January 17 – Turntable Talk 10 : Words, Words, Words

Welcome back to Turntable Talk! Thanks to all the regular readers and welcome to any new ones. Briefly, on Turntable Talk we have a number of guest columns from other music fans and writers, sounding off on one particular topic. To kick it off in 2023, our topic is They’re a Poet Don’t You Know It... we look at a song that made a great impact on our contributors for its lyrics.

Today we finish up the topic with a few thoughts (or maybe more than a few) from me at A Sound Day.

First, I’d like to thank all seven of our guest writers who took part and each added some very interesting thoughts on the topic and a truly diverse range of songwriters that spanned the musical landscape from international superstars to British beat poets to heavy metal icons. I think we all learned a bit about at least one or two acts we might not have known, or came to look at them through new and improved eyes.

To me, lyrics are something I usually notice and the good ones really make me take note and admire the work. Guess it follows since ever since school, I’ve gravitated towards writing – short stories, longer works, magazine-style articles, blogs like this – and when I very briefly, in high school, fancied becoming a musician I mostly wrote lyrics. I had no aptitude for putting together melodies and was mediocre at best trying to play keyboards, but I had at least some sense of how to put words together.

That’s not to say I only like songs with great lyrics. Far from it. Some of my favorite artists have songs that seem either meaningless or so oblique as to be mysteries, but I still love the music. I admit too, many songs I love I don’t even know the lyrics to – if I happen upon a TV music site or similar that displays the lyrics as the song plays I often find myself going “Really!? That’s what they’re saying?” But if a song has a great sound and great lyrics, well that’s something that catches my attention.

If I was assigned the same thing I asked my guests to do this time, I would have had a terrible problem picking just one. There are so many truly outstanding songs with impactful lyrics out there. Some of the ones which quickly came to mind included Bruce Springsteen, who was picked by Max for “The River”, and what to me was the standout on his massive Born in the USA “My Hometown”. Man, there are a lot of people who lived in cities like the one he tells of, and those who didn’t, certainly had driven through them… “now Main Street’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores, seems like there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more/ theyre closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks, foreman says ‘these jobs are going boys, and they ain’t coming back…” Perfectly encapsulates the despair of so many fading towns and the people who feel stuck in them.

Then there was his rural counterpart, as I think of him, John Mellencamp, who right about the same time, 1985, was ranting on behalf of the poor small farmers, having so much difficulty holding their heads above water in “Rain on the Scarecrow” : “crops that grew last summer, weren’t enough to pay the loan; couldn’t buy the seed to plant this spring and the farmer’s bank foreclosed/ called old friend Schepman up to auction off the land, he said ‘John it’s just my job, and I hope you understand’/ ‘well calling it your job Ol’ Hoss, sure don’t make it right, but if you want me to I’ll say a prayer for your soul tonight…” Kind of made you look at those rural corn and chicken 40-acre plots differently when you drove by them, didn’t it?

Continuing on the concept of celebrating the “losers” or at least those who have it rough, were one of my favorite bands, Toronto’s Blue Rodeo, who kind of hit you out of the gates with the title track of their debut, Outskirts. It starts “here, on the outskirts of life, dreams seldom come true”. Well, you get an idea you’re going to meet some interesting characters and not hear much of caviar and Rolls Royces don’t you? And feel like it will be an interesting ride. And it put me in mind of another beloved Ontarian, Gordon Lightfoot. Would anyone remember that ship the Edmund Fitzgerald if he hadn’t set its sorry last voyage to music ? “The legend lives on from the Chipewa on down of the big lake they call Gitchee Gummee, the lake it is said never gives up her dead, when the skies of November turn gloomy…” We actually studied the song in English class when I was about 12 years old; I can recite those lyrics more or less to this day, something I sure can’t say about any Shakespeare we read.

While some of those North American musicians can come across very seriously in songs like those, some of their British counterparts have a way of being just as snarky but doing so with a sense of humor. After I watched the interviews with Harry and Megan recently, I thought of Joe Jackson’s 1979 hatchet job on the British tabloids, “Sunday Papers” : “mother’s wheelchair stays out in the hall, why should she go out when the TV’s on?/ whatever moves beyond these walls, she’ll know the facts when Sunday comes along…”

There are so many songs that stand out to me for their lyrics, my pick would change from day to day. I considered Steve Earle’s brilliant look into the mind of an Appalachian rebel, “Copperhead Road.” And Aussie Midnight Oil’s scathing opinion of the mining industry “Blue Sky Mine.” And Don Henley’s time-out from all those cocaine-fueled parties of the ’70s with the Eagles sober look at California, “The Last Resort” : “some man came and raped the land, nobody caught him/ put up a bunch of ugly boxes, and Jesus people bought ’em…” And I didn’t forget the fantastic autobiographical wonder of Gerry Rafferty, “Baker Street” nor Dire Straits whimsical “Industrial Disease.”

But today I’ll leave you with one of the ’80s great surprise hits, a comeback of sorts that their record company didn’t want out as a single . A humorous yet touching bit of nostalgia and family life courtesy Ray Davies, the fine frontman of the Kinks. His tribute to his late elder sister Rene, who loved to dance when she was young and carefree. “Come Dancing” became the Kinks biggest North American hit in over 15 years. These somewhat autobiographical lyrics of Ray’s deserve a second look:

They put a parking lot on a piece of land
When the supermarket used to stand
Before that they put up a bowling alley
On the site that used to be the local pally
That’s where the big bands used to come and play
My sister went there on a Saturday
Come dancing
All her boyfriends used to come and call
Why not come dancing, it’s only natural
Another Saturday, another date
She would be ready but she’s always make him wait
In the hallway, in anticipation
He didn’t know the night would end up in frustration
He’d end up blowing all his wages for the week
All for a cuddle and a peck on the cheek
Come dancing
That’s how they did it when I was just a kid
And when they said come dancing
My sister always did
My sister should have come in a midnight
And my mom would always sit up and wait
It always ended up in a big row
When my sister used to get home late Out of my window I can see them in the moonlight
Two silhouettes saying goodnight by the garden gate
The day they knocked down the pally
My sister stood and cried
The day they knocked down the pally
Part of my childhood died, just died
Now I’m grown up and playing in a band
And there’s a car park where the pally used to stand
My sister’s married and she lives on an estate
Her daughters go out, now it’s her turn to wait
She knows they get away with things she never could
But if I asked her I wonder if she would
Come dancing
Come on sister, have yourself a ball
Don’t be afraid to come dancing
It’s only natural
Come dancing
Just like the pally on a Saturday
And all her friends will come dancing
Where the big bands used to play

Songwriters: Ray Davies

Come Dancing lyrics © BMG Rights Management

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January 13 – Turntable Talk 10 : This River Wasn’t Exactly One Of Dreams

Welcome back to Turntable Talk! Thanks to all the regular readers and welcome to any new ones. Briefly, on Turntable Talk we have a number of guest columns from other music fans and writers, sounding off on one particular topic. To kick it off in 2023, our topic is They’re a Poet Don’t You Know It... we look at a song that made a great impact on our contributors for its lyrics.

Today we have Max from Power Pop Blog. There he gives us a great song or two daily with a great writeup, and coming soon apparently an episode-by-episode look at Star Trek. Will he pick a great power pop song, or might he go where no man has gone before?

Dave stated, “I just want you to pick one song that you think has fantastic lyrics, or one you like because of the lyrics, and say a bit about why you love it.”

I went through many songs to get to this one. Dylan songs mostly before I realized this one hit home. This was the title track to Bruce Springsteen’s 1980 double album The River. I picked this song because it is so easy to relate to. I’ve known friends who have lived this song. This is not a party starter song by any stretch of the imagination. The lyrics are downright sad because they are so damn real. It contains one of my favorite Springsteen lines “And for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat.

I grew up in a small town with a population of around a thousand or so at the time. The jobs there were dead end jobs and the pay was even worse. I saw a cycle even at an early age by seeing parents and their kids doing the same thing generation after generation. It was enough inspiration for me to explore and find new things…and to get out. Some of my friends never made it out. They are doing now what they swore they wouldn’t do before.

I saw my sister get into the same position as the Mary character in the song. It ended many years later in a divorce but at least she is happy now so there are good endings! Her son was the best thing that happened to her. The funny thing is I ended up moving back near that town but I’m doing what I want to be doing not in a job or rut that I hate. Some of my old friends are not in that position.

I came to realize…it wasn’t the location at all. It was and still is a nice small town. No that wasn’t it. It was the lack of expectations at the time set upon everyone that made it seem pre-ordained for bad choices to happen.

The wedding in the song relates to Springsteen’s sister, who got married when she was still a teenager. She knew it was about her and her husband the first time she heard it. It was also based on conversations Springsteen had with his brother-in-law. After losing his construction job, he worked hard to support his wife and young child but never complained.

The songs lyrics are outstanding. Even the opening lines are so close to how I grew up. I did grow up in a valley. I come from down in the valley,
Where mister when you’re young, They bring you up to do like your daddy done.

It’s so easy to relate to. I’m sure many people can relate to this song with completely different circumstances than me.

Bruce saves the best for last though. He is talking about the dreams we have when we are younger about what we are going to do in life until life wakes you up with a bang.

Now those memories come back to haunt me
They haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true
Or is it something worse

The song didn’t chart in America or Canada but did make it to #35 in the UK. The album was #1 in the Billboard album charts, #1 in Canada, and #2 in the UK.

The River

I come from down in the valley
Where mister when you’re young
They bring you up to do like your daddy done
Me and Mary we met in high school
When she was just seventeen
We’d ride out of that valley down to where the fields were green

We’d go down to the river
And into the river we’d dive
Oh down to the river we’d ride

Then I got Mary pregnant
And man that was all she wrote
And for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat
We went down to the courthouse
And the judge put it all to rest
No wedding day smiles no walk down the aisle
No flowers no wedding dress

That night we went down to the river
And into the river we’d dive
Oh down to the river we did ride

I got a job working construction for the Johnstown Company
But lately there ain’t been much work on account of the economy
Now all them things that seemed so important
Well mister they vanished right into the air
Now I just act like I don’t remember
Mary acts like she don’t care

But I remember us riding in my brother’s car
Her body tan and wet down at the reservoir
At night on them banks I’d lie awake
And pull her close just to feel each breath she’d take
Now those memories come back to haunt me
They haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true
Or is it something worse
That sends me down to the river
Though I know the river is dry
That sends me down to the river tonight
Down to the river
My baby and I
Oh down to the river we ride

December15 – Santa Came Early For Springsteen

Santa Claus came to town a year ago for Bruce Springsteen. It was on this day in 2021 he and Columbia Records/CBS seemed to finalize a deal selling them the rights to his entire music catalog to that point… for a cool $500 million, or perhaps a little more! It capped off a year of spending by Columbia that tallied over $1 billion, with them doing similar deals with Paul Simon and other artists. Meanwhile Bob Dylan and Stevie Nicks were among the artists who’d made similar (but smaller) sales to their record companies. The New York Times reported the Springsteen deal was “the biggest transaction ever struck for a single artist’s body of work.”

I am an artist who can truly say that when I signed with Columbia Records in 1972, I came to the right place,” Springsteen said, adding “I’m thrilled that my legacy will continue to be cared for by the company and people I know and trust.”

There were two parts to the deal, Springsteen’s recorded music back catalog and his songwriting/publishing credits. Thus any copies of say, Born in the U.S.A. that sell in the future will give money only to Columbia, not “the Boss”, and every time someone streams “Hungry Heart”, they too get the money. And it gives Columbia the right to license out his music for use in TV, movie and ads and take in the revenue. Potentially insiders say Springsteen could have raked in even more money from those sources, but hey, when you’re 72, financially comfortable (to say the least), why not take the one-time winfall and enjoy it while you still can, not to mention have a lot less paperwork to deal with in the future collecting royalties? Besides, he’ll still make money on any future music he releases and from any tours.

It makes a lot of sense from Bruce’s standpoint, but one might raise an eyebrow over how beneficial it is to CBS. No one doubts Springsteen’s impact and popularity – 17 different platinum-selling albums in the States including Born in the U.S.A., which has sold beyond 17 million there alone – and a great run of songs still popular on rock radio and streaming services from “Born to Run” to “Tunnel of Love” and the perennial Christmas favorite, “Santa Claus is Coming To Town.” But still, in an age of rapidly declining sales of hard copy music like CDs and even LPs and reduced listenership to radio, one might think it seems a quickly declining source of revenue for the large companies. The days of people rushing to stores and buying albums, old or new, in the millions seems long gone. And it takes a lot of plays for streaming services or Youtube to really generate money for the artist – Spotify, for example, pays about half a cent for each time a song is streamed. But, with over 400 million users, most using it daily, that can add up! This deal (and the others, including $300 million for Dylan’s catalog) suggest there is still a lot of money to be made in music. It just arguably is finding its way into fewer and fewer hands.

As for The Boss, he did indeed come up with a new record, Only the Strong Survive, an album of cover songs, last month.

November 22 – Little Steven’s Big Career

Every great boss needs some fine workers answering to him. So today we salute one of Bruce Springsteen’s finest, Steve Van Zandt. “Little Steven” turns 72 today! Guitarist, singer, writer, activist, actor, producer, radio executive… Van Zandt isn’t ready to be put out to pasture anytime soon.

Although he was born in Massachusetts, his family had moved to New Jersey when Steve was truly “little”. Like so many other kids of the ’60s, he was inspired by seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and soon after that formed his first band, in high school. He met Springsteen in a club watching a band when he was around 16 or so. Although he found a little success in his role with Jersey band Southside Johnny & the Asbury Dukes, his big break was getting back together with his friend “The Boss” in 1975. He helped Bruce come up with the guitar sound for “Born to Run”, and joined the E Street Band – Bruce’s backing musicians – to tour for the Born to Run album in ’75-76. He quickly took the role of being the main lead guitarist, and at times adding some horn bits, and by 1980 helped produce The River.

While working with Bruce much of the time since then, Steve and his Hawaiian shirts and bandanas ventured into solo work in the ’80s, with limited success at home despite putting out seven studio albums. He did have fleeting success in Scandinavia in the ’80s, with his Voice of America album being a top 10 hit there as was the single “Out of the Darkness.” Which perhaps explains the fact that he recently co-wrote and starred in the Netflix series Lilyhammer, a show set in Norway about an aging Mafia boss in hiding. Which kind of takes up where The Sopranos left off; he had an ongoing role in that show as Jersey strip club owner Silvio. And yes, his wife in that one, Maureen Santoro, is his real-life wife. Springsteen was his best man at the wedding.

If not working with Springsteen, promoting his own music or acting as a mafioso, Van Zandt’s kept busy at times touring with Bon Jovi, producing Gary U.S. Bonds and Arc Angels albums and playing with Lone Justice and Jackson Browne from time to time. And running his own record label, Wicked Cool Records. Not to mention his ongoing syndicated radio show, Little Steven’s Underground Garage, which he began in 2002. That helped him start two different satellite radio stations on Sirius. And much like his best man, he has a conscience too. Steven started the ’80s act Artists United Against Apartheid, which put out the single “Sun City” to protest South African racial policies and now runs a non-profit called Teach Rock, which helps educate kids and put music in context of other studies. If that’s a lot to keep track of, you could try going through his memoir, Unrequited Infatuations, which he published last year.

Whew! We hope he finds time to blow out the candles on that cake today… and continues to enjoy a few more “Glory days.”

September 23 – Billy’s Experiment In Nylon

The two of them might not love it, but many of us seem to lump today’s birthday boy, Bruce Springsteen (wishing him a happy 73 today!)  and Billy Joel together in the same sort of musical box. Here we like both so it doesn’t seem to be much of an insult to me, but I digress. Anyway, both singer/songwriters came to prominence in the mid-’70s, emerged from the greater New York area and were quintessential blue collar musical heroes, singing about the ordinary people they knew and respected. And by 1982 we thought we had them both pegged when they both took a hard left turn and came out with surprisingly downbeat and different-sounding records. On this day, Joel released his eighth studio album, The Nylon Curtain. A week later, Springsteen gave us his acoustic Nebraska.

Anyway, Joel’s The Nylon Curtain was something of a polarizing album. After delivering his most rock & roll-oriented, fun-loving Glass Houses in 1980, this one was a deeper but more challenging release. The short story – critics loved it, fans more or less panned it. But there’s more to it than that.

Joel was looking around America and wasn’t optimistic about what he was seeing. It was, after all, an era of inflation, unemployment, a growing chasm between the Wall Street rich and the ordinary workers in the companies they owned, fear about the Cold War… “It was during the Reagan years and… all of a sudden, you weren’t going to be able to inherit the (lifestyle) your old man had,” Joel remembers. Curiously, he was also listening to mid-era Beatles a lot at the time. Thus The Nylon Curtain came to be, an album Rolling Stone considered his most ambitious.

The album is a loosely thematic look at the U.S. in decline through the eyes of a blue collar Baby Boomer. Although the first single was the jarring “Pressure” and it contained a few missteps, like the “venomous” (in the words of Rolling Stone again) “Laura” about a guy who hates his girlfriend but realizes “living alone isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be” either, and perhaps the experimental “Scandinavian Skies” which he says was directly influenced by the sound of Beatles singles like “I Am the Walrus”, it contains some very good material and two of his best – and most under-rated – tunes: “Allentown” and “Goodnight Saigon”.

The former was actually inspired by a trip he paid tt Bethlehem, PA but that name didn’t fit the song structure as well. Regardless, it described any number of “Rust Belt” cities and the unfortunate workers caught in the changing times and closing factories. Rolling Stone applauded the “tune, language and singing are all brazenly direct” and felt it “could be a scene from The Deer Hunter set to music.” The mayor of Allentown, PA was impressed enough to give Joel the keys to the city next time he played there.

Goodnight Saigon” is a haunting, 7-minute epic complete with helicopter and cricket sounds (the Beatles experimentation rubbing off) that Rolling Stone called “the ultimate pop music epitaph to the Vietnam war”… “a stunner”. The piece about the band of brothers trained on Parris Island shipped out to the horrors of the Asian war with only their Doors tapes and Playboy who’d “All go down together” indeed is one of the most compelling musical takes on the reality of war and one of Billy’s best achievements.

People magazine approved, saying “Joel jackknifes (sic) into adulthood (with) a striking cycle of nine songs about the current plight of boomed babies” which are “vintage Joel with clever hooks.”

For all that, the public wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic. While by no means a flop, it was his least-successful release since 1976, selling less than even 1981’s compilation of live tunes and outtakes, Songs in the Attic. At home in the U.S. it charted to #7 and went double platinum; it topped out at #12 in Canada and only #27 across the sea in the UK. Somehow though, it did hit #1 in the Netherlands. The singles “Pressure” and “Allentown” both it the top 20 in the States, his 10th and 11th such hits, and “Allentown” although it never got higher than #17 on the weekly charts, had such enduring popularity that it was among the 50 biggest records of the year. “Goodnight Saigon” was released as a third single, but being 7 minutes, lacking a normal kind of verse/chorus structure and being about the horrors of war, was a tough sell in a time of happy synthesizers, safety dances and Duran Duran playing with bikini-clad models on yachts.

For it all, Joel says the album is “the recording I’m most proud of.” And he rebounded very nicely the next year with his more upbeat An Innocent Man which catapulted him back to the top. (Springsteen’s fate with his Nebraska similar and he too bounced back with the multi-million selling Born in the USA less than two years down the road.)

August 29 – The Statement Song That Made Starr A Star

Today we look at another angry anthem inspired by the Vietnam War, from 52 years ago. “War” by Edwin Starr hit #1 in the U.S. this day in 1970.

The song succinctly summed up the sentiments of many then, and to this day with it’s question asked and answered, “War. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.” The song was put out by Motown, but had a decidedly un-Motown-like vibe to it. That thanks to the writing duo of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, who also wrote “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” As British journalist David Hutter noted, Whitfield was probably the one person in the Motown organization who wanted to change their direction (away from happy, brief pop love songs) and had both the clout and nerve to take on Berry Gordy over it.

The Temptations originally recorded the song on their Psychedelic Shack album. But not only did it not really have the edge and vitriol it really deserved, the band itself weren’t crazy about it and no one wanted to release it as a single, fearing the effect it would have on the band’s career, since they had been to that point fairly typical Motown artists building a nice career on harmonic love songs. So he recruited Starr for the job of re-recording it.

Edwin Starr was a relatively low-profile artist on their roster who’d begun his career singing doo-wop in Tennessee in the ’50s and had a minor hit or two of his own in the ’60s, as well as writing the song “Oh So Happy” for the Shades of Blue. He didn’t have a big reputation to risk, and as Robert Christgau notes, “Starr is more naturally strident than any of the Temptations.” Turns out that’s just what was called for. Whitfield brought in session rock artists to do the music and The Undisputed Truth (“Smiling Faces Sometimes”) to add background vocals and the song packed a wallop.

Typical of the era’s contrasts, it knocked Bread’s “Make it with You” off the top of the charts, and spent three weeks at #1, eventually being the fifth-biggest single of the year in the States. It also went to #1 to the north in Canada, and #3 in the UK. The song would live on as a popular rally cry for the peace movement and be resurrected later in the Cold War era. Brits Frankie Goes to Hollywood recorded a version of it for the b-side to their own anti-war hit “Two Tribes” and Bruce Springsteen began playing a version of it on his Born in the USA tour. A 1985 performance of it in L.A. was recorded and put on his multi-disc Live 1975/85; becoming a top 10 hit as a single.

June 18 – 80? Maybe We’re Amazed

One of rock music’s true living legends turns 80 today. Happy birthday Sir Paul McCartney! Few rock stars are household names even in houses that never listen to pop or rock, but Paul is one of those few. Knighted by the queen, first non-American to be awarded the Gershwin Prize for Popular Music by the Library of Congress, 21 #1 songs with The Beatles in the U.S. plus 9 more since as a solo artist or with Wings… there’s so much to be said about Paul but so little to add to the well-known bio. So instead, we’ll look at Paul in words – words of his own and those of others.

Paul Reflects:

* “I don’t work at being ordinary.”

* “I can’t deal with the press…I hate all those Beatles questions.”

* “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian.” (Paul is a well-known and outspoken vegetarian, as was his deceased wife Linda.)

* “We were pretty good mates, until the Beatles started to split up and Yoko came into it.” (Speaking about his relationship with John Lennon.)

I used to think anyone doing anything weird was weird. Now I know that it is the people that call others ‘weird’ that are weird.”

Others Talk Paul:*

* “Paul McCartney is a genius. Paul married rock and roll to beauty and forever raised the bar for composers, musicians and fans.” – actor Alec Baldwin

* “Within the confines of the studio, Paul was the one who sort of saved the situation always and the one who always went that little bit extra to perfect things.” – EMI Records’ engineer Geoff Emerick

* “I’d put Gershwin, Berlin and Hank Williams. I’d probably put Paul McCartney in there too.” Paul Simon answers who he thinks the greatest songwriters of all-time are.

* “Paul was the first love of my life. Yoko was the second.” – John Lennon

* “I’m in awe of McCartney. He’s about the only one that I am in awe of. He can do it all.” – folk singer & Nobel laureate Bob Dylan.

If you want to see the living legend, you’ll have your chance this summer… if you’re in Britain. He’s playing this year’s Glastonbury Festival next week. However, sadly us North Americans have missed out, it seems for this year as he just wrapped up a tour Thursday at Metlife Stadium outside of New York City. And he wrapped it up in style, doing a 40 song show (a bit longer than his usual , though the average for the tour which kicked off April 28 in Spokane was over 30 songs and two hours plus length), highlighted by Bruce Springsteen dropping by to wish him an early Happy Birthday and sing “Glory Days” with him, and Jon Bon Jovi also coming by to sing “Happy Birthday” to him. Among the songs he did were 16 Beatles songs in the main part of the concert including “Lady Madonna,” “Love Me Do” and “Hey Jude” , which ended the set. In addition he added in eight Wings songs including “Live and Let Die” and “Jet” plus some of his solo ones. Then he played an encore of “I’ve Got A Feeling,” “Birthday”, “Helter Skelter”, “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry that Weight” and “The End.” An Asbury Park news report said McCartney seemed to get more energetic as the night went by, despite it raining at times, and that “he kicked and skipped as he and his band were taking their bows with Springsteen.” Which gives one hope that maybe we will indeed do what he said before leaving the stage: “We’ll see you next time!”

June 9 – The Boss Needs To Circle Day Twice On Calendar

It should be a big day on Bruce Springsteen‘s calendar, for it represents two big anniversaries for him. Fifty years ago to the day, he signed his first recording contract, with Columbia Records. And then 31 years back he married Patti Scialfa, his backup singer who’s proven herself to be much more than that.

Springsteen drew comparisons to Bob Dylan early on (more on that later) but it was really the even bigger icons of the ’60s who inspired him – The Beatles. “Four guys, playing and singing, writing their own material…rock’n’roll came to my house when there seemed to be no way out!”

His live sets around New Jersey drew a following early on, and eventually led him to Columbia Records in New York, where John Hammond (an exec and scout largely responsible for getting Bob Dylan to sign there) had an interest. However, Springsteen’s first manager Mike Appel, nearly blew it. Columbia boss Clive Davis recalls Appel “insisted that Bruce, who had not played a note yet, was ‘better than Dylan’”. This didn’t amuse Hammond nor Davis, but after listening to a demo of acoustic tracks and seeing a club performance by him, Clive said “I love Bruce Springsteen. He’s an original in every way.” They signed him to Columbia “immediately”; remarkably he’s still with that label five decades later.

Springsteen went to work right away, with his first album Greetings From Asbury Park coming out a mere six months later, to good reviews but poor sales. Davis notes “the ‘New Dylan’ curse descended on Bruce, often at the hands of his greatest admirers. In trying to compliment Bruce, they were limiting him, setting him up to fail.”

Eventually of course, he succeeded in ways Bob Dylan could only dream of. That was more true than ever in 1984, with Born in the U.S.A., his 20-million+ seller that elevated him to a stadium-selling superstar. He decided to add a few faces to the E Street Band for the lengthy tour for it, including Patti Scialfa as a backing singer and occasional keyboardist.

Scialfa was a struggling New Jersey singer/songwriter at the time, playing clubs she sometimes waitressed at, despite her songwriting talent and degree in music. She toured with Bruce and they got along OK, but it took awhile for sparks to fly it seems. She dated Tom Cruise briefly and he fell for model Julianne Phillips, who appeared on his “Glory Days” video. They soon married. However, their age difference (she being 11 years younger than him) and the amount of time he spent away from home wore on the relationship and in 1988 they filed for divorce because of “irreconcilable differences.” Scialfa had rejoined Bruce for some backing vocals on Tunnel of Love (heard most clearly on “One Step Up”) and again toured with him; this time they hit it off. She moved in with him as soon as the divorce to Phillips went through, and soon had their first child, son Evan. This caused some amount of criticism, to which Springsteen notes “it’s a strange society that assumes it has the right to tell people whom they should love and shouldn’t.”

The pair married in a small, private ceremony at his L.A. house. They’re still together and have had a couple more kids since. Patti still often works with his E Street Band (she’s played guitar and keyboards at various times besides singing) and has put out three solo records. They’ve been well-received, but commercial failures. Her debut, Rumble Doll in 1993, won kudos from critics like allmusic which said it proved “Patti Scialfa is more than just a beautiful redhead with good connections,” calling the record “low-key” but adding “there’s not a bad song in the bunch.” Despite that, and being co-produced by The Boss and Mike Campbell of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers (who brought in Belmont Trench of that band and John Mellencamp’s drummer Kenny Aronoff to work on it) it failed to catch on at all. Perhaps someone compared her to the ‘next Aretha!”

June 2 – Bruce Was Running To The Musical Heartland

Whether it was “miserablist” (a term we’d only heard before in describing Morrissey’s music) or “perfecting the heartland rock genre,” – different critics have used both for it – by 1978 Bruce Springsteen was a big enough deal for an album of his to draw instant attention. And that’s what Darkness on the Edge of Town did when it came out 44 years ago today.

For “The Boss”, it was his fourth album, and came a full three years after his third, the revered Born to Run. In the ’70s, that was a long time to go between releases! Part of that was because he’d had disputes with his label, Columbia, and especially an old manager, but part was that Bruce was already getting to be a perfectionist. Perhaps not so much in the playing, but in getting the mood, the lyrics, the atmosphere just right. It’s said he wrote 70 songs for this one and recorded 52 in full. No wonder it took about nine months to bring to completion. He generally recorded them with the whole E Street Band playing rather than using a lot of different takes or overdubs. Of the 52, ten made the final cut; a few others like “Independence Day” would surface on later albums, and a couple got snagged to be hits for others – “Fire” by the Pointer Sisters and “Because the Night” by Patti Smith. Surprisingly, none of the ten songs became big hit singles, though several of them have since risen to the status of Classic Rock, well, classics – “Promised Land,’ “Badlands,” “Candy’s Room,” and the under-rated “Prove it All Night” (which was the only one to break into the U.S. top 40).

His focus on the album was “to write about the stress and tensions of my father’s and my mother’s life that came with the struggles of trying to make ends meet.” Or, as one of his several biographers put it, “Springsteen drives away from the beach and boardwalk into the ethos of the American heartland.” The result was an album less exuberant than Born to Run; one which set the template for his ascent to the Bard of the Blue Collar Worker. Even the cover photo was decidedly low-key, presenting Bruce as the Everyman. “That’s the guy in the songs,” Springsteen said of it. “Frank (the photographer) stripped away all (my) celebrity and left you with your essence.”

At the time it came out, Rolling Stone suggested he “fulfilled the hype that previously surrounded” him. They’d later grade it a perfect 5-stars and rank it as the 91st greatest album of all-time in their most recent ranking of such. The NME called it the “album of the year” in ’78 and would like Rolling Stone, put it high on their all-time list later; in their case #109. The Quietus suggest looking back, some of the album, especially “Candy’s Room” had a real punk rock ethos to them but The Boss delivered them “with a tenderness and adoration that punk would have struggled with.” Allmusic though give it 4.5-stars…seemingly a great score. However, it notably is the only Springsteen album before the ’90s they didn’t give a perfect score to and although they liked how the “tracks (were) paced by powerful drumming and soaring guitar solos” they seemed to not really like the songs themselves, and suggest it’s “no easy listen.”

With songs like those as well as the title track, “Racing in the Street” and “Adam Raised A Cane” it’s no surprise it stayed on the album charts for a full 97 weeks despite lacking a huge AM radio hit (that would come on his next album, with “Hungry Heart.”) It got to #5 at home – not quite as good as Born to Run – and #7 in Canada, #14 in the UK, #9 in Australia, his best showing to that point in those lands. Currently it’s triple-platinum in the U.S. , so while in terms of commercial showing, it is among the middle efforts of his catalog, few would disagree that it remains one of his best albums and the one which perhaps paved the way for his superstardom of the ’80s.

March 6 – The Boss’s Growing Anger Was Born In The USA

He didn’t ride a swinging metal orb naked for the video, but a year before Miley Cyrus attained pop culture immortality doing so, Bruce Springsteen delivered a Wrecking Ball of his own. That was the name of his 17th studio album, which came out this day in 2012.

The album had been long in the works, with some of the songs actually dating back to the late-’90s canon of his, and recording of the album actually being spread out over a year, mainly at his New Jersey home. As such there’s a vast array of sounds and musicians helping out, but the one constant was the feeling of disenchantment with the then present-day U.S.A.

The Boss found a new producer to work with on Wrecking Ball, Ron Aniello. Aniello had been a successful and respected producer for about a decade by this time, but had largely worked with Christian rock crossover acts like Jars of Clay and Lifehouse (actually producing their rock hit “Hanging by a Moment”). He’d won three Dove Awards – the Christian music ones – before, but this one would get him a nomination for a Grammy for his work. Bruce utilized his E Street Band for some tracks; his own wife Patti Scialfa added backing vocals, Little Steven appears and played mandolin and added backing vocals, Max Weinberg drummed on three tracks and Clarence Clemons gave his final sax performances (he actually died before the record came out). But Bruce also called in all sorts of other talented musical friends including Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello for guitars on “Jack of All Trades” and “This Depression”, talented sax man Stan Harrison (who’d played with everyone from Diana Ross to Duran Duran) and drummer Steve Jordan, who currently has the enviable/unenviable job of filling Charlie Watts’ shoes behind the kit for the Rolling Stones. And for good measure, he invited Bob Clearmountain back to the studio, this time to do the final mix. Clearmountain had worked his magic similarly on several other Bruce albums, notably including Born in the U.S.A.

The result was an 11 song (expanded to 13 on a few “special edition” versions) tome released on CD, digitally or as a double-LP. One of the bonus tracks was “American Land” which featured producer Aniello playing the hurdy gurdy, one of the decidedly least common rock album instruments! Despite having quite a range of sounds, touching on Gospel, Irish jig and hip hop in various places, there was a uniformity in the solemn feel, as even the titles might suggest: “Rocky Ground,” “This Depression,” the title track and an apparent sequel to the slow song on Born in the U.S.A. , “Death to My Hometown.” Springsteen had by then, as allmusic put it, “shouldered the burden of telling the stories of the downtrodden” for his generation and that was “a class whose numbers increase” prior to the release. It was written largely in the shadow of the Wall Street meltdown of 2008-09, although a couple of songs that fit the mood preceded that financial event. “Land of Hope and Dreams” was a song he’d first recorded in 1998 but not released and the title track had been one he’d played frequently in concert for some years. He’d written that one actually as an ode to Giants Stadium in metro New York, a venue he loved to play in that had been slated for demolition.

The result was in the words of both the Hollywood Reporter and his own manager, Jon Landau, Bruce’s “angriest record.” Whether or not one felt this was a good thing directly influenced the reviews, which were largely – but far from unanimously – very good. Rolling Stone picked it as their Album of the Year, giving it 5-stars. Britain’s The Guardian rated it 4-stars and its NME, 8 out of 10. The Guardian noted that on it he “paints in broad brush strokes but its bombast rarely seems hollow”. The Hollywood Reporter called it “very rock’n’roll with unexpected textures.” Barnes and Noble stores called it “his best since Tunnel of Love, if not Born in the U.S.A” However, the Chicago Tribune also found it bombastic but lamented he was “going for stadium bombast instead of unadorned grit these stories of hard times demand” and found the result “sterile”. Later, allmusic agreed in part, giving it 3-stars, one of his lower-rated albums, and decried that “the message has been placed before the music” and in his righteousness he “has systematically removed any element of fun”.

Did fans agree with Rolling Stone or allmusic? We can only guess it was some each. “We Take Care Of Our Own” was the lead single, with a mixed message of American pride and a stinging rebuke of big business as well as the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. It was picked by Barack Obama for considerable use in his re-election campaign, which The Boss had endorsed. But the song was far from a massive hit, getting only to #41 even on the rock charts, ones he’d dominated a couple of decades back. Further singles from it like “Death to My Hometown” and “Rocky Ground” fared even worse. But of course he had some level of dedicated fanbase left and the album itself did get to #1 at home, as well as in Canada, Germany, New Zealand and a few other places, making it his tenth #1 American album. It went platinum in Germany and gold discs came from Canada and Australia but it was very noticeably the first studio album of his to not hit that level in the States. Maybe if he’d ridden a wrecking ball naked in the video…