Tag Archives: Bruce Springsteen

365 Days of Album Recommendations – Apr 19

Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska

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I’m getting ready to read Springsteen’s new autobiography, so I needed to get my head into the right sonic space, and if I had to pick one Springsteen album above all others, it would be this one.

If nothing else, listening to this album ought to out least make you pine for the days when the word ALBUM meant something. When we thought of ALBUMS the way we thoughts of novels, or plays, or paintings. We used to think of them as miniature self-defining and self-completing universes, with themes, and relationships, and … purposes.

This is a completed circle. It is a closed ecosystem.

It was a massive, massive artistic accomplishment, and it was a bloody brave move to release it. No major artist in the history of rock n’ roll music had ever—or HAS ever—taken such a decidedly unexpected—and completely non-commercial—left turn at the height of their careers. And Springsteen was at the HEIGHT. At this point, he had become The Boss. He was Bruuuuuuce! He was the Hungry Heart.

And then, suddenly, he wasn’t. Suddenly, the man who spent 4 weeks in the #1 spot on the Billboard 200 decided to release an album recorded on a 4-track cassette recorder. An album whose very first lyric was this one:

I saw her standing on her front lawn just twirling her baton
Me and her went for a ride sir and ten innocent people died


On The Eve Of The Songwriter’s Showcase Finals, A List Of 23 Genius Songs We All Wish We’d Written, But Didn’t

Tuesday, May 5th, 7-10pm, Britannia

Tomorrow night, it’s the finals of the 13th Annual Songwriter’s Showcase (sponsored by Mars Studios, and hosted by the Britannia Arms in Capitola, CA), and I am to be a judge. Which is very exciting for me, and an honor I accept with the utmost seriousness.

Because said event is nigh, I have songwriting on the brain.

Now, in re: said event, based on what I know to date about the competitors, I think it is safe to say that we are not working with the broadest definition of singer-songwriter (i.e. anyone who sings a song they have written), but rather, we are operating within the more precise realm of the “Singer-Songwriter”; that is to say, within the folk-troubadour tradition. Operators within this space may claim as their ancestors and inspirations the likes of, say, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, or Joan Armatrading; James Taylor, Jimmy Buffett, or Townes Van Zandt; Bill Withers, Billy Bragg, or Neil Young; Tracy Chapman, Dolly Parton, or Nick Drake; Elliot Smith, Patti Smith, or Carol King; Phil Ochs, Suzanne Vega, or Ben Harper; Greg Brown, Indie.Arie, or Bruce Springsteen; Kris Kristofferson, Sam Cooke, or Ani DiFranco, or even, yes, John Lennon and Jerry Garcia. This IS Santa Cruz County, after all.

The point being, there is singing a song one has written, and then there are “Singer-Songwriters.” For this event, I think it is safe to say we are considering the latter.

And so, bearing that in mind, I have elected, almost strictly for personal kicks, to assemble a list of some of the greatest songs (fundamentally — with just a couple stretches– in this mold) ever written, songs that you and I both wish we’d written, but didn’t.

With no apologies for what I’ve left out or what I’ve included, and in no particular order, I proffer the following:

1. Willie & Laura Mae Jones, by Tony Joe White.
Dear ALL aspiring political songwriters. This is how you handle racism in a song. Funkily, powerfully, honestly, and narratively. A masterpiece.

2. The Ballad of Hollis Brown, by Bob Dylan
Devasting. One chord. That is all.

3. Here Comes A Regular, by Paul Westerberg (The Replacements)
If you understand the difference between this and “Piano Man,” you’re on to something. If you don’t, you’re not.

4. Grandma’s Hands, by Bill Withers
Can YOU be this powerful, soulful, beautiful, muscular, and emotional, while singing about YOUR grandma? Yeah …

5. In the River, by Michael Been (The Call)
White gospel, from an 80s indie band. Incredible.

6. Straight To Hell, by Joe Strummer (The Clash)
Just an unbelievably great song; epic, monumental; spooky, depressing; vivid, political, social, emotional, gut-wrenchingly raw, pathotically weird and funny and sad and strange and perfect. And so cool …

7. Glory Box, by Beth Gibbons (Portishead)
Incredible lyric movement, traveling from the personal and idiosyncratic, to the most fundamentally raw, sensual, and real. Killer … And that melody line, over that bass line? Killer …

8. Red Dirt Girl, by Emmylou Harris
As good a “story song” as any ever written, coming from out the folk-blues-southern thing …

9. Our Mother the Mountain, by Townes Van Zandt
Because if you write this …

Fingers walk the darkness down
Mind is on the midnight
Gather up the gold you’ve found
You fool, it’s only moonlight.
If you try to take it home
Your hands will turn to butter
You better leave this dream alone
Try to find another.

… then your s&%t is amazing.

10. Four Women, by Nina Simone
Because if you can powerfully and successfully address sexism AND racism in a song with a final line of “My name is Peaches,” and not only get away with it, but kill it? Then your s&$t is amazing.

11. Amsterdam, by Jacques Brel
Epic in every sense of the word. Dirty, seedy, and romantic; beautiful, tragic, and raw. And it ends with an image of pissing. Such an achievement … just towering.

12. State Trooper, by Bruce Springsteen
Simply one of the best road songs ever. And that’s saying something.

13. Death Don’t Have No Mercy, by the Reverend Gary Davis
It’s admittedly hard to concede ACTUAL songwriting credits when it comes to the “shared” folk-blues-gospel cannon, but this is pretty close to clear, so I’m just going to say it’s Davis’ song. I played a version of this recently, and someone from the audience spoke to me afterwards, referring to this song as “dark gospel, but true gospel.” To which I say, yes.

14. Psalm, by John Coltrane
There are technically no lyrics to this song, but if you know the story of this song, then yes there are lyrics. And this song is INCREDIBLE. Listen to this while reading the “lyrics,” and you’ll have one of the most moving poetry/music experiences of your life …goose bumps. Forever.

15. 16 Shells From A Thirty Ought Six, by Tom Waits
Because Tom Waits should be on this list somewhere, and because for my money, it was with this song that Waits not only created a language all his own, but became a genre all his own.

16. Back Home In Derry, by Christy Moore
No one does homesick like the Irish, and few do it better than Christy Moore with this song.

17. Fairytale of New York, by Shane MacGowan (The Pogues)
Ditto the above, except way, way, way sadder and more f&#*ed up …

18. Washington D.C. Hospital Blues, by Skip James
Most country blues artists didn’t really “write” songs in the way we think of it being done, and few if any wrote any new material later in life. The eerily excellent Skip James is the exception; he not only wrote brilliant songs of his own, he wrote NEW songs of his own post his “re-discovery.” This is one such song, and it’s utterly, totally brilliant for capturing in a single story (being sick in the hospital), and in a single couplet (I’m a poor man, but I’m a good man, you understand) an entire universe worth of the relationships between pride and shame, poverty and pride, and everything else about what it means to be both strong in, and at the mercy of, the world.

19. Diamonds and Rust, by Joan Baez
Any song that can sound amazing as sung by both the composer (Baez) and Judas Priest, HAS to be incredible …

20. I Shall Be Released, by Bob Dylan (The Band)
Is it possible someone actually sat down with pen and paper and just WROTE this song? Not possible …

21. Think, by Aretha Franklin
Yeah, she wrote it.  Well, co-wrote it. But she wrote it. And it’s so, so, so badass. It’s like singer-songwriter soul haiku, distilled down to the resonant power of just two words: Think. Freedom.

22. Cities In Dust, by Siouxie Soux
Apocolyptic, graphic, poetic, with a hook from the gods. One of the greatest songs from a great era, transcends all boundaries to simply be great, resonant, and powerful. Just play it on acoustic, solo. It swings so hard, and runs so deep …

23. Go Tell Aunt Rhody, author unknown
I don’t know who the hell wrote this lil’ lullaby of Gothic Americana, but it’s a monster lesson in The Weird Old America … Possibly the first song I ever learned, and possibly the song I’ve been trying to write my whole life …

~

Here’s to tomorrow night, and discovering something new to add to this list!


Searching For The Perfect Road Song

TheRoadThe perfect road song is a kind of Holy Grail for songwriters.

To write it is to experience a holy striking of compositional lightning, the result of which is ideally a song magically evoking the singular juxtapositions of fear and exhilaration that inevitably define a long, possibly late-night, and certainly lonely drive.

This is something I believe all songwriters pursue.

My most recent attempt did not succeed. It is not the perfect road song.

It is called “My Car Walks On Water,” and while it is not the perfect road song, I will say in its defense that it has certainly stood the test of time. I first tried to demo an early version of this song back in 1993. 21 years later, it is still with me, still alive, still changing, still convincing me it is real, a real road song …

I am safe in here
No need to worry any longer
The rain may break the forest’s bones
But my car walks on the water

To equate one’s car with Jesus is the usual unusual nocturnal moxie of the driver driving, alone …

This new iteration is my favorite version. Somehow, with Bones …


My desert island road song is probably “State Trooper,” by Bruce Springsteen, from his dark acoustic masterwork Nebraska. The imagined conversations (or so I perceive them to be) with a State Trooper play out like a narcoleptic head play starring a driver, and no one else …

Maybe you got a kid
Maybe you got a pretty wife
The only thing that I got
Has been botherin’ me my whole life
Mister State Trooper
Please don’t stop me

And the descriptions of the passing nocturnal nightscape are desperately, dirtily perfect …

New Jersey turnpike
Ridin’ on a wet night
Beneath the refinery’s glow
Out where the great black rivers flow

My first “proper” attempt (meaning, my first published and recorded attempt) at the perfect road song was a cut called “The Drive Goes On” from my debut album Preacher Boy & The Natural Blues:

The rearview mirror shines back my red eyes
And the yawns come on, just before sunrise
I keep my eyes open, cuz accidents happen
My left leg is asleep and the right one’s nappin’

It was not perfect either, but to this day, some 20 years later, I hear the song, and I remember exactly where I was driving on that dark mountain night …

 The Drive Goes On (stream)

 

“My Car Walks On Water” is altogether a different kind of narrative animal; more compressed, bluesier, a broader reconciliation of the simple (It’s rainin’ hard, and I can’t see) and the strange (The rain my soak time’s swingin’ braids).

But is it, “The Perfect Road Song?”

No, it is not.

But it is one more humble and deeply felt contribution to a growing canon of songs that collectively represents our search for harmonic Americana Nirvana.

~

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