Tag Archives: Bruce Springsteen

And I could be anything if I just put my mind to it…

42. Glory Days – Pulp / Glory Days – Bruce Springsteen

53,000 words, 11 months, 300 or so songs, a very loose interpretation of 42 records, and here we are at the end. So what was all that about then ?

On one level it was a set of posts about some records, from Abba to Zevon. Whilst the artists that I did write about were a pretty fair reflection of what I listen to there’s a long list of people and records that somehow didn’t find their way into the list that I could happily make the case for. The Cardigans’ glorious “Long Gone Before Daylight” album is the most glaring omission in terms of records that I love. Bowie never made it. The Manics never made it either: I could find good reasons for “Motown Junk” or “All Surface, No Feeling” or “Your Love Alone” or the entirety of “The Holy Bible”. No Cowboy Junkies. No Smiths. No PJ Harvey. No Kate Bush. Massive Attack. Portishead. Rilo Kiley. Prince. All sorts of people that I adore that never made it. Posts for another time perhaps.

So, if you read any of the posts and discovered some music because of it then I’m glad. To be honest if you read any of it all then I’m glad. Much as I tried not to get too obsessed with the WordPress stats page I really came to hate those double zero days: no visitors, no views. It was all mostly written for my own benefit but, hey, who am I kidding, having an audience makes it all the more gratifying.

As well as the records it was about me. Whilst you may be thinking that I could have wrapped this up in six words – sad man listens to sad music – I have always been a little verbose and chose to ramble on a bit more than that. There was always a risk that this ended up being an extended version of Springsteen’s “Glory Days” – someone past his best reflecting on former glories. That wasn’t the intent but it does give me an excuse to ensure that Bruce gets yet another mention in the 42 and to watch the none-more-80s video:

If it’s not just a collection of boring stories of glory days then what is it ? There’s another song that bears the name “Glory Days”, tucked away on Pulp’s “This Is Hardcore” album. It’s a song that I probably more readily identified with when I was slightly younger – the nods to single room apartments and wasting days in the café by the station are distinctly 20something references – but the spirit of it still rings true.

If it all amounts to nothing these are still our glory days. There it is again. That acknowledgement that there might not be a greater point to all of this but these moments are still what we have. I have bashed myself around the head repeatedly with this fairly simple conclusion, one day if I bash hard enough it may actually sink in. Not entirely seriously, writing the 42 was, in honour of that number, an attempt to work out what it’s all about. The big one. Life, the Universe, everything (rest in peace Douglas). And I think I did. It’s about moments and love and friendship and community.

For me it’s also about writing. If the slightly up-its-own-arse conceit behind writing these posts was about working out the meaning of life via 42 records of personal significance (slightly up-its-own-arse ? disappeared so far up it has emerged from the top of my own head) then actually the real purpose was to write again. Rather than sit and stare forlornly at a blank piece of paper waiting for my novel to disgorge itself this process gave me a route back to writing.

The key lines for me in “Glory Days” (the Pulp one) are the ones about the promise of potential:

Oh and I could be a genius if I just put my mind to it

And I could do anything if only I could get round to it

I hid behind those lines for a long time with respect to actually trying to write something and I won’t hide behind them anymore. I have started again and I won’t be stopping – otherwise it’s Springsteen’s “Glory Days” that becomes the end note to this project and that isn’t what I want. I’ve read all of the entries in the 42 back to myself. Some of it isn’t great and there’s quite a bit I would change but, you know what, some of it isn’t half bad and I’m proud to have seen it through. I’m sure there will be other posts to come about music and possibly some that are about me but I think I will be actively trying to write more fiction now. I may still end up telling my own story but I may use some other characters and other vehicles to do it.

Hope you enjoyed it and got something from it. So long, for now, and thanks for all the fish.

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Hard times come and hard times go

30. Wrecking Ball – Bruce Springsteen

“You’ll probably look back and think this was the best thing that ever happened to you”. If you ever find yourself talking to someone that has just lost their job, just been made redundant (what an appalling turn of phrase that is), then take it from me, don’t fall back on telling them that it might turn out to be a great thing. However well intentioned. Give them some time. Give them some empathy, some sympathy even, but don’t dismiss the awfulness of it in that sentence. Let them work through just how shit it is before you start up with the platitudes. And believe me it’s shit.

Just over three years ago I was about to leave the office late on a Friday afternoon. I knew my company was struggling – it would have been difficult not to know as I was responsible for understanding UK consumers, the market, and how we performed in that context. UK consumers were on the floor, the market had finally run out of technology innovation that had propped us up and kept customers spending, and even the weather had turned against us – the preceding Christmas wiped out in a flurry of snow. I also knew that something was going on. It was nearly the end of the financial year, which is often when these things happen, and I just had a sense that my time might be up. I’d been in the organisation for 13 years, part of the furniture, and was pretty well plugged in to all of the usual rumour, conjecture, and gossip that flies around a business. I wasn’t the only one that had suspicions.

I was due to be in Leeds the following Monday evening, invited to speak at a market research event, and so I stopped by my boss’ office to float the idea that I might just go directly up North rather than come in to the office. On reflection I think by this point that I already knew. I was just trying to fish for some kind of confirmation. He clearly didn’t want to give anything away. Presumably there had been some kind of agreement internally to “not spoil everyone’s weekend” and he was cagey. Eventually I somewhat bluntly asked him if I needed to be in the office on Monday morning. Yes, was the response. He knew what he’d just told me. I knew too.

Knowing is one thing but being directly confronted with it is another. It seems vaguely laughable now but there was a ridiculous mistake made over the weekend – the one that presumably was not to be spoiled. Meeting invites went out to various members of the Marketing team, ordered in a particular way (if you were near the end it was good, near the start was bad), on the Sunday, evidently with the intention that they’d be seen as everyone came in on Monday morning. Under normal circumstances we weren’t the type of employees that left our Blackberries alone all weekend, let alone in a time of heightened tension about our future prospects. So various of us saw the invites on the Sunday, saw the run of people summoned to the same room on the first floor, and drew our own conclusions.

I held it together until the Monday morning. I was in early as usual and one of the first people I saw was the new HR head, a woman that seemed to have expressly been brought in to do unpleasant work. She was well suited to it. There are lots of things, looking back, that I’d do differently if it all happened again. One of those things is that I wouldn’t have pleaded with her quite so desperately to tell me what was going on, only to be stone walled. I get why. I understand the professional obligation, the need to treat everyone the same, the requirement to protect the company’s interests and not say anything that might compromise the process. I get it but it’s utterly dehumanising. I wish I’d not said a single word to her. That stone walling, along with many other parts of what became “the process”, reduces you to the status of a line on a spreadsheet somewhere. You don’t really exist as a person anymore in the eyes of the organisation. You finally get to understand that age old Finance gag that directly rebuts HR’s “people are our greatest asset” line: people, on any balance sheet, will always be listed as a liability.

I didn’t have to wait very long for my meeting. It transpired that I wasn’t the only casualty in my team and so they needed to remove me first. To this day I deeply regret that the fate of the rest of my team was taken out of my hands, particularly as one of them was away on maternity leave at the time – but redundancy is no respecter of that. The ones that survived this cull all left within three months anyway; the writing was on the wall and I’m glad at least that I recruited and worked with people (great people) that had enough nous to bail out when they could. I don’t remember all of the details of the meeting; I just remember being very, very angry. In a bizarre way it almost helped that I didn’t particularly get on with my boss, it gave me a focal point for my rage and scorn. He didn’t necessarily deserve it, we were just different people, but that was where I directed all of my negative feelings.

The official line was that I was in a period of consultation – a month – as my role had been deemed redundant. That’s always the distinction: it’s the role, not you personally, that is redundant. The business doesn’t need that role anymore. It’s not a reflection on you. It’s not personal. Except, of course, it couldn’t be more fucking personal. The role doesn’t pay your mortgage. The role doesn’t give up its time and energy and emotionally invest in a place, in the people that work there, in the work that it does. The role doesn’t have to go out and find a new role: it’s redundant. You, of course, do. And you, of course, are inseparable from the role and are the one that is really now deemed redundant. Don’t ever let them tell you it’s not personal.

“Don’t go to Leeds”. I remember he said that. Told me – not unreasonably I guess – that I probably wasn’t in the right frame of mind to drive for three hours and deliver a presentation on engaging businesses with customer insight. At my very best I’m not good at being told to not do something. Sheer bloody minded stubbornness is not necessarily my most appealing character trait but there it is. I wasn’t anywhere near my best. “Don’t go to Leeds” was like a red rag being stuffed in my face and, in that moment, I would have crawled on my hands and knees through broken glass to sodding Leeds and delivered that presentation just to spite him, spite the company I’d given 13 years to, and to try and retain some sense of myself as a professional, employed, person.

I went to Leeds. Delivered a great presentation to the good folks of the Northern branch of the Market Research Society. Didn’t breathe a word of what had happened until afterwards when I couldn’t keep a lid on it anymore. I think they were a little surprised. I was exhausted. It had been a pretty draining day.

I was one of the lucky ones. That’s what I tend to tell myself now. The business I left folded a couple of years later, collapsing after a private equity buy out that, whilst difficult to prove, looks a lot like it was designed to close the business and walk away with a profit. Some people made money on a business that failed: none of those people were the ones that worked there. So I was lucky because I got paid off. I more or less walked straight into another job too. But I don’t remember feeling particularly lucky sobbing in the toilets at the office when it all got too much during that month of “consultation” or when I pretended to be working from home because I couldn’t tell our child carer what was going on or when colleagues I’d known for years – had worked directly for in some cases – couldn’t bring themselves to have any words for me. You find out who your friends are I guess. For every person that suddenly seemed unable to even look at me there was another who would take me out for lunch. For every process and policy demon in HR there was others who, in simple terms, put the human back into human resources (they know who they are). I was particularly touched by the generous spirit of my research agency network who, without exception, were wonderful at a time when there was genuinely nothing in it for them beyond being decent people – I couldn’t commission any work for them anymore.

About a year after I went through the redundancy Springsteen released “Wrecking Ball”, an angry riposte to the banking crisis induced recession and consequent human cost. Inevitably it’s the record I have co-opted as articulating my powerless anger about what happened to me and about the subsequent collapse of the business I worked so long for. It’s a big fuck-you of a record, especially the title track (the video at the start of this post); a giant musical middle finger extended to an abstract set of bankers who dealt in abstract trades that had anything but abstract repercussions. For me it’s more straightforward: you got rid of me, I’m not going to let it beat me.

I walked away – or more accurately was made to walk away – from my job with a decent chunk of money and didn’t need it to tide me over until I found another one. But there was a cost. My redundancy wasn’t the only thing that tipped me into depression 18 months later but it was undoubtedly one of the things. It was almost like a bereavement and I don’t think I’d worked it all through until I took my 6 month sabbatical some 30 odd months after the event. Some of it is still probably working its way through now. And, as I say, I was one of the lucky ones; I didn’t have to bear the financial cost as well as the emotional one. I have nothing but empathy and respect for all my former colleagues who had to deal with both.

So, no, even in retrospect I wouldn’t say that it turned out to be “the best thing that ever happened” although in a roundabout way it was one of the triggers that made me write again so perhaps, eventually, I’ll look back on it differently. For now it’s still a big old wrecking ball that clattered through my life and the dust from the damage that it caused is still settling.

Walk tall… or baby don’t walk at all

27. Incident On 57th Street / Rosalita / New York City Serenade – Bruce Springsteen

I was recently tipped off by a friend that Springsteen was making most of his current run of shows available as official bootlegs for the princely sum of £6. Given that most of his current shows are running to three hours or more that’s a pretty fair deal. At a point in his career when he could be forgiven for slowing down, or even stopping following the deaths of Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons, Springsteen seems as alive, more alive maybe, than he has in the last twenty years. The loss of Federici and Clemons has prompted a shuffling of the E Street Band’s line up, its ranks swelling with the addition of a full horn complement, string section on many dates, and Tom Morello from Rage Against The Machine on guitar – as if Nils Lofgren, Steve Van Zandt, and Springsteen himself isn’t a stellar enough line up already. The current band is phenomenal. Of course, it always was.

The Brisbane show on the current tour features a complete run through of “The Wild, The Innocent & The E-Street Shuffle”, Springsteen’s second record, and the one that prefaced his eventual break through with “Born To Run”. I am a massive fan of that album and it contains my favourite run of three songs straight on any record: the whole of side two covering “Incident On 57th Street”, through “Rosalita” and finishing with “New York City Serenade”. None of the songs clocking in beneath seven minutes but none of them outstaying their welcome. Springsteen was never this – excuse the obvious lift – wild again, rushing headlong into a myriad of musical ideas, embracing styles, trying anything and everything (virtually all of it working). All he learned gigging the Jersey shore is here. All his influences sucked in – Dylan, Van Morrison, jazz, latin, R&B, gospel, straight up rock and roll – and spat back out across three songs that are almost heroic in their ambition and scope. There is more invention here than most artists achieve in their lives; Springsteen crammed it into twenty four minutes.

I adore “Wild, Innocent…” for its sheer hubris. It’s a young man’s record, before age and experience reins in some of its excess. Ten minute jazz rock work out ? Yeah, why shouldn’t I do that ? “West Side Story” ? I could reimagine that. If I’m going to serenade New York then why not nod back to Gershwin with a dramatic, classical piano intro ? All of this, eventually, was tightened up, compressed and finessed, onto the record that became “Born To Run”, every note worked and worked until it was perfect, but I don’t think he could have gotten there without stretching out on the sprawling “Wild, Innocent…” first.

So, for me, the Brisbane show is telling. A much older man revisiting a young man’s record and, arguably, his most diverse record musically. For the most part it’s a pretty straight run, not quite a direct recreation of the album but not far off (which, don’t get me wrong, takes some serious chops to pull off). Then, towards the end of “Incident On 57th Street”, Springsteen launches into the climactic solo and something magical happens. It begins in very similar style to the record but then he finds a gorgeous new sequence, a series of intricate, melodic runs that aren’t there in 1973. It’s a really small moment but it lifts the whole run through of the album for me, beautiful evidence that his creative spark is still firing forty years later. Not for the first time he moved me to tears – happy tears – when I heard it. It’s like a thirty second salvo against fading away into old age, not just because technically and physically it’s a pretty astonishing piece to play, but because he’s still finding new things and creating new moments.

It’s a measure of my love and admiration for Springsteen that I believe I could run a list of songs, in parallel to this one, filled entirely with 42 of his records. Perhaps that’s an idea for another time. He deals in songs of joy, songs of pain, songs that demand you get up and dance, songs that ask you to sit down and reflect. There’s shade and light and tears and smiles. Fear, hope, truth, anger, remorse. And redemption. Almost always redemption.

In short all human experience and life is here. All of my life is here. It’s no accident that last year Springsteen inspired a documentary film – “Springsteen & I” – which specifically deals with people’s – his fans’ – relationship to his music. If his music touches you (and I accept that he’s an artist that doesn’t resonate for everyone) then he connects in a way unlike anyone else currently working, arguably ever working, in rock music. I use “rock” music as lazy shorthand for the eclectic stew of rock, pop, jazz, latin, soul, folk, country, blues, hell-pretty-much-whatever, that characterises his songs over the past forty or so years. I’d originally written some of this post immediately after the Dylan one (here) as there’s common ground between the two and Dylan was a hugely important influence on Springsteen. I buy the argument that without Dylan there would be no Springsteen, certainly not as we know him, but I don’t buy the argument that Dylan is the greater artist (in so much as I buy that any artist is “greater” than another, it’s not really a competition). The fundamental difference between them I think is that Dylan has no interest in being understood whereas everything Springsteen does is about making a connection, about finding a way for the themes in his songs to be recognised.

So here’s what I take from those three songs now: the willful naivety of youth and its capacity to get stuff done, just for the sheer pleasure of doing it, and the fact that age and experience needn’t deaden that capacity. Play them and walk tall.

……

This post ended up being a little light on Rosalita – officially the most fun you can have listening to a song ever – and New York City Serenade. I doubt I’d do them justice so here’s some links to just go listen to them:

Roaslita from 1978 (I think it’s ’78 anyway)

New York City Serenade from 2013

Just Write: Week 1, Jan 20

Quite by chance – reading a community centre notice board whilst waiting for my daughter to appear from one of her after school activities – I discovered that there was a creative writing group / course running locally. Thinking that it would be something fun and interesting to do in the new year I had signed myself up prior to Christmas and thought this would be as good a place as any to record my output.

So the first session was last week and it was pretty nerve wracking. I am entirely comfortable speaking and presenting in front of people – it has been a large part of my job for a long time – but there was something very different about reading your own work aloud in front of what were (at the time) a bunch of strangers. Albeit lovely strangers as it turns out.

I will type up each week’s work without tinkering. That does mean that some of it will be pretty raw and some of it will undoubtedly be dreadful – most of it is written in the class in the space of about ten or fifteen minutes so it is largely unedited. However, fortune may favour me with the occasional sentence that isn’t half bad. Even if it doesn’t then I can have a good chuckle back at this in my dotage.

Exercise one in week one was to take a blank piece of paper and brainstorm (that’s not politically correct anymore is it ?) five words that you associate with the word “write”. Then to take each of those five words and come up with five additional words for each – so thirty one words in total as a rough and ready mind map.

Here were mine with the initial five words in bold: Escape – Runaway – Holiday – Job – Calling – Dream – Sleep – Romantic – Future – Ideal – Wonderful – Stuck – Procrastinate – Blocked – Choked – Unsure – Blank – Painful – Failure – Struggle – Esteem – Poor – Fear – Communicate – Reach – Stories – Me – Inside – Touch.

Let us not trouble ourselves too much with amateur psychology at this point… (or the fact that I seem to have missed a word somewhere). The second part of the exercise was to spend five minutes writing a short piece that used all of the words you had come up with. So I had:

The holiday was supposed to be an escape. A chance to runaway. The job was going nowhere, career blocked, and she was facing up to thinking of herself as a failure. The dream, of course, had been different. Now she just thought it was romantic nonsense that had filled her head; stories she’d tell herself about her ideal future. She’d thought it was a calling, not this painful thing it had become.

But the holiday, like the job, like everything, had not been an escape. It was a struggle. Of course it was a struggle; she couldn’t escape herself and what she carried inside.

Again, we may not want to trouble ourselves with the amateur psychology. I didn’t hate it, I guess that’s a decent enough start. I didn’t really like the end though as it felt a bit cliched to me even on first writing, let alone on reading back, but for five minutes scribbling from nowhere I thought it was okay.

The second exercise involved talking about our personal bucket lists (i.e. things you’d like to do before you die) in pairs before picking one of them and free writing about it for ten minutes. In this context “free” writing is simply starting to write and not letting yourself stop for the duration, trying to disregard any internal editing process. That latter point is something I find particularly hard but also may be a big reason why I never make very much progress. Anyway, my piece was about meeting Bruce Springsteen:

The great man, as it turned out, was smaller than I’d expected. Not Bono short. Or Kylie short, but still appreciably less tall than his reputation suggested. He was Bruce Springsteen and if he was at all bored of yet another meet-the-fans-handshake-and-a-few-cursory-words then he didn’t let it show.

“How you doing ?” he asked.

Momentarily I was frozen, utterly terrified. I was having difficulty separating the myth in my head – the quasi mystical mythologiser of American dreams and nightmares – from the man who was extending his hand towards me. The touch of that handshake brought me round. His hands were still slick with sweat, fresh from leaving the stage, and the basic physicality of this made him real to me again. Holding it together I blurted out:

“Great set, great set, it’s… you don’t know what it means to me to meet you…”

He responded with a broad smile and clapped me on the shoulder.

“Hey no problem. Thanks for coming out”.

And then he was gone, on to the next out stretched hand in the queue. The next fervent believer. I watched him go. Definitely smaller than expected but always a giant to me.

Again, I don’t hate it. I do seem to have acquired a habit of pay off lines that might come off as a little too derivative but I did want to give the piece a sense of being self contained, of having a close to it. Not sure why I gave Springsteen the same vocal mannerisms as Joey Tribiani from Friends either… Obviously my short hand for New Jersey. At least he didn’t offer me any “cwoffe”. But I did like the height thing as a way in and he is only 5’9″ ish so it’s entirely possible that I would be struck by that if I ever met him.

And that was week one. It was really good fun. If I’m going to be a frustrated writer then I might as well enjoy being a frustrated writer… and actually write some stuff.

There’s something dying down on the highway tonight

22. Thunder Road / The Promise / Racing In The Street – Bruce Springsteen

“A reckoning with the adult world; a life of limitations and compromises… but also a life of (kind of) just resilience and commitment to life. To the breath in your lungs. How do I keep faith to these things ? How do I honour these things ?”

If writing these posts – writing full stop – is about anything for me then I guess it’s about trying to address Springsteen’s questions above. It’s the questions that I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to answer and the ones that have particularly vexed me in the past five months: where’s the balance between doing what you feel you want to do and what you think you should do ?

The conceit in threading these three songs together is mine. They’re not sequenced in this order anywhere officially but thematically they fit and, recently, I’ve taken to spinning a narrative across them. It may not be the “correct” narrative but it’s the story that the songs tell to me at this point in my life. Those three songs, spanning two albums and three years; a Great American Novel in 15 minutes. That span of two albums, of course, technically covering a third, the set of songs compiled as “The Promise” that, slightly astonishingly, didn’t make the cut for “Darkness On The Edge Of Town” and only officially surfaced thirty years later as part of its anniversary box set release.

The order is important. Opening with the defiant optimism of “Thunder Road” – it’s a town full of losers, we’re pulling outta here to win – followed by the blunt rebuttal of “The Promise” – everyday it just gets harder to live this dream I’m believing in – and closing with “Racing…” which allows for a glimpse of some degree of reconciliation with what life has delivered – tonight my baby and me, we’re going to ride to the sea and wash these sins off our hands.

Max Weinberg sums up the journey Springsteen’s characters (and, by extension, Springsteen himself) make:

“On Born To Run you had the characters saying “baby we were born to run – we’re gonna get out”. In the ensuing three years between Born To Run and Darkness it was made painfully clear: you can’t just run away”

You could make the case to rejig the order with “The Promise” closing the sequence, its yearning, mournful thunder road refrain echoing back to the call of the open highway in “Thunder Road” itself; escape and freedom replaced with despair. That though would be a pretty bleak read and it’s interesting that Springsteen didn’t find room for “The Promise” on “Darkness…”; effectively you could see “Racing In The Street” as the song that picks up the journey of the lovers we meet in “Thunder Road” and it offers hope in its glorious extended coda where “The Promise” offers none. Springsteen almost always offers hope and redemption. It’s perhaps also telling that when he toured Darkness he completely flipped my order, following “Racing…” with “Thunder Road”; a second chance for his jaded lovers ?

“Thunder Road” opens “Born To Run” and is a song I’ve known by heart since I was about 16. I vividly remember sitting in my History A level – the actual exam – having written everything I was going to write about the Reformation and having twenty minutes to spare. So I wrote out the lyrics to “Thunder Road” for no other reason than I could. I didn’t submit the lyrics. My resultant grade suggests that I might as well have done.

It deals, like much of “Born To Run”, in the idea of escape, breaking out of a small town, a small life, for something brighter. Life is still enticing in “Thunder Road”, full of promise, with magic in the night and these two lanes (that) will take us anywhere. There’s a confidence, a certainty, to the male character in the song urging Mary to pick up and leave with him. There’s no doubts here other than the inference that Mary is reluctant – so you’re scared and you’re thinking that maybe we ain’t that young anymore. An unshakeable belief that heading out on Thunder Road with the windows rolled down, wind blowing in their hair, will lead to some fabled promised land.

“Thunder Road” is a brilliantly constructed song. Solo piano picking out those opening notes, harmonica blowing in the background and Springsteen still in a lyrical phase that’s overtly poetic, overtly cinematic:

The screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways

Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays

Roy Orbison singing for the lonely

Hey that’s me and I want you only

First four lines and you’re in that scene, there’s a picture in your head, there’s movement, there’s sound, and there’s suddenly two people that you want to know more about. Past those four lines and the song progressively builds and builds, more and more instrumentation joining our protagonist’s exhortations to Mary to come away with him before the band all come in right on roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair – as if the music literally signals that sensation of release in the act. From there it’s full throttle through to the climactic it’s a town full of losers, a heartbeat of a pause, and then the joyous outro as our lovers drive off into the sunset.  

“The Promise”, recorded during the sessions that led to “Darkness On The Edge Of Town”, didn’t officially surface in the version I reference here until the 30th anniversary boxset for “Darkness” came out in 2010 (32nd anniversary not presumably having quite the same ring) although there is a stripped back take on “Tracks”.

It’s pretty hard not to hear “The Promise” as the extension to the story started in “Thunder Road”, largely, of course, because its chorus specifically references that place. In Springsteen’s words it’s “about fighting and not winning” and lyrically the song is brutally stark: inside I felt I was carrying the broken spirits of all the other ones who lost; all my life I fought that fight – the fight you can never win; something in your heart goes cold; there’s something dying down on the highway tonight. The burning certainty of “Thunder Road” is utterly gone here.

Musically “The Promise” is glorious: rising and swelling piano, guitars, strings and layered harmonies. It’s rich and beautiful and achingly sad. It is utterly astonishing that a song as good as this – good enough for many artists to hang an entire career on – was left on the shelf (as a recording) for the best part of thirty years.

I usually make it to the verse about “I built that Challenger by myself but I needed money and so I sold it” before the song breaks me. It’s a hoary old criticism leveled at Springsteen that he deals too heavily in metaphors relating to cars and highways but if you can’t empathise with the destruction of someone’s dream wrapped up in those lines then you must have a steelier heart than mine. That section gets me every single time. I’m fine… I’m fine… No, I’m a broken man. On a very personal level it also came to represent how I felt about the fact that I’d stopped writing. Had somehow become, in my head, a writer who didn’t write. Of course, a writer who doesn’t write isn’t a writer at all. It’s delusional. Dreams. However, a writer who doesn’t write might never have to face up to being not good enough and, for a long time, that was perhaps the unspoken truth I hid behind.

And then there’s “Racing In The Street”. In my contrived sequence this brings our little story to a close – an ambiguous close but a close nonetheless. The song stands easily on its own, it’s self contained, and largely wraps up the expression of that journey from hope down to despair and then back towards a glimpse of new possibilities that I’ve been trying to articulate across the three songs. The truth is that each of the three should fill a place in this list as, without question, these are three of my favourite songs and “Racing In The Street”, if you pushed me, is probably what I consider to be the finest song ever written. It’s a masterpiece. I get that these things are inevitably subjective but that’s the one I return to again and again and again.

The bulk of “Racing…” is quiet, sober, reflective. The story of a guy looking back on his youth spent racing cars up and down the strip with his buddy; a release from the drudge of working. Eventually he meets a girl, they settle down, life turns a little sour (she cries herself to sleep at night; all her pretty dreams are torn – stares off alone into the night with the eyes of one who hates for just being born). Somewhere in their lives they’ve lost their way, he’s become one of those guys that just gives up living, starts dying little by little, piece by piece. It’s heart breaking in how ordinary it is. No dramatic event, just an implied slow erosion of the dreams that brought them together and a realisation that life isn’t as simple as blowing away other racers on a warm summer’s night. Or a realisation that maybe that was as good as life got.

If that was the end then we’re back in the same place as “The Promise”, have told the same story twice: bitter, disillusioned and washed up. But that isn’t how “Racing…” ends. The song turns when it’s at its darkest – it does what Springsteen at his best does which is to offer up redemption and hope when faced with life at its worst. So there at the end, with a nod to the other hopeful dreamers and travellers on the road, the characters in “Racing…” take another trip:

For all the shut down strangers and hot rod angels

Rumbling though this promised land

Tonight my baby and me, we’re gonna ride to the sea

And wash these sins from our hands

Tonight, tonight, the highway’s bright

Out of our way, mister, you best keep

Cause summer’s here and the time is right for going racing in the street

The piano then plays the main melody line unaccompanied before each instrument is reintroduced, beginning with – to my ears at least – an optimistic organ figure and then the song stretches out into an extended coda. That most glorious, beautiful coda. To me it always sounds like they’re watching the sunrise, the first rays of a new morning offering up, even if only briefly, a new set of possibilities on a new horizon.

There’s a documentary that was included as part of the “Darkness” boxset about the making of the record (you can see find it cut into small pieces on Youtube if you care to look). In it Springsteen describes the fundamentals of what the songs from Darkness are about and, in so doing, cuts right to the heart of why that entire record speaks so loudly to me:

So you had to lose your illusions while, at the same time, holding on to some sort of possibilities. But more so your illusions of adult life and a life without limitations which I think everyone dreams of and imagines at a certain point. The song that needs to be sung is the song about, well, how do you deal with those things and move on to a creative life, a spiritual life, a satisfying life, and a life where you can make your way through the day and sleep at night ? That’s what most of those songs are about.

It’s a difficult journey from the fuck-you exuberance of pulling outta here to win to the quieter contemplation of the compromises required in an adult life, a life with responsibility. In many respects I’m extremely lucky. The compromises I’ve made weren’t ones about relationships – I’m not literally experiencing the journey to disillusionment that Springsteen’s lovers are – or the people I’ve been fortunate enough to spend my life with. No, they were about how I spend my time. How and where I invest my energy. Whether I give free expression to myself. Whether I spend my moments committed to something that I believe in and care about. Or whether I punch the clock and pick up the pay cheque.

Springsteen from the documentary again:

“Life is no longer wide open. Adult life is a life of a lot of compromise… and that’s necessary, there’s a lot of things you should be compromising on. And there’s some essential things where you don’t want to compromise. So figuring those things out… 

What’s the part of life you need to compromise to, whatever it may be, pay your bills, get along, to feed your kids, to make your way in the world ? And then what’s the part of life where there’s a part of yourself you can’t compromise… or you lose yourself ?

The answer to that is probably the key to everything. And the answer to that still eludes me.

They’re singing deck the halls…

20. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) – Darlene Love

I make no apologies for the faint whiff of predictability in posting about a Christmas song four days before Christmas. I really hadn’t intended to but I’ve found it particularly hard to write about any music in the last couple of weeks and I think part of the issue has been the steady invasion of Christmas music into my auditory landscape; in shops, on the radio, and increasingly at home.

This got me thinking about all those very specific, seasonal songs and why it hadn’t occurred to me, when initially drafting the list of the 42, to include any of them. The reason is obvious, of course. I drafted the initial list in August and, more than any other type of song, these are records that I only really think about for a finite period every year and then they’re gone. But think of them I do and, every year, they’re a big part of my musical life so, on reflection, it feels remiss to not acknowledge that.

I also got to thinking about the lack of Springsteen thus far in the 42 and, post rationalising furiously, decided that I was covering a number of his key influences first – deconstructing some of the elements of his appeal before tackling the man himself. It would have been quite smart if I’d set out with a deliberate intention to do that but it’d also be completely untrue so I will just have to claim it now as a happy accident. So there’s been a post on Dylan and some bits and pieces on Motown and 60s soul records, still missing Elvis, Chuck Berry, The Animals, Van Morrison and James Brown (to name but some), but now, at least, I can add Phil Spector to the list.

Spector has been hugely influential in how popular music sounds, famously through his wall of sound production techniques; progressively layering multiple tracks and a large range of instrumentation to create a big sound. He was at the forefront of the explosion of girl groups in the 60s, writing and producing for The Crystals and The Ronettes, and was at the helm of two of the finest recordings, in my opinion, of the 20th century: The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High”. His influence covers everyone from Brian Wilson to The Jesus & Mary Chain and was an acknowledged touchstone for Springsteen, particularly with respect to the sound he created on “Born To Run”.

Spector’s career petered out through the 70s and he largely disappeared in the 80s and 90s before he was found guilty of second degree murder in 2009; he had shot actress Lana Clarkson at his home six years previously. He had always been a somewhat infamous figure – allegedly frequently pulling guns on recording artists working with him – and now his reputation will always be tarnished by the severity of that crime. Before all of that, back when he was establishing himself as a producer, Spector put out “A Christmas Gift For You”, a collection of festive songs from his stable of artists at the time. It even includes a take on “Silent Night” over which Spector himself thanks everyone for working on the record and wishes us all a merry Christmas; it’s slightly bizarre to reconcile his softly spoken tidings with the man he evidently became.

“A Christmas Gift For You”, which is pretty much brilliant throughout, also includes this: “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”. It’s far and away my favourite festive song. I share the general appreciation for, say, “Fairytale of New York” and have a big soft spot for The Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping” but this is the one. Start to finish it is the work of a genius (and I don’t use that word lightly). First sixteen seconds, those big chords echoing out on the first beat of each bar, tambourine (sleigh bells ?) counting out the tempo, strings shimmering in the background, bass climbing up a scale, before the drums accelerate us into the vocals and that first burst of “Christmas !”. That, right there, is the entire experience of the expectation and anticipation of the run up to Christmas climaxing with the day itself wrapped up in sixteen seconds. Darlene Love hasn’t even opened her mouth yet.

When she does she absolutely lets loose and belts out the song. No frills, just a show stopping display of raw singing power. It’s a vocal that could level buildings. It’s testament to Love that she invests some fairly straightforward lyrics – girl misses boy at Christmas, wants him to come home – with real feeling. There’s a desperate longing in her performance which culminates in the pleading “please please please” section towards the song’s close; it’s terrific hairs standing up on the back of your neck stuff. Spector, of course, was something of a specialist in evoking that sense of yearning – “Be My Baby” later elevating it to stratospheric heights.

Christmas for me has taken on a series of rituals over the years; whether it’s decorating the tree, watching “Elf”, putting out a carrot for Rudolph on Christmas Eve (and whatever booze we have in for Santa, this year will be port), and visiting family and friends. This song is part of that fabric and, as such, carries lots of happy associations. It always makes me smile.

Halfway through writing this it occurred to me that this is such a quintessentially Spector sounding record and consequently, in some respects, such a quintessentially E-Street Band sounding record, that surely Springsteen must have covered it. Especially given that he’s always had no qualms about goofing around with a fun Christmas song when the time of year is right.

Sure enough here it is. It works well (not as perfectly as Darlene Love’s peerless take – there have been tons of covers of this record but none of them get close to the original) and I feel vindicated in my notion of deconstructing his influences ! If only I’d kept quiet it could have looked like a brilliant pre-conceived plan.

So, Merry Christmas, and if you want to make a case for why, for example, I should have gone with Wham!’s “Last Christmas” or Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” – also produced by Spector funnily enough – then let me know in the comments. Would love to hear which festive tune does it for you.