Ok, so week 4 of Steve Earle's class here in Chicago at Old Town School of Folk Music. This class is about modern songwriters, how they approach material, and how songwriters are linked to Folk music tradition. This week was Bruce Springsteen. Steve said he could have chosen a lot of other writers, including Tom Waits, Joe Henry, Gilbert and Sullivan, or even Paul Simon, but he knows Bruce and felt he could talk about the music in more depth.
Steve walks in wearing a green hooded sweatshirt that says "I Oppose the Death Penalty. Don't Kill For Me." Steve is in town to work for a moratorium on the death penalty. This week, Illinois' Governor Ryan actually took the first steps to do just that. Steve was happy and said we should take a minute to applaud ourselves for living in the first state with a death penalty to establish a moratorium. He stripped off the sweatshirt to reveal a red T shirt that said "I'm from fucking outer space.".
It was about 10 minutes before class, so he was killing time talking about how local radio sucks (a student was talking about it and he overheard and joined in). Someone said "WXRT plays Wilco and Son Volt." And Steve said, "Yeah, but even a band like Son Volt would have a hard time getting on WXRT as a new band today." Anyway, Steve said "Y'all wanna hear what I've been working on?". He pulls out a blue tinted CD-R ("Anyone can make a CD these days") and drops it in a boombox.
He hits play and a tick tock starts with a man's voice talking over it. "That's Abbie Hoffman". I'm thinking, "Hey, that sounds like..." as the voice fades out and this amazing ROAR of guitars fires up as it kicks into the Chambers Brothers' "Time Has Come Today". It is an absolutely stunning version of the tune; think the "Unrepentant" funneled through the Sex Pistols' version of the Modern Lovers' "Roadrunner" off of "Great Rock and Roll Swindle." It just jumps out of the tinny speakers. Jesus, it is a MONSTER song. When it's over, Steve explains it's for a new movie called "Steal this Movie" about Abbie Hoffman ("It's really, really, really fucking good."). The tune will eventually be a duet with Sheryl Crowe, but for now it's all his lead vocals. He is also working on a CD for the Soundtrack of a movie that was at Sundance called "You Can Count on Me" which will have tunes from Cheri Knight, the V Roys and Six String Drag on it (but I think he said he is pulling the plug on this one.)
As he sets the CD down, I can see it has written on it "Steal this CD - More Abbie: New Mix 1/30/00". I'm within arm's reach and the thought crosses my mind. He flashes another CD - "Here's my new album, it's finally done, thank God". It comes out May 9. He sets it down next to a black battered day planner that has a sticker that says "Let Go Let God" on it and starts up the class.
On Bruce, Steve went into a brief history, pointing out that Bruce was coming up when the music landscape was like it is today, filled with disposable pop (disco in his time). The link from Dylan to Springsteen is "not a quantum leap". Bruce knew about Hank Williams and some of the guys in the E Street band had links to Nashville and even played bass with Steve Earle.
He pulled out "Greetings from Asbury Park" and compared "Blinded by the Light" to Dylan's "My Back Pages". Musically, they are a bit similar. Steve said they also had in common that "Neither one really knew what the fuck they were writing about" and it was more playing with images and languages. Steve said the closest tune he had to this was "I Feel Alright" which he really didn't know what the fuck it was about (hunh? Is this not the most autobiographical tune he's ever written?). Steve mentioned that he just recorded a version of "My Back Pages" that will never get heard. He had to do the lead vocals because Jackson Brown and Joan Osborne couldn't get into the studio together. Eventually, his vocals will dissappear and it's a shame because " I sang the shit out of that song!"
The main focus was Nebraska. Steve compared it to the scratch pad for an established artist, a picture of how a songwriter works. He bemoaned the fact that with modern word processing, you lose the ability to see handwritten manuscripts and where songwriters scratch out or change lyrics. He also did a comparison of Springsteen's "Mansion on the Hill" and Hank Williams' song of the same title. H played "Open All Night" and compared it to Chuck Berry's "Little Queenie" and Dylan's "Motorpsycho Nitemare." He also showed a similar riff in "State Trooper" ("the scariest fucking song I've ever heard".)
He played the title cut ("And
this is the second scariest song.") and compared it to Hank Williams' "I'm
So Lonesome I Could Cry." To finish it off he played "My Father's House"
and compared it to a public domain tune "Farther Along" sung by Dolly Parton,
Rondstadt and Emmylou Harris. The class was ending but he said "I can't
turn it off before Emmy sings."
Steve summed up and said that he tried to tie Bruce back to the Anthology or to Woody Guthrie, but couldn't really do it. I talked to him a little bit after and told him I read (in the book "Mansion on the Hill') where Jon Landau gave Bruce a copy of Woody Guthrie's Biography, "Woody Guthrie:A Life" before Nebraska was recorded and that Bruce added "This Land is Your Land" to his setlist shortly after. I told him that "Nebraska" reminded me of "This Land is Your Land" (which I didn't realize until Steve played Nebraska in class) I thought the influence of Woody on Nebraska was pretty clear and documented, but Steve said "Yeah, I was thinking about going that way, but I think he was really trying to make this his Hank Williams record." I agree to a point, but Woody's definitely there, you don't have to probe too hard.
But, hey, YOU tell the guy he's wrong.
Bruce Springsteen: greetings from Asbury Park, Nebraska
Another Side of Bob Dylan
Hank Williams - The Original Singles Collection
Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Linda Rondstadt - Trio
Born to Run- Dave Marsh
Glory Days - Dave Marsh