I used to commandeer a website called The First Church of Rock and Roll (b. 1999ish, d. 2005ish). While doing so, I assumed the persona of The Reverend Wayne Coomers, a Pentecostally influenced rock and roll ranter who held all music he encountered up to a single important question: did this move me? As I do on this blog, I seldom wrote about things that didn’t move me, but, on this occasion, I couldn’t stop myself. Nicole and I, for less than a ten-spot, had watched the much-missed Illinois band Local H just blow the doors off The Blue Note in Columbia, Missouri–two folks in the band, multiple chips on those four shoulders, and ENERGY! Plus: 45 minutes, and they were out. The next night–and we were most excited–we went to see Springsteen live for the first time. He’d hung the moon for me from ’75-’88…then I read some things…then he stumbled a bit…then he kind of rounded into a staid institution…but we had no reason he wouldn’t raise the short hairs on our necks live, especially reunited with his musical family. Here’s the story, without adjustments; I’d send you to the original site, but even The Wayback Machine can’t help there. I thought nothing dies here (that’s a fact)–that everything that dies will always come back. Guess I was wrong.
Sitting at a booth in a Bob Evans, the tension was ping-ponging between the four of us. Morning-after concert discussion–somebody finally asked the question I was fearing: “So what did you think of the show?” One might well wonder why it had taken nearly twelve post-show hours for someone to bring it up.
It had all started when, during a drunken evening, one of us had suggested a road trip to St. Lou to take in a Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band extravaganza. Nicole and I, long-time fans (perhaps an understatement in my case: Bruce was one of the reasons this music is my life), had never witnessed one of the great Rawk spectacles, and our two friends were among the benighted, but ready to dive in, in part as a birthday present for one of ’em.
I labored hours over a 3-cassette comp to prepare them, and, in the making, I found myself pretty damn re-amazed at the Mighty Greaser’s hard-fought hacking through lots of dark forests to keep his audience honest and his own bad self lean, mean and relevant. Not for him the fate of the protagonist of “Glory Days”; he’s long displayed a gift for getting inside beautiful losers to show us how to keep winning, or at least hold life to a draw. So I was primed to finally be there, and had every reason, given what his work had to say, to expect, well, more progress. Progress: a tangly concept any serious Rawk-lifer has to grapple with daily. Either it’s the end-all be-all in the face of rot, anathema to the Rawk ethic, or it’s the fucking hemlock that kills the basic feels-so-right urges that legions of garage rockers and die-hard rockabillies strive to strangle out of their axes. Where was Springsteen?
Motorheads don’t generally have ten guitars waiting in the wings, each on labelled stands with different tunings for different songs. On the other hand, Springsteen’s musical set-up–“big” horn, a willingness to use synthesizers and Spector-operatic piano, an odd aversion to expressing himself consistently, particularly through riffs, on guitar–doesn’t exactly lend itself to primitive noise (Wouldn’t it be fascinating, though, to hear him really strip his shit down, not like a Nebraska or The Ghost of Tom Joad, which were “folk” albums, but like, say, Pink Flag, or Ramones, or even New York? It’d certainly cut down on the pomp ‘n’ corn–if he’s reflective enough to notice, it’s, uh, shtick). That leaves writing. Surely he’d been writing. And there’s been no shortage of raw material for a working class hero to mold into an epater le bourgeousie for his increasingly comfortable, always snow-white audience, not in these here times.
So what’d we get? Sitting in the mezzanine, lined up straight-away center stage (a $45 ticket that would have been more than a third of his typical protagonist’s weekly salary–a very optimistic estimate, at that), we got:
1) Muddy sound: 4 guitars (it’s nice to get the gang together, but come on: platoon some o’ the bastards!) doing nothing much but strumming and grinding those plodding, unfunky-white-guy rhythms. Even Bruce’s and Miami Steve’s occasional solos were either arena-rocky or out-of-tune.
2) Umpteen VERY marginally-differentiated “Big Man” solos–the show/tour may be about loyalty and friendship, but my god, hasn’t the motherfucker grown a few chops? Maybe jazz and ’50s r&b has spoiled me (not to mention Randy Newman’s devastating parody on Trouble In Paradise’s “Life is Good”), maybe they are a bar band, but millionaires get paid to make some hard decisions.
3) 90% 1985-and-earlier catalog, arranged exactly the way they were played 1985-and-earlier. Even a bottlenecked “Born in the USA” was a by-the-numbers recreation of the demo version on Tracks. The only faintly new song was a Weavers-esque Guthrie-rewrite called “This Train,” which might be described as Springsteen’s “Forever Young,” one of the worst things in Dylan’s ouevre. And since I’ve mentioned the grouchy old fart, who spent years in limbo squeezing dollars from his back catalogue only to come roaring back again–heard “Things Have Changed,” from the Wonder Boys soundtrack yet, or Time Out of Mind? Nicole and I took a smoke break with a suspiciously large segment of the upstairs concertgoers and came to a mutual appeciation of Uncle Bawb, who, with the previously mentioned exception, hasn’t really ever given a shit about giving the public what it wants. OK, he’s disgusted, but, hey, who isn’t? And with about 10 years on Bruce, he sure isn’t showing signs of taking a fall-back position.
4) A dearth of spontanaeity. The only two moments that raised my short hairs to half-mast were the only radical rearrangement, of Tunnel of Love’s “If I Should Fall Behind,” where 3 E-Streeters got a verse, including Mrs. Bruce, who sounded a lot like Ronnie Spector–the chick should definitely sing more–and a weird Springsteen somersault in the middle of the third encore, as if to say, “OK, can I go now?” Actually, the old man didn’t really move too much throughout the 3-hour show–yep, he still does ’em, and he did sing pretty well, I admit. But a rock and roll show must be alive. Working hard ain’t enough. I’m sure Phil Collins sweats.
So, to crystallize it, he had nothing to say, other than, “These are my boys” (and they definitely got more props than the woman) and “I’m still here, but the Muse is all gone.” Where can he go from here? Hell, lots of places. How about a four-piece, or even a trio? How about taking on the WTO? How about collaborating with Patti, his wife (ala Double Fantasy)? Can his kids play yet (remember Old Skull)? He could get back to his roots–amazingly, he’s never done that before (perhaps to his credit, but it sure worked for McCartney). Or duet with Ed Hamell. The possibilities are much more open than he may think.
Back to Bob Evans. I said my piece (see above). One of our guests turned to the other and said, “I don’t feel like sharing right now…we’ll talk when we get home.” Pissed my ass off–nobody can disagree anymore, and they don’t know what they’re missing. True argument is the road to enlightenment. Perhaps Bruce won a new fan–albiet a 25-year-old that wasn’t familiar with him in 2000. Where’s she been? Is it unfair to expect the former “future of rock and roll” to at least function in the present, even if he is still donating major proceeds to our country’s food banks? Doesn’t he look in the mirror and sometimes realize that he’s fallen victim to Blue Oyster Cult Syndrome–becoming what he used to shake by the lapels? He used to hope he wouldn’t sit around thinking about ’em, but all he seemed to be beseiging his audience with at this show was boring stories from his glory days.