We wish you an Unpopular Christmas (or How I learned to stop worrying and love The Boss)
Choose any decade (or other arbitrarily chosen period of ten years) and cultural theorists, music critics and the general public alike will variously tell you that it was a dreadful/wonderful time for Pop music. For any given period they will be entirely accurate and/or woefully inaccurate. Each of us will delete as applicable, largely according to personal memory, preference and experience. I have no problem with this. It is one of the pleasures of living, after all, to have opinions that are deeply seated be challenged, taken apart and restructured (and if you don’t agree then hey, to quote the mighty Byrds, “I don’t know where you live, but you’re not living”).
So I blame the 1980s for making me mistrustful of Bruce Springsteen. To be more specific, I blame 1984 and 1985 for making me not only mistrustful of Bruce Springsteen, but to be openly, vehemently hostile. After all, this was an artist beloved of the critically incompetent, herd-following masses. This was an artist who sang about nothing except cars and girls. Except when he was writing a song all about the macho gun-toting strength of the U.S.A. I mean, a million or more blinkered idiots with their fists raised, proudly proclaiming themselves to be “born in the U.S.A.” can’t be wrong, can they? Even, or especially, if they were born in Basingstoke. Or Ayrshire. Or anywhere but there or here or nowhere. Of course they couldn’t possibly have missed the point.
Well, maybe they could. Maybe they did. Maybe even I did too too. And hey, it turns out Paddy Macaloon’s not always right.
It was not until 2003 that I started to realise the errors of my ways. Ballboy’s cover of ‘Born In the U.S.A.’ caught me off-guard. Brilliantly so. I know now that Springsteen did actually record an acoustic version of the song at the time of the ‘Nebraska’ LP so it does all make some kind of sense, but at the time it was like a lightning bolt from the blue. Yet just as my deeply ingrained distaste for Springsteen began to be turned around there was still the nagging feeling that I really didn’t like the way he sounded. Something in his voice. Something in the production. The stench of testosterone. The reek of blue collar grease and sweat. Uncouth. Ungainly. I tried to listen without prejudice. Couldn’t.
Which was fine. I was happy with that situation and felt I had the best of both worlds: critically aware of the excellence of Springsteen's songs, yet personally secure in my taste of more effete stances and noises. Strength is rarely loud, after all.
Then, towards the end of this summer, Chris T-T made a comment about it being the fortieth anniversary of the ‘Born To Run’ LP. He wrote just a few spare words about how every nuance of the record was deeply imprinted on his very soul, but it was enough to convince me to give it just one more crack.
And blow me if this time something didn’t just click. Maybe it was the fact that I was listening to ‘Born To Run’ and ‘Darkness On The Edge of Town’ in a car and out on the highway (well, the M5 to be precise - in this case a drive out to the Somerset Levels and Cheddar Gorge to ride my bicycle for 120km through the summer rains). Maybe it was the fact that, approaching the half-century, I have a widened rather than wizened view of the musical world. Maybe it was the realisation that life’s too short to bear grudges, and goodness knows grudges against something as transitory and ephemeral as Pop music are just too ridiculous for words.
Whatever, it is now my humbling admission that whilst for all those years of Springsteen hating I was undoubtedly RIGHT in my views, I was also undoubtably WRONG. The duality of life is something we must surely embrace, right? Perhaps this is the crucial lesson of time, distance and context.
Whatever, part two, it is my humbling admission that the second half of 2015 has been unashamedly one of Springsteen exploration: A journey I have found to be both enlightening, illuminating and enormously enjoyable. I have thrilled to the belated realisation that early Springsteen records can sound a lot like Van Morrison (in a good way) and that his own version of ‘Blinded By The Light' is only marginally inferior to Manfred Mann’s (that’s always been somewhat of a guilty pleasure for me, not least because of the line about Go-Kart Mozart…). I have luxuriated in the lengthy live performances from 1978’s rather splendid Winterland shows (and I’m notoriously dismissive of ‘live’ albums and as a rule don’t hold by them - Springsteen joins Neil Young and Dylan in a small coterie of artists I would admit to my elite club. Not that any of them would be remotely interested in joining). I have delighted in the discovery that many of Springsteen’s albums of more recent years are every bit as enjoyable (if not quite as breathtakingly special) as his ‘breakthrough’ 1970s work. I have been pleasantly surprised to find that the post-Stadium era records such as 1987’s ‘Tunnel of Love’ or 1992’s ‘Human Touch’ and ‘Lucky Town’ are judiciously peppered with fine songs and marvellous performances. Most of all though I have found perverse delight in deciding that ‘Born In The U.S.A.’ is in fact a spectacularly strange success in spite of itself rather than the over-blown preening and putrid turd I once imagined it be. “We learned more from a three minute record than we ever learned in school.” Well quite.
In hindsight therefore I guess that I must somewhat sheepishly admit to having been, perhaps in part, one of those Antiamericacretin’s that Malcolm Eden once so fiendishly sang about. Being young and foolish is both the best excuse and no excuse at all. You can have it both ways, you know.