Read An Excerpt From Bruce Springsteen And The Promise Of Rock ‘n’ Roll

* * * *

Videos by American Songwriter

….By the fall of 1991, Bruce Springsteen had been sitting on the pieces of his ninth studio album for almost a year and a half. “I still felt I needed another song,” he later recalled of this period, a thesis statement to sum up the album. Some reports suggest that the release of Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series, Volumes 1–3 in late March of 1991, particularly the set’s final track, “Series of Dreams,” had pushed Springsteen even further to come up with a grand summing-up for this album. According to Springsteen, the song that eventually gave him the summation he sought was “Living Proof,” which captured, in his words, “the common strength it takes to constitute a family.” After that song, at least nine other songs came pouring out of him, nine songs that he claims were written and recorded in just three weeks, during the fall of 1991.

The question was: why then? If the catalyst for Springsteen’s compositional breakthrough had been solely Evan’s birth, then he could have written all these songs before the Christic shows. If the catalyst had been solely the inspiring example of Dylan, he could have written them even before his wedding.

Although “Living Proof” was undoubtedly the breakthrough thesis song that Springsteen was looking for, there is nevertheless a tempting possibility that the song that jump-started his songwriting that fall, after at least eight dry months, was “Better Days.” Most obviously, Springsteen’s title for this song is a clear echo of Steve’s title song for Southside [Johnny’s] new album. More centrally, though, Springsteen’s “Better Days” is almost an answer song to Southside’s entire project. It is his renewed look at “Glory Days” almost a decade after he wrote it, a few months after he heard “All Night Long,” Southside’s own accomplished if deeply dark take on that earlier song’s conceit. If in “Glory Days,” Springsteen wrote laughingly about washed-up baseball players and high school beauties, ten years later Lyon sang soulfully about old good-time club denizens who turned in middle age into prostitutes, alcoholics, and unnervingly born-again Christians.

That may have been Southside’s experience of the early 1990s, but it certainly wasn’t Bruce’s. Nor, as he specified in “My Beautiful Reward,” did he wish to use music as a drug to ease his pain, as Lyon’s latterday narrator clearly does. These are better days, Springsteen insisted in his song of that title, rejecting the idea that he was “freer” back in the days of the Upstage and refusing to sentimentalize the time of his mixed-up youth.

Traditionally, as pop musicians settle down, they are supposed to get quieter, but what is striking about the tracks Springsteen recorded that fall in this burst of testifying bliss is how loud they are, how prominent and joyous his electric guitar playing is, not just on full-band tracks like “Better Days” and “Living Proof” that he recorded at A&M Studios but even on a home-recorded track like “Lucky Town.” Maybe on this album more than any other, in the ten tracks Springsteen cut that autumn, he made his guitar talk, and it spoke of his exhilaration not only at marriage and family but at being over all his own accumulated bullshit. “Local Hero,” possibly based on a dime-store visit the previous summer, is the funniest bit of self-effacement that Springsteen has ever perpetrated, parodying not only the MegaBruce of the mid-1980s (First they made me the king, then they made me the pope / Then they brought the rope) but also, in the lyric’s most brilliant lines, even the allegedly New and Improved Bruce of the current moment (These days I’m feeling all right / ’Cept I can’t tell my courage from my desperation).

In general, these songs find Springsteen more at home with human frailty than he had ever been before, warning against hypocrisy in judging others’ sins (“The Big Muddy”) but acknowledging that his past actions made it reasonable to regard his own promises skeptically (“If I Should Fall Behind”). On a personal level, all these ideas had been clear in Bruce’s head for some time, but for an artist personal breakthroughs can often precede or even follow compositional ones. If the fall of 1989 had found him flipping through his old 45s in search of artistic inspiration, the ten tracks he recorded two years later felt more as if the listener were flipping through his private photo album. They captured the shock of stardom (“Local Hero”), the birth of his children (“Living Proof” and “My Beautiful Reward”), and the day of his wedding to Scialfa (“Book of Dreams”).

Unlike the pastiches with which he started the project, the best of these late songs clearly seem to be happening in a specific place, not a mythologized Monmouth or Ocean County, let alone a South or a West that he had only driven through on a tour bus or a motorcycle. These songs take place in the hills and desertscapes through which he now traveled every day. The one explicitly political track on the album, “Souls of the Departed,” another remarkably loud track from the home studio sessions, connects the details of the singer’s current life with the specificity of an American soldier’s last moments in an Iraq firefight and the school-yard death of an East Compton boy who dies before his time. Springsteen could still write about the poor and disenfranchised, but to do so honestly he had to cop to the altered truth of his own situation. To keep his songs honest, he had to admit on some level that he was a millionaire, and stop pretending, as the lyric of “Better Days” puts it, to be a rich man in a poor man’s shirt.

On the whole, it is remarkable how self-contained the recording of these songs was, much more so than Tunnel of Love, if less than the admitted fluke of Nebraska. Randy Jackson was brought in to play bass on one track, Roy to provide keyboards on three others, but otherwise the keyboards, guitar, and bass on most tracks are all Springsteen. This was rock auteurism, the closest to a purely personal statement that this singer-songwriter had ever made. For half of the tracks, he headed down to A&M Studios to record backing vocals—female backing vocals this time, on which the very pregnant Patti was joined by her old New York friends Lisa Lowell and Soozie Tyrell. No longer interested in staying in studios late into the night, Springsteen recorded and mixed the new album from two to six in the afternoon, almost as if he had a part-time job. No matter what he was working on, he always made it home for dinner by seven.

In the liner notes for Nebraska and Tunnel of Love, the credits simply read “Recorded in New Jersey.” On this new album, for the first time, the credits said “Recorded at Thrill Hill Recording.” It’s not clear when Bruce first gave his home studio this name, but it’s not surprising that his Los Angeles setup received it before the one in Rumson did. Fittingly for Springsteen, the name was a reference to the old-time rock ’n’ roll of Fats Domino, but it also had an echo of his own invocation almost a decade earlier of the old country trope of the “Mansion on the Hill,” which he could no longer deny that he had come to live in. Most important, the name signaled his own emotional state now. Nebraska and Tunnel of Love, his two other mostly solo works, were lonely howls of pain and isolation, both recorded a short drive away from his beloved Jersey Shore in the dead of winter. This new solo work, which he would rightly call Lucky Town, was something entirely different: a loud cry of joy over his incredible good fortune.

In mid-January 1992, a few weeks after the New Year’s Eve birth of Scialfa and Springsteen’s daughter Jessica Rae, Bruce and Roy went into the A&M Studios to record “Happy,” one of the most blandly direct songs Springsteen had ever written. But “Happy” was not only a minor and reiterative act of songwriting (even musically it sounded like a redraft of the superior “My Beautiful Reward”). At this point, such a direct affirmation on Springsteen’s part was unnecessary, in a way that it wouldn’t have been when he had purposefully moved to Los Angeles a little over two years before. Both personally and artistically, he now lived on Thrill Hill.

Reprinted from Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll by Marc Dolan. Copyright © 2012 by Marc Dolan. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.


Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Daily Discovery: Hannah Miller, “Little Bit”