Tuesday, March 06, 2012

A touch of class

There are some artists who will forever be associated with a certain geography, no matter where they end up. The Eagles will be forever southern California, largely because they were formed in Los Angeles, they all had beards, and their most famous hit was called Hotel California. Similarly, Liverpool and The Beatles will always be intertwined (even though they were all living in Surrey within three years of Love Me Do becoming a hit) while Manchester and New Order, the Stone Roses and Oasis are virtually interchangeable.

London also has its associated haunts: think Muswell Hill and The Kinks; Camden Town and Madness; Barking's very own 'Big Nosed Bard', Billy Bragg; Basildon and Depeche Mode; and without The Clash, Notting Hill would just be a West London neighborhood populated by people called Tristram who speak in a cod-patois and whose families own Lincolnshire.

People have made locational misassociations, too: Steely Dan were often considered the archetype West Coast group, even though songs like Hey Nineteen and Show Biz Kids - which had a Californian groove and were about LA themes - were written in New York's celebrated Brill Building.

Other locales go without association: Ripley is a post card-charming, sleepy English village in the county of Surrey. It bears little resemblance to the steaming cotton fields of Tennessee and Mississippi, and yet it is where the young Eric Clapton taught himself the blues of the American South, learning and ingraining himself in its poverty and woe. Ironically Paul Weller - who hates being compared to Clapton (and I mean, really hates being compared) has his recording studio in Ripley, a short drive away from the town of Woking where he grew up, absorbing all that it meant to be a working class mod in the 60s and early 70s.

Even so, you'd be hard pressed to associate either Clapton or Weller with a discernible 'Surrey sound'. Likewise, you'd struggle to see either as badge-wearing representatives of the English working class. Both would argue that class is how you carry yourself, rather than the logo on a shirt you wear.

Bruce Springsteen, on the other hand, is seen as nothing other than a working man's man. Cut him open and you'll find performance-grade STP motor oil coursing through his veins, his flesh made from pure denim. He is the very ideal of jeans-clad, workboot-wearing, plaid-shirted man of the people. And, in particular, a son of New Jersey.

Ever since his 1973 breakthrough, Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ, Springsteen has assumed the mantle of the American everyman, a stirling representative of the industrial north-eastern seaboard of America channelling the spirit of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger through tub-thumping, rousing songs about the real America, full of real Americans living real American lives.

New Jersey, for those who've never passed through it, isn't one giant steel plant. The Garden State is, in fact, a very pretty landmass fanning north and west and south from the Atlantic, with the Jersey side of New York City in one corner, and thousands upon sprawling thousands of acres of farmland radiating outwards. To the north-west of Newark lies the real Sopranos country around Orange County and towns like Montclair, while to the south are the hilly, Rockwellesque, white picketed communities of Essex, Somerset and Monmouth counties, stretching away from the hectic metropolitan. Springsteen himself now lives in the comfortable Jersey town of Colts Neck, a farming community where much of the farmland has been turned into golf courses, but is still just over ten miles away from coastal Long Branch where he was born and grew up, along with Asbury Park where his music career began in the slightly rough-and-ready Stone Pony pub.

This is, however, what makes Springsteen, Springsteen. Americans take him to heart because he is one of them. He is, as they are prone to stating, "meat and potatoes" - 'what-you-see-is-what-you-get'. He looks like them, dresses like them, talks like them. Whereas Eric Clapton, at one point, disappeared into a variety of fashion addictions including Armani suits, Versace shirts and hairstyles that were oddly bouffant for a man of middle age, Springsteen has steadfastly remained of his roots (and I'm not still talking about hair).

He has mostly transcended the cynicism associated with Bono for coining it in while singing about the human condition. That streak of avoidance is set to continue with the release this week of Springsteen's 17th studio album, Wrecking Ball, which extends a post-9/11 reflective state that began with The Rising, the 2002 album inspired by the events observed from across the Hudson that sunny September day the year before.

Wrecking Ball is the Springsteen album for the age of Occupy, and it is no surprise that he has cited the protests as a major ingredient to the album. It opens with the rowsing We Take Care Of Our Own, an uncompromising stadium stomp which largely does what it says on the tin - sentiments such as "We take care of our own/Wherever this flag's flown" and "From Chicago to New Orleans/From the muscle to the bone/From the shotgun shack to the Superdome." It's the sort of song that will at some point in the future, I'm sure, either be the soundtrack for an American political campaign or a recruiting ad for the US Marine Corps.

Easy Money might sound like a big ol' barnyard bluegrass hoedown, but there lies a deeper anger aimed at "...all them fat cats.." still creaming it in on Wall Street while "your whole world comes tumbling down". There is the strong suggestion that on the "far shore" of the Hudson (i.e. southern Manhattan...) the song's protagonist is likely to pitch up amongst the bankers with "...a Smith & Wesson 38..." with an account to settle. The American Way.

Like Peter Gabriel's bittersweet Don't Give Up, Springsteen's Jack Of All Trades adopts the same 'I'll do anything I can to keep the wolf from my door' approach, using a slow waltz and mournful brass to mount another scathing observation that American workers have been reduced to the self-sufficiency of clearing their own gutters and repairing their own cars, overstating that "the banker man grows fat, while the working man grows thin". In its lyrical simplicity - and clear homage to Guthrie's Depression-era songs - it holds another violent reference to having a gun "and shooting the bastards on sight", which is not the most responsible advice, given the propensity with which Americans scale clock towers armed with high-powered rifles when the going gets tough.

This downtrodden theme continues with Death To My Hometown, with its Celtic pipes and drums unashamedly drawing the north-eastern blue collar vote with a tale of urban blight, followed by This Depression, a sonic boom of of a song with a David Gilmour-style pitch-pedal guitar solo, a cold edge to its sound but a sympathetic warmth to its vocal.

The highlight of Wrecking Ball is its title track: arguably the most traditional 'Springsteen' song on the album, it reminds the listener, mid-way through, that the record is deliberately painting the bigger picture of 2012 America, that here is your humble rock star, "raised outta steel here in the swamps of Jersey", and that the rest of the set is his national perspective from this north-eastern enclave. As a good Springsteen song should, it has all the hallmarks of a great concert finale - all big brass (including, significantly, the final performance on a Springsteen album by the late Clarence Clemons) and woah-woah-woah choruses, the kind that fans will be singing long into the night as they crawl out of the stadium parking garage in their SUVs.

To return to the Springsteen look for a second, he has rarely changed his appearance, or his musical tone. He may have ranged from bombastic, Spector-style stage fillers to acoustic mountain folk, but the range of variation has never been shocking. There have been the occasional moments of pop, such as Dancing In the Dark (with that embarassing video featuring The Boss, sans-guitar and dressed as if a stylist attacked him a dark alley, plucking a rather gauche pre-Friends Courtney Cox from the audience to 'groove' into the evening with her).

The title track marks a turning point in the album, as if marking an intentional interval before things take what sounds like an experimental turn. Rocky Ground opens with samples and a drum machine before opening up into a feel-good slice of Gospel. Unfortunately it feels less satisfying, sounding more like a high school stage production that has pursuaded Bruce Springsteen to phone in a few lines.

Land Of Hope And Dream returns to something more Bruce-like, big drums and big theatre (and an undercurrent of Curtis Mayfield's People Get Ready), before We Are Alive blows dust off the Great American Songbook with a campfire singalong from somewhere along the frontier trail, borrowing, I suspect, from Johnny Cash's Ring Of Fire as well as a pinch of Marriachi. All very rootsy.

I've always been amazed by the ignorance with people have misappropriated Springsteen's Born In The USA as flag-waving patriotic bombast when anyone with half a brain would know that it was about the toxicity with which soldiers felt on returning to their homeland from Vietnam. It's unlikely that Springsteen sought to redress this with American Land, the closing track of Wrecking Ball, but I'm sure it will do the job nicely. It springs about to an Irish jig, capturing the spirit of Gangs Of New York and the New World hope of Ellis Island and what a jolly old place it is with "diamonds in the sidewalk, the gutter's lined in song/Dear, I hear that beer flows through the faucets all night long". It may not knock The Pogues' Fairytale Of New York off the shamrock charts, but with St. Paddy's night coming up in a couple of weeks, it would certainly make the Guinness flow with just a little more swing than The Best of Enya.

Odd, then, that this treatise of a Bruce Springsteen album should end up in almost cartoon "Begorrah, begorrah!" territory. Springsteen has Irish blood in him, along with the Dutch of his father's name and a mix of Italian from his mother, These are qualifications that, from one side of the American Dream, cast him as an American thoroughbred, with more right than any to look upon his country with a mixture or pride and disdain.

There are, then, many symbols of America, the country which invented branding. You could say that the White House, the New York skyline, Mount Rushmoor, the Lincoln Memorial, the beaches of LA, the deserts of Arizona, the art deco of South Beach, the steel factories of Pittsburgh - I could go on - all symbolise perfectly what America is about.

But at its simplest, Bruce Springsteen is America. America is Bruce Springsteen. Meat and potatoes. A denim-clad toiler, pumping away at a blond Fender Esquire, singing "There's treasure there for the taking, for any hard working man, who will make his home in the American Land."

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