Tuesday, January 01, 2008

100 Greats in 100 Days" #068: Bruce Springsteen, Darkness at the Edge of Town

My brother-in-music Steve once articulated for me a thumbnail rule I’ve used myself to assess the quality of certain humans’ interactional behavior. I called it the “barroom test”; he called it the “jobsite test”—really we were talking about the same thing. He was speaking specifically of the way that some anonymous tough-guys behave on the world wide web, when the possibility of any meat-space repercussions for their behavior is remote.

Whether it be the 101st Fighting Keyboardists who think that poor kids “should fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here,” or Dick Cheney with his “other priorities,” or every other cowardly suit who’ll send poor boys to fight rich men’s wars—or even just gutless punks overseas who’ll say threatening things because there are 4000 miles and an ocean between, Steve observed, “Well, I just used to always apply the “job-site” test: I figure, if somebody in a conversation says something that, on a job-site, would get them a pipe wrench upside the head, then I pretty much figure that person’s a windbag and I don’t have to take them seriously anymore.” It’s a piece of profound wisdom, a rule of thumb particularly useful in the rarefied world of academic politics (whose turf wars, as someone famously said, are “so ferocious simply because the stakes are so small”). Steve learned the job-site test as a journeyman plumber, I learned it as an apprentice framing carpenter; we both learned a lot from working in the trades—knowledge and insights that are simply not available if you’re never swung a hammer or hefted a pipe wrench.

In the spring of 1979 I had moved back from Chicago to the Massachusetts area (trying to shake off what I now realize was probably clinical depression) and my dad had managed to find me a job as a “carpenter’s helper” with a small independent house-building company in my home town. Carpenter’s helper is the apprenticeship analog: you carry 2x4’s, refill the nail aprons (this was long before framing carpenters ever had nail-guns or other hydraulics—the only power tool we knew or used was a circular saw with a rough-cut blade), go for coffee and cigarettes and Little Debbie snack cakes, put up with a lot of abuse about how anybody could be so stupid, and you shut up and watch and learn.

I learned how to frame a house that summer, from the concrete pad or block foundation to the roofing, insulation and sheet-rocking. And I learned some things that college didn’t, and couldn’t teach me. The crew was three guys, plus the company owner (a workaholic German immigrant whose occasional appearances on the site we hated, because he would instantly take over as foreman and make everybody work about 20 per cent speedier): myself—bottom of the food chain, shutting up and watching and learning; Brian, an Irish kid from Swampscott Mass who had been working construction since he was sixteen, but was still biding his time as he waited and took and re-took the entrance exam to try to get on the Swampscott Fire Department (a suburban FD post was a good gig for a kid who hadn’t gone to college: excellent benefits, early retirement, absent the “what the fuck might I walk into?” risk of being a big-city FD or EMT; hence the competition was fierce; I didn't know if Brian would ever get onto the SFD); and Phil, the master carpenter who was the foreman, had the chops, and ran the job site.

I cut 2x4’s, framed up studs, nailed off wall sheathing, and occasionally laid in window headers and footers (because they were doubled up, and would be covered/corrected by the window jamb, sill, and unit itself); Brian did that stuff, laid in doors (which really have to be square, but whose tolerances are pretty broad), and told me what to do on days when Phil didn’t show up in the mornings; and Phil did the hard stuff: ordered the sequence of the job, did the corners and any preliminary finish work, and—the master carpenter’s litmus test—laid out the spiral and curving staircases which were his speciality. Phil was a swarthy (probably Italian) guy of middle height, with a tanned bald head and a black goatee, and he’d drink at least one and sometimes two 1-quart “40s” of Miller beer every lunchtime; I realize-now, belatedly, that he was probably a “maintaining” alcoholic. Phil's entire vocabulary for describing various degrees of measurement precision depended upon references to the female anatomy, but by God he was a craftsman, though—never needed a blueprint, seldom drew out a sketch, measured-and-cut casually and as if his mind was on other things. And his staircases—stringers, risers, treads, nosing, and winders—were beautiful and true.Among other things, we built six duplexes in 8 weeks that summer; they weren’t great construction (4-inch insulation, fibreboard sheathing, 2 or 3 grade studs), but still, 28 years ago, were better than structures costing 4 times as much now, when you can’t even get an 8-foot 2x4 of decent pine because deforestation is so much further advanced. And they’re still standing, and I can still drive by them on my annual visits to my home town, and look at them, and say “I made those. People are warm and dry because of something I built with my hands, 3 decades ago.”

I learned to build houses that summer, and began to make friends with the tough-minded, foul-mouthed resilience of people who know they can make a living with their hands. I also learned how to pass the time: I’d become a serious LP fan and collector 2 years before, while at the New School in Manhattan, and certain LP’s had been essential in getting me through the New School and my (abortive) year at Chicago: I’d come home from class in the afternoon, and put on Born to Run or Live at Fillmore East or Songs from the Wood or Never Mind the Bollocks or Le sacred du printemps (Monteux) very loud, and sing along to the discs while I did homework. It not only helped me cope with the very considerable stress of NY, and the depression I’d experienced in Chicago, but it had also, I now realize, been my first intensive training in phonographic listening, and it served me in good stead working in the West Texas oilfields and, later, the Massachusetts job sites (and, still later, in the restaurant kitchens and behind the bookstore counters).

I learned to come on the job site in the morning (we’d work 7am ‘til 4pm, to maximize the light—and that summer is also when I learned to get up at 4 and practice before I went off to work, because after a day on the job-site and a hot shower, I could practice about 20 minutes before nodding off), fill up my apron with the 10d nails that are the framer’s basic arsenal (and I still, 27 years later, have the framing hammer that I inherited from my father and used throughout that jobsite year), clamber up onto the foundation or up a ladder to the second floor’s sub-flooring, lay out and snap off the chalk lines for the walls we were working on. In “stick construction” you build the wall frames out of 2x4’s laid flat on the foundation—you can even snap the chalk lines on the subflooring, to make sure you’ve got the angles and dimensions of the studs right—then tie together the headers, footers, studs, and cross-braces, nail on the exterior sheathing for rigidity, and only then raise the wall. I’d get up there, tighten the double-weight laces of my “punkin boots” (steel-toed leather construction boots, which I still own and wear when I’m doing construction), and then I would start singing in my head.

This was long before the days of the iPod, or before that the CD or cassette Walkman. Phil would sometimes bring along a boom-box to listen to baseball games or to contemporary rock stuff, but mostly it was just the three of us, not talking very much (when you’ve worked together long enough to make a competent framing crew, you don’t need very many people—three is the right number for a 4-story townhouse—and you barely need to talk anymore), and move through the shit.

So I would sing. In my mind, I’d put the needle down on the first band of the first LP side, and I’d sing the instrumental introduction, and then the first solos, or the first verse, and then the first chorus, and then the bridge. All the way through the record. I got to where I knew those records so well that I could anticipate the clicks and pops and scratches of that generation’s vinyl technology (I could even anticipate, in my mind’s ear, when the repetitive skips on some of my favorites would come up, and mentally bump the needle over one or two grooves to minimize the repetitions).

Bruce Springsteen had released his towering Darkness on the Edge of Town in ‘78, the spring I was at the New School, following belatedly on the heels of his Born to Run, which in 1975 had put him on the covers of both Time and Newsweek, invoked the infamous “I have seen the future of rock & roll, and its name is Bruce Springsteen” from Dave Marsh, and extended the legendary idolatry which Jersey Shore hipsters had held for him, first to New Yawk and the Eastern Seaboard, and then across the country. That 75 disc, good though it was, with its sprawling, epic, Phil Specterian and Van Morrisonian pastiches and echoes, probably was doomed to a critical backlash as a result, and it’s no wonder to me that Brooce took 3 years for a followup—how could you do Born to Run II?

So he didn’t: he made a record whose brevity, crunching hard-rock sound, screeching guitar solos, howling vocals, and raging, dark topic matter was BTR’s antithesis—BTR’s dark and bitter older brother, turned squinting and silent by betrayal and disappointment.

Badlands” opens the disc on a familiar note, one of Bruce’s dependable anthems, whose text, imagery and block-chording piano from Roy Bittan are pretty much a throwback to the gilt-edged approach that had worked so well on Born to Run. But even here, on the track laid out as the reassuring opener for fans of the earlier disc, there are hints of new sounds, most notably in the roaring guitar entrances and traded-fours with Clarence Clemons’ booting tenor sax, which had been the most distinctive solo voice on Run. This is one of those songs that works much better in concert, where Little Steven Van Zandt’s howling Jersey-guy vocals also make for some great visual choreography. And it does have one of Bruce’s great lines, one that captures the guys on the corner and the jobsite: “I want to spit in the face of these badlands.”

The disc turns darker quickly, in the second track, “Adam Raised a Cain,” which inhabits something of the same doomed, raging, Old-Testamentary terrain as Steinbeck’s masterpiece East of Eden. It’s an intention that Springsteen acknowledges, in a song he calls “emotionally autobiographical” and which, in its assignment of blame not to the vengeful elder brother but to the neglectful father who sowed the seeds of that anger, and it captures in four verses and a towering guitar solo the cyclic tragedy of the stories told in the titanic contemporaneous noir films like Taxi Driver or Mean Streets of the ‘70s (the greatest decade ever in American film). It also has one of the great rock guitar solos of the decade, which takes off from a Jeff Beck lick into a sonic portrait of rage and loss. Of course it’s melodramatic—Bruce’s entire oeuvre, even when he’s singing “Tom Joad” or “Nebraska”, is melodramatic: because, when you’re getting physically beaten into the ground on a daily basis for the sake of seven dollars an hour and (maybe) workers’ compensation, you tend to see your life in pretty broad strokes of rage and loss, good and evil, Saturday night and Monday morning. Of course the rock critics (many of them) hated him—because if you haven’t worked 40 hours of hard physical labor for a lot more months than you planned, you don’t fucking know how soul-killing it can be.

Bruce, whose daddy was a bus driver, fucking does.

“Adam” was one of my favorites, but, honestly, I loved “Candy’s Room” the best of all. Probably, I know realize, mostly because of its beautiful and unusual orchestration: opening with Bruce’s mumbled monotone, over Roy Bittan’s hammering octave lines, and Max Weinberg martial doubletimed 16th note high-hats—and then suddenly cuts off, for a screaming stop-time guitar riff—maybe the first rock guitar lick I ever learned.

The beautiful, mournful gospel piano of “Racing in the Street”—a song that three years before Bruce would have made another anthem, but which here is almost a lied: an elegy to one’s own adolescence, which opens in media res like a traditional ballad:

I got a ‘69 Chevy with a 396
Dually heads and a Hearst on the floor
She’s waitin’ for me out in the parkin’ lot
Outside the Seven-Eleven store

“Promised Land” is another that seems like it could have come off Run, complete with heroic text and doo-wop vocals, driven by Bittan’s percussive piano and Danny Federici’s skirling organ. It clearly takes off from the anthems of the Rascals (another bunch of Italian boys from Jersey), and Sprinsteen’s cornerstone influence Phil Specter.

Way back in the ‘70s, when this record first came out, somebody (maybe Dave Marsh, again), talked about the new sounds on the disc, particularly in the “wailing and humming” verbal glossolalia that opens “Streets of Fire” and closes “Candy’s Room”. It’s as if what Bruce has to say is too deep, too painful, even to put into words. And, it’s 1978, and he’d just written and recorded “Because the Night” (one of Dharmonia’s favorite songs ever) with the great Patti Smith. And the guitar solo that closes “Streets of Fire,” that takes over from the vocal glossolalia that opens the track, sounds like he’s flaying the skin off his fingers as he plays.

At least the disc isn’t unremittingly dark: there’s the playful erotic metaphor of “Prove It All Night (for your Love),” which boasts Little Steven’s great howling harmony vocals (Stevie’s presence as co-vocalist usually lightens Bruce up and improves the comedic quotient), one of Clarence’s great honking tenor solos (every one of which sounds like it comes off a 1949 Illinois Jacquet jukebox hit), and a wonderful Bruce guitar solo—this record, throughout, feels like Bruce decided “fuck the big orchestral arrangements, let’s just fuckin’ play”—incredibly inspiring for someone who was trying to find his way, belatedly, into rock guitar playing.

I saw Bruce in that New York winter of ‘77. I had never been to a big rock show, but by God that was a good way to start. It was epic, it was 4 hours long, it roared through every one of the great rock touchstones (from Ray Charles to the Kinks to Van Morrison to the Stones to the Rascals to Little Richard to Born to Run), and at the climax of the show, Bruce told a long, two-part shaggy-dog story as the introduction to “Growin’ Up”, over the beautiful filigree of Roy’s Alberti-bass piano; “I was goin’ to this Catholic school [crowd screams] and I got sent home for pissin’ in my desk [laughter] and the nuns told my parents I needed psychiatric attention.” It’s a mock epic, all about a crisis of confidence around the family kitchen table—where all Italian-American domestic tragedies focus—and Bruce is sent off to see Father Ray. The audience is laughing hysterically, and Bruce goes to Clarence, and Clarence says “we gotta go see God”, but first they have to go to Earl Scheib to get Bruce’s mom’s Rambler repainted, and they drive out to a “dark hill next to the cemetery”, and they go out into the field to ask about “Clarence’s Nakamichi and what am I gonna do with my life?” And there’s thunder, and lightning, and then I just heard three words: LET IT ROCK!

And they crashed into the closing verses:

I stood stone-like at midnight, suspended in my masquerade
I combed my hair till it was just right and commanded the night brigade
I was open to pain and crossed by the rain and I walked on a crooked crutch
I strolled all alone through a fallout zone and come out with my soul untouched
I hid in the clouded wrath of the crowd, but when they said, "Sit down," I stood up
Ooh... growin' up

"When they said 'Sit down' I stood up."

I don't know of another line in rock 'n' roll that so perfectly captures both the defiance and the hope-for-escape that that music represented to me and the guys I worked with. It was the greatest rock ‘n’ roll show I’d ever seen, and it helped me understand why the guys I worked with, the guys on the jobsite who’d show you how to make a living with your hands, lived and died with BROOOCE’s music. Because he was theirs—he spoke for them. At the end of a soul-killing week of cooking burgers, or framing houses, or cleaning oil-field mechanics, or sacking groceries, or (if you were lucky) data-processing or (if you were unlucky) collecting unemployment—all of which I’ve done—on a Saturday night you just want to go out, drink a bunch of beer, and dance to a rock ‘n’ roll band, and hope that next week is a little better. Bruce knew it then, and, 30 years later, he still does. He’s still ours.

The disc ends with the title track, one of his first grown-up elegies: not for the lost adolescence mourned in “Jungleland” or “Thunder Road” or some of the other teen epics of Born to Run, but for the scarred, calloused toughness that lets some of us carry onward into adulthood’s heartbreak:

Well they’re still racin’ out on the trestles
But that blood it never burned in her veins
Now I hear she’s got a house up in Fairview
And a style she’s tryin’ to maintain

There’s an infallible litmus test for the blue-collar guys’ understanding of Springsteen: they call him “Bruce” because they know that he is like them—that he would drink the same beer they did, that his daddy was a bus driver like theirs were truck drivers and worked factory lines and did heating-and-cooling, or plumbing. Or worked framing houses.

I left that job around November, when Brian finally got on the Swampscott FD, and we had schlepped from Beverly to Chelsea to Charlestown on various sites, and Phil was laid up with a bad back, and I was finally able to get work at a bookstore in Harvard Square. But I never forgot those guys, or what I learned (and they taught me) that summer. And those houses are still standing.

I’m proud of that.
Now playing: Bruce Springsteen - Born in the USA

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