble-mouthed and shouting. Regardless, this is quite possibly Springsteen’s most somber song—and considering the era (Nebraska) it was written, that is saying a great deal. (And for the curious, it’s well worth checking out the (far superior) demo version that didn’t make the cut for the Nebraska album.) It made all the sense in the world, then, when Springsteen hit the road for his subdued Tom Joad tour in the mid-‘90s, he made the searing, stripped-down version of this song a centerpiece of the show. His hand pounding the acoustic guitar to simulate a heart beat at the song’s coda remains one of the most quietly powerful and emotional moments I’ve ever witnessed at a concert.

II. Polemical

Check it out:

Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up

Born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.

Got in a little hometown jam
So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man

(chorus)

Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says “Son if it was up to me”
Went down to see my V.A. man
He said “Son, don’t you understand”

I had a brother at Khe Sahn fighting off the Viet Cong
They’re still there, he’s all gone

He had a woman he loved in Saigon
I got a picture of him in her arms

Down in the shadow of the penitentiary
Out by the gas fires of the refinery
I’m ten years burning down the road
Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go

This song is, upon closer inspection, a staggering achievement. With few words and admirable restraint, Springsteen captures the cause and effects of the Vietnam war from the perspective of an ordinary American, the afflicted civilian. More, he moves the narrator into the here-and-now, making the uncomfortable point that the war never died for the people who managed to live. Movies like The Deer Hunter and Coming Home dealt with Vietnam’s immediate aftermath—the dead or wounded—but not many artists (certainly not enough artists) articulated the dilemma of the working poor who returned from the front line to become the unemployed, or unemployable poor. The vets who ended up in jail, or hospitals, or sleeping under bridges. Or the ones always on the edge (this was, remarkably, a time when shell shock was still a more commonly used term than Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and, as George Carlin astutely pointed out, perhaps if we still called it “shell shock” it might be less easy to ignore), the ones who, by all outside appearances, could—and should—be finding work, and contributing to society, and staying out of trouble. As politicians of a certain party confirm time and again, you cease to be especially useful once you’re no longer in the womb, or no longer wearing the uniform.

On albums like Nebraska and Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen presented stories of the dirty and the desperate, the men and women straddling the line between paychecks and prison, the ones wrestling with the hope and glory inherent in the mostly mythical American Dream. All of them had a story, and many of them were archetypes from small towns and big cities all across the country. But “Born in the U.S.A.” might be the first instance where Springsteen takes a topical dilemma and wrestles with an entire demographic: the veterans with “nowhere to run (and) nowhere to go”.

Of course, in an irony that could only occur in America, none other than our PPP (proudly patriotic president), Ronald Reagan, (or, more likely, his handlers) utterly misread the song and tried to appropriate it as a feel-good anthem for his 1984 reelection campaign. Predictably, Springsteen protested. But what Reagan and his opportunistic underlings heard was, in fairness, the same interpretation so many other Americans shared. And who cares, anyway? It’s just a song after all. And yet, it is a shame that such an effective, and affecting, observation was celebrated as representing the very facile values (unthinking nationalism, unblinking pride) it calls into question. Again, Springsteen and his band deserve no small amount of artistic culpability for marrying such stark lyrics to such a buoyant, fist-pumping, car commercial sounding song. People hear those martial drums and think of John Wayne instead of Travis Bickle.

III. Political

Why bring politics into it at all, one might ask? Music can be, and certainly is, enjoyed regardless of what it was intended to inspire. If a song moves you, or manages to make sense in ways that directly contradict the artist’s design, beauty is forever in the eye of the beholder. On the other hand, as George Orwell noted, “the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude”. Put another way, “Born in the U.S.A.” is still relevant because the issues it confronts are still relevant. We not only have (entirely too many) struggling veterans from last century’s wars, we will have no shortage of men and women who have fought (or are currently fighting) in this generation’s imbroglio. History only makes one promise, and it’s that it will ceaselessly repeat itself.

And so, even as our ill-advised adventure in Iraq reaches its inevitable endgame (and our unrequited affair with Nation Building in Afghanistan chugs along with no end in sight), we will only be in the initial stages of dealing with the veterans who need care and attention. We won’t count the ultimate cost of “mission accomplished” until we consider the lives lost and the walking wounded, tallied up alongside the untold billions of dollars. The Democrats can’t create miracles, but they can continue to ensure that the people owed the most won’t get the least. (We will concede that when it comes to bumper-sticker braggadocio, no one pays lip service to soldiers, country and Christ like Republicans, but a checkbook and a soul always trump empty sloganeering.)

Remember this, when the small-government-soundbite hyenas crawl out of their tax-payer fortified foxholes to decry liberal “big spending” programs. Remember it’s these programs that, in addition to paving roads, building schools and providing health care, attempt to secure some support and solace for our broken soldiers. And remember, in two, or four, or forty years, these same craven war pigs will once again wrap themselves in the American flag; these same armchair generals and couch potato patriots prepared to fight to the last drop of other folks’ blood will be the ones seeking to slash the programs designed to save the ones burning down the road.

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In Defense of Good Sax, Part One

A writer whom I respect recently made an offhand observation that I’d like to challenge –not because his opinion isn’t valid but rather because it seems representative of a casual and, I’d argue, uninformed impression shared by entirely too many folks.

Let’s name names: in his otherwise thoroughly enjoyable deconstruction of everyone’s favorite albino, Edgar Winters’ monster hit “Frankenstein” (check it out here), Chuck Klosterman shares his feelings about the saxophone solo. He doesn’t dig it. In fact, he doesn’t dig the saxophone in rock songs. More, he doesn’t particularly dig the saxophone, period. Listen: I guess I’m just anti-saxophone; I feel like there were better options available. Certain extraneous instruments add more to rock songs than others, most notably the cello and the bagpipes.

Okay. It’s not an egregious or offensive position to take. Shallow, certainly, but even that is nothing to get worked up about. Rather, it betrays a  knee-jerk (emphasis on jerk) disdain reflexively offered by your typical 21st Century cat who is trying to sound too cool for school. It borders on hipster and therefore must be addressed. These people (and to be clear I’m not accusing Klosterman of being one, I’m lamenting that he merely sounds like one here) are generally easy enough to sniff out, and therefore ignore. Yet, in their way, they are more insufferable (because they should know better) than the wide-eyed outdoor venue enthusiasts who think the Dave Matthews band is incredible because it employs a sax player.

In between these two extremes there is the typical sentiment you see from the sorts of people who write for virtually every mainstream American magazine (music-oriented or otherwise): any instrument with more than two syllables has no place in rock music. The folks who feel that anything capable of being more complicated than The Ramones is pretentious. These are the people who largely determine who gets into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (a dubious honor, sure, but still) and own –and love– every album by The Strokes yet have never heard of Secret Chiefs 3. Logically, this disqualifies them as listeners, as well as many other things; but they hold the keys to the kingdom. So it goes.

Getting back to the saxophone and its place in rock. First, it’s an altogether unrewarding endeavor to bring our most misunderstood art form, jazz, into the discussion. If you try to encourage the uninitiated to check out John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter or John Zorn, the same sorts of people above presume you have a nostalgic fancy for black berets and clove cigarettes, as if they make berets anymore, or beatniks for that matter. As I’ve mentioned before, during the decade or so that stretched from my mid-’20s to mid-’30s, I used to have more of an evangelical vibe. It’s not necessarily that I’m less invested, now, then I was then; quite the contrary. But, if I wasn’t particuarly interested in converting people then (I wasn’t), I’m even less so today. When it comes to art in general and music in particular, entirely too many people are very American in their tastes: they know what they like and they like what they know. And there’s nothing wrong with that, since what they don’t know won’t hurt them. Also, let’s face it, the only thing possibly more annoying than some yahoo proselytizing their religion on your doorstep is some jackass getting in your grill about how evolved or enviable his or her musical tastes happen to be. Life is way too short, for all involved.

Back to Chuckie K: At least he has the good sense to make an exception for the great Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” (Raphael Ravenscroft!). On the other hand, the blanket dismissal of all the other rock songs so indelibly improved by the inclusion of saxophone is impossible to let pass. As a kinder, gentler president once said, “This aggression will not stand, man.” I could list several dozen songs that would be greatly lessened, if not unthinkable, without their saxophonic embellishment; so could you. In the interest of time and clarity, let’s take three and call it a day.

First, the recently-discussed “Jungleland”, which just happens to be the best rock song of the ’70s. Anyone have a problem with this?

From the languid, strings and piano introduction to the gradual build-up (“As secret debts are paid/Contacts made, they vanish unseen), to the aforementioned guitar solo (3.00 – 3.27), the tension, at once joyous and foreboding, builds and then, instead of crashing, it crests. Enter Clemons. 3.54 – 6.13: the solo. It is extended, totally in charge and almost indescribably affecting. He wails, establishes a groove and then (right around the 5.43 mark) goes to that other place. Finally, just as the strings and piano take over, that last gasp, like a light going out or a life being saved. It is his moment, and in addition to being the best thing he ever did, it ranks as one of the best things anyone has done in a rock song.

Second, “Brown Sugar” by the Rolling Stones. If Clarence Clemons is not already sufficiently humbling tea, I’ve got two words for Klosterman (and any other haters): Bobby Keys. Yes, he plays the immortal sax solo on the immortal song off the immortal Stones album, but he also plays on the even-more immortal Stones album, Exile On Main Street, as well as Skynyrd’s Second Helping and too many other amazing albums to list (go look it up). In the meantime, did anyone have any questions about anything?

Finally, let’s celebrate the way our favorite “extraneous instrument” can take a perfect song and elevate it beyond even that (if “Jungleland” is the best song of the decade, “Deacon Blues” is far and away the coolest). Can you imagine the song without this solo? Can you imagine your life without it? I know I can’t, and I bow down to Pete Christlieb every time I hear it. That is not sax, that is sex. (For anyone who has ever wondered exactly what is wrong with me, the preceding paragraph should make it all a bit less complicated. Worse, I would simultaneously propose that the same paragraph illustrates everything that is right about me. Quite clearly, I am far beyond assistance or salvation. Thank God.)

This entire argument can be summarized with four lines from the song above:

I’ll learn to work the saxophone
I’ll play just what I feel
Drink Scotch whiskey all night long
And die behind the wheel…

Sounds pretty fucking rock and roll to me. What about you?

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