Bruce Springsteen’s greatest songs, 31-40

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The second installment of my 50 choices for Rolling Stone’s 100 Best Springsteen songs list picks up at #40 and doesn’t pause to wonder how anyone could presume to rank aesthetic creations in terms of objective quality.

40: You Mean So Much to Me: Although never recorded, this 1971 r&b gem was a live favorite from its 1971 unveiling by the Bruce Springsteen band (think Van Morrison meets the Allman Brothers) to acoustic-live-radio performances to-rave-up performances with the first three iterations of the E Street Band.

39: Cadillac Ranch: Four-on-the-floor rocker from The River, and either a shallow tribute to various race car drivers/action movie stars or a top-speed meditation on the finish line we all must cross. Wonder which one? The lyric sheet’s big picture of the Ant Farm’s sculpture of the same name — in which half-buried Caddies look just like tombstones — might be a clue.

38: Girls in Their Summer Clothes: I’m surprised I didn’t rate this higher, given my adoration of this 2007 tribute to nights, loves and possibilities now disappeared…but always on the horizon. The aging dreamer is in great voice, but it’s the triple-layer cake-with-frosting track that knocks me out the most, from Max Weinberg’s awesome pick-up at the end of the bridge (just after “…my boy Bill…” to the subtle-but-crucial shift in the chord structure that sweeps the closing choruses into the heavens.

37: Kitty’s Back: The early E Street Band at its jammiest elevates this r&b bad girl portraiture into a musical joyride that is both the first and last of Bruce’s studio-recorded guitar epics. Which is both disappointing and fascinating when you recall that he made his bones as the hottest guitar in New Jersey, and that nearly every band song he wrote from 1968-1972 served as a delivery system for his crazy-wild fretboard adventures. Go to the Shore today and you’ll find legions of old-time fans who swear Springsteen’s best work was done before songwriting and singing became his central focus.

36: Chimes of Freedom: Bob Dylan cover recorded in Stockholm during the Tunnel of Love tour in 1988. The performance heralded news that Springsteen would join the Amnesty International concert tour that fall, and more subtly, the show he was about to play for tens of thousands of Soviet-blocked Germans in East Berlin. Based on the Byrds’ arrangement, but with the temperature turned way, way up.

35: Darkness on the Edge of Town: Well, of course I threw in the big ones, too. I’m not an animal.

34: Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?: A great song in any arrangement, but the original down-shifted version on 1973’s Greetings From Asbury Park doesn’t come close to the rolly-coasty live performances that followed. Still waiting an official release of a good live take (Philadelphia, 12/31/75, for example) but faith springs eternal and the Last Tango in Philly bootleg is always out there…

33: Something in the Night: All dark skies and empty highways, the dead ends and the two-bit bars.

32: Follow That Dream: Not a cover of the Elvis schlock-movie song as much as a portrait of the spirit the King could have inhabited had he not become the Sucker in Chief in Col. Tom’s circus sideshow. Recorded in the mid-80s, performed every so often but never released. Not yet, anyway.

31: Lucky Town: C’mon Shane, here we go…The title track of the 1992 album sounds fine on its own album but bursts wide open on ’93’s In Concert album, with Other Band guitarist Shane Fontayne trading barbed wire solos with his employer, who adds fistfuls of nails and broken glass into the mix.

TOMORROW: 30-21, where the hound dogs play and beer flows from every faucet…

 

Bruce Springsteen’s 50 greatest songs?

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Asked by Rolling Stone to join its panel of voters charged with creating a Top 100 songs list for their Springsteen special issue (available this week!) I instantly shrugged off my hatred of such things and pounded out a list.

The magazine sent me a ballot with 50 empty slots. My job was to fill them in in ascending order — when they tallied the votes my #1 selection would count for more than my #50.

But how to build a list? Should I go straight to the usual Born-to-promised-thunder-in-the-10th-USA-badlands-night-night-night heart-stoppers? Or try to find a whole other golden thread running from the Left Foot to the land of hope, dreams and 41 shots?

Here are my selections from #41-50. I’ll post the rest in the next four days.

50: Highway Patrolman – Man turns his back on his family, well, he just ain’t no good. No matter what they’ve done.

49: Tunnel of Love: Ablaze in neon and draped in shadow, the midway reveals the secret to keeping love alive: You’ve got to learn to live with what you can’t rise above. Easier said than done, though.

48: Pink Cadillac: The Garden of Eden as viewed through the steamy windows of a big-ass automobile. With an assist from Vince Taylor and the Playboys, the theme to Peter Gunn and, I have to think, the Clash.

47: Santa Claus is Coming to Town: Live from 1975, with joy, sleigh bells, a killer backbeat and the Big Man’s jolly guffaws reducing the singer, momentarily, into helpless giggles.

46: How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?: Recorded just post-Hurricane Katrina with the Seeger Sessions band, a rewritten version of Ry Cooder’s arrangement of Blind Alfred Reed’s Depression-era lament. Elegant, clear-eyed and absolutely seething, with George W Bush as the heedless doofus who pledges his support then leaves the city to drown.

45: Jersey Girl: Live at Giants Stadium at the 1985 height of Bruce-mania, the best Springsteen song he never wrote. Here Tom Waits’ ballad sways gently in the breeze with sha-la-la-la-las as sweet and sad as the end of summer.

44: Breakaway: A meditative Darkness outtake set on the blacktop of busted engines and blown chances.

43: Johnny Bye-Bye: A man on the radio says Elvis Presley’s died.

42: Lonesome Day: Fiddle-led rocker in which a jilted lover stands in for post 9/11 America, with a pain in the heart and an unsettling appetite for revenge.

41: Death to My Hometown: Military drummers, pipers, banjos and chanting hordes bear witness to the devastation borne by for-profit moralists. Mind the muskets, sir, no way of knowing where they’re pointed…

TOMORROW: Does this bus stop at Lucky Town?

Mad about “Mad Men”: Critics gone wild

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The writer Rob Sheffield, writing in the April 11 issue of Rolling Stone (posted online today) reviews the new season of AMC’s hypnotic drama “Mad Men” in terms so wildly enthusiastic the piece becomes its own tribute to itself. “One thing is for sure: “Mad Men” is the greatest TV drama of all time, and it’s not even close.”

That’s biting off a lot, but wait because we’re still not quite done: “It has no competition.”

The earth shakes, the stars tremble, the dog goes yipping for the basement.

Or at least that’s the idea. There’s not a lot else in the review, mostly reflections on things that have already happened on earlier seasons (for this we can perhaps blame “MM” creator Matthew Weiner, who all but threatens critics with bodily catastrophe if they reveal crucial plot points, which to his way of thinking is basically ALL plot points). The point of the piece, then, is less about critical analysis than it is about image and power. And not “Mad Men”‘s, either.

Which in a weird way makes it all about “Mad Men,” or at least “Mad Men”‘s core themes: identity; self-invention; the distance between image and reality. By reducing aesthetics to a kind of single-elimination tournament with clearly defined contests that separate winners from losers the author grants himself not just expertise over the realm, but also mastery. And guess what — it works! AMC’s full page ad for “Mad Men” in today’s New York Times includes the show’s name, its network, the time and date of the season premiere and one critical notice: “THE GREATEST TV DRAMA OF ALL TIME” — Rolling Stone.

The review that promotes the show becomes an essential part of the show’s self-promotion, which in turn promotes the magazine, whose elevated image lends more power/authority to its writers and critics, whose careers ascend accordingly, and. . .everyone gets a trophy.

I’m not trying to twit Sheffield, or even Rolling Stone, both of whom/which are just as capable of producing terrific stories, reviews, photo captions and all the rest. But as the age of multi-platform media saturation lurches onward “Mad Men”‘s gimlet vision of America’s fungible sense of reality is reflected back on itself. Five decades later everything is still up for grabs, only, somehow, more so. The product defines itself to appeal to viewers who define themselves by becoming associated with the product.

The best part of Sheffield’s piece comes at the start, with his description of Don Draper watching a steamy Robert Mitchum film noir in which one character whispers to another: “Are you alone?” The question hangs over Draper’s head because it so clearly defines the ache that haunts and propels him through his tangled existence. Solitude will fuck you up. Make as many friends as you can and hang on tight.

BRUCE: Now in Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, People, USA Today and Publisher’s Weekly (again)

The one who looks like a movie star is Bobby Cannavale, who does an amazing job reading the audio book.

Before we settle into the usual maelstrom of auto-pimping and poorly disguised self-worship, let’s turn first to the one actually handsome fellow in that photograph. Chances are you know his face from lots of places, because that’s Bobby Cannavale, the wonderful actor from “Boardwalk Empire” on HBO, “The Station Agent” in the movies, the hit Broadway show  “The Motherfucker in the Hat” and now the even-bigger Broadway revival of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” in which he co-stars with Al Pacino. Pretty cool, huh?

Cooler still (for me) is that Bobby is the reader of the BRUCE audio book. This is awesome. Particularly since BC is not just smart, perceptive and very accomplished actor, but he’s also a New Jersey native, which means that when he speaks in the voice of Bruce Springsteen, you are being spoken to in the voice of Bruce Springsteen. This must be heard in order to be believed. And it’s very worth it. More on this (including an mp3 preview) coming soon.

Meanwhile, early reviews of BRUCE have popped up in the last few days, so here’s an overview of the wheres, whens and what-they-saids:

ROLLING STONE: Nov 28 issue (Barack Obama), with a news feature at the front of the magazine and a four-star review at the back. I’m not sure if either are online yet, but you can check here. Salient quote: “…dives into Springsteen’s personal life in unprecedented depth.”

PEOPLE: Nov 5 issue (Justin Timberlake & friend), as the book Pick of the Week. A four-star review. Salient quote: “…delivers everything a fan could wish for.”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Oct 26 issue. An A- review. Salient quote: “…make(s) the rocker’s tale all the more engaging, as beneath his gravelly-voiced demigod exterior lurks a flawed and talented human being.”

PUBLISHERS WEEKLY: Oct. 26 issue, as part of ‘Best New Books for the Week of Oct 29’ list. (original review ran in Sept 24 issue). Salient quote: “This is the definitive biography on Springsteen.”

USA TODAY: Oct 27 issue, as top item in the ‘New and Noteworthy’ list for coming week. Salient quote: “In a fall crammed with rock memoirs, here’s a rock bio with early acclaim.”

USA TODAY (BALTIMORE TRANSLATION): Salient quote: “A new as shit biography of Bruce Springsteen rocks the week’s fuckin’ list.”

 

Rolling Stone’s 4-star review of BRUCE – plus accompanying news story

 The November 8 edition of Rolling Stone — with President Obama on the cover — includes not one but TWO stories about  BRUCE. Andy Greene’s news story can be found on page 20. The review appears on page 79.

My pick hits: “An unflinching portrait. . .Dives into Springsteen’s personal life in unprecedented depth. . .”

Next up: reviews in this Friday’s issues of People and Entertainment Weekly.