Saturday, February 19, 2005

Who's the Boss?

When I started a few days ago, I chose the blog title "What's Your Problem. Canada?" after a still-born T.V. magazine I was involved in a few years back. I've always kept the name in the back of my head as a title for... something. Over the years I've kind of come to know that whatever it became it would probably focus on Canada's relationship with the U.S. It's actually surprising that my Urgemagnet column, didn't get titled "What's Your Problem,Canada?" but the American Gothic graphic just couldn't be ignored, and the accompanying title simply had to be.

So far, any connection to my opinions about the U.S. has been tenuous at best. And once again, this post is going to largely ignore the originally intended theme. However, at least this time I'll be talking about an American Cultural Icon...

The other day I was waiting for a bus at a stop outside of a magazine store.
In the window of the store a magazine was being displayed that seemed to be dedicated to The Boss. Every single article in it was about Bruce Springsteen. Every one. Seems a bit excessive to me - an entire magazine about one person... mind you there is a magazine called 'Oprah' so who knows what niche markets are going to appeal to a broad enough segment as to warrant an entire magazine.
One of the articles touted on the cover was something to the effect of "Celebrities pick their top Springsteen songs of all time!" Which makes me ask - "Why do I care?" Why do I want to know what Scott Weiland or Sandra Bullock think are their favourite E-Street tracks? I don't really. But it got me thinking, what are MY favourite Springsteen songs of all time? Not that me telling you is really any different than Jon BonJovi telling me...
Bruce Springsteen. I'm not a particularly big fan. I respect him, for certain, but I wouldn't include myself among the true believers. I own a whopping three of his albums, one of which is a Greatest Hits package... which in my mind is a mark of a band-wagon jumper. Why would a real fan have a 'Best of' album? They should already have all the best stuff right? Point being, I'm about to pass judgement on a subject I'm not terribly well informed upon... not the most enlightened of positions, but I have to think that the Socratic admission of ignorance is worth something.
I remember when the Born in the U.S.A. album came out - it was also about the time that Much Music premiered. I recall seeing the 'Dancing in theDark' video and thinking it was a pretty cool song - and that chick he pulled out the crowd was pretty cute...
A few more singles came out - I think 'Bobby Jean' was next; and then the eponymous track. Then my Dad bought the album. I recall thinking "Way to go, Dad. This album is OLD already." I was a young teen, so my idea of old vs. new was pretty skewed. The album stayed in the top ten for something like a year and a half after that point producing no less than three more hit singles: "Glory Days" "My Hometown" "I'm on Fire" possibly more - I remember thinking that virtually every song on the album was a hit. That was a bit of exaggeration.

So what is Bruce's greatest song?
How do you define it?

"I'm on Fire" has been remade by a variety of artists including Tori Amos and Johnny Cash. Each one markedly different from the others, and each one a little gem of a song. That's a mark of a good song - that it can be remade with such breadth successfully. Look at Elton John's "Rocket Man" - none of William Shatner, Kate Bush or William Hung could ruin it. Hell, even Elton John couldn't ruin it.

What made the biggest impact to his career? Well, an argument can be made that no song does more than the first release - as if you didn't impress with it, there wouldn't be any others, but that aside...
"The River" - possibly. Definitely a great song. It's the absolute essence of the Springsteen ethic, with it's bleak blue-collar story-telling. Shot-gun weddings, union-cards, the empty passion of nihilistic youthful sex and mourning lost childhood. Springsteen arguably wrote this song over and over again for the next fifteen years... which is also it's failing.
"Born in the U.S.A." - Possibly the most misunderstood song he ever wrote. Leave it to heartland America to miss the point. Perhaps the song itself is at fault. It's anthemic chorus certainly seems victorious. But listen to the rest. The song could not possibly be much more cynical. It features one of the most brilliant lyrics I've ever heard. After three verses of two sets of paired rhyming couplets, he drops a line. "Had a brother at KheSahn/Fighting off the Viet-cong/ They're still there, he's all gone..." ... and then nothing. The simplicity of it is staggering. The listener's expectations are all set-up by the previous verses and then the loss of the brother is echoed by the gaping absence of a lyric. Amazing. Infuriatingly basic. But what is infuriating is that I didn't think of it first.

But I think that Bruce has got one collection of songs... er, I guess that's an album... that is different. Songs of hope. Songs of patriotism. Lyrically and sonically beyond most of his past work. Yet, in relative terms it was largely ignored. Mind you it was released in a different world - popular music fragmented, rock losing ground, P2P sharing knocking the hell out of the music industry... and of course that little matter of someone thinking it was a cool political statement to fly a plane into a building.
Now, it's going to become viciously apparent as I continue to post that I am among the less sympathetic of people when it comes to the 9/11 disaster. I won't get into it now, but suffice to say that it was a terrible thing - I just think that the American response kind of misses the point.
Having said that - "The Rising" nails the human aspect of it perfectly for me. Song after song, Springsteen explores a new side of the tragedy and taps into a new voice. It's a love-letter to New York. It's an exploration of heartbreak. An evokation of the inexplicable. A humble salute to heroism. I'm stuck as to what the best song amongst them is... "Nothing Man" the lament of a Fireman who survived while the rest of his crew died; "Into the Fire" - the mournful voice of a family member of a lost rescue worker; or the unadulterated victorious pride of the title track...

No definitive answer. Just an overview.

That was kind of a fun exploration... I may have to do that with other artists. Take that as a threat.

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