10 Reasons I Am Repulsed by Bruce Springsteen;) or Lester Bangs’ Hypothesis

It's All About Me, Bruce Springsteen at work basking in the glow of his minions

It’s All About Me, Bruce Springsteen at work basking in the glow of his mindless minions

By Ryan Hilligoss, April 1, 2013

“If love is truly going out of fashion forever, which I do not believe, then along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each others’ objects of reverence. I thought it was Iggy Stooge, you thought it was Joni Mitchell or whoever else seemed to speak for your own private, entirely circumscribed situation’s many pains and few ecstasies. We will continue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism holds all the cards at present; it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis’. But I can guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won’t bother saying good-bye to his corpse. I will say good-bye to you.” Lester Bangs, Village Voice, August 29, 1977

Elvis has been dead for 35 years now and Lester Bangs, legendary rock critic and visionary, nailed it on the head. When he wrote those words, most listeners heard music in one of a few ways: recorded music on albums or 8 tracks played in the living room, radio, television, or in a live music setting. Hit the fast forward button on the ol’ cassette deck, and here we are living in Lester’s shadow as each of us, mostly alone, listen to whatever music we like, whenever and however through more devices than I can list including Sirius/XM, iTunes, ipods, ipads, computers, or, egads, even CDs amongst ones I have never even heard of. While we witness the fragmentation of listeners and popular music into far-ranging musicians in every style and sub genre possible, the crux of Bangs’ theory reigns true as not only do we not listen to a lot of the same music, but often times we feel a need to tear down other people at a personal level and their tastes as some sort of twisted rationalization of our own choices. And that is why I am choosing this time to break camp and cleanse myself of a passion that has gripped me for some time. Yes, today I say goodbye to what I once thought of as the ‘power and glory’ of the music of Bruce Springsteen.

Ryan Hilligoss, bedroom at Godfrey, Il 1984

Ryan Hilligoss, bedroom at Godfrey, Il 1984

I was ten years old in 1984 when my older, much cooler brother took me to my first rock and roll concert, Springsteen on the Born In The USA arena tour. This was before the album and tour turned into a woolly mammoth of shameless cult of personality. My memories are vague, but I was hooked from the start as I was juiced by the pounding music and delirious fans around me. As a kid, I must have thought, “Well if these people are going nuts like this, this guy must be doing something right.” As the years rolled by I purchased each album and went to one concert on each tour as it rolled through St.Louis. But I did not become a fanatic until 2008 when I saw Springsteen and the E Street Band on the Magic Tour play a now legendary show on a ‘hot august night’ in the Arch City. Since then, I have spent countless hours and days reading about Springsteen and his music, going to concerts, listening to his music, talking to friends about it and even writing about my obsession. In my quest to read about all things Springsteen, I recently stumbled across an enlightening, world view changing column written by phillymag.com writer Victor Fiorello in which he lists all the reasons he hates Bruce Springsteen and his music, fans and earring. I have now seen the light, and I have cast off the chains of totalitarianism and will start anew. Here are my reasons why.

#10 He’s been playing music for 47 years…. enough already

With a career that started at the age of 15 when he joined the Castilles, a local Jersey shore band named after bars of soap, and has stretched through 17 studio albums and ‘live’ and box sets, thousands of concerts, and millions of fans, it’s time to hang up those tired ass rock and roll shoes, or working boots in his case. Go play some boardwalk bingo or take a drive across the country in a rented RV like most people your age!

Springsteen driving a Chevy Bel Aire

Springsteen driving a Chevy Bel Aire

#9 The man cannot draw an audience of his own

Seems like at most concerts, Springsteen has to drag some poor schlub like Brian Fallon from Gaslight Anthem, Eddie Vedder, Mike Ness, or an oldie like Paul McCartney out on stage just to prop up his own tired act. Jesus, at the age of 62, can’t you make it through a 3 hour show on your own? Sheesh!!

#8 He loves Canadians, what else is there to say, eh? 

Springsteen and Neil Young

Springsteen and Neil Young

In the picture above, Springsteen is shown rehearsing with inveterate Canadian Neil Young during the 2004 Vote For Change tour. Springsteen once performed Glory Days on the David Letterman Show along with The World’s Most Dangerous Band which is fronted by Canadian Paul Shaffer. And Springsteen recently performed a cover version of Canadian rocker Bryan Adams Cuts Like a Knife during a fundraiser. Why all the concern with Canada’s impact on Springsteen? One word: socialized medicine. It’s a slippery slope from Canada’s national healthcare system to the gulags of Soviet prison camps, and one I don’t care to tread or be led down by any musician, no matter the greatness of his stage presence. Plus Canada has produced the light weight comedy of John Candy, Eugene Levy and Dan Akroyd. Doesn’t that speak for itself? And if you are still confused, just remember that in Canada, they call ham bacon. Take off eh?

#7 The ‘Mighty’ Max Weinberg….the man who brings the power night after night

Back in 1975 when original E Street drummer Vinnie ‘Mad Dog’ Lopez was asked to leave the band and temporary fill in Ernest ‘Boom’ Carter left with David Sancious to form their own band, Springsteen famously put an ad in the Village Voice for a new drummer. According to legend, Springsteen spent countless hours over weeks and months auditioning hundreds of drummers. And Weinberg was the best he could do? Jesus H Christ, wasn’t someone like Ginger Baker available? As evidenced in the video above, Weinberg has difficulty keeping the most basic beat and his ‘skills’ can be described as sophomoric at best. I’ve had broken clocks keep better time than this guy. It’s too bad a better drummer couldn’t be used or else the E Street Band might carry the label as one of the most powerful, legendary, booty shaking bands in rock and roll history.

#6 He married his backup singer

Springsteen onstage with wife Patti Scialfa

Springsteen onstage with wife Patti Scialfa

Not much to say here except, if he was going to get hitched to someone in the band, couldn’t it have been someone ‘we the fans’ prefer like Steven Van Zandt or Roy Bittan? I mean Springsteen and Bittan seem to have been destined for each other musically as with a few tinkles of the piano from Roy, fans all over the world know what song is coming. Springsteen has been known to say that when they are in the recording studio, he tries to get the band members to work up their own parts before Roy gets started as he has an uncanny ability to know what musical direction Springsteen wants to go in. They seem to have a ‘marriage of the minds’, so why not just be married and cut down on the commute time?

#5 Politics in the Promised Land

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie at a Springsteen concert

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie at a Springsteen concert

Springsteen has long been in a love affair with conservative politicians and has lent his talents or songs to campaigns including Ronald Reagan, George W Bush and most recently Rick Santorum. Governor Christie has famously been to over 411 Springsteen concerts over the years and the pair often hold council after concerts to trade stories and policy ideas. For an artist who long ago did a fundraiser for George McGovern and often sided with the left, his views have turned for the worse, and I am sick of hearing about it.

#4 The Voice

Springsteen strains every vocal cord and neck muscle while in concert

Springsteen strains every vocal cord and neck muscle while in concert

OK, we get it. Springsteen’s voice can best be described as a cross between car tires over a gravel road and dogs howling down on main street. Springsteen has made a career trying to pass himself off as a pseudo blue-eyed soul brother with his “power and soul” effects like James Brown, Solomon Burke and Wilson Picket. But I hate to break it to him, but unlike Steve Martin’s character in The Jerk, he was not born a poor black child in the south. He was born to relatively well to do parents in Cherry Hill, NJ, far from the beaches he pretends to love. While singing in a style straight from gospel and soul music, he wants us to shut our eyes to the fact that he is as white as Mitch McConell. Today’s listeners want something more authentic: autotuned singers like Ke$ha. You’re white Springsteen, get over it and sing in the patrician, blue blood manner you come from.

#3 He loves communists, I told you so

Springsteen Morello

I told you in #8 that socialism is a slippery slope. You start out with Candians and their soul crushing tyranny, and then slowly over time, you wind up sleeping with communists deep in the heart of the Kremlin. In his final political transformation, Springsteen has been cast under the spell of known communist agent Tom Morello, recently added to the E Street Band in place of longtime cohort Steven Van Zandt who has been exiled by the politboro to the cold and snow of Norway. Morello has made a career of hypnotizing millions of fans around the world who came to see either Rage Against The Machine or Audioslave and brainwashing them with Marxist dialectics, and now he is doing it to ‘The Boss.’ Springsteen long has been known to end his concerts with the phrase, “We’ll be seeing you up the road.” But for concerts recently played in Australia on the Wrecking Ball tour, Springsteen has now been sending his minions home with the old communist standby, “Workers of the world unite, all you have to lose are your chains.”

#2 Unlike most celebrities, he can’t give a decent speech

How many times have you watched the Grammy or Oscar awards and been blown away by the eloquence and verbal profundity of award winners who speak on the beauty of art, the state of world peace and pressing social issues? This is obviously rhetorical as it happens every year, much to my amazement. Meanwhile, given the opportunity, Springsteen fumbles through the English language more than George W Bush and Gerald Ford combined if they were conjoined twins coming out of sedation. Earlier this year, he gave a speech at the Musicares award ceremony that was a horrific train wreck that left audience members stone faced and confused. I read a transcript of it and haven’t seen that much crap on a single piece of paper since the last Sheryl Crow album. In 2012, Springsteen was given the opportunity to present the keynote address at the South By Southwest Music festival in Austin, Tx. While he had every opportunity to give an amazing seminar on modern music starting with its roots and sources, pay homage to all of his influences including Elvis Presley, James Brown and Bob Dylan, salute Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday and pinpoint very specific inspirations he had over his career such as The Animals, in the end he did none of that. Instead, he chose to bore the crowd into tears with talk on his new pet projects involving Nintendocore and black death metal music. When presented with an opportunity to speak, Springsteen could rely on his well-known bank of ghost writers, but instead he chooses to display his ignorance and self promotion. What an ass hat!!

#1 Born In The USA…Thanks for ruining a perfectly good war, dude

Yes, I know, I know. Many think this is his most iconic song of his long, illustrious career, but it’s his most misunderstood song and let me tell you of the song’s real meaning. In one sense, the Vietnam War ended in 1975 when the last of the helicopters lifted off the embassy building in Saigon, but in many ways, it has never ended. After the troops came home, they were greeted as liberators and welcomed back into society as the heroes they were. Their stories were told and sung by hundreds of authors and artists. Then Springsteen came along and tried to ride on the coattails of all that had come before him. What the country could have used at the time was an artist willing to take hard look at the rough treatment that some of the veterans received and the difficult lives they led. Instead what we got from the “poet of New Jersey” was a rose-colored fairy tale backed by Bittan’s heavy synthesizer and Weinberg’s militaristic crescendo of drums that became an anthem of blind support for political and military leaders. Springsteen’s USA is at the heart of darkness of this Land of Hope and Dreams we call home. (For anyone who wants a crystal clear understanding of the song and its’ meaning, please read George Will’s riveting account of his one Springsteen concert experience.)

Well, that’s all I have for now and hope many of you agree with me and are willing to stop being ‘blinded by the light’ of an obviously flawed American artist. While we may not listen to each other’s music, let us unite in our repulsion to the music of Bruce Springsteen. All we have to lose are our chains. And as we cast off our chains to Bruce, I will say goodbye to you.

Springsteen yelling at his fans for not liking him enough

Springsteen yelling at his fans for not liking him enough

Honorable mentions: The above were my top 10 reasons I vomit a little in my mouth when thinking of Springsteen and his bandanas and work shirts, but I could have easily come up with 10 or 20 more without even thinking about it and maybe you readers can help me. Below are the ones I anguished over and had to leave off for purposes of this post as I will publish another list when Springsteen comes through town later this year in the hopes of juicing my readership:

The live show: Yeah, yeah. He comes out on stage with the house lights down where nothing exists and then counts down one, two, three and….. presto….. magic happens as over the next 3-4 hours, he gives everything he can of himself in every which way including vocally, musically, lyrically, stage presence, crowd interactions, bonding with everyone until he is left in a state of dripping wet, spent exhaustion. How cliché.

The fans– They are loud, stupid and obnoxious Coors Light swilling grunts. I spend my time being a cool hipster hanging out with my hipster friends. If I wanted to be amongst the unwashed masses, I would go visit them at the unemployment line.

He won’t leave us alone: Can’t we have a national tragedy without this guy showing up to hog the spotlight while acting like he is trying to help out the best way he knows?? Just in the last 12 years, he has appeared on every televised fundraiser including 9/11, the Haiti earthquake, and the 12/12/12 concert for Hurricane Sandy. Hey Bruce, just watch the show on television at home like the rest of us and send a nice check, eh?

Airborne Toxic Event: Timeless

Timeless, Airborne Toxic Event EP 2013

Timeless, Airborne Toxic Event EP 2013

By Ryan Hilligoss, March 13, 2013

The Airborne Toxic Event, Timeless EP, Island Records

Rating: 4 1/2 gold records on the wall

“Elvis fell apart with grief when Gladys died. He fondled and petted her in the casket. He talked baby talk to her until she was in the ground. It seems fairly certain that Glady’s death caused a fundamental shift at the center of the King’s world view. She’d been his anchor, his sense of security. He began to withdraw from the real world, to enter the stage of his own dying.” White Noise, Don DeLillio

In 2011, The Airborne Toxic Event released their second album, All At Once, and the title track serves as a microcosm of the band’s sound, fervor, lyrical content and musical purpose. Standing as a musical metaphor for life, the song begins quietly with an uptempo guitar click clacking away like a clock passing time with keyboards lightly undercutting lead vocalist Mikel Jollett singing:

We were born without time/Nameless in the arms
Of a mother, a father, and God
When the world would wait for us/A thousand years in the crush
Of our eyes, fearless, in awe/So quietly we’d fade into sleep
With nothing on our mind

And then, just as in the struggle of life he describes, the song takes off with a galloping, pounding drum beat and bass line, the music moving along rapidly propelling us along just as in life, ‘wishing for more time’ but just wasting our opportunities. In the third verse as the waters rise around us the rhythm builds and builds as the drummer smashes the cymbals over and over, Jollett sings:

We get old all at once/And it comes like a punch
In the gut, in the back, in the face/When it seems someone cried
And our parents have died
Then we hold onto each other in their place
Yeah, I feel the world changin’ all at once/ I guess it’ll be OK

With the final verse, the tempo and levels slow and grow smaller as ‘we all hope that someone was looking down as we return our bodies to the ground.’ It started soft and quiet just as in childhood before we understand the concepts of time and mortality, goes crashing through the bulk of the song in a mad dash to the quiet end. Jollett as lyricist and the band seem to have a deft, great feel for the fears that we all have but most people and musicians refuse to address or even acknowledge.

The band has released a four song EP, Timeless, as a precursor to the April 16 release of their third album, Such Hot Blood. The four tracks released will be included in the full album and include The Secret, Timeless, The Storm and Safe and play as an epic take on the same themes that have run through all of their work; topics of life,the passing of time, love lost and found, and the pain, wonder and puzzlement that is human existence. The band consists of Jollett on guitar and vocals, Steven Chen on lead guitar, Noah Harmon on bass, Darren Taylor on drums and Anna Bulbrook on viola and vocals. They often also use orchestration of some level to add strings and backing heft. The overall sound is that of a 21st century Phil Spectoresque ‘wall of sound’ with Jollett’s vocals reminding me somewhat of a plaintive Adam Duritz of Counting Crows but with more soul and muscle ala Bruce Springsteen.

The Airborne Toxic Event

The Airborne Toxic Event

Springsteen’s influence can be heard in the big, full sound that fills in the spaces when needed but often packs a rock hard punch, and that is no coincidence. In a recent Rolling Stone interview by Steve Baltin, Jollett says he watched recent documentaries on the making of Springsteen’s classic and learned some necessary lessons on artistry. Born To Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town albums. (The movies Wings For Wheels and The Promise, respectively, are both fine films made by Thom Zimny and well worth the investment in time and attention for those interested in the process of artistic production, whether you are a fan of Springsteen or not). Jollett says,  “I asked myself, ‘What would Bruce Springsteen do?’ If you want to do something that’s important, you can’t fake it. I remember thinking, ‘You can do a lot more: you can learn to play piano for real, you can learn to sing for real, you can take what you know about songwriting and forget it and then remember it. You can learn other forms, you can rewrite your lyrics 20 times so they’re exactly right. So yeah, it was a choice to try and grow and to push to grow.”

The band takes their name from the above quoted novel, White Noise, which focuses on college professor Jack Gladney, teacher of Hitler studies at a small liberal arts school, and his family. Jack and wife Babette live their lives with a soul crushing fear of death with such force that Babette prostitutes herself with a drug manufacturer rep to obtain a test drug called Dylar in the hopes to treat her fear. The book is split into three acts, the second of which is The Airborne Toxic Event in which an industrial accident unleashes a black chemical cloud that floats over their city and forces Jack and Babette to confront their fears. Jack describes the cloud as ‘ a towering black mass like a shapeless growing thing, a dark breathing thing of smoke.’

That black mass forms again with the EP’s four songs and may possibly form the “four corners” of the full album once it’s released. The four corners represent the sequence of songs used with vinyl LPs  and would have been the first and last songs of each album side. In many cases, the four corners of the album formed the foundation of the artist’s and the album’s musical, lyrical and meaning in content. This EP starts with The Secret, with siren-like keyboard sending out a warning or distress signal with Bulbrook’s viola adding a counter measure with a driving bass line underneath as Jollett sings:

The sound of the engine/The feel of the tires

Your hands on the rail/The smell from the tires

Streetlights and headlights on a road that goes nowhere

She left you she left you/But you know she’s still out there

And somehow it always seems/Like you were waiting for something

But the secret’s out now

The secret may be out now in the song, but I am still trying to decipher what that secret is: who was driving that car that left the narrator behind, where are the fires and what is burning, where did she go, what is the something he’s been waiting for and what is the secret?

In Timeless, the narrative continues as the same “she” disappears into the darkness and the spurned lover can still feel her spirit in the room. The narrator wonders ‘what is this whole in my heart that I cannot abide.’ Jollett sings:

I wish that our lives are just endless/’Cause it’s all too short and I’m leaving soon

I want to hold onto all the people I lost/I want to keep them with me/ We would never part

We are timeless/We are, we are timeless, timeless/Everything we have, oh my god

I feel like I could live forever with you, my love

It’s  like their lives were over/Before they had even begun

Like many of their songs, the tempos, levels and sound arrangements perfectly match the lyrics and vocals and build the narrative and meaning of the songs. On this one, it starts with a mellow sound but builds throughout the song and goes into a funky bridge with heavy guitar chords backed by matching orchestration that works well as the drums crash and fade out.

In The Storm, the missing lover comes back in the door after 25 days, or 25 weeks, or 25 months and announces they are here to stay and the worst of the storm is over. The actual amount of time is unclear because the road opens before the narrator and goes on forever so the concept of time doesn’t really exist and speaks to the heart of many of their songs. The final track of the EP, Safe, is replete with Springsteenesque influences, and I was left with the feeling that this is an updated, 21st century version of Thunder Road as it opens with a Roy Bittan like piano line, tinkling away as Bulbrook’ viola sways lightly in the background. I imagine Springsteen’s Mary on the front porch as the screen door slams and the driver asks her to get into the car but advises that the ride, it ain’t free.

It was early for summer/All the people and the music from the bar

You in your grey dress/Your arm on the window/You said what’s the difference

Just say it to me, just say it to me

Let’s not make it a thing, it’ll be ok babe

The tempo speeds up quickly with the viola rapidly calling out as a siren, the drums ticking away the time just like Al Jackson’s drums on Otis Redding’s Try A Little Tenderness, and the guitar and bass clashing together as the drama builds and the two lovers decide if they will take that ride together. Then Bulbrook begins singing in a haunting, ghostly fashion, “Do you really want to hear it, did you really think this was real?” Jollett sings back that they can’t slow down now since it’s not safe for travel. Finally, they get to an unknown location and arise from the car and “she” leaves her bag in the backseat and he sees that as a sign of love and confirmation of his hopes. Act four of the drama has come to an end, but questions abound for characters and listeners alike.

In The Promised Land, one of Springsteen’s penultimate songs that encapsulates much of his career’s intent, his character faces down the storm of life as he watches ‘a black cloud rising from the desert floor and packs his bag and heads straight into the storm.’ Airborne Toxic Event faces that storm of life and death with each album and each song with pride, strength and determination, and I highly anticipate the release of the completed album so I can hear them do it again with ‘Such Hot Blood.’

Selected videography and notes

More than coincidence: Airborne Toxic Event’s debut album, self titled and released in 2009, contains a bonus track entitled The Girls In Their Summer Dresses which is very close in title to Springsteen’s Girls In Their Summer Clothes released on Magic in 2007.

Airborne Toxic Event bio page