Thursday, June 29, 2006

In the Footsteps of Those Gone Before

It was fascinating to attend the Warped Tour in Kansas City with Springsteen’s Des Moines Seeger Sessions concert still ringing through my head. I had a fine time at Warped, particularly thrilled to see Joan Jett going strong with a set that included her hits and four or five new songs. She managed to bring her unrepentant vision to stand up for sexual difference and a vision of social justice. I also enjoyed my first exposure to Danny Diablo and Underoath in particular (for various reasons, I didn’t see a lot of the bigger headliners)—scrappy bands with an unabashed love for the misfits in the audience and the liberating power of rock and roll. Over a quarter of a century after I fell in love with rock’s promise, the dream is still alive where it needs to be, in the breasts of committed musicians and thousands of fans young and as old as any rock and roller ever gets.

But as a one-time kid from the ‘77/’78 punk era, I couldn’t help having contradictory reactions. I enjoyed the fact that the rebel impulse unites kids in such large numbers today, while I wondered about the implications of it looking and sounding so much like the music we were listening to all those years ago. It gave me fresh insight into why my friends from the 60s rock era often found themselves scratching their heads over garage rock as something “new” in the 70s.

First, let me make this clear—in general, I love today’s music. I even find myself spending a considerable amount of time listening to Top 40 radio. The fact that I have a 14 year old daughter who attended both of these concerts with me (well, I sort of chauffeured her friends to Warped and stayed out of their hair) has more than a little to do with everything I’ve said so far. And I will add that my daughter’s friends make mix CDs that are far more eclectic than most of the tapes we made when I was young (one such girlfriend’s mix CD, for instance, featured everything from Lil’ Jon and T.I. to Staind and local rock band V Card for Vengeance as well as Rihanna, Keith Urban and Roy Orbison).

Sadly, though, concerts and radio formats continue to fight such integration of genres. And what’s worse, within rock, there remains an enormous amount of clique-ishness around narrowly (sometimes mysteriously) codified subgenres such as emo, thrash and death metal as well as all those things I don’t know names for but might call bratty punk, punkish metal, postgrunge and so forth. When we consider that most of these approaches can be traced back to sounds from the 60s, the fundamental goal of rock to excite and surprise the audience seems endangered.

That’s a big part of the reason why I’ve found myself obsessing over the significance of the Seeger Sessions concert. I hear it in dialogue with the rest of what’s going on in popular music. It’s hard to imagine how an artist could more alarmingly challenge everyone in popular music to rethink their prejudices and expectations. Lately it has become more apparent to me that one reason Springsteen has always been such a galvanizing character in pop music—inspiring cultish devotion at one end of the spectrum and knee jerk rejection at the other—is that ever since Bruce started pouring over old girl group records in the early 70s, he’s been a subversive of the most dangerous kind.

What is he not subverting with this tour? Virtually every song the band plays subverts the nostalgic vision of America that fuels today’s jingoism. He subverts the rock audience’s expectations by doing what I would call a great rock show with no lead electric guitar and lots of horns (heavy on trombone and tuba), accordion, banjo and 2 lead violins. He subverts the folk audience’s expectations by daring to deliver folk as a rock show with no reverence for traditionalist purism.

Perhaps most importantly in terms of direct impact, he subverts the Springsteen audience’s expectations. He delivers a show consistent with the themes, dynamics and impact of his classic E Street Band shows but by taking the “Springsteen character” out of the mix. He ditches all but a few of the more obscure songs from his catalogue (offering those few with nearly unrecognizeable arrangements), and actually changing his role from that of the star of the movie to something more like a director, or conductor, or ….camp leader.

Key to all of this is that the lyricist Springsteen is all but gone, this show making its boldest statements musically. The Seeger Sessions band tosses about a dazzling array of sounds overlooked, forgotten, neglected or outright rejected by the mainstream currents of popular music. To name a bare minimum--ragtime and traces of western swing; norteno’s polkas with more than a dash of mariachi; jump blues, old time gospel and traces of free jazz. The net effect, the Bruce Springsteen concert experience recast as an adventurous and improbable hootenanny.

Anything I say about how this compares to the hard focus of the classic Springsteen shows cannot be accurate; it’s too qualitatively different and similar at the same time. I surprised myself by almost (I think “almost,” I certainly didn’t want to embarrass my kid right off the bat) weeping by the end of the opening number “John Henry.” Of all the Seeger Session songs, this is the one that has its deepest roots in my childhood, and the doomed but triumphant central character has been with me forever. But as the opening of the show, it became startlingly vivid how this song broadens the context of Springsteen’s career. All of its bravado, the simplicity and sophistication of its statement of the plight of every worker (particularly those—are there any other kind?--losing value to a new piece of technology), that great last verse about Polly that finds political solidarity in two individuals facing overwhelming circumstances—it’s “Born to Run,” “Youngstown” and “The River” (to pick somewhat arbitrarily from his canon) all rolled into one, and in its exuberance and promise, it’s the show to come writ large.

I think of the show I saw in five distinct movements, each one capped by a call to community—

“Eyes on the Prize” capped the opening challenge of a changing, oppressive, alienating world, a world where “more than all this put that gun” in Johnny 99’s hands.

“Eerie Canal,” perhaps the loneliest song in the show, served as an improbable call to community (don’t worry I’ll explain) in the midst of a series of tales of outlaws, gamblers, refugees, souls in peril and broken, discarded veterans.

“We Shall Overcome,” the climax, capped three songs serving as anthems for the state of America—“How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live,” which uses New Orleans as the universal illustration it is and “Jacob’s Ladder” serving as a celebration of the resistance, this show’s “Badlands.”

“My City in Ruins” drove home the political and spiritual urgency of the desperate dancing of “Open All Night” and the call for economic justice (or simple fairness) in “Pay Me My Money Down.”

“When the Saints Go Marching In” closed the show with a dream of a new world after an exuberant set of songs celebrating the fact that it “ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive” (even if it is illegal).

I say these songs brought the show back to community because of the way they punctuated the show with most of the musicians together at the front of the stage--the many singers, not insignificantly of different races, arm in arm, holding each other, rubbing and patting each other on the back. These were the songs where I imagined I most clearly saw my daughter’s skepticism slipping away. She wasn’t familiar with most of the material, but she didn’t miss the poignancy of something as simple as that group of singers calling, “low bridge, everybody down” or “keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.”

The final song, “When the Saints Come Marching In,” seemed to recast, or maybe revive, the song’s central desire. What’s redemptive in the song’s dream of being “in that number” is not the fact of the singers escaping eternal damnation. It’s about something more fundamental to how we live our lives while we are here. The singers—and I hope a fair part of the audience singing along--were asking to be a part of the community to set things right, to be a part of something bigger than themselves that can tackle all of these problems haunting these old stories and plaguing the world around us.

All told, this show’s goals were, at once, to redefine the rock show, to redefine folk music, to redefine popular music, to redefine what it means to be a Springsteen fan and, most importantly, to redefine what it means to be both an American and a member of the global community. Can those seeds take root in this hard land we live in today? I have to hold onto that much faith. As I’ve said, I have a 14-year-old daughter, and she means everything to me.