Friday, March 29, 2013

Meeting with The Boss, A Springsteen Odyssey: Song Three

A Springsteen Odyssey is an ambitious effort to tell the story of one Springsteen concert, from one fan's perspective.  What makes it ambitious is that it is twenty-six parts long, one part for each song played by Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band that night, with each song helping to tell one part of the story.  Taken as a whole, they provide a comprehensive picture of a fan's relationship to an artist and his music, but each part also stands completely on its own.  This is part 3 of 26. 

The concert’s third song began like a rallying cry rising from the chaos of a battle that was almost lost as soon as it began.  Just moments before, I was growing despondent, trying to fend off the feeling that coming to this show might have been a serious mistake, that after only two songs, we might be talking unmitigated disaster. 

My reasons?

First of all, Springsteen and the band were nearly an hour late getting to the stage.  The first thirty minutes or so of the delay were forgivably annoying, and could have easily been put behind us.  But once that time lapsed and there was still no sign or word concerning the imminent arrival of the show, it became harder and harder not to take it as a personal insult directed specifically at us.  See, I had waited a tremendously long time for Elizabeth to recover emotionally from our previous, massively disappointing Springsteen concert experience (massively disappointing for her anyway; for me it was very mildly underwhelming).  Only now, after nineteen years of complete separation, was she ready to attempt a reconciliation, and make a tentative effort to mend our concert relationship with The Boss.  But as the delay dragged on and on, it was as though our good-faith overtures were being intentionally rebuffed.  It got to the point that each minute that passed inspired increasingly ugly and nasty thoughts, as often happens when a person’s gracious gestures are ignored or met with silent repudiation.

When Springsteen finally did step out on stage, it was with a few mumbled words (you call that an apology, mister?) and an acoustic guitar.  He began by playing an uncharacteristically quiet, almost solemn little tune called Surprise, Surprise.  It wasn’t a bad song, just unexpected, and while I can’t say that it added to the negative momentum already set in motion, it didn’t do much to reverse it, either.

Lastly – and this was the one that had me worried – was the pure sense of detachment I experienced during the concert’s second song, No Surrender. I was caught completely by surprise by my own hardened indifference, all the more mystifying because the vaunted E-Street Band had just joined in.  The performance itself sounded a little slow and kind of plodding, as though the band was a little subdued, or groggy for some unimaginable reason.  But the real problem, I realized later, was that my connection to the song had been broken long ago.  Listening to No Surrender now was like being reunited with a long lost dog that turns up years later, a dog so exhausted and spent that it is barely able to crawl up to your front porch before keeling over dead at your doorstep, and, only then, looking down upon its pathetic little corpse, do you realize that you never really cared for that dog to begin with.  Of course that’s a terribly disrespectful thing, and wicked, and completely uncivilized, but that’s the truth.  You can’t just manufacture that kind of emotional attachment.  It’s either there, or it’s not.

As wrong as it was to be so callous, by the end of the second song that’s how I was feeling, and now I was beginning to think that this shockingly cold-hearted apathy was going to stick.  I started to worry that at the rate things were going, I’d have nothing but one big pile of dead dogs on my doorstep by the end of the show.

Have a little faith there’s magic in the night, he said so famously.  My ass, I thought in bitter reply.

But then, abruptly, the band, the E-Street Band, arrived.  They had been there for the last song, I was almost sure of it, even as distant as our seats were from the stage and out-of-date as the prescription of my eyeglasses was.  They really, really arrived, and that third song burst forth with repeated shockwaves of a pounding piano sparkling like fireworks, ascending into a scathing rhapsody of tempo and energy.  And with it, the dense gloom of impending disaster was dispelled as with the flourish of a magician’s hand, revealed as nothing more than an illusion, an inexplicable trick. 

The song was I’m a Rocker.

This is a familiar song, and I have always liked it well enough, although I wouldn’t put it in my Springsteen top twenty.  It’s one of those songs that, when it pops up on the classic rock radio station, I’ll turn it up and groove with it.  But it wasn’t a song I had loaded on a playlist anywhere, or felt the need to own.  This is probably due to the fact that I’ve never been able to discern what the hell Springsteen is singing about.

Take the first verse as an example.  This is how the song sounds to me:

I got a blah-blah, blah-blah, blah it’s a one and only
Blah, blah-blah, blah, blah, blah-blah, blah, blah-blah-blah-blah lonely
I got a blah, blah, blah, blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah,
Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah-blah, blah, blah-blah, blah heartbreak

Of course, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I don’t have the sharpest ear when it comes to picking the words out of songs.  I’m probably the only person in human history who thought the Frankie Valli song Oh, What a Night was a song about a type of dinosaur called “Iguanadon.” For five or six years as a kid it was my favorite song, and I went around the house singing “Iguanadon, late December back in ’63/What a very special time for me/I remember/Iguanadon.”  I’m sure I got some strange looks, but I just attributed them to the quality of my singing voice.  I thought it was brilliant.  Two of my favorite things – dinosaurs and popular music – combined as only Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons could.

I won’t even go into what happened as a result of misinterpreting More Than A Woman as “Four-Letter Woman.”

Obviously I don’t have a great knack for translating lyrics.  But I think most people would admit that Springsteen doesn’t do himself any favors with this song.  The whole way through he’s growling and screaming like a saber-tooth tiger with an impacted fang (see how I did that - worked in another extinct species reference there).  It’s got passion, and it’s got verve, but it’s also almost entirely unintelligible, unless you cheat and look the words up on metrolyrics (an option we did not have thirty years ago, may I remind you).   

It’s too bad, too, because the lyrics are creative and clever, as I found out when I looked up said lyrics on said website, and then spent the next forty-five minutes trying to match what the website said the words were to the actual sounds coming from my computer’s speakers.  I’d post them so you could see for yourself, but I’m not inclined to be helpful at the moment, as you’re probably still laughing at me over “Iguanadon.”

Whenever I hear I’m a Rocker on the radio, I have to wait for the chorus so I can join in -

I’m a rocker, baby I’m a rocker
I’m a rocker, baby I’m a rocker 

The concert was no different.  Springsteen’s voice was just as raw and squalish, and I still couldn’t make out more than the same few words here and there - ‘natural disaster’ and ‘holdin’ it for ransom’ always seem to come out clear as a bell for some reason - until it comes around again to-

I’m a rocker, baby I’m a rocker
I’m a rocker, baby I’m a rocker 

I vaguely sense that many in the crowd must be in the same boat as me, because each time the chorus comes around, thousands of people shout out-

I’m a rocker, baby I’m a rocker
I’m a rocker, baby I’m a rocker

-and then immediately fall silent again. 

But, as I started to say, something bigger was going on, something which was already rendering irrelevant any quibbles over lyrical clarity.  The way the band was playing now was definitely different.  Springsteen’s hoarse caterwauling no longer distracted me.  The words ceased to matter.  Only the clarion call of the music existed.  It was as though some metaphysical switch had been flipped.  The emotional vacancy left behind by No Surrender was itself suddenly nullified.  What had been empty was now full.  The difference between the two songs was as stark as the difference between a photograph and living reality, Kansas and Oz, the newly dead and the newly born. 

Perhaps not quite so hyperbolically so, but still.

The music came to life with that song.  Or maybe the song itself came to life, having achieved some kind of critical musical mass, and started spinning and churning with its own internal energy, like a top, or a tornado.  Standing in that arena that evening, it felt like the entire band could have simultaneously dropped their instruments to the floor, and nothing would have changed.  The song would have continued on, boogieing of its own volition, spiraling up through the roof of, whirling its way up and over the Valley, and dancing its way through the atmosphere and into infinite space…

I’m a rocker, baby I’m a rocker (I’m in love)
I’m a rocker, baby I’m a rocker (every day)
I’m a rocker, baby I’m a rocker (every day)
I’m a rocker, baby I’m a rocker (every day)
I’m a rocker, baby I’m a rocker (every day)…

Some years ago, Elizabeth and I were in Paris.  Our French guardian angel (and yes, there are such things) Madame Maestre, drove us into Montmartre one evening, and we walked to Sacre Coeur.  Just after we stepped inside the massive white Taj-Mahalishy church on the hill, the organ began to play, and we were unexpectedly inundated by waves of sound pressing against our bodies.  The very stones of the cathedral vibrated with harmonic resonance, and the music exerted a physical force, though it remained invisible, like the wind.  It was kind of like that classic Maxell commercial. 

This was the same kind of wonderfully bewildering moment.

I’m a rocker, baby I’m a rocker (every day)
I’m a rocker, baby I’m a rocker (every day)
I’m a rocker, baby I’m a rocker (You look good)
I’m a rocker, baby I’m a rocker (C’mon kid)
I’m a rocker, baby I’m a rocker (every day)
I’m a rocker, baby I’m a rocker (every day)
I’m a rocker, baby I’m a rocker

By the end of the third song, my dim predictions for the evening were executing a speedy u-turn, and my prospects for suddenly-restored possibilities were threatening to soar.  I was being swept up by the musical bullrush of the E-street Band, lifted by the spontaneous swell like driftwood in a tsunami.  

And I only wanted to go up from there. 

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