Drive-by Truckers, The Day John Henry Died. How have I not heard it before? Jason Isbell, you’re such a damn good songwriter. I mean, come on…
I watched the rain; it settled in. We disappeared for days again.
Most of us were staying in, lazy like the sky.
The letters flew across the wire filtered through a million liars.
The whole world smelled like burning tires the day John Henry died.
Bruce and E Street covering Clampdown. Solid cover, really clean mics.
Lucinda Williams, Are You Alright? I think I’ve posted this song here before, back when… I don’t remember. I associate with some Will Ferrell movie… one of the comedies… and that seems odd. Anyway. Was great to hear it prominently in True Detective when I caught up on that this week.
One of the strangest Springsteen bootlegs out there is the Lost Masters series. The collection runs dozens of discs and is packed with outtakes from studio sessions in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Fan legend holds a disgruntled engineer leaked them after leaving the family. Whatever the real story, the set is truly for aficionados. A few of the outtakes are good enough to have made it, eventually, to the Tracks box set in the late ’90s, or other archival releases since. Other songs are unchosen cuts of released recordings, many often good ones, all offering alternative universes of the catalogue. Others still — maybe the majority — are lost gems or simply lost, never finding their final form or never becoming more than musical fragments. Try listening to a half-dozen takes in a row of a song that never came together. Like I said, for the aficionados. The students, the curious.
But, occasionally, the fragments stick. After more harried days, a half-song from Lost Masters that comes to mind as I try to wind down is Your Love Is All Around Me. There are two takes of the song, with just ’83 Bruce in the Hollywood Hills in likely a too-big house, and only a semblance of lyrics.
On the first take, the tape is skipping all over the place, and the goal is to get words on tape, to strum and hope for magic. None comes. Directly. No great phrases fall out of the sky, but a mood emerges around the guitar. A single phrase sticks and repeats, wrapping around the neck and then the body. “You love is all around me now, a round me now, around me now….”
The second take of the song seems to realize a meditation is in hand. Rare falsetto almost throughout, a setup verse sits at the beginning, and then we go wondering, with a single thought in focus and other images drifting — pushed? — away. The song winds down at one point only to revive. No, we’re not done here. No, peace is still elusive. The song ends in name only.
5. Auckland, New Zealand. Opening with a cover of Lorde’s Royals. Count this as most unexpected, not best. Great, adventurous idea. Okie-style, though, was not the right choice. But let’s get more experiments like this.
2. Brisbane, Australia. Opening with Stayin’ Alive (yes, that one), turning out so much better than expected, into It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City.
1. Hunter Valley, Australia. Opening with an awesome 10-minute version of Spill the Wine. Here’s the official video, which is great, except for in how it makes Seeds, the show’s fourth song, appear to be the second song. Just bizarre. It’s nothing new if you’ve heard the sources of the Live ’75-’85 box set, but I thought we’d left that weirdness behind us. Still… spill the wine.
I’ve never read anything by William Gibson. But I most definitely should. Lindsay recently found his Paris Review interview and sent it my way.
On coming up with the word “neuromancer”:
Coming up with a word like neuromancer is something that would earn you a really fine vacation if you worked in an ad agency. It was a kind of booby-trapped portmanteau that contained considerable potential for cognitive dissonance, that pleasurable buzz of feeling slightly unsettled.
I believed that this could be induced at a number of levels in a text—at the microlevel with neologisms and portmanteaus, or using a familiar word in completely unfamiliar ways. There are a number of well-known techniques for doing this—all of the classic surrealist techniques, for instance, especially the game called exquisite corpse, where you pass a folded piece of paper around the room and write a line of poetry or a single word and fold it again and then the next person blindly adds to it. Sometimes it produces total gibberish, but it can be spookily apt. A lot of what I had to learn to do was play a game of exquisite-corpse solitaire.
On finding excitement in cyberspace:
I knew that cyberspace was exciting, but none of the people I knew who were actually involved in the nascent digital industry were exciting. I wondered what it would be like if they were exciting, stylish, and sexy. I found the answer not so much in punk rock as in Bruce Springsteen, in particular Darkness on the Edge of Town, which was the album Springsteen wrote as a response to punk—a very noir, very American, very literary album. And I thought, What if the protagonist of Darkness on the Edge of Town was a computer hacker? What if he’s still got Springsteen’s character’s emotionality and utterly beat-down hopelessness, this very American hopelessness? And what if the mechanic, who’s out there with him, lost in this empty nightmare of America, is actually, like, a robot or a brain in a bottle that nevertheless has the same manifest emotionality? I had the feeling, then, that I was actually crossing some wires of the main circuit board of popular culture and that nobody had ever crossed them this way before.
The new issue of Backstreets arrived the other day, and Flynn McLean has a terrific column catching up on the best Springsteen bootleg releases of the last couple years. His list of course sent me hunting for them on the Web, as gray and snowy as it is this afternoon, and I had some success, both with the links below and the YouTube video above, a missing link between Pink Cadillac (a B-side, mind you) When the Lights Go Out (dead until Tracks) and On the Prowl, one of my favorite totally thrown-away Bruce songs ever.
The boot fruits of this afternoon’s searches:
The Fox. Finally an amazing tape of the Darkness show at Atlanta’s Fox Theater. Was always a boot a listener wanted to be great. Now it is.
We’ve got to introduce Bruce to the digital EP. What we have here is not an album — at least not in the modern, serious, Springsteen sense. What we have here is a collection of songs sitting inside the same retail object. That’s not to say there aren’t some good songs here. There are. But this is a bundle for bundling’s sake. We need to disassemble and judge that way.
Or let’s just say it’s not a great Album. But it has some great songs.
1. High Hopes. I like it. I liked it was an outtake from the Blood Brothers sessions almost 20 years ago (yikes). I really liked it when Bruce gave it a big band run on the last tour leg. It was fun then, the sparse drums and all. This new album version is more gritty than fun. But it works.
2. Harry’s Place. So weird. An experiment. And it’s nice to see someone who’s extremely conservative about his music releasing an experiment. That’s what we digital people do in our jobs all the time, right? But this is where the bundling makes me unhappy. Throw stuff on SoundCloud. Post a song a week to your site or drop a digital EP every month. But the album proper deserves better (especially track #2) than one-off experiments.
3. American Skin (41 Shots). Terrific Springsteen social song… and has been since he released the live version a decade-plus ago. Bruce says he wanted to get the song on a proper album. Again, bundling issues. But it would’ve fit better on a social-justice-themed album. Here it disappears.
4. Just Like Fire Would. This song is no amazing thing. But it’s been stuck in my head for days now. DAYS. And the same thing happened when the live version happened during the Australian leg. It’s just sneaks up on you and sits on your shoulder for days. I’m happy to have it hang there.
5. Down in the Hole. The quiet ones are hard to notice on this album. Quiet songs stood out individually on The Rising immediately and, after a lot of listens, on Ghost of Tom Joad. This song has that potential, but the setting is just so weird. It may also have just too much going on. Too many sounds in too many different directions. Good for a Morello track, not for a Bruce one. The plot is hard to follow without focus. Rightly left off The Rising.
6. Heaven’s Wall. Vocals are too far back in the mix. If you’re going to rave up, gospel-style, go ahead and rave up. Same issues as track before, just at higher volumes. Morello issues meet Working on a Dream issues.
7. Frankie Fell in Love. Everything that drove me nuts about the Brendan O’Brien era. Too many meaningless words and generic scenes surrounded by every instrument you’ve got it. Let’s make a rule: No more songs about anyone named Frankie. Independence Day. Highway Patrolman. Girls in Their Summer Clothes. And let’s not forget from the Tracks boxset: Frankie, a fantastic lost-then-found song and doesn’t need this kind of connection. And, yes, I know this track isn’t from the O’Brien era. But feels that way.
8. This Is Your Sword. Would’ve been great acoustic. I like the spirit of it, in a Wrecking Ball-tour kind of a way, but again, with all the sound around the middle of the mix, it’s hard to really engage with it. Gotta be the listener.
9. Hunter of Invisible Game. Why Bruce’s producers always have to make one strings instrument sound like a dozen is beyond me. But aside from that issue, I love this song. Voice is up front; the middle sounds threaten to ruin everything but don’t; narrative is weird and beautiful and sad. Lyrics are just so damn good. I can’t even decide which verse is my favorite. Is it…
I hauled myself up out of the ditch
And built me an ark out of gopher wood and pitch
Sat down by the roadside and waited on the rain
I am the hunter of invisible game
Well I woke last night to the heavy clicking and clack
And a scarecrow on fire along the railroad tracks
There were empty cities and burning plains
I am the hunter of invisible game
Strength is vanity and time is illusion
I feel you breathing, the rest is confusion
Your skin touches mine, what else to explain
I am the hunter of invisible game
Or… the list goes on.
10. The Ghost of Tom Joad. Yeah, all the noise and Morello can drive you nuts. But here it all works. Get loud and awesome singing about the poor, and you can jam out as much as you want, as far as I’m concerned. The loud version from the last tour was seriously good rock, and the differences are enough where an album place feels justified. It’s a reinterpretation but also a restatement, and some things in life deserve saying again, louder.
11. The Wall. Glad this one has finally made it from bootlegs (and just a few of them, at that) to a more permanent place. Small song but deserving.
12. Dream Baby Dream. Bruce has been closing shows on sporadic legs with this cover for a few years now. I’ve never loved it in that spot because, one, it’s so different from much of the rest of the show, upping the musical atmospherics a ton, and, two, Springsteen shows go on and on and… this is hard to explain. It always feels like the last episode of a TV show where the ending doesn’t quite fit what came before. But on an album, I really like the song — and this style of it, with more movement and less air — as a closer. I’m surprised and happy the song could find a spot so comfortable, valuable. It’s a shame, then, this album isn’t much of an album. Do I need to put less pressure on the Album? Maybe. But this song argues for more.
All in all, compared to other late Springsteen albums, it’s not as good as Seeger Sessions or Magic or, a step down, Devils & Dust or Wrecking Ball. But it’s better than Working on a Dream. Going to keep listening, evaluating.
Loved Ann Powers’ long interview with Bruce on our site today. I like how he talks about the power of being in the same room as Elvis, even from a distance during the final shows of his life. Reminded me of one of my favorite stories from the recent Oxford American music issue, about a sideman’s time with Elvis during his post-comeback, back-into-struggle Stax sessions. The perfect headline on the melancholy: “We Had It All.”
Last thing: We need Bruce to comment on more memes.