Having been asked to write a list of questions for reading novels (I ended up with a not very succinct 20), Lars Dahle asked me to do the same thing for albums. Actually, to be fair to him, he asked me to do both at the same time, but I’ve been slack and not got round to doing the latter until now. Hopeless, really. But anyway, here goes. This time, I managed to be a bit more disciplined, and came up with 12 questions to ask.
As I say in the introduction, one of the problems these days is that the idea of an album is becoming looser and looser – in fact, over the last 100 years or so, the way we listen to music has changed radically every couple of decades (give or take) – and with the invention of a new medium for transmitting, broadcasting and selling music, the form has had a considerable impact on the contact (whether through timing constraints, sound quality and ease of listening).
So now that we have file-sharing (legal or otherwise), mp3 purchases and thus the ability to create one’s own playlists, many see ‘the album’ as decreasing in importance. Still, it is clearly the case that artists are currently sticking to this format – a collection of songs lasting anything between 35 and 70 minutes. I’m interested in trying to discern what thinking brought these songs together in the particular order they are presented. I suppose you could call this a canonical approach!
Of course, most of the time, the vast majority of people listen, and listen again, to music because of its mood, energy, resonances and associated memories. And that is totally reasonable and fair – there’s absolutely no point in downplaying the sheer enjoyment of music. But I can remember when I first started listening to the words of songs – I think I can even remember the song! I’m pretty sure it was Bruce Springsteen’s Jungleland (from the 1975 Born to Run), a song on an epic scale that demands more than superficial engagement. I remember one of my teachers (a latin teacher, no less!) even comparing it favourably (while acknowledging it to be on a far lower intellectual plain) to TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. That may well be a contentious opinion, but it certainly woke me up (as an innocent teenager, some years before my conversion) to the serious intent of a huge swath of what can too easily be dismissed as pop-culture. It was not long after this that I started listening to both the music AND lyrics of U2 – but therein lies a whole other story!
So my purpose in writing these 12 questions is to help people to foster what we might call joined-up listening – taking an album’s form, music, lyrics and construction as an integrated whole where possible. For serious artists certainly appreciate it when people take their art seriously, especially when they go beyond the simple ‘nice tune’ response (although most would give their right arms to write ‘nice tunes’!).
Well, after all the intensities of last week, Saturday brought some blessed relief. For we’d managed to get tickets to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in their 2nd gig at the Arsenal Emirates stadium. Pretty good seats (as shown by my photo above) – first tier directly opposite the stage so no cricked necks but could certainly have done with some binoculars. And of course, distance was not an impediment to hearing! What a great night. Despite being part of the Magic tour (a powerful album, incidentally), what was REALLY fun was the trip down nostalgia lane. LOADS of songs from the 70s (see the set list), including no less than 5 from the seminal 1975 album BORN TO RUN. It is 20 years since I got to hear him with the E St Band on the Tunnel of Love tour in 1988 at the old Wembley stadium (we were standing 10 away from the stage), and then a few months later on the Amnesty International Human Rights Tour (when they shared the stage with Sting, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman and Youssou N’Dour).
A real treat was the chance to hear Jungleland live, which has to be one of my favourite songs of all time by anybody (see lyrics below). It has to be heard even though the words stand up by themselves. It’s wonderfully evocative of urban youth culture in the sweltering evening heat of a New York summer – 10 minutes of epic word-painting at its very best, driven by superb musical power and invention (especially because of Roy Bittan’s peerless piano-playing). The E Street Band were all there on Saturday in perfect rhythm and energy – although perhaps Little Steven’s ‘singing’ is even rougher than it used to be.
But there were other highlights:
- Witnessing the 58 year old Bruce still commandingly hold a stadium audience for 2.5 hours without a break (and manage to surf the half stage on his knees after a running jump)
- Hearing the band do requests from the groundlings – including Darkness on the Edge of Town, Backsteets, and Because the Night.
- One or two stories about the late, great Danny Federici (who died in April) including a few gags about him growing huge marijuana plants and the resulting scrapes with the police.
Unlike the old days though there was very little story-telling – and the only political moment was when he explained something of the meaning of Livin’ in the future – a song about the fearfulness of finding civil liberties aggressively eroded in post-9/11 neo-con America. So all in all, nearly 2.5 hours of solid music.
But it was all worth it – even with the traffic chaos surrounding the stadium (it took us over an hour to get just a few miles to home). One mildly amusing feature was the carpet of silver or receding hair in the stadium (a mother just the row below us had brought her very bored 12-year-old son and was boogieing with the best of them, much to the boy’s palpable and overwhelmed embarrassment – perhaps he’ll understand one day) – the average age in the 40,000 or so present was probably not much less than Bruce himself. It all made the policing efforts outside the stadium seem rather like overkill: for on the main streets leading to Arsenal and Highbury & Islington tubes, pairs of horses carrying mounted officers were stationed every 100 metres! What on earth were they expecting?!
To see a whole load more photos taken on Saturday click on the photo below:
JUNGLELAND (Bruce Springsteen, BORN TO RUN, 1975)
The rangers had a homecoming in Harlem late last night
And the Magic Rat drove his sleek machine over the Jersey state line
Barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge
Drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain
The Rat pulls into town rolls up his pants
Together they take a stab at romance and disappear down Flamingo Lane
Well the Maximum Lawman run down Flamingo chasing the Rat and the barefoot girl
And the kids round here look just like shadows always quiet, holding hands
From the churches to the jails tonight all is silence in the world
As we take our stand down in Jungleland
The midnight gang’s assembled and picked a rendezvous for the night
They’ll meet ‘neath that giant Exxon sign that brings this fair city light
Man there’s an opera out on the Turnpike
There’s a ballet being fought out in the alley
Until the local cops, Cherry Tops, rips this holy night
The street’s alive as secret debts are paid
Contacts made, they vanished unseen
Kids flash guitars just like switch-blades hustling for the record machine
The hungry and the hunted explode into rock’n’roll bands
That face off against each other out in the street down in Jungleland
In the parking lot the visionaries dress in the latest rage
Inside the backstreet girls are dancing to the records that the D.J. plays
Lonely-hearted lovers struggle in dark corners
Desperate as the night moves on, just a look and a whisper, and they’re gone
Beneath the city two hearts beat
Soul engines running through a night so tender in a bedroom locked
In whispers of soft refusal and then surrender in the tunnels uptown
The Rat’s own dream guns him down as shots echo down them hallways in the night
No one watches when the ambulance pulls away
Or as the girl shuts out the bedroom light
Outside the street’s on fire in a real death waltz
Between flesh and what’s fantasy and the poets down here
Don’t write nothing at all, they just stand back and let it all be
And in the quick of the night they reach for their moment
And try to make an honest stand but they wind up wounded, not even dead
Tonight in Jungleland