Thursday, July 29, 2010

Forgotten Music: Lucky Town by Bruce Springsteen

I came late to the party. I'll admit that right now. During the heyday of Bruce mania (1975; 1984-85), I not only missed the boat, I didn't even want to get on. I couldn't stand him. I was too young for the "Born to Run" craze and was too enthralled in other 1980s-era Top 40 music to care about that guy who sounded constipated when he belted out "Born in the U.S.A." I mean, come on, the video juxtaposed live concert footage with the album-version of the song...and they didn't match. How dumb was that?

Cut to 1989, the year after the release of "Tunnel of Love," and my then-girlfriend gives me a copy of ToL. I listened and I paused. Hey, this ain't bad. Granted, it's not your typical Bruce cassette what with its talk of love and stuff, but it's good. I get to thinking: hey, maybe Born in the USA was actually okay. I bought it, listened to it, and liked it. Another influence in my Springsteen awakening was the books of Stephen King. There was a stretch there where ever book had at least one character comment on Springsteen. I listened to more records, bought more, liked more. When he disbanded the E Street Band, I was so unaware of Bruce's history (that he'd record his own songs sans band) that I worried that I'd never get a chance to see him live, much less get a new CD by him.

Then 1992 happened. As a new fan, I was beside myself that Bruce released not one but two CDs of music. Twenty-four songs. I was in heaven. As a result of this tortured route to Springsteen nirvana, the CDs that long-time fans think of with only a passing thought are the same CDs that have a special place in my heart. In the eighteen years since their release, Human Touch and Lucky Town have gone everywhere I've gone. But only one of them has aged particularly well.

Lucky Town is the most Springsteenian of the two CDs. Sonically, Human Touch is a direct descendant of the Born in the USA sessions with a focus on love more than any previous CD. Normally, listeners get the 'falling in love' CD and then the heartbreak CD. Not so Springsteen. Tunnel of Love was the cheating record, questioning his feelings and the efficacy of love itself. Then, Bruce falls in love, deeper than before, and writes a collection of songs about it. That's the bulk of Human Touch.

But Lucky Town shows the old Bruce reemerging, the disillusioned one, the one who doesn't want to believe in love--because the world is just too damn hard--but does so anyway. "Better Days," one of the two singles released in 1992 ("Human Touch" was the other) kicks off the CD with a rim shot and power chord you could put down in the rock-and-roll Bible. What makes Springsteen unique when it comes to love songs is the types of couplets he chooses. This ain't some 70s-era flowery, string-laden love song. This is the real world, and the real world brings with it bumps and bruises as well as the redemptive power of love. Witness the first verse:

Well my soul checked out missing as I sat listening
To the hours and minutes tickin' away
Yeah, just sittin' around waitin' for my life to begin
While it was all just slippin' away.
I'm tired of waitin' for tomorrow to come
Or that train to come roarin' 'round the bend
I got a new suit of clothes a pretty red rose
And a woman I can call my friend

Who among us can't admit that there have been times when we've thought life was moving along underneath us while we're sitting still? I don't see any hands. But does Bruce mope? Naw. He gets his new skin ("suit of clothes"), a new lease on life ("pretty red rose"), and a friend with which to walk down the road of life. He takes control of his life, sloppy though it may be, but tells us all that he couldn't have done it without his wife.

It is this kind of sentiment that resonates throughout the music and words of Lucky Town. When it comes down to it, we are each responsible for ourselves. We can't blame anyone or anything for our choices because we all have choices to make. Some are good, some bad, but we have to live with the consequences. Four tracks later, the song "Leap of Faith" bursts out with a riff on the same theme. At first, Bruce sings "Oh heartbreak and despair got nothing but boring/So I grabbed you baby like a wild pitch" and then breaks into the chorus: "It takes a leap of faith to get things going/It takes a leap of faith you gotta show some guts/It takes a leap of faith to get things going/In your heart you must trust." Springsteen leaped...and landed on solid ground. And he brings with him the stories from both sides.

This isn't to say that there aren't challenges to overcome or a few you can't. Springsteen laments gang violence in his adopted hometown of LA in "Souls of the Departed." In fact, his response ("Tonight as I tuck my own son in bed/All I can think of is what if it would've been him instead/I want to build me a wall so high nothing can burn it down/Right here on my own piece of dirty ground") garnered some ire back in 1992. Sure, Bruce is rich enough to build those walls. How about the rest of us?

The highlight of CD for me is his most personal song, "Living Proof." And it's one of the greatest examples of Bruce adopting Gospel-tinged lyrics in his music. He talks about prayer, life, God, and everything else. His incorporation of religious-themed lyrics proved essential when he wrote 2002's “The Rising in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11. But they work well here, too. After his leap, after finding the right woman, he was still unsure. Like he sings, "In a world so hard and dirty so fouled and confused," he was "Searching for a little bit of God's mercy." He was searching for living proof. What was Bruce's problem? The same that many of us can related to, I expect.

I put my heart and soul I put 'em high upon a shelf
Right next to the faith the faith that I'd lost in myself
I went down into the desert city/Just tryin' so hard to shed my skin
I crawled deep into some kind of darkness
Lookin' to burn out every trace of who I'd been
You do some sad sad things baby/When it's your you 're tryin' to lose
You do some sad and hurtful things/I've seen living proof

The live version (which you can find on his 1992 CD “MTV Plugged: In Concert”--highly recommended for all versions of his new 1992 songs) blows your speakers out with its power.

What do you get after all of this suffering and self-awareness? The mountaintop. Having just come through the valley of darkness, through all the tribulations of his life since his career began, Springsteen tells of his "beautiful reward." His character is searching for his beautiful reward but Springsteen has found his: a loving wife, children, a house, and a good job. It don't get much better than that.

Lucky Town may not the best Bruce Springsteen CD out there, but it is worthy to stand alongside the great ones. Give it another listen or listen for the first time. And think about your own life. I'll bet you that at least one song from this collection will resonate with you. Find that song and add it to you Life's Playlist. You won't be disappointed.


George said...

I've always liked LUCKY TOWN even though it has taken the backseat to classics like BORN TO RUN and BORN IN THE U.S.A. and DARKNESS AT THE EDGE OF TOWN.

Anonymous said...

I second the vote for Darkness... With the much-anticipated release of a commemorative box set for Darkness on the Edge of Town slated for this Christmas, Bruce Springsteen's classic record is getting renewed attention in the music world. Details on the project are scarce; however, in a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Steven Van Zandt mentioned that about 10 unreleased songs will be included in the box set. Fans are surely hungry for any and all material they can get from the 1978 recording sessions and subsequent tour.

For our own preview of what's to come, we contacted Dick Wingate, who was intimately involved in the launch and marketing of the album and tour. He offers an insider's view of what the Darkness era meant to Bruce and the band, while painting an often-humorous behind-the-scenes account of some of the tour's highlights. Enjoy, and you may want to check out the book The Light in Darkness, which one fan said, "… would also make a great companion piece to the much anticipated commemorative Darkness box set…"

Anonymous said...

Scott - you nailed it. "Lucky Town" is a true gem in his canon for all the reasons you mentioned. I believe it to be an unrecognized masterpiece.

To reiterate your point, "Living Proof" is the highlight.
But NOT for the godspell-influenced lyrics but rather
it's magnificence stems from its subject matter: having children. Just ask any parent.

Great piece.

Randy Johnson said...

I'm older than you, Scott, yet i never have warmed to Mr. Springsteen like so many of my friends. I've liked a song here and there, though I've never bought any of his music.

Perplexio said...

I've tried to get into Springsteen and I do like some of his material but I don't think my interest in his music will be any more than a passing one.