Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A. (1984)

BornInTheUSAsinglecover

Artist: Bruce Springsteen
Title: Born in the U.S.A.
Description: single; track, Born in the U.S.A.
Label: Columbia
Release date: 1984
First heard: 1984

When, in Springsteen on Broadway, the man who wrote Born To Run and Thunder Road and Racing in the Street reveals to his invited theatre audience that in fact he did not run (“I currently live ten minutes from my home town”) and couldn’t even put his bandmate’s car’s stick-shift into first gear when they drove cross-country to do their first out-of-town gig, he grins. He is grinning at his own self-image. After a pause, he adds, “That’s how good I am.” You’re in the palm of his hand.

Against the bare-brick facade of the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York – the Big Apple a faraway emerald city that nobody Springsteen knew growing up in the boondocks of Freehold Borough in New Jersey had ever visited – he does something he also confesses that he never did before: work for five days a week.

“I’ve never seen the inside of a factory and yet it’s all I’ve written about,” he smiles. “Standing before you is a man who has become wildly and absurdly successful, writing about something of which he has had absolutely no personal experience. I made it all up.” And again: “That’s how good I am.”

I’ve been immune to the Boss for as long as I can remember. I never actively disliked him. I just didn’t feel any pressing need to have him in my record collection. A friend at college with more catholic taste turned me on to I’m On Fire, but it was mostly the “freight train running through the middle of my head” that grabbed me in my own wilderness of self-mythology. I’m pretty sure I intuited that the song Born in the U.S.A. wasn’t anything other than an anti-war anthem when I heard Max Weinberg’s artillery-fire retorts on the snare and sensed fists being clenched and air being punched, but they weren’t really my style. (I’d seen enough Vietnam War movies to know what the tough guy in denim and axle grease meant when he sang, or hollered, of being sent off to a foreign land to “kill the yellow man”.)

Over the years, Bruce and I have largely crossed paths only tenuously. I loved Streets of Philadelphia. I read the reviews of The Ghost of Tom Joad and wondered if it was time yet? The Rising, his rapid response to 9/11, ought to have been up my street and was, theoretically. But whatever it was I was listening to in 2002, it wasn’t him. (I looked it up: my Top 5 albums of 2002 were Where The Wild Things Are by Karen O and the Kids, Born Like This by Doom, My Way by Ian Brown, Goffam by Jim Bob and Forget The Night Ahead by The Twilight Sad. So.)

Then I saw him own Glastonbury in 2009, a pit-stop on his year-round Working on a Dream Tour. The Pyramid Stage was headlined for old folks: Neil Young on the Friday, Bruce on the Saturday and token 40-year-olds Blur on the Sunday. He played 25 songs that warm June night, five of which I knew well enough to mouth the chorus to (plus two of the covers), but a more important thing happened during that magic hour: I got him. Seeing an artist of world renown along with thousands of other people who haven’t necessarily paid to see him or her (the headliners were announced after the tickets had sold) is a great place to do so. Bruce knew he had to work hard for his money. Many of the audience couldn’t sing along and didn’t cheer the first note of every tune. The amazing thing was that I felt I knew the songs I didn’t know. That’s how good he is.

He did Born to Run and The River and Glory Days and Dancing in the Dark, so I wasn’t exactly locked out of the love-in, but he omitted Born in the U.S.A., which I found myself yearning for in the dark and wondering if it might close the show. Here was a pasture where his hymn to the fallen and his reclamation of the flag would not be misinterpreted, and what would those drums sound like?

In its from-the-womb guise for the parent album, recorded at the Power Station in New York in April 1982, produced by Jon Landau, Chuck Plotkin, Bruce and Steve Van Zandt, it opens proceedings at such a high, keening pitch of ambition, as raw as a jug of eggs and pushing against the ceiling from the first blah of Roy Bittan’s synth riff and the inaugural crack of Weinberg’s tree-trunk stick on snare, surely it will have nowhere to go for the remaining four and a bit minutes? It’s peaked too early. Bruce is shouting at the top of his voice from the first stanza:

Born down in a dead man town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up

Born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.

If not a lucky town (although nowhere in particular packs its own punch and dead men do wear plaid), Springsteen was born in a lucky country, a lucky panorama, a lucky landscape. He’s a lucky songwriter and storyteller to have been by accident of gene born in the United States of America and with an innate understanding of what that means. (His father, he tells us on Broadway, still regarded a nursed “morning beer” as “the breakfast of champions,” before passing on in 1998, aged 74. One pictures a Schlitz?)

It takes a few hours to drive from one coast the United Kingdom of Whatever to the other, and aside from towns turning into hills then hills back into towns, it’s little wonder our inspiration tends towards introspection, nostalgia and terms and conditions. It is glorious that our island would produce Half Man Half Biscuit and Dusty Springfield, William Shakespeare and EL James, Alfred Hitchcock and Banksy, but you still ultimately have to make your own entertainment here. When Bruce broke out of his youth and discovered what lay beyond the walls of New Jersey (almost literally – he speaks in his memoir of being “walled in by God” ie. the Catholic school, the church), he was filled to the brim with ideas and wasted not one of them as they were road-tested into legend.

At around the four-minute mark of the definitive recording, a strange, immutable thing happens: Weinberg seems to submit to the gods of drumming and allows his hands and sticks to be puppeteered by some higher force, as if this song, its intent, its power and its glory are circuited into a higher realm. This songs begins at a sociopolitical and actual pitch that lesser men after the same affect might build up to. Result: it’s impossible to disentangle the actually iconic pose of Bruce – with his guitar arm in the air, that ripped knee-slit in his work trousers and the stars and stripes rendered in duct-tape strips behind him – from the art it promises. Same goes for the concert promo clip, assembled and shot through with footage of working men coming and going to work by John Sayles, although the black headband hasn’t worn as well.

Born in the U.S.A. was just one among seven top 10 hits mercenarily taken from the album, which changed the Springsteen optics for life; the new Boss was not the same as the old Boss. He was Michael Jackson now. Madonna. Aretha. Elvis. Bono. Prince. Bowie. Sinatra. Crosby. Doris Day. When I interviewed the impressively self-aware Jon Bon Jovi for the NME in 1989, he knew that Michael Jackson, Madonna and U2 were bigger than he was, and accepted it with grace. He didn’t mention Bruce, who came from the same neck of the woods. I suspect of the two New Jerseyites, Bruce spent less time doing the Forbes arithmetic, although both he and Jon had written songs that were bigger than they were.

Back at the boards of Walter Kerr a decade after my Glastronautical epiphany, in much more intimate surroundings with not a single casual bystander in the house, and Springsteen almost apologises for the “long and noisy prayer” he’s been reciting. He explains, “I wanted to rock your very soul. I hope I’ve been a good travelling companion.”

He has, not least on his best song, and without moving more than a few feet. That’s how good he is.

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The Doors, The End (1967)

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Artist: The Doors
Title: The End
Description: track, The Doors
Label: Elektra
Release date: 1967
First heard: 1982

This is the beginning …

I know exactly where I was when I first heard the establishing tinkles of John Densmore’s splash cymbal and what sound like chimes but might be something Ray Manzarek teased from his keys: I was sitting on a plastic chair in the arts centre of what used to be Northampton College of Further Education on Booth Lane, where my friends Paul, Dave, Neil and I had joined the Film Society in order to blow our minds. It was 6 April, 1982 and we were there to see the X-rated Apocalypse Now (we were 17). Francis Coppola gave The End by the Doors a starring role. Written in 1967 about a break-up, it divides chin-stroking opinion. But it’s difficult to argue with its placement at the beginning – and the end – of Coppola’s South-East Asian odyssey.  This is not background music. Jim Morrison’s mournful wail and student poetry meld into something that might have been – but wasn’t – written for the film or the war.

So, I heard the song for the first time at the same time as seeing the film for the first time. A film that would become one of my all-time favourite films. A song that would become one of my all-time favourite songs.

Both are long. The song comes in at an epic 11 minutes and 41 seconds on the Doors’ debut album. It’s reduced to just over six-and-a-half minutes on the soundtrack edit, its middle section concertina’d so that the serpentine opening and close are left fully intact. Apocalypse Now runs at 153 minutes, but there are other cuts of the film, notably the 202-minute Redux. The classic recording of The End for producer Paul A. Rothchild at Sunset Sound in Hollywood is formed of two takes, spliced together. And you can’t hear the join.

What I’m saying is, there’s no rush, and yet there is such a rush.

This is the middle bit …

It’s not a single and was never designed to be, but it climaxed Doors live shows as a backstop and would be the last song the band would ever play together, in New Orleans. (Morrison’s end came four years later in a rented room in the 4th arrondissemont, aged 27, an early bath foreshortening his “elaborate plans”.) In 1983, the Fun Boy Three tapped into the darkness on the edge of town and covered The End for novelty purposes on a proprietary music show called Switch and did a worthwhile job, I recall, including a good bash at the famous Oedipal interlude; this re-lit my fire for the Doors, whose eponymous debut album I purchased on cassette. I don’t know why cassette.

The sidewinding lyrics to The End had already entered my bloodstream via the film. The “stranger’s hand in a desperate land”; that “wilderness of pain” and “all the children” who went insane while “waiting for the summer rain” – Yeah!

It’s easy to dismiss Morrison as a horny sixth-form poet with the top button of his leather trousers accidentally left unpopped, and because The End is essentially free-form, refined into copyright over a series of jams, it doesn’t all read that well on the page. He reaches the bottom of his pencil case when he suggests we “ride the snake to the lake” and declares that “the West is the best.” But this song, this track, this Freudian trip, this outpouring of childhood angst brought on by a rich diet of reading, defines the Doors.

They made shorter, better, tighter, more hummable songs – Break On Through, People Are Strange, Light My Fire, Hello, I Love You, Riders on the Storm, Touch Me – and three of these were million-sellers, once Light My Fire had been pruned back to three minutes. They pulled six albums out of the chaos over five years, each a huge record in the multi-platinum orbit. But for all of Morrison’s apparent unsuitability for the straight and narrow – singing the forbidden word “higher” on the Ed Sullivan Show against the show’s express wishes; the public obscenity charge; taunting his fans at an over-sold show in a seaplane hangar; bothering blameless cabin crew – he kind of turned up for work nonetheless, however drunk. The lizard king myth was successfully blown out of proportion, but the late 60s and early 70s were a heady time, and if Jim Morrison hadn’t existed, they’d have had to invent him.

This is the end

What elevates The End from an overlong song at the end of a perfectly sensible psychedelic rock album by a gigging band who’d found their feet to a work of genius is – boring as this seems – its very length. Its mission to explain and explain. The long-windedness beneath its wings. The fundamental wherewithal to go where no band had gone before while staying fashionable. Not many greatest hits get away with a spoken interlude – ABC’s The Look of Love (“They say, Martin, maybe one day you’ll find true love”); Michael Jackson’s Thriller (“Darkness falls across the land”); Britney’s Oops! … I Did It Again (“Oh, you shouldn’t have”) – but those that do need to get some perspective. At about six-and-a-half minutes in, Morrison slips out of his stentorian oratory, leans on the mic stand, and starts to tell us a sto-o-ory. Are you sitting uncomfortably?

“The killer awoke before dawn … He put his boots on … He took a face from the ancient gallery and walked on down the hall … And he came to a door and he looked inside …”

That we associate this edition of Crackanory with Captain Willard’s journey to enlightenment beyond the Do Long Bridge and the Montagnard Army in Apocalypse Now, followed by its murderous fruition, is easy to follow. It’s not about the Vietnam War, but it’s 1967 and everything’s about the Vietnam War, man.

Father? Yes, son? I want to kill you
Mother … I want to … waaaaaarrrgghhhh

And Densmore’s drums explode into abandon, Robby Krieger’s guitar gets out of the boat, and Manzarek mellows the situation out with a go-around the keys, while Morrison breaks on through to the other side, that peyote still pecking at his vitals and Rothchild manning the pumps. They meet at the back of the blue bus, Morrison lashing away, using “fuck” as a beat, Densmore adds more cowbell, Krieger banjo-duels with his himself, until it all falls apart and – in the mind of an Apocalypse Now devotee – a sacred cow is sacrificed.

This was the end, and, for me, the start of beautiful friendship. He did, however, write some bloody awful poetry.

 

 

The Supremes, Stoned Love (1970)

 

Stoned-love-supremes

Artist: The Supremes
Title: Stoned Love
Description: single
Label: Motown
Release date: 1970
First heard: circa 2003

Ever the dedicated archaeologist of recorded popular music, I rather fear that the first time I knowingly fell under the spell of this late Supremes single was in the early part of this century, some 40 years, in fact, after its release. It passed into my home under cover of the 3-disc Capital Gold Motown Classics compilation, purchased for the following good, sound, practical reason: to top up the soul content of my iPod. Where had this song been all my life? Seemingly just lurking, halfway down CD2 between The Jackson 5’s I Want You Back and I Don’t Blame You At All by Smokey Robinson, waiting to pounce, pin me to the floor and pour honey into my ears.

Diana Ross is already placed in The 143, with her key solo hit Upside Down. She’d flown the girl group nest in 1970, after Berry Gordy had “run in” her Mississippi-born replacement Jean Terrell, so that the Supremes brandwagon could roll on as if nothing had happened. Terrell, signed as a Motown solo artist, was formally introduced at Miss Ross’s final appearance as a Supreme in Las Vegas. Thus, the band played on, and scored hits without their first-name-terms taliswoman with the likes of Nathan Jones and Floy Joy. Only Mary Wilson survived from the stone age; Florence Ballard was replaced by Cindy Birdsong back in 1967. One might regard the Terrell-Wilson-Birdsong formation as the group’s second classic line-up. I certainly do. The Funk Brothers remain on infrastructure, so nothing’s falling over.

If there’s a change of lyrical direction, it comes wrapped in candy floss. The number begins* with Miss Terrell cooing the provocative title over a gently tickled row of ivory: “Sto-o-oned Lo-huh-uh-uhh-huh-ove …”, then, a soft parp, a rattle on the snare … and when the piano line plinks into action, the song does the opposite of explode into stoned life. It sort of tumbles. Like the teeth-sucking sound of a hi-hat, or a reversed tape, or the inhalation that precedes a pyrotechnic event, we’re off, but without much warning. Suitably and subtly lulled, you took your ear off the ball. Stop, children, what’s that sound? It’s the sound of the 60s turning into the 70s.

A love for each other will bring fighting to an end

This is the Supremes with placards, protesting the indignity, cruelty and human deforestation of the Vietnam war, now in its fifth official year, although imprinted with US boots since Eisenhower sent in his 900 “advisers”, and Kennedy tacitly endorsed the CIA’s covert involvement. The lyrics are by Kenny Thomas and producer Frank Wilson (no relation to Mary), and take the “girl group” into waters being swum by The Temptations, the actually stoned Family Stone and other beatniks. Come 1970, the National Guard were killing American students on their own campus and something had to be done about it. Equally, something had to be sung about it, if the peaceniks really were going to overcome.

Forgiving one another, time after time, doubt creeps in
But like the sun lights up the sky with a message from above
Oh, yeah, I find no other greater symbol of this love

It may seem naive to our cynical eyes, but this rather amorphous hippy sentiment of thoughts-and-prayers should not be dismissed from this distance, just because it sounds lilting and sweet. (So, for instance, does For What It’s Worth.) Asking its young audience to “put the present time to hand”, Stoned Love becomes in fact an urgent call to arms, disguised as a come-on: “If you’re young at heart, rise up and take your stand.”

If a war ’tween our nations passed, oh, yeah
Will the love ‘tween our brothers and sisters last?

Terrell, Wilson and Birdsong think it will: “On and on and on and on.”

Like all classic Motown tunes, it fades too soon, and too quickly. I think that’s why we’re all still so besotted by the hits of Detroit 1959-72, which never sought to outstay their welcome, however warm that welcome be.

I don’t care where this song has been all my life. It’s where it is now that matters, filling me with love supreme.

 

*Postscript: a connoisseur going by the Twittername of @daysofspeed has just recommended the four-minute version that appears on The Supremes: Box Set, released in 2000. “The opening,” he accurately states, “is like a state ceremony.”