The World's First Bruce Internet Roundtable
Sages of the Subway is a joint venture of The Hitter and Wanted, one of the world's top Springsteen fan publications.
The idea was to bring together four prominent voices from the Springsteen Internet community, and let them have at it on the top Bruce issues of the day -- in the spirit of the "Question Time" panel from the 1994 Badlands "Better Days" convention.
Rich Breton is a contributing editor of Backstreets magazine, where he regularly writes bootleg reviews. He's the man behind the indispensable Brucelegs web site.
Flynn McLean is the webmaster for TheBoots.Net, one of the most popular Springsteen sites on the web.
Jan Rodenrijs is an editor of the Dutch fanzine Roulette but is more well known for his Wanted Publications. After two books with reviews of Springsteen bootleg CDs, he now publishes a magazine with similar content. He also is responsible for the Wanted website which contains the latest news about Springsteen boot releases.
Joe Schwind has been a Springsteen fan for twenty years. In the '80s he used to leave work most Sunday evenings and drive four hours to the Stone Pony on the off-chance that Bruce might jam with Cats. The two or three times he hit paydirt more than made up for the hundred or so Monday mornings where he went right back to work with no sleep. He's long since given up such insanity but is willing to relapse should Springsteen ever start club hopping again.
Brian Svoboda is
the webmaster behind The Hitter. Originally
from the town of Lincoln, Nebraska, he was number 987 in line to see Bruce
play there in 1984.
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Hitter and Wanted present
Sages of the Subway
PART ONE: On the Road Again and in the Studio?
Settling down in the pork store with some hot cups of cappuccino, our panelists chew over the issues foremost on fans' minds these days -- the outlook for the 2000 tour, and the rumors of a new studio album with the E Street Band.
Brian Svoboda: As this discussion unfolds, a new tour is about to begin. And the word on the street is that it will be followed by studio sessions with the E Street Band for a new album. Most people think these are good things. But I gotta say, I have my doubts.
Sometimes I was troubled by the lack of new material on the '99 tour and felt that it bordered on a nostalgia act. I also fear that the band may no longer be a bona fide creative unit, like we always thought it was, but that they're now essentially a group of sidemen who have been hired to boost the bottom line. Finally, what I hear about the 1995 sessions for "Greatest Hits" and the 1998 sessions for "Tracks" suggests that the band has problems meshing with the recent direction of Bruce's writing.
So should we be optimistic about this tour and the prospect of future recording sessions? Or not?
Rich Breton: I saw the current tour as a bit of a shakedown. In 1995, Bruce hadn't played live with the whole band for over 6 years -- and actually worked in the studio with the whole band since 1984. I can almost hear Bruce musing to himself over and over about the events that happened in 1995: "Gee, it felt real good to be playing with the band again. But I wonder how it would be to do a whole tour with them."
A few of the band members had become better musicians since the last time they'd played. Others may not have improved as much, if at all, but they also didn't seem to have lost anything in the intervening years. The whole band thing in 1999 was still a bit of an unknown, especially with both Little Steven and Nils on guitar. The band dynamics had changed.
And they were definitely a bit rusty at the start. Could he pull off a tour that felt right to him, the band, and us? Could he avoid the nostalgia tag? To me the answer is yes.
But the live show is not the same as a studio. Bruce using the E Street Band as de facto sidemen has been going on for a long time. There were occasional times where the influences of individual band members could be heard on select songs -- David Sancious on "New York City Serenade," Danny Federici on "Sandy," Clarence in the sax breaks on several songs, Roy Bittan on "Point Blank" and elsewhere, and bits and pieces of Little Steven in dozens of places over the years. One could argue that the reason Nebraska was released in its primitive form is that the band could not mesh with Bruce's vision for the songs, and this was back in 1982.
And Bruce's whole approach to the studio had changed since the early 80's. Sure, the E Street Band were in the studio to record the Born In The U.S.A. album but, as the last few volumes of The Lost Masters show, Bruce was experimenting more with the studio all by himself, which leads directly into how the Tunnel of Love album was recorded -- using the E Street Band as sidemen. By the late 80's--early 90's, Bruce didn't limit himself to using the E Street Band as sidemen at all. The closest return to a band in the studio was probably the Lucky Town album, but even that was probably done similarly to Tunnel of Love. The only real break in this approach is the Greatest Hits sessions, where Bruce and the E Street Band all play together. Even from the Blood Brothers video, I have a feeling Bruce still finds this means of recording in the studio a frustrating process, but I also see Bruce not being exactly sure what the final songs should sound like anyway. Why else would there be a "Secret Garden" with strings or strikingly different finished takes of "Blood Brothers?”
There is no one more than I who would have loved to have heard more new material during the 1999 tour, and I'm positive Bruce has more material that the band could have done, but it's possible these new songs didn't fit with whatever the vision was he had for the shows. But then again, I've heard of other major artists being leery of previewing new material at live shows directly because of bootlegging. There may be some truth to that in this case as well.
In the end, optimistic is a really good word to use. It doesn't necessarily imply that any future recording sessions will happen, only that there is hope that they will happen. What I'd came away with from Bruce's monologues before "Land of Hope and Dreams" is that there is that there is a good reason to have this hope.
Joe Schwind: I think future recording sessions with the E Street Band are a given, otherwise this whole reunion tour has been little more than a year-long jerkoff designed to separate Bruce's fans from their paychecks. It is well known that there were sessions with the E Streeters (and the horns) in the fall of '98 while Springsteen was working on Tracks. Some of this was just overdubbing and cleaning up old songs that wound up on the box but much of the work was on new material that's still in the can. I'd bet that Bruce was unhappy with the new performances and decided to use the '99/'00 tour to make the band a better, more cohesive unit -- a shakedown tour as Rich put it.
But I think there's another point to this tour that has nothing to do with the various abilities and chemistries of the E Street Band -- namely getting Bruce Springsteen reacquainted with genuine rock and roll. Since 1992 the "future of rock and roll" has released just two contemporary original uptempo songs: "Without You" and the alternate "Blood Brothers.” Let's be honest here – for the last six or seven years Springsteen has been stylistically closer to Garth Brooks than Chuck Berry.
How better to get the whiff again than to hit the road for a year and a half fronting the greatest rock and roll band ever? After spending that much time screaming at 20,000 people a night, even James Taylor should be able to record a decent rock and roll record. God knows Springsteen needs some kind of kick in the ass if he's to break out of the "Lift Me Up"/"Streets Of Philadelphia"/"Secret Garden" midtempo rut he's been in.
And while I doubt any future sessions will be the collaborative venture that many fans believe happened in the '70s I also think that Springsteen will lean heavily on Steven and Roy for arrangements and maybe even songwriting help. Whether that translates to old fashioned rock and roll remains to be seen.
As for the lack of new material on this tour -- I agree with Brian that this is troubling. But then again it could be just another aspect of Springsteen's mind boggling lack of confidence in his own abilities. At one point during the tour he told me face to face that "Land of Hope and Dreams" was the only new song he had, and conversations with people in the organization seem to confirm that no new songs were rehearsed once the tour started.
But is it possible that brand new material is there waiting to be played but Bruce has no idea if it's any good or not? And therefore is hesitant to throw it out there during a show where it might fall flat? Not only is that possible, IMHO, I think it's damned likely. Considering the fans' reaction to some of the more obscure songs that got played early on this tour (take your pick) and it wouldn't surprise me if Springsteen swore off most anything the paying customers didn't already know by heart. If "Loose Ends" and "Frankie" get the thumbs-down from his hometown fans what chance does a new song have?
Will the new sessions be successful? Got me, I guess it depends on whether Springsteen will be working for himself or just trying to please his fans. If he goes in with a plan designed to reproduce what happened in the studio from 1975 to 1984 he's bound to fall flat on his face -- that lightning can't possibly strike twice. But if he lets the music control the direction of those sessions then we'll probably get a new record worthy of the E Street Band, even if it may not be an E Street Band record.
Flynn McLean: When the 1999 tour was first announced in December 1998, I was most excited at the prospect of hearing songs in concert that had never been played live, such as "Loose Ends," "Cynthia," "TV Movie," "Back In Your Arms," and "Seven Angels," as I was expecting a tour that would incorporate significant amounts of Tracks material. Unfortunately, my vision of the tour and Bruce's vision of the tour were vastly different.
Instead of Tracks material, we got "deep cuts" from The River, Darkness, and even Born to Run, plus four songs from the second album, mostly as one-offs, though. Bruce essentially ignored most of his post-'84 releases, apart from "The Ghost of Tom Joad," "If I Should Fall Behind," and "Murder, Inc.," which was originally recorded in 1983. In some ways, I enjoy listening to tapes from early shows as they featured performances of "Lucky Town" and "Tougher Than the Rest," two of my favorite songs from his entire catalog.
While I certainly enjoyed hearing songs that I never thought I'd see performed live, including "Backstreets," "Jungleland," and "Out in the Street," at the same time, I was disappointed not to hear "something new." Bruce has always been one to live in the present and vowed not to nostalgia tour, but the 1999 tour seemed to contain mostly songs that were performed in 1978 and 1980, although those songs certainly sounded invigorated in 1999.
From my perspective, Bruce has never been one to let the fans dictate his song selection and he has always played what felt right to him. We can look back at the Darkness tour and the several unreleased songs he played during that tour, including several that became standards in the set. We can also look at the Born in the USA tour where the "Nebraska set" was as long as 5 songs and I'm sure that most in attendance were unfamiliar with those songs. Then, of course, we can look at the entire Tom Joad tour. In this respect, I was disappointed that Tracks songs, even ones he did play in concert, were dropped pretty early on the tour.
As for new sessions with the E Street Band, I'm optimistic. As others have pointed out, after playing together for over a year, the band should be a cohesive unit. Additionally, if Bruce has the guts to play any new songs he may consider for the next album, then that would make the studio process even easier: the band will already know the songs. And as Joe recently pointed out, Bruce will know what songs would work and which ones wouldn't, thus making things even more efficient in the studio. I would even hope that Bruce would look at the material he recorded with the band in fall 1998 and possibly re-record that material now that the band is tight.
I firmly believe Bruce can still write a rock song. I know there's really nothing to support this, but after rocking for a year and a half, after playing with Steven for a year and a half, and with Roy assisting a la Human Touch/Lucky Town, I think Bruce can do it.
My biggest fear is that Bruce will start this project and then scrap it, like he's done several other times. I hope Little Steven and Roy can keep him focused and can encourage him enough so that these sessions are not just another legend and mystery.
Rich Breton: I've got to say, I agree with this. My expectations were for at least 5 Tracks songs a night -- maybe more. And I held on to this notion until sometime during the middle of the New Jersey stand, probably when the first show without a single Tracks song was played. I was also expecting "Blood Brothers" and "Secret Garden" to show up at some point. It was a perfect opportunity to revisit some of those gems that I thought Bruce was throwing away.
I only saw 2 of the European shows but have heard first-hand accounts of other shows in Europe, and I saw a slew of US shows -- and I've got to say the European audiences were far more receptive to the Tracks material played live than the US audiences in general. The general indifference that greeted some of the Tracks material in the US was disheartening. After hearing and witnessing folks complaining during or after the show about no "Glory Days" or "Born In The U.S.A" -- the latter happening even when Bruce DID play "Born In The U.S.A," albeit in an arrangement seemingly unfamiliar to the masses -- I began to blame the US audiences for the lack of live Tracks. As for the lack of "Secret Garden," Bruce's last bona-fide AOR hit, that one is still a mystery.
In retrospect, Bruce didn't pander to either the hardcore fan -- nor the fair-weather ones that are there just for the hits. Sure he mostly avoided Tracks songs, but he not only avoided the obvious hits but also threw in some vastly superior "deep" cuts. I would have rather heard "New York City Serenade" over "Lion's Den," or "Spirit in the Night" over "Rickie Wants A Man Of Her Own" anytime. But I also would have liked to have heard some more recent "deep" cuts from the last 3 albums -- like "Living Proof" or "My Beautiful Reward" to name but two.
Flynn McLean: I don't think Bruce remembers releasing Human Touch and Lucky Town.
I have a recording from September 21 in Philly, the show that Bruce opens up with "Little Queenie" then "Take 'Em." Crowd is relatively dead, ya know, just excited that Bruce is on-stage, not terribly excited at the songs. Then Bruce slams into "Promised Land" and the crowd goes nuts. That was the whole tour in a nutshell, audience-wise, and it's quite disappointing every time I listen to it.
I always hoped for one "for the aficionados" song every night. In that position between "10th Avenue" and "Working." I think that's the reason so many of us can't stand "Working" at this point -- when we hear it right after "10th," we know we just missed a gem. I guess my thinking is that if he can play "Hungry Heart," "Bobby Jean," and "Working on the Highway" almost every night for the casual fan, then how about just one "Loose Ends," "This Hard Land," "Cynthia," "TV Movie," et cetera, for the hard cores?
Jan Rodenrijs: Should we be optimistic? It's always good to be optimistic. But is it realistic? It all depends, but the signs are not good . . . I welcomed the reunion tour -- anything better than the failed 92/93 experiment and more acoustic shows -- and enjoyed it most of the time. However, the more shows I saw, the more doubts I got about Bruce's commitment to his music. He has made rather forced attempts to change his direction to a more mature kind of music. This started way back when in 1987 -- he recorded Tunnel of Love and already moved away from working with the E Street Band as a unit. Ever since he has been struggling.
I do admit I like Lucky Town as an album. It has been one of the very few conceptual right albums he released. The first four albums up until Darkness can be listened to as albums that have a thread running through them and that have a musically consistent style and atmosphere. The River is flawed because it's just too long. Nebraska is fine, but even Born in the USA tries to establish too many things and therefore loses focus along the way. Tunnel of Love from 1987 of course has a theme running through it, but I still feel it is a collection of songs with similar subjects than a well constructed album. And what did we get after that? Human Touch (better forget that one), Lucky Town (fine attempt), Plugged (no comment necessary), The Ghost of Tom Joad (brave but will you ever play it again?), Greatest Hits (sort of obligatory release), Tracks (more looking back).
So what's the score? In more than ten years, only one successful attempt at an album. Lucky Town fits in with the albums of the Pre-Tunnel of Love era. No-nonsense rock music with intelligent and insightful lyrics. (The first verse of "Better Days" is awesome and the line about "Just sitting around waitin' for my life to begin" is up there with "Is a dream a lie" from "The River" as an example of describing a world in just a couple of words.)
So what Bruce seems to need for quite some time now is the realization of what he does best and stick at it. Loosen up and just write what is true to him and put it to the music he feels most comfortable about. All his attempts at other music come across as another attempt by Bruce to pretend he is something he is not. Great example is the song "Blood Brothers." The Greatest Hits version is another of those pop-oriented ballads he seems to be keen on writing recently which make disc four of Tracks the least inspiring disc. On the other hand, the version on the bonus-single with its refreshing and surprising acapella opening and rock treatment is a gem. It proves that Bruce seems to want to give his "career" a certain direction probably inspired by the success of "Streets of Philadelphia."
The hope is that the reunion tour has set Bruce back on the rock track. It probably did because it would be a disaster if he would use the E Street Band for a record with more mainstream pop tunes. Well, the potential is there. But one thing I got from this tour is that Bruce doesn't care as much about his music. I sort of got the idea that most of the time the tour was something of an inside joke between Bruce and Little Steven. The intensity and the projection to the audience is so much less as it used to be.
Don't get me wrong, Bruce still puts on a hell of a show and anyone who hadn't seen him before was most likely impressed. But I remember the days that the whole hall was dancing during "Rocking All Over The World" at The Ahoy in 1981, even although a lot of people didn't really know Bruce apart from the hit song "The River". And when -- true story -- the stadium authorities of the Kuip in Rotterdam asked the mixing desk to take out some bottom end so the crowd would respond less to the music -- studies had shown this helped -- because the stands were in danger of collapsing, although most of the people had only heard Born in the USA. The performances during this tour, no matter what anyone says, were less convincing than pre 92/93 shows.
Bruce should relax, sit down and realize he doesn't have to do the big star thing anymore. He should be critical but less uptight about recording. He proved what he had to prove in the seventies and the eighties. He should go in the studio with Little Steven -- the only one he takes seriously in the E Street Band and the only one with musical vision "in some fashion" -- and make the music he feels comfortable with without thinking about his profile and sales figures. (In fact, his attempts to be taken more seriously with The Ghost of Tom Joad and the soundtrack songs have moved him out of the category of classic songwriters like Dylan and Neil Young.) I'm sure he'll come with something worthwhile and something most of us will enjoy.
Joe Schwind: Amazingly enough I got the exact opposite impression from those two versions of ["Blood Brothers"] and IMHO it's a perfect example of the competing pressures Springsteen is going through. The Greatest Hits performance of "Blood Brothers" sounds relaxed and effortless to me, the band's playing and Bruce's vocals just wash over me with an intimate world-weariness that reinforces the themes found in the song's lyrics. The rocking version has its own little charm but it certainly sounds forced to me, as if Springsteen knew he needed a screaming anthem for the record and was going for it even if his heart wasn't in the effort. Something tells me that if Jan had heard the alternate rockin' version first, had six or seven months to absorb it, and then gotten his mitts on the mid-tempo performance he'd now be in love with the quieter performance.
While most of us may be looking forward to another full band rocking album featuring the E Street Band, if it sounds like the alternate version of "Blood Brothers" it'll be a total failure, IMHO. The music has to find its own place in the scheme of things; it can't be prodded and pummeled into a preconceived definition of what Bruce Springsteen songs are supposed to sound like. I'd be as happy as anybody to hear another album of classic Boss rock and roll, but if all Springsteen's gonna do is write some more sweet ballads and then juice them up with loud arrangements and screaming vocals he won't be doing himself any favors. The fans may want rock and roll, Sony and Landau may want rock and roll, Bruce may want to sing it and the band may want to play it, but if he doesn't hear it in his head any more than it's a moot point.
Rich Breton: I'll go Joe one further. Let's throw in what we have heard from the '95 recordings with the E Street Band. The quieter version of "Blood Brothers" and "Secret Garden" were originally released (let's forget "Secret Garden" with strings ever happened), then "High Hopes," "Without You" and the alternate "Blood Brothers" was released on a single, and then "Back In Your Arms" came out on Tracks. To round it out, there's "Waiting on the End of the World." Chances are most of us have heard all these.
That's maybe more than half of albums' worth of songs. There's no real driving rockers in this mix. These are MOR rockers and ballads. And it's that way because the subject matter of the songs lend themselves to these types of arrangements. The anger of youth has given way to middle age, and the subjects and themes that use to fuel those driving rockers in the past don't seem to interest him anymore. I firmly believe this is where Bruce is at, and I'd be pleasantly surprised if any reunion with the E Street Band in the studio would produce any driving rockers, but at this point in time I expect a more country-ish sounding album -- something that might bear more resemblance to Joe Grushecky's American Babylon than some of us would like.
The only unknown is if Bruce still has a "Murder Incorporated" in him, some adult subject matter that can be tackled with an angry theme. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I'm hoping for another Lucky Town album – tackling subjects Bruce feels close to and strongly about -- but with the E Street Band. "Land of Hope and Dreams" is a damn good start.
Brian Svoboda: Flynn said the band should go back and re-record some of the songs they tried in 1998. What do we know about those sessions?
Joe Schwind: Not a whole lot. Probably 4-6 weeks worth all told, horns were definitely involved, definitely new material as well as Tracks stuff. I don't even know where the sessions took place, whether it was at the farm or in New York City.
Flynn McLean: I'd also imagine that Bruce wasn't happy with the results with what was recorded. I thought I also heard that other musicians were called in for later sessions. My point was that if Bruce was unhappy with those '98 E Street Band sessions due to their playing, he should give that material another shot now that the Band is sharp and cohesive. It's also possible that the material, i.e., Bruce's lyrics, didn't fit the E Street Band.
Joe Schwind: I'm not sure it's safe to say that Springsteen was unhappy with the '98 sessions because of anything the E Street Band did or didn't do. Chances are they performed exactly as they always did, and it was Bruce who dropped the ball so to speak. Remember -- it'd been five or six years since he'd worked intensely with a band in the studio -- I don't count the Greatest Hits sessions, that was a lark -- and it's not beyond the realm of possibility that Springsteen just wasn't used to communicating on that level and they spent that time in the studio basically spinning their wheels.
Maybe the whole point of the '99/'00 tour, besides getting Clarence, Danny, and Nils back in the black, was to remind Springsteen what it's like to be a band leader again. In a funny way I'm nether pessimistic nor optimistic about the upcoming sessions. I get a little knot in my stomach thinking that the next chapter in Springsteen's story is about to be written, maybe starting in two weeks. But my gut tells me Springsteen's a balladeer these days and if he tries anything else he's apt to stumble badly. My heart, on the other hand, keeps telling me not to underestimate the man because every time I think I've got him pigeonholed he turns around and makes me feel like a fool for having doubted him.
Brian Svoboda: Let me ask you guys this. What do you think we'll see on the setlist on the 28th? What should we see, if this leg is to be a success? What shouldn't we see?
Joe Schwind: If I had to bet money I'd say we'll get the standard setlist, about the same as what we heard last November in Buffalo, Albany, and Fargo. I fear that Springsteen will want to play it safe the first couple of shows.
What should be done -- and what I'm dearly hoping for -- is new material. Going on five years since the last record, [there are] lots of rumors that recording sessions are set for summer and fall, and three months of touring to be done, which is a perfect environment for refining and polishing new songs. Bruce could add 3-4 new songs to the show each night, rotating maybe 15 songs total in and out for the next leg. By the time the sessions start in August he'd know exactly what worked and what didn't. He'd know how the songs fit together and then what themes could be explored on the next record. The sessions could be done in weeks instead of months and most of the guesswork as to whether the new record "worked" could be avoided.
What shouldn't we see? More of the same. I'd hate to think of Bruce being satisfied and figuring the crowd will enjoy whatever happens so why be adventurous? Why take chances on new and unfamiliar material -- or old and unfamiliar material? -- and give 'em what they're clamoring for. If he plays it safe, then this leg may as well not even happen.
Jan Rodenrijs: I'm afraid that we'll see a continuation of the 1999 shows. Same structure, same songs. There's a lot of potential. As Joe said, this would be a perfect time to test out new material. There is a new record in the making, why not see how the crowd responds to certain material. Soundchecks could be used to work out arrangements and rehearse new stuff. But there is also still a lot of uncovered ground. Why not introduce some more stuff from the period Bruce seems to be mostly ignoring, namely post-Born in the USA. There's some excellent stuff on Lucky Town like "Living Proof" and "Better Days" that could be reclaimed by Bruce and the E Street Band. As the past shows prove, the material from The Ghost of Tom Joad is very well suited for an E Street Band treatment.
More Tracks is probably the less interesting and also less likely option. When looking at the track listing of Tracks there's not much left that leaps out at you that needs to be played, although these songs would be interesting to hear. The least Bruce could do was to more or less abandon the set structure of the show. Of course a rough framework could be made but for every place there could be a couple of alternatives, In the vein of "Factory"/"Mansion On The Hill"/"Independence Day." It would keep us multiple concert goers on our toes -- however irrelevant that may be in the big picture -- but it would also keep Bruce and the band more focused
What shouldn't we see? Well, that's difficult. That fact that Bruce and The E Street Band are playing shows for the second consecutive year would be something unthinkable a couple of years ago. So I guess we should be happy that this is the case and hope some great music will evolve out of this reunion. Every step, every show could be a step forward to some great new music even though the shows contain the same songs night after night. So anything they do, be it playing the same songs over and over again or sticking to virtually the same setlist night after night, is working towards something new and therefore exciting.
Rich Breton: If past experience teaches us anything, on the 28th I'd expect to see a setlist similar to either the first New Jersey show or to one of the later shows like maybe Buffalo or Albany. There was grand speculation at the time for the July 15 show, because of the short layoff between legs and what Bruce had played during the June shows in Europe. There were also grand expectations for the Buffalo or Albany shows, due to their being in the Northeast, proximity to New York City & Massachusetts, etc. But these all were pretty much what most refer to as a standard show. Then again, the last time Bruce toured with a band and had a layoff this long, there were a few significant changes -- slight but significant. I guess we'll have to wait and see.
The next questions are a bit flawed.
Given the ticket sales for the shows that have been sold already, this
leg will be a success. The question really should be: What will the
hard-core fans want to see on this leg to make it worthwhile? Sure,
I know what I want to see, and I know what several others want to see,
but save for the Madison Square Garden shows I don't think we're gonna
see much different. Bruce is generally playing in the market areas
he didn't the first time around, and he's not spending more than 2 nights