Tag Archives: springsteen

Springsteen Stories

Received my copy of Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography this week, and eager to read his own words about his own life (Peter Carlin’s “Bruce” was outstanding, and “Born To Run” holds even higher potential – and it’s sitting in the top slot in Amazon’s best seller list). One of the online groups in which I lurk has burst open with contemporaries sharing their own stories, his life as viewed through their words, and two of my own floated to the surface.

Attending Freehold Township High School (Bruce went to Freehold High School, later distinguished with the surname “Boro” once the Township school was opened), there was quite a bit of shared history with teachers and younger siblings who had some effective arm’s length human touch with Bruce. At least half a dozen people claimed to know the identity of “Wendy;” another half dozen laid claim to the “giant Exxon sign” in its exact location as their own turf. My favorite story, which I hold up as the stuff of teenage rebellion and not fact, goes like this: A certain teacher (who moved from Boro to Township) vaguely hinted that he had failed Bruce Springsteen and wouldn’t hesitate to fail you. The wordier version included Springsteen’s reply that “One day, I’ll be famous and you’ll still be here teaching the same class and driving the same car” — punctuated with the remark that after “Born to Run,” Springsteen proved himself correct with a visit. With a lot of hindsight, I find that incongruous; Springsteen has never been one to gloat or boast, and the thought of diminishing someone who had an impact, however random or tangential, is just counter to just about every theme in every Springsteen song.

The better stories are variations on this theme: Parents said “You better shape up or you’ll turn out like Bruce Springsteen” and then every one of us who laments the wilting of our salad days of musical talent wishes our parents had actually been more correct in their predictions.

My own (weakly remembered, but directionally correct) story sits in the Venn diagram intersection of those storyline mechanics. At the beginning of each school year, we’d get text books that looked like they’d been through the wringer and conveyor belts at the mercy of United’s baggage handlers, and the first act was to flip to the back inside cover and see who had been issued the book in previous years. The golden ticket was to find one with a scrawled “B Springsteen,” a feat that required a book in service for about a decade in a class that was still in the academic rotation. Sure enough, one day I found the magic signature, and yet never considered stealing the book for later collector value. Bruce entered our lives on an almost daily basis, there was no need to pay a $15 fine to prove evidence of our shared geographic heritage. “Born to Run” thundered from our FM clock radios, usually introduced by a WNEW DJ with nothing more than “Bruce” or “This” or some other Mark Rothko colored impact statement; that was sufficient to remind us Bruce Springsteen turned out alright even if his English book suffered the slings, arrows and lockers of time.

For the next six years, Bruce constructed and destructed much of my musical life. As a DJ at WPRB-FM, we were implicitly discouraged from playing Top 40, but his obscure and wonderfully textured songs found their way into my shows. I mailed in a check (via “special delivery!”) for the ticket lottery for his July 1981 shows at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, the first arena rock show I attended. After meeting amazing keyboardist (later turned drummer) Steve, another Springsteen fan, I realized that my saxophone playing wasn’t anywhere near what was required to play in a band; as Steve said “Clarence is always playing, but you don’t notice it; he just plays what needs to be played”. That stuck with me as a metaphor for a lot of things, but also made me take stock of my own ability to hear and contribute musically. Thirty-five years later, “New York City Serenade” is one of my favorite songs; “Darkness” is a desert island album; the opening chords of “Born To Run” still give me chills; and yet I haven’t given up the dream of playing since I picked up the bass two years ago — maybe we all still have the chance to turn out the way our parents eventually wanted — creatively happy.

“Born To Run” is next up on my reading list (provided I finish Annie Duke’s book before attending her charity poker ball next weekend) and I know it will fill in the facts of my own stories, not diminishing them but giving them color and connection and concreteness.

Phish: Wingsuit is Their “Darkness”

Standing in the very last row of the Santander Center in Reading, Pennsylvania on Tuesday night, I felt privileged to be part of an inspired and inspiring Phish show. The jams were complex, funky, a little dissonant (in that Halloween groove), and incredibly well performed. A work friend accompanied me, for his first show, and his comments were along the lines of “Wow, that’s hard” (a cappella vocals), “Reminds me of Dixie Dregs” and “Reminds me of Allan Holdsworth”. He’s an accomplished keyboard player himself, and none of those statements are faint praise. At the grand pause in “Divided Sky,” my one thought surveying a velvet sea of lighters, was that somewhere Lou Reed was looking on and proud of the boys he nudged into rock and roll mayhem. My concluding thought for the night was that having only touched on “Walk Away” and “Good Times, Bad Times” (both summer tour staples) as cover songs, Phish was remarkably comfortable in their own musical skin, evidenced by their set lists and depth of jamming.

santander

Two nights later, after all of the pre-gaming hype and hyperbole, Phish introduced “Wingsuit” as a collection of songs from a new album. And I’m at a loss to understand why people seem so upset by this. Anyone on the Boardwalk (and those of us couch touring at home) got to hear new songs, performed in the sequence and setting intended, for the first time. I can only compare the joy to that of Tuesday afternoons at WPRB-FM in the early 80s, when the UPS man would bring us the new releases for the week and all of the DJs would fall on those random brown boxes, only to then scatter and listen and review and ruminate.

The collective kvetching seems to fall into two categories: Phish didn’t cover someone else’s material “like they always do” and the new songs aren’t like their first four albums. To the first point, if you really want to see someone do Led Zepplin IV, go see “Get The Led Out” locally. Phish did what they’ve been doing for the past year or so — staying true to their musical biases, creating great sounds, and popping in a few not-so-subtle jabs at the parts of fan base that believe a set list is a Wikipedia entry to be crowd-edited ad nauseum (see Chicago “Harpua” as evidence). As for the songs themselves, they are rich, complex, lyrically deep, equally fun and funky and fundamentally probing. This is the return of the son of “Joy”. Fewer songs with minimalist obscure lyrics and more songs with equally intricate parts across the whole band.

And I’ll go way out on a limb (by limb): “Wingsuit” is Phish’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” Misunderstood, complex to write and produce (over time and space), but when seen through a decade long lens of musical history, it’s one of the greatest albums of all time. The composition and lyrics on “Wingsuit” reflect maturity as song writers, musicians, and a few decades of life experience.

Handicapping the Costume Album

Very much looking forward to Phish in Atlantic City on Halloween, when they cover an entire album in between their usual wide-ranging sets. Handicapping the “costume album” is how Phish fans run the equivalent of a Super Bowl box game before the show. Reading through the guesses gives you some intriguing implied demographic data, including fans who can’t think of albums recorded before 1990 that might be worthy of a Trey & company send-up.

There are likely no rules for choosing a costume album, because that would take away both the fun and the surprise. But, as Rick Moranis says in “Ghostbusters,” these are more guidelines than rules:

  • Has to fit the instrumentation. No keyboards means no Page, not happening.

  • Has to fit the voicing. Zeppelin works because Page can cover Robert Plant; Trey handles David Byrne and various members of the Velvet Underground with aplomb.

  • Has to be open to interpretation, also known as being jammable. While an already extended composition such as Zeppelin’s “No Quarter” might seem to be off the table, it’s made a few appearances in the last three tour set lists. But covering another jam band’s jams triggers layered references to Mick Jagger’s “I don’t have that much jam” lyrical lament, and is less likely.

Some ideas for the musically inclined betting fan:

Traffic, “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.” October 29, 2010 had “Light up or Leave Me Alone,” played in the same venue (the first time Phish played Boardwalk Hall). The ultimate teased clue. Infinitely jammable, especially the title track.

Steely Dan, “Aja.” The session musicians on the studio album are individually as deep and wide as the members of Phish themselves, and this would be fun.

Led Zeppelin, “Houses of the Holy.” “No Quarter” was the tease, this is the whole thing with “The Ocean” and “Song Remains the Same.” I would lose my mind.

Allman Brothers, “Eat A Peach.” So much room for exploration, so many fun references in the album art.

Rolling Stones, “Some Girls.” There are a few commercially successful songs mixed in with the completely out-of-genre tracks like “Faraway Eyes”. Then again, Phish goes bluegrass in between jams.

Also getting votes: Blues Traveller’s self-titled debut, Lou Reed’s “Rock and Roll Animal,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” (“Thunder Road” was played as a tribute to Clarence Clemons the night the Big Man loaded out).

Bottom line: it doesn’t matter. It promises to be a great night of music, and the surprise of an entire album only compounds the song-by-song surprise of a Phish show in general.

Tonight In Jungleland

Clarence Clemons, saxophone player for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, died earlier today. Billy Crystal wrote in 700 Sundays that he felt like an adult when his childhood idol Mickey Mantle died, and tonight everyone who grew up along Highway 9 feels a bit older and much sadder.

As a saxophone player in high school, I was fascinated with the Brecker Brothers and Clarence Clemons. The Breckers fused jazz, rock, and guitar effects to great fun; Clemons was just great fun in everything he did and played. Seeing Springsteen for the first time in 1981 (at the Spectrum in Philadelphia) it was hard to split my attention between Bruce and the Big Man. They were a team, with a dynamic that used Clarence’s sax as another voice in many songs, a melodic accent and echo to Bruce’s gritty storytelling. Listen to “New York Serenade” on Wild, Innocent and E Street Shuffle and you hear Clarence darting in and out as Bruce releases the tension in his story. “Rosalita” on the same album has Clarence pulling the band from section to section in one of the best-known bridges (of any sort) in the Garden State.

My college buddy Steve used to play a lot of Springsteen on the piano. I pulled out the sax and tried joining him one night; about half a song in he said “Listen to how Clarence never stops playing, but never gets in front of the song. He’s always filling in, but in a quiet or complementary way.” Best description of the Big Man ever, in song, in real life, on stage. Last indictment that my career as a saxophone player wasn’t going very far, but delivered in an amazingly perceptive way.

And for anyone who went through high school and college on a steady diet of Born To Run, Clemons’ solo on “Jungleland” remains one of the best parts of the album. Like “Serenade,” it takes us to the close, a siren call that brings the Rat and his girl beneath the city where two hearts beat.

Tonight, in Jungleland, one of those big hearts beats no more, and we all miss the Big Man.

Springsteen and the Lexus CT200h

On Saturday, I traded in my 6-cylinder, gas-guzzling, hockey and golf equipment hauling SUV for the Lexus CT200h 4-door hatchback hybrid. The decision was driven by a number of conflicting thoughts, starting with the incongruity of talking about eco-computing and sustainability after spending an average of $10 a day on gas over the summer. There were days this summer when I paid more for gas to get to the golf course than I paid for greens fees to actually play on it (we’ll get into the ethics and eco-sustainability of golf another time). When Lexus introduced the CT200h (basically a Lexus with the Prius drive train, and a modified interior for wider bodies like mine) it seemed like a good time to make the switch.

The car has drawn some puzzled looks from friends. I’ve been driving a full-sized 4-door, wagon or SUV for as long as most people have known me. Deciding to trade in the SUV (replete with hockey smells, stick marks, and some outstanding bumper stickers) was a Springsteen moment for me. Growing up in Freehold, NJ, you have to develop an appreciation for the Boss, even if it was to laugh at the comedian’s joke: If you had one of those days when your parents kicked you out of the house, you broke up with your girlfriend and got in more trouble at school, you’d write a song about car. Fast cars, no so fast girls, and driving down the shore – life in New Jersey in a nutshell. I think that’s why so many people disliked – sometimes intensely – Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. It tells stories that are as dark as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road but as equally full of whatever counts for love when the asphalt runs out, either at the beach or in front of half a duplex. With three decades of hindsight, Darkness stands out as one of rock’s great albums, a collection of stories that was intended to be listened to from beginning to end. An album that produced no hit singles, limited commercial acclaim and probably drove some reviewers back to their typewriters with more cold coffee in hand, Darkness is powerful because its fast cars are raced with a sense of intellectual honesty.

There’s the turning point for me. I simply didn’t need that big a car, and I can’t continue to watch gas prices spiral upward and not take some personal action. It goes even deeper – the more we believe in freedom, and the more I continue to work for technology companies that enable organization and information dissemination, the more likely it is we’ll see disruptions in countries key to the supply of oil. It’s hard to say that you believe in freedom while you’re indentured to the gas pump. As someone commented on my Facebook status when I announced I was buying a hybrid: the dependency is broken one person at a time. I’d rather see $6 a gallon gas and more individual empowerment; that was the intellectual integrity quandry I felt needed an answer.

Full disclosure on intellectual honesty, though: this car is fun to drive. I’ll admit to being a bad driver; I like to go fast; I accelerate out of turns, up ramps, and along freeways more than I should; I over-use my brake pedal and utilize the full Jersey variety of signalling methods (some digital, some bulb-based). The CT200h has a much more compact, enclosed cockpit, it’s about a foot lower to the ground, and you just feel the road more. Balance that out with a cornucopia of sound options including XM radio, and the iPod car accessory system for iPhone or iPod use, and suddenly I’m thinking more about what I want to listen to going from point A to point B rather than how quickly I can make the trip. Real-time statistics from the gas/electric engines inform you of gas economy, mileage efficiency and cruising range. The dash backlighting changes to indicate when you’re charging the batteries rather than draining the gas tank, and I’ve found (in just four days) that my driving style has started to change. I’m trying to squeeze the most out of the gas; I’m gaming the cruising range indicator. I’ve discovered three new bands listening to XM Radio’s Octane (48), using the center console “joystick” to cut between GPS map and song information, purely by feel and without taking my eyes off of the road. I’m celebrating not hitting the gas station after the Dunkin’ Donuts this morning. Ergonomically, the car is a delight to drive and more personally, Roy Bittan’s piano on Racing in the Streets sounds just oh so good.

The Road, The Street and The Darkness

Having seen a variety of forward references to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road I decided to broaden my reading horizon between the here-and-now of Jodi Picoult and the when-is-that of Neal Stephenson. I wouldn’t call it science fiction, in the sense that everything in the book is completely plausible and accessible today; it’s a book without faster than light travel, direct computing implants, or intelligent exoskeletons. The only exotic chemicals involved are fear and love. It also won a 2007 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

The Road is remarkably dark. It’s depressing, but only until you reach the end and literally look back on the road traveled. My first thought upon finishing it was that it was a bad choice to bring on a 6-day business trip, because I wanted nothing more than to hug my own family at the end. My next thought was a reflection on a review written immediately after the release of Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. The critic’s words appeared in the Asbury Park Press, not only the largest newspaper of central New Jersey but also the hometown voice of the true Boss of the Garden State. The reviewer, upset that Darkness lived up to its name, ended his review imploring “Bruce, turn on the lights.” It’s one of the few pieces of music critique I’ve remembered, now going on thirty years. At the end of the book, I wanted someone to turn the lights on, tell me it was a bad dream, and push away the darkness. But to do so would be to miss the point.

The Road is a dark love story. It’s a darkness for which there’s no savior light; it’s just a dark world that is all too easily imagined. Everything about the book makes you uncomfortable, throws you off your cadence, from the inconsistent punctuation of contractions to the fact that only one character is given a name, something of permanence and memory. The persistent theme, through the pages and through time, is love, between a father and son, and of times and things possibly forgotten.

So I followed the conclusion of The Road with a listen to Darkness, all the way through, the way it was conceived and put on vinyl. After Racing in the Street I took an historical pause because that’s where I would have flipped over the record. On the other end of that road is The Promised Land. The lights are on there, as they may be beyond McCarthy’s road in the book.

Scott Stevens, Regular Guy (Again)

We were fortunate enough to be in the Devils’ House last night for Scott Stevens Night, when his number 4 became the club’s first retired sweater. Pictures and color commentary forthcoming, but first a story: About three years ago I was in the local Starbucks sipping iced coffee that is as rich as one has to be to enjoy it regularly. At the register was a blond-haired guy, wearing glasses, in a suit, not necessarily distinguished from anyone else stopping for a caffeine slap shot before hopping on the commuter bus to New York.

I said to my coffee mate, “I’ve scored as many goals this year as the guy at the counter.”

“He’s huge, who does he play for?” was the response, perhaps expecting me to name one of the adult league teams from leagues dotting our local rinks.

“New Jersey Devils, that’s Scott Stevens, and we each have one goal this season.” A defenseman’s value is not measured in goals; a captain’s value is not measured in his own statistics but those of the players around him.

The other parallel I draw to Stevens is that he spent quite a few Sunday mornings in South Mountain Arena, not as a practicing Devil but a practical parent, watching his son play house league hockey while my son chased the puck in the younger version of the same show on the other rink.

Scott Stevens became a regular guy on the ice last night. Off the ice, he was always a regular guy, whether having coffee or being an exemplary hockey dad in the stands. His leadership was incredible, and his friendship and value to the Devils can best be captured by what we witnessed last night — Patrik Elias wiping his eyes, the master of Euro-cool turned into just another regular guy by the captain.

Being a regular guy, I believe, is what made Scott Stevens the beacon of hockey in New Jersey. Despite the jokes and implicit torment we get in the Garden State, we’re just the state of regular guys: Bruce Springsteen, Southside Johnny, Paulie Walnuts. The cover of the commemorative program shows Stevens holding the Stanley Cup aloft, not to his teammates, but to the fans leaning over the players’ tunnel so that they, too, could touch greatness.

For all you gave to Devils fans, I’ll echo what nearly 20,000 voices shouted until hoarse: Thank you, Scotty.