Thursday, April 27, 2006

Bruce Springsteen: Let Him Be

4/20/06: The Boss and wife Patty Sciaffa with the Seeger Sessions Band

Music critics can be a catty lot, so I shouldn't be all that surprised that Bruce Springsteen’s superb new Pete Seeger tribute album, “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions,” is getting mixed reviews.

It’s not that some critics don’t like Springsteen or Seeger. They just don’t like Springsteen doing Seeger. Some of these critics are obviously stuck in the skip. For them it will always be 1975, when Springsteen was singing “Thunder Road” and first regaling his fans with tales of the Jersey shore and growing up blue collar.

Other critics just don’t embrace anything by The Boss that doesn’t have E Street Band written all over it, while still others find “We Shall Overcome” too dark. (These chuckleheads said the same thing about “Nebraska,” a 1990 Springsteen acoustic album that was his first big break with his musical past and just gets better with age.)

Well, I sometimes wish it was 1975, too. Because then I could revel in the fact that I still had hair . . .

Uh, wait a minute. That’s not the point I wanted to make. . .

If it was 1975, I could revel in practically being able to reach out and touch Springsteen on the stage at the Stone Balloon, a small club in
Newark, Delaware, where I saw him early on his road to the big time and the cavernous ice arenas and outdoor stadiums where he played later on.

But it isn't 1975 and won't ever be again. Besides which, as a music lover I have stayed true to a deal I made with musicians a long time ago:

I might not like all of the music play, but I absolutely support your right to play it.

* * * * *

Joni Mitchell’s seminal “Mingus” album (1979) is among the most pungent instances of an artist’s most ardent fans (and fawning critics) turning on them.

Looking back on the long arc of Mitchell’s career as a singer-songwriter, it should have come as no surprise when she moved on from her flower power roots. Joni had way to much going for her to be stuck in that groove.

The only surprise was that it was to embrace the hard bopping repertoire of Charles Mingus, the great jazz bassist and composer. The result was "Mingus," with Mitchell singing over and a great ensemble playing under great adaptations of the great man’s great music.

I was rapt by Mitchell's transformation not least because I had the hots for her at the time. There also was a big bonus: The anchor of her band was a brash young latter day Mingus by the name of Jaco Pastorius. I had never heard anyone who played the electric bass like him. No one has since.

One of my roommates at the time was beside herself over what she termed Joni’s "big sellout.”

I suggested that my roomate get a life. I added that Joni obviously had one.

* * * * *

Two other examples of the sickening thud of listeners’ expectations colliding with an artist’s creative drive come to mind:

Bob Marley making room in his repertoire of Rastafarian anthems for love songs with “Kaya” (1978), which drove a Rolling Stone reviewer to near apoplexy. (“How dare he betray his roots?”)

Why couldn't we allow the man who sang about shooting the sheriff ("but I didn't shoot no deputy, oh no") to take some time off from the revolution? ("I wanna love you and treat you right; I wanna love you every day and every night.")

"Kaya" confirmed for me that this great artist – after Louis Armstrong perhaps the second truly international music star in that he also was hgely popular in Africa – was no one-trick pony.

Then there was:

The Grateful Dead going disco with “Shakedown Street” (also 1978), a departure that had hard core Dead Heads sobbing into their tie-dyed t-shirts. Bad acid, man!

I loved "Shakedown." It confirmed that disco wasn't all that awful; the problem was with its usual practitioners. The disco beat took Jerry Garcia and his guitar into new territory, which included some incredible wah-wah work. And the Dead always were much better in concert than in the studio, and this was indeed the case when they took "Shakedown" out on tour.

* * * * *

So what was the first time that I heard that sickening thud?

Bob Dylan going electric.

The guy who lived across the hall from me in my freshman year of college was an upperclassman by the name of Jack who was a fiercely unreconstructed folkie: Peter, Paul and Mary, Odetta, Ian and Sylvia, Joan Baez, Gordon Lightfoot and, yup, Pete Seeger. But most of all Dylan.

Jack came back from summer vacation with the news that Dylan had horrified he and the other faithful at the Newport Jazz Festival by playing amplified music.

“What’s wrong with that,” I asked.

“It’s not folk music,” Jack stormed.

Jack also needed to get a life.

Me? I rushed uptown to pick up Dylan’s “Bringing It All Back Home,” his first electric album.
It has long been a favorite. Matter of fact, I played it just the other day.

1 comment:

samrocha said...

insofar as this post deals with Springsteen specifically, I have zero credibility - but as far as musicality goes I think you raise a very good and valid point.

In the pop industry once something works (i.a. sells millions) you are "bound" by one's own sucess - in fact even if your sucess is mild - one someone can appreciate something you do musically you are also eternally bound to that genre, that style...

The nature of music is the fabric of our humanity, and therefore ought never to be stagnant or in a vaccum - the dynamism and fluid nature of musical art must change, or its beauty is tarnished...

(in my humble opinion)