Thursday, March 31, 2022

The Specialness of Firsts: Human Touch and Lucky Town at 30

You never forget your firsts. First day of school, first kiss, first breakup, first job, first child. You also never forget the first time you bought a new album by a new-to-you musician. Human Touch and Lucky Town are those albums for me, and it was when I officially joined the ranks of Bruce Springsteen's fans.


In 1984, at the height of the Born in the USA frenzy, I flat out didn't like Springsteen. That was the only album I knew of him, and then, only the radio songs. But those tunes were everywhere, yet I hadn't figured out Bruce, who he was or what he was trying to say. Dancing in the Dark was okay, but that title track, with the bizarre decision to overlay the studio song on the music video from his live performances (thus, making them out of sync), was a song I enjoyed hating and mocking. Yet I never bothered to read the lyrics.

Cut to 1987 when I discovered Stephen King, starting with Pet Semetary. This was the spring, my senior year in high school, and college life beckoned. Many times, King quoted Springsteen's lyrics. Seeing the words in text without Bruce's singing, I took a new interest in them. Not the music, mind you, but the lyrics.

When Bruce's 1987 album Tunnel of Love came out, lead single "Brilliant Disguise" turned out to be...not bad. In fact, I kind of liked it. Then, a friend gave me a cassette copy of that album (it was one of those 12-albums-for-a-penny things from Columbia House). I listened, and I liked. With open eyes and a more mature sense of music, I circled back to Born in the USA.

Whoa. This is actually pretty good, lyrics and music combined. Sure, Born in the USA was still a fun song to mock, but I slowly worked my way through the back catalog, mostly in reverse order. I quite liked The River, especially the live version with that extended introductory story Bruce relates on the box set. Took some time to get used to Nebraska, and I think I stopped at Born to Run, letting those first two Springsteen albums be that last old ones I discovered. And just like that, I was a Springsteen fan.

The Spring of 1992

It took me five years to get through college (by choice; double major) so by the spring of 1992, my eyes were focused on grad school, ideally at a university in close proximity to where my then-girlfriend would be attending medical school. I had already dipped my toe in the wonder of all those non-album tracks. I stumbled onto his song from the We Are the World album because I had already bought it for the non-album song by Chicago. My one and only time I ever called a radio station and asked about a song was when KLBJ, the local rock station in Austin, Texas, played "Roulette" and I simply had to know the song title and then go buy the CD single of the then-current song "One Step Up" to get it.

When you're graduating from college, one phase of your life is ending. Granted, I'd spend the next six years in grad school but I didn't know that in the spring of 1992. I was growing up. I was in my early twenties. My entire life was before me and I was ready for it.

Turned out, Springsteen himself was entering a new phase of his life as well. After the much-publicized marriage and divorce to Julianne Phillips, Bruce had fallen in love with Patti Scailfa, a singer in his band. I barely knew about this having never seen him live at that point and, well, no internet. Be that as it may, his new love and new status as a father permeated all the new songs he wrote during the time after Tunnel of Love. Finally, when the news broke that there was going to be new Springsteen music released, imagine my overwhelming joy to learn there would be not one album, but two.

The Albums

Two albums of material. Twenty-four songs: fourteen on Human Touch and ten on Lucky Town. On that bright spring morning thirty years ago, I woke, drove to the record store, bought the CDs, and quickly returned to my apartment. I saw in front of the stereo and just listened.

The cool sounds of Human Touch washed over me. Frankly, the title track sounded like he had not missed a beat from the sonic tapestry of Tunnel of Love. The second track, "Soul Driver," seemed to be a kindred spirit from "Cover Me." "57 Channels" was interesting, to be sure, and has reached ironic status in the age of multiple streaming channels here in 2022. "With Every Wish," with it's muted, soaring trumpet, and evocative, storytelling lyrics, has always been a favorite, and the theme of the song-With every wish, there comes a curse-is always good to keep in mind. "Roll of the Dice" and its glockenspiel is the first old-school Springsteen song of the entire record. And "I Wish I Were Blind" is a gorgeous ballad tinged with the anguish we all feel when we see an ex with someone else. If Springsteen ever records an album with an orchestra, I hope this one is in the setlist.

Human Touch is not without its weak songs. I rarely listen to album closer "Pony Boy." While "Real Man" may not be his best song, the pure joy in his words and voice is palpable. I appreciated it at the time, and very much appreciate it now.

If you assume that "Born to Run" is the best song Springsteen ever wrote, then Lucky Town opens with what has become my favorite song: "Better Days." Its exuberant optimism in where he finds himself is tempered only by the scars it took to get there. This song is one I have never forgotten, and turned to its lyrics over the years as my own life has gone through its ups and downs. In fact, verse 3 contains some of my favorite poetry Springsteen has ever penned, especially that last couplet.

Now a life of leisure and a pirate's treasure
Don't make much for tragedy
But it's a sad man, my friend, who's livin' in his own skin
And can't stand the company
Every fool's got a reason for feelin' sorry for himself
And turning his heart to stone
Tonight this fool's halfway to heaven and just a mile outta hell
And I feel like I'm comin' home

The words of "If I Should Fall Behind" resonate constantly, especially in the shows from this century when all band members take a turn at singing various lines. "Leap of Faith" is a great song anyone pondering big life decisions when dealing with a potential spouse and those wondering thoughts of whether or not you're making the right decision ring in your head. Ditto for parenthood in the lyrics of "Living Proof" and the realization that so many of the things that hold us back are self-inflicted.

You do some sad sad things, baby
When it's you you're tryin' to lose
You do some sad and hurtful things
I've seen living proof

But he returns in the very next verse to show a way out:

You shot through my anger and rage
To show me my prison was just an open cage
There were no keys, no guards
Just one frightened man and some old shadows for bars

What also runs through both of these albums is the redemptive power of love and music. I'm no deep Springsteen scholar but I think it's with these two albums that the spiritual language Springsteen now uses to great effect started. "The Rising" carries it forward (that's my third favorite song of his) and it keeps going through the Pete Seeger album, Western Stars, and Letter to You.

What the Albums and Era Mean to Me

I listened to those albums constantly back in 1992 and the years after. While I was driving by myself on the highways of central Texas, visiting potential schools to start my graduate studies in history, it was these twenty-four songs I blasted from my car, windows down, hair blowing in the wind. These songs had me constantly looking to a bright future, but they also foretold the inevitable: life is never straight with zero potholes. It is a jagged road, with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. It is fraught with everything you might imagine-and some you couldn't.

In the past thirty years, these albums have fallen out of favor by Springsteen fans and Springsteen himself. Famously, he lamented that when he tried to write happy songs, it didn't go over well, which always struck me as odd. Don't we want our musical heroes to be happy and write songs in that vein? In fact, "Happy," a song from the Lucky Town sessions that didn't make the album, has also become one of my favorites, even making its way onto the playlist of songs at my wedding reception.

But Human Touch and Lucky Town have never lost their luster with me. I'll admit that had Springsteen whittled down the twenty-four songs to a single, albeit long, album, the result might've been stronger. But I didn't care then and, frankly, don't really care now. I gravitate to Lucky Town a tad more, but I always bring in more than half of Human Touch's songs into various playlists over the years.

It's not lost on me the place Human Touch and Lucky Town have in my Springsteen fandom. I'm the oddball. When I witnessed my first Springsteen show in December 1992 in Dallas with a couple of fellow grad students, they told tall tales about the 1984 and 1987 concerts. All those stories sounded great-and I've since discovered them and have come to enjoy those shows-but the Human Touch/Lucky Town Era is special. It's where I officially joined the entourage of Bruce's loyal fanbase. I've stayed with him ever since.

Sure, there are albums I rarely listen to-The Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils and Dust-but I bought them on day one and spun them. I was ecstatic when 1998's Tracks came out and I had four new-to-me Springsteen albums to hear. And I finally got what it was like to have the E Street Band backing him with all the hoopla surrounding The Rising when Bruce was everywhere on TV. We got the sublime Western Stars and the poignant Letter to You and, with Springsteen, you know there will likely be a new album, maybe even this year.

But on the thirtieth anniversary of Human Touch and Lucky Town, I think back to the young man I used to be, hearing these songs for the first time, and the middle-aged man I am today, when these songs have embedded themselves in the fabric of my being. Both versions of myself love and appreciate these two albums, but for different reasons. The younger me found himself inundated with joyous songs of love and redemption, with his life unfolding before him, little knowing it was about to change. The middle-aged me, the me who is about a decade older than Springsteen was when he wrote these songs, the me who is a father and husband, feels these songs differently. He's lived them, through thick and thin, and come out okay.

With lifespans being what they are, I'm more than halfway to heaven. But the music of Bruce Springsteen, and specifically Human Touch and Lucky Town, have been with me for thirty years now, and I'm so thankful for their companionship.

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