One Step up, Two Steps Back
I lost complete interest in BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN (who plays the Arrowhead Pond on Sunday and Monday nights) following 1984's Born in the USA. That was the one that lost me, when I decided Springsteen's "regular guy on the street" shtick was nothing more than a marketing device and Mr. Jersey Shore had really wanted to be a rock star all along. I'll never forget the shame and horror I felt deep inside the first time I saw his "Dancing in the Dark" video. My musical ideal—the guy I had pegged as the second coming of Guthrie, Dylan and Elvis, with dashes of DeNiro, Pacino and James Dean thrown in for good measure—was performing a humiliating dork dance onstage with a doe-eyed, squeaky-clean teenybopper (Courtney Cox, as we later found out) as pubescent girls screamed in the audience like they had a collective case of custard panties. Would Dylan or Guthrie ever sink to such depths of blatant Tiger Beat commercialism? I say, "Impossible!" as he hands me a bone.
And how about that title song? Six relentlessly annoying notes pounded over and over into your head over a wheezing synthesizer double-track for five interminable minutes as the Boss donned his cute little biker-wanna-be costume, replete with cut-off leather vest and headband. Hey, it's a looooong way from poetic street operas on the order of "Born to Run," "Jungleland," "Rosalita," "Meeting Across the River," "Growin' Up" and "Lost in the Flood" to this calculated gallootism. Suddenly, Springsteen wasn't "the future of rock & roll" at all; he'd morphed into a rank posuer on the order of (shudder!) Johnny Cougar. And what happened to the Big Man? How and why did this baneful Sonny Liston-like figure suddenly transform into an overfed Aretha Franklin? Clarence Clemons used to stalk a stage with sharp Italian suits, pimp hats and a menacing goatee. Now he was clean-shaven, sporting a Buckwheat 'do and flitting about like an extra from a Loverboy video in a red-vinyl jump suit. No wonder Reagan adopted "Born in the USA" as his theme song during his re-election campaign: the words Reagan misunderstood were incidental; the merciless Yankee ugliness of that fucking tune and the pre-fab image of the video is what worked for him.
Still, there was a time I bought into the hype and figured Springsteen to be the Messiah. I grew up in Syracuse, New York, exactly the type of dying, blue-collar, machine-shop-fume-spewing, apartment-dwelling carbuncle of a city that Springsteen captured and beatified so superlatively on his first four or five albums. When he sang about that "barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge, drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain," well, as a matter of fact, I'd just porked her the night before. It was easy to relate to Springsteen for anyone coming of age in that environment; his images of depressing yet somehow splendor-iffic East Coast decay were incomparable. To this day, I'd still have to rank Born to Run as the perfect rock album, an album that hit home and meant more to me as a young feller than any other I owned, by half.
In fact, I tried to become Springsteen. When I moved to SoCal in '74, I so loathed the local dewd culture that I reacted by purposefully becoming its antithesis. I'm embarrassed to admit it, but for a few years, I completely copped the Boss' pre-punk image: I grew a ratty beard, got a hoop earring, and wore a motorcycle jacket and a floppy hat. That was the look. It said, "I'm not a hippie, a glitter rocker or a surf clown; I'm an uneducated but streetwise white guy who wishes to be either Italian or Puerto Rican. Please cast me in your next movie, Mr. Scorcese."
Between the releases of Greetings From Asbury Park in 1973 to Nebraska in 1982, Springsteen was the multi-armed Kali of rock & roll. I could sing the words to every song on every one of his albums. The Boss was a man of da peoples, rat own! He was our pied piper, our prophet, our savior.
Then came Born in the USA. Then he hired his talentless, hatchet-faced future wife as a singer. Then he fired the E Street Band and went MOR. The double-cross was complete.
By now, Springsteen had become so huge that he was revered as a deity by a world that had never even heard his best work, only the corporate crapola. I tried to listen to albums like Tunnel of Love and Human Touch, but it was like trying to reconcile with an ex-wife who'd grown fat and surly. Too much damage done, too much water under the bridge. I could never again take this man seriously as an artist.
So now Springsteen is back with the E Street Band and people are flocking to the concerts in another predictable wave of desperate nostalgia. I won't be among them; I hold grudges like a bitch. I can still listen to my old Springsteen albums and be transported back to a time of youthful idealism and naivete, but that's as far as it goes. This man will have nothing new to say to me again, and that's just how I feel about it. Robert Crumb had him pegged long before anyone when he pitched tantrums about Springsteen, characterizing the Boss as a "pimp, panderer and sleazeball hustler" and his fans as "dupes of the media." I must sadly and belatedly concur.
I'd like to give more ink to the wholly wonderful and deserving DOHENY BLUES FESTIVAL, but I have already written reams about most of the principals. Saturday night, don't miss JUNIOR BROWN, he of the hair-raising, steel-guitar licks that expose the common ground between hardcore hillbilly, lowdown blues and Hendrix-like rock to inspirational effect. JOHNNY AND EDGAR WINTER's brash Texas blues-rock is always a thrill, particularly when the opportunity is there for them to share a stage together. First Lady of the Blues KOKO TAYLOR never fails to bring down the house with her bullfrog-funky voice and queenly presence. BOOKER T. JONES —former leader of Stax Records house band Booker T and the MGs—is almost single-handedly responsible for the prominence of the Hammond organ in '60s soul music. And BOBBY "BLUE" BLAND remains the undisputed master of tender R&B balladry after more than 40 years. Also featured Saturday are San Clemente's own ROD & THE PISTONS, LARRY HORNE & SMALL CHANGE, CURTIS SALGADO, and more.
Sunday night is highlighted by CLARENCE "GATEMOUTH" BROWN, who picks ferocious guitar, fiddle and mandolin in every roots style under the sun. MAVIS STAPLES is the greatest female gospel singer in history, being both more sophisticated than Mahalia Jackson and more muscular than Aretha Franklin. THE FABULOUS THUNDERBIRDS, boasting the enviably skilled Anaheim guitarist Kid Ramos, sound even tuffer today than back when they were still making hit records in the '80s. CHARLIE MUSSELWHITE is among the most experienced and inventive blues harpists on the circuit, and he plays a mean Delta-style guitar to boot. ERIC BURDON is one of the select few unique and convincing white blues singers, especially when he's performing on a bellyful of 'shrooms, as is occasionally the case. Veterans LITTLE CHARLIE & THE NIGHTCATS play jazzed-up West Coast Blues with doses of Leiber & Stoller-like humor to grand effect. Also appearing Sunday is wet-behind-the-ears blues-rock shredder KENNY WAYNE SHEPHERD, soulful diva JANIVA MAGNESS, MOCOMBO CARAVAN (featuring bitchen harpist JUKE LOGAN), PAT HENNESSEY and THE HUGHES REVUE.
Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band play at the Arrowhead Pond, 2695 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim, (714) 704-2400. Sun.-Mon., 7:30 p.m. $67.50; the Doheny Blues Festival takes place in the grass park by the ocean at Doheny State Beach, Dana Point, (949) 262-2662. Sat.-Sun., gates open at 10:30 a.m. $25 per day; $40 for both days; $60 per day for a VIP pass; $125 per day for a Gold Pass. For more information, go to www.omega-events.com.
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