Monday, April 11, 2016

laughter

Make me one with everything.

I'm happiest when I'm happy. Howling is fun and orgasms or swell, but in the moments I'm physically laughing I'm feeling joy and contentment, however fleeting it may be. Humor is one of the greatest coping mechanisms devised by humanity, and very little comes to mind that can make life as bearable when it is most difficult.

We laugh not to cry, it has been said. Comedy is pain, also. There's a reason Richard Pryor towers so greatly in modern humor. He was a tormented man with a troubled life. For awhile he hid that and inoffensively did Cosbyesque material. Everything changed when he looked the pain square on, mainlined it and broadcasted it without a filter. Comedy has never been the same.

Many people cannot personally relate to several circumstances of Pryor's life, but the man was a great communicator who could make the world relate to his highly personal experiences in the world. Through communal laughter, empathy is generated. It is not an exaggeration to say that Pryor personally opened up new lines of communication in a fractured and divided nation and world.

Laughter is a powerful shared experience. It can be used for good or ill, healing or hurtfulness. Bad laughter commiserates with mind closing, uniting hearts in fear and prejudice, affirming our worst instincts. What a person finds funny can be illuminating. Rape culture, racial paranoia and gay panic are troublesome red flags.

Good laughter illuminates personal experience in a way that shows others a new way of seeing the world and the things in it. We learn. We are surprised. We are more empathetic. We are less alone.

Where this can be found is sacred. Laughter like love should not be coveted, guarded or resentful. Whether with friends, at the movies, in a podcast, on television, in a book, we must feel free to find our best and truest laughter to perservere in the pursuit of happiness. Share laughter with those you love and allow them to follow their laughter. The more we laugh, the more we connect to an elemental state of human contentment and generosity.

What did the zen master say to the hot dog vendor?

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Darkness On The Edge Of Town, Part One



Now we come to my personal favorite Springsteen ablum, Darkness On The Edge Of Town. It might have also been called Born To Run's Big Brother. It feels a lot like Springsteen's breakthrough blockbuster, but it is subtler, more complex, darker, and more mature. For these reasons, it didn't enjoy the crossover commercial success and iconic familiarity even beyond Springsteen fans that Born To Run did, but to me it is a deeper, more rewarding listen, particularly over years of re-visitation.

I withheld Wikipedia research until I finished my blog on Born To Run because I hoped to avoid restating the most worn anecdotes concerning that thoroughly canonized release. Afterwards, however, perusing the digital Cliff's Notes on Born and Darkness illuminated quite a bit about what these ablums share and what makes them different.

Bruce released both of his first two ablums in 1973 to loyal but cultish, localized appeal and fond but not rapturous critical regard. Hungry for wider appeal, commercial validation, and acclaim, Springsteen made some crucial adjustments for Born To Run that carry over into Darkness On The Edge Of Town. This may sound like "selling out", but I think it illustrates why that can be a more complicated concept than a simple "fuck that" rilly acknowledges. Springsteen is one of the perhaps rare cases where changing his approach to appeal to more people led to genuine artistic development and refinement, work that still had integrity but managed to speak clearer and further.

After recording and releasing his first ablums very quickly (and probably accurately capturing some of the spontaneous, loose feel of what he was doing with the E Street Band live at the time), Springsteen spent over a year meticulously crafting the production of the 8 songs that became Born To Run (including several months on the title track alone).

After the two years it took to come out, an even longer three-year gap transpired before the 1978 release of Darkness On The Edge Of Town. Much of this was due to things like touring the world and contractual and legal entanglements snaring things up. Consequently, this gave Springsteen even more time to fuss over the sound of the 10 tracks that wound up as Darkness On The Edge Of Town.

The production of Darkness On The Edge Of Town doesn't have the same immediately grabby bigness of Born To Run. What Springsteen accomplishes with co-producer Jon Landau and the assistance of E Street Band guitarist Steven "Little Stevie" Van Zandt is something more complex that I find to be the best the band has sounded on record. The clarity of production and balance in instrumentation is well-considered and remarkable. Darkness On The Edge Of Town, in its sound and production, may also be the Springsteen record that sounds least dated to when it was recorded. Its impressively timeless.

Lyrically, Springsteen made a conscious decision to write more generally and with fewer New Jersey referents on Born and Darkness. While I've come across many folks who prefer the specificity of Greetings and The Wild..., for me the divide marks the point Springsteen starts singing about America and Life beyond his well-wrought tales of New Jersey and Circumstances.

Compositionally, Springsteen stopped writing his melodies primarily on guitar and switched to piano for songwriting. This probably accounts a great deal for the progression in classic pop song-craft that began with Born To Run. In the greater development period between ablums, too, he began writing copiously before judiciously trimming the ablums down to a spare and cohesive suite of songs that complimented each other in sound and theme.

Both Born and Darkness accumulated several out-takes, demos, and alternate tracks in their gestation, some eventually released somewhere, some still unheard. In the long development period for Darkness this tendency peaked, with estimates around 70+ songs written and 50+ recorded in some capacity to arrive at the 10 songs on the LP. Some were released on later collections, some wound up on The River a few years later.

Much like a man who would become one of his greatest competitors in the next decade, Prince, Springsteen was such a songwriting beast in his prime that he simply gave many ace compositions to other artists because they didn't precisely fit into what he was working on at the time. Unlike Prince, who had strong feminine and androgynous sides to his persona and vocal range, Bruce could never rilly not sound like a Jersey working man, which sometimes put him at a disadvantage in performing his own songs. Before I get into the songs on Darkness proper, here are a few classics Springsteen wrote during that period that hit big with women performing them:





As for tracks that did wind up on the ablum, Darkness repeats a "4 corners" sequencing strategy from Born To Run. Each side of the record opens with something relatively uplifting ("Thunder Road" and "Born To Run" on Born, "Badlands" and "The Promised Land" on Darkness). Each side ends with something considerably more pessimistic ("Backstreets" and "Jungleland" on Born, "Racing In The Street" and "Darkness On The Edge Of Town" on Darkness).

It is notable that Born To Run is named after one of the "lighter" songs and Darkness On The Edge Of Town is quite literally named after one of the "darker" ones.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Brendan Kennedy Situation

Its St. Patrick's Day. I'm chilling with Olive, bumping Darkness On The Edge Of Town on repeat. Its not connected, I planned this independent of the "holiday". Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen is a quarter Irish, but he's also a quarter Dutch and half Italian. He's a good working class Jersey Euromutt.

I have a good friend who's emphatically Irish. Brendan Kennedy took his Asian love of a decade to fucking Ireland for their honeymoon, completely ignoring that even people who didn't marry Pacific Islanders still go to Hawaii.

Brendan is one of my oldest comedy friends. This entails years of trifling bullshit I wouldn't trade for the world. He was a Klaxar's Focus Group comrade. He was "John Fuck Kennedy". I was "Professor Books". Tyrone Bliss was the titular "Klaxar: Space Warlord From The Past". In the Beicide days the three of us did an east coast tour that consisted wholly of Virginia Beach on Tuesday (like we did every week) and Manhattan on Wednesday.

Close comedy friendships naturally come with a lot of vicious fighting about trivial, abstract matters. In group settings, they also manifest in counter-intuitive dynamics like scapegoating, bullying and abusing the one in the group who not only has his life together but can also physically crush all of the others like the scrawny drug addicts we were. Thanks, Brendan.

Comedy aside, many of my closest moments with Brendan coincided with binge drinking and fights with his partner (not in that order). I also remember at least one lonely St. Patrick's Day visiting whatever VB condominium he was haunting at the time.

Brendan is great for circumstances like this. He can guide you through fine wines and Irish whiskeys and craft beers and Hurricanes with equal, impressive facility. He kicked off the alcopop epidemic and taught me about the art of fancy drinking.

If I'm not mistaken, Brendan's remarkable aptitude can currently be accessed in Hampton Roads at Work Release and Trader Joe's. His epicurean talent isn't limited to food and drink, for he can talk a good cinema and music game if you prod him. Not for nothing did he get a writing degree from one of the best science and engineering institutes in the country.

Brendan is a jazz aficionado, spirited collector, music enthusiast, bedroom producer and talented percussionist. We talked a lot about music. He stomped his feet and fumed when I pointed him in directions he was hoping to pre-conceive himself. He introduced me to Passport and Kruder & Dorfmeister.

Brendan and I agreed on music often, and mostly respected each other's tastes. This morning, he sent me a charity collabo about tattoos between Dropkick Murphys and Bruce:



There's one notable impasse I reached with Brendan on the subject of musical taste. He admires Billy Joel. I don't as much. Not that I don't like Billy Joel as much as I don't care. So far as I can tell, Brendan feels the same way about Springsteen. When we stump for our guy, our cases our hopelessly similar, leaning heavily on phrases like "working class poet" and backgrounds close to but not in Manhattan.

I'm not sure if we'll ever resolve this one. We might just have to stay happily married and enjoying the music of different guys. Such is life. Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Born To Run



I'm not sure that I have a new angle on Born To Run, one of the most heavily celebrated ablums in rock and roll, period. Maybe the freshest place to start is with what I like the least. "Backstreets" doesn't quite muster the charisma of the tracks surrounding it, settling into an unearned repetition that carries it over the six-minute mark, which isn't a great fit with so many tracks here which are light in length and heavy on impact.

"She's the One" is an earnest but unremarkable glimmer of romantic affection, fine but not extraordinary. "Meeting Across the River" is slow and plodding, feeling like a breather on an otherwise high-impact ablum. Its effectively moody and doomed, but it can't help but suffer in retrospect to a later, similar classic like "Atlantic City".

That's what I like the least on Born To Run, which is not to say I don't like any of it. They're killer tracks anybody else would kill for. The bar is set extremely high here on a 40-minute ablum packed with definitive anthems. There's a joke that The Cars' self-titled debut might as well be called The Best Of The Cars given how overstuffed with hits and light on filler it is. Born To Run feels like that, with most of the tracks achieving immediate recognition as not just hits, but classics. As if Legend was itself just a Bob Marley ablum, a mistake made by plenty of uncurious fans over the years.

Born To Run is an extraordinary ablum, and one that is kind of hard to look at objectively or with fresh ears. Its one of those very occasional releases that transcends being an ablum and crosses over into being a phenomenon. Transcendence, or the thirst for it, is a major theme of the ablum, which spins tales of common men, women, boys and girls who crave something beyond their limited surroundings and experiences.

Granted, this theme describes a good deal of Springsteen's work. Born To Run is where he rilly nailed it, harnessing the strengths of his first two ablums and refining and amplifying it all into something undeniable. An instant classic that stayed one, critically adored and commercially embraced. This is where Springsteen transcended being a cultishly popular and critically respected folk rocker and became a capital R Rock Star and American Mythologist.

The bookends give a sense of how an ablum of such apparently humble scale (8 songs, 39 minutes) became so instantly iconic. Closer "Jungleland" achieves everything "New York City Serenade" seemed to be attempting on the previous ablum, stretching out over almost ten minutes between calm valleys and raucous peaks to deliver a cinematic epic of city life. Opener "Thunder Road" condenses about the same effect into half the length, growing from a charming piano ditty to a chugging full-band workout. Both became live staples. Phil Whitehead put together an impressive compilation illustrating how "Thunder Road" has grown and breathed in concert over the years.



Bruce Springsteen: 41 Years on Thunder Road from Phil Whitehead on Vimeo.

"Jungleland" was included on the AV Club inventory Don't Blow It: 10 Great Songs Nearly Ruined By Saxophone. On an ablum that thrived by improving on the ones before it, however, enough cannot be said about the increased prominence of Clarence Clemons. He's the engine that drives "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out", one of Spingsteen's greatest all-out rockers. The way it follows "Thunder Road" and leads into "Night" deliver a 1-2-3 punch that immediately establish that Born To Run is indeed a Great-not-good ablum. Its entirely appropriate that Bruce is literally leaning on the Big Man on the famous cover.

Most of what gets said about Born To Run sounds like hyperbole, but it is not an exaggeration to say that it is not. The wondrous thing right in the middle, side two, track one, that will be around longer than any of us, is "Born To Run", as good a candidate as any for The Great American Rock And Roll Song. If "Good Vibrations" is Brian Wilson's teenage symphony to god for sun-dappled west-coasters, "Born To Run" is Bruce Springsteen's teenage symphony to the streets for smoke-infested east-coasters. A closet orchestra of instruments create a Spectorian wall of sound connecting the 1975 single to the best of classic 60s pop. A glockenspiel chimes a melody you don't know you've heard before until you hear it, divined from the collective American subconscious. Springsteen's passionate lyrics and possessed vocals channel the yearnings of tramps and dreamers with Shakespearean grandiosity. Its a song about the thirst for transcendence that finds it.

Friday, March 11, 2016

The Wild, The Innocent, & The E Street Shuffle



My Olive is 3 months old, and sometimes she wakes up in a groggy, serious mood, furrowing her little brows trying to reprocess her surroundings all over again. Bruce Springsteen sometimes affects a self-serious pose that belies how much of what makes him great includes a remarkable energy, joy and humor. This is not to say the serious brooding type looks bad on him. After the commercial underperformance of debut Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and its anonymous postcard cover, it is not surprising that Springsteen's follow-up The Wild, the Innocent, & The E Street Shuffle puts Springsteen's handsome, young, bearded, serious face front and center. Here are 1973 Bruce and 2016 Olive wearing their serious faces:


 

Fortunately, Olive is a thriving baby with some of my genes who responds to music. I simply cannot recommend "dancing with yr baby girl" enough as a positive way to start the day. The first track of The Wild, The Innocent..., the titular "The E Street Shuffle", got her face smiling and her feet shuffling quite quickly. Immediately this is a more muscular, swinging affair than Greetings... . Where the debut was a modest collection of ditties tip-toeing between the work of a bold folksman and a modest bandleader, The Wild... is the work of a kicking rock band with considerable R&B roots, as proven by the funky rhythms and punchy instrumentation of "...Shuffle"'s boogie workout. Its a real barnburner, and a forecaster of the dynamic funk rock Talking Heads would perfect later in the decade.

The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle is Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's first earnest claim to the greatness and grandeur they would later own. On a side A track like "Kitty's Back", all the strengths that were downplayed on the debut ablum recording of classic "Spirit in the Night" begin to work their way to the front of the mix in all their glory. The call and response sing-a-longs with the band bellow just as clearly as the lead vocals, as does Clarence Clemons' magic saxophone. "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" and, to a lesser extent, "Wild Billy's Circus Story" get a better hold of his nostalgic odes and working class fables with more confident songwriting, clear production, and fuller, more elegantly juggled instrumentation.

Side B is where Springsteen and Band rilly stretch out and show the world who they are. A triptych of cinematic epics that all make wonderful use of at least 7 minutes, it is the first time a Springsteen ablum started to give a sense of the scope that was already making them a legendary live act.

"Incident on 57th Street" expands on the strengths of "Blinded by the Light", with a more relaxed and confident hold of spinning a whole world full of colorful characters and finely wrought settings and wrapping them up in steadily building melody. Long-time live favorite "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)" bests it on all of these fronts, with a brisker pace and catchier melodies and more indelible lyrics and, hold on, check out the characters he spins out here (this is why I compared him to Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein before):

Rosie
doctor
mama
little dynamite
little gun
bats
cats
papa
Jack the Rabbit
Weak Knee Willie
Sloppy Sue
Big Bone Billy
a record company

It all builds to such a peak that it can't help but deflate somewhat by album closer "New York City Serenade". Its a fine composition, but not one that can sustain everything its trying to hold, like a 10+ minute length and a string section. Its a swing for the fences that is still an impressive demonstration of range even if it only yields a decent double. Its the work of a band on the verge of harnessing rock and roll energy into epic majesty. We'll get to that later.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.



My lovely wife is taking me to a Springsteen show.

Check that sentence. Its the truth, Ruth. Its also a dreamy circumstance that a mere few years ago would have been but a dream.

Springsteen is on a short list of artists I feel a compulsion to see in my life that I had written off the possibility of realizing due to sheer scale and expense. He's up there with Prince, Sade and U2.

Of course I had given up on the big tickets in a long post-collegiate period of sporadic employment and consistent depression. Now, with greater responsibilities than I could have grasped when I thought that nothing was possible, I am taking a road trip to see the Boss with a stone fox next month. Life is funny that way. This is the effect Dawn has had on it. Awesome things seem possible again and mundane things look beautiful.

Speaking of mundane things, Bruce Springsteen is from New Jersey, if you didn't know. It looks beautiful to him, though. New Jersey is kind of a lazy punchline of a state for being less than spectacular and failing to contain New York City or even Philadelphia.

New Jersey has beauty, though. Green gardens and white beaches and Cory Booker. Its not rilly about the pedestrian looking beautiful to weathered eyes grading on a curve. Its about having the wisdom not to allow petty popular judgment to distract from apparent and real beauty.

Bruce Springsteen loves New Jersey. The cover of his 1973 debut album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., is almost perversely lacking in ego and bursting with civic pride. Springsteen, a young, good-looking guy at the time, represents himself with his signature instead of his face. Most of the cover is a huge postcard design, the type sold to tourists with big block letters of the location name filled with fun and sun illustrations.

By the 70s the formerly popular Jersey Shore destination wasn't seeing many tourists...fewer every year. Asbury Park was already well into the decline that has irrevocably left it a husk of its former vivacity, with shuttered businesses and sparsely populated amusement halls giving it a strangely beautiful ghostly grey depression.

The modern desolation of Asbury Park is well captured in the 2008 film The Wrestler, where the cold emptiness of the boardwalk reflects the alienation and estrangement between Mickey Rourke's titular grappler and his daughter. It is no coincidence that  Rourke and Darren Aronofsky had Springsteen write and perform the title song for the movie.

 
 
Nominally doing his first ablum for Asbury Park was a rejection of pretense and an embrace of modest, unfashionable roots that would resonate throughout his career. As successful as he's become, he's never turned his sympathies to the charmed or privilidged in his songwriting. He has managed to maintain his underdog, working class sympathies without coming off as a rich phony by earning a commendable reputation as a hard worker and sincere humanitarian.
 
 
Listening to Greetings... now, it can sound modest to a fault. This likely has more to do with the retrospective shadow of later work and acclaim, and not at all to diminish that it is a great record. It just feels small next to some of the later songs...pocket Springsteen. Similar to '77 by Talking Heads, it is a compact and tuneful 70s debut that hints at everything that makes the artist great with production that sounds unassuming and quaint next to the explosions that would come later in the decade.
 
 
Remember that in 1973 most folks didn't know who Springsteen was, including in some sense Springsteen and his label. The first run at this was split about half and half between folkish little solo numbers and slightly more rollicking tunes with a relatively muted E Street Band. When the label didn't hear a single, the ablum took a fortunate turn by axing a few of the former and adding a few incredible songs with the E Street Band.
 
 
The would-be hits added to the ablum would not be hits in 1973, but they would be hits in other forms. "Spirit in the Night" came to thunderous life as a live favorite in years to come, boasting a raucous full-band attack and a passionate call-and-response chorus that are curiously underplayed on the ablum version.
 
"Blinded by the Light" opens the record and announces a major talent. An earworm and a half that invites the whole band to kick into a swinging reverie, it would go all the way to the top of the charts. It didn't do that until 1977, however, in a cover by Manfred Mann's Earth Band that is still Springsteen's only number one as a songwriter.
 
 
Prodding Springsteen to write some hits would push him in a good direction, ultimately planting the seeds for one of the most spectacular American pop careers ever pulled off. The more self-consciously serious and folk-drenched moments here, such as "Mary Queen of Arkansas" and "The Angel", are the least rewarding tracks, verging on slogsville.
 
 
Elsewhere, where the band kicks in and gets to have some fun, its a ridiculously catchy, engaging ablum. Legend has it Springsteen leaned hard on a rhyming dictionary for the lyrics to "Blinded by the Light", but its not the only track where an engagingly labored approach to songwriting produces charming results. The whole thing is silly with alliteration, internal rhyme, and playful schemes. Springsteen got compared to Dylan not infrequently in his early days, but Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss might be equally apt points of reference.
 
 
"Growin' Up" is the first of a trend for Springsteen, that of the happy-sounding nostalgia song laced with ambivalence and cynicism. All is not well and all was not well, but that's no reason for it not to sound sweet. Greetings... is a lovely start that doesn't immediately tip its hand to the rich themes and developments would grow from it. Giddy delights like "Does this Bus Stop at 82nd Street?" and "For You" can't just be happy accidents. This kid had something. And then he finishes off his first burst with motherfucking "Its Hard to be a Saint in the City". God damn. This Springsteen kid is something special.