Mugger: NOWHERE MAN

Written by Russ Smith on . Posted in Posts.


Give Bruce Springsteen his due: When he releases a new recording, journalists scurry to their keyboards or microphones to pass judgment on the latest batch of songs and, with few exceptions, the reception is rapturous.I read no more than a couple of reviews before purchasing Springsteen’s latest disc, Magic, and then playing it a dozen times in succession—except for the opening track, the retro-but-still-pulsating dud, “Radio Nowhere.”



I eventually found two pieces that were notable. The Times’ resident philosopher/sociologist David Brooks, were he so inclined to soil himself with the vicissitudes of pop music, could have tapped a cultural oil gusher considering the disparity between the articles by Pitchfork’s Stephen M. Deusner and The Wall Street Journal’s Steve Stecklow.



It was Deusner who first gave me a jolt. Writing for a younger audience (the online Pitchfork is comparable today to Rolling Stone in the early ’70s or Spin in the mid-’80s as a diverse source for music criticism), the author, while giving Magic qualified praise, accurately says that Springsteen “doesn’t have the cachet of Bob Dylan” but “is more approachable.” I’ll buy that, but then this: “In the 1970s, [Springsteen] was never hip,” although he tempers that zinger by claiming that today the 58-year-old has influenced any number of indie bands.



But, at least initially, the damage was done. At first, I thought Deusner was simply being provocative—the early Springsteen wasn’t hip!—and sort of snotty. A generation ago, Springsteen didn’t have the visionary calculation of David Bowie—who emerged with a new persona every 18 months—or the flash of Roxy Music, but gee whiz, I thought he was a lot cooler than the Eagles, Grateful Dead or the Doobie Bros., acts that were immensely popular.



As it happened, sucked in by the Columbia Records tease that Springsteen was the latest and best “new Dylan,” I was in the first wave of devotees of the unassuming rocker from Jersey and was particularly partial to his second release, The Wild, The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. When he played at a small venue in suburban Maryland in early ’75, before the onslaught of Born to Run-mania, the show wasn’t sold out and I bought a walk-up ticket and wound up in the fourth row. It was a spectacular three-hour performance (with a preview of “Jungleland”) that was a lot more exciting than Dylan’s “comeback” concert with The Band that I’d seen at the Nassau Coliseum a year earlier when I was 18.



As I thought about it, though, Deusner wasn’t far off the mark: Springsteen, with his manic cavorting on stage, goofy mugging with saxophonist Clarence Clemons, overwritten songs about cars, easy chicks and parental respect, wasn’t especially hip, at least not in the same league as Bowie, or, as the decade wore on, Talking Heads, Television and the Clash. (And now that I think about it, was there any dorkier pop star than Springsteen in the MTV video of 1984’s “Dancing in the Dark”?) I’m old enough now and tempered by responsibility that the idea of being “hip” doesn’t really enter my mind, but if a reviewer had written that about Springsteen in ’75 I’d have been really pissed.



As would, I imagine, the Journal’s Steve Stecklow, who chronicles his own history with Springsteen in his article, “Teaching My Son to Respect the Boss.” For better or worse, Stecklow is a true believer and has seen Springsteen on every tour of his since 1978. Mind you, Stecklow’s not a layabout groupie whose free time is limitless—he’s a Polk Award-winner, and just last year carried home a Pulitzer Prize for a joint series on backdating stock options—which makes his steadfast devotion all the more puzzling. Maybe the earnest rock star is Stecklow’s own fountain of youth, his virtual face-lift or tummy tuck, but I don’t get it, especially considering the diminishing quality of Springsteen’s work over the decades.



Stecklow, whose 14-year-old son—a White Stripes and Wolfmother fan—reluctantly accompanied him to Springsteen’s opening night concert of the Magic tour, remarked that “Radio Nowhere” was a Green Day derivation, heresy in the dad’s eyes. (I don’t see the connection myself, since Green Day, whose American Idiot was a lot more politically incendiary and urgent than Magic, sounds a lot more like the Clash than Springsteen.) But by the end of the show, Stecklow proudly reports, young Jesse was apparently won over by the “intensity of the experience” and wore a Springsteen T-shirt to school the next day.



Sounds like a bit of apple-polishing to me, but who knows. I asked my own 14-year-old (who favors Animal Collective, Of Montreal and Radiohead) to give Magic a whirl and an hour later he just gave me a disgusted look. “Way too over-produced,” Nick said, “and the lyrics couldn’t be sappier.”



I pressed further, and asked his opinion of my favorite Springsteen songs—“Badlands,” “For You,” “Atlantic City,” “Lonesome Day,” “Brilliant Disguise” and “Lucky Town”—all but one at least 15 years old, and received middling approval.

It was patronizing, of course, since kids are experts, but at least he listened. My own father wouldn’t have dreamed of foisting Perry Como, Dean Martin or Benny Goodman on me 35 years ago.



Springsteen mania is the almost exclusive territory of middle-aged men and women and that won’t change. When the Boss sings in “Radio Nowhere” that he’s “Just searchin’ for a world with some soul,” I’d bet that most music fans under 35 would suggest that he’s just not looking hard enough. Rolling Stone’s longtime writer David Fricke takes a different view, insisting that the “angry, droning treble” of “Radio Nowhere” is “blessedly louder than the oceanic static of bent truths, partisan reporting and general bullshit that passes for life-and-death debate in the new wired order.”



If you say so, David. I think a more accurate conclusion comes from the A.V. Club’s Noel Murray, who wrote on Oct. 2 about Magic, “The result is a new Springsteen, all duded up for 1988.

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