My Playlist: The Boss

Before getting to The Boss, I’d like to acknowledge the untimely death of Eddie Money who passed away yesterday (Sep. 13) at the age of 70 from complications from heart valve surgery in a Los Angeles hospital, only three weeks after he had revealed his diagnosis of stage 4 esophageal cancer. The first thing that came to my mind when I saw the news was his 1986 studio album Can’t Hold Back. I got it on CD at the time, primarily because of Take Me Home Tonight, a nice pop rock tune I dig to this day. I always liked his vocals. In my view, Money deserves more than a paragraph, so I’m planning to do a post on him in the near future.

Turning to Bruce Springsteen, I feel I never really need a particular reason to write about The Boss. As frequent visitors know, I’ve done so numerous times on these pages since I’ve started the blog in June 2016. It ain’t rocket science and all comes down to this: I just love Springsteen – his music, his lyrics, his down-to-earth personality, his amazing live shows. He’s the total package! I’ve been fortunate to see him twice over the past 30 years or so – undoubtedly, these concerts will stay with me forever. I think at least when it comes to live music, Springsteen truly is in a league of his own. Name another notch present day artist who plays 3 to 4-hour shows with seemingly endless energy – pretty remarkable at any age, but even more so for a guy who is about to turn 70!

Bruce Springsteen

To be clear, while music is both my passion and my therapy that more than once has helped me keep my shit together, I’m a fan, not a fanatic – not even when it comes to my all-time favorite band The Beatles. A phenomenon like Beatlemania actually scares me more than anything else. Had John Lennon or Paul McCartney asked their audience to go out and kill somebody, sadly, I have no doubt some lunatic would have acted on that. Obviously, this didn’t happen. My point here is that out of control fandom isn’t healthy, neither for fans nor music artists. With that being said, I still like to celebrate music artists I dig. But similar to drinking alcohol or driving, let’s do so in a responsible way!

The reason why Springsteen has been on my mind for the past few days is his upcoming 70th birthday on September 23rd. Obviously, countless pieces have been written about The Boss. In fact, Springsteen himself released his acclaimed autobiography Born To Run in September 2016. As such, there is really is no need for yet another write-up about his life! Instead, I’d like to focus on Springsteen’s music with a playlist of songs, which I haven’t featured in the blog before. This means leaving out gems like Born To Run, Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out and Bobby Jean, to name a few of my all-time favorite Springsteen tunes. Of course, the good news is The Boss has a mighty catalog to choose from, so let’s get to it in chronological order.

I’d like to kick things off with a track that according to Songfacts was one of the tunes that convinced Columbia Records to sign Springsteen in 1972: Growin’ Up. The lyrics about adolescence were inspired by his own troubles in school and frequent quarrels with his old man during his teenage ages. The track was included on Springsteen’s debut album Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., which appeared in January 1973. One of the things I learned when researching this post was that David Bowie recorded a version of the song in 1974 during the sessions for his Diamond Dogs studio album, featuring Ronnie Wood on lead guitar. While it’s actually pretty cool, apparently the take wasn’t released until 1990, when it was included as a bonus track on a reissue of Bowie’s Pin Ups album.

Of course, there’s no way I can leave out my favorite Springsteen record from this playlist: Born To Run, a pivotal album for The Boss, who at that time badly needed a commercially viable record. Well, he hit the mark, and the rest is history. In addition to the title track, the album includes other classics like Thunder Road, Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, Jungleland and the tune I’d like to feature here: Backstreets. According to Songfacts, Springsteen told Rolling Stone in 2016 the song is about “Just youth, the beach, the night, friendships, the feeling of being an outcast and kind of living far away from things in this little outpost in New Jersey. It’s also about a place of personal refuge. It wasn’t a specific relationship or anything that brought the song into being.”

The River has become one of my other favorite Springsteen records. I listened intensely to his fifth studio album from October 1980, leading up to my second and most recent Springsteen gig I saw in August 2016 during The River Tour – ironically, only to realize that by the time The Boss hit New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium, the setlist hardly included any tracks from the record. Here’s Ramrod, a great garage rocker! Come on, come on, come on little sugar, Dance with your daddy and we’ll go ramroddin’ tonight…

Another album I can’t skip is the one that brought Springsteen on my radar screen back in Germany in the ’80s: Born In The U.S.A. Obviously, it did the same for millions of other folks around the world. With hits like the title track, Dancing In The Dark and I’m On Fire, it became Springsteen’s most commercially successful release and one of the highest selling records of all time. Here is one of the few tunes I believe were not released as a single: Downbound Train. The Boss first recorded this song as an acoustic demo in May 1982 during the sessions for his Nebraska album, along with several other tracks that ended up on Born In The U.S.A.

For the next selection, I’m jumping to the early ’90s: Lucky Town, Springsteen’s 10th studio album that was released at the end of March 1992, simultaneously with Human Touch. I still remember I bought both on CD at the same time. Here is the opener Better Days, which also became the lead single released 10 days ahead of the album. “With a young son and about to get married (for the last time) I was feelin’ like a happy guy who has his rough days rather than vice versa,” commented Springsteen, according to Songfacts. It’s a fairly simple track with a straightforward chord progression, but I just love the sound.

An important album in Springsteen’s catalog is The Rising from July 2002. Not only did it mark his first record in seven years, it also was the first with the E Street Band since Born In The U.S.A. Hitting the right mood in the aftermath of 9/11, the album debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard 200, selling more than 500,000 copies in just the first week. While not all the tracks dealt directly with the terrorist attacks, here’s one that did: Into The Fire, a dedication to the firefighters who were lost that day: The sky was falling and streaked with blood/I heard you calling me, then you disappeared into the dust/Up the stairs, into the fire/Up the stairs, into the fire/I need your kiss, but love and duty called you someplace higher/Somewhere up the stairs/Into the fire…

In January 2009, Springsteen released his 16th studio album Working On A Dream. “Towards the end of recording Magic [his preceding studio record from September 2007], excited by the return to pop production sounds, I continued writing,” Springsteen stated about the album. “When my friend producer Brendan O’Brien heard the new songs, he said, ‘Let’s keep going.’ Over the course of the next year, that’s just what we did, recording with the E Street Band during the breaks on last year’s tour. I hope ‘Working on a Dream’ has caught the energy of the band fresh off the road from some of the most exciting shows we’ve ever done. All the songs were written quickly, we usually used one of our first few takes, and we all had a blast making this one from beginning to end.” Here’s the official video for the title track.

I’d like to conclude this playlist with Springsteen’s latest record Western Stars, which appeared in June this year. It’s his first album of solo material since Devils & Dust from April 2005. While I don’t dislike the record, I have to admit I’m still getting used to both Springsteen’s singing and the sometimes lush sound – not many edges here. Here’s Tucson Train, the tale of a construction worker who left San Francisco and a difficult relationship to start a new life in Arizona, only for him and his woman to realize they miss each other, so she’s coming there to see him again.

Sources: Wikipedia, Songfacts, YouTube

In Memoriam of Chuck Berry

When I listened to Johnny B. Goode for the first time, I instantly realized Chuck Berry sounded differently than any other guitarist I had ever heard.

When I saw a push message in my smartphone yesterday about the death of Chuck Berry, I was in disbelief at first. Sure, I knew the man had turned 90 last October, so he wasn’t exactly a teenager any longer. But I also recalled Berry had used that happy occasion to announce his first new record in 38 years slated for release sometime this year. I suspect it will become a big seller, which would be a cruel irony that happened to many other music artists after they passed away.

Chuck Berry’s influence on rock & roll music cannot be overstated. To begin with, there was simply no guitarist at the time who could play the electric guitar “like a ringing bell.” Berry’s style may sound crude at times, but try playing his licks, and you quickly realize it’s much more sophisticated than you might think – I found out myself! Admittedly, I was always much more an acoustic guy, and the electric guitar certainly did not come naturally to me.

In addition to being an innovative guitarist who created his own signature sound, Berry was an incredible showman. Perhaps the move for which he is best remembered is the “duckwalk” he popularized in the 1950’s – a whooping 30 years before another walk made music history: Michael Jackson’s moonwalk in 1983. While the origins of the duckwalk reportedly go back to 1930’s performance by T-Bone Walker, one of Berry’s influences, it was Berry who put the move on the map and who is typically credited as its inventor.

And then there are of course all the iconic classic rock & roll tunes Berry wrote: Maybellene, Roll Over Beethoven, Too Much Monkey Business, School Day, Rock and Roll Music, Sweet Little Sixteen, Johnny B. Goode, Carol, Little Queenie – and the list goes on! Remarkably, none of these amazing songs topped the mainstream U.S. charts. Sweet Little Sixteen came closest, reaching no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1958; it did hit no. 1 on the R&B Best Sellers chart the same year. Berry’s only no. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 was My Ding-a-Ling in 1972. While I read he always stood by the tune, I think it’s fair to say an important reason why the song became so successful was the ill-fated refusal from many radio stations to play it because of its lyrics.

Many of Berry’s tunes were covered by other artists. In fact, the very first single from The Rolling Stones in 1963, Come On, is a Berry tune he had first released in 1961. The Beatles were also big fans of Berry and did excellent covers of Roll Over Beethoven and Rock and Roll Music – in fact, I have to say I prefer the latter to the original version! Yet another great example of a Berry cover is the Yardbirds’ Too Much Monkey Business on their 1964 debut live album Five Live Yardbirds with Eric Clapton on lead guitar – nothing “slowhand” about this absolute killer version!

Reportedly, Berry was not an easy person to deal with offstage. He had certain rules that could not be broken. He always demanded payment in advance of any performance and a specific guitar amplifier. He also insisted on a limousine for his shows, which he would drive himself. Instead of relying on a standing set of touring musicians, he asked concert promoters to hire local backup bands for him. Together with not providing set lists in advance of gigs, it’s not surprising this sometimes impacted the quality of his live shows. But I also read other accounts suggesting Berry was a very kind-hearted man who was simply reluctant to trust people he didn’t know well, since he felt life had betrayed him in the past.

Not surprisingly, when an influential artist like Chuck Berry passes away, social media lights up with present or past sentiments expressed by other great rock guitarists. I’d like to share some of them. For Rolling Stone’s December 2010 feature 100 Greatest Artists, Aerosmith’s Joe Perry wrote, “I heard Chuck Berry Is On Top – and I really freaked out! That feeling of excitement in the pit of my stomach, in the hair in the back of my neck: I got more of it from Chuck Berry than from anybody else.”

For a rock music fan, it’s easy to understand Perry’s reaction. Released in July 1959, Berry’s third studio album included some of his greatest gems, such as Carol, Maybellene, Johnny B. Goode, Little Queenie and Roll Over Beethoven – all on one album and all written by him!

Bruce Springsteen, who set the stage on fire playing Johnny B. Goode with Berry and the E Street Band during a 1995 concert for the opening of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s museum, tweeted, “Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ‘n’ roll writer who ever lived.”

Keith Richards wrote on Facebook, “One of my big lights has gone out.” The post was accompanied by a photo showing Richards standing on stage next to Berry with the following caption: “I don’t even know if Chuck realizes what he did. I don’t think he does…It was just such a total thing, a great sound, a great rhythm coming off the needle of all of Chuck’s records. It’s when I knew what I wanted to do.” More specifically, that moment came for Richards when as a teenager he saw Berry perform Sweet Little Sixteen at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, which was captured in the film documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day, as he told Rolling Stone.

Perhaps the most beautiful take came from the E Street Band’s Little Steven on the Facebook page of his excellent radio show Little Steven’s Underground Garage: 

“Chuck Berry.

Chuck Berry was the King of Rock and Roll. Period. Richard brought the Passion, Elvis the Heartbreak, Bo the Beat, Jerry Lee the Abandon, Buddy let the Everyman in, Chuck brought the Storytelling. The words that Bob Dylan would evolve into an Artform. He led the teenage takeover of Pop Music that the Beatles and Stones would complete. He invented Rock guitar and made it look like fun. He gave the previously ignored age group between adolescence and adulthood an identity, a mythology, a chance to see themselves. He gave them Respect. And those teenagers would return that respect to Rock and Roll for the next 60 years and counting.

– Little Steven, March 18 2017”

I have nothing to add, except offering a clip of Berry’s amazing performance of Too Much Monkey Business, which features a very cool solo by Keith Richards, of course played Chuck Berry style! It’s taken from Taylor Hackford’s 1987 music documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, shot to celebrate Berry’s 60’s birthday. In addition to Richards, other artists performing with Berry included Linda Ronstadt, Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Etta James, Johnnie Johnson, Steve Jordan, Bobby Keys, Julian Lennon and Joey Spampinato.

Sources: Wikipedia, Rolling Stone, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube