26/365 – “My Hometown”, Bruce Springsteen (1984) – 365 Days of Music

The word “hometown” conjures up a lot of feelings for me.  I was born and raised in Wigan, a town less than 20 miles west of Manchester.  I lived there for the first 18 years of my life.  I then moved to Manchester for 3 years, where I studied for my degree, before returning home.  In 2011 I took the plunge and decided to fulfil my dream of living in London.  I have been in London ever since and have no immediate plans to leave.

This song concludes one of my favourite albums – and Bruce’s most successful – “Born in the U.S.A.”.  This was the record that rocketed Bruce to superstardom when it was released in June 1984.  The song is soft, slow, and quiet.  Its content, like much of BITUSA, reflects upon the hardships many American towns faced during the economic twist and turns of the Reagan years, particularly those of Bruce’s home state of New Jersey. The narrator details the history of his hometown, from his memories as a child collecting his Dad’s newspaper, to the racial tensions of the 60s, through to the current time, where “jobs are going, boys / and they ain’t coming back”.

My hometown of Wigan has a similar history.  Historically a working class town, Wigan has seen widespread regeneration in the last decade or so, but the memories of our industrial past are never forgotten.  Wigan was a major town for coal mining and cotton mills.  Industrial northern towns faced severe economic troubles during the Thatcher years and have also had their share of tensions brought about by immigration policies.  Despite that 3000 mile gap, “My Hometown” reminds me that some of the differences between Bruce’s experiences and those of my town aren’t so dissimilar.  Bruce is the blue collar hero.  His message in this song draws distinct parallels with the experiences of Wigan.  I feel both a sense of pride and sadness for this.  I am proud of my roots, but I’m also sad that my town is often a forgotten town on the map of Britain.  What happens in the halls of power in London affects what then transpires in my hometown.

Speaking of London, I was fortunate to hear Bruce play the BITUSA album in full at his Hard Rock Calling gig in June 2013.  Glorious summer weather, a great venue, and with excellent supporting acts, that was a day I won’t forget.  “My Hometown” was a particularly moving experience for me.  Bruce extended the final bars this song, using call-and-response to tell the crowd, “this is your hometown”, and I proudly sung it right back to him.  I have lived here in London for almost 3 years.  I will never be a born-and-bred Londoner, but home is where the heart is, and my heart is still here in the Big Smoke.  Yes, Bruce, this is my hometown now.  Well, one of two.  Thank you for reminding me.

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25/365 – ‘Tougher Than The Rest’, Bruce Springsteen (1987) – 365 days of music

The road is dark
And it’s a thin thin line
But I want you to know I’ll walk it for you any time

This song means the world to me and I’m glad it finally popped up on my shuffle playlist so that I could write a little about it. Tunnel of Love was not an album I was overly excited about when I was first discovering Bruce’s back catalogue. I have a deep love for 80s music, specifically Bruce’s brand of synth-laden rock, but I didn’t think an album about divorce could top Born In The U.S.A., no matter how many synths and drum machines he packed into it. I was wrong.

‘Tougher…’ is track 2 on ToL. From the minute the slow drum kicked in, I was hooked. It’s a beautiful song about a man taking what may be his last chance for love with a pleading message that he is “tougher than the rest” of the men she may be considering. This song has been a crutch for me in times of sadness and loneliness, reminding me there are people out there willing to walk through the dark times with me. It has also helped me to recognise my own toughness in overcoming the numerous difficult phases I’ve experienced in my life so far. Yet again, Bruce proves he is more than just a singer and musician. He is a confidante, a poet, and he gives freely with his gift for writing about the every day trials and troubles that many of us face.

Two faces have I – Bruce Springsteen and depression

I’ve been meaning to write something for a while now. Well, if a while means two weeks. I have had a busy summer both at work and in my personal life, and haven’t found the inspiration nor motivation needed for a blog post. So much has happened and also too little in the way of change. I couldn’t find the words or context for how I have been feeling. And then the lightning bolt struck me as I walked home from the railway station just an hour ago. I was listening to my favourite Bruce Springsteen album, ‘Tunnel of Love’, and ideas began to take shape.

It is perhaps a sad fact that ‘Tunnel Of Love’ should be my favourite Bruce album. At 25 (almost 26, yikes) I have lived barely a third of my life (hopefully). An album so full of adult problems surely shouldn’t speak so deeply to me in these young, formative years. But it does and I won’t deny it. I have suffered for many years from depression and a perpetual inclination to mental breakdown. This album speaks to the half of my brain that betrays me to these inclinations. It has been at many times my only confidante and my only way of articulating those thoughts I myself can’t make sense of nor make sense to others. Maybe I should have directed my loved ones to this album sooner and we could have saved ourselves a lot of bother. Coulda, woulda, shoulda.

‘Tunnel Of Love’, coincidentally, was released in 1987, less than two weeks after I was born. I’d like to think Bruce knew that some day in the future a young white female from northern England would need this record more than any other. It’s a bit of a stretch but I like that thought. Bruce himself was going through a time of personal upheaval. His marriage to his first wife was deteriorating, and it has been suggested that his relationship with his bandmate (and his future wife and mother of his children) had already begun. Hm, so how does a twentysomething English girl find solace in an album about a broken marriage?

I never believed this idea that you necessarily had to experience something fully to appreciate the impact it has on your life. Truth be told however, I don’t think depression’s tortuous effects can ever be comprehended unless you suffer yourself. Music, on the other hand, gives us the ability to relate and express our own emotions and experiences through the artistic abilities of someone else. Who better then than Bruce, the greatest storyteller and lyricist of the last 40 years? Yes, I am biased. For me, this collection of 12 songs has been a comfort in times of great distress and loneliness. Songs about loss, bitterness, self-loathing, the pain of relationships, in all their forms, ending – these things have no restrictions. We will all experience one or more of these situations at some point in our lives. It doesn’t matter that I haven’t been through the breakdown of a marriage myself. Loss touches everyone.

Bruce opens the album with the catchy ‘Ain’t Got You’, in which he lists all the amazing things he now has, including “diamonds and gold” and “houses across the country”. Alas, the one thing he does not have is his love. When I first heard this song, I thought it kind of comedic. It has an upbeat bluesy melody and you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a happy song. But really it’s about all the happiness and love that material wealth simply cannot buy. Sure, I’ve never been rich. I do okay. But for the longest time I focused my time too much on what I didn’t have rather than what I did. I have wanted the boyfriend, the well-paid job, the skinny body, the looks of Angelina Jolie. What I wasn’t appreciating was the incredible people and experiences I already had in my life, from my loving family and friends, to my decent job, and the roof over my head. I live in London, for fuck’s sake. This was my dream. It is my dream. But depression will do that to you. Nothing is ever enough. You’re always looking over your shoulder with a sense of inadequacy. She doesn’t like me as much as her. He won’t think I’m attractive. Why am I the way I am? Why am I fat? Why why why? It’s an endless list. This song made me start to look inward.

Inward is not a pretty sight, but I doubt it is for most people. We are a selfish, arrogant species capable of both extraordinary kindness and unbelievable cruelty. I have dished out both of these myself. I have also been on the receiving end. I have pushed myself to the limits of self-flagellation for my actions and words and I have reaped what I sewed. If you keep pushing something away, eventually it’ll just get up and leave. Who can blame it? But at times when I have felt my weakest and seen no end in sight to my own torment, ‘Tougher Than The Rest’ has lifted me from those doldrums. It might be a song about an average Joe asking for a chance with the object of his affections, but for me it speaks of second chances and the bravery of those willing to reach out. After all, for so many of us, “the road is dark”. Just having one other person there to walk it with you can make a world of difference.

The flip side of this of course is the crippling loneliness and self-hatred one can feel during the times when no one is walking that dark road with you. Both of these have been at the centre of my depression. I remember the first time I heard ‘Two Faces’. It was in 2008, just as I was familiarising myself with Bruce’s back catalogue. I was going through a rough time at university, but this song spoke volumes to me. It helped me make sense of my own mind and the Jekyll and Hyde sides that I have wrestled with. For in my heart and mind, there is always the potential for both happiness and despair. It’s a fine balance I have still not managed to attain, but hearing Bruce speak of his own “two faces” gave me comfort. You, Cat, are not alone. We all have two sides. This song is still difficult for me to listen to. It is too close to the bone. Promising you’d make your friend or partner or relative “happy every day” and then you “made her cry” – yes, I can relate. You can never really promise these things. I wake up some days “sunny and wild”, but before too long my own “dark clouds come rolling by” and I want to pull the duvet over my head. You never feel quite whole, and I think this was Bruce’s point all along. These two faces create an incomplete duality. Perhaps only the love of another – or several others – can help breach the gap.

But what can we do when we lose people in our lives, people we love, because of our own behaviour? I have often listened to ‘Brilliant Disguise’ and questioned my own disguise. We all put on a brave face, but I let this get to the point of no longer knowing who I really was. And I forgot who a lot of my friends were too, friends with their own stories, their own burdens, and their own needs. Needs I should have helped them with. It’s part of the responsibility of being a friend and I will admit I have let many of mine down. Bruce sings of “struggling to do everything right” and things “falling apart, when out go the lights”. These words help me come to terms with my own failings. The truth is, we can make all the commitments and promises we like, something which Bruce touches on in both ‘All That Heaven Will Allow’ and ‘One Step Up’. But I, like many others, have often succumbed to the pull of my own demons and flaws.

‘One Step Up’ is, in my opinion, the saddest song on the whole album. There is a futility throughout the song that seeps in the moment that sad soft drum beat and acoustic guitar begin. From the stuttering car, to the silenced bird, and the lonely figure of a desperate man on a bar stool – all is despair, failure and melancholy. I have weeks, sometimes months, of good times until something happens – a word, a misunderstood look – and it crumbles. Inevitably, I’m “caught moving / one step up and two steps back”. Never in any other song has a lyric spoken so clearly to me and my own life experiences. Bruce sings of “another fight in our dirty little war” and the challenges that come with deep loving relationships and friendships where no one person will concede blame or compromise. Yes, I can relate. These themes continue throughout ‘When You’re Alone’, ‘Cautious Man’ and ‘Valentine’s Day’.

So, are there any happy songs? Not really. The three most upbeat songs on the entire album could fool you into thinking they deal with happy times, but don’t make that mistake. ‘Spare Parts’ is one of my favourite songs on the whole album. It’s a real foot stomping rocker, and I resent Bruce for not playing it live more often. The story it tells is of a pregnant woman who has been abandoned by her lowlife boyfriend. She has her baby, the boyfriend swears he “wasn’t ever going back” and she considers her life as one big mistake.  Happy?  Not so much.  Similarly, ‘Tunnel of Love’ is a great song, but darkness lurks over its seemingly-jovial description of a couple enjoying an amusement park ride. We smile and enjoy the ride, but really all we’re left with at the end is the lies we tell each other and “all that stuff we’re so scared of”. That, I suppose, is the risk we take with any relationship.

And as for ‘Walk Like A Man’, it’s a song about a fragile father-son relationship that has finally grown to a place where both parties feel a sense of peace and tolerance. Bruce himself had a strained relationship with his own dad. I can’t relate on a father-son note, but I did have a tempestuous relationship with my mother, especially during my mid to late teens when my depression was first manifesting. If I couldn’t explain my anger and pain to myself, how could I ever explain it to her? Thankfully we have passed that point. And yet my pain will always remain her pain, whether I’m 18, 25, or 50. During all my slip ups and progressions, she has been a rock for me, even when I was giving her shit every day. For that I will be forever grateful. It’s the kind of debt you can never truly repay.

I suppose this is where the post ends and I’m glad to end it on one of the more optimistic songs on the album. I’ve gone through all the songs on this masterful record, touching on some more than others purely because I relate to some more than others. Currently I’m at somewhat of a setback in my own personal life and this album has given me both comfort and perspective. I have had the most amazing support network throughout my battle with depression and continue to do so. This record is not a substitute for that, but merely an additional crutch. Many people have stayed a part of my life even when they probably felt they shouldn’t, and many I have pushed away, but I don’t blame or resent the latter. It’s never easy being close to someone like me, but I live in hope that they will find peace with me and perhaps even understanding. As Bruce says, “I didn’t think there’d be so many steps I’d have to learn on my own”, but that itself is part of growing, changing and healing. Spare parts and broken hearts – they keep the world turning.

Catherine

2nd September 2013

6:30pm

24/365 – ‘New York City Serenade’, Bruce Springsteen (1973) – 365 Days of Music

Walk tall / or, baby, don’t walk at all

I’ve loved this song since the first time I listened to ‘The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle’.  The album as a whole took longer to grow on me than most other Bruce albums.  But when I finally got it, I really got it.  This is the final song on the album.  It’s nearly 10 minutes long, but I wish it was longer.  It starts off with a sweeping piano intro by Bruce’s pianist at the time, David Sancious.  You could be listening to Rachmaninoff.  The song is New York City.  Everything about the music reminds me of that great city.  NYC is one of my favourite places on the planet.  I’ve visited twice now and I hope in the next few years I will get back there for a longer stay (I’ve never been there longer than 6 days).

A great memory for me comes from my last visit to Manhattan.  It was a 5 day trip I took with two of my best friends and we were staying on the Upper West Side.  On the Sunday, we had done our usual 50 block walk to Midtown and ended up in an Irish bar on East 48th St, right near the Rockefeller Center.  It’s probably my favourite part of Manhattan.  The bar staff were very friendly, the food impeccable, and the bar manager gave us free Bailey’s when we left.  As we walked back up 5th Avenue towards Central Park, I put this song on my iPod.  It was an incredible 10 minutes.  Just me, Manhattan, my friends, and Bruce.  The night was cold but clear, and all the lights of Manhattan twinkled.  It was the closest thing to real magic I’ve ever experienced.  Moments like that can’t be bought or reenacted; they just ‘are’.  That was in November 2011 and it’s now April 2013, but that memory is as fresh as ever.  I’ll never forget it.

22/365 – ‘Fire’, Bruce Springsteen (1977) – 365 Days of Music

This must be the sexiest song in his entire repertoire.  He wrote it for Elvis, but Elvis died before he had chance to record it.  It was written during the ‘Darkness’ sessions, but Bruce felt it didn’t fit in with themes of struggle and hopelessness that feature on that album.  I have to fully restrain myself from throwing my underwear at my computer screen whenever I watch the live performance from 1986.  Listen, and melt.  Here is the live version.  Enjoy.

 

 

 

 

20/365 – ‘Then He Kissed Me’, The Crystals (1963) – 365 Days of Music

Ah, Phil Spector.  I still feel a pang of guilt for loving all those songs you produced now it’s been proven you’re a murderous bastard.  Alas, music is timeless and as this specific song proves, without great girl groups like The Crystals, your music would not be half as incredible.  Discovering soul music in the form of Spector’s “Wall of Sound” production method was a revelation for my teenage mind.  That glorious, sweeping orchestration, blended with the soul vocals and instrumentation so common on records of the 1960s – it is heavenly. 

I first heard this song when I watched the Martin Scorsese film ‘Goodfellas’ for the first time.  From then, I was hooked.  The song itself is so simple – in melody and in lyrics.  But as with so many soul songs of that era, its effect goes beyond its simplicity. 

“He kissed me in a way that I’d never been kissed before / He kissed me in a way that I wanna be kissed forever more”

Beautiful.  The minute I hear that intro, I’m gone.  That Bruce Springsteen has often covered it (neatly changed to ‘Then She Kissed Me’) in his live sets makes it just that little bit more special.

16/365 – ‘Dancing in the Dark’, Bruce Springsteen (1984) – 365 Days of Music

Blah, word vomit ahead. This song conjures too many memories to count.

1. First time I saw Bruce’s bum wiggle in those jeans must have been when I was a kid watching MTV or VH1. But I remember the first time I watched it and had FEELINGS about that wiggling bum. That was around 2008 when the obsession first kicked off.
2. Seeing it live at my first Bruce gig, May 2008, one of few songs I knew at that point… phoned my Mum so she could hear it.
3. My 23rd birthday. Me and my mates in Bamboogy on King Street in Wigan. They got this played for me, it was glorious.
4. Any time in Reflex bar I’ve managed to get it on.
5. One of my top 5 songs to run/gym to. Nothing better than pummeling the treadmill whilst Bruce sings, “can’t start a fire / can’t start a fire without a spark”.
6. Dancing to it at a friend’s family party in summer 2012. Dancing with my best mates in the White Hart in London just before Christmas. Me and my friend Holly doing the classic Bruce dance from this very video.
7. One of those songs that can just pick me up when I’m down. “Can’t start a fire / sittin’ round cryin’ over a broken heart”. Thanks Bruce.