“It’s time there was a Big Man in the White House.”
Born in the U.S.A. was a turning point for Bruce Springsteen, both in his artistic development and his reception by the public. Annie Leibowitz’s iconic cover image from that album set the stage, and conservative mouthpiece George Will’s endorsement, followed by Ronald Reagan’s appropriation of Springsteen’s image for his re-election campaign sealed the deal: Springsteen would become a global superstar. In hindsight it looks like a Mephistophelian deal. The conventional narrative is that Will and Reagan didn’t get Springsteen’s music, and Springsteen protested as much; the truth is, he played into their hands and reaped vast rewards. Reagan got a second term, deregulated financial markets, broke unions, made the rich richer and set the stage for dozens of subsequent financial meltdowns. Springsteen sold 30 million records, moved to Hollywood and married an actress, and soon thereafter fired the E Street Band (and, some biographies tell, stagehands who looked at his guitar cases wrong.)
There are Bruce Springsteen fans who cringe when they hear the opening strains of Born in the U.S.A., and also Dancing in the Dark, the album’s first single; I’m one of them. It’s not like synthesizers were brand new to hard rock bands – The Who had been using them brilliantly for more than a decade, and prog rock groups had long figured out how to make synthesizers sound like symphonies both live and on record. I don’t think Spingsteen’s musical imagination knew how to incorporate synthesized sounds, and Roy Bittan, a percussive pianist and mediocre producer, wasn’t much help. With all that said…
Let’s talk about Springsteen’s latest archive release, Brendan Byrne Arena (a.k.a. Meadowlands), August 5, 1984. This was the opening of a 10 concert sold-out stand, the band’s 20th show of what would become a 16-month tour. The lineup had changed: Steven Van Zandt had moved on, Nils Lofgren and Patti Scialfa were hired to replace him (neither has much presence on this release; at this relatively early point, their vocals are mostly tentative and Nils’ guitar sound in the mix is largely subsumed by keyboards and bass.) The concerts on this tour provided seventeen tracks for the Live/1975-85 set, although none came from this concert. I’m glad. As the audiences grew larger, the arrangements got tighter and the sound became monolithic, Springsteen’s goofy joy seemed to fade. The Meadowlands seated around 20,000, quite large but not yet the 50,000+ he’d be projecting to within a year. To be fair, I can only think of three performers capable of mesmerizing a crowd that size on their own, without significant technological distraction – Mick Jagger, Billy Graham, and their unholy love-child Bruce Springsteen.
Toby Scott’s entire job lately seems to consist of bringing joy to Springsteen fans. Back in 1984, we waited years between Springsteen releases and now every six weeks brings another gift, miraculously cleaned up, mixed and presented whole. The fussy perfection of the Live 1975/85 set wasn’t as satisfying as these concerts, which are all imperfect yet somehow shine even brighter because of the few dud tracks. Nobody in rock music constructs a better setlist than Springsteen, and he changes it up every night. The very best way to experience Springsteen is to listen to one of his concerts start to finish, and ride the ups and downs to the inevitably ecstatic conclusion. The Springsteen Live site has the technical details, plangent process 24-track blah blah blah (interesting to read once), but here’s what you need to know: Brendan Byrne Arena, New Jersey 1984 sounds incredible. It’s like being there, first section center, without the hassle of traffic and lines and somebody spilling beer on your shoes or clapping on the off beat.
Springsteen’s voice is crisp and incredibly present, up front in the middle of the mix. Max Weinberg’s drum sound is not yet apocalyptic, as it would become in the stadium shows. The instruments are placed in the sound picture as they are on stage: piano right, sax and organ left, drums up center and bass underneath, supporting the structure. The synthesizer is too loud and not well-integrated, which is how it probably sounded back then in the arena. My only other complaint might be Nils’ and Patti’s voices, which sound flat and uninteresting (they don’t add texture despite generally accurate harmonies.) This might be an issue with the raw material. (Springsteen said in the late 70’s that he could replace any member of the E Street Band overnight, except Clarence, which might take him a week. It turns out Van Zandt was also difficult to replace.)
Three songs from Nebraska are played early on: Atlantic City, Johnny 99, and Highway Patrolman. These are gorgeous and powerful, particularly Highway Patrolman, which might be the definitive version of this song. But there’s more. The best rendition from Nebraska, and one of my favorites from all of the archive releases so far, is Used Cars. Springsteen dedicates the song to his parents, who are in attendance. Where the album version is low key and defeated, this one is gently nostalgic, buoyed by accordion, mandolin and twinkling glockenspiel.
The songs from Born in the U.S.A. are a mixed bag. The title track leads things off; thematically appropriate, but as an opener it’s no Night. Glory Days comes early and with a great story about Bruce’s little league failures – I like it early in the set, instead of the encore it became later. Dancing in the Dark is a surprise – the dominating synth riff from the single is pushed aside by a strong drum presence and a fantastic vocal, gritty and desperate. No Surrender is the lovely acoustic arrangement from Live/1975-85 (that version would be recorded the following night, August 6.)
The real dud here is Cadillac Ranch, driven by what sounds like a circus organ that grates like Woody Woodpecker’s cackle. I’ve never heard this song so far off the mark – here, I can begin to understand critic/biographer Clinton Heylin’s disdain for it. My Hometown is a bit strident (the song doesn’t breathe enough with Max’s metronomic bass drum under the opening verses.) Born to Run is well on its way to becoming the museum piece it’s been ever since.
The stretch of eight songs from No Surrender through Jungleland would make a wonderful stand-alone album. They include a delightfully storied Pink Cadillac, a lilting Jersey Girl and my favorite-ever band introductions on Rosalita (soon to be semi-retired, dropped from the setlist on October 19 for the first time since 1974.) The playing is top-notch, the stories are funny, Springsteen is loose, and together these eight tracks demonstrate everything fans love about the performer, the songwriter, and his band.
The stats: 29 songs; 3 hours, 16 minutes; average song length 6 minutes, 45 seconds. Album breakdown: Greetings-1; Wild-1; BtR-5; Darkness-3; River-4; Nebraska-4; BitUSA-6; Non-album-1; Covers-4.
The verdict: A classic, well-presented. The man himself became inscrutable in the 80’s but he made some great music, and he’s without peer as a live performer. Each release in the archive series makes every other release more interesting – individually enjoyable, but indispensable as slices of the artist’s history.