Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”

Album cover for Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run"

I listened to Bruce Springsteen‘s 1975 LP “Born to Run” this week for lessons to improve as a songwriting musician. When I was a teenager, I rejected Springsteen’s music. His songs seemed for a completely different crowd, of a different age and a different culture. I heard “Born in the USA” and saw crowds of parents and grandparents pumping raised patriotic fists. I heard another song repeat “I’m going down, down, down, down.” and thought “What awful lyrics!” Only a few years ago did I learn that my assumptions were absurdly wrong. I especially learned a lot this week with my focused listen. Considering my own songwriting style and evolution, this album proves that Springsteen is somebody I definitely should be paying attention to.

The title track “Born to Run” opens side two of the album as the fifth track of the album. It received radio play nearly 8 months before recording of the rest of the album was completed. A wall of sound hits the listener within the first few seconds. The influence of Phil Spector’s signature sound is all over this album. The song “Born to Run” perfectly captures the heart of the album; This makes it a great centerpiece as well as a good introduction. The sound is desperately nostalgic and longingly anthemic; You can smell the roar of engines driven hard by drivers with hands still stained by grease, but also see the high school dance filled with couples nearing the end of youth.

This sound is perfectly suited to the words. The masterfully crafted lyrics on this album deal with tales of working class American youth and early adulthood. They do so with a raw but poetic nostalgia that avoids, but comes quite close to, sentimentalism. The characters in these stories of desperation are taking chances on love and life with just one last hope. They probably won’t make it, but the thrill and experience of the effort is reason enough to try.And see how the story of “Born to Run” is started:

In the day we sweat it out on the streets
of a runaway American dream
At night we ride through mansions of glory
in suicide machines

Basically, he’s saying they work all day so they can drag race at night. But what a way to say it! Through word-choice and carefully selected metaphors, he relates the two activities to enhance their similarities and differences. The work for the “American dream” seems futile while the mansions of those who’ve commandeered the American dream surround the speaker’s dangerous pastime. Here I only start to interpret the first two lines. If I wasn’t determined to describe my experience listening to the whole album, I would love to examine the lyrics of this single song. Given time, I could surely write volumes.

That presents one of the greatest lessons to take away from this album. Springsteen worked and worked on these lyrics. The first draft of “Born to Run” shows how much he changed the verses before the final version. I usually revise my own songs many times for years, but it’s important to see how much can be changed. In a few cases, I’ve kept only a few words of my first draft, but the feeling has remained the same. You can see in his first draft that Springsteen had imagery and emotion, but didn’t quite have the heart of the song yet.

Good poetry often elevates the mundane, often to the sublime. Springsteen so expertly elevates the mundane that it’s difficult to realize that it was ever mundane. He romanticizes the emotional struggle of everyday and the desire to escape the inevitable trap of the day-to-day. In “Thunder Road“, he opens with a description of the unexceptional.

The screen door slams Mary’s dress sways
Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey that’s me and I want you only
Don’t turn me home again
I just can’t face myself alone again

Standard rock chord progressions and song structures provide the backbone of these tracks, with plenty of I-IV-V and I-V-IV throughout. This strengthens the the mood and theme of the album. This vision of rock music dances on the front porch, but also climbs into the front seat to escape this old town.

The Phil Spector style production sounds better on this album than on most of the records that Spector himself actually produced. For his wall of sound, Phil Spector would record multiple musicians playing the same thing simultaneously and run it through echo chambers. This created a magical mess of sound. If focus on the background accompaniment of The Ronettes’ Be My Baby, you’ll notice how it’s a somewhat indistinct wash of instruments. Yet, Spector’s technique had the power to sonically elevate the mundane. Similar production provides Springsteen’s album with its sound while maintaining integrity of individual instruments. It’s really a wonderful thing to hear. One of my favorite tracks, She’s the One probably gets the closest to that messy wash, but still sounds great.

This has definitely been one of my favorites for this project of listening one great album each week. I’m looking forward to the next Springsteen.

We got one last chance to make it real
To trade in these wings on some wheels

Patti Smith’s “Horses”

Patti Smith's Horses album cover

I listened to Patti Smith‘s 1975 LP “Horses” for the past seven days. There’s a lot to learn here as a songwriting musician. I’ve heard about Smith for years;  I have fans as friends; Yet, this week was the first time I’ve heard her work, and  I love it. It sounds incredibly like 1970s New York City, sitting somewhere between the sound and intelligence of Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground and the attitude of the Ramones. This album features fantastic lyrics, great music, great production, and cool vocals.

The lyrics star as the focus of “Horses”. With this debut album, Patti Smith produced a rock n’ roll version of the way beat poets like Jack Kerouac gave poetry readings with jazz accompaniment. She arrests your attention within the first twenty seconds; “Gloria” opens the album with the powerful line “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” This is not a cover of Them’s “Gloria” or even a re-interpretation. Smith uses the classic garage rock song as source material they way an artist uses an image in collage. Considering that “Gloria” is one of the most covered songs in rock, the use of the chorus gives the audience something they know to keep them invested with the first listen. However the refrain may be using “gloria” as a word rather than a name ironically connects the chorus to the opening line.

In the song, Kimberly, Patti speaks about the desire to keep her little sister safe. She does this through an overt narrative of being in a barn with her baby sister during a storm. The lightning is frightening, so the older sister distracts her baby sister and covers her to hide the flashes. With lines like “I knew your youth was for the taking, fire on a mental plane,” there is suggestion that she’s worried about more than a storm during her sister’s infancy. A verse towards the end of the song, more spoken than sung, demonstrates Smith’s great command of poetry and imagery:

So I ran through the fields as the bats with their baby vein faces
Burst from the barn and flames in a violent violet sky
And I fell on my knees and pressed you against me
Your soul was like a network of spittle
Like glass balls movin’ in like cold streams of logic
And I prayed as the lightning attacked
That something will make it go crack

The lyrics are perhaps at their most dense and intense in “Land” where they also provide the album title “Horses”. The tell a troubling story about a young man named Johnny being raped in the hallways of what is probably a high school during the mid-1960s. Then later the speak has a romantic encounter with Johnny.

The lyrics incorporate several references to Land of a Thousand Dances. I consider these lines as drifting in from down the hall. Perhaps the hallway scene takes place during a school dance. She layers these references to dances of the 1950s and 60s with the rape; Names of dances like the Twist and the Watusi become descriptions of the act. Johnny’s mind escapes into another world, his assailants become as horses. After they finish off on Johnny, an angel or somebody named Angel taunts him “Oh, pretty boy, can’t you show me nothing but surrender?” Then the song further explodes poetic chaos.

There’s ambiguity and layering references to film noir, teen dances, sex, romance, rape, rock n roll, and the poet Rimbaud. They are cut together like a William S. Burroughs cut-up. I sensed this as a long time-Burroughs fan that has experimented with cut-ups many times. However, I also have read this week that Smith was inspired by the novels of Burroughs. Similarly, she has layered vocals so that disconnected lines interact with each other; Interactions like these cause our brains to interpret and fill the space between with meaning. I have always loved methods of layering and creating juxtaposition in all forms of art, and this song is a brilliant example.

And after a description of Johnny leaning against a parking meter, with a vision of him humping it, she ends with a vision of a man dancing to a simple rock n roll song, in the sheets. Is this the bed where Johnny screams out and nobody hears “the butterfly flapping in his throat”? This to is unclear. Is the “simple rock n roll song a Land of a Thousand Dances, or some other song? It’s most likely not self-referential; Of all that “Land” is, it’s definitely not a simple song. To me, this may suggest rock n roll itself as the savior of troubled or misfit youth. In the Velvet Underground’s “Rock N Roll“, Lou Reed described how “Despite all the amputations, You know you could just go out and dance to a rock ‘n’ roll station.” Patti Smith closes this troubled tale of Johnny with:

In the sheets
There was a man
Dancing around
To the simple
Rock n roll
Song

Joni Mitchell’s “Blue”

I have been listening to Joni Mitchell’s 1971 album “Blue” for past seven days. This album was all new to me, but I have not looked forward to this week. What little experience I’ve had with Joni Mitchell proved to be unpleasant. This time allowed me to develop an appreciate for the songs. Joni Mitchel is a noteworthy songwriter and a great pianist and guitarist. Many people love her singing, but I’m not one of them. I like her voice in the lower alto range, but too often her singing often dances up to a soprano. Thankfully, everything else on the album is good, so there’s plenty else for me to appreciate.

In contrast to Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited“, the instruments play in conversation with each other. The voice provides the primary source of melody, but also takes part in the conversation. Sometimes an instrument will continue a melodic phrase at the end of a verse or chorus. I see this album categorized as Folk or Folk-Country, but I hear a lot of jazz influence. Some of her melodies and the way the piano and voice work together make me think more of vocal jazz than folk. I see now how later musicians that I’m more familiar with like Alanis Morissette, Counting Crows, Tracy Chapman, and Tori Amos drew much of their influence. I enjoy her oft-clever use of phrasing, story-telling and descriptive language.

Carey” immediately caught my attention and quickly became my favorite song on the album. The breezy strummed dulcimer of this jaunty song appropriately suggests both dancing at a cafe and travel. “Carey” is one of the few songs on the album with percussion and even this is an unobtrusive hand percussion. The lyrics are a farewell letter from one who’s decided living the beach commune life isn’t their thing. They did not always get along, but they were still friends (“Oh you’re a mean old Daddy, but I like you”). I love the opening verse that perfectly introduces the setting, topic and tone of the song.

The wind is in from Africa;
Last night I couldn’t sleep.
Oh, you know it sure is hard to leave here, Carey,
But it’s really not my home.
My fingernails are filthy,
I’ve got beach tar on my feet,
And I miss my clean white linen and my fancy French cologne.

The other song that I liked was the album closing “The Last Time I Saw Richard“. The melody flits seemingly aimlessly like bumblebees across flowers, while on the piano she plays arpeggios as if searching for a song. The thing is that this sense of searching without getting there suits the song perfectly. I can imagine the piano player in the dark corner of the cafe at closing time. Maybe there’s a few customers left, but the singer ignores them. She remembers the cynical Richard in the first verse as criticizing her “You like roses and kisses and pretty men to tell you all those pretty lies, pretty lies”. However, when he plays a song on the jukebox, she points out his own hypocrisy and contradiction in one of the best verses on the album:

He put a quarter in the Wurlitzer, and he pushed
Three buttons and the thing began to whirr.
And a bar maid came by, in fishnet stockings and a bow tie,
And she said, ‘drink up now it’s getting on time to close.’
‘Richard, you haven’t really changed’, I said.
‘It’s just that now you’re romanticizing
some pain that’s in your head.
You got tombs in your eyes, but the songs
You punched are dreaming;
Listen, they sing of love so sweet, love so sweet.’
When you gonna get yourself back on your feet?
Oh and love can be so sweet, love so sweet

I love that line “You got tombs in your eyes, but the songs you punched are dreaming.”

As these verses from “Carey” and “Last Time I Saw Richard” demonstrate that Joni Mitchell incorporates rhyme in her songs, though not she’s not as strictly formal as Bob Dylan on “Highway 61 Revisited.” She doesn’t mind breaking a rhyme scheme, or even having many lines that don’t rhyme. Her use of rhyme is also more subtle and natural. For example, in “Carey”, when she rhymes “not my home” with “French cologne.” The lyrics and melodies maintain natural flow much more than stick to a traditional rhythmic pattern.

I have learned to appreciate Mitchell’s songwriting. Unfortunately, my dislike of most of her singing will keep me from returning to this album after this week. IT’s a shame, because some of the songs are very good.

The Clash’s “London Calling”

London Calling album cover

This week, I’ve been listening to The Clash’s 1979 album “London Calling” for what I can learn as a songwriting musician to improve my craft. It’s been a great week!

I got into The Clash in a rather backwards way. I grew up loving the video for “Rock the Casbah“, but that was mostly because of the armadillo. When I was about twelve, I bought a cassette of Big Audio Dynamite’s 1986 album “No. 10, Upping St.” at a dollar store. Singer Mick Jones had been kicked out of The Clash a few years previous and formed B.A.D. with Don Letts, who had directed several of The Clash’s music videos.  I went from there to The Clash’s 1977 self-titled debut album, which is more of a reggae-aware punk album than the later “London Calling”. It’s difficult to categorize this album. There’s a mix of reggae, ska, punk, rockabilly, post-punk, new wave, pub rock, etc. No matter what you want to call it, it’s definitely the Clash.

The music on “London Calling” has a very percussive quality. In reggae music, the rhythm guitars frequently emphasize the offbeat. For most of these songs, the Clash rhythm guitarist strum hits on the quarter-note along with the kick and snare, emphasizing the beat rather than adding a hop to it. Sometimes the upbeat, the 2nd the 4th beat gets an emphasis, but more often it’s all four. The lead guitars are more likely to play the offbeat than the rhythm, which I find interesting. There are exceptions, of course, with some songs being decidedly more “reggae”, or the hit “Train in Vain” for which the rhythm guitar focuses on the offbeat; and then some sections hits on the downbeat. This change gives these sections a sense of “slowing down” even though the tempo actually remains constant.

The instrumentation and production on this album is very open and light. There’s space between the instruments, with each occupying its own space sonically. There’s also a lot of air. Instruments frequently rest, which makes the sound both open and rhythmic. Strums are muted, or quickly muted, as opposed to ringing out. There’s also not much “padding” to fill the space. It’s refreshing to hear all of this bounce and grit with breathing room.

Every track is fantastic, but “Jimmy Jazz” stands out as my favorite. Our son pointed out that this track may’ve been of particular influence to one of my heroes, Peter Doherty. I like how the song maintains a breezy feel, while still having the percussive quality. A bright acoustic guitar punctuates the beat throughout, with a flanged slightly distorted lead guitar plays on the offbeat. I also like the horns, which is not something I an often say. The lyrics vaguely tell the story of a character named Jimmy Jazz, being sought by the police. An outsider, apparently on the wrong side of the law.

The lyrics on this album combine story-telling with a sense of “sharing the news”. We learn about strange characters, romanticized like the Beats saw old movies and dime paperbacks. These cool scenes of outsiders populate some songs, while others are more like a street-punk standing in the street shouting to fellow rebels, “This is what’s happening, open your eyes, take a stand.” The album combines a multi-national perspective musically, with a boot firmly rooted in the British streets.

The Velvet Underground’s “The Velvet Underground & Nico”

The Velvet Underground and Nico album cover

This week, I’ve been listening to The Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut album “The Velvet Underground & Nico.” I first sought out the Velvet Underground when I was about 15, because they were managed by Andy Warhol who used them for his multimedia The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. I had seen the documentary “Superstar” about Warhol on PBS, which immediately inspired my creativity and perspective on life. The compilation “The Best of The Velvet Underground: Words and Music of Lou Reed” quickly became one of my most listened to cassettes. The far-out sound opened me up to possibilities I hadn’t even thought of at the time.

The beautiful chaos of the song “Heroin” blew my mind; I remember many times I would listen to the song loudly in headphones to become immersed in the driving rhythm and landscape of feedback. I love that the rhythm guitar and vocals keep going, hanging on to the train while the everything else flies off the tracks in a wild cacophony. This song really introduced me to the idea that a song can sonicly create an atmosphere that embodies what the lyrics describe. The sound is increasingly overwhelming and maddening, the chaos overpowers the structure. And yet, the opening of the song gives no impression of where it is headed. This is the 7th track, which originally opened side B. It may not be the most digestible song, but I think it is the most successful combination of elements that make this album unique. It has Lou Reed’s vocal and lyrics, basic rock structure, with electric violin, and crazy noise with experimentalism. And the last line of the song “And I guess, but I just don’t know” really speaks volumes, not just within the context of the song but also of the scene and time.

The album proper actually opens with “Sunday Morning”, which is possibly the most accessible song. It features viola and celesta, all played in a rather restrained manner. There’s also viola providing a lush bed for the other instruments to play in. It’s pretty and cool. The lyrics relay a sense of paranoia, but with the setting of an otherwise laid back Sunday morning.

In contrast, the next song “I’m Waiting For the Man” has probably the most “Velvet Underground” sound. Lou’s vocal delivery is stylistically cool, like a rock n roll beatnik. The rhythm section of drums, bass and piano play a constant repetitive rhythmic pattern. It’s incessant like a machine running in the background., but mixed low behind the forward vocals and lead guitar.

There’s other moments in the album that truly stand out. The feedbacked start of the guitar solo in “Run Run Run” is brilliant; unfortunately, it devolves into Dick Dale style picking seemingly leaving too much up to chance without enough happy accidents. And that’s what I feel is this album’s greatest source of weakness. Too often it feels like they just went at it, hoping it’ll turn out OK and it doesn’t. I love that attitude, which suits both the punk (before punk) rock and Warhol image, and when it works it really works. Still, I wish it didn’t create so many annoying bits. The song “All Tomorrow’s Parties” is wonderful except for much of the guitar parts, which are what I would expect to hear from a guitarist trying out different ideas before they hit ‘record’.

In addition to the daring qualities of the music, Lou Reed’s lyrics are what make the album. He has a beat knack for the poetic, weaving story-telling elements through each song. Often, these are just vignettes or scenes of a larger story;  In some cases a collection of short vignettes to make up a larger story. He frequently tells stories through the voices of its characters, with “she said”‘s peppered throughout.  The singer’s experience of listening frames the story. Lou Reed was guilty of lines obviously written for the rhyme, which particularly stands out because his lyrics are so strong otherwise. Lou is also a prime example of a great vocalist whose not a strong singer; and rock n roll is the perfect medium for that talent.