Saturday, December 28, 2013

Bruce Springsteen: High Hopes

Earlier today, Bruce Springsteen's latest album, High Hopes leaked far and wide across the interwebs. The official release isn't due until January 14th of the new year. The album is a hodgepodge of "our best unreleased material from the past decade," as Springsteen explains in the liner notes (already published at brucespringsteen.net), where he adds, "I felt they all deserved a home and a hearing."

Bruce previously wrote liner notes for Devils & Dust, which perhaps not coincidentally was also an album mainly of older unreleased material. As with the notes to that album, there are some poignant notes here: The Wall, a song that Bruce premiered in concert in 2003, was inspired by Walter Cichon, a member of a '60s Jersey Shore band called "Motifs." This is the best part of the liner notes, and arguably the best of the previously unreleased songs on the album.

Much of the album has been heard before. Springsteen recorded High Hopes, written by Tim Scott McConnell of Havalinas, in 1995 for the Blood Brothers sessions; he released it on a "bonus" EP that accompanied the VHS release of Blood Brothers in late 1996. In a discussion of that release on the old LuckyTown Digest, Dave Marsh quipped, "If 'Without You' [another track on that EP] is the biggest pile of piffle BS has ever foisted on the world (IF...), then what in the world does that make 'High Hopes'? His best ever knock-off of a Disney theme?" I don't think he meant it as a compliment.

This new version of High Hopes adds more drum parts and horns, and it almost sounds like a marching band backing Bruce. It also features a fiery Tom Morello solo, but to me all the extra instrumentation is so much lipstick. Nice lipstick. Pretty lipstick. It sounds good, at least.

This album also features the seventh different version of The Ghost of Tom Joad to be put in to official release, going back to it being the title track of his 1995 acoustic album. It's the third version with Morello. This is his first studio version of it with Morello, but otherwise it's more or less the same as was released on the Magic Tour Highlights EP in 2008, with Bruce and Tom trading the vocals again.

American Skin was a centerpiece track of the Live In New York City album, and his version of Suicide's Dream Baby Dream was released on vinyl and as an iTunes download in 2008, after having been a show closer for Bruce during the Devils and Dust tour in 2005. Both tracks come dressed up with more drum parts, or maybe the same drum part. The opening chant of "41 Shots" sounds like it's bubbling up from under a lagoon. But both new arrangements will work live; Bruce has already performed the new version of Dream Baby Dream at this year's Stand Up For Heroes show, and it was the highlight of his performance.


But as I try to piece together this release as an album, I am struggling to identify anything that makes sense to me as an "arc." Anything beyond, "hey, I'm 64, and I can still put out new music!" That's something, I suppose, but up next to the song suite of Wrecking Ball, it just doesn't feel like very much.

I will listen more, as I always do. I've found songs that I like. Down in the Hole reminds me of Magic, and contains some nice vocals from Patti (and some children -- Bruce's? is it that old?). I liked Hunter of Invisible Game, a rare Springsteen track in waltz time; if the lyrics are a half step below his best it still works well enough for me. The Wall, punctuated by Curt Ramm's trumpet solo, stands with any of his acoustic tracks over the past couple decades.

The sound is modern enough and the music moves, but I don't hear any tracks that will be on my 12-year old daughter's radio station any time soon. Sound effects that added to songs on Wrecking Ball, do more to distract here; in my opinion the bullet mic should have been retired a few years ago, and the stereo effects of Heaven's Wall feel like they showed up from another decade. Of course, the "Raise Your Hands" chant from that song will surely become the next audience participation event in concert. The power major chords of Frankie Fell in Love are so bold I can imagine it as the theme song to some TV show I must have missed. This is Your Sword sounds vaguely Celtic, so long as the lyrics are ignored. But this album also shows that the best judge of Bruce Springsteen's music is... Bruce Springsteen. As with prior albums of unreleased songs (Tracks, Devils & Dust), there's good reason why so many of the songs weren't on those prior releases.

Of course, Bruce doesn't appear to be attempting any grand statement with this release. Anyway, it's quite a bit better than a Disney-theme knockoff, not that I necessarily mind Disney themes. A limited edition version of the official release will also include a live performance DVD from 2013 of the entire Born in the USA album. For fifteen dollars, I'm good with it.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Bruce Springsteen In Focus


The first thing I noticed, when launching in to the introduction for Debra Rothenberg's book Bruce Springsteen in Focus 1980-2012 was the instant potential for a good old game of Jewish geography. Ms. Rothenberg and I were born less than 10 weeks apart and grew up a few miles from each other in suburban Northern New Jersey. Her school friends were my camp friends. Her college acquaintances were my relatives. We each saw out first major concerts at the Garden States Arts Center in the mid-70s, were turned on to Bruce Springsteen's music by mentors who preached the Springsteen gospel and knew not to let up, and saw Southside Johnny at the same shows near our homes before finally seeing Bruce perform for the first time during The River tour.

Rothenberg's first published photo: September 1981
issue of New Jersey Monthly magazine
Rothenberg combined her love for Bruce Springsteen with her dream to become a great photographer, and over the course of 3 decades has chronicled both his career and her own. Rothenberg notes, "this is my journey, of having a dream to be a professional photographer. Being told, 'you stink, you're never going to make it,' and I really did stink, but I didn't quit. It was a long process to get where I'm at. There was nothing else I wanted to do; quitting was not an option." Her approach surely resonates with comments that Bruce and members of the E Street Band have made about their own careers, and it will resonate with fans around the world as well (In Focus has been in amazon.com's top 10 sellers for photojournalism since its release in September). Let's be clear, though: there are no pictures in this book that stink.

Photographing Springsteen has changed somewhat over the years, Rothenberg says. "Most times in the '80s it was easy to just walk in with a camera. Many times, it was around my neck. Sometimes, it was in a bag looking like a turkey sub and one time I did have to put it in... [a personal hygiene box]." Today, cell phones are more prevalent: "Being short, I find they are in my way a lot... People are paying A LOT of money to go to a concert and they don't want to see it through someone's electronic device."

Subscribers to the Springsteen fanzine Backstreets will recognize many of these images from the pages of that magazine (when I wrote my first Backstreets article in 2007, one of her photos graced the cover). They will also recognize the names of the writers who wrote personal recollections for each of the book's chapters. The effect is not unlike when new issues of the magazine would arrive: pick it up out of the mailbox, devour it end to end, and put it down only after completely consuming it. Some passages particularly resonated with me. For example, Chris Rotolo, as a photojournalist: "it was well worth it when you attained that perfect angle, where the amber fluorescence of the house lighting catches a collection of dust particles wafting through the ether, casting an angelic glow about the featured artists's celebrated profile." Wow. Having shot several shows for Backstreets as a charming neanderthal myself, I can testify to that experience. In Focus captures it, many times.

November 21, 1999: Albany, NY
To me, the book is at its best when capturing events that eluded most of us who moved away from New Jersey: appearances at Asbury Park's Stone Pony, a tribute concert at Carnegie Hall, the scene on the beach when Springsteen made an appearance for The Today Show. As fans, we get to experience these moments vicariously through Rothenberg's lens. We get to see the joy that Springsteen brought to his performances, including several pictures in which he was obviously having fun with the camera. Rothenberg also treats us to pictures that help set the scene: the stage, the people in the audience, the other artists with whom Bruce shared a stage. "My style," she says, "is to incorporate the energy of the performer. If they're smiling, I want to capture that. Bruce has got that big grin, he's having such a great time!"

In Focus is also notable in that, unlike so many other books about Springsteen, it is accurate. It doesn't go overboard on the details, but when it lists a song or a date or a place, it is correct. Ms. Rothenberg told me, "I didn't want another book telling the history of Bruce, where he was born, etc. I wanted it to be more like a tribute and stories from the journals and notes I kept." I suspect the book's most notable error was confusing West Orange for South Orange in the introduction, and I'm going to guess that even the readers from West Orange won't care. Careful readers will also notice that 3 tours from the past 3 decades -- including 2 acoustic tours -- are not included in the book. "When I got to the 20 year mark (of shooting Bruce), I thought I was done but then a few magazines would call me to shoot him so then I said I will go to 25. It kept going."

In Focus is available from amazon.com and other retailers. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of In Focus will be donated to: Alzheimer's Association, Parkinson's Research, and Breast Cancer Research.

note -- this post originally appeared in New York Irish Arts

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Turkey and Latkes

Hanukkiah on the Thanksgiving table!
Right next to the... mashed potatoes!
Did we?

No.

I wanted to. What better than to replace yams -- I don't like yams, anyway -- with good old fashioned latkes?

But this was an over-the-river-and-through-the-snow year, and grandma was already making the yams and mashed potatoes. Who could argue? The mashed potatoes were really good.

Much has been written about the coincidence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah this year. It has been given the lame name Thanksgivukkah (what did they call it when Hanukkah coincided with Black Friday, just 11 years ago? Shopukah?). Some sites have proclaimed that it has never happened before won't happen again until the year 79811, due to how the two calendars work. That's not quite true, as an excellent recap by the calendar-heads at Chabad shows.

Mostly, it was cool to have a menorah on the Thanksgiving table, and to give out gelt after the pies.

As for the latkes, we stopped off at friends in Cleveland the night before Thanksgiving, to indulge.
Then we had some more the day after Thanksgiving. With leftover turkey.

The next time Thanksgiving and Hanukkah coincide will be in 2070.
If I'm around, I'm having a latke.