Sunday, October 14, 2007

Springsteen: Mac McCaughan

When I decdided to phone Mac McCaughan to be a source on my Springsteen story (in this week's Eye Weekly; read it first), I knew he would have a few things to say. He covered "Bobby Jean" and "Growin' Up" in his Portastatic project; his label Merge put out one of this year's biggest Springsteen comparison points, Arcade Fire's Neon Bible. What I didn't know is how much he would have to say, and how much he refutes my theory that Springsteen was ever a love that dare not speak its name.

Quick side note: I fried my Macbook by drowning it in drinking water this weekend. Though the hard drive was salvaged, I wouldn't recommend the experience. That combined with pre-CMJ madness means we likely won't be back on track for the next week, though I hope to post an interview with Springsteen lookalike Nathan Lawr about his (Lawr's) great new record.

Mac McCaughan
October 4, 2007
Locale: cell phone from North Carolina

You were one of the first people I heard covering him about five years ago, after a lot of people didn’t really want to speak his name in the 90s. The 90s were a time when he was raising a family, his records weren’t that great, and he was relegated to the fringes.

Part of that is [the 1992 album] Lucky Town and, uh, and, uh, what’s the other one that came out the same day as Lucky Town? [Human Touch]

I think you’re proving a point about those two albums right there.

It’s funny, because I know the guy who runs Backstreets magazine [the long-running Springsteen fanzine] because his office is in Carrboro now. They did this thing where they had people write in about how they would make those two albums into one good album. There are really good songs on there. But he watered down his impact by putting out two records on the same day. I worked in a record store at the time. And the E Street Band wasn’t together.

[The 1995 album The Ballad of] Tom Joad is a really good record too, but it’s so low-key that it didn’t engage people in the way that The Rising is bound to engage people.

The 90s were a weird time in terms of his output and who was still following him. Obviously tons of people were, but it was a lower profile. He doesn’t lose fans, but there are times when they have more to talk about than other times.

During that time, even discussion of his old records was strained. It was like a secret that people would confess to me: ‘I hate to say it, but I find I actually kind of like Bruce Springsteen.’

That might be a Canadian thing. When I try to talk about Springsteen with friends of mine in other countries—England, Canada, wherever—it’s a little bit weirder. But me, I was never embarrassed about being a Springsteen fan. I think his image is a bit more nuanced here as opposed to how he projects to a foreign audience. A friend of mine from England had this impression of a flag-waving Born in the USA guy, without really knowing what that song or that record was about. So I think it’s the 80s and not the 90s that really put a bad taste in people’s mouths about Springsteen, especially people who didn’t care to look beyond the surface, which was probably a turn-off.

And he was so ubiquitous at that point.

Sure. I’m the first person to say that Born in the USA presented me, as a Springsteen fan, with some problems. I didn’t like the production, and he became so big and ubiquitous that there were all these people getting into Springsteen that I didn’t like. One of my great regrets is that I decided not to go see him on that tour. I was in high school, and I worked at the university after school, and all these frat boy meathead types were going to see the show in Greensboro. The whole vibe felt different to me, so I didn’t go. And I wish I had.

But myself and Jon and Jim in Superchunk were always fans and were never embarrassed or hid our love. Laura wasn’t a fan. But I think she doesn’t like saxophones.

Another big barrier for many!

That was one of the first things that Jim Wilbur and I bonded over, was Nebraska.

Which is the gateway drug for many.

For me, the gateway drug was weirder. I grew up in South Florida until I was 12, when we moved to North Carolina in 1980. I listened to the album rock station or whatever it was called then. So you heard “Born to Run,” “10th Avenue Freeze Out” and all the hits. But my parents took me to see the No Nukes movie. There are so many bands there and lots of it isn’t great. We went to the theatre when it came out. The Springsteen segment is so amazing and blows everyone else away. I think my dad went to see the Doobie Brothers or something, but the Springsteen segment is so incredible.

The River came out right at the same time, or shortly after. We bought the 8-track after that, and totally wore that album out. My only complaint was that with an 8-track there was always a song that got played twice in order to have all the tracks come out the same length, and the song on that was “Point Blank,” which is one of my least favourite songs on that record. That was a bummer. Other than that, I love it.

Win Butler just emailed me to say that he never really saw a difference between Springsteen and The Clash. And he’s what, 26? It made me think that maybe the reason why Springsteen’s name is dropped now, and why there are a lot of bands where you can hear a direct line to what Springsteen did, is because for this generation he’s just part of a massive 20th century discography: it’s not about punk or not punk, cool or not cool. London Calling came out in 1980, and so did The River.

Yeah, but both those records would be played on the album rock station I was talking about. I’d hear “Police on My Back” and “Train in Vain” on the same station. There were more blurring of the lines, and the DJ probably had more say about the records she was playing. At the time, a lot of people were probably listening to both.

I guess those lines were drawn more clearly when Born in the USA came out—which, for me, was when I was in Grade Nine. He was always very mainstream to me.

Right. Now I can go back to Born in the USA and really enjoy a lot of the songs on there, but at the time, the slickness of it turned me off. But other than Nebraska, it’s not like he’s ever been one for an indie lo-fi aesthetic. For me, one of his most produced records is in my Top Three favourites of his, which is Tunnel of Love. Again, that was a record that when it came out, I listened to it all the time. I worked at a pizza place and we were starting Merge. I feel that record didn’t get enough respect at the time, but some of his best songs are on there.

It’s also a record that ages better as you do. The older you get, you realize how terrifying some of those songs are.

It’s very dark. Maybe ten or 12 years ago, we sent a package of Merge CDs to Springsteen, stuff we thought he might like. And we wrote a letter saying, ‘Hey, you’ve been a huge influence, and maybe you’ll like some of this stuff, maybe you won’t.’ He seems like someone who listens to a lot of different things and has good taste in music. But the package came back. The address we dug up was not the right one.

Have you ever heard any feedback about your covers or the Crooked Fingers ones?

No, nothing like that. I got to meet him once, just incredibly briefly. When the Arcade Fire were nominated for a Grammy, I went out for that. There was a party afterwards, and we were about to leave when Bruce and Patti showed up. I knew that he was aware of the Arcade Fire…

Didn’t he order a copy of Funeral very early?

There was someone who worked at Tower in New York who knew Bruce’s guy, the guy who would go buy records for him, ones he would ask for because he couldn’t actually go to the store himself. So he called up one day telling us that this guy bought the Arcade Fire. So we knew there was some awareness there.

Win and Regine talked to him for a while. I talked to Patti for a minute. I was wearing the suit I got married in, and I sang ‘Two Hearts’ at my wedding with the wedding band. I told Patti that, and she thought it was cute. I didn’t really want to have a long conversation with either of them because I was afraid I was going to say something stupid. I shook his hand and said hi and just kind of walked away. But he’s someone that I think is fairly guarded in interviews and in public, but he still comes off as a warm person that you want to talk to more. He’s someone you want to know.

I remember [Arcade Fire's] Tim Kingsbury telling me that meeting him was the only good thing that happened to them at the Grammys. He said you can sense a warmth and a connection right away. When they were leaving the room, Springsteen waved from across the room and said, ‘See you later, friends!’ I’m curious, though, how you see his influence manifesting itself in Arcade Fire or other current bands. Is it because he’s making better records now, or is it something in the zeitgeist?

It could be that he’s been more productive himself over the past few years. Or it could be something about what you’re saying with people who are young enough not to even have lived through the Born in the USA era, who can come to the whole thing without any preconceived baggage about it. But the real thing is that in any era he’s going to be relevant. Production values aside, the songs are timeless—even when he was making them. Listening to his records from the 70s and 80s, if you can imagine the context of the time, when Born to Run came out you’re talking about putting out a 60s-style production of rock and pop and soul and R&B at a time when the two biggest things going were disco and punk rock.

Really? In 1975? I’d put both of those movements a bit later.

Right. So that came out, and then those two things became the biggest things ever, and then he followed it up by trying to live down the hype of those two magazine covers [when Born to Run was released, he was on the cover of Time and Newsweek the same week] with a record like Darkness on the Edge of Town. He was such a throwback at a time when people did not want throwbacks—they wanted the future, whether that was punk or disco.

And you look at people he was hanging out with at the time, it was people like Joe Ely and Joe Strummer. It was already out of time then. It’s not the kind of thing that will go out of fashion, because it is what it is. And he’s still referencing the same things on his new record as he was then.

I can’t explain why now as opposed to five or ten years ago, because to me he was equally relevant five or ten years ago. The kind of themes he’s talking about, bringing this dark element to pop music without it being dour, is something that Neon Bible does. There are depressing themes there, but the overall feeling of the record is not ‘you should just kill yourself now.’ Springsteen does the same thing.


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