This Train . . .
The people we are closest to and who remain a part of our lives generally have some unique characteristic, beyond a physical trait, by which we’d describe them; often it’s a passion for something which best defines them. Fingerprints, facial shape, body type and other physical characteristics aren’t chosen by the recipient – but an individual’s passions are. The heartbreaking Portraits of Grief series the New York Times ran after 9/11 worked so beautifully because the snapshots were celebrations of each victim’s passions. Those passions were the thread that weaved together a tapestry of such astonishingly diverse men and women.
Citing their passions is the best way to distinguish my friends from one another. Something of interest occurs in the world of poker, I call my friend Deric. Anytime I want a hilarious take on the torturous life of a Northwestern sports fan, I seek out my friend Pascal. And if I need to know the quality of a chicken parm offering from a New Jersey deli – anywhere from Bayonne to the Boardwalk – I can count on Jimmy I. for an expert opinion.
My friends tend to ask me about Bruce Springsteen. I may have just completed a book on baseball but it will surprise no who knows me to learn I spent an entire chapter tracing the inspiration Thunder Road provided from my days listening to games on an AM transistor radio to the day I started writing the book. As such, I’ve been asked a number of times this month what I think of Springsteen’s new album, Wrecking Ball.
This isn’t going to be a breathless tribute or a glowing review – those exist elsewhere on the internet. Truth is, I’ve always had a bit of an uneasy coexistent with other Springsteen fanatics. To be sure, I think that his first five studio albums are works of genius, that rock and roll’s greatest song is Thunder Road, and that other performers should never be allowed to take the stage for the first time until they’ve watched a Springsteen show and learned the difference between connecting with, as opposed to playing for, an audience. I even have an idea to write a story in which one character, inspired by Kevin Smith’s Silent Bob in the cult-classic movie Chasing Amy, would only speak in Springsteen lyrics culminating in his effort to reunite his brother and their estranged father through a retelling of Bruce’s introduction to The River on the Live ’75-’85 album – the most powerful father and son story I’ve ever heard.
Yet, I started feeling a sense of detachment from Bruce in the mid-80s when, as a college student in the middle of the Reagan revolution, I began hearing lectures and not stories in Springsteen’s songs. (In fact, listening to bootleg concert recordings from the Born in the USA tour, I submit to you that some of Bruce's introductory raps denouncing the path he saw America taking are downright silly in retrospect.) It was at that time that I formed my “angry male artist” theory. I decided that during his formative years the angry male artist has observed enough hypocrisy, injustice, and misfortune that the anger pours out of him in his initial creative stage, inspiring great works of art. The anger is directed at society, his father, failed relationships, and his surroundings and the reservoir from which to retrieve those feelings is so deep, it effortlessly results in the release of at least three finished products, the last one often a masterpiece. (Springsteen’s third album Born to Run, Billy Joel’s fourth album The Stranger, U2’s third album War, and Pat Conroy’s third book The Lords of Discipline, all fit this pattern.)
It’s not that those artists haven’t created some great works after that, it’s that they’ve had to search for the inspiration to do so. It's hard to remain angry after you’re rich and a critically-hailed artist. I’m not well versed enough in rap music to do anything but make awkward comparisons so I’ll just wonder aloud – did Dr. Dre maintain the anger in later projects that seethed through his work with NWA and his solo release, The Chronic? Is Public Enemy still fighting the power as passionately as when Spike Lee featured the then little-known rappers in Do the Right Thing? Hell, didn’t Spike Lee’s anger-fueled stage of movie making peak quality-wise with his third film Do the Right Thing?
So, as I became an adult and the ‘80s and ‘90s passed, I didn’t want to throw names as crass as ‘limousine liberal’ at Bruce, but I felt as if I were being lectured to at precisely the same time Bruce began to lose his way, just a bit, as an artist. He fired the E Street Band, he married and quickly divorced a Hollywood actress, and I felt as if he were telling me to relate to his songs as opposed to letting the listener naturally connect with the themes and characters. Out of the spotlight for quite a while, Bruce, in 1999, reunited with the E Street Band, went on tour, and I fell in love with his works all over again.
When 9/11 occurred, I remember in the days afterward cringing at the thought of the “art” it would inspire. Living in New York City at the time, in fact at work in the World Financial Center the morning of the attacks, I didn’t think I could bear works along the lines of Lee Greenwood’s Proud to be an American, which I was sure would quickly flood the market. But within the next few months, Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver performed in a two-person off-off-Broadway play call The Guys, Bruce Springsteen returned to the studio with the E Street Band for the first time in 17 years to make The Rising, and I realized it was possible for America’s most thoughtful performers to pull off the delicate task of making art out of the incredible cross-currents of emotion that day evoked.
Following the release of The Rising, another tour with the E Street Band commenced and thanks to living in New York City, I had ample chances over a three year period to see a slew of shows indoors and outside on both the reunion tour and then The Rising tour. I saw so many shows that I actually learned the words to a new song unveiled during the reunion tour and played during encores, titled Land of Hope and Dreams. By the end of the tour it had become a favorite song of mine. In 2003 I got engaged and in thinking about wedding toasts and reception songs, Land of Hope and Dreams struck me as a lovely song about inclusion, and isn’t that what marriage is all about?
To be sure – and let me be absolutely clear about this – I would have never suggested the song as a wedding theme. Not with lyrics about whores and gamblers. But to me, the song’s narrator, seasoned and slightly weather-beaten from life’s journeys-to-date, is still charting a course forward and everyone is welcome to join in the trip. Thinking back to Thunder Road, the narrator is young, idealistic, and filled with ambition. With total sincerity he asks Mary to join him telling her, “you ain’t a beauty but hey you’re all right.” It’s the song’s most romantic line expressed with the lack-of-aplomb you’d expect from a 20-year old. Twenty-five years later, I like to think it’s the same narrator but our hero is leading a train rather than driving a car and at this point he knows that everyone, most of all he, has flaws. Because of his own flaws his train welcomes “saints and sinners” “losers and winners” “whores and gamblers” “fools and kings” “thieves and sweet souls departed” and on his train “dreams will not be thwarted” and “faith will be rewarded.” If you’re about to take a life journey with someone, you won’t find a better attitude for your partner to possess and, as I was a thirty-five year old about to be married and well aware of my own flaws, I found the song to be a lovely tribute to companionship.
My mother, who knows my passions, has made a point of pre-ordering for me the latest Bruce Springsteen album for a number of years. So even in the era of digital music, a copy of the Wrecking Ball CD arrived in the mail last week. I listened to it in my car and just a few songs into the album it struck me that Bruce made the record without the E Street Band. This is why the record wasn’t grabbing me. Frankly, I don’t think Bruce has ever been able to bring his songs to life without the band. I’ll make an exception for Better Days, but otherwise I don’t think there are any songs on studio albums he made without his band that weren’t made better once the E Street Band got a chance to play them, including concert classics such as Atlantic City and If I Should Fall Behind.
I understand Springsteen’s an artist who needs to explore his craft and take some chances but for my tastes albums like Ghost of Tom Joad, Devils and Dust, and The Seeger Sessions are close to un-listenable. Wrecking Ball didn’t fit into that category but outside of We Take Care of Our Own and the title track, the new songs just didn’t grab me. I didn’t hear enough melodies and on some songs I heard music that was too close to bluegrass to hold my interest. The only song that’s not new on the album is the penultimate track, Land of Hope and Dreams. Arranged slightly differently than in concert thanks to the presence of gospel-infused background vocals, I was pleased to see it released on a studio album for the first time.
So after a couple listens to the CD, mildly disappointed at the lack of both the E Street Band and more hooks, I settled into a routine of simply skipping from We Take Care of Our Own to Wrecking Ball to Land of Hope and Dreams.
And then, after somehow missing it on the first few listens, I heard what will make this album an eternal keeper for me.
At the 3:45 mark of Land of Hope and Dreams, the second to last song on an album bereft of the E Street Band, right after Bruce runs through the passenger manifest and announces “bells of freedom ringing’” comes the signature sound of the E Street Band – the piercing sax solo of the late Clarence Clemons.
The thirty second solo is followed by a repeat of the chorus before Bruce and Clarence come together to mix lyrics and saxophone notes for presumably the last time. Let that last thirty second duet serve as the caption – in audio form – for the iconic Born to Run album cover the two friends graced more than 35 years earlier. It is an absolutely beautiful ending to a life-long journey they shared together.
I rushed to the liner notes to confirm the presence of Clarence Clemons in the song and on the flip side of the notes I found Bruce’s eulogy to Clarence. (I don’t think you get this if you download songs one at a time on iTunes.) It is a masterpiece of a tribute to the music they made together, their passions, and of courses their friendship.
That’s what I’ll remember from Wrecking Ball. A beautiful moment to remind us, may we all have passions that run deep, may we all be lucky enough to have just one relationship in our life with someone who understands and accepts us with the unconditional acceptance of the train conductor in Land of Hope and Dreams. And if we’re really lucky, may that someone express that friendship in words and in notes as beautifully as Bruce Springsteen does for his friend Clarence Clemons.