“Hey son, you want to try the big top?”
Bruce Springsteen, Working On A Dream
Let me start with the stories.
So began Bruce’s eulogy to Phantom Dan Federici, a funeral on the Jersey Shore, back in the old stomping grounds for this band of brothers, this cast of characters.
Back in the days of miracles…
If you haven’t read it, stop now, and go to brucespringsteen.net so you can. It will do your heart wonderfully good. It will remind you that first and foremost, this is a group of friends, of buddies, an improbable grouping of individuals. Up until we lost Danny, the entire band was still alive. I think Bruce said something like “We had all our guys.” No one OD’d, no one’s ego was so large that they wouldn’t agree to come back, and no one was such an asshole that no one else wanted them around. (I’m looking at you, Small Faces.) You could be cynical and say that it was for the money, but I am not willing to do that.
But this is about Danny, and this is about “The Last Carnival,” the best thing on Working For A Dream, and the only reason I excuse the existence of this particular collection of recorded music. “The Last Carnival” is heart-swelling and transcendent, it is a dirge, it is a hymn, it is a tribute. It is constructed with craft, echoing back to “Wild Billy” in an artful, delicate manner – it’s echoes and whispers, it’s the cast of characters in a dreamscape, colors muted through a fog.
It’s a song for a friend. It’s heartbreaking. It’s simply lovely. The voices at the end, keening acapella, like the old days of E Street when everyone sang, as though the whole band was crying out for their lost brother. With Danny’s son playing accordion on the track — if you’re not affected by this, you’re just not human. And I don’t know how I’ll stand through one performance of it live without bursting into tears in front of God and everybody.
I am touched and I am humbled by “The Last Carnival”. I am eavesdropping on private grief. I am being included in the mourner’s rites. And for that I am grateful.
I want to talk about “The Wrestler” next, so not understanding why it is tacked to the end of this collection of material like a poor distant cousin twice removed. I occasionally read the various swipes against Bruce in various locales, and most of them are along the lines of “he’s rich so how can he sing about poor people” and I go back to Greil Marcus’ theories about how we as a music listening community stopped valuing the ability to tell a story when the Laurel Canyon types started writing songs in the 70’s. If it wasn’t true, if it didn’t happen *to you*, it had no worth. The ability of the artist to put themselves into character and see things from the perspective of someone else’s shoes wasn’t skill, it was viewed as artifice.
I cannot think of a more limited, shallow, limiting viewpoint of art.
“The Wrestler” is Bruce doing what he does best – putting on that other guy’s suit and walking around in it for a while. It’s simple and powerful. It should have been nominated for an Oscar. I mean, bravo.
Did you know there is a set of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band Matryoshka dolls? Those are those Russian wooden nesting dolls, and someone made an E Street Band set (Chris Phillips, Backstreets majordomo owns one of these, which makes total sense, and is how I know of their existence). Anyway, Chris was making a joke about it one day, and someone was asking what the order was, from big to small, and then someone made a joke about how one of them needed to be the bullet mic.
I was – and remain – a huge fan of the bullet mic’s introduction into the Springsteen arsenal. I loved, loved, LOVED the re-interpretation of “Reason To Believe” on the Devils & Dust tour, and thought the E-Street-ization of that arrangement on the Magic tour was awesome (even with the “La Grange” segue, which was a little bit of a gimme, a little on the cheap applause side, but compared to “American Land” I gave it a pass a long time ago).
So, I get it. Bruce digs the bullet mic. He probably likes being able to put down the guitar and still have something to do, it’s physical in a different way, okay, cool. So I don’t mind “Good Eye,” because it was clearly written as the replacement for “Reason to Believe” in the set next tour.
But that’s about it.
So now this is where you ask me about the rest of the album, and you will tell me that oh, it’s NOT as bad as all that, and really, it’ll grow on you, and it’s not nearly as bad as anyone says. And I say to you: vaya con dios. Really. Because if you enjoy it, who am I to tell you that you’re foolish to do so?
I worry about what these songs will do to the live set. I worry that they will tank the set and then he will drop them and then it will be just like he didn’t release an album to tour behind. I think, the Rolling Stones did multiple legs of a tour behind one very bad album, the Magic tour just could have kept going, and no one would have really noticed or said anything, would they?
I will keep trying to find something in the rest of the songs, but I am already trying to figure out how, exactly, Bruce is comparing “Outlaw Pete” to “Jungleland” (oh yes he did, i heard him, in his own words, say that). And I get the homage to Brian Wilson but he already did it first and best on Magic. Maybe I will come back here in a few months and tell you that I was wrong, that I was hasty, that I misjudged.
Far more likely, however, I am going to come here and rant about how “Cowboy Pete” is stealing TEN MINUTES in the live show in which we could have two songs. (Yes, I get it, Morricone tribute, yes, I hear it, but I don’t understand why Outlaw Pete can’t hear Bruce. I’ll stop now.)
I understand that people will need to convince themselves that they like it more than they do, because it is likely the last E Street album as we know it, because it is a Bruce album, because they won’t know what to do if they don’t. And of course, there is the chance that people genuinely do like it, and I’ll be the last person to tell them that they’re wrong.
See you on the road.
p.s. If you haven’t already seen it, I have some thoughts on the Super Bowl in Joe Posnanski’s column on SportsIllustrated.com.
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