I am going to try to say something profound here. But I am going to start with an example that may provoke some push-back. So, kind reader, please bear with me.
I have a hangup about old musicians who keep churning out songs and performing when they are long past their prime. People who know me have heard this ad nauseum. And exhibit A has always been Bruce Springsteen. I’m not saying, nor have I ever said, that Bruce has never been good. There are people who say he’s always been awful. More than a few, in fact, though scrutiny reveals they mostly come from Philadelphia. Anyway, I’m not one of them. I think Bruce at his best was phenomenally good. Bruce deserved his place on the list of “next new Bob Dylans” — a tag that has defined a series of performers over the years as most likely to yield a collection of songs equal in impact to those of Dylan. Other “new Bob Dylans” have been Steve Forbert, Jim Carroll, and Courtney Barnett. Bruce at his best has been urgent, compelling and real.
As a parent, one always wonders if he has done a good job. My four daughters are all wonderful people, but I figure that is mostly to their credit and my wife’s and not to mine. One occasion I can recall and feel I did good was when I showed the following clip to the girls, saying here’s an artist at the pinnacle of his form:
And a week or so later, I walked into the room and one daughter was watching the clip again, soaking in the fervent ardor of the performance from 1978. But that was 1978. Bruce in his later iterations is pretty crappy.
And now the datasaur as the data to prove it.
Recently, New York Magazine writer Caryn Rose ranked Springsteen’s songs — all 314 of them — from best or worst. As you would expect, the exact rankings can be niggled over. There are some songs I’d place higher or lower than she did, but not by much. She puts Born to Run at #1, where it absolutely must be. She puts The Promised Land at #5, which shows nice taste. I would have liked to see Prove It All Night higher than #18 and Downbound Train higher than #84, but neither is worth a quibble. The crabby old punk rock lady, as she calls herself, shows throughout that she’s well informed and has nice sensibilities. Only rarely does she show any deficiencies, as when she ponders what’s a dynamo and why does Bruce want to meet a girl in the fields behind one. (A dynamo is a power plant). I submit that Rose’s rankings are, if not definitive, then at least authoritative. I can add some value and insight by organizing the songs and albums in order of their release. Here is the chart:
What you see is all of Springsteen’s albums with substantial new material in order. First comes Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. from 1973, and last is The Ties That Bind from last year. (These aren’t all his albums — there are lots of live albums, greatest hits packages, box sets, bootlegs and collaborations in addition to these.)
Anyway, the vertical line for each album shows the range of best and worst songs on the album. The middle dot is the average ranking for all songs on the album, but that isn’t too meaningful. The highest dot in the chart signals #1 is and that is the song Born to Run off the 1975 album Born to Run. The lower a line or bar descends, the lower-ranked is the song represented. And short line means all the songs on the album are ranked consistently.
Bruce’s first album was a juvenile effort, and it ranks middlin’. But then he found his stride and his next three albums in the 70s were all just . . just. . . Bruuuuuuuce! It’s not just that the good songs were really good — even the filler songs stand the test of time and still rank among his best ever. Three more very good records followed in the early 80s, capped by the popular monster Born in the USA from 1984.
In the past when I groused that Bruce has been too sub-standard for too many years, I had it in the back of my mind that maybe I wasn’t hearing enough of his new stuff. Well, Rose has listened to it all. And she confirms what I have supposed, and what the chart illustrates. Bruce has spend the past 30 years writing songs that are none of them as good as the songs he wrote in the 70s. You might think that as a guy aged, he’d slow down on stage but would write more profound lyrics and better tunes. That is what Mark Knopfler has done. But not Bruce. It is not simply that nothing since ’84 has been as operatic as Jungleland or as ebullient as Rosalita. Rose makes evident that once you get past the top 100 or so songs, Springsteen’s oeuvre isn’t particular good at all.
140. “Leap of Faith,” Lucky Town. The melody is a little cloying, and combined with all of the mixed biblical allusions (the Red Sea, the holy land, Moses, parting waters, and Jesus all make an appearance), this track isn’t as strong as the rest of Lucky Town.
165. “Rendezvous,” Tracks. Listen to the studio version on The Promise and you’ll understand why it never made the record. Compared to the bright verve of the live version, this just didn’t cut it.
200. “Gave It a Name,” Tracks. Springsteen liked this Human Touch outtake so much that he re-recorded it for the box set when the master couldn’t be found. It’s still definitely an outtake, though. The idea doesn’t feel sufficiently formed.
Cloying. Isn’t as strong as the rest. Just didn’t cut it. Definitely an outtake. And these “faint praise” reviews are for songs in the middle of the pack. You can see for yourself what Rose has to say about the bottom of the pile. She’s by no means totally negative, either. She notes that song #142, The Wrestler, won a Grammy for 2008. But she still maintains it deserves no better than that position. And this oughtn’t to be controversial. The album called Tracks is a warmed-over treatment of songs that weren’t good enough to go on The River and other earlier albums. (Bruce is a prolific songwriter! You gotta give him that.)
Those songs weren’t good enough to be on a Springsteen album in 1982, but they were good enough to be on a Springsteen album in 1998. Bruce sold those left-overs, rejects and retreads as if they were his sincere best effort. And then he almost immediately released another album called “18 Tracks” containing a cheaper assortment of the same left-overs, rejects and retreads. When The Clash found themselves wondering what to do with a backlog of not-their-best work that fans might nevertheless like to hear, they issued the 3-disc set Sandinista! at the price of one record. Where lies integrity?
One of the anti-Bruce articles I linked above suggests that the Beatles and David Bowie were better than him. I think that is ridiculous. But good Bruce is a whole lot better than now Bruce. Consider the following two lyrical samples:
Everybody’s got a hunger, a hunger they can’t resist,
There’s so much that you want, you deserve much more than this,
But if dreams came true, oh, wouldn’t that be nice,
But this ain’t no dream we’re living through tonight,
Girl, you want it, you take it, you pay the price. (Prove It All Night, 1978)
I’m workin’ on a dream
Though it can feel so far away
I’m, working’ on a dream
Our love will make it real someday (Workin’ on a Dream, 2008)
In 1978, Bruce understood that even if you have to pay the price and you’ll never get all you deserve, livin’ through the night is better than just dreaming. He was great because he understood — and conveyed in song — that life is fleeting and opportunities should be seized. In 2008, Bruce was peddling the poison he had himself rejected 30 years earlier.
And getting really, really rich doing it. Note that commercial success has nothing to do with the argument of the quality of Springsteen’s songs. To say, as Rose has done, that his later stuff is consistently much worse than his earlier songs in no way precludes Bruce from selling them. And that actually leads, finally, to my point.
Imagine a beautiful bouquet of fresh flowers. Now imagine how, after a few days, the pedals will begin to fade and wilt and how eventually the bouquet will lose its beauty entirely. When that happens, you will throw the flowers out. And doing that doesn’t mean that you have no appreciation for beauty. If the flowers were a gift, it doesn’t mean you didn’t appreciate them. It just means you can differentiate between what they were and what they are now. But maybe we aren’t as clear about that distinction in other areas.
Take the example of Chinese cuisine. When Ralphie’s family eats their Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant in the denouement of A Christmas Story, it is the final exotic twist of a child’s surreal memory. Up through the end of the 90s, a Chinese restaurant was apt to have white tableclothes and serve rum drinks ion flutey glasses. They were at least one step upscale. Today Chinese buffets serve the lowest of low-brow comfort food. And there are more of them than ever before.
I think probably there is some impulse that compels us to stay loyal to things long past their “best by” date. John Prine (also a “next new Bob Dylan”) sings of a grandfather who “voted for Eisenhower ’cause Lincoln won the war,” meaning he maintained a political loyalty for the GOP for 96 years irrespective of what Lincoln’s party did after him.
I have already written a piece arguing that the American system of governance is no longer what the founders intended, and probably doesn’t deserve our continued fealty. If we would make the choice, I think we’d choose a really representative republic that maintained individual rights and achieved the common good. I think we’d get the government we want. But just as we cling to the wilted bouquet and the faded rockstar and the downgraded restaurants and the contemporary evangelical churches and the stale bread and a hundred other things, we think it is our duty not to choose.