- Born to Run
- Thunder Road
- Promised Land
- Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
- Dancing in the Dark
- Born in the U.S.A.
- The Rising
- Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
- Hungry Heart
The Boss turns 70 today.
I don’t have time today for original commentary, so here are a few good things online:
The 50 best Springsteen covers on his 70th birthday. (TWOILH reader Barton Price contributed to this list!0
Brian Hiatt, author of Bruce Springsteen: The Stories Behind the Songs, offers seven thoughts.
National Public Radio features a new edited collection on Springsteen out with Rutgers University Press.
Billboard offers 18 reasons to celebrate Bruce’s birthday.
Nj.com has completed its list of the 70 greatest Springsteen songs.
Jonathan Cohen, editor of the aforementioned edited collection, shows how Democratic presidential candidates are using Springsteen’s music.
Springsteen’s most recent album, Western Stars, will be the subject of a music documentary that Warner Brothers will release this Fall. Here is Variety:
Warner Bros. has nabbed global rights to “Western Stars,” the upcoming music documentary co-directed by Bruce Springsteen. The film will be released on the big screen and will open in theaters this fall after its world premiere at September’s Toronto International Film Festival.
“Western Stars” is Springsteen’s first studio album in five years and the film marks his directorial debut. It weaves in archival footage along with Springsteen’s narration, and shows him performing all 13 songs on the album, alongside a band and a full orchestra, in a nearly 100-year-old barn on the singer’s property.
The film was also overseen by Thom Zimny, a frequent Springsteen collaborator. Zimny directed the Boss in “Springsteen on Broadway” and “Bruce Springsteen: Hunter of Invisible Game” (2014), and picked up a Grammy Award for “Wings on Wheels: The Making of Born to Run” (2005).
“Bruce lives in the super rarified air of artists who have blazed new and important trails deep into their careers,” said Toby Emmerich, chairman of Warner Bros. Picture Group. “With ‘Western Stars,’ Bruce is pivoting yet again, taking us with him on an emotional and introspective cinematic journey, looking back and looking ahead. As one of his many fans for over 40 years, I couldn’t be happier to be a rider on this train with Bruce and Thom.”
Read the rest here.
Masur teaches history at Rutgers University and is the author of Runaway Dream: Born to Run and Bruce Springsteen’s American Vision. This Fall he is teaching a course titled “Springsteen’s American Vision.” In this short interview, Masur talks about the course:
What can students learn in your course about why Springsteen’s music is so important?
“I begin the course with Elvis Presley, then go into Bob Dylan, and then most importantly, Springsteen. I want students to understand how each musical icon was directly inspired by the greats before them. I also want them to see how music plays a vital part in protest and activism as each of these musicians have inspired and created change. I have to push against the idea that this course will be easy, so I assign lots of reading and writing assignments that force students to engage the work and make critical arguments about its meaning.
“Great musicians are always in conversation with what’s going on in the culture and in individual lives. Springsteen once said his life’s work was “judging the distance between American reality and the American dream.” Springteen’s album “Wrecking Ball,” for example, was about the recession of 2008, and it told the stories of people who lost their homes and their path on the American dream. His album “The Rising” offered a reflection on the 9/11 attacks. His music helps us answer questions like “how do we survive?” and “how do we go on?” Good music inhabits the lives of others and tells moving stories like great fiction. Every generation will go through a deep hardship where they search for meaning, and great music will help them get there.
“There is also the other side of Springsteen I want students to know and that is what rock n’ roll is all about. Rock n’ roll offers release and works as a catharsis during tough times. It brings people together and it forms a community. That’s the side of him that explains why he has so many fans who return to his work time and again. At live shows, they feel transformed. I want my students to understand that and to experience it.”
Read the entire piece here.
I am really enjoying Bruce Springsteen’s new album Western Stars. Like I usually do when Springsteen releases a new album, I have been listening to Western Stars on repeat. (It has been nice to take a break from the Hamilton soundtrack). Last week I was walking and riding around Rome, Positano, San Felice-Circeo, Sorrento, and Capri listening to the album. Western Stars was released on June 14, 2019. I am guessing I have listened to it about 100 times so far. In fact, I am listening to it as I type these words.
So far my favorite song–the last on the album–is “Moonlight Motel.” Springsteen tells the story of an old roadside motel somewhere in the west. The narrator spent a lot of time at the motel with a woman he loved. The relationship is now over (did she die?) and the man reflects nostalgically on the old motel:
I am struck by the layers of nostalgia in this song. Obviously the Moonlight Motel was new once. The pool was filled with water. The fence was not rusted. Children played on the property. One could easily write a song about how the motel has faded and become just another run-down stop in a place on a “blank stretch of road.” That would be one kind of nostalgia.
But Springsteen longs for the run-down days of the Moonlight Motel, when the pool was empty, the flowers were wilted, and the rooms were musty. This was the motel where he fell in love. Springsteen likes to write about things that are in ruins.
And let’s not forget that the entire album draws upon a 1970s California sound that is not around anymore and for which Springsteen seems nostalgic. This is the music of Glenn Campbell (listen to “Sundown”), Jimmy Webb, and Burt Bacharach (listen to “There Goes My Miracle”).
So many layers.
Aside from sports radio (WFAN in New York during the Mike and the Mad Dog era, the SCORE in Chicago during the “Harvard the Hot Dog” era, and my current favorite–the Dan Libotard Show with Stugatz on EPSN), two New York radio stations have shaped my musical tastes. The soundtrack of my life was broadcast over WABC and WPLJ.
I grew up listening to WABC when it was New York’s Top 40 station. (Some of my friends listened to Imus and Howard Stern on WNBC, but I was loyal to WABC). When I wasn’t in school my transistor radio was always tuned to AM 77. The rhythms of my day revolved around DJs Harry Harrison, Ron Lundy, and Dan Ingram. I remember how distraught I felt when I learned that WABC was going to an all-talk format in my sophomore year of high school. (And to make matters worse, they eventually started broadcasting Yankee games!)
When WABC switched to talk, I switched to WPLJ (FM-95.5). My music interests were changing from disco and Top 40 to classic rock. PLJ played a lot of Doobie Brothers, Kansas, Led Zeppelin, James Taylor, The Beatles, Steely Dan, and Queen. They even played some Springsteen every now and then. Then, as I finished high school, PLJ changed formats to Top 40. In some ways, the station picked-up where WABC left off. During my final years of high school I went back and forth on the dial between PLJ and classic rock station WNEW.
I never really connected with a music-oriented radio station during my stints in Philadelphia and Chicago, but when I came back to the area in the early 1990s to start graduate school on Long Island, I returned to PLJ. By this point, the station was playing a lot of the stuff I listened to back in the 1970s and 1980s. I was a big fan of the morning-drive team of Scott Shannon (who came over from Z100 after popularizing the “Morning Zoo” format) and Todd Pettingell–aka “Scott and Todd” or “The Big Show.” I would listen to the show on long drives from Stony Brook to Nyack, New York where I was teaching Western Civilization courses at Nyack College.
Scott and Todd had a lot of great bits, but my favorite one took place during the NBA finals in the second Michael Jordan-era when they wrote a Wierd Al Yankovic-style tribute to Bulls center Luc Longley using the Barry Manilow song “Mandy.” To this day I cannot hear “Mandy” without thinking of that parody. “Luc Longley, you came to the Bulls from down-under–you’re the 7-foot wonder….” If anyone has a tape or recording of that bit I would love to hear it again. I cannot find it online due to its obscurity.
Needless to say, I was saddened to hear that on May 31, 2019 WPLJ will end broadcasting. In June a Christian radio station will be heard at 95.5 in New York City. Here is a taste of Brian Niemietz’s piece at the New York Daily News:
WPLJ, a rock and pop music staple in New York since 1971 — will sign off for the last time on May 31.
The FM station, which started spinning vinyl when Three Dog Night was king and Carole King was queen, confirmed Wednesday that the end of an era is near.
“As hard as it is to believe, WPLJ will be going away on Friday, May 31,” according to a recorded message on the station’s Twitter page. “The format and personalities you’ve come to love over the years will no longer broadcast on 95.5.”
The 48-year-old station has been sold to Christian conglomerate Educational Media Foundation, which will begin religious programming in June.
The end of an era. Forgive the momentary lapse into nostalgia, but another institution that shaped my life is gone.
This is a great piece by Canadian writer and poet Carter Vance. Here is a taste of his The Smart Set piece, “Walk Like a Man: What I Learned from Bruce Springsteen“:
For all the working-class power bona fides in Springsteen’s music, though, I still come back to the men that populate the stories he tells. In many ways, they are traditional masculine archetypes, guys who work physical jobs during the day and burn rubber in big cars at night, but they are also so much more. By turns, they are sensitive, loving, defeated, angered, worldly enough to know they cannot speak for everyone but trying to better their empathy nonetheless. With the modern search for a model of masculinity which is untainted by toxicities of misogyny, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry, the greatest hope that the men in Springsteen’s songs give us is that this is possible. They are still distinctly masculine, but in a way that allows in complexity of feeling, solidarity with those different from them (not for nothing was Springsteen drafted to write and perform the title song to Philadelphia, the first mainstream American film to deal sympathetically with the AIDS crisis) and loving, loyal connection to their families and communities.
In short, the Springsteen man, if not necessarily Bruce Springsteen himself, is someone I keep aspiring to be.
Read the entire piece here.
I am really excited about reading music writer Brian Hiatt’s new book Bruce Springsteen: The Stories Behind the Songs. (I would love to get a review copy so I can cover it here).
Here is a summary of the book:
The legend of Bruce Springsteen may well outlast rock ’n’ roll itself. And for all the muscle and magic of his life-shaking concerts with the E Street Band, his legendary status comes down to the songs. He is an acknowledged master of music and lyrics, with decades of hits, from “Blinded by the Light” and “Born to Run” to “Hungry Heart,” “Dancing in the Dark,” and “The Rising.”
In Bruce Springsteen: The Stories Behind the Songs, longtime Rolling Stone writer Brian Hiatt digs into the writing and recording of these songs and all the others on Springsteen’s studio albums, from 1973’s Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. to 2014’s High Hopes (plus all the released outtakes), and offers a unique look at the legendary rocker’s methods, along with historical context, scores of colorful anecdotes, and more than 180 photographs. Hiatt has interviewed Springsteen five times in the past and has conducted numerous new interviews with his collaborators, from longtime producers to the E Street Band, to create an authoritative and lushly illustrated journey through Springsteen’s entire songbook and career.
There were many revisions, including an amusing array of women’s names (In addition to Angelina, Anne, Chrissie and Christina all got a ride before Mary won out). The harmonica part in the intro was, at one point, played on sax instead. A handwritten worksheet from the sessions shows Springsteen’s focus on details like the fill Weinberg plays at the song’s “pulling here to win” climax – he wanted to try something a la the Dave Clark Five. Appel, whose relationship with Springsteen began to fray during the making of Born to Run, recalls a moment when the artist and Landau wanted to build “Thunder Road” more gradually, and replace the electric guitars that come in close to the two-minute-mark with acoustics – in Appel’s telling, he talked them out of it. As it was, Springsteen spent thirteen hours straight overdubbing electric guitar, Iovine recalls. And at some point in ‘75, Springsteen also recorded an eerie alternate version, a solo acoustic take that feels like a ghostly reflection of the released song, as if it’s being sung by a heartbroken narrator decades after its events.
As Springsteen wrote in his book Songs, “Thunder Road” offered a proposition : “Do you want to take a chance? On us? On life?” There was, however, an undercurrent of dread, as there almost always would be going forward. Springsteen was only 24 when he recorded “Thunder Road,” which makes the line “maybe we ain’t that young anymore” all the more striking. “The songs were written immediately after the Vietnam War,” Springsteen told me in 2005. “And you forget, everybody felt like that then. It didn’t matter how old you were, everybody experienced a radical change in the image they had of their country and of themselves. The reason was, ‘you were changed.’ You were going to be a radically different type of American than the generation that immediately preceded you, so that line was just recognizing that fact. The influences of a lot of my heroes from the Sixties and Fifties ended up on that record, but I realized that I was not them. I was someone else. So it wasn’t just a mish-mash of previous styles. There was a lot of stuff we loved in it from the music we loved, but there was something else, too – quite a sense of dread and uncertainty about the future and who you were, where you were going, where the whole country was going, so that found its way into the record.”
RIP Daryl Dragon:
Most of us know Lynyrd Skynryd’s southern anthem “Sweet Home Alabama.” I used to teach the song in my Civil War America course using Jim Cullen’s book The Civil War in Popular Culture: A Reusable Past.
But what is this song actually about? I thought it was obvious. I still think it’s pretty obvious. But Felix Contreras’s piece at NPR made me think in a more nuanced way about the song. Here is a taste:
In a way, the song began as a contradiction: It was written by two guys from Florida and one from California, none of whom ever lived in Alabama. So where did members of Lynyrd Skynyrd get the gumption to write about a state they had only driven through? In part, it was because a Canadian got there first. Neil Young’s song “Southern Man,” released in 1971, took the entire South to task for the bloody history of slavery and its aftermath.
In the Showtime documentary If I Leave Here Tomorrow, one of the song’s composers, lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zant, explained that the musicians wanted to counter what they saw as Young’s one-dimensional stereotype.
“We knew that by doing that song, just writing those lyrics, we knew from the beginning that we’d get a lot of heat for it. And I did attack Neil Young in that song,” Van Zant said, referring to a verse that called Young out by name:
Well I heard Mister Young sing about her
Well, I heard ol’ Neil put her down
Well, I hope Neil Young will remember
A Southern man don’t need him around, anyhow
“What are you talking about, you know?” Van Zant said. ” From what I’m told you were born in Canada.”
Even as the song was positioned to dispel some stereotypes of the South, the band was embracing others. Back then, Lynyrd Skynyrd performed in front of a large Confederate flag — at the suggestion of its record label. And in the documentary, Van Zant offered this: “Everybody thinks we’re a bunch of drunken rednecks … and that’s correct.” So which is it?
Read the entire piece here.
The Ghost of Tom Joad:
Releasing May 2018:
On Episode 38 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast, we talk to University of Oslo historian Randall Stephens about his new book The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ‘n’ Roll. Randall talks about his new book and I reflect on my own experiences at the intersection of evangelicalism and rock music. The episode will drop next weekend.
In the meantime, head over the the website of Harvard University Press and listen to a Spotify playlist of songs and artists that Stephens considers in The Devil’s Music. It includes music by Sam Cooke, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley & the Comets, The Beatles, Cliff Richard, Larry Norman, Phil Keaggy, Andre Crouch, Sha Na Na, Bill Gaither Trio, Bob Dylan, Amy Grant, Keith Green, DeGarmo & Key, Michael W. Smith, Stryper, DC Talk, and Sufjan Stevens.
And if you are a Randall Stephens fan, don’t forget to check out “The Randall Stephens Collection.”