BY IRON MIKE BARON
A millionaire, a glutton and a disgusting bodily excretion walk into a bar. The bartender asks “What can I get for you?” and then I stopped listening. The truth of the matter is this bar happens to have a pretty killer jukebox. And I’ve seen these three characters before, maybe not exactly them, but slightly tweaked iterations that slightly tweak my usually optimistic psyche. They all hang out in a gangster’s paradise halfway down the American Eastern Coast. They meet and argue and think they make changes for the betterment of a half-wrecked society when, in truth, the cogs are slightly slowed, but they keep churning onward. Like fixing a broken clock with a piece of chewing gum as adhesive. It’s not going to work a-hole, put it back in your mouth.
So in an attempt to disavow myself from these creatures, I peruse the jukebox. It’s dusty on the inside and the technology is dated, qualities and characteristics that I find admirable in a jukebox. Thin Lizzy’s “Live and Dangerous” is already playing, but it’s not loud enough to drown out the three stooges arguing at the bar. I can tell that the topic is freedom. I can also tell they aren’t sure about it. I start to worry, but mostly that “The Boys Are Back In Town” isn’t going to follow “Cowboy Song” as it rightly should. I have the numeral selection for “The Boys Are Back In Town” primed in my mind if I am forced to make an aural emergency input. “Cowboy Song” may be the final choice by my minstrel predecessor. I will need to keep the dream alive, two quarters at a time. If he chose a different song altogether I may need to observe whomever in the joint makes the greatest reaction to the new song and then give them a swift kick to the shins.
Some poor sucker’s shins are saved tonight. I’m equal parts relieved and surprised as “The Boys Are Back In Town” strums into the bar room. It trumpets over the low murmur of chattering people and clinking glasses. It’s then, in the comfort of Phil Lynott, that I discover a newly released album gracing the jukebox tiny stage. I rush to the bartender hoping he will overlook the annoyance of giving me five dollars in quarters (which he does) and rush back to the jukebox trying to decide if I have the balls to play an unheard album from start to finish in such place of varied personnel (which I do). I squeeze the full payment into the coin slot and quickly select numbers 501 through 511 hoping that no one notices the bar faux pas that I’m about to commit.
I stagger across the bar. As I pass the three vile leviathans, I can hear them begin to fight with an adjacent bar patron about family values. He’s much younger and I catch him say something about his future being sold for the profit of the venerable. I pause to think about this conversation, but only for a moment. There’s no time for the quarrels of a decrepit reality. After all, Bruce Springsteen’s “Wrecking Ball” is about to play and somehow just the thought of it rises me from the murky shit where those three beasts are kings. I sit down in a small corner table in the shadow of a neon beer sign, and I do so just in time. The harsh and pounding drums of the first tune fill the room, much louder than the previous Thin Lizzy live album, which suddenly seems like an archaic recording. I’m sent into an American trance.
“We Take Care of Our Own” sets off Springsteen’s album with an emotional complexity that is simultaneously an angry rally cry and a cheerful sing-a-long. Background cheers of “Hey! Hey!” and a strings riff that you can immediately hum along to are juxtaposed with drums that fire like pistons. Meanwhile, a pissed off American son mumbles directions to his rebel troops and wonders, “Where’s the promise from sea to shinning sea?” as the pomp and circumstance distracts the foolish.
But then, as if in an entirely different part of town, song two, “Easy Money”, follows. The man singing this ditty brings a comforting cynicism to his current circumstances. Like the dark enjoyment of a sinister laugh, it is as if the fiddles and the hand-claps are the perfect soundtrack for a man who has reached a blissfully violent breaking point. This is Bruce’s version of “Why so serious?”
Just then, a fight out in the bar. The enraged youth that began arguing with the three-headed dog throws a punch at the skinniest and wormiest of them. Immediately, a battalion of wannabe G-Men rush to the aid of the worm as the other two heads, one a flagrant walrus-type and the other a smooth hawk with distrusting eyes, watch on and comment on radicalism. Seems apropos that it is at this very moment that the Boss’ marching orders come blaring through the sound system.
“Shackled and Drawn,”, aka Springsteen’s March, is the third song on the album and plays into the first two as yet another narrative from this decaying reality that he has created, those this tale is told from the perspective of the people. If “We Take Care of Own” is a rumbling rebellion under the vail of celebration and “Easy Money” is the semi-crazy musings of a man dragged to villainy, then “Shackled and Drawn” is the rebel yell of the masses. It is enthusiastically versed by their patriotic leader who is joined by the congregation during an emblazoned chorus. Another question is posed: “What’s a poor boy to do but keep singin’ his song?” The answer comes at the end in the forceful words of some kind of “second in command” type, voiced by a back up singer. “I want everybody to stand up, I want everybody to stand up and be counted tonight!” A major motif in Springsteen universe rears its head: stand up, sing, be counted. Work hard and make something of yourself, dammit!
I realize now that Bruce is looking to whip up a cocktail of emotion. So far it is equal parts galvanized and infuriated, but he’s about to splash that with some bitter defeat. “Jack of All Trades” and it’s slow piano walk creeps into my soul from the very first note. It takes an entire listen, focusing hard to hear it over the rumble of the bar, before I can fully grasp the sobering truth buried deep inside simple lyrics. The anger, betrayal, rebellion, hope, enthusiasm and promise of the first three songs each take a respective blow. The narrator this time seems to not only be reassuring the audience, but also himself, as he keeps repeating “We’ll be alright” at the end of every stanza. The pep rally has become a funeral. A dazed Springsteen closes the ceremony saying “If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ’em on sight. I’m a jack of all trades, honey we’ll be alright.” After a pause for reflection, the calm is broken by a steady snare and Tom Morello, the Nightwatchman himself, as his howling guitar leads the procession out.
I don’t know if it is because of the song, but I imagine that the angry youth that caused trouble at the bar is probably bleeding out in the gutter. It’s an unpleasant thought, but there is no time to hark on it. “Death to My Hometown” closes out the album’s victorious Side A. This is the arming of the rebels, the rising from the ashes. All that remains are banjos and penny whistles and shotguns and shouts. Lyrically, Bruce is focusing on the battle between Wall Street and Main Street and the desecration of the American middle class, not a physical attack but a social one. Yet, musically he evokes stomping feet and swelling fists bloodied by marauders of corruption. “Death to My Hometown” is the open-ended conclusion to the five-song story arch that fuels the kick ass return of an enraged Bruce Springsteen.
Check back later this week for the conclusion of this tale.