Advanced Meta Tag Generator

Friday, April 21, 2006

Brief Essays on Favorite Songs

Bruce Springsteen, “Born To Run” (from Born To Run, 1975)

There are few things I think are worth fighting for in this world, and Bruce Springsteen is one of them. I discovered this about myself a couple of months ago when I tried to pick a fight after hearing some idiot call the Boss “an overrated hack.”

I had a Bruce Banner moment. “What did you just say?”

“He’s just lame,” the guy said. “He’s cheesy and annoying—and he’s a crappy songwriter.”

My brain melted in my skull and pulled itself back together in time for me to see red, and behind that, the image of the offender two inches from my nose, the distance I was throttling and cursing him from. Things didn’t escalate much further than that—I was detained by friends with foresight—but I learned something about the depth of my feelings for Bruce Springsteen’s music that I may not have even recognized the first time “Born to Run” really hit me.

From the first second of the explosive introduction of “Born to Run,” I always find myself enthralled by the energy Bruce and the E Street Band muster—this song is recorded with guts and sweat and wild innocence. Rock critic Greil Marcus once described the song as “a ’57 Chevy running on melted-down Crystals records”—the perfect metaphor for a song as ambitious as this one. The Boss describes an overblown teenage melodrama with every word holding the weight and passion of The Wild One and Romeo and Juliet; when he shouts “Together, Wendy, we can live with the sadness/I love you with all the madness in my soul” I feel like the world could end and I wouldn’t mind.

I gathered a handful of friends for my 24th birthday last year for a night of karaoke. After a few songs, my friend Matt noticed “Born to Run” on the song list and excitedly punched in the number. When the song came on, the anticipation on our faces dropped when we heard the cheap electronic excuse for what we were hoping for. It only lasted a second. The wonder and fury of the song was so burned into my brain that I couldn’t help yelling out the words. A few moments later everyone in the room was standing and screaming and fist-pumping—the room was filled with the same delirious passion and youthful exuberance the song was recorded with. “Born to Run” is now a staple in our karaoke set, but I’ve never experienced the energy we felt that night—for that I have to listen to the album.

Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, “Girl from the North Country” (from Nashville Skyline, 1969)

“Girl From the North Country” originally appeared on Bob Dylan’s 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. On that album, it sounds like a traditional song from the 20s. Formal phrasing (“Remember me to one who lives there”), sparse guitar-picking, and Dylan’s memorable sand-and-glue voice make it sound more like a tribute to the folk music of days gone by instead of a song that was written along side “Masters of War” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” (With good reason: the tune is taken from a traditional English song made famous by Simon and Garfunkel, “Scarborough Fair.”)

In 1969 Dylan re-recorded the song as a duet with Johnny Cash for the first track of his country album Nashville Skyline with very different results. Dylan had recently quit smoking, and put on a hollow croon that is heard for the first time in the new version of the song. Dylan sounds like he’s singing from the bottom of a well. His haunting wistful tone braids so well with Cash’s reverent tenor that their missteps are hardly noticeable.

I listened to the later version of “Girl from the North Country” for the first time in 2001, when I picked up a used copy of the album. The first time I heard it I was so surprised to hear the difference in Dylan’s voice that the song didn’t affect me until the second time around. I listened to it a dozen times after that, and didn’t get to the rest of the album until the next day. A few days later I excitedly played the song for my girlfriend and found myself crying the moment Dylan began singing. From then on I only listened to the song when I was alone.

In March of 2005, the later version of “Girl from the North Country” was played at the bar I worked at, and a fellow co-worker noted his distaste:

“They’re so sloppy,” he complained, “listen.”

I hated him for it, but it was true. I had been so moved by the song that I didn’t even notice how many screw-ups they’d allowed themselves. Cash sang the third verse second; the fourth verse disappeared entirely; and when the two singers combined to repeat the first verse, they sang different words in the third line, Cash improvising “Please say hello,” while Dylan stuck with “Remember me.” I was disheartened and a little annoyed with how unprofessional it now seemed.

Later, when I was alone, I put on my headphones and listened to the song again. Being that close to it, I figured, would bury the song for me by bringing out the imperfections further. But in my solitude, Dylan’s ghost-voice still spooked me, and Cash’s intonations still resounded with the strength of a stone wall. As I listened, I didn’t feel more disappointed, I felt encouraged by how much it still moved me. There was something about “Girl from the North Country” that was invincible to its flaws; it exists in a smoky spirit that pushes its threshold for technical perfection beyond other songs. Letting the music wash over me released me from judging it. Some things, I realized, are better felt than understood.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is one of lifes' small blessings that you 'get' Bruce and his music, especially B2R. I still get teary eyed at times listening to it today. At the age of 22 (when it was released) I couldn't imagine ANYBODY not falling at the feet of Springsteen. Could be some genetic material from those very loud very late listenings. Dad

11:14 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home