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Not that everyone sees it that way, of course. His manager Jon Landau, for instance the man who, as a Rolling Stone rock critic, came up with the now legendary claim: I have seen rocknrolls future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen has described Magic as a very bright record, the primary intention of which is not political. Quite obviously, in that case at least, they absolutely werent listening to the same record as the rest of us.
For me, the success of this latest batch of songs resides in the way Springsteen approaches his subject. Firstly, the big issue is never mentioned directly, looming intangibly instead, as he depicts the effects of combatants death or disability on friends and relatives in the US a distancing technique that has the paradoxical effect of bringing the war closer to home. Secondly, in order to convey the longerterm ramifications of the conflict, several songs feature projections into a scarred, uncertain future, rather than into the romantic past that once dominated his albums. And thirdly, there is or there appears to be, I should perhaps phrase it in the circumstances an underlying theme of illusion and deception running throughout the album that surely allegorises the ethical sleightofhand that has thrown his countrys moral compass out of alignment. Betrayal is a constant companion in these songs, whether its the craven media lambasted in Radio Nowhere as Bruce vainly spins his radio dial searching for a world with some soul, the speculators who made their money on the blood you shed in Gypsy Biker, or the sinkin sound of somethin righteous goin under as the groundswell of post9/11 patriotism is hijacked to perfidious ends in Livin in the Future. As Springsteen warns in the titletrack, Trust none of what you hear, and less of what you see.
That advice, however, might well be heeded by those of us myself included who would try to confine Springsteen to their own preferred interpretation of him. Just as there are many fans particularly nonAmerican fans who like to characterise Bruce as a man of virtue and probity, one of the last holdouts for an increasingly tarnished set of American values, there are doubtless millions of others whod prefer to draw a discreet veil over the consciencetweaking concerns of The Ghost of Tom Joad, and simply exult in The Bosss capacity for goodtime, boozy rocknroll fun. And who is to say they are wrong?
Certainly not Springsteen himself, who remains a firm believer in the notion of individuals having multiple selves. During his VH1 Storytellers show in 2005, he recounted an amusing tale of how a couple had spied him leaving a New Jersey stripjoint and upbraided him in the parking lot, telling him he shouldnt be there. Im not, he responded mischievously. I am simply an errant figment of one of Bruces many selves. I drift in the ether over the highways and byways of the Garden State, often touching down in imageincongruous but fun places. Bruce does not even know I am missing. He is at home right now, doing good deeds! Which is a lot more fun and considerably more polite than just telling them to mind their own damn business, the inalienable right of any public figure pestered during their private time.
For a long time, however, Bruce Springsteen would not have turned any heads as he exited a strip club. An ineffectual highschool student sustained by dreams of rocknroll stardom, he spent his teenage years performing in local New Jersey bands like The Castiles, Steel Mill, Sundance Blues Band and Dr Zoom The Sonic Boom, groups whose names indicate the diverse range of musics with which he developed a familiarity: R rocknroll, heavy metal, blues, soul, and whatever psychedelic delights were indulged by Dr Zoom. By the time he was 23, he had assembled around him the musicians who would form the core of The E Street Band, and had developed the facility at writing verbose, Dylanesque songs that originally attracted the attention of John Hammond, the legendary talent scout who had discovered Billie Holiday, Charlie Christian, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin and Leonard Cohen.
As with Dylan before him, it initially seemed as if Springsteen would be another Hammonds Folly, as his early albums Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle struggled to find an audience, and the new Dylan millstone seemed like it might become the headstone on his faltering career. By the time he came to make his third album, he knew it was his last throw of the dice, and so pulled out all the stops, his band spending months painstakingly layering the instrumental parts that might help realise his vision of a combination of Dylans wordiness, Roy Orbisons operatic delivery, and Phil Spectors Wall of Sound. Finally, after Clarence Clemons had spent 16 hours piecing together, fragment by fragment, the sax solo on Jungleland, Springsteen declared the album finished, even though by that time he had grown thoroughly sick of the way it ate up everyones life. Born to Run was released on 25 August 1975. Two months later, Bruce Springsteen achieved the unprecedented feat of appearing on the covers of both Time and Newsweek simultaneously.
Born to Run almost instantly became one of rocks landmark works, while the years of playing small clubs now paid off handsomely, as Bruces band became famous as the most thrilling and cathartic live act on the circuit. But the vertiginous turnaround in his fortunes also had a seismic effect on Springsteens life. As he explained in an insightful interview by Phil Sutcliffe in Mojo: Fame. is interesting because it makes you very present and you have a lot of impact, but it also separates you and makes you very singular. Youre now having an experience that not many other people you know are having. Its irony is that it carries its own type of loneliness.
His response to that loneliness was evident on the 1978 followup album Darkness on the Edge of Town. Where Born to Run had been brash and ebullient, an optimistic celebration of rocknrolls liberating spirit and a romanticised indulgence of its street mythology, new songs like the titletrack and Racing in the Street were sombre pieces, haunted by failure, regret and spurned hope, while the protagonists of Factory and The Promised Land were frustrated working men with death in their eyes and violence on their mind. In the three years since he had been catapulted to stardom, Springsteen had developed the social conscience that increasingly came to dominate his work, from sources as diverse as John Fords film of The Grapes of Wrath and the writings of historian Henry Steele Commager, which he claimed was: The first thing I read that made me feel part of a historic continuum, and which cemented his ideas about civic duty and collective responsibility. His 1980 work The River offered a rapprochement of sorts between the popular party anthems of Born to Run and the bluecollar anxieties of Darkness on the Edge of Town, but 1982s stark, solo acoustic offering Nebraska blindsided fans with its bleak, brutal depictions of cops, killers, lifers and losers, desperate men pushed to their limits and beyond. It didnt sell too well.
Born in the USA, however, sold by the shedload. The 1984 release, a return to the bifacial, partynponder approach of The River, remains one of rocks most successful albums, shifting over 15 million copies in America alone. The E Street Band climbed back on the tour bus now more likely to be a private jet and hauled their way around the worlds football stadia for a recordbreaking concert schedule, during which Springsteen met model Julianne Phillips, who would become his first wife in May 1985. Sadly, it would prove a troubled union, the singers unhappiness being reflected in the subsequent Tunnel of Love, an album replete with misgivings, reproach, and the kind of unfulfilled hopes that on previous releases would have been ascribed to downtrodden working men.
Ironically, it was during the subsequent Tunnel of Love Express Tour in 1988 that Springsteens affair with backing singer Patti Scialfa would become public knowledge. He and Phillips divorced in 1990, and Springsteen married Scialfa the following year. With its lowkey arrangements featuring drum machines and synthesiser, Tunnel of Love was unlike anything else he had recorded, and though it remains a critical and fan favourite, the circumstances surrounding it have made him reluctant to perform its songs live.
Happily, his marriage to Scialfa has proven much more durable, producing three children, now aged between 13 and 17. As so often when creative types demons are subdued, however, Springsteens work has since largely lacked the bite and edge that once drove his muse. Subsequent releases such as Human Touch, Lucky Town and the mostly acoustic, overly fingerwagging The Ghost of Tom Joad were pale, anaemic affairs by his standards, and the post9/11 offering The Rising, despite selling well in his homeland, seemed an ineffectual, confused response to the tragedy, short on insight and uncertain in its reaction to events. Once acutely aware of the tarnish on the great chrome bumper of the American Dream, in common with many of his countrymen he now seemed to exhibit a degree of difficulty in visualising his own country as it appeared from outside its borders.
Thankfully, Springsteens political gyroscope has since relevelled, and he played an important part in the Vote For Change campaign encouraging the young, poor and minorities to register to vote, and his song No Surrender was adopted as John Kerrys campaign anthem during his unsuccessful run for president. And in 2006, Springsteen became absorbed in the project honouring the activist folksinger Pete Seeger, for so long Americas conscience, recording a selection of politicised traditional songs associated with Seeger in rumbustious hootenanny manner. It seemed to some like an acknowledgement of his true heritage, an acceptance that ultimately, he would have to assume Seegers mantle as Peoples Tribune, and that when that time came, he would do so willingly.
With Magic, hes getting his troops back in line behind him. Its Springsteens most complex, textured work in years, as rich as any in his catalogue, with songs that both challenge, inform and entertain. On Magic this happens time and time again, as he proves himself a master of the empathy required to bring his characters to life in all their contradictory, multiple selves.