Sunday, February 15, 2009

Navigating The Badlands of E Street

Tiring of the unabashed praise for Bruce Springsteen, The Bastard takes a more objective view in the below long-form piece.

Face east, if you’re ever down the shore at the southern end of Kingsley Street, between Lake and Cookman Avenues in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Ocean leaning, this marks the 36,000 square foot graveyard of the flattened Palace Amusements. Alongside the ghosts of Ferris wheels and carousels, shrieks of bygone children swirl hauntingly in the drone of crashing tides; venerating an era when fun seekers by the thousands would soar, spin, and fly in this coastal escape, trading domestic banality for cotton candy and ice cream. Now derelict, the site’s lasting relevance is its link to preternatural runner and scrappy Freehold hero Bruce Frederick Springsteen, buried under the boardwalk and picked apart by gulls twenty-six years earlier, piece by piece.

Asbury Park, crumbling seaside resort and gritty music mecca, served as the inspirational canvas for a young E Street Band in the early 1970’s. Still blighted by the racial tension of that age, and victimized by industrial decay and blanketing economic ruin, the city is now enmeshed in a pseudo-rehabilitation; one where faceless luxury apartments abut yawning vacant lots, and the hulking steel skeletons of planned and abandoned projects lord mightily over empty streets. It was here, in this beachfront amalgamation of contradictions, playland of rusted amusement arcades, that the earliest embodiment of the band thrived. Mike Appel – original manager, producer, and master of ceremonies – encouraged the free wheeling spirit and Dylanesque rhyme which colored elegies to boardwalk life both seedy and romantic.

Each member of E Street was showcased powerfully in those days, permitted to excel as an individual force within an organically evolving milieu. In other words, this was no mere backing section told to shut up and support the lead man, but rather a juggernaut of equals, complementing the stream-of-consciousness poetry jammed so tightly into each stanza that it was suffocating. Appreciate the complex phrasing and challenging time changes of the early song canon, demanding more than a passive eavesdrop. This was anything but derivative verse-chorus-verse material, yet not without its flaws. Hacksawed passages coupled with awkward self-indulgence peppered the worn edges. Nonetheless, the sum of all parts remained genuine. It was real. It let the salty air fill your lungs if you took a deep enough breath.

The fables were born from experience, themselves a sagging portrait of the neon city by the sea beckoning fun seekers into its ever-morphing hall of mirrors. And woven in these threadbare tales were the cruelties of chewed dreams and spent chances. Behold the carnival of restless souls: Madame Marie got busted, Mary’s dress swayed, the Fish Lady baited, Wendy wrapped her legs, Jane said goodnight, Magic Rat lost his clout, Spanish Johnny drove in, Rosalita came out. Where the greasers tramped the street, where beneath the city two hearts beat, where Billy slowly dug in his cleats and took Diamond Jackie in the Cadillac seat. We heard the Vibes Man play his deepest blue while Bad Scooter tried like hell to find his groove. Through death traps, suicide raps, turnpike operas and alley ballets. Barefoot boys kissing good night and golden heeled fairies in a real bitch fight. No saints in this city, no nickels, no pity. Just bruised arms, broken rhythm, and beat up old Buicks, and girls dressed like dynamite.

Sadly, the vision which engendered Springsteen’s first album trifecta was quashed in the mid 1970s. A lawsuit waged against Appel cited, among other things, contractual fraud. Of course, each coin has two sides, each argument its biases, but the judicial combat left our singer hardened, cynical, and sick. Enter Jon Landau with a new promise, a revamped vision extending beyond the trappings of familiar hemi-powered drones. Unlike his predecessor, Landau favored a decidedly streamlined approach. A dumbed-down, commercially viable, mainstream sound which would earn Springsteen worldwide acclaim and enormous riches while decimating the collaborative instincts of E Street. Stripped away, record by record, were the lively narratives, vibrant lyricism, and unique instrumental workouts in favor of clich├ęd generality. Artistic merit was fast eclipsed by rocketing superstardom; a deal with the devil for a comfortable life. And as part of that treaty, a loss of the defining boardwalk localism for a broad-stroked attempt at becoming the red, white, and blue, bandana clad American Highwayman.

Thanks to Landau’s lowest common denominator framework, our hero was hastily transformed, even appending an uncomfortable bible-belt affect to his voice. The consequent sound was syndicated not only for the swamps of Jersey, but for the small towns dotting every prairie crevice of flyover country. Spartan tales of woe became difficult to swallow as Springsteen’s balance sheet ballooned exponentially, blinded by the light of celebrity. He was now a brand, a marketable shill for every independent farmer facing agricultural conglomeration, each Midwestern auto mechanic staring down the barrel of an assembly plant closure, and every long-haul trucker praying for his last load. Hypocrisy at its ugliest. But it didn’t fool me. Not for an instant. I knew Bruce was sick. Mentally debilitated, physically wracked, and emotionally deluded. One wonders if the boys at Billboard caught the ironic adjustment as he burned up their charts. All too suddenly the revamped E Street Band became, to borrow our Asbury allegory, a lavish condo encroaching on the spirited funhouse. And look, I get it. He did it for the money.

You would’ve too.

In late 1982, the real Bruce Springsteen passed away at the age of 33, replaced ad infinitum by The Boss, a howling American icon of small town car washes and Main Street parades, of glitter face paint and flag waving corner stores; a political, controlling egotist with a jarring rockabilly wail. Earlier relevance abandoned, E Street now functions as a tight, rhythmic shell, an affluent troop of session players shuffling blindfolded through the motions – albeit with remarkable versatility – tour after tour after tour.

Admittedly, I bought into The Boss. I still do. He’s shrewd, charismatic, and in fairness has penned enough radio-friendly anthems and introspective slow burners to fill a few shoeboxes. Given the opportunity, this writer would gladly soak in an acclaimed concert. After all, The Boss believes he’s creating his best work. Now. And he makes us want to believe him, peppering his records with integrity in our age of bubble gum pop dreck. If you look hard enough, some semblance of the old magic even exists, it’s just been repackaged with a slicker sheen: less frilly accoutrements, more meat and potatoes. That’s how business works, no hard feelings. Nevertheless, it’s a long way from Thunder Road when you’ve sold out in a back room palm greasing; your very own “meeting across the river,” desperate for fame, elastic with image, but killed in the darkness on the edge of town.


Matt Shea said...

Hey Mike,

Great article on Springsteen. I was wondering if you've been keeping up with the business about him doing a deal with Walmart to exclusively sell his latest record?

There's a strong article on it here:

It jibes well with your current analysis of this star who these days is perhaps about as 'real' as his own wax sculpture.

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