Tag Archive: America

Born to Run

Bruce Springsteen – Born to Run – 8/25/1975

I’m not much of a patriot. I’m glad I live in America and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else, and I also believe in our system of government (although that’s pretty hard right now…), but I don’t go in for supporting irrational things just because that the way we do thing in ‘Murica. I also recognize that life in America is no more legitimate than life in another country. It may be easier or more privileged, but a tribesman in Uganda or a monk on Nepal probably doesn’t enjoy his life less because he’s not living it in the United States.

But I still have some artifacts of the American experience, and I like having them. Barbeques, the 4th of July, the flag, baseball, church on Sunday mornings – they’re not particularly patriotic things, but they’re common to a lot of Americans’ lives. If nothing else, they lend a sense of national identity, which is a good thing. And for me, nothing captures what it means to be an American better than the music of Bruce Springsteen. Say what you want, but America is Bruce’s town.

Bruce and his music was just one of those constants in my life, and it was from a very early age. Bruce represents a kind of American paragon. He pulled himself up by his bootstraps, struggled doggedly for success and paid his dues, and has a humble attitude about stardom. He’s comfortable in the spotlight, but doesn’t trash hotel rooms or do copious lines of coke like more decadent rock stars. And more than that, his lyrics typically deal with real and common concerns like getting a job, urban decay, feeding your family, and poverty – and he gives you a sense of hope about those things, not a spirit of despair.

The song “Thunder Road,” which opens his 1975 breakthrough album Born to Run, contains the spirit of “we can make it if we run” Americanism in a glorious Platonic form. It’s simply the narrative of an ordinary guy trying to convince an ordinary girl to leave it all behind, hop in his car and believe in the “magic in the night.” Its gorgeous piano riff and blazing saxophone endgame, as well as Bruce’s particular gift for soaring vocal histrionics, make you believe that anything is possible if you just have faith, gas in the tank, and two lanes of blacktop.

Like so many American musicians, he was first inspired to pick up a guitar when he saw Elvis Presley on T.V. when he was 7. He had the thirst for success and inflated optimism about his future that befits a red-blooded American. When Marion Vineyard agreed to sponsor his musical career to get it off the ground, he promised her would make it big, and she believed him.

He played in many venues all up and down the north Atlantic coast, including the famous Café Wha? in Greenwich Village, before he was 18. Early on, he played in a three-piece called Earth. Though the timing is right, this was most likely not the Earth that Ozzy and Tony’s band heard about, deciding to change their name to Black Sabbath. A somewhat less patriotic but fully human story is of when he was 18 and called for induction to fight in the Vietnam War. He decided before he got on the bus, as he says, “I ain’t goin’.” He didn’t exactly draft-dodge, since he DID actually show up, but he torpedoed his chances by acting crazy and failing his physical – he got a 4F, which basically means the army wouldn’t take you if you had an American flag tattooed on your crotch.

Anyway, his blend of country town optimism and hard-as-steel stubbornness paid off, because by 1975 he had a great band behind him (the indomitable E Street Band), two solid records, and a growing reputation. But he was cooking something up, getting ready for a blast of all-or-nothing rock and roll in Born to Run. He was no longer satisfied with simply entertaining people; he wanted to change people’s lives.

Next: The Big Man.

Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway - 11/18/1974

Genesis – The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway – 11/18/1974

In 1973, Peter Gabriel was concerned about including some sort of English conceit in the title of Genesis’s next album. He was aware that there was a sentiment among their English fandom that they were getting too American. I’m not really sure what that looks like, but I think I can imagine what getting too British might be. If Bruce Springsteen were to suddenly take an interest in cricket or start saying “bloody hell” in more than an ironic sense, I might get suspicious.

In reaction, Peter and the rest of Genesis doubled down and made their 1973 record Selling England By the Pound particularly and conspicuously British. The cover art was by a British painter, the first two songs had a British feel to the lyrics, and the title both had “England” in it and was drawn from a contemporary English political slogan. There ya go – English fans sated.

13 months later, that concern was apparently all gone. Just as their 5th album had “England” in the title, their 6th had “Broadway” in the title. What American isn’t familiar with Broadway? And just as Selling England featured Britain and British attitudes, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway centers on New York City and things Americans understand. The main character of this concept album lives in Manhattan! The story starts in Times Square! If Gabriel is still trying to soothe his British fans into thinking he’s still British, he’s doing a really crappy job.

artwork from The Amory Wars saga

The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway is a concept album, which as I’ve explained before is a mostly useless term. In The Lamb, however, it finds its most useful definition, as well as other albums like it. The term “rock opera” better describes The Lamb and other albums like it (Quadrophenia and Tommy from The Who, Snow by Spock’s Beard, The Hazards of Love from the Decemberists, as well as the multiple Amory Wars albums by Coheed and Cambria). They do more than simply tell a story – Sgt. Pepper and Ziggy Stardust do that, but they’re not really in the same division as rock operas.

The Lamb is one of the only rock operas I like. The rock opera is fraught with peril – when you write one, you’re balancing on the razor edge between legitimate and ridiculous. What’s meant to be serious can very easily come off as stupid. The slightest miscalculation on your part, and your audience becomes aware it’s all a show, and starts to laugh. When that happens, you’ve lost them. It’s like a marionette show – the best ones are the ones where you can’t see the strings.

On The Lamb, Genesis plays some pretty risky games with plot and characterization (like the only cure to a horribly disfiguring disease being castration…), but it comes out clean on the other end due to… I’m not really sure what. The only explanation I can come up with for my high regard for it is that I first experienced it when I was a teenager, after my gaga-for-Genesis phase, but before I became a really critical thinker. I still swallowed some things whole, and Genesis still had that sugary candy coating. And I guess it’s still there in my stomach, unlike most other rock operas which sped through my system quite quickly.

But I also love The Lamb because it’s so fascinating. Every inch of it takes deep analysis and concentrated study to understand, and even then you only scratch the surface. In that way, it’s very similar to T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”; isn’t it ironic that what draws me in about The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway is the same thing that keeps me at arms’ length from “The Waste Land”?

Next: Rael, Imperial Aerosol Kid

Bookends – Simon & Garfunkel – 4/3/1968

When I was about 13, I was very enamored with our brand spankin’ new CD player. Because we had so few CDs at that point, I spent some time in our living room, cross-legged in front or our stereo cabinet, attentively listening to every CD we owned. This included Bookends by Simon and Garfunkel, which was of course included in my mom’s gift of S&G CDs. At first it was a matter of necessity, but I quickly came to like S&G very much. For mom, they were one of the only bands to have ever existed. Her favorite album is Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., but Bookends is mine because it has a definition and vision unlike any of their other albums.

The unifying concept behind most of the songs is the tension between the young and the old, and the awareness that the times (late ‘60s) were a period of hard change-over from one generation to the next. S&G glimpsed this in their cover of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” in 1964, but it would be fully explored with Bookends.

The first side (or the first 7 tracks) is where this concept is the strongest. It begins and ends with the same musical theme. The record starts with a softly picked acoustic guitar, but only for half a minute. It then takes a sudden and startling turn with the hard and slightly creepy “Save the Life of My Child.” As this is Simon & Garfunkel’s fourth album, they’ve created a reputation of soft folk and folk-rock songs, melodic and poetic. Given that, the distorted synthesizer and “SNAP!” sound effect at the beginning make “Child” pretty alarming. The lyrics tell in an observational tone of the chaos and division between the generations. The song’s main inflection seems to be that the older generation needs to step aside, but it also subtly indicates the lost and prodigal nature of the young.

After that comes “America,” a haunting requiem for the American Dream. Paul Simon proves his worth as a lyricist here, as these are some of the most achingly poignant words composed in the entire decade. Simon’s fey, delicate voice brings form to music that overflows with undirected beauty. They tell the story of two young vagabonds traveling across America in search of themselves and the essence of this country. The story taps into something eternal, the earnest search for meaning in a world where it’s so hard to find.

When I was a kid, I didn’t really get it. The message went so over my head that I thought “to look for America” meant literally. But the song also mentions Pittsburgh, Michigan, Saginaw, and New Jersey. So I was like, “how can they be looking for a place they’re already in?” When I asked my mother, she said the “America” in the song wasn’t a place, or at least not a place with political boundaries. She very wisely didn’t explain further. After a year or two of life experience, here’s what I came up with. The America they were looking for wasn’t an actual place, but a philosophical ideal. They were looking for the concept of America, and what made their land more than just soil under their feet.

Zooey Deschanel, Michael Angarano and Frances McDormand in Almost Famous

There’s a scene in the first act of the movie Almost Famous which perfectly captures the spirit and mindset of this song. 18-year-old Anita sits her mother Elaine down and says, “This song explains why I’m leaving home to become a stewardess.” The mother says, “We can’t talk anymore? We have to listen to rock and roll music?” The daughter then plays “America” on the home stereo and looks at her mother while it’s playing with a look that says so many different things. There is no better song to accompany a moment of needed understanding between the generations than “America.” Director Cameron Crowe has an amazing gift for picking the perfect song to accompany a moment in his movies, a song that matches up precisely with his characters and their motivations.

On Wednesday: Hey, Paul Simon, what ever happened to middle age?