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H2>Toby Banks

Has Springsteen sold out?

As religious ceremonies go it was low-key, but the modesty of the devotees only emphasised their touching devotion. Dozens of men, their suits straining slightly to accommodate the mature figures within, stood quietly in rows, credit card in one hand, two CDs in the other. For today not one, but two new Bruce Springsteen albums hit the shops; the first since 1987. The cashiers asked everyone to hold on. 'I've waited five years for this', winked the bloke in front, 'I can wait another five minutes'.

A few bottles of wine and takeaways were consumed around the CD player that night. Out comes the souvenir t-shirt from the open-air Leeds concert. It darkened with sweat under the Yorkshire sun that day, just like Bruce's, but tonight it's clean and ironed specially. Feels a bit tight now - they make everything too small these days. Out with the baseball cap. On with the jeans and trainers. Twenty-four new tracks: 'Man's Job', 'Roll of the Dice', 'Real man'. Nice one, Boss.....Shit! The kids have woken up. Still, summer's coming and this'll sound great in the motor. Sunroof down and the wind blowing through what's left of the hair...

In the seventies Bruce sang a swansong for the innocent days of Spector, Orbison and escape on the road. Ten years later came the chest-beating stadium-packing atrocity, 'Born In The USA', the blue- collar Everyman processed through the Deerhunter and splashed over a giant Stars and Stripes. Then came divorce, disillusion, a sad beautiful record nobody bought, remarriage, a baby boy from Patti and now twins from Bruce: 'Human Touch' and 'Lucky Town'. He called 'em that because he felt human and lucky, and Bruce reckons they're just about the best damn records he's ever cut.

In the downtown bars they wouldn't disagree: a new Springsteen single hits the spot like a cold Bud. And the Japs can't get enough of dem rollin' dice and black rivers. Good old Bruce. You either love him or...well, you don't. He's a pretty hard guy to hate, by all accounts. Unless you are a rock critic, that is.

I haven't picked up a rock paper for over a decade, so I was surprised at the level of excitement generated by a middle-aged American inviting a few million close pals to 'get down' in their living rooms. Melody Maker's 'Everett True' (is that you, Julie Burchill?) was in a right old state: 'People like Bruce Springsteen are boring music to death', he shrieked, in a piece that took me back to the days of Johnny Rotten.

A healthy case of the 'generation gap'? Well, it's true that Bruce doesn't have much to satisfy the cravings of raging young hormones. The lyrics alternate between hackneyed Americana and maudlin mid-life introspection. The navel-gazing 'loneliness of a long-distance superstar' stuff is best, but even then the outlaw cliches intrude. In one song he's so bored that he shoots up his TV with a .44 Magnum. Soon he's up in court (who reported him - his maid?), and the judge flatteringly calls him 'son', just like he used to say to that young hubcap-swiper Eddie Cochran.

In America the record probably carries a note from the Concerned Parents League saying 'shooting TVs is criminal damage and can be dangerous'. But Bruce doesn't take himself as seriously as some people would have you believe. He knows that as hellraisers go he's in the Little League, and his domestic troubles 'don't make much for tragedy'. And being a regular guy, he admits to making an honest living as 'a rich man in a poor man's shirt'.

So it's not really surprising that the Everett Trues of this world find him uninspiring. But you have to ask, if it's heroism, radicalism and integrity you're after, why look for it in a rock star in the first place? Why should a Bruce Springsteen record be seen as a betrayal by someone young enough to be The Boss' son? Who raised the poor boy's hopes so cruelly?

The horrible truth dawned on me when I watched a programme called J'Accuse presented by Sean O'Hagan. Sean is an ex-rock journalist carving himself a niche as a sort of right-on Bernard Levin - a tireless stater of the obvious who initiates pointless 'debates' about social trends he has 'discovered', such as the short-lived 'New Lad' phenomenon. Watching his intense face blink into the camera, I was reminded of those old soldiers they find in the jungle who haven't heard that the Second World War is over.

For scarcely had Sean set foot back on solid Rock after his life-style jungle ordeal, than his eagle eye spotted that something was amiss. He rallied his pals, a motley band of ageing rock critics hardened by their experiences in the bush. 'Men', he said, 'I'll give it to you straight. The Rolling Stones have sold out. We must warn everyone immediately'.

Soon he was gravely ad-dressing the nation: 'Audiences who flock to see the Stones today are taking part in an empty ritual based on nostalgia and the cynical manipulation of a myth. The band were once a genuinely subversive force, but they have turned into the antithesis of everything they once stood for.'

'Surely not!' we gasped, enjoying the joke as a procession of 'witnesses' from Sean's gang got to work, covering all the angles for the prosecution. It was all quite funny for the first few minutes, until it became apparent that he was absolutely serious. And that's what you call a sobering thought.

'The Stones have sold out!' How quaint it sounds, like hearing a long-forgotten catchphrase. By my recollection that mournful wail faded out a good 20 years ago, around the time people got bored of saying 'Nice one, Cyril' when the barman dropped a glass. And who stepped into the breach when the Stones went soft? Mr Future of Rock'n'Roll 1975, Bruce Springsteen, that's who. Everett, please, don't tell Sean that he's sold out too.

Sean O'Hagan fancies himself as a connoisseur of irony. He appreciates that there is an inherent contradiction in rich old men playing poor-boy music. But there are other ironies too. Like a thirtysomething journalist with the mind of a snotty 14-year old who's just discovered sarcasm. Little Sean just has to keep telling the grown-ups about their hollow lives. Look, there's a bloke in a suit buying a blues album! And that guy in the bootlace tie with the death's head clip; if only he was aware of the pathos....

Deconstruction, symbols, cultural icons, meaning....The masses in thrall to the mesmeric bogus subversiveness of Mick Jagger....Must tell the world....Struggle for a new politics of rock....

'Rock'n'roll is the sigh of the soul in a soulless world', wrote Marx. The point is not to waste your life trying to interpret rock'n'roll or to change it. Surely our kids deserve a better future than that.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 44, June 1992

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