Read this first.
It's my cover story for this week's Eye on Bruce Springsteen, about the shadow he casts over a new generation, a generation who came of age during his fallow years in the irony-laden 90s. For these acts (Constantines, Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade, et al), Springsteen wasn't the ubiquitous force he was for anyone over, say, 33 (old enough to have started high school after Born in the USA had run its course). That generation comes to Springsteen without any serious baggage, and they're finding plenty to love.
And for those who only discovered the man lately, they've actually had a recent decent discography that hints at his greatness: 2005's Devils and Dust, 2006's We Shall Overcome, and the brand new Magic--which is much better than I ever expected it to be. And, if they happen to have at least $100 to spare, they may even have seen the return of the all-powerful E-Street Band since their return in 1999.
Even when Springsteen was reviled by anyone in "alternative" or "underground" circles--a time period that spans most of my adult lifetime--those who discovered his 1982 album Nebraska championed it as a guilty pleasure and/or a gateway drug.
Which is odd to me, as someone who's been a huge Springsteen fan since day one--which was hearing that album's "Atlantic City" on 1050 CHUM in Toronto. As a ten-year-old boy, I loved how different it sounded from everything else on the radio, I wondered who the "chicken man" could possibly be, not to mention what that "little favour" was that he was going to do might be. And, being a morose little lad, I was intrigued by the line: "Everything dies, baby, that's a fact/ but maybe everything that dies someday comes back." Come to think of it, that could be applied to Springsteen's career and current comeback.
I've seen Springsteen twice. The first was at the Amnesty Internatonal concert at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1988, alongside Peter Gabriel, Sting, k.d. lang, Tracy Chapman and Youssou N'Dour. Needless to say, it was unforgettable. When he pink slipped the E Street Band the next year, it took a long time for him to win me back. In fact, I didn't care much what he did at all until they reunited in 1999 and I saw them at the Air Canada Centre--a show that had me weeping with joy from the first 60 seconds as each E Streeter took the stage. And it only got better from there.
Two other guys who were at that show were Steve Lambke and Dallas Wehrle, a couple of hardcore kids from Cambridge who would start a band called the Constantines the next year. That band's career took off after Eye's Stuart Berman wrote this article putting them in a direct lineage to Springsteen (along with Strummer, Fugazi and Sam and Dave). Every other rock critic in North America picked up on the Fugazi-meets-Springsteen comparison and ran with it; the phrase remains a minor albatross for the Constantines to this day--even if it remains somewhat accurate.
I called the Constantines' Bry Webb to see what he had to say about Springsteen. Tomorrow I'll run my conversation with Merge Records' Mac McCaughan, who not only covered Springsteen in his band Portastatic, but also released the Springsteen-esque Arcade Fire album Neon Bible on his label.
Bry Webb of the Constantines
October 3, 2007
Locale: his cell phone in Montreal
I’ve always been a fan, and never lost my love. But around the time your band started, I noticed people talking about him again. Especially when Stuart Berman’s quote went into every press thing I read about you.
We used to cover “I’m on Fire,” but we actually stopped playing it because that quote was on the loose. It was all that anyone said about us, so we decided to downplay it. But Springsteen was always one of those guys we could all agree on: him and the Clash.
I recall a time when Springsteen was not that people talked about or admitted to liking.
I know what you mean. When I was younger and playing in punk rock bands, maybe I was reluctant to admit liking Springsteen. I started liking Springsteen after I fell in love with the Replacements. [Webb has a tattoo with that band's song title "Left of the Dial."] They were this band that were writing really good songs and playing them loud and being a raucous live band with beautiful, sensitive songs and great lyrics. Then I realized that they were kind of doing a Springsteen thing. I saw Springsteen in a new light and actually started buying his records instead of just knowing the hit singles from Born in the USA.
Musically, you were drawn to it, but what about lyrically? Did that part attract you initially, or did it sink in later?
We sometimes get called a working class band or a blue-collar band, and I’m not sure what that means. And I don’t think Springsteen ever set out to be a blue-collar hero, either. He was writing about subjects that he was close to and knew vividly. That seemed inspiring to me, trying to write honest songs.
I think people turned away from him after Tunnel of Love and through the 90s—mostly because there are a lot of crappy records, Tunnel of Love not being one of them. His music slowed to a trickle and it wasn’t that great, but also the culture of the 90s was so steeped in irony, and there wasn’t room for an earnest, honest “working class guy.” Springsteen was not part of the 90s at all.
That’s the difference between the Replacements and Springsteen; there is a lot of irony and taking the piss in Replacements lyrics. Though I feel there’s a lot of stuff underneath what’s available on the surface of Springsteen stuff, other ideas and winks.
One of the main reasons he’s so successful is his empathy for his characters, even the most vile or trivial ones. There are those throwaway toss-off two-minute rock’n’roll songs on The River, and even there you really get a sense of those narrators and what their concerns are and even just how they get their kicks on a Friday night.
I’m not particularly good at writing character songs, but I’m definitely inspired by his interest in the way people survive. That’s a real theme that runs through his entire career, the way people define their environments. I tend to write more about people I know and try to
Also, I’ve been listening to older Springsteen stuff in the last year, older bootlegs, and I feel like he was a real champion of the underground, especially when he was younger. I read something about him being a huge fan of Suicide, and recently he covered “Dream Baby Dream.” I also heard him do that in the 70s, on a bootleg. And he wrote with Patti Smith ["Because the Night"] and played on [Lou Reed's] “Street Hassle,” so he has this weird vibe. And his early lyrics were so dense, whereas later on they were stripped down and more pop. But the early stuff was really strange and unconventional.
In the 90s I was really into hardcore music, and that got so heart-on-the-sleeves, and that also led me to appreciate Springsteen. I didn’t take too well to irony by the end of my high school career. That’s another thread between Fugazi and Springsteen.
A band like Fugazi has always been about their live show, but in the shambling 90s, a lot of people didn’t want to admit to putting on a show, there was such a rejection of any kind of artifice—which is an artifice in itself. Whereas Springsteen is such a showman through and through, who clearly enjoys himself on stage. As opposed to making everybody suffer through your art in a collective experience with the audience.
It’s an interesting cycle. I’m sure people will be basking in irony again soon. I haven’t heard the new Springsteen record at all, not even the new single.
I really liked the two songs he made videos for, but the first time I heard the rest of it I didn’t like it. And I really didn’t like The Rising.
No, I wasn’t a fan of that at all.
This sounded a bit like that at first, but the songs are growing on me, and they’re more Born in the USA-sounding. And the album gets better as it goes along: it opens with all these guitar-heavy songs where you wonder where the E Street Band is. But they come through later in the album’s second half.
So you like it more than The Rising.
I can’t listen to that record. It really bothers me.
Yeah, it doesn’t speak to me at all. But I like career artists. It’s exciting for me to look at someone who plays for 40 years, and their imagination is still going.
I liked a lot of Devils and Dust.
Yeah, I liked what I heard of that.
Where do you hear his influence today?
I definitely think that new Arcade Fire album has a lot of similarities to Darkness on the Edge of Town. I didn’t hear that on their first record, and I never thought that about their band in general before this. But “(Antichrist Television Blues)” has a real Springsteen element to it: the character element, and the way the song builds. I really like that record a lot.
What do you think is misunderstood about Springsteen, if anything?
I think people gloss over the disturbing side of him. When I look back at his older music, he does seem more counterculture more than his image now would suggest.
Lyrically, musically or politically?
All three. His persona is so iconic that people don’t notice the strangeness behind some of what he does. Covering “Dream Baby Dream” is a great example of that. There’s a mischief behind a lot of his songs and his persona.
There was the “41 Shots” song a few years ago, and there’s a rousing rock number on the new album with the chorus, “Who wants to be the last to die for a mistake?” Which, of course, was a John Kerry line from the 2004 campaign. You’ve seen him before, haven’t you? With your mom?
Yeah, that was on The Rising tour. [Because of that] it wasn’t the show I was hoping it would be, but it was still great. And it was so great to go see a show with your mom and be just as excited as her. I would have loved to have seen the tour before that, the E Street reunion tour. [Constantines] Dallas [Wehrle] and Steve [Lambke] saw that, and said it was one of the best shows they’d ever seen.
I saw that too, and I actually started bawling when they all came out one by one at the beginning of the show.
I like that too, that there’s this community there that he’s brought back to life.