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Just A Blackstar Review

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I had been assigned to review this for a website, but since I didn’t get the record until 12:01am Friday morning, didn’t get to file it over the weekend as I had planned. I told my editor that I would get it to her on Monday during the day. But once I woke up on Monday, I had to write a whole new set of pieces, and this got set aside.

I actually did look at it on Tuesday, after I had posted an excerpt on Facebook, noting that it was going to be killed, given the circumstances. A couple of writers urged me to post it anyway. Plans to publish it at its original home fell through, and at this point it makes no sense — but I did want to commemorate it here.

David Bowie has mastered the modern music business landscape as well as (or even better than) anyone. The Next Day dropped without any clue whatsoever; his PR firm’s warning that a record was going to drop in the overnight and that the newsroom might want to be prepared had the editors guessing every other artist except Bowie. One song added to a greatest hits anthology rated detailed reviews of the one song in media outlets around the world. And the lead up to Blackstar was marked, measured and controlled to the nth degree, all of this for a 40-minute seven-track jazz-flavored collaboration that leans on a saxophone as the core instrument.

“Blackstar” as the opening track might seem like a misguided idea; it’s almost 10 minutes long, and when you listen to it in the context of the record, it will initially feel like it’s two separate songs, and you might think it would work better as the last track of the record. That will shift with repeated listenings, and the track will find its place and you’ll get more comfortable with it. It’s uncanny how catchy the song is, how its myriad sections will get stuck in your brain on a loop, as though it was the lightest, simplest pop song.

“‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore” is sad and angry and gruff; listen to it on headphones to catch the heavy breathing at the song’s start, rough and louche in the best way.

“Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)” was the bonus track on 2014’s anthology Nothing Has Changed, but it’s welcome here in this collection. It’s also the most successful jazz execution that also still sounds 100% like a David Bowie song. “Girl Loves Me” has a gigantic “EXPLICIT” attached to the title, and you wonder what could possibly rate that, and then the “Where the fuck did Monday go?” refrain kicks in along with the backbeat. “Who the fuck’s gonna mess with me?” It will repeat in your head for days.

“Lazarus” is one of a handful of songs written for the Bowie musical of the same name currently playing Off Broadway that survived the cut. Lazarus the musical has its issues but the song is not one of them. It’s a great song in the production and it’s still a great song here on the record; it’s also the only straight-ahead rock song in the batch. But it’s haunting and huge and you could dismiss it as classic Bowie, the kind of thing he could write in his sleep–but why on earth is that a bad thing? It’s unmistakable but it’s also not just flatly derivative. (And Michael S. Hall does an admirable job with the performance.)

Saxophone dominates the record in a surprising fashion, given that it’s not a straight ahead rock and roll record and isn’t a straight ahead jazz record, either. But it’s no wonder that Bowie would come back to the instrument here and now; it was his first instrument, and he never stopped loving it and never managed to master it. But he employed it, early and often, to memorable effect, and he’s not stopping now. This can be good, and it can also be unfortunate; the sax on “Dollar Days” sounds like it’s off a bad Billy Joel outtake that got lost somewhere on Baker Street.

Where Blackstar falls down is as a cohesive statement. It feels like a random collection of songs because that’s what it is, and that’s unfortunate coming on the heels of The Next Day, which absolutely felt like an album. (Hindsight is now 20-20; this review was largely complete before Bowie’s untimely demise late Sunday night. Now some things make more sense.)

When does a trend-setter get to stop setting trends, and just be allowed to create? The expectations of anything that has the name “Bowie” attached to it are always sky high, and that hasn’t tapered in almost 50 years of the man producing art. We’ve decided–he’s trained us to expect– that whatever he does has to break the mold, it has to be haute, it has to be the nth of whatever the particular art is. If we can let Sting put out a record about the shipbuilding culture in Newcastle and take it seriously, we can let fucking David Bowie put out a free range jazz collaboration, especially when the latter is strong and challenging and in several cases, actually fucking great.

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Record Review: Bruce Springsteen’s “Wrecking Ball”

It would be easy to write a review of Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball album and salute it as new, novel, angry and revolutionary, but it would also be unfortunate and uninformed to call it any of those things. I’d easily go out on a limb and state that I believe that Wrecking Ball is the most interesting album Springsteen has released since Tunnel of Love, but the only thing new is that this is the first time that he has taken a select group of the elements he has been talking about and listening to and engaging with for the length of his entire career and put it on album. The only thing that surprises me is that it took him so long to get here.

The album is a bold step in the right direction, but it is far from perfect. The choice of Ron Aniello in the producer’s seat seems odd, and off; I realize he worked with Patti Scialfa and that’s the likely origin of the connection, but the rest of his resume screams bland and uninteresting, with Candlebox and Lifehouse listed as the high points. Given Springsteen’s legendary stubbornness in the recording studio, it’s uncertain whether Aniello was the best person for Bruce to work with at this juncture, with the goal of integrating a whole host of new sonic elements into his songs so that they were seamless and didn’t stand out like sore thumbs. Some otherwise very good songs on Wrecking Ball suffer not from over-production, but lack of skilled production. I don’t have a problem with sounds like these being on a Bruce Springsteen record; what I have a problem with is the poor execution of these elements.

The lazy lede from many on Wrecking Ball is to call it “angry” or to insist that it’s an ode to Occupy Wall Street. It’s lazy because it simply displays a lack of attention to not just what Springsteen’s been doing not just since The Rising, but for his entire career: songs on Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River and Nebraska were clearly discussing economic inequity and social justice as clearly and directly as “Easy Money,” the song most often tapped as the OWS anthem because of the “fat cats” lyric. But that also overlooks other songs on the record, like “Jack of All Trades” and “Death to My Hometown”: the former could be an update in the biography of the protagonist in “Used Cars,” the latter a continuation of the saga of “they’re closing down the textile mills/and they ain’t coming back” from its 1984 namesake. News flash: if you go back and look just a little, you’ll see that the themes on Wrecking Ball are identical to many that Bruce Springsteen has been concerned about and addressing for a large portion of his entire career.

There’s an anachronistic, almost quaint side one / side two split on the record, which is unhappily uneven, despite a clear attempt to track a solid thematic arc throughout the entire album. Track one, side one is once again dedicated to the radio hit, and once again, the radio hit is one that’s already being misinterpreted and misappropriated by political campaigns. “We Take Care of Our Own” is certainly polished and perky and undeniably commercial; people were joking about it being one step up from an insurance ad. If you think that the ability to write a hit song is a creative crime, then you will look down your nose at “We Take Care of Our Own,” but it shouldn’t be surprising that Bruce Springsteen can still write a radio-friendly rock and roll song (even when there’s no radio on which to play it).

The rest of side one has its ups and downs: “Easy Money” could be a single, and Steve Jordan’s drum work and Patti Scialfa’s vocal arrangements make it a stand out. “Shackled and Drawn” is an example where the new sonic elements add to the palette; I’ll note that this track is credited with “containing elements of” rather than “contains excerpts from” – indicating that the reference to “Me and My Baby Got A Good Thing Going” by Lyn Brown is not a sample, and would instead point to Cindy Mizelle’s (a welcome if under-utilized presence on the last tour, who will clearly be much busier on this one) credit on the song.

I don’t think that it’s surprising that Bruce is drawn to gospel right now. At the end of the last tour, Dave Marsh organized a discussion panel on E Street Radio to talk about what we thought would be next. I said that I thought he would work with a gospel choir, or maybe I just wanted him to. (I’ve also wished for him to go on tour with another band, like Social Distortion, and have prayed religiously for a true horn section.) I don’t think it’s surprising because the best songs in his repertoire share the themes of deliverance and salvation and just plain rising up that are at the heart of gospel. It was interesting to read in the transcript of the European press event that Springsteen had started to work on a gospel record before abandoning it for this one.

The latter half of side one starts to present challenges: “Jack of All Trades” is phenomenal, a stunning tribute to the under-employed. I wish that Steve Jordan was in place on the drum stool instead of the distracting drum machine. It’s also in a tough spot on the album. Despite actively liking the song–the guitar work from both Bruce and Tom Morello (who should go out on tour with E Street as far as I’m concerned) the vocals, the horn arrangement–I almost always want to skip right past this six-minute dirge.

“Death to My Hometown,” which comes next, is probably the weakest song on the record, and not just because Bruce brings the unnecessary faux-Irish accent out of nowhere. I don’t mind the the penny whistle or the looping of the fa so la/Sacred Harp tune “The Last Words of Copernicus” underneath as the backing vocals, I just mind what feels like a forced ethnicity, for lack of a better term. This song sung as a straight folk song, Bruce just on acoustic guitar, would be just as compelling and a million times less annoying. “This Depression” is another standout track, with more amazing guitar work from Morello, but the transition from “Death to My Hometown” does it a serious disservice.

When “Wrecking Ball” was debuted at Giants Stadium, my first thought was that it was as strong musically as it was weak lyrically. When I saw this song listed on the initial track listing, all I could think was: why? It was bad enough it was kept around at the shows after Giants Stadium was torn down, with Bruce substituting “where champions play” instead of “where Giants play” in places like Detroit and St. Louis; the gesture was weak and unnecessary, and the inclusion of this song whose theme only tenuously fits in with the rest of the album is also unnecessary. With some small lyrical changes to remove the specificity of the song’s origin, this could have been another standout track, but that didn’t happen. But it has a good beat and you can dance to it, and it still provides a more consistent musical and thematic arc than side one.

“You’ve Got It” is a modified blues, and feels like an updated “Tougher Than The Rest”. The slide guitar, handled admirably by roots music veteran Greg Leisz, is delicate and deliberate, underscoring the emotion of the lyrics, providing just the right tension. But it seems misplaced on the side and overwhelmed by what’s on either side of it.

“Rocky Ground” is tied for the best song on the album. It’s enormous and evocative both sonically and emotionally; it should have been (and almost was) the title of the record not just because it is a superior composition, but because it more accurately captures the theme of the record and the mood of the songs on it. It’s an example where the integration of every textural element–loops, gospel, rock, soul–is 100% on and completely seamless. You don’t hear them, because they don’t stand out–you feel them. The rap bridge at the last quarter of the song is just another texture; it might be surprising the first time you hear it but it doesn’t feel wrong or out of place, just different, and a modern update of the Alan Lomax sample “I’m A Soldier (In The Army Of The Lord)” that opens the track and reappears throughout. The lineage is clear, the dots are connected. It’s unexpected and surprising and magnificent from start to finish.

Seeing “Land of Hopes and Dreams” on the original tracklist for the album did not originally seem to be a positive sign; the reappearance of multiple older songs on what’s supposed to be a new release is never a good thing to see on any artist’s record. Here, Springsteen could have taken the easy way out and provided a refreshed reprise of the Reunion-era fan favorite–it was a strong enough song on face value to have survived that. However, what no one expected was for “Land of Hopes and Dreams” to be completely reimagined. It’s the same lyrics and the same tune, but the arrangement and the instrumentation elevate this song from a nice number to one where you could find God walking through the room (to paraphrase both Bono and Quincy Jones, who originally said it). What was a pleasant and light number is now majestic and triumphant, and utterly mind-blowing.

There is much to like about “We Are Alive” if you don’t focus on it too hard. It invokes folk tales and old Negro spiritual themes of the rebirth of the soul, references the Baltimore Railroad Strike & Riot of 1877, the Civil Rights movement, and in a return to a familiar them, illegal immigrants crossing from Mexico into the United States and dying in the desert. The lyrics in the bridge, however, are more revealing:

Let your mind rest easy, sleep well my friend
It’s only our bodies that betray us in the end

Thoughts of mortality and aging at the end of a record coming out after a series of years where Springsteen has lost many close to him seems only right and proper. It doesn’t require a reading of the New Testament for it to make sense (although I confess I tried for a little while).

To those who are surprised, I would ask, where have you been? Where were you when he referenced listening to Tupac and Ludicris, where were you when he brought the Victorious Gospel Choir to sing at the 2003 Christmas Shows (a suggestion from his mother), did you think he was hanging out with Tom Morello and Mike Ness and Win Butler because he felt he had some obligation to do so? And to be surprised by the use of the sampling of the Alan Lomax recordings and other layering of borrowed or manipulated sounds means you checked out during the Devils and Dust tour. These aren’t even the only pointers in these various directions, just the most obvious ones. Calling this a “Seeger Sessions record” (which some fans are doing, out of sheer lack of reference, which is sad) means you are missing the point completely.

Even with its faults, Wrecking Ball is a tremendous album because of the potential, because of the risks taken, because of the mostly successful exploration of new territory, because he finally went out and pulled everything together for the first time on record. I wish he had gone farther, pushed further, and wonder what was left behind, what was left out, what we missed out on this time around. The unsatisfying bonus tracks, the new “Swallowed Up (In The Belly of the Whale)” and a revisited and unnecessary “American Land,” (a song that’s already been in the live show for four tours now) reveal nothing. I hope that the obvious live strength of the 2012, Big-Man bereft E Street Band as demonstrated last week on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon means that we have many, many more chances to see what other new directions Springsteen has in store for us.

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If you like my writing about Bruce Springsteen, you will love my rock and roll novel B-sides and Broken Hearts, in paperback and e-book, and also available via Amazon Prime Lending.

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Remembering Achtung Baby, 20 Years On

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I remember Achtung Baby as the record where it was not just about what and who U2 were as it was about what and who they weren’t. At the time, people weren’t just U2 fans, you were either fans of the Joshua Tree– era U2 who didn’t love what was perceived as this sudden change, or you were the people who were starting to — not so much lose interest towards the end of that particular phase (including, by all accounts, the band themselves), but might have tired of some of it just a tad, and you loved Achtung Baby not because it was U2’s next album but because it was Achtung Baby. To me, it was closer to the era where they made their bones. For all of the insistence on noise rock influences and Einsturzende and their ilk, I heard the Stones at Nellcote, I heard Marc Bolan’s gold lame pants, I heard the Silver Factory, I heard the Bowie of Heroes, the Lou Reed of Transformer, the Dolls at the Mercer Arts Center. It was Manchester meets Motown.

It was iconic, it was ridiculous, it was groundbreaking. It was overwhelming and exciting – if you wanted to be overwhelmed and excited by all of the above, which I most certainly did.

“The Fly” flooded MTV and after years of gritty black and white earnestness there was a pulse, there was rhythm, there was Edge’s guitar shimmering around the edges like runway lights, reminding us that this was still U2. The video or the promo for the video or the ad for the album was on MTV once every fifteen minutes, and I am not sure that is an exaggeration of any kind. It’s no wonder that by the time that ZooTV went live on tour that the iconography was already so comfortable and familiar to everyone when this was burned into your brain nonstop for so long.

When the record was finally in our hands – and oh, this was still the day of the record – the cover was Robert Frank in technicolor, and the music did not disappoint. It opened with a one-two punch and it closed with a triad taking you in the other emotional direction. “Zoo Station” was a clarion call, chanting “I’m ready” every line. “Even Better Than The Real Thing” felt and sounded like the sun rising. “Ultraviolet” was liquid hope (“baby baby baby, light my way”) anchored by the rhythm section, “Acrobat” was despair set to 6-8 time, “Love Is Blindness” was quicksilver anguish channeled through Edge’s guitar strings.

The sounds and the spaces were colossal. It was big and brash and loud and dark and shiny. It was huge. It wasn’t what we had expected, it was more than we needed, it was what we dearly wanted. It walked that edge between dark and light and between heaven and hell. This record wasn’t about being in God’s country, these were songs about walking the planet every day.

It is a record of anthems, of battle cries, of hymns. After 20 years of hearing “One” in grocery stores and while shopping for jeans at the Gap, it’s hard to remember that you could ever listen to that song and find it evil, haunting and too close to the bone, but the first listen of that song had me on the floor the first time I heard it. I used to sing it at karaoke with my best friend and we’d piss everyone off. We pissed off the guys we dated, who knew we were trying to tell them something but couldn’t figure out what. It pissed off other women in the crowd because we were reminding them of things they didn’t want to think about. It pissed off the other guys in the crowd because our anguish was hot and we always leaned into each other when we sang, which gave them ideas that had no basis in reality. Of course, we sang the song and put on the performance because we wanted to piss everybody off. We sang “One” to each other over the phone. We sang “One” to each other on our answering machines. I marvel that now “One” is a song during which I take a break during a show, and certainly wouldn’t stop the car and turn up the radio if it came on, but back then, it rated that kind of reverence.

I got into the most trouble with the “Ultraviolet”/”Acrobat” axis at the end of the record. I would walk to the beach at sunset with the record on tape or I would sit in my living room with headphones on at sunrise, usually coming home after being out all night, back when that was something I would do. “Oh, sugar, don’t you cry,” Bono would sing, but I would usually be doing just that, exactly. “You I need you to be strong,” he would sing, and I would shake my head to myself in assent. It was the anti-“One,” it wasn’t about regret, it was about moving up and on: “light my way,” over and over again. I would listen to the song grow and expand and open itself up into the bridge, where Larry and Adam were right up front in a giant cavern that filled my heart with sound, and Edge was in the back scratching and Bono singing, pleading, begging, with a voice that sounded like it had been dragged through sandpaper or whiskey or both.

And then, just when you’d recovered, you’d be thrown into “Acrobat.” I should not like “Acrobat.” I do not like 6/8 time, not in a rock song. If you had told me “U2 have a song on this record that’s in 6/8 time” I would have dismissed it out of hand as being entirely too precious. But it works, that’s the thing, it works here without being pretentious. It is the perfect device to give the feeling of being on edge, the manic madness that takes you into another perfectly orchestrated break where the drums parry the guitar and Adam is holding them all down so they don’t swirl into the ether. “You can dream/so dream out loud/and you can find/your own way out, and the Delmore Schwartz reference (which once woke me up in the middle of the night as I was falling asleep to the record and finally placed the line), it’s another rung in the ladder to climb up or out, whatever you need at the time.

You think you’re going to be able to relax by the time “Love Is Blindness” shudders into your ears, and that’s just what they want you to think. They want you to be off-guard, they want you to take a breath or two and listen, and that’s where they get you. They get you with those initial guitar licks in the background, glowing, glimmering, before taking over and shrieking into your brain and your heart at the end.

And then you would start it all over again.

This record stayed with me. I never needed to put it away or give it a break and even with every very specific, very raw, very emotional association I had with it, the music trumped the memories and I never had to give it up. I would drive late at night with the roof open and it ringing in my ears, I would walk through the rain with the volume up just enough to not overshadow the raindrops, I would lie on the floor and stare at the ceiling and look for an epiphany. Nowadays I walk with it, I let it take me through the streets of New York City at twilight, for comfort or strength or solace or all three. I let it power me up when I have something to do or somewhere to be. I decided that if I was a Major League Baseball player, I would choose “Even Better Than The Real Thing” as my walk-up music. When I am facing the public or giving a reading, I will have listened to side one at some point before I got there.

So on the 20th anniversary of this record, it is being revisited and re-examined and re-explored, and I am at a loss at all of this RE-ing because it was the second or third album that went onto my first iPod in 2003 and I have never stopped listening to it long enough to be able to re-anything when it comes to Achtung Baby. It’s hard for me to revisit that which has never left.

In 1993, I was living overseas, and had been there for over five years already. I was living this odd no-man’s land of not being quite American but not being quite European either. In a way, Achtung Baby also occupies that emotional space, the band still being who they were, despite the previous few years of pursuing their Kerouac-like On The Road fantasy through the USA. Joshua Tree was white lights and cowboy hats, Achtung Baby was strobe lights and leather pants. When the tour rolled out in the US, despite being thousands of miles away, the magic of MTV made you feel like you were there. We knew everything that was going on, we knew about the calls to the White House and the pizzas and the video confessional as well as if it was in our backyard. I wanted to see it live but I didn’t know how I was going to make it happen – until my sister’s wedding in August of 93 required my presence back on the East Coast. I could route myself home via London just in time for Zooropa at Wembley Stadium.

I will tell you that nothing, not a damn thing, not a MTV News report or a photo essay in Rolling Stone or in-depth Q Magazine coverage prepared me for the sheer size of things. Part of it probably had to do with the fact that I had been living in a country that would neatly fit inside the state of New Jersey, everything was going to be massive by comparison. I had seats in the stands, about 1/3 back, halfway up. I looked at the mass of humanity on the pitch and wished I was there. I was by myself; despite the obsession my particular circle of friends had over this record, I don’t remember why I ended up traveling solo. It was an odd, disjointed time in my life, where I didn’t know what was going to happen next. Everyone around me streamed into the stadium in large, laughing groups, and I found my way to my seat by myself, feeling like a country bumpkin.

I was utterly not prepared for this. I was a girl who didn’t do stadium shows, who had sworn them off after surviving the Who and the Stones at the beginning of the 80s, who skipped her beloved Bruce Springsteen by the time Born In The USA got to the blimp nests because it wasn’t about watching the show, it was about spending some time in the same physical space as an artist and I wanted more from my music than that.

And then the lights went on, Edge hit the intro riff, Larry smashed the drums, and every single person at Wembley got to their feet. There was Bono, silhouetted against the blue, the fly against the TV screen. There were the leg kicks, there he was, humping the microphone stand. The music reached out across the enormity and pulled me in like I was standing at the edge of the stage.

I knew what “Zoo Station” was going to be like because I had seen it so many times, it was almost familiar, the first number had been in countless tv broadcasts. I even knew small details, like that last song before the band came out was going to be “Television, the Drug of a Nation” by the Disposable Heroes of Hiphopiacy (just like I’d known that John Lennon’s version of “Stand By Me” was the last song before the band came out on Joshua Tree). But nothing was going to prepare me for being there, and even being so far away from the stage – I didn’t! Do! Stadium! Shows!- it was overwhelming, even from where I was. I was glad I wasn’t closer because it would have swallowed me whole if I had. I held my breath through “Zoo Station” and “The Fly” because I was in shock. I was physically, mentally, emotionally unprepared for the spectacle, the power of the music live, the energy generated in such a large space. For London greeting U2 at Wembley fucking Stadium. 

And then the trabants went up and the lights flashed on and “Even Better Than the Real Thing” roared out of the speakers and into the center of my chest and it was like I had just woken up, like I had been frozen and had thawed out, that moment in the WIzard of Oz where everything goes from black and white to color. It was so big, so bright, so all-encompassing. It’s going to seem stupid when I tell you that that was the moment that I realized that I was moving back to America, that I had been heading in the wrong direction, that I thought I was doing the right thing with my life but that I had been doing anything but. Even at the time I said something to myself about being so cliche as to having a catharsis at a stadium rock show but there was something about the loop being closed, the circuits being opened, seeing this record live. It was the size, it was the sound, it was the power, it was something shaking you upside down until you came back to your senses.

I laid awake in bed that night staring at the ceiling and not believing I was going to do it again the next night.

There was a problem with my tickets the second night. They were legit, but they had been given to someone else more important than me, so a security guard took me to the production office to find another place to sit. Apparently I was the only person who didn’t walk in there ready for a fight – to be fair, would you want to find out there was a problem with your U2 ticket? – but I was just so happy to be there, to be able to be part of the circus one more time that as long as I had a ticket, I would be okay, which is what I told them. That’s when they noticed the accent, and asked me if I’d come just to see the show, and I said yes, and before I knew it I found myself on the same side of the stadium (Adam’s side, stage left) and a much much lower row. This was still Wembley, so I was still miles away, but after the previous night, I knew it wasn’t going to matter.

I got to my seat and noticed the entire row behind me were wearing MacPhisto horns. No sooner did I sit down than I felt someone tapping me on the shoulder and proffering a set of horns.
“What’s this?” I said.
“You have to get into the spirit of things,” he said.
“Don’t worry, I’m in the spirit of things.”
“You’re American!”
I nodded.
“I brought enough for everyone,” he said, “But you have to wear them.”
I put them on my head immediately.
“Now, that’s the spirit!” he said, standing up and waving at the people behind him who were not wearing devil horns. “Look, the girl from America put them on.”

This was the best possible section of people to be with for this show, people who stood up and danced and sang and shouted all night long. Tonight was participatory, yelling comments at Bono as though he could hear them, my new friend imitating every single one of Bono’s moves onstage with gusto (especially the crotch-in-camera ones, to much hilarity). You haven’t quite lived until you’re imitating belly dancing moves during “Mysterious Ways” with a motley group of kids from the London suburbs, all wearing devil horns. Everyone knew all the lines because they had been watching and listening and paying attention for the past year or so: “You didn’t come here to watch TV, now have ya??” we yelled with Bono as though we had heard it every night of our life.

In a way, of course, we had.

When the show was over, I walked out of Wembley with my new friends, several of them insisting on getting me back to the tube station even though I kept telling them I knew where I was going just fine. I didn’t realize I was still wearing my MacPhisto horns until I got off at my stop and walked into the off license to buy a drink. The elderly shop clerk looked up at me, saw the horns, did a double-take and I caught my reflection in the window just as a big smile broke across his face.

He said, “So, who did Bono ring up tonight, then?”

I wish I knew what happened to those devil horns.


(For the record: the first night was — I believe — the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Bono and the crowd sang “I Just Called To Say I Love You” and the second night was the coach of a football team whose name I have long since forgotten, but understood enough about UK sport to get why we were singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” I am hoping a kind commenter will fill in that gap.)

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“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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tomorrow is the best day.

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Pitchers and catchers report, and the Gutter Twins start their tour right downtown.

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GREG STOP SMOKING

please.

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a. whigs circa 2007.

Citybeat (Cincinnati local) has the scoop on the Rhino retrospective.

I’m not itching for the band to get back together. Some day, someone will have kids that need to get through college and that’s probably about when people will want to do that again. And I’d like to live through it one more time. But, if not, c’est la vie.

In related news, 33 1/3 promises results end of the month. 20 books out of almost 500 proposals. Hey, it could happen.

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Pareles on Young Neil

Neil Young’s ‘Living With War’ Shows He Doesn’t Like It – New York Times

Watch this interview for all-time Classic Neil.

And you can stream the entire album in reasonable quality on neilyoung.com.

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five guys walk into a bar

OH MY GOD, FINALLY, FINALLY, SOMEONE FINALLY BOUGHT THIS OFF OF MY CHANUKAH LIST:


I know the Faces are supposed to be a guy’s band, the lad’s lads, and, furthermore, thoroughly British enough to even confound the most ardent of Anglophiles.

But sweet holy jesus does any of that really fucking MATTER when you have the intro to “Stay With Me,” LIVE, dear lord almighty, LIVE, cranked through headphones somewhere very very far past 11? WIth all the raunchy popcorn crunch that is the entire reason you love the Faces? Ronnie Wood’s notes tumbling like dustbins down the stairs, aural somersaults, the notes guaranteed to have me stop whatever I was doing and run into the middle of the room wanting to play guitar or dance around or just stand there and FEEL it for as long as it lasted?

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Greg Dulli’s Amber Headlights

Two years ago, right about this time of year, during a late fall dark and bleak, I saw the Twilight Singers for the first time. The first cold had just set in and my heart was newly healing, stumbling over the remnants of betrayal. That show was the perfect balm to wounds visible and invisible, just like Blackberry Belle likely helped Dulli heal from his own loss.

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Review: Ryan Adams: Cold Roses

I am one of those people who thinks that Ryan Adams is a Boy Wonder. I am an unabashed apologist for his drug-inspired ramblings and alcohol-fueled tantrums. I own dozens of live bootlegs (over 50, at least). I think the alt.country purists who want a mando on every song or they condemn him completely (they use the same argument with Tweedy, for what it’s worth) can go fuck themselves. I am always the first one to say, “It’s just Ryan. It’s just part of who and what he is.”

However, what I have no answer to is the eagerly-anticipated Cold Roses. Finally! After the perversion of Love Is Hell (where are those New Orleans sessions, damn you), chopping it up into bits and then releasing the whole shebang six months later (forcing us to buy the damn thing two or three times, especially if you wanted that beautiful 10″ vinyl edition), Lost Highway is going to let Ryan release what he wants, how he wants it. Finally! We will be able to feast upon Ryan Adams’ True Creative Genius.

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