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2015/09/27

Happy 66th, Bruce

by Dave Gourdoux

Last Wednesday was the 66th birthday of a personal favorite of mine, Bruce Springsteen. I could go on and on about why I think he's so great, knowing I'd get a lot of heads nodding in agreement and just as many eyes sarcastically rolling - I understand how split people are about Bruce. It seems like everyone has an opinion, usually strongly held, that he is either a genius or a hack. I am obviously in the first camp.

But enough of that - I  thought what I'd do today instead is select what I feel are some of the most underrated songs in the Bruce catalog.

My only rule was to limit myself to songs that have officially been released under his name - this eliminates the hundreds of hours of bootleg recordings out there.  I've tried to list them in the order they were recorded, but that gets tough when I include things from Tracks and The Promise, which were released much later than the songs on them were recorded.  Also, you might wonder about my criteria for determining what's underrated and what's not; I wonder about that, too.  I guess these are just great songs that for one reason or another aren't held in as high regard by the general populous as I think they should be (note: the key words here are "general populous." In other words, not Bruce fanatics. Every Bruce fanatic in the world holds "Incident on 57th Street" in high regard - it only makes my "underrated" list because it's not as familiar to Joe Q. Public as "Born in the U.S.A." or "Badlands," or "The Rising." It's in this regard that I consider the song "underrated.") Anyway, without further ado, here goes:

I've created a Spotify playlist of my selections if you want to listen along as you read; just copy and paste this URL into a window on your browser:

https://open.spotify.com/user/1257178086/playlist/4cMNXPO6hZP5kCRMHWPVjB

"Incident on 57th Street," from The Wild, the Innocent, and the E-Street Shuffle (1973)

Springsteen found his distinctive voice on this, the fifth track on his second album. It's the best example in his early works of his ability to break down the distance between the performance and the listener. As he tells the story of Spanish Johnny and Puerto Rican Jane, it sounds like he's crawled out of your speakers and is in the room with you. It's an intimacy that's rarely experienced, and it's one of Springsteen's greatest gifts.

Live versions close with an emotional and gorgeous guitar solo that reaches into your chest and rips out your heart.



"Restless Nights," from Tracks, recorded in 1977

An outtake from the Darkness on the Edge of Town sessions, "Restless Nights" is the best portrayal of insomnia ever. The music, dominated by an other-worldly organ riff from Danny Federeci, haunting harmony vocals from Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt, and Springsteen's jittery, strung-out electric guitar is so atmospheric as to be hypnotic. The lyrics feature "whispering trees" and "dark rivers" and work perfectly with the music.

                    Now I pray darling for the night
                    we'll dance down these darkened halls
                    once again to fall
                    into a dream




"Loose Ends," from Tracks, recorded in 1977

Another Darkness on the Edge of Town outtake, "Loose Ends" features Springsteen's incredible ear as a songwriter.  His ability to encapsulate all the rules of different genres into his own unique vision is what sets Springsteen apart from other songwriters. This is where the frequent comparisons to Bob Dylan fall flat and are  mistaken - Springsteen was never the poet or innovator that Dylan is. What Springsteen can do so remarkably well as both songwriter and performer is move seamlessly between genres and styles.

It helps to have the great E-Street Band as the instrument through which Springsteen's gifts are expressed. "Loose Ends" may be the band's finest moment, creating a Phil Spector-ish  "wall of sound" featuring one of Clarence Clemons' finest sax solos, drummer Max Weinberg's perfect fills, the amazing blend of Roy Bittan's piano virtuosity, and Danny Federici's instinctive organ playing and Springsteen's voice as he sings:

                     Our love has fallen around us like we said it never could
                     we saw it happen to all the others but to us it never would
                     how can something so bad come from something that was so good,
                     I don't know ...

"Streets of Fire," from Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978

It's easy to criticize "Streets of Fire" for being overwrought and unsubtle, and it's true; in his vocals on this one Bruce does over-emote. But that doesn't change the fact that the song is lean and mean in its description of a guy who's found himself alone in a strange and dangerous place, "strung out on a wire across streets of fire":

                    I live now only with strangers
                    I talk to only strangers
                   I walk with angels that have no place

Springsteen's magnificent guitar solo is one of his best as the song conjures up a world of darkness and menace.


"Talk to Me," from The Promise, recorded in 1978

Bruce plus horns equals magic. "Talk to Me" is another example of Springsteen's mastery of genre, a combination of Tin Pan Alley, wall of sound, frat rock, and blue-eyed soul. It opens with a simple little guitar and drum riff, the guitar is soon joined by piano, and then the horns kick in, and that moment is pure perfection. The hooks in the melody and the tightness of the rhythm section bring to mind the Memphis Stax Records sounds of Wilson Pickett or Otis Redding or Sam and Dave.

"Drive All Night" and "Wreck on the Highway," from The River, 1980

Most of the many critics who dismiss Springsteen are reacting to the broad reach of his anthems, like "Born to Run," "Badlands," and "Born in the U.S.A." Taken out of the context of Springsteen's catalog, they find them to be jingoistic and bombastic exercises in promoting a false mythology. Only when considered within the context of his larger body of work, when the anthems are placed side to side with intimate ballads and poignant stories, does the astonishing range of Springsteen's vision become evident.

"Drive All Night" and "Wreck on the Highway" close out the album The River.  "Drive All Night" is an amazing love song, simultaneously epic and intimate, dark and romantic. Springsteen's vocal is pure and heartfelt and gut wrenching, and Clemons' sax solo is possibly his best (right up there with "Jungleland").                       


"Wreck on the Highway" closes out the album, and takes place in the same dark and rainy night that the singer of "Drive All Night" is trying to drive through. The narrator of the song is telling us about a crash he comes upon while driving on a cold and rainy night. He tries to get help for the "young man lying by the side of the road" even though he knows it's too late for help.

                            An ambulance finally came and took him to Riverside
                            I watched as they drove him away
                            and I thought of a girlfriend or a young wife
                            and a State Trooper knocking in the middle of the night
                            to say "your baby died in a wreck on the highway."

Time goes on, and the narrator is still haunted by the images.  The song concludes with:

                          Sometimes I sit up in the darkness
                          and I watch my baby as she sleeps
                          then I climb back in bed and I hold her tight
                          I just lie there awake in the middle of the night
                          thinking about the wreck on the highway.

Then a couple of drum beats are heard, and the song comes to an abrupt end, only to start again, with just the rainy dark sounds of acoustic guitar and piano fading into the void.


"Used Cars," from Nebraska, 1982

Springsteen has famously written some of his most powerful songs about his relationship with his father, and how his failures and neurosis dominated Springsteen's childhood and shaped how he views the world as an adult. "Used Cars" is a short memoir about his childhood, and the endless parade of cheap used cars his dad would bring home. The song is about the pain and humiliation his father's failures caused:

                        Now the neighbors come from near and far
                        as we pull up in our brand new used car
                        I wish he'd just hit the gas and let out a cry
                        and tell them all they can kiss our asses goodbye



The song ends with some poignant imagery, and a measure of compassion for his father:

                        My dad he sweats the same job from morning to morn
                        me, I walk home on the same dirty streets where I was born
                        up the block I can hear my little sister in the front seat,
                        just a-blowing that horn
                        the sounds echoin' all down Michigan Avenue.


"Valentine's Day," from Tunnel of Love, 1987

This is my all-time favorite love song, even though in the end the narrator's still alone, and it's unclear whether he'll ever reunite with the object of his love.

The song begins with a guy driving alone in a "big, lazy car" at night on a "spooky old highway." He's scared and nervous, with "one hand steady on the wheel and one hand trembling " over his heart, which is "pounding like it's gonna bust right on through." He doesn't know what's driven him out there, other than "tonight I miss my baby, tonight I miss my home."  It's clear that he's been apart from both for some time.

Then he reveals what really has him so frightened:

                        They say if you die in your dreams
                        you really die in your bed
                        but honey last night I dreamed my eyes rolled 
                        straight back in head
                        and God's light came shining on through
                        I woke up in the darkness scared and breathing 
                        and born anew

After dreaming of his own death, he wakes with images of death fresh in his consciousness. Terrified, it's only memories of love that can still the nightmarish images of dying alone:

                        It wasn't the cold river bottom I felt rushing over me
                        it wasn't he bitterness of a dream that didn't come true
                        it wasn't the wind in the grey fields I felt rushing through my arms
                        no, no, baby,
                       baby, it was you

The themes of love, death and loneliness continue in the closing verse, where the key word is "lonely."

                       So hold me close 
                       honey, say you're forever mine
                       and tell me you'll be my lonely Valentine

Whether the epiphany experienced by the dream is enough to resolve the differences that split the couple apart is left unresolved. This is testimony to Springsteen's artistic integrity; he prefers to leave the central question the song asks unanswered, rather than tie things up in a nice little bundle.



"Brothers Under the Bridge," from Tracks, recorded 1993(?)

Since the '70s, Springsteen has been a quiet and consistent advocate for Vietnam veterans. Vietnam and its impact on the psyche of the country has been a central theme not only in Springsteen's art but in his life as well, as he lost two close friends, including the drummer in his first band. The disproportionate cost of the war that was paid by the working class has informed the lens through which he views the world.

"Brothers Under the Bridge" is a great example of the cinematic quality of Springsteen's story songs. It is obviously influenced by the work of the novelist Bobby Ann Mason. The song tells the story of a Vietnam veteran who's withdrawn to living with his "brothers" in the "dry brush" of the California hills, and the daughter who's been searching for him.

                     I come home in
                     seventy-two
                     You were just a beautiful light
                     in your mama's dark eyes of blue
                     I stood down on the tarmac
                     I was just a kid
                    me and the brothers under the bridge

                     Come Veteran's Day
                     sat in the stands in my dress blues
                     I held your mother's hand
                     when they passed with the red, white and blue
                     One minute you're right there,
                     then something slips ...

The music fades and the song ends, again, unresolved, the only explanation that"something slips," and it's another example where saying nothing says everything.



"My Beautiful Reward," from Lucky Town, 1992

One of Springsteen's most poetic songs, about a man searching for, and finally finding, peace.  It closes with one of my favorite verses:

                       Tonight I can feel
                       the cold wind at my back
                       I'm flying high over grey fields
                       my feathers long and black
                       Down along the river's silent edge I soar
                      searching for my beautiful reward.



"Highway 29," from The Ghost of Tom Joad, 1995

Another of Springsteen's mini movies, this is, simply put, a GREAT song. The scenes we're given and the detailed visuals are amazingly vivid. The story, about a shoe salesman and the  higher class woman who have a fling that goes terribly wrong, is complex and suspenseful.

The bank robbery the guy commits is described in images that are incredibly lean and vivid:

                     It was a small town bank
                     it was a mess
                     well, I had a gun
                     you know the rest
                    Money on the floorboards
                    shirt was covered in blood and she was crying
                    her and me we headed south
                    down Highway 29

They hit the road, the woman now a hostage, when sudden realization hits the narrator:

                     The winter sun
                     shot through the black trees
                     I told myself it was all something in her
                    but as we drove I knew it was something in me
                    Something that'd been coming
                    for a long, long time
                   and something that was here with me now
                   on Highway 29

The song ends with this vivid but enigmatic verse:
  
                    The road was filled with broken glass
                    and gasoline
                    she wasn't saying nothing
                    it was just a dream
                    the wind come silent through the windshield
                    all I could see was snow and sky and pines
                    I closed my eyes and I was running
                    yeah, I was running, then I was flying



"Nothing Man," from The Rising, 2002

The Rising is an album inspired by 9/11 that chronicles the time immediately after, when the trauma was still fresh in our psyche.  Songs like the title track "Empty Sky" and "You're Missing" deal with the loss and vulnerability that was felt. "Nothing Man" is often overlooked, and I can't understand why. To me, it's the best song on the album, and one of the best ten or so songs Springsteen's ever released.

"Nothing Man" is told from the point of view of a first responder who is having difficulty dealing with the trauma and guilt he feels. The song begins in the surrealistic days after with the narrator reading about himself and his "brave young life" in his hometown paper. Then he explains, in deceptively simple terms, how profoundly his world has changed in ways that others can't see:

                    Around here
                    everybody acts the same
                    around here
                    everybody acts like nothing's changed
                    Friday nights
                    the club meets at Al's Barbecue
                    the sky is still
                    the same unbelievable blue

It's that last line, about the "unbelievable" sky, that really resonates. I remember watching the twin towers fall against a perfect blue and cloudless sky, and I remember looking up at the sky here in my Wisconsin home, and it was just as blue and cloudless.  I remember that for the rest of the month of September it seemed as if the sky remained unchanged, blue and perfect and devoid of airplanes.

For the narrator of the song, however, everything has changed, and the blue sky only reminds him of the horror he witnessed. Haunted by the images of what he saw and riddled with survivor's guilt, he's coming undone:
         
                   You can call me Joe
                   buy me a drink and shake my hand
                   You want courage
                   I'll show you courage you can understand
                   the pearl and silver
                   resting on my night table
                   it's just me, Lord,
                   I pray that I'm able
               
                  Darling, with this kiss
                  say you'll understand
                  I am the nothing man

The courage he is praying for is the ability to take the gun on his night table and end his own life. It's heartbreaking, especially when the lyrics are juxtaposed against a lovely melody, and the "doo--doo doo--doos" Springsteen sings in closing the song are pure and haunting.



"All the Way Home," from Devils and Dust, 2005

"All the Way Home" is a simple but effective little rocker that asks the question can romance and innocence survive heartbreak and cynicism? It's about a middle-aged guy trying to pick up a middle-aged woman at a bar, and hoping against all odds to recapture some small scrap of the innocence time has taken from them both.

                 Now you got no reason to trust me
                 my confidence is a little rusty
                 but if you don't feel like being alone
                 baby, I could walk you all the way home

In the last verse, "closing time" is referring to more than the bar closing. The singer is realizing that time is running out, and there might not be many more opportunities. There's a hint of desperation in his words:

                Now it's coming on closing time
                bartender, he's ringing last call
                these days I don't stand on pride
                I ain't afraid to take a fall
                so if you're seeing what you like
                maybe your first choice he's gone
                well, that's all right
                baby, I could walk you all the way home

But in that desperation, in the longing for something long lost, there's dignity and heroism. It's the refusal to let past circumstances and future likelihoods destroy his longing. It's hope when all seems hopeless. This is another of Springsteen's recurring themes - the ability of good and simple people to hold on to their humanity against oppressive and corrosive forces of time and fate.



"Gypsy Biker," from Magic, 2007

Springsteen has been incredibly prolific in the 21st century, releasing no fewer than seven albums. My favorite of these is the 2007 release Magic, which I think compares favorably to his best albums from the seventies and eighties. Songs like "Girls in Their Summer Clothes" and "Long Walk Home" are instant Bruce classics. Right up there with them is "Gypsy Biker," a guitar and harmonica blues rocker about the tragic death of a solider in either Iraq or Afghanistan (he does't specify which) and the cost of war to friends and family back home.

After getting word of the death, the motorcycle club the soldier belonged to has their own private ceremony in which they ritualistically say goodbye:

                We rode into the foothills
                 Bobby brought the gasoline
                 we stood around in a circle
                 as she lit up the ravine
                 The spring hot desert wind
                 rushed down on us all the way back home

The song ends with a description of the effect the death has on those who were close to him:

                To the dead it don't matter much
                about who's wrong or right
                you asked me that question
                I didn't get it right
                You slipped into your darkness
                now all that remains 
                is my love for you, brother
                lying sill and unchanged 
                To them that threw you away
                you ain't nothing but gone
                my gypsy biker's coming home

               Now I'm out counting white lines
               counting white lines and getting stoned
               my gypsy biker's coming home

Springsteen has written several songs detailing the difficulties vets have after returning home ("Born in the U.S.A," and "Shut Out the Light" as examples), but "Gyspy Biker" is the first to focus on the survivors of those who don't make it back.

                  
"Hunter of Invisible Game," from High Hopes, 2014

An amazing little gem of a song that manages to be charming and haunting while at the same time describing a post-apocalyptic, dystopian future, Springsteen can't betray his own ultimate faith in the human spirit:

               There's a kingdom of love waiting to be reclaimed
               I am the hunter of invisible game



"The Wall," from High Hopes, 2014

Springsteen's reaction to Robert McNamara's (Lyndon Johnson's Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War) apology for his part in perpetuating the disastrous quagmire the war became. To put it bluntly, Bruce didn't appreciate it very much. What he created in reaction is a lovely and heartbreaking short prayer that takes place in Washington D.C., contrasting the halls of power with the names of those lost on the Vietnam War Memorial, "the Wall."

               On the ground dog tags and wreaths of flowers
               and ribbons as red as the blood
               red as the blood you spilled
               in the central highlands mud
               
               Now limousines rush down Pennsylvania Avenue
               rustling the leaves as they fall
               and apology and forgiveness got no place here at all
               here at the wall



Well, you've made it this far; I'd love to hear what you think. What did I miss? What did I get right or wrong?

And here's to Bruce: Happy birthday and best wishes for many more. As he once said, we'll "need a good companion for this part of the ride."





2015/09/06

Christopher Nolan's Memento

by Jav Rivera

Back in 2003 or so, I was teaching a film appreciation course. Each day was devoted to a specific aspect of filmmaking (cinematography, writing, sound, etc.). I'd start the class with a brief summary of the topic of the day and some notes about its various techniques. Always leaving room for questions, the first part was mostly lecture-based. I'd show samples of these techniques to give the students an idea of what to look for in the next part of the class, which was to watch an entire movie.

One of the days focused on editing, which I'm very partial to, since most of my film career has been as an editor; it was also what I concentrated on in film school. Determining which film for each aspect was always tough since there are so many to chose from. For the editing class, however, it was very easy. I chose Christopher Nolan's 2000 film, Memento.

Anyone who's already seen the film will understand immediately why I chose this film. Editing is crucial to the way the story is told. In fact, the timeline is basically played out backwards, possibly to disorientate the audience. You see, the main character, Leonard (Guy Pearce), suffers from anterograde amnesia, which prevents him from creating new memories. I imagine Nolan, along with his editor, Dody Dorn, decided to mix up the order of the timeline to make it easier to relate to such an unusual impairment.

Guy Pearce as "Leonard"
It's a great way to tell a story, especially if it's in the realm of mystery. And that's where the editing and story take a huge leap. Leonard isn't just dealing with his memory in a dramatic role, he's also trying to find his wife's killer. He's devised some techniques to help him remember things, mostly based on being systematic with his daily routines. He also tattoos major clues to his body. Lastly, he carries around his trusty Polaroid camera where he can make real-time "memories" of the things most of us take for granted, like the car he drives, hotel he's staying in, and even people he meets. (I admit I use this technique whenever I park in the airport.)

The film can essentially be broken into two main sections which are distinguished by color and black-and-white cinematography. The color photography is played out backwards and is the bulk of the film. The black-and-white photography takes place in a room with Leonard on the phone. Throughout the black-and-white scenes, the audience is listening to Leonard talk to someone about an insurance case he once investigated. As an insurance agent, it was Leonard's job to dismantle cases that were deemed fraudulent. The case in question is of Sammy Jankis. Sammy suffered from the same affliction as Leonard (before Leonard's accident, of course). Leonard goes on to explain the case in detail, and with this story we can study Leonard's current dilemma. But more important is how this part of the film helps break up the color part of the story. And it makes sense that the black-and-white "Sammy" section is told chronologically, because this is a memory before Leonard's condition.

After watching Memento for the first time, I was curious to know how I was able to understand everything despite the broken timeline and the backwards storytelling. I later watched it again, but this time I put on the commentary track on the DVD. The director and editor explained the use of sound cues to tie scenes together.

Editor Dody Dorn
Here's how the film is played out: a scene would start at a certain point then stop just after something exciting or after a revelation. It would be followed by the black-and-white "Sammy" section of the story. The following color scene ends from the beginning of the previous color scene. It's a little hard to explain and people have actually created diagrams. Wikipedia has a great one. Needless to say, it can get tricky to understand the first couple times, which is why so many people have created diagrams.

But more important than a diagram is the trick Nolan and Dorn used for the audience. The beginning of one scene would have a recognizable audio cue. This could be a line of dialogue such as someone shouting out "Lenny" in a very specific tone. The following color scene would end with this audio cue so that it would be easier for the audience to piece together the scenes. It's so simple, yet ingenious. It's no surprise that Dody Dorn was nominated for an Academy Award for this film. Unfortunately, she didn't win. (Personally, I thought she deserved it more than the actual winner, editor Pietro Scalia for the film Black Hawk Down.)

But beyond the impeccable editing, Memento also boasts some talented performances by a surprisingly small cast. In recent years, Nolan has expanded his films with large casts and blockbuster spectacles such as The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, and Interstellar, to name a few. With Memento, however, he compacted his characters to three main actors: Guy Pearce as "Leonard," Joe Pantoliano as "Teddy," and Carrie-Ann Moss as "Natalie". There's also the "Sammy" character played by Stephen Tobolowsky.

Stephen Tobolowsky as "Sammy Jankis"
Tobolowsky has very few lines in the film, but he makes them count. In the little time he gets onscreen, Tobolowsky makes his character sympathetic by showing how his disease can bring out an unpleasant side of someone who's normally mild-mannered. And given the fact that he doesn't have much time to show who he was compared to who he's become, it's a true testament to Tobolowsky as a dramatic actor, especially for someone who's normally found in comedies.
Like the "Sammy" character, the other characters play a large role in Leonard's distrust. No one around him is reliable, and with short-term memory, Leonard is often found on the wrong end of the stick. His relationship with "Natalie," a damaged woman with ambiguous motives, makes for an unusual partnership. Carrie-Anne Moss does an excellent job portraying a sad, but possibly vindictive, character. Her role provides the question of what guilty means. Is guilt based on a point of view, or is there no such thing as innocence?
Director Christopher Nolan and Carrie-Anne Moss as "Natalie"
Then there's "Teddy," played by the underrated Joe Pantoliano. As Leonard's friend, or foe, depending again on a point of view, Teddy is Leonard's sidekick. Leonard thinks his mission in life is to find his wife's killer, and Teddy has been helping Leonard out with the case. But who is fooling who? Is any of Teddy's information reliable? Is Leonard fooling himself thinking he can solve this case? Is Teddy merely enabling Leonard's desperation because he feels sorry for him? When there's no one to trust, how can a mind ever find structure?

Joe Pantoliano as "Teddy"
One of my favorite traits of Christopher Nolan is the psychological aspect of his films. Of course, when you talk about a Nolan screenplay/story, you usually have to give half the credit to his brother Jonathan "Jonah" Nolan. Memento was based on his short story "Memento Mori". It was one of his first collaborations with Christopher, but definitely not the last. He went on to write the screenplays for The Prestige, Interstellar, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises. I love films that deal with the mind, and the Nolan brothers know just how to do it right.


I think if I had to choose, I'd pick Memento as their best example of a psychological story. Surrounding a character with untrustworthy people and situations, with the addition of short-term memory, is unique as is. But then to use editing to enhance that feeling of disorientation is beyond excellence. This was my first taste of Christopher Nolan, and I've gone on to become a big supporter of all his films. There are times when I wish he'd go back to small casts and lower-budgeted films, but maybe that's just me. He is, after all, doing quite well at the box office, which means other people are digging what he's doing.

For more information on Memento, visit the film's IMDb page: www.imdb.com/title/tt0209144

TRIVIA: Leonard uses a Polaroid 690 camera throughout the film.