Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

Filtering by Tag: Bruce Springsteen

Springsteen on Broadway

You gotta hand it to Bruce Springsteen.  The guy can compose a great tune, his stage performances are unparalleled, his autobiography is one of the best I’ve read by a musician, and now he’s completed a sort of companion piece with his autobiographic Broadway stage show, no small feat for this aging rocker.  I looked forward to checking out the Springsteen on Broadway release on Netflix a few weeks ago, and while I enjoyed aspects of it, I’m thankful I didn’t shell out $500 to see it in person, and it’s unlikely that I’ll view it again.

Pulling off a two and a half hour stage show with extensive narration is impressive, and the sheer volume of prose Springsteen had to memorize and deliver with conviction is to me no less admirable than, say, the one-man show on Hemingway that I saw Stacy Keach perform last summer at the Goodman Theater in Chicago.  I couldn’t tell by watching the film whether or not Springsteen used a teleprompter, but it wasn’t apparent, and aside from some initial narration that seemed a bit canned and rehearsed, he does a fine job of delivering the material as if for the first time.

It’s the first hour or so of the show that’s particularly hard to watch for me, and I found myself ready to press fast forward through some of the moments that felt routine and self-serving, as of course an autobiographical show must be.  It takes a tremendous ego to think people want to hear your story, but it takes skill to mask that ego enough to appear relatable, and there are times when Springsteen fails at this tightrope act.  Fortunately things begin to turn about mid-way through the show, as if the Boss needed a little time to gain his footing and truly immerse himself in the material, and I found his soliloquies on Vietnam, his father and mother, and the current political climate to be the strongest parts of the show.

His narration would hardly be a matter of critique if Springsteen’s musical performances – there are something like sixteen songs in all – provided their usual redemptive force, but absent the E Street Band, Springsteen’s pedestrian musicianship is glaringly obvious.  Bruce is not an accomplished guitar player, even less so as a pianist, and it’s woefully apparent throughout the show, as his three-chord songs provide no variation or upward lift in the hands of a limited instrumentalist.  Like Melissa Etheridge who I saw perform in Waukegan last month, Springsteen is a great songwriter and gifted lyricist whose music is bolstered by the skills of surrounding musicians, but alone is a strum and hum performer with a limited musical palette.  The Boss also sabotages his own works by reinventing the melodies in uninspiring ways, pausing and slowing things down at times when the song requires lift and momentum, and insisting on singing in his faux-western voice that he’s grown accustomed to using during the past decade and a half or so, summoning his inner Arlo Guthrie that some may find endearing and heartfelt, but I find to be as artificial as his blue-collar lyrics, which he refreshingly admits early in his show, “I made it all up.  That’s how good I am.”

Three songs do rise to the occasion: his stripped-down, dour take of ”Born in the U.S.A.” and the two songs performed with wife Patti Scialfa: “Tougher than the Rest” and “Brilliant Disguise.”  Having a partner to harmonize with and – perhaps more importantly – to play off of, is exactly what the show needs.  Springsteen has made a career out of interacting with his fellow musicians – the joy and sweat shared between his comrades on stages is half the fun of watching him perform – and it’s lacking for most of this Broadway show. 

Still, I can’t think of many artists who could pull off a relatively sincere theatrical show for 236 performances, sell the hell out of it, and still have demand to showcase it on Netflix.  I’m glad it exists, and it isn’t a bad legacy for the old man to leave behind – that of a great storyteller with love for his country and its people, and concern for its future.  I wish there were more artists – and hell, more people  - like the Boss.  Check out the entire show on demand on Netlfix.

Alpine Valley Concert Memories

It happens to all venues eventually, I know, but this time it kind of hits home: for the first time since its 1977 inception, Alpine Valley won’t host any concerts this summer, and it may be in jeopardy of closing permanently. Tucked in rolling hills of southern Wisconsin, Alpine Valley is a spectacular site for a large concert, but it’s miles from nowhere and has fallen victim to the likes of Wrigley Field and Soldier Field, two Chicago venues that are hosting more concerts than in the past.

Nonetheless, Alpine Valley remains an integral part of my memory’s concert vault. It's the venue where I experienced the inimitable thrill of witnessing not just a show, but an Event, larger than life and at times life-affirming. I attended eleven shows during those hot, summer nights of my youth:

1983 Supertramp
1984 Bruce Springsteen
1984 Rod Stewart
1984 Elton John
1985 Tom Petty with Til Tuesday
1987 Tom Petty with Del Fuegos and Georgia Satellites
1989 Elvis Costello with Cowboy Junkies, Violent Femmes and Edie Brickel and New Bohemians
1990 Rush
1990 Billy Joel
1990 Jimmy Buffett
1991 Elvis Costello with BoDeans

If I could go back on see one of these shows again, it would be the first: Supertramp’s Famous Last Words show from 1983, the last tour with Rodger Hodgson. I may have enjoyed Springsteen and Stewart and Petty and the rest, but I lived for Supertramp. They spoke directly to me and my brooding teenager sensibilities. Hodgson sang about living a meaningful life in a world that didn’t understand you, and regardless of what Rick Davies sang about, he did so with cynicism and anger. I identified with both. I memorized their lyrics, labored over their piano patterns, and studied their albums' liner notes and intricate cover art. At their Alpine Valley concert, the opening segment on the movie screen of a tightrope walker about to fall to his doom as Bob Seibenberg attacked his kick drum prior to the opening of "Crazy" was the perfect introduction to my amphitheater concert-going experience.

The biggest show for me by far was Springsteen’s 1984 performance, the first of two nights. (The second night can be streamed on youtube, but I sure do wish the first show was available.) Bruce was just about to hit his peek, “Dancing in the Dark” was on just about every frequency along the radio dial, his voice was forceful and confident as opposed to the twang he’s adopted over the past couple of years, and when the first booming note of “Born in the USA” kicked off the show, the rumbling cacophony of 25,000 fans filled my gut with a palpable thrill. I’m not sure I’ve equaled that level of excitement at any concert I’ve attended since.

That same summer, Elton John toured his last decent album (IMO), Breaking Hearts, and sped through a cocaine-induced set that I enjoyed at the time, but in hindsight was probably really mediocre. I’ve listened to recordings of that tour, and they suffer from the constant drone of a synthesizer mimicking strings and other sounds from the studio recordings. They also suffer because Elton was a performer who was tired of performing, so much so that this was supposed to be his final tour. Har har. On a brighter note, I may have witnessed the last Elton John tour during which he was able to belt out the high notes in all their falsetto glory. Elton likes the way his voice sounds now compared to his younger years, but to me, give me Elton pre-1985. Among the purest and most flexible voices I’ve ever heard, and hearing him sing "One More Arrow" was worth the price of admission.

Rod Stewart and Jeff Beck may have started off the Camouflage tour together, but by the time Steward came to East Troy, Beck had had enough and was likely happily sipping a martini in England without his pain-in-the-ass colleague. A terrific replacement was recruited, and at the Alpine Valley show an audience member proudly displayed a home-made sign that read, “Jeff who?” In front of my brother and me was a gorgeous blonde who was taking photos of the show and who promised to send us some prints. She never did.

It was on my return trip from Tom Petty’s Southern Accents show in 1985 – a tour that sported a regrettable giant Confederate flag as a stage backdrop, and an almost equally regrettable horn section – that I received an East Troy welcome in the form of a speeding ticket, as I was going a whopping 67mph in a 55mph section of highway (it’s now 65). I wasn’t the only one. It was Wisconsin's favorite way to thank visitors for spending money at the local venue. My buddy Jim did his best to support my case with the officer, but a ticket was issued before the cop even put his car in drive.

That same day a fellow fan in the parking lot heard me ruminating over my wish for a classic Yes reunion by mentioning their epic track, “Gates of Delirium,” and he yelled “YES,” kneeled down on the ground in front of me and echoed my feelings, after which we spent five minutes discussing all the great songs we’d like to hear a reunited band perform. The shirtless man had cut his knee on a piece of broken glass when reacting to my plea, and said, “It was worth it.  We’re like Yes blood-brothers.” 

Lou Reed was to open up for Elvis Costello in 1989, but he cancelled and was replaced by The Violent Femmes, though the Cowboy Junkies paid tribute with their rendition of “Sweet Jane.” It was also during this show that my buddy Todd looked to his friends from England as Elvis sang a spectacularly subtle performance for such a large venue of “Tramp the Dirt Down,” during which he spouted the venomous lyrics:

When England was the whore of the world, Margaret was her madam

During the Jimmy Buffet show in 1990, the old folks yelled at my gaggle of college pukes to sit the hell down. At the Billy Joel show that same year, he bragged about getting to sleep with Christie Brinkley. And you know what? Even decades after their divorce, he’s still entitled to brag about that one!

Just two weeks later, Stevie Ray Vaughan and four others died in a helicopter accident as it was leaving the venue.

Elvis capped off my Alpine Valley experience in 1991, promoting an album that had no business at such a large venue, and the driving riff of “Pump it Up” was the last sound I’d ever hear in the lush, green hills of East Troy, Wisconsin. There are concerts I probably should have gone to since then (Radiohead comes to mind) but life gets complicated, bands become repetitious, and now if I really need to see a concert at a big venue, Miller Park and Wrigley Field are a-callin’. Live Nation claims they will book shows for at Alpine Valley in 2018, but I have a hunch we may have seen the last concert at East Troy. 

And I have to wonder, how the heck are Wisconsin's finest going to reach their ticket quota absent concerts at Alpine Valley?

Springsteen's Autobiography

At various points while reading Bruce Springsteen’s recently published autobiography, Born to Run, I wanted to tell The Boss to relax. It’s only rock and roll.

Not to Springsteen. Rock and roll isn’t just his career – it’s his passion, his religion and path to salvation and redemption. When it comes to his music, he analyzes, he ruminates, he wrestles with, he composes and discards and rewrites and exerts energy that would exhaust a normal human being. Springsteen’s commitment to his music is inexhaustible, his drive indefatigable, his work ethic bordering on the obsessive, and he fully admits in his 500+ page book that his musical pursuits kept him from living a life for much of his first four decades. For Springsteen, his blessing is also a curse.

Not so for his fans, who now get to enjoy a book that benefits from the same commitment Springsteen applies to his music. There are two things about this book that make it stand out from among so many other musician biographies: first, the guy can write. No ghost writer required for this biopic. Springsteen effectively changes tenses, alternates between story and insight, offers a fairly chronological account of his life while still assembling topical chapters and is just self-deprecating enough to keep the reader rooting for him. (e.g., “I know I’m good but I’m also a poser. That’s artistic balance!”)

Second, Springsteen is an extremely curious person, eager to analyze his past, his surroundings, his parents, his bandmates, his storytelling, what music means to our society, etc., and as such opens up much more than many other musicians are willing to while never falling into the tell-all abyss. He doesn’t shy away from confrontations and weaknesses, but he’s also careful not to say too much. His well-known grievances with manager Mike Appel are mentioned but not dwelled upon, his at-times difficult relationship with Steve Van Zandt and Danny Federici are addressed without going into detail, and his first marriage’s demise is handled deftly and respectably.

Unlike, say, Keith Richard’s entertaining but shallow Life, or Elvis Costello’s coy, self-indulgent and muddled Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, Born to Run is both an exercise in good writing and in reflection. Consider the following description of how a snowstorm can make you feel. Where others might have simply said, “I love a good snow,” Springsteen writes:

No work, no school, the world shutting its big mouth for a while; the dirtiest streets covered over in virgin whites, like all the missteps you’ve taken have been erased by nature.  You can’t run; you can only sit.  You open your door on a trackless world, your old path, your history, momentarily covered over by a landscape of forgiveness, a place where something new might happen.  It’s an illusion but it can stimulate the regenerative parts of your spirit to make good on God and nature’s suggestion.

Nicely done. Yes, there are times when Springsteen’s ruminations get a tad tiresome, but I’ll take a book with too much reflection than too little any day. And while much of his book is about his troubled relationship with his father and Bruce’s own path to overcome some of the traits he inherited (including a forthright revelation about his own mental illness), the book is a fairly effective balance between Springsteen’s music and his personal life. I would have preferred a few more anecdotes about recording and performing. I imagine he could devote an entire book to such an endeavor, and perhaps one day he will, but as a musician I’m often confounded with how little musicians write about…well, MUSIC. 

Oddly absent are any mention of Springsteen’s 1991 releases, Human Touch and Lucky Town.  Every other album is discussed in some detail, but for reasons unknown, he doesn’t even mention the album titles or the process of composing or recording for them. He does reveal how disappointed he was that 2011’s Wrecking Ball album didn’t reach the audience he’d hoped for, and concludes that “In the States, the power of rock music as a vehicle for [political] ideas had diminished.” That may be true, but probably more important was the fact that Wrecking Ball, as I’ve written before, was a bore. Bruce’s writing simply hasn’t progressed that way it has for, say, Paul Simon, Jackson Browne or Joe Jackson.

One high point of the book is a short chapter devoted to his performance at the 2009 Super Bowl, an event that makes even Springsteen nervous. “It’s not the usual preshow jitters or ‘butterflies’ I’ve had before. I’m talking about ‘five minutes to beach landing,’ Right Stuff, ‘Lord, don’t let me screw the pooch in front of a hundred million people’ kind of semiterror.” This chapter more than any other helps us see performing through Bruce’s eyes.

He writes, “It was a high point, a marker of some sort, and went up with the biggest shows of our work life. The NFL threw us an anniversary party the likes of which we’d never have thrown for ourselves.” The show was only two weeks after President Obama’s first inaugural address. The feelings of excitement, of rebirth and celebration were in the air. It’s hard to imagine this type of feeling emanating from any performer these days. Lady Gaga did a fine job last night at Super Bowl LI, but times look bleak, our capacity for celebration diminished.

In, 2009, Springsteen ended his Super Bowl performance with "Glory Days.”

Glory days, indeed.

Rock and Roll Count Ins

For as long as tempo has mattered, musicians have needed some sort of count in (sometimes called a count off) to begin a piece of music.  But whereas in classical music tempo is typically communicated visually and silently by the conductor, rock and roll music has embraced a tradition of audible count-ins, even including them in the final product of a studio recording.  Often these serve mainly as a way to get the band starting in unison, but sometimes a count in can heighten the energy and increase the tension for the ensuing climax (my favorite example: Springsteen’s count in before the final verse of “Born to Run”).

There are undoubtedly hundreds of examples to choose from, but below I’ve created an audio montage of twenty-seven verbal count ins, some obvious, some not so obvious. I’m afraid my examples lean heavily toward my white, suburban, middle-class upbringing, but I’d love to hear your favorite count ins.  See how many of these you can get, and send your examples to me so I can include them in an extended count in montage sometime down the road.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved