Come Along and Ride This Train: The Music of Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen

By Ryan Hilligoss and Shawn Poole, February 26, 2014

“Johnny was and is the North Star; you could guide your ship by him- the greatest of the greats, then and now. Truly, he is what the land and country are all about, the heart and soul of it personified and what it means to be here; and he said it all in plain English. I think we can have recollections of him, but we can’t define him any more than we can define a fountain of truth, light and beauty. If we want to know what it means to be mortal, we need look no further than the Man in Black. Blessed with a profound imagination, he used the gift to express all the various lost causes of the human soul. This is a miraculous and humbling thing. Listen to him, and he always brings you to your senses. He rises high above all, and he’ll never die or be forgotten, even by persons not born yet- especially those persons- and that is forever.” Bob Dylan

Two great American artists, The Man in Black and The Freehold Fireball

Two great American artists, The Man in Black and The Freehold Fireball

Come Along and Ride This Train

Today marks the birthday of Johnny Cash, the legendary Man in Black and member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Gospel Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of fame and lastly, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Much like other early recording artists, Cash’s musical style included country, gospel, bluegrass, gospel, and rhythm and blues, helping form one portion of early rock and roll at the Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee, otherwise known as Sun Studio. Cash directly inspired, collaborated with or helped nurture the careers of musicians as diverse as Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Snoop Dog, Kris Kristofferson, John Mellencamp, and Bruce Springsteen. And my friend Shawn Poole and I have collaborated to explore the musical connections between these two great American artists.

Like Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash came from very humble beginnings and went on to become a major figure in American music. Born in Kingsland, Arkansas in 1932, the family soon moved to Dyess, Arkansas as part of an FDR Works Progress Administration program to inject money into the economy. At a very young age, Johnny began working with the rest of his family in the cotton fields of what many called “The Sunken Lands” due to it’s tendency to flood and remain swampy, making the cultivation even more difficult than it already was. Part of the Dyess colony provisions was to purposefully exclude blacks as part of social engineering studies. But Johnny still heard a wide variety of musical styles on his parent’s radio as he, his brothers and sisters lay on the linoleum kitchen floor trying to cool down after working in the hot, humid cotton fields. On the radio he heard music coming from faraway places he could only imagine like New Orleans, Chicago, Memphis, and Nashville. He absorbed different sounds including the country and western of Roy Acuff and Eddy Arnold, gospel blues of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, bluegrass of the Louvin Brothers, the pop of Bing Crosby, and some “race music” broadcast from Memphis, his future home. What mainly caught his ear and fired his imagination were all the great artists who performed on The Grand Ol’ Opry such as The Carter Family and Jimmy Rogers. Of those days, Cash wrote, “Nothing in the world was as important to me as hearing those songs on the radio. The music carried me up above the mud, the work and the hot sun.”

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The Johnny Cash TV Show aired from 1969-1971 and always opened with a segment of Johnny riding a train and inviting people to come ride along on a journey. Video would play over Cash singing: Come along and ride this train/Cross the mountains, prairies, reservations, rivers, levees, trains/come along and go with me/I know where there’s people you would like to get to know/I heard a story that I’d like to share with you/I will show you things that I’m sure you’d like to see/come along and ride with me/Come along and ride this train. In introducing his television show, Cash did as he always did throughout his career which was to invite all people of every shape, color, stripe, and background to come along a great journey and discovering new sights and thoughts. Over his 50 year career, Cash sang for and about people from all walks of life including the poor, prisoners, working class, forgotten Natives, criminals, blacks and whites, rural and urban, liberal and conservatives, presidents and paupers. As Tom Petty once said, Johnny was friends with Presidents and he was friends with people at the bus stop. Johnny also became a major figure in country music and even folk music, greatly influencing many artists. Like Bruce, Johnny had a very broad vision of American music and he tried to expose his audience to many different musical styles and artists. Also like Bruce, Johnny remained concerned with the problems of common people, even after he became wealthy and famous. In following their unique artistic visions, both Johnny and Bruce truly have walked the line.

So now let’s start our musical tribute to Johnny Cash on what would have been his 82nd birthday with a set of some of Johnny’s most famous songs covered by Bruce Springsteen. Fittingly, our first selection is Bruce’s beautiful version of I Walk The Line, recorded live in Landover, MD on September 13, 2003. It was the opening song of Bruce’s first concert after the news broke that Johnny Cash had died.

The version of Ring of Fire played here was from a November 18, 2009 concert played by Springsteen and the E Street Band in Nashville, Tn and includes the terrific, mariachi horn work of Curt Ramm. Ring Of Fire was co-written by Merle Kilgore and Johnny Cash’s wife, the late, great June Carter Cash. We’ll be discussing some more about Ring Of Fire a bit later when we get to Bruce’s song We Are Alive.  The other clip played was Bruce’s version of Give My Love To Rose, featured on the Johnny Cash tribute album Kindred Spirits. The version you heard includes Bruce’s spoken intro to the performance from when it first appeared on the 1999 All-Star Tribute to Johnny Cash television special. Bruce’s version of Give My Love To Rose was done in the same style as much of the material on his 1995 folk/country-influenced album The Ghost of Tom Joad. Speaking of that album, our friend and fellow Springsteen fan Jeannette Amodeo found online a very cool image of an undated, handwritten note from Bruce Springsteen to Johnny Cash. The note, most likely written to accompany a copy of The Ghost of Tom Joad album, reads as follows: “Hello, Big John. Here’s my latest! It’s got a lot of country and folk influences and I thought you might get a kick out of it. All my best. Always, Bruce Springsteen.”

A 'Dear John' Letter

A ‘Dear John’ Letter

Nebraska: Will The Circle Be Unbroken

According to Robert Hilburn in his recent biography, Johnny Cash The Life, In 1983, amidst a series of difficulties in Cash’ career with Columbia due to lagging sales and poor promotion on their part, Cash headed into the studio to record a new album. Cash brought with him a handful of songs he had written, but when he played them for his producer Brian Ahern, the producer was not impressed and instead played him two tracks from Springsteen’s Nebraska, Johnny 99 and Highway Patrolman. Cash was familiar with Springsteen and he seemed vaguely familiar with Johnny 99, but he had not even remotely considered recording it. According to Hilburn, “Cash loved the Springsteen songs for much the same reason he so admired Dylan’ songs: their daring, compassion, and commentary. He also enjoyed being back in the creative center of pop and rock, the music of young America. But, country radio ignored the album Johnny 99. The album never had a chance. In retrospect, all the parties may have been overly optimistic. You couldn’t have been any hotter than Springsteen in 1983. He was in many ways the, rock and roll equivalent of Johnny Cash, not just a record maker but a heroic figure who music and image reflected many of the traditional values of America. Even so, rock radio shied away from the downbeat Nebraska. Whereas Springsteen’s last three albums had sold a total of 14 million copies, Nebraska struggled to reach the 1 million mark.”

In 1992, Springsteen told Rolling Stone magazine that he listened incessantly to Cash’s Sun recordings in the days before he wrote his album Nebraska, a work haunted by the spare, gloomy sound of Cash’s early records. If you listen to Springsteen’s songs such as State Trooper, Mansion On The Hill, Nebraska, or My Father’s House, you can definitely hear echoes of Cash’s early recordings such as Give My Love To Rose, Folsom Prison, I Walk The Line and Train of Love. What is ironic here is that in 1983, both artists were simutaneously inspiring the other without the other’s knowledge. And the big old wheel keeps rolling around again. Cash’s covers of Johnny 99 and Highway Patrolman feature guitar work by Rock and Roll Hall of Famer James Burton, who’s played with Elvis Presley, Rick Nelson and hundreds of other artists, including Bruce Springsteen. Shawn recently had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing James Burton for Backstreets.com and James told Shawn that, like Johnny Cash, he loved to perform “Highway Patrolman.”

In 2003, Artist’s Choice, a series produced by Sony Music and distributed through Starbucks, released a Johnny Cash edition. The 14 track album consisting of handpicked selections from Johnny which begins with Hank Williams’ Lovesick Blues and ends with Mahalia Jackson’s His Eye On The Sparrow, and has a wide variety of other styles and artists in between including Kris Kristofferson’s Me and Bobby McGee, Roberta Flack’s The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face and Bruce Springsteen’s Highway Patrolman. In the liner notes, Cash writes, “I just recorded a Bruce Springsteen song called “Further On Up The Road.” It’s from his The Rising album. I always have been a Springsteen fan, and my favorite album of his is Nebraska, and my favorite song of his is “Highway Patrolman.”

Further yet, in Johnny’s 2nd autobiography, Cash writes about his friendship with Bob Dylan back in the 1960’s and of visiting Dylan in Woodstock, NY. “Bob and I indulged ourselves in a lot of guitar picking and song trading. There’s nothing on earth I like better than song trading with a friend or a circle of them, except perhaps doing it with my family. As Bruce Springsteen wrote, ‘Nothing feels better than blood on blood.'”

"Johnny was more of a spiritual figure to me, always was." Dylan

“Johnny was more of a spiritual figure to me, always was.” Dylan

Included in that set was Johnny’s version of I’m On Fire which was recorded by Johnny in 2001 and was included as a bonus track on the album Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska.

Our friend and fellow Springsteen fanatic Jeff Calaway also reminded us recently of how Johnny was among the first country artists to cover Springsteen. Johnny later listed Bruce among his favorite writers, saying that he drew inspiration from writers like Bruce just as Bruce and others had drawn inspiration from the music of Johnny Cash. “I want my songs to be as good as theirs,” Johnny said of songwriters like Bruce Springsteen. And who do we have to thank for turning Johnny Cash onto the music of Bruce Springsteen? His own daughter, of course. Shortly after Johnny’s first Springsteen covers were released, Rosanne Cash got to meet Bruce Springsteen in person for the first time, and he told her how thrilled and honored he was that her father had recorded some of his songs. She immediately replied, “Who do you think sent him Nebraska?” Before Johnny died in 2003, he gave Roseanne a list of the 100 of the most important songs. In 2009, she recorded 12 of those songs as part of her album The List including a duet with Bruce Springsteen, together singing beautifully on their version of the old Don Gibson hit, Sea of Heartbreak. Also below is a great clip of Roseanne talking about recording the song with Bruce and how he “was our dream date for the song”.

Bitter Tears: The Ballad of Ira Hayes

"Custer don't ride well anymore"

“Custer don’t ride well anymore”

In 1963, Cash scored his biggest hit to date in his career with Ring of Fire which peaked at number 1 on the country charts, crossed over to the pop charts and had made him one of the biggest selling country artists of the time. Most artists and record labels would keep pushing to maximize their hot streak by trying to score another big smash. In typical Cash fashion, he went in the opposite direction and chose to record a concept album on the treatment and troubled chapter in our nations’ history, the stories of the Native Americans.

Like other artists including Elvis who sold his back catalog to RCA in 1973 so he could form his own publishing house and record songs he wanted to sing and not what the label wanted, Sam Cooke who formed his own recording and publishing houses, and Bruce Springsteen who sued his former manager to obtain outright ownership over his own songs, Cash struggled for artistic autonomy throughout his career. Signed in 1955 by Sam Phillips at Sun Studio, Cash scored several big hits including I Walk The Line and Folsom Prison, but he grew frustrated with Phillips who refused to allow him to record any gospel or spiritual songs. Cash left for Columbia Records in 1958 on the sole reason that they agreed to let him record a gospel album.

While listening to artists perform in 1963 in Greenwich Village after a show in NYC, Cash heard native songwriter-performer Peter Lafarge sing several songs on the plight of his native people. Cash, always a student of history and current events, was transfixed and decided immediately that he wanted to work with Lafarge and record his songs. Cash got clearance from Columbia and tore into the songs with a vengeance his musicians had never seen before. The album Bitter Tears featured eight tracks including As Long As The Grass Shall Grow, Custer, and The Ballad of Ira Hayes which chronicled the travesty of the life of WWII veteran and hero who was part of the famous photo taken on Mt. Saribachi with Marines raising the flag. The album was not promoted by Columbia and radio stations around the country refused to play it for fear that their conservative listeners wouldn’t like the message and would no longer listen to the station. Cash was rightfully enraged and took out a full-page ad in Billboard, and in the blessed name of Elvis, well, he just let it blast. In his rambling screed, Cash lashed out with the famous question, “Where are your guts?” He also questioned people’s conscience by including American Indian rights among other civil rights issues of the time, “Ballad of Ira Hayes is strong medicine. So is Rochester- Harlem, Birmingham, Vietnam.” Despite radios quiet boycott of the album, it still sold well thanks to Cash’s own efforts in reaching out to friendly DJs and the fans directly by barn storming the country from town to town.

Recently, writer Douglas Bradley completed a story on Ira Hayes that is well worth the time and gives a lot more background on Ira Hayes story as well as Cash’s campaign to raise awareness of the issues of Natives. You can read it by clicking the imbedded link. Below you can hear Johnny sing Big Foot, recorded in 1972 and released on his America album. Cash wrote this song after going to visit the Wounded Knee Massacre site in South Dakota. Like Cash, Springsteen has used his artisitic freedom to speak out for those whose voices aren’t typically heard such as American Skin(41 Shots) which brilliantly opens a discussion on the roles of all parties involved in the Amadou Diallo incident in NYC in 1999, writing “we’re baptized in these waters and in each other’s blood, Youngstown which examines the end of the steel mills, jobs and a way of life for working class people in Ohio and everywhere, and Streets of Philadelphia which took a look at AIDS victims.

When The Night Winds Wail: Long Black Veil

We recently stumbled across this live version of Long Black Veil performed by Bruce Springsteen & The Seeger Sessions Band at their May 16, 2006 show in Amsterdam.  Long Black Veil was originally a 1959 hit recorded by country-music singer Lefty Frizzell, though it sounds as if it’s a much older folk song.  Johnny Cash performed a memorable version of the song on his classic album Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison.  Johnny also performed Long Black Veil with Joni Mitchell on the very first episode of his famous late-sixties television show, and now you’re going to get to hear Bruce & The Seeger Sessions Band’s beautiful take on the song, performed with verses sung alternately by Bruce and “The Chocolate Genius” himself, Mr. Marc Anthony Thompson.

A Shot Rung Out Across The Land: I Hung My Head

Johnny and Bruce each recorded unique versions of Sting’s song I Hung My Head. Johnny’s version was released on his 2002 release, American IV: The Man Comes Around. This was a perfect song for Johnny to cover, fitting in well with the grand Johnny Cash tradition of murder-ballads and story-songs like his first big hit for Columbia Records, Don’t Take Your Guns To Town. Bruce’s version, featuring some blistering guitar work, was performed live with Sting’s own band, including former E Street Band member David Sancious, at Sting’s 60th Birthday celebration and released officially on Sting’s free iPad app. According to Springsteen biographer Dave Marsh, Patti Scialfa gave that awesome version one of the best descriptions you could give it. According to Dave, Patti called it “Nebraska on crack.”

" I've given the dogs names, Sin and Redemption. Sin is the black one with the white stripe; Redmption is  the white one with the black stripe. That's kind of the theme of the album, and I think it says it for me too. When I was bad, I was not all bad. When I was really trying to be good, I could never be all good. There would be that black streak going through."

” I’ve given the dogs names, Sin and Redemption. Sin is the black one with the white stripe; Redemption is the white one with the black stripe. That’s kind of the theme of the album, and I think it says it for me too. When I was bad, I was not all bad. When I was really trying to be good, I could never be all good. There would be that black streak going through.”

The American Recordings: The Phoenix Rises Again

In 1992, Cash was struggling at Mercury Records which was not promoting his albums, and for financial reasons, Cash was feeling  forced to play in Branson, a mecca for aging entertainers set in the foothills of Missouri. He told Rolling Stone’s Steven Pond, “You know, I’m doing what I feel like I was put on this world to do. I just want to do more of the same, but I want to do it better. I want to make some records that people will pay attention to, you know? My new stuff is going to be real sparse. Never more than four instruments in the studio at any one time. I’m gonna keep it real clean and bare, use today’s technology with my old simple sound, and hope to come up with something big.” Little did he know that two years later, he would again hit it big with recordings done at American, produced by Rick Rubin who was co-founder of Def Jam Records and had worked with many artists including The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Slayer, Run DMC and The Beastie Boys, not artists you would consider in the same style as Johnny Cash.

Cash and Rubin produced some of Johnny’s best work in decades and included American Recordings(1994), Unchained (1996), American III: Solitary Man (2000) and America IV: The Man Comes Around (2002) and many others released after his death in 2003. At the time of their release, the albums received critical acclaim, commercial success and awards including the 1997 Grammy Award for Best Country Album for Unchained.

After the death of his beloved brother Jack when he was a boy, Cash became isolated and often times went out walking for hours as he sang to himself all the songs he heard on the radio, just trying to make sense of the world and his place in it. According to Cash, “The long walk home at night was scary. It was pitch dark on the gravel road, or if the moon was shining, the shadows were even scarier…But I sang all the way home….I sang through the dark, and I decided that that kind of music was going to be my magic to take me through the dark places.” Cash had been down many dark roads in his life fighting addiction, wildness, physical ailments, the deaths of family and friends, but through it all, he found the ‘magic’ in his songs to get him home. And during his time with Rubin, he went to some very dark places indeed with songs such as  Delilah’s Gone, The Mercy Seat and God’s Gonna Cut You Down.

The First Couple of Country, John and June

The First Couple of Country, John and June

Johnny and Rubin made inspired choices of songs to record including several new originals written by Cash as well as covers of musicians of a wide variety including U2, Neil Diamond, Trent Reznor, Tom Petty, Danzig, Dean Martin, Nick Cave, Don Gibson’s Sea of Heartbreak and Bruce Springsteen’s Further On Up The Road. On the later albums you can hear Johnny struggling with his voice at times and you can hear him laboring to breathe at times. But as Rubin wrote in his liner notes to American V: A Hundred Highways released in 2006, “But in the end, his ability to convey words in a way the listener can truly feel and believe them is amazingly consistent. He was the master storyteller.”

At the time of his death in 2003, Johnny Cash was revered by a new group of fans including punks and hipsters, their parents and their grandparents. Johnny and June played at the Glastonbury festival in England. During his set, Johnny just sat on a stool, playing acoustic guitar by himself and was in awe of playing in front of 100,000 fans. They also loved June and The Carter Family classics she sang that night. As she came off the stage, a nineteen year old dressed in black, with tattoos, piercings and a Mohawk got her attention and politely said, “Mrs. Cash you really kick ass.” Johnny wrote that on days when June was down or discouraged, he would tell her, “Mrs. Cash, don’t worry about it, you kick ass.” Just as Johnny found new fans at the end of his life and career, Springsteen, who is 64 this year, has seen something similar occur to him, especially at live shows around the world. As he looks out on the crowd each night, he sometimes sees punk rockers, body piercings, ear gauges and mohawks. He looks out and often times sees three or maybe even four generations of fans, and often times he brings a little one onstage  to sing with him on Waitin’ On A Sunny Day. As he said recently on stage in Australia, “That’s good because they are the future of rock and roll.”

 

The Highwaymen: We’ll Stand Shoulder to Shoulder and Heart to Heart

In 1984, after being jettisoned from Columbia Records, the label he had produced album after album for 25 years, Cash formed the super group The Highwaymen with friends Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson. What’s interesting about the song Highwayman is how coincidentally similar its subject matter is to that of Bruce’s song We Are Alive, a song that also was directly influenced musically by Johnny’s recording of Ring of Fire. In another interesting coincidence, Highwayman was written by the famous songwriter Jimmy Webb, whose music was a major influence on the kind of writing Bruce did on his Working On A Dream album. Give it a listen and see what you think

Johnny Cash served in the Air Force during the Korean War, and upon his return to the states, moved to Memphis after recognizing it for its central location of all musical styles and people. Cash tried several times to get a demo session with Sam Phillips at Sun Studios but was turned away. Cash decided to wait on the steps outside the door one morning so he could catch Sam going into work. Sam granted him a quick listen and was impressed with his voice and presence but did not care for the gospel music Johnny sang that first day telling Johnny that gospel music doesn’t sell. Sam told him to come back the next day with his backing band and some original songs. Cash returned the next day with his group the Tennessee Two consisting of Luther Perkins, no relation to Carl, on guitar and Marshall Grant on bass. They played a Cash original, written while he served in Germany, Hey Porter, the first of many Cash train songs. Phillips was bowled over and quickly recorded the trio in the studio. Phillips needed a B side and sent Cash home with instructions to write a “weeper.” Cash went home and got inspired while listening to the radio when he heard DJ Smilin’ Eddie Hill go through his on air rap, “We got good songs, love songs, sweet songs, happy songs and songs that make you cry, cry, cry!”

The signature Johnny Cash sound many call the boom-chicka-boom sound, and some call the ticky-tack sound, was honed in Memphis at Sun Studios with Cash playing rhythm guitar, Luther Perkins on electric guitar and Marshall Grant on upright bass. According to Grant, “We didn’t work at that sound, it’s all we could play. Our inability had more to do with our success than our ability and I’m not ashamed of it.” The minimalist sound provided room for Johnny’s big, masculine booming voice. Perkin’s electric guitar style was basic, yet distinctive as it was used both as rhythm and a basic lead pattern, often times only using the top 3 strings. Grant’s bass playing was unadorned and plodding. More distinct was Cash’s acoustic rhythms which sounded like rustling paper which was achieved by threading a dollar bill through the strings. Between the three of them, the sound was that of a train heading down the tracks, clickity clack. It wasn’t strictly a country sound but included folk, gospel, bluegrass, and when they went up tempo, it was pure rockabilly and rock and roll.

Two great American visionaries, Sam Phillips and Johnny cash

Two great American visionaries, Sam Phillips and Johnny cash

The horn riff played in Springsteen’s We Are Alive, from his Wrecking Ball album, is openly credited as being a note-for-note recreation of the mariachi horns featured in Johnny Cash’s recording of Ring Of Fire,written by Johnny’s wife June Carter and Merle Kilgore. It was first recorded by June Carter’s sister Anita, but after it failed to become a hit, Johnny decided to record it himself after having a dream in which he heard the song played with mariachi horns. Legendary producer Cowboy Jack Clement, who passed away in 2013, has been credited with coming up with the famous horn arrangements. Clement said, “Johnny didn’t conform to anything, except to to the world. At the time, having horns on a hillbilly record was kind of weird, and he thought I was weird enough to understand it. And he called me, thank the lord.”

Besides using Johnny Cash’s mariachi-horns sound, We Are Alive also has the same classic “boom-chicka-boom” bass patterns and guitar lines frequently used by Johnny Cash’s legendary Tennessee Two backup band at Sun Records. While Bruce has aptly described We Are Alive as “Johnny-Cash-meets-Ennio-Morricone,” there’s also much more here than a musical connection. The lyrical concern with social justice, the idea that the past remains very connected to the present and that the differences among us humans can be beautiful but never more important than our commonalities, are all key elements in the work of both Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen. When I hear We Are Alive, I am reminded of something Sam Phillips said long ago when he heard Howlin’ Wolf sing for the first time in this studio, “Yes, yes. This is it for me. This is where the soul of man never dies,”

The Land of Hope and Dreams: Come Along and Ride This Train

Johnny once said, “There’s nothing that stirs my imagination like the sound of a steam engine locomotive. That lonesome whistle cutting through the night and that column of black steam throwing shadows across the land. When I was a boy, the trains ran by my house and they carried with them the promise that somewhere down the tracks, anything would be possible.” The truth of that statement is clear if you read through Cash’s discography which includes train songs of one kind or another from start to finish including The Orange Blossom Special, Train of Love, Come and Ride This Train, Folsom Prison Blues, I heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow, Rock Island Line, and John Henry.

On his show, Cash opened every episode with his song Come and Ride This Train in which he asked his viewers at home and in the auditorium to come with him so he could show them interesting places and introduce them to interesting people; this was a theme in his life as well as in his art. The Johnny Cash TV Show was a “big tent” affair.  Cash welcomed everyone onto his show from all kinds of musical styles, cultures, and backgrounds. He excluded no one and stood up to the network on many occasions including his insistence on singing Kristofferson’s Sunday Morning coming Down and including the lyric, “On a Sunday morning sidewalk, I’m wishing lord that I was stoned.” Between 1969 and 1971, 58 shows were broadcast on ABC including guests as diverse as Ray Charles, Mama Cass, Neil Young, Kris Kristofferson, Louis Armstrong, Pete Seeger, George Jones, Bob Dylan, Bill Monroe, Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder. All of his guests performed on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium, site of the Grand Old Opry, and the artists who, both musically and racially, made a diverse rainbow of society were introduced to Johnny’s fans, both live and on television, on a weekly basis, and helped open minds of people everywhere during a tumultuous time in our history. On the meaning of the show to the country, artist Steve Earle states, “I think it’s really hard for anyone to imagine now how important the Johnny Cash Show was, especially to people like me. The knowledge that Johnny Cash knew who Neil Young was validated me, made me feel like I wasn’t so weird because I listened to both kinds of music.”

Pops and Cash

Pops and Cash

In a very similar way, Springsteen has been creating a big tent of his own between his audience and the artists he has collaborated with and inspired. Just in the last few years, Springsteen has played on stage and recorded with a wide array of musicians ranging from Paul McCartney, Alejandro Escavedo, The Dropkick Murphys, Arcade Fire, Brian Fallon, Eddie Vedder and others. In a recent move, Springsteen has become inspired by, recorded with and added guitarist Tom Morello to the E Street Band for live performances.

In 1999, Springsteen wrote a new song entitled Land of Hope and Dreams as a way to start anew with the E Street Band of which they had not played together mostly for over ten years. He took the old spiritual folk tune of This Train, made popular by Woody Guthrie and Bill Broonzy earlier in the 20th century and changed the lyrics to be inclusive: this train carries saints and sinners, this train carries losers and winners, this train…thieves and sweet souls departed, this train carries lost souls and faith will be rewarded once the big wheels roll through fields where sunlight streams. In live versions, Springsteen throws in lines from Curtis Mayfield’s People Get Ready when he declares, “You don’t need no ticket you just get on board.” Springsteen, much like Cash, wants all of us to ride along with him so we could be ‘good companions for this part of the ride.’ As Dave Marsh wrote in Born To Run, each night in concert during the closer of Detroit Medley,Springsteen used to cry out to the crowd that he saw a train coming down the tracks and all aboard. “Springsteen made the song an invitation and a command. It was a promise of adventure, and each night as I heard him sing it, the same thought came into my head, “where are we headed, where are we bound? Then I’d shake my head and smile and hop aboard myself. The answer was clear: together, we would try to make it home again.”

We’re all riding on a great Mystery Train of sorts as we go through our limited time on earth, but with a little luck and some understanding, we can ride the train together and be good companions.

Coda: I’ve Been Everywhere Man

At the end of his autobiography, Cash sits in his dressing room before a show, lost in his reverie and what Lincoln called “the mystic chords of memory” as he thinks of all the places he has traveled, the people in his life and all the music and closes with this, the essence of The Man In Black, “It’s about time for me to go to work, or if you like, to go play. That’s what we music gypsies call it, after all. I’ll put on my black shirt, buckle up the black belt on my black pants, tie my black shoes, pick up my black guitar, and go put on a show for the people in this town.” Much like Johnny, Springsteen often wears black when on stage and he states that one of his biggest thrills in life is to blow into a town, tear it up on stage while congregating with his audience,forging bonds between himself, the musicians, the fans and each other, and then heading out-of-town headed for the next destination.

One of the last songs Johnny recorded prior before passing was the old standard We’ll Meet Again. According to Rick Rubin, Johnny, knowing his time was drawing near, insisted all the session musicians sing on the final chorus. He insisted his family be brought into the studio to sing on the chorus. And then much to Rubin’s chagrin, Johnny insisted Rubin step up to the microphone and join in as well. He wanted everyone to join and help him out in a family way. That’s the way Johnny Cash always wanted it, everyone hopping aboard and riding the train together. Yeah, we’ll meet again, don’t know where don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again some sunny day. Thanks Johnny. As the songs goes, we’ll see you further on up the road.

For those of you reading this who have access to Sirius/XM radio, Shawn and I have teamed up to record a special guest DJ spot that will be aired on E Street Radio Channel 20 in which we discuss Johnny and Bruce and play a lot of good music. The schedule is as follows in EST: Wednesday February 26 at 4:00pm, Thursday February 27 at 5:00pm, Friday February 28 at 9:00am, Saturday March 1 at 6:00pm and Sunday March 2 at 11:00pm(roughly).

Two American Icons, Cash and Springsteen

Two American Icons, Cash and Springsteen

The Ties That Bind:  More connections, sources, quotes, brushes with greatness

JohnnyCashBloodSweatAndTears

While there are many solid connections between Cash and Springsteen as evidenced above, there are several others that we hear in some of Springsteen’s other work.

– On his album Devils and Dust, Springsteen’s Leah contains the line: I walk this road with a hammer and fiery lantern/with this hand I’ve built and with this hand I’ve burnt” which appears to be a direct homage to Cash’s album art for his classic concept album Blood, Sweat and Tears.

-In his song Trouble River, Springsteen writes, “Trouble River, six foot high and risin'” which is a direct nod to Cash’s own Five Foot High and Risin’ which Cash wrote to chronicle an event that occurred near his family’s farm in Dyess.

– In Tougher Than The Rest, Springsteen includes this:” Love is a thin, thin line/But I want you to know I’ll walk it for you anytime,” which is a direct link to Cash’s classic I Walk The Line.

– On Springsteen’s Matamoras Banks, the guitar melody and story line share a fair resemblance, at least in spirit, to Cash’s Give My Love To Rose, which Bruce covered in 1999.

– And lastly, one of Cash’s most famous and popular songs was Jackson, performed with wife June Carter included the lines: We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout/We’ve been talking about Jackson ever since the fire went out.” Springsteen has stated that starting around 1977, he started listening to punk music as well as classic country as a way of gaining new perspectives. His 1980 album The River contained Jackson Cage which looked at a dying marriage amidst boredom of a suburban life and contained the lyrics: The cool of the night takes the edge off the heat.”

Johnny Cash’s America- Full length documentary directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon

“I love songs about horses, railroads, land, Judgement Day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak, and love. And Mother. And God.” Johnny Cash

Rosanne Cash essay, Long Way Home.

Johnny on advice: “Don’t ask me for advice. Whenever someone does, I’m reminded of the worst advice I ever gave to anyone. Thank God Roy Orbison ignored it. Roy and I became friends from Day 1. When he came to Memphis from West Texas. I had met him in Odessa where he and the Teen Kings did a show on local television. He was a little discouraged by the lack of progress he was making and asked me what I thought he should do. I said, “Change your name and lower your voice. You sing too high and no one will ever remember Orbison.” (Music lovers all over the world, including Bruce Springsteen who was inspired by and played alongside Orbison can agree it was a good thing Roy ignored the advice of Johnny.)

I've been Everywhere Man

I’ve been Everywhere Man

For Pete Seeger: Hobo’s Lullabye

By Ryan Hilligoss, February 1, 2014

“I look upon myself as a planter of seeds. It’s like the Bible says, some land in the stones and don’t sprout, some land in the path and get stomped on, but some land on good ground and grow and multiply a 1,000 fold. My job is to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right it may help save the planet” Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger's banjo. This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender

Pete Seeger’s banjo. This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender

Pete Seeger died this past week at the age of 94 and I think the picture above is a perfect microcosm of Pete’s life: two strong hands, a banjo, his voice leading others TOGETHER in song. Pete often said, ” The best music I’ve ever made in my life has been when I can get the folks, all of them, young and old, the conservative, liberal and radical, get ’em all singing on the chorus.” And he did just that for over 75 years. Pete Seeger lived a good, long and meaningful life and used the tools he had at hand to get out and do his work of singing, playing and passing the songs along that he picked up from Woody, Leadbelly, Paul Robeson, from cultures around the world and from countless others while trying to influence the people and to make this a better, more fair and decent place for all of us to live.

 

It is fitting that I write this while in Springfield, Il, The Land of Lincoln, for  Pete and Abe were very similar despite the fact they were born 100+ years apart. Both were tall men with beards, both chopped wood on a regular basis :), both believed in the power and goodness inherent in the Constitution and The Bill of Rights, and they both believed in the beauty of this country and world and were willing to use their voice and influence to fight for them. Pete Seeger chopped wood everyday of his life as a form of exercise and to help clear his mind and spirit and to keep the rhythm of his songs and life. On days where his  schedule did not allow for his chopping, he complained bitterly to friends and family. And according to Arlo Guthrie, Pete was still chopping wood until about a week before he passed. If only we all can be so lucky to live to a similar age while doing the things we love.
A few  weeks ago, my dad and I went to the Abraham Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Il to see a new exhibit there of stage props, settings and clothes worn in the Spielberg directed Lincoln. Wasn’t much to see and was fairly disappointing on that end, but we also walked through the main museum for the 100th time as you can always find something new if you look hard enough. (By the way, as a standing offer, if any of you ever make your way out to Illinois at anytime and wish to go, I would be happy to take you down to Springfield and see some Lincoln sights. I’ll be your personal chaufer, tour guide and overall general raconteur 🙂 It’s well worth the time)
One of the exhibits is on the Gettysburg Address which celebrated its 150th anniversary last year, 2013. The library collected several letters from notables around the country and world on the importance of the speech including WJ Clinton, Colin Powell, poet Billy Collins and one Mr.Pete Seeger. His letter was simple, to the point and showed his wit, charm and intelligence all in one brief letter and the additional page he attached with his own design of Lincoln’s speech which he changed to allow for an easier memorization for his listeners. Classic Pete and a prime example of what Pete did his whole life: passing what he thought was important in life, in sustaining a democracy and continuing to build a connection between the people.
Pete Seeger's letter and redesigned Gettysburg Address. Springfield, Il ALPML

Pete Seeger’s letter and redesigned Gettysburg Address. Springfield, Il ALPML

The picture I took isn’t the greatest quality so here is the text: “Dear friends at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Since November 19, it will be 150 years since Old Abe gave the address. I try to get people to memorize it. Written out as 10 sentences and 4 clauses, it’s much easier to memorize than the way it’s normally provided in 2 or 3 paragraphs. I’m curious to know what you think of it. I am sorry I can’t visit you in person but at the age of 94, my travelling days are over. Sincerely, Pete Seeger.”
(With his famous drawing of his banjo underneath)
Rock music critic and historian Dave Marsh wrote a great tribute to Pete this week, A Golden Thread, A Needle which can be read  by clicking this sentence. In his essay, Marsh writes of a night in 1996 at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the Woody Guthrie Tribute concert. As  a finalee, Pete led a song along with many musicians joining him on stage and getting the entire audience to sing with them. Marsh writes, “I think it was the first time I’d ever truly seen him. He was pleased, I understood, not so much that the night had carried Woody and what he represented forth in such grand fashion. What I remember seeing in Pete Seeger’s eyes was a sense of relief. He knew something that night—if I’m right—something important about not just Woody’s work, but his own. Which meant also the work of all the people he’d learned from, and all those who’d taught them, from the slaves who came up with “O Freedom” to Mother Bloor writing the labor history Woody made into music. He knew that folks would try to carry it on, in both spirit and substance.
That linkage is the golden thread and its purpose now is weaving the garment of human survival, which was the explicit theme of Pete Seeger’s last few decades on the planet. A rainbow design without which we cannot live. A design that shows us why and how to keep the most important thing that Pete Seeger represents alive.
We cannot experience the full measure of what it means to lose Pete Seeger until we realize that this burden is not his to carry, anymore. Now, it’s on you. And me.”
Marsh is right, it’s up to you, me and all of us to make the world a better place for all of us. And it’s time to pick up an axe and start chopping wood.
Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen, Madison Square Garden, 2009

Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen, Madison Square Garden, 2009

“Pete was one of those guys who saw himself as a citizen artist and an activist. He had a very full idea about those things, how it connected to music and what music could do. The power that music has to influence, to inspire. And that’s the power of folk music. That’s the power of Pete Seeger.”  Bruce Springsteen

Coda: This Land Is Your Land
 In 2012, my dad and I took a road trip to see sights in Kansas and Oklahoma like DDE Presidential Museum, Mickey Mantle’s boyhood home in Spavinaw and Commerce, OK and we went to Okemah, Oklahoma where Woody Guthrie was born. After searching for a while and with a little help from friendly people, we found what remains of Woody’s boyhood home which now is simply some of the original stone foundation. In the yard stands one of the last remaining trees and a local artist carved a message from Woody into the side. And in one of life’s great ironies, there was a small white sign in the yard that says “It is a crime to steal stones from this property.” On the other side, it doesn’t say nothing, that side was made for you and me. This Land was written by Woody in 1940 and would have been a dust speck of history if not for Pete Seeger picking up the song and singing it time after time for crowds, school children, unions, and presidents alike.
Bob Hilligoss at site of Woody Guthrie's first home, Okemah, Oklahoma, 2012

Bob Hilligoss at site of Woody Guthrie’s first home, Okemah, Oklahoma, 2012

Original foundation of Guthrie's boyhood home, Okemah, Oklahoma

Original foundation of Guthrie’s boyhood home, Okemah, Oklahoma. One side is a warning to trespassers. On the other side it says nothing and that side was made for you and me

Top 10 Pete Seeger Songs, written, sung or inspired by
10) Goodnight Irene- Written  by Leadbelly and taught to the Weavers who performed this version on early television

 9) Forever Young– Written by Bob Dylan and sung by Pete along with child’s choir. From Chimes of Freedom: Songs of Bob Dylan honroing 50 years of Amnesty International.

8) If I Had a Hammer

7) Waist Deep In The Big Muddy

6) Johnny Cash on Pete Seeger’ Rainbow Show

5) Bring Em Home- From Bruce Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions Tour

From The New Yorker profile on Seeger from April 17, 2006 by Alec Wilkinson.

“Springsteen began listening to Seeger in 1997, when he was asked to provide a song for a Seeger tribute record. To choose one, he told me, he “went to the record store and bought every Pete record they had. I really immersed myself in them, and it was very transformative. I heard a hundred voices in those old folk songs, and stories from across the span of American history—parlor music, church music, tavern music, street and gutter music. I felt the connection almost intuitively, and that certain things needed to be carried on; I wanted to continue doing things that Pete had passed down and put his hand on. He had a real sense of the musician as historical entity—of being a link in the thread of people who sing in others’ voices and carry the tradition forward— and of the songwriter, in the daily history of the place he lived, that songs were tools, and, without sounding too pretentious, righteous implements when connected to historical consciousness. At the same time, Pete always maintained a tremendous sense of fun and lightness, which is where his grace manifested itself. It was cross-generational. He played for anyone who would listen. He played a lot for kids. When I set the musicians up in my house to make this record, and we started playing Pete’s songs, my daughter said, ‘That sounds like fun—what is that?'”

Seeger typically performed with the simplest instrumentation—by himself, with banjo and guitar, and, in the Weavers, with another guitar player. Springsteen is accompanied by drums, bass, piano, guitar, accordion, banjo, double fiddles, horns, and backup singers. His versions include more references than Seeger’s did—Dixieland, Gospel, stringband music, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll among them. It is as if folk music, temporarily dormant, had been revived in a more populist and modern form. “The Seeger Sessions” does not include any songs that Seeger wrote, such as ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!” which was a No. 1 record for the Byrds in 1965. Springsteen recorded “If I Had a Hammer,” but felt that it asserted itself too forcefully among the other songs, possibly because it was so well known. The songs he chose, he said, are “ones that I heard my own voice in. When you’re going through material that way, you’re always trying to find your place in the story. With the songs I picked, I knew who those characters were, and I knew what I wanted to say through them to transform what we were doing. That’s your part in the passing down of that music. You have to know what you’re adding. Every time a folk song gets sung, something gets added to that song. Why did I pick Pete Seeger songs instead of songs by the Carter Family or Johnny Cash or the Stanley Brothers? Because Pete’s library is so vast that the whole history of the country is there. I didn’t feel I had to go to someone else’s records. It was very broad. He listened to everything and collected everything and transformed everything. Everything I wanted, I found there.”

4) Hobo’s Lullabye- Written by Woody Guthrie, performed by Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger. For my grandfather Hubert Barr who rode a train from central Illinois to work in the CCC during the Great Depression.

3) The American Land- Bruce Springsteen, inspired by Seeger’s He Lies Here In The American Land

2) Turn Turn Turn- Written by Seeger, performed by Bruce Springsteen, E Street Band and Roger McGuinn

1) Co tie- We Shall Overcome- History told by Pete Seeger

1) This Land Is Your Land- Written by Woody Guthrie, performed by Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger, 2009, Washington DC

Rememberance from Tom Morello, guitarist/musician/songwriter and political activist Tom Morello. Much like Lincoln, Pete was willing to actually excercise his Constitutional freedoms and not just claim them. In a recent post in Rolling Stone by , Morello writes, “He was a hardcore bad ass when he stood up to House Un-American Activities Committee, saying, “How dare you question my Americanism because I play music for people whose politics are different than yours?”

Dreaming of a Promised Land: The Music of Elvis Presley and Bruce Springsteen

By Ryan Hilligoss and Shawn Poole, January 8th, 2014

(A version of this was used for a special guest Be The Boss episode on E Street Radio, Sirius/XM which aired January 8, 2013)

Two Hearts: American Icons Elvis Presley and Bruce Springsteen

Two Hearts: American Icons Elvis Presley and Bruce Springsteen

Merry Elvismas!! To celebrate American icon Elvis Presley on what would have been his 79th birthday, I’ve put together something special with a lot of help from my good friend Shawn Poole from Philadelphia, contributing writer for Backstreets Magazine and Backstreets.com. Shawn and I became fast friends through E Street Radio where we both are regular callers on Live from E Street Nation with Dave Marsh.  We’re both major fans of Elvis Presley and Bruce Springsteen.

Just over a year ago, Shawn, his wife Dawn and I traveled to Memphis, Tennessee and Tupelo, Mississippi to see the shotgun shack where Elvis was born, the areas where he grew up, where he made his first records and, of course, Graceland, the legendary house and property that Elvis bought for himself and his family after he became a superstar.  We stood together outside the same wall at Graceland that Bruce climbed back in 1976 in his legendary, though unsuccessful, attempt to meet his hero in person.

Shawn and Ryan jumping the wall, ala 1976. That's a copy of Backstreets Shawn is holding, not Time or Newsweek

Shawn and Ryan jumping the wall, ala 1976. That’s a copy of Backstreets Shawn is holding, not Time or Newsweek

We also saw a special exhibit at Graceland that, for the first time ever, features items belonging to other artists who continue to be influenced and inspired by Elvis, including Bruce Springsteen, but more on that later. We’ve prepared a very special post for you today that was inspired by our travels. Since Elvis’ birthday falls on January 8th, we’re going to play eight tracks that connect Bruce Springsteen to Elvis Presley in some very unique ways.  So let’s get this birthday party started with a double-shot of Elvis-themed songs that were not written by Bruce Springsteen, but on which he appears as a backing singer and musician.  These excellent songs explore both the glory and the tragedy of Elvis Presley’s life and career.  Here are Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers performing Joe’s song Talking to the King with Bruce Springsteen on guitar and backing vocals, followed immediately by Ms. Patti Scialfa performing her song Looking for Elvis with Bruce on harmonica and bullet mic. So take it away, Joe, Bruce and the Houserockers. It’s Elvis’ birthday here at 706unionavenue, let the rocking begin!

 

I think a lot of us have been looking for Elvis down Memphis road in one way or another over the years. For those of you who are interested, you can read my essay on our pilgrimage to Tupelo, Mississippi entitled “That’s All Right Mama, I’ll Get The Guitar”, by clicking on the link in this sentence. I took the title from a joke from Howard Hite, an employee of Tupelo Hardware Co, where Gladys bought Elvis his first guitar in 1946. According to Howard, Elvis came in to store on his 11th birthday to buy himself a present earned by running errands for family and neighbors. He had his eye set on a .22 rifle, but Gladys told him no and the store clerk that day handed Elvis a guitar to avert his attention. After he played the guitar for a few minutes, Gladys said, “Elvis if you want the guitar, I’ll pay the difference.” And Elvis thought a moment and said, “Ok mama, I’ll get the guitar.” In Howard’s version, he has Elvis saying, “That’s All Right Mama, I’ll get the guitar.”

For those of you who may not know, 706 Union Avenue is the address in Memphis, Tennessee of the Memphis Recording Service which later became Sun Studio, owned and operated by musical pioneer Sam Phillips. Many argue that the first rock and roll record was recorded at Sun Studio, Jackie Brenston’s Rocket 88.  Many early American musicians recorded at Sun including Rufus Thomas, Howlin Wolf, BB King, Junior Parker, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and of course Elvis. After hearing Howling Wolf for the first time in the studio, Phillips reportedly said, “Yes, yes. This is it for me, This is where the soul of man never dies.” Just as Phillips and the artists at Sun  mixed musical styles of country, blues, rhythm and blues and gospel among others to form the basis of rock and roll, on this next track, Bruce and Little Steven blend music styles of rock and hip hop in the song’s use of samples, loops and various styles of percussion riding over a driving bass line. So here, in the ‘blessed name of Elvis’, is the Little Steven mix of 57 Channels.

Y’know, if you get the chance to visit Tupelo, Mississippi, the town where Elvis was born, you’ve just got to stop at Tupelo Hardware, where Elvis’ mother Gladys bought him his first guitar for his 11th birthday.  It’s a great old-fashioned hardware store, where you can stand on the spot marked with an “X” on the very same hardwood floor where Elvis stood and Mr. Howard Hite, Tupelo Hardware’s sales manager and a true Southern gentlemen, will tell you the story of how Elvis got his first guitar.  As Springsteen fans, of course we thought immediately of Bruce’s beautiful song The Wish, which tells the story of how Bruce’s mother Adele bought him his first guitar for Christmas.  The very first time that Bruce performed The Wish publicly, at the November 17, 1990 Christic Institute benefit, he concluded his introduction of the song by saying, “I´m gonna leap into the void and the great line of mother lovers: Richard Nixon, Elvis Presley, Merle Haggard and every country and western singer you ever knew.”  Here is a live version played on the 2005 Devils and Dust Tour including the intro with some discussion on Elvis.

Every year, Graceland is the second most personal residence visited by tourists in America, only behind the White House. Much like Paul Simon, millions have been received in Graceland, ordinary and famous alike. One famous visitor was comedian, actor, performance artist and all around avant-garde artist Andy Kaufman, known by many as Latka from the television series Taxi. Kaufman had an obsession with Elvis starting from childhood. Knowing that Andy and his writing and performance partner Bob Zmuda could play loose with facts and reality, much of what has been said and written about his exploits cannot be verified for certain, but it makes for some very entertaining stories. Knowing that, it can be said Andy had quite the connection with Elvis.

According to Andy, in 1969, he tilted at windmills by hitchhiking  from Long Island to Las Vegas on a quest to meet his idol.  After hiding in a kitchen pantry for hours at the International Hotel where Elvis made regular appearances, Andy burst out when he heard Elvis exit a service elevator and begin walking through the kitchen on his way to the stage. Andy proceeded to show Elvis a manifesto he had written about his love of Elvis and he told Elvis that he was going to be famous some day. Elvis reportedly patted Andy on the shoulder and said he was sure that was true. Elvis has been cited by Johnny Cash and tv host Mike Douglas as stating that Kaufman was Elvis’ favorite impersonator. Elvis was a loyal Johnny Carson viewer and I imagine Elvis did watch Kaufman perform on March 3, 1977 during which Andy turned his clothes into a 70s Vegas jumpsuit and then proceeded to sing Love Me and Blue Suede Shoes in a 50s Elvis style voice replete with the appropriate dance moves. Most interestingly, according to Zmuda in his biography, Andy Kaufman Revealed, he and Andy were in Memphis for the infamous Jerry Lawler wrestling match when they decided to tour Graceland. A few of the guides recognized Andy and took him on a private tour including Elvis personal office and pointed to some video tapes that had Andy’s name written on them in Elvis hand. Kaufman became overwhelmed with emotion at seeing his name written on Elvis’ home recordings and excused himself to “the restroom” where a flush was soon heard and Andy came out and exclaimed, “I used Elvis’ throne,  I mean I really used it. It was amazing.” So in the spirit of two great American artists who were way ahead of their time, Andy Kaufman and Elvis Presley,  from the October 11, 2004 Vote for Change concert, here is Bruce and REM “goofing on Elvis’ on Man on The Moon.

My buddy Shawn Poole and I are the bosses today here at 706unionavenue and we’re celebrating the birthday of Bruce Springsteen’s very first musical hero, Mr. Elvis Presley.  We just told you some interesting stories about Graceland, Elvis’ legendary home and last year there was a special exhibit at Graceland’s Sincerely Elvis Museum.  It was called ICON: The Influence of Elvis Presley and it marked the very first time that an official Graceland exhibit had included items from artists other than Elvis.  Among the many artists included were Bruce Springsteen, of course, along with some video and displayed quotes on the walls from Bruce, Nils Lofgren and Patti Scialfa, too.  There’s also a glass case with a copy of the Born To Run LP, one of Bruce’s black leather jackets from the seventies and an authentic Elvis Presley King’s Court fan club button, just like the one you can see on the cover of Born To Run and in many other photos taken by photographer Eric Meola for the Born To Run album-cover photo sessions.  And right next to that, in the very same glass case, is a large display copy of a Backstreets Magazine article that Shawn wrote back in 2004.

Shawn Poole with a copy of his article from Backstreets magazine inside the ICON exhibit on the Graceland Grounds, December, 2012

Shawn Poole with a copy of his article from Backstreets magazine inside the ICON exhibit on the Graceland Grounds, December, 2012

It’s all about Al Hanson, the man who designed the Elvis fan-club button that Bruce is wearing on his guitar strap on the Born To Run album-cover.  I’m sure you’ll understand that, as a longtime fan of both Bruce and Elvis, I was immensely thrilled and honored to see my article on display in an official Graceland exhibit right alongside some of Bruce’s Elvis-related items.  Backstreets Magazine and Backstreets.com was honored, of course, to be a part of this unique exhibit, and we hope that many of you got the chance to see it before it closed last February. 

For a fascinating read on what might have happened if Bruce Springsteen had met his idol before Elvis’ concert in Philadelphia in the spring of 1977, click here to get a download of Shawn’s great story “Didn’t Have To Die: How an Encounter That Never Happened Might Have Helped to Change History If It Had” which was originally published in Spanish in The Stone Pony Magazine issue 53, September 2009.

And speaking of Born To Run, we think “She’s The One”, thanks to its Bo Diddley beat and Bruce’s singing style on it, is the Born To Run track that most closely resembles the musical styles found in many of the great Elvis Presley records.  So here is an incredible live version played in 1975 at the Hammersmith Odeon in London, England on the band’s first trip overseas.

We’re back, rolling along on this great Mystery Train of Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen and American music.  In 1978, after enduring a struggle for his artistic freedom, Bruce wrote Promised Land for the album, Darkness On The Edge of Town. While it is unknown if it was purposeful, it shared the same title of a song written by one of his, and countless other’s, musical heroes, Chuck Berry, a man from a poor family living in a segregated St.Louis, Mo. Chuck’s version, written in 1964 while he was in jail and possibly influenced by Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech in 1963, tells the tale of a poor southern boy dreaming of a better life in California and struggling to make his way across the country in search of that dream. With names like Rock Hill, Atlanta, and Birmingham, some have claimed that Berry was writing a coded song about the Civil Right Movement. In the later stage of his career, Elvis recorded Berry’s Promised Land and turned it into one of his last great rock recordings.

Springsteen with Elvis button, BTR cover outtake from Eric Meola

Springsteen with Elvis button, BTR cover outtake from Eric Meola

Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, two huge influences on the music of Springsteen, were two of the most influential ”fathers” of rock and roll, one of the great unifying forces in modern American life and one that greatly influenced the civil rights movement. Elvis’ first recordings took place in a small, dusty Memphis studio called Sun Records situated at 706 Union Ave. In his extraordinary work on Elvis, Careless Love, author and music historian, Peter Guralnick writes “…in the end, there is only one voice that counts. It is the voice that the world first heard on those bright yellow Sun 78s, whose original insignia, a crowing rooster surrounded by boldly stylized sunbeams and a border of musical notes, sought to proclaim the dawning of a new day. It is impossible to silence that voice. Elvis continued to believe in a democratic ideal of redemptive transformation. He continued to seek out a connection with a public that embraced him not for what he was but for what he sought to be.”

We would like to dedicate this next song to two Beautiful Dreamers, Elvis and Bruce, who both dreamed of a promised land, a better country and world for all to be treated fairly and humanely. On those early Sun recordings, it was only Elvis, guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black. So, to create some percussion, Elvis would use his hand to bang on the guitar body to keep the beat along with Black’s bass line. Here is Bruce creating his own percussion, in a haunting, ghostly fashion on an acoustic version of the Promised Land, recorded June, 2005 during the Devils and Dust Tour.

If I Can Dream Of A Better Land

We’ve been the ‘bosses’ today at 706unionavenue  in a special post celebrating the birthday of Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen’s original and enduring influence. Well, we’re going to close our work today with one of Bruce’s songs from his Wrecking Ball album released in 2012, We Take Care Of Our Own.  The lyrics make direct reference to a shotgun shack and, if you get the chance to visit Elvis’ birthplace as we have, you’ll see that he really was born in a shotgun shack, which is an extremely small house built by Elvis’ father Vernon , who had to borrow $180 to build it.  Like Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Presley was a very poor young man who later became very wealthy.  Elvis’ greatest music, however, was always about the struggle to dream the biggest dreams we can of a world in which everyone, not just a lucky few, can be liberated and free from poverty, loneliness and suffering.

For most of his life, Elvis lived and worked in Memphis, TN, a city with deep ties to the Civil Rights movement, and at the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum we learned how so much of the music made by Elvis and so many other musicians was strongly connected to that great struggle.  It forced us as a nation to reconsider our assumptions about how we identify ourselves as both individuals and groups, how our culture should look, sound and feel.  That’s why it continues to influence and inspire so many people around the world today, over thirty-five years after Elvis himself died so tragically.  Bruce Springsteen, one of Elvis’ biggest fans, is making music now that continues to ask us the question that Elvis asked when he sang If I Can Dream on his 1968 “comeback” television special, a night of performances that Bruce himself counts among Elvis’ greatest.  That night, Elvis asked all of us, “If I can dream of a warmer sun where hope keeps shining on everyone, tell me…Why won’t that sun appear?”  Happy birthday, Elvis, and rest in peace.  Thanks for inspiring Bruce Springsteen and all of us to ask ourselves the questions that still need to be asked.

Coda: Sources, videos and other material

*Sirius/XM’s Outlaw Country, NASCAR Radio, Blue Collar Radio and Raw Dog Comedy DJ Mojo Nixon did one of the best E Street Radio Guest DJ segments ever.  Bruce Springsteen himself loved it so much that he asked E Street Radio’s Dave Marsh to get a copy of the show for him.  Back in the eighties, Mojo wrote and recorded the great, hilarious tribute record “Elvis Is Everywhere.”  Mojo also has called Dave Marsh the man who’s forgotten more than the rest of us will ever know about Bruce Springsteen.  In 1973, Dave wrote his very first Springsteen record-review of Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. coincidentally in the same Creem Magazine column that also featured his review of the album Elvis Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite. Speaking of Greetings…, although we won’t be playing it on today’s show, that album’s closing track, “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City,” is one of the earliest examples of Bruce singing in the tough, bluesy style that Elvis used on many of his best records.

Prince From Another Planet

Prince From Another Planet

On June 9, 1972, the same day he was signed officially as a Columbia Records recording artist, Bruce Springsteen attended Elvis’ very first Madison Square Garden concert.  Bruce said that Elvis’ performance that night was “really great.”  Almost thirty years later, when Bruce released the Live In New York City CD and DVD of some of his own Madison Square Garden concerts, he could be heard shouting “Elvis is alive!” during “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” after an audience member threw a white shirt onstage.  Bruce mopped his sweaty face with the shirt and threw it back into the audience like Elvis used to throw his scarves into the crowd during the seventies, and he even copped an Elvis-like stage move.  The cover for Bruce’s Live In New York City CD booklet was created using an old-fashioned letterpress concert-style poster designed by the legendary Hatch Show Print with die-cut star designs used originally on a 1956 Elvis Presley concert poster.

A toilet fit for a King, restroom in Sun Studios, Memphis, Tn

A toilet fit for a King, restroom in Sun Studios, Memphis, Tn

Let It Rock!!! The Music of Chuck Berry and Bruce Springsteen

Chuck Berry duck walks with a smiling Bruce Springsteen watching. Rehearsal for September 1995 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert

Chuck Berry duck walks with a smiling Bruce Springsteen watching. Rehearsal for September 1995 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert

“Chuck Berry is the king of rock and roll. My mama even said that. Why mama, what about me? Son, you’re good, but you’re no Chuck Berry. Chuck Berry is the Hank Williams of rock and roll.” Jerry Lee Lewis on a conversation he had with his mother.

“No one does it better than Chuck Berry”, Bruce Springsteen introducing Berry’s Sweet Sixteen during concert 8/21/78.

By Ryan Hilligoss, October 2013. In celebration of Chuck Berry’s 87th birthday

In 1973, a twenty-four year old budding musician from New Jersey and his band were booked by their manager to play on a triple bill with Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry. When told the promoter would hire a local band to back up Berry for the live show, the musician told his manager to let them know they would back him up instead since Chuck Berry was one of their musical heroes. That young musician was none other than Bruce Springsteen who along with his E Street Band, backed up Chuck Berry at a concert held at the University of Maryland’s Cole Field House on April 28, 1973.

Newspaper ad for concert on 4-28-73 featuring Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bruce Springsteen

Newspaper ad for concert on 4-28-73 featuring Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bruce Springsteen

In 1986, a documentary entitled Hail! Hail! Rock N’ Roll, was released which featured a live performance of Berry performing at the historic Fox Theater in St.Louis and included a legendary musical lineup including Keith Richards as guitarist and musical director, supremely talented Steve Jordan on drums, Johnnie Johnson(Berry’s longtime pianist and musical partner) on piano once more, and guests Etta James, Julian Lennon, Eric Clapton and Linda Ronstadt among others. The performance filmed that night was held at The Fox Theater in St.Louis. The choice of venue was a very deliberate choice on Berry’s part and had great personal and racial significance. When Chuck was a child growing up in a segregated St.Louis, Berry’s father attempted to take his children to see the movie, A Tale of Two Cities at that very same theater and was told by the white ticket operator, “Come on now, you know we don’t sell tickets to your kind. Go on now.” 40 years later, here he was as a legendary, iconic, founding member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and playing a concert in front of an almost entirely white audience who were all going nuts for him during the performance.

Berry’s book, entitled simply Chuck Berry: The Autobiography, has a foreword written by Springsteen who also appeared in two separate segments of the documentary. Chuck Berry introduces Bruce’s foreword with, “Now here’s a guy who speaks what God loves, which is the truth. How he got it down so straight I’ll never know, but it’s like I had written it.”Within the documentary are several interviews with other musical artists and fans of Berry, including Springsteen who relays the events of the night in 1973 in fine detail.

One part of the story left out of Bruce’s version is that at least on that night, the E Street Band included Southside Johnny(John Lyon), who at the beginning of the show, played the harmonica standing over on the side of the stage. According to brucebase, Berry was so impressed that he pulled Johnny over to center stage and told the crowd, “That white boy can blow can’t he?”

As bad as some of that appears from Springsteen’s version ie no idea on what songs he would play, keys, in fact, things may have been even worse. According to Craig Statham’s Springsteen: Saint In The City, there was more to the story. When Berry came into the band room before the show and Bruce asked what songs they were going to play, Berry simply replied, “Chuck Berry songs boys, what did you think?” According to Statham, “When the time came to play the first songs, the band was nearly quaking in their boots and things would only get worse when Berry called the first song in B flat. He then proceeded to castigate Garry Tallent and Viny Lopez for playing too fancifully, and Springsteen for playing his lead on his acoustic guitar, turning down the volume on his amp and telling him, ‘Only Chuck Berry plays Chuck Berry licks.’

If you would like to hear a close approximation of what Bruce and the band and Chuck Berry sounded like that night in 1973, with Berry just launching into the song with no introduction and no warning to the band and then the band racing to figure out the song and proper key, below is audio from a performance of Rock and Roll Music from September 2, 1995. You can hear Berry struggling at first through the song but then picking it up as the band kicks in with the ‘Chuck Berry sound’. Even though Chuck forgets some of the words and vamps his way through it, ‘it still has a back beat that you can’t lose it, any old way you chose it.’

Chuck Berry with Clarence Clemons in background, from 4-28-73 concert, University of Maryland

Chuck Berry with Clarence Clemons in background, from 4-28-73 concert, University of Maryland, image from brucebase

A third source on the story comes from musician and pianist Daryl Davis through the blog Go Ahead On! in which Davis relays his first hand account of that night as he was standing on the side of the stage that night as an observer after sneaking his way into the show, “He walked toward where I was standing a few feet from the band. As he passed me, I didn’t say a word, I just watched him. He laid the guitar case down on an amp crate and opened it up. The bandleader approached him with the rest of the band and said something to the effect of, “I’m Bruce Springsteen and my band is your backup band. We’re really looking forward to playing with you.” At the time, few people outside of Asbury Park, NJ knew who Bruce Springsteen was. Chuck shook hands and Bruce went on to tell him that they had been going over some of his repertoire earlier and asked what songs he might want to play that evening. Without pausing or missing a beat, Chuck said, “I think I’ll play some Chuck Berry songs,” and walked on stage and plugged in his guitar. It was a great concert. When he came off stage, he packed up his guitar but had forgotten the cord. The audience was screaming for an encore. Chuck walked back onto the stage and the crowd thinking he was going to play another song cheered even louder. He pulled the cord out of the amp waved to the crowd and duckwalked off the stage. He walked right by me again and again, I didn’t say a word. I was just in awe. He went out the door and got in the rental car and drove himself to wherever he was going.”

According to brucebase, Springsteen and the E Street Band’s opening 50 minute set that night included Spirit in the Night, Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street, Blinded by the Light and Thundercrack. Berry’s set lasted for 70 minutes and included some of those ‘Chuck Berry songs’  including Maybellene, Rock and Roll Music, School Days,  Roll over Beethoven, Nadine, No Particular Place To Go, Sweet Little Sixteen, My Ding A Ling, Reelin’ and Rockin‘, and Johnny B. Goode.

Chuck Berry and Bruce Springsteen playing their guitars like they're ringing a bell. Sound check September 1995

Chuck Berry and Bruce Springsteen playing their guitars like they’re ringing a bell. Sound check September 1995

In 1995, Bruce Springsteen was asked by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to have a significant role during their museum dedication celebration held at Cleveland Brown Stadium. Springsteen reformed the E Street Band which had been disbanded in 1989, for a short time, and once again they were the backing band for Chuck Berry as well as Jerry Lee Lewis.

There stood a ‘colored’ boy named Johnny B Goode

The recordings Chuck Berry did at Chess Records in Chicago in the 1950s and 60s, mainly with  the backing of Johnny Johnson on piano, Willie Dixon on bass and Fred Below on drums, have inspired countless musicians the world over including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and of course, Bruce Springsteen. Berry’s influence on Springsteen has been evident throughout Springsteen’s career including lyrics, guitar rhythms and stylings, similar song titles, and  Berry references in his live performances including the classic Growin Up’ outro  ‘And it was bye-bye New Jersey, we were airborne.’ During a 1972 interview with rock journalist Paul Nelson, Springsteen was asked what inspires him musically, “Eddie Floyd’s arrangement of Raise Your Hand, Bob Dylan’s Highway 61, and Chuck Berry. I saw him the other night at a show. He was to the 50s what Dylan was to the 60s. He just laid it down so much…just incredible.”

In 1975, after 18 grueling months of recording the Born To Run album, Springsteen was very ambivalent about the music and releasing the album. He even threatened to scrap the whole project and just release a live album of material recorded at the Bottom Line. According to Dave Marsh,  a very concerned Jon Landau talked to Springsteen and said, “Look,” he told him, “You’re not supposed to like it. You think Chuck Berry sits around listening to ‘Maybellene’? And when he does hear it, don’t you think the wishes a few things could be changed? Now come on, it’s time to put the record out.’ It was an argument Springsteen could understand, and he accepted it. So it was over. The monster was tamed at last.” The key to that paragraph is “it was an argument Springsteen could understand.” Landau knew how deep Springsteen’s love and admiration of Chuck Berry’s music ran, and by using Berry’s name and song, he was putting the argument in terms near and dear to the young artist’s heart. And we as the audience are all the better for that discussion.

Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born on October 18, 1926 in St. Louis, Missouri and lived in a segregated, middle-class neighborhood called the Ville. Berry learned a love for music at an early age from his parents who sang at home and at church. Berry started playing the guitar in his early teens and was greatly influenced by the pop music vocal styling of Nat King Cole, the blues of Muddy Waters and T Bone Walker, the swing of Tommy Dorsey, the jazz of Louis Jordan and the country and western of Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys. After Chuck Berry joined a trio at a small club in St.Louis which included boogie woogie pianist Johnnie Johnson, Berry combined all the various styles of music he enjoyed into a new sound which became one of the cornerstones of rock and roll music. Berry developed his signature guitar sound using all of his influences, forming a new distinctive sound including his trademark double string licks.

In Hail! Hail!, Keith Richards explained the Chuck Berry sound’s relation to Johnnie Johnson’s piano, “Chuck adapted his guitar riffs and keys from Johnnie Johnson’s piano keys, not Johnnie playing around Chuck’s keys. Guitar keys are played in A, E, D using open strings, and if you listen to the music, it uses piano keys, jazz keys, horn keys, Johnnie  Johnson keys. Chuck adapted his guitar around Johnnie’s sound and put those great lyrics behind them.”

According to Berry himself, he derived his sound from blending together all of his influences up to that point and making it his own. “So the guitar styles of Carl Hogen, T-Bone Walker, Charlie Christian, and Elmore James, not to leave out many of my peers who I’ve heard on the road, must be the total of what is called Chuck Berry’s style. So far as the Chuck Berry  guitar intro that identifies many of my songs, it is only back to the future of what came in the past. As you know and as I believe it must be true, there is nothing new under the sun. So don’t blame me for being first , just let it last. The nature and backbone of my beat is boogie and the muscle of my music is melodies that are simple. Call it what you may: jive, jazz, jump, swing, soul, rhythm, rock or even punk, it’s still boogie as far as I am connected with it.”

That guitar sound and Berry like storytelling can easily be heard in Springsteen’s From Small Things(Big Things One Day Come) recorded in 1979.

Bye Bye Johnny/Johnny Bye Bye

In Dave Marsh’s excellent, The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1,001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, he places Johnny B. Goode second best of all time, only behind Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through the Grapevine, and he writes,“Buried deep in the collective unconscious of rock and roll, there’s a simple figure drawn from real life: One man, one guitar, singing the blues. But he’s not any man. He’s black, Southern, poor and (this is the part that’s easiest to miss) dreaming. In many ways, his story is terrible and terrifying. We’re speaking after all of someone like Robert Johnson, by all evidence as sensitive and perceptive as, say, F.Scottt Fitzgerald, but rather than pursuing lissome Zeldas through Alabama mansions, he’s enduring the pitiless reality of sharecropping, segregation, the threat of lynching, and all but inescapable twentieth century serfdom in Mississippi.”

“Chuck Berry’s genius lay in his ability to shape those gruesome facts into a story about joy and freedom. Not that he didn’t have to make concessions to the reality he was subverting. He says in his autobiography that he wanted to sing, “There lived a colored boy named Johnny B Goode,” rather than the “country boy” we now have, but, “I thought it would seem biased to the white fans.” Especially no doubt those white listeners who programmed the radio stations that would determine whether the record became a hit or was not heard at all.”

“Already a star, Chuck Berry was on intimate terms with the pop game and the limits it imposed on famous men with black skin. Standing at the edge of the rules, Berry shot himself right past one crucial dilemma of American culture into the center of another. By changing “colored” to country, he found that, instead of speaking for himself alone, he’d created a  character who also symbolized the likes of Elvis Presley, another kid whose mama promised that “someday your name will be in lights.” Horrible as the source of the compromise may have been, its effect was to treble the song’s force. For ultimately, if you could identify with either Berry or Presley, there was a chance you could identify with both. The result is history- and not just pop music history.” DM

The correlation between Presley and Berry is an important one given their placement in the firmament of rock and roll and its’ development. Both artists combined all of their influences into a new sound, both equally great, but equally different and containing slightly divergent genres. Throughout his career, Elvis Presley loved to play the music of Chuck Berry, both on stage and in the studio. I recently stumbled across a release of live audio taken from Presley’s performances during his brief but important tenure on the Louisiana Hayride radio program from 1955-1956 which contains several versions of Presley playing Berry’s first hit, Maybellene. In the 1960s, amidst the dearth of movie music, Presley recorded great versions of Berry’s Memphis, Tennessee and Too Much Monkey Business. In later years, Johnny B. Goode was a Presley concert staple and in 1973, Presley recorded Berry’s Promised Land, as Presley may have seen a lot of his own life story in the lyrics of a poor southern boy who makes good and sees his name in neon lights. Berry wrote the sequel of Johnny B. Goode, entitled Bye Bye Johnny in which a tearful mother “pulls her money from the southern trust and put her little boy on the Greyhound bus to make motion pictures out in Hollywood.”

Unwittingly, Berry had written the lyrics that Presley had lived out in his own life with this: “She remembered taking money out from gathering crop/And buying Johnny’s guitar at the broker shop/As long as he would play it by the railroad side/And wouldn’t get in trouble, he was satisfied.” Given the level of Presley’s poverty, not many people would know at that time, but those four lines sum up the first 20 years of Presley’s life. Gladys had indeed worked in the cotton fields around Tupelo, Mississippi while pulling a very young Elvis down the rows on her cotton sack. She then used the little money the family had saved to help Presley buy his first guitar on his 11th birthday. And, the Presleys lived along the railroad tracks in the Shakerag neighborhood of East Tupelo, the poor side of the tracks amongst the African-American section of the town.

After Presley died in 1977, Springsteen, a devoted fan of both artists, chose to write his elegy for Presley and reversed Berry’s title and borrowed the first two lines of Berry’s song to open his farewell. For this, Berry is given co-writing credits on the studio release.You can also hear the basic Chuck Berry guitar rhythm which accompanies the lyrics.  Below are Berry’s Bye Bye Johnny and Springsteen’s Johnny Bye Bye.

 

No Money Down/Cadillac Ranch

While learning his musical craft playing in clubs at night, Chuck Berry had many jobs including carpentry, which he learned from his father, a beautician, and he also worked on the assembly line at the local General Motors plant producing,……you guessed it, Cadillacs, the trademark vehicle in so many of his classic songs. In his lyrics, many of Berry’s characters obtained freedom by either buying a car, cruising the highways, or getting friendly with their loved ones in a Cadillac. To Berry, in his own life and in those early songs, the Cadillac represented elegance, grace, social currency, and freedom: personal, racial, and, sexual. In Berry’s autobiography, he writes, “Cars were dear to me and provided luxuries far greater than any others. It wasn’t so much travelling that motivated me to better cars, it was the quality of settling down I anticipated. With the restrictions we had at home, it was imperative to have a place to base for face-to-face. In your car, you could enjoy any sort of spectacular performance without the likelihood of a heckler or someone crossing the stage during the climax of your show.” Berry’s use of the cars for escaping seem to have rubbed on Springsteen who often times used cars as central characters in many of his early songs including Born To Run, Thunder Road and Racing In the Street. During The River tour, Springsteen often used a small portion of Berry’s No Money Down as an introduction to Cadillac Ranch, purposefully demonstrating the influence of Chuck Berry on  his own work.

Down Bound Train

In 1955,one of Berry’s early recordings at Chess Records was entitled Down Bound Train which had an overall eerie, ethereal atmosphere and contains imagery of a train loaded with life’s losers, those who’ve squandered their lives, and are travelling on a ghost train bound for hell. In Berry’s song, there is a dream sequence embedded in the lyrics in which a drunk falls down on a barroom floor, has nightmares of going to hell but then awakens to a new life after praying for forgiveness. In Berry’s autobiography, he writes on the writing of the song, “It surely was cultivated from my background of religious teachings. It took little to bring the thoughts of a sinner worrying over his destiny and coordinate the circumstance in a dramatic display of contrast to the average person’s life-style. I could say my father, in many ways, really wrote the foundation for Down Bound Train in his constant preaching of the horrors of hell once you’ve missed the blessings of salvation and heaven.”

Springsteen probably would’ve first encountered Berry’s version on Chuck Berry’s Golden Decade, Vol. 3 and the connection seems clear. In Springsteen’s version, which also has a dark, ghostly foreboding background and a dream sequence, his down bound train is reserved not so much for those whose life choices have them hell bound, but those for whom life’s circumstances are hell-like already and whose struggles already feel hopeless. Listen for yourself and see what you think.

Let It Rock/The Big Payback

Chuck Berry’s influence on the work of Bruce Springsteen appears to have reached its zenith during the period between Darkness On The Edge of Town and Nebraska. Berry’s songs were cover staples during live concerts of that period, many songs such as You Can Look But You Better Not Touch have that distinct Chuck Berry drive and guitar rhythm, and song titles such as I’m A Rocker appear to be Berry inspirations. On another interesting connection between Springsteen, Berry and the Nebraska album, according to my friend Shawn Poole, in a 1986 interview with Backstreets magazine, Nebraska album cover designer Andrea Klein revealed that the album Two Great Guitars, by Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, was a key reference for the look that Bruce wanted for the Nebraska cover’s design and lettering. The Nebraska cover photo selected by Klein and Springsteen was taken by photographer David Michael Kennedy during the mid-1970s. It shares the Berry/Diddley album-cover’s perspective of a view from behind the windshield of a car.

Bo Didley/Chuck Berry Two Great Guitars album cover

Bo Didley/Chuck Berry Two Great Guitars album cover

You Can’t Catch Me/Open All Night/State Trooper

Another artist Chuck Berry inspired was John Lennon who once said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry. In the 1950s, a whole generation worshipped his music and when you see him today, past and present all come together, and the message is Hail! Hail! rock and roll! Right on!” Some of the Beatles first albums included cover versions of Berry classic like Roll Over Beethoven and Rock and Roll Music. In one of the few instances where Lennon quoted another writer into his own song, The Beatles Come Together features the classic opening  line “Here come old flat top/He come grooving up slowly” which is a reference to Berry’s You Can’t Catch Me. That “flat top” Berry refers to is a state highway trooper driving up the New Jersey turnpike in the rain, in the wee wee hours to pull over his brand new Cadillac Coup DeVille. Springsteen’s State Trooper is that very same patrolman who the driver pleads with, please don’t stop me because I got to get back to see my baby. In Open All Night, Springsteen’s driver, driving through the “wee wee hours when his mind gets hazy” calls out for help, “Hey Mr. Deejay, wontcha’ listen to my last prayer, hey ho rock and roll deliver me from nowhere.” In this, I hear distinct echoes of Berry’s deejay from Roll Over Beethoven when he writes “I’m gonna write a letter and mail it my local deejay/An’ it’s a jumping little record I want my jockey to play.” Neither highway driver wants to hear classical music or talk shows, they want some hard-driving rock and roll to propel them through the night.

As an interesting side note, it was recently reported that the space probe Voyager 1, first launched in 1977 and meant to try to communicate with other life forms out in deep space, has left our solar system for interstellar space. The Voyager probe was given a “Golden Record,” a phonograph of words and images meant to tell aliens of existence here on earth, should the probes be found. Classical music melds with sounds of nature and a series of hellos in various languages on the disc. Also, included in the music selections? “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry. So right now, there is a space probe drifting through the dark recesses of space, and Berry’s classic song maybe bouncing off a very distant satellite and broadcasting to Radio Nowhere.

Nadine/Pink Cadillac

Chuck Berry was the original rock and roll troubadour, one of the few early rockers to write his own lyrics and songs. On Berry’s writing style and genius, John Lennon stated, “I don’t think there’s any one band in the world, white or black, that wasn’t turned on by Chuck Berry. Not one of us, The Beatles, The Stones, you name any of them and they’ve all been inspired by him. His lyrics were very intelligent lyrics in the 50s when most people were singing about virtually nothing. He was writing social commentary songs. He was writing all kinds of songs with incredible metre to the lyrics which influenced me and Dylan and many others. The meter of his lyrics was tremendous. He’s the greatest rock and roll poet and I really admire him.”

After being asked how Chuck Berry’s work affected him, Springsteen said, “Like most musicians of my generation, I first heard Chuck Berry through the Rolling Stones. I think I learned my first Chuck Berry lead from Keith Richards and that first Rolling Stones record where they had Carol and a few other Chuck Berry songs, and from them I went back and got his records. I guess the funny thing is his influence on my own writing came later on when I wanted to write the way I thought people really talked because that’s how I felt like he writes. If you listen to one of his songs, it sounds like someone is coming in, sitting down in a chair and telling you a story about their aunt or their brother or some girl…the descriptiveness…and his eye for detail. Like on Nadine, ‘I saw her on the corner and she turned and doubled back/started walkin’ towards a coffee-colored Cadillac.’ It was like, I’ve never seen a coffee-colored Cadillac, but now I know exactly what one looks like!!” Given Berry’s propensity to use sexual innuendo in his lyrics which I will get further into later, I can’t help but think Berry could have been using the term coffee-colored Cadillac to refer to a certain part of his anatomy. And on the other side, Springsteen is echoing that with his own “pink Cadillac”, especially given the open sexual references in his own song. Hey, that’s the beauty of art, it’s open to our individual interpretation. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

I’m A Rocker/I’m Going Down

When Chuck Berry first began writing songs in the 50s, he often used subversive, coded lyrics to express himself regarding race, sex and politics. In the excellent book, Deliberate Speed, by WT Lhamon, the author makes a convincing argument that The Promised Land, written while Berry was serving a prison sentence for violating the racist Mann Act, Berry is writing about the Civil Rights Movement by using places like Rockhill, South Carolina and Birmingham, Alabama, of being 90 miles outside of Atlanta by sundown and getting through Mississippi clean. When you hear lyrics like “Can you imagine the way I felt, I couldn’t unfasten her safety belt” and, “She says she don’t, but I know she do” from No Particular Place To Go and Little Queenie, you might get the idea that there is some sexual tension boiling under the surface. Many of Berry’s songs had sexually charged titles such as Too Pooped To Pop, It Don’t Take But a Few Minutes, Let Me Sleep Woman and I Want To Be Your Driver. Berry has admitted that the phrase “drop the coin right into the slot” from School Days was as close as he could get to openly talking about sex at the time. Berry’s version of the old standard South of the Border has his character shoot a travelling salesman for playing with his wife south of her border between his Rio Grande and his Santa Fe. In 1970, Berry released his song, I’m A Rocker which contains the line, “I’m a rocker/I’m A Roller/ Sometimes I Go Down/But then I come back up and roll her.” While possibly not a direct relation to Springsteen’s I’m A Rocker from The River, given all the other Berry influences, I can’t help seeing a connection between Berry’s I’m A Rocker and Springsteen’s  I’m Going Down. During a concert in 2008, Springsteen said of his version, “This is a song that almost didn’t make the Born In The USA record. It was either this or Pink Cadillac. We’ve played it a few times. It’s good for a laugh and probably one of my most insightful songs about men and women.” Below is a link to the audio from Berry’s I’m A Rocker from his 1970 album Back Home and Springsteen’s I’m Going Down.

 Hail! Hail Rock and Roll, Hail! Hail! Chuck Berry

As most fans of Springsteen have heard or read over the years, then rock critic Jon Landau famously wrote of seeing Springsteen live in concert in 1974, “…. tonight there is someone I can write of the way I used to write, without reservations of any kind. Last Thursday, at the Harvard Square theatre, I saw my rock’n’roll past flash before my eyes. And I saw something else: I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time.” My own interpretation of that statement is that Landau didn’t believe Springsteen’s music was simply a retro soul, rock and roll sound but that he was taking his musical influences, ie Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Phil Spector’s sounds, The Crystals and Shirelles, Dylan, and forming his own distinct sound and art. Springsteen didn’t reinvent rock and roll, but he did make his own stamp and develop his own signature style just as his hero Chuck Berry did back in the 1950s by blending jazz, swing, blues and country and western into his own. Just as you can listen to any Chuck Berry song and say, that’s the “Chuck Berry” sound, you can listen to a Bruce Springsteen song and say, ‘now that’s the ‘Bruce Springsteen sound’.

On August 21, 1978, Springsteen and the E Street Band played in New York at Madison Square Garden. On that night, as on many shows on the same Darkness tour, Springsteen played several retro selections like Summertime Blues, Heartbreak Hotel, Not Fade Away/ Mona/She’s The One and Berry’s Sweet Little Sixteen. To gain a full understanding of how Springsteen developed his own sound, you can listen to that night’s version of his classic, Growin’ Up. His composition has echoes of many of his influences, but none more so than Berry. In the middle of his ‘teenage werewolf shaggy dog story’ during the middle of the song, he tells a story of being chased out of Asbury Park by the police and driving down the New Jersey turnpike and quotes lyrics from Maybellene before doing his standard outro of that time, “And it was bye bye New Jersey, we were airborne.” Just as Springsteen was growing up as a person, he was also growing up in his musical artistry as, literally and figuratively, he said good bye to his home, both geographically and musically. Darkness was the album where he began to expand his songs, lyrics, stories and characters beyond the boardwalk into a more meaningful, national and even international spectrum. Listen below.

Chuck Berry is still out on the road performing his music for the fans, 60 years after he began. Earlier this year, Berry played concerts in the South American countries of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile. This month, he will again travel overseas and play shows in Russia, Italy, Finland and Norway. But then he’ll be back in the USA after touching down on an international runway. Unless he is out of the country, Berry plays every second Wednesday of the month at a wonderful, small restaurant and performance venue called Blueberry Hill, set in the heart of a funky neighborhood called University City in St.Louis. Currently, he is scheduled to play November 13 and December 11, so if you are in the area or want to see a true living legend in action, go to blueberryhill.com for more information.

Even though Chuck Berry turns 87 years old this week, he is still out playing the rock and roll songs that inspired thousands of artists around the world including a young Bruce Springsteen. It’s good to know that the heart of rock and roll is still beating and it’s got a back beat you can’t lose it, any old time you use it, and it’s got to be rock and roll music if you want to dance with me. I think I know what John Lennon was onto when he suggested if you need to come up with another name for rock and roll you could call it Chuck Berry because when you a hear a Chuck Berry song with that back beat and driving guitar rhythm, it gets into your body and makes you feel good, and makes you want to get up and dance in the aisles, and it makes you feel like it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive. Happy birthday, Chuck, and thanks for the all the artistry, music and joy you have brought to all of us. I hope you have many more years, you beautiful, hard rockin’, guitar playin’, Cadillac drivin’, song writin’, highway cruisin’, booty shakin’, motorvatin’, space travelin’, musician inspirin’,  duck walkin’, legendary, hard-core, rock and roll genius. Hail Hail!!! Rock and roll. Hail! Hail! Chuck Berry!!!!

Chuck Berry and Bruce Springsteen perform Johnny B Goode, September 2, 1995, Cleveland, Ohio

Chuck Berry and Bruce Springsteen perform Johnny B Goode, September 2, 1995, Cleveland, Ohio

Top Bruce Springsteen covers of Chuck Berry

#3 Little Queenie(Are You Loose? Bomb Scare version), 10/02/75, Uptown Theater, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

#2 Sweet Little Sixteen, Largo, Maryland 1978

#1 Back In The USA, Main Point, Bryn Mawr, Pa 2/2/75

Sources, notes, odds and ends, brushes with greatness

Chuck playing ByeBye Johnny and Johnny Be Goode 1972

Chuck Berry on race and music

“Over half the songs I was singing at the Cosmo Club were directly from the recordings of Nat King Cole and Muddy Waters. They are the major chords in the staff of music I have composed. Listening to my idol Nat Cole prompted me to sing sentimental songs with distinct diction. The songs of Muddy Waters impelled me to deliver the down home blues in the language they came from, Negro dialect. When I played hillbilly songs, I stressed diction so that it was harder and whiter. All in all it was my intention to hold both the black and the white clientele by voicing the different kinds of songs in their customary tongues.” P. 90-91 autobiography.

“It seems to me that the white teenagers of the forties and fifties helped launch black artists nationally into the main line of popular music. Some of these songs caused parents and radio authorities to declare they were unsuitable listening and initiate record-breaking sessions on their programs. But still, the doctors, lawyers, and police chiefs of today, who then were teens, bent an ear to a totally different music and decided to delight in what was destined to become known as rock and roll.” P. 95 autobiography

Memphis, Tennessee: According to Craig Statham, in a monologue from a performance at Joe’s Place in Cambridge, Ma 1/6/74, Springsteen talked of his early love of Chuck Berry’s music. His mother famously gave him his first electric guitar in 1964, a barely tunable $69 sunburst Kent complete with a two-input ZoCo amplifier. Bruce and his friends loaded their guitars through the input jacks and started blasting out Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee”, blowing up the amplifier within a few days.

Joe Perry on Berry’s writing genius: “As a songwriter, Chuck Berry is like the Ernest Hemingway of rock & roll. He gets right to the point. He tells a story in short sentences. You get a great picture in your mind of what’s going on, in a very short amount of space, in well-picked words. He was also very smart: He knew that if he was going to break into the mainstream, he had to appeal to white teenagers. Which he did. Everything in those songs is about teenagers. I think he knew he could have had his own success on the R&B charts, but he wanted to get out of there and go big time.”

8.21.78 NY MSG show: Springsteen plays Sweet Little Sixteen, and on Growin’ Up, quotes lyrics from Maybellene in the middle of his rap and then ends with the standard “it was bye bye new jersey we were airborne” which is a reference from Berry’s You Can’t Me. During Rosalita, he adds lyrics in the middle of the song with “I’m almost grown/I got my picture on the cover of the Rolling Stone” which is referencing the then current issue of RS which featured Dave Marsh’s essay.

Steve Jordan, drummer during  Hail! Hail! and sometime Springsteen session drummer, explains how Chuck’s guitar progression, Johnson’s piano chords and the drum beat is definition of R&R: “Chuck Berry and Johnny Johnson, that’s the real push and pull of the sound. Rock and roll is all based on straight eigth notes against dotted quarters and dotted eigths. So the swing thing was perfectly illustrated with Earl Palmer and Little Richard. Rock is the straight eights and the roll is dotted eigths. And that’s what Chuck and Johnny had.”

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Robert Lee Hilligoss doing his best duckwalk along with Johnny B Goode, University City, St.Louis, Mo

Kevin Lee Hilligoss playing the guitar like he's ringing a bell, University City, St.Louis, Mo

Kevin Lee Hilligoss playing the guitar like he’s ringing a bell, University City, St.Louis, Mo

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?

That’s All Right Mama, I’ll Get The Guitar: Elvis Presley’s Tupelo, Mississippi

By Ryan Hilligoss, January 2013

Very Humble Beginnings: From Small Things Mama, Big Things One Day Come

Born To Rock,The Alpha and the Omega. Little E in overalls and EP aviator shades,

The Alpha and the Omega. Little E in overalls and EP aviator shades

“A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.” Oscar Wilde

Old Saltillo Road, Tupelo, Ms

Old Saltillo Road, Tupelo, Ms. Painting in Presley Birthplace and Museum

“All my life, I’ve always had a pretty nice time. We didn’t have any money or nothing, but we always managed. We never had any luxuries but we never went hungry.” Elvis Presley, 1956 when asked if he had a happy time as a kid.

‘Leavin’ Tupelo With a Guitar In His Hand, With a One Way Ticket To The Promised Land’

Statue of Elvis Presley, age 13. Elvis Presley birthplace site and museum, Tupelo, Ms

Statue of Elvis Presley, age 13. Elvis Presley birthplace site and museum, Tupelo, Ms

 

In the 1930’s, Tupelo, Mississippi was a small, bustling manufacturing and commerce trading center in the northern part of the state which drew people from the countryside with the promise of a better life. Two of those people were Vernon Presley and Gladys Smith. While they had hoped that by working in Tupelo they would earn a decent living, they quickly learned a decent life could hang in the balance by a few dollars.  The couple met in early 1933, dated for a short time and then eloped in June of that year. With very little money between them, Vernon had to borrow the $3 to obtain their marriage license. Learning that Gladys was pregnant in 1934, Vernon borrowed $180 to buy the needed materials to build a small home for his wife and newborn. The couple built their humble home in East Tupelo on Old Saltillo Road, considered by many locals to be “the other side of the tracks.”

Elvis Presley Birthplace, Tupelo, Ms

Elvis Presley Birthplace, Tupelo, Ms

In the early morning of January 8th, 1935, Gladys Presley gave birth to a still-born son whom they had named Jessie Garon. While Vernon sent off for the local doctor, the presiding midwife determined there was another baby still to come, another boy, and his parents named him Elvis Aron(Presley later had his middle name changed to the proper biblical spelling of Aaron.) Both parents were distraught over the death of the first-born, but felt something special had occurred with the birth of Elvis. According to biographer Pat Broeske in the incredible documentary, Elvis: Return To Tupelo, “On that morning, Vernon stated when he watched the sun come up that day, he saw a blue streak in the sky. And Gladys swore she saw rings around the moon and believed something special would come of her son and told Elvis this time and again when he was a boy.” After years of reading about Elvis, his life and music, I and my good friends Shawn Poole and Dawn Leinberger, traveled to Tupelo and saw the small house from which big things one day came.

Vernon and Gladys Presley's bedroom/family room

Vernon and Gladys Presley’s bedroom/family room

The Elvis Presley Birthplace and Museum consists of the home, the Assembly of God Church the Presleys attended at the time, the Elvis Presley Memorial Chapel, and a museum among other items. The house itself measures roughly 15 feet wide by 30 feet long, without the front porch included, and has only two rooms consisting of a bedroom/family room and a kitchen/dining room. The house now rests in the same location it did in 1935, while the other surrounding houses were demolished over time. Just like many similar houses of the time, it is referred to as a shotgun shack because of the fact that the front and rear doors are directly in line with each other and with such a short distance between the two, it is said you could open the front door, shoot a shotgun through the house and out the back door before the shot spread enough to damage the insides of the home.

Kitchen and dining room

Kitchen and dining room

Bedroom and family room

Bedroom and family room

Guy Harris, a boyhood friend of Elvis’, states, “Vernon worked at a wholesale grocery warehouse and Gladys worked as a seamstress at the Tupelo Garment Co and each earned $2.50 a week for a 40 hour week.” Vernon and Gladys both struggled to maintain steady employment given the fact they were living through the Great Depression. Broeske states, “Gladys worked in a laundry, factory and picked cotton. Gladys took Elvis with her into the cotton fields which was normal at the time and pulled him along on her cotton sack. So, at an early age, little Elvis heard the field songs of the other workers, some blues, some gospel and some African, and absorbed it into his musical DNA.”

The Walk of Life, Elvis Presley Birthplace, Tupelo, Ms

The Walk of Life, Elvis Presley Birthplace, Tupelo, Ms

Outside the house is a concrete circle called the Walk of Life which contains granite blocks denoting key events that took place during Elvis life in Tupelo from 1935 until the family left in 1948 and are listed below verbatim:

– 1935- Birth of Elvis Aron and death of Jessie Garon

-1936- Family and house survive the great Tupelo tornado

-1937- Family began attending the First Assembly of God Church

-1938- Family receives commodities while Vernon was in prison

-1939- Home and car repossessed, Vernon released from prison

-1940- Family listened to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio powered by car battery

-1941- Elvis entered first grade at East Tupelo consolidated school

-1942- Family spent a lot of time apart due to Vernon’s work

-1943- Family reported income of $1,232.88 and paid $12.56 income tax

-1944- Elvis began singing “Specials” in church

-1945- Elvis sang Old Shep at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show

-1946- Elvis received a guitar for his 11th birthday

-1947- Elvis began listening to black gospel music

-1948- Family moved to Memphis seeking a better living

Elvis with Vernon and Gladys Presley, 1937

Elvis with Vernon and Gladys Presley, 1937

1938 brought heartache to the little Presley family, and according to many, caused mother and son to form an unusually tight bond that may have led to many events of the future. In that year, Vernon Presley and two friends sold a hog to Orville Beane, Vernon and Gladys’ landlord. Beane gave a check to the three men in the amount of $4 which he thought was a fair price. Feeling cheated, the three men decided to change the check to $40. Beane found out, had the men prosecuted for forgery and all were sentenced to three years of prison at the infamous Parchman state penitentiary. The governor of Mississippi described it at the time as a very efficient, well-run slave plantation. Almost every weekend, Gladys and three-year old Elvis would ride the bus for 5 hours to visit Vernon on his day off.

According to their neighbors at the time, Elvis took on an almost paternalistic role and called Gladys little baby and would say, “Does my little baby need anything?”, despite the fact he himself was only three at the time. Due to Vernon’s absence, Gladys couldn’t keep up with the house payments and Orville Beane repossessed the house and their car, forcing the family to move many times during their stay in Tupelo. Gladys worked tirelessly writing petitions and obtaining signatures from neighbors and eventually the governor pardoned Vernon in early 1939. During WWII, Vernon traveled to Memphis to work in a munitions factory while Gladys and Elvis stayed behind in the Shakerag section of Tupelo, one of two historic black districts.

I’m Gonna Lay Down My Burden, Down By The Riverside

Assembly of God Church, Tupelo, Ms

Assembly of God Church, Tupelo, Ms

Assembly of God Church placard, Elvis Presley Birthplace, Tupelo, Ms

Assembly of God Church placard, Elvis Presley Birthplace, Tupelo, Ms

A short walk from the house, sits the first church Elvis and his family attended, the Assembly of God Church. Originally situated one block away, the building itself has been moved several times and even was converted into a two bedroom residence for a time before being moved to its current location. According to one of the guides, the family who owned it was very reluctant to lose ownership of it but eventually donated it to the site for historical purposes. The Assembly of God Church was founded in 1914 in Hot Springs, Arkansas by white ministers in the African-American Pentecostal church. Based on the Jewish holiday of Pentecost, members and ministers believed in “Baptism in the Holy Spirit.” During services, members were often moved by ‘the spirit’ to sing, dance and sometimes talk in tongues. Brother Frank Smith, the minster at the time, had a guiding hand in the development of Elvis Presley’s musical career by first allowing him to sing with the choir starting at age four and then teaching him the basic guitar chords of G, C, and D as well as how to play Old Shep.

Assembly of God Church, interior view, Tupelo, Ms

Assembly of God Church, interior view, Tupelo, Ms

The inside is very simplistic with six rows, two pews per row. It probably sat 50-60 comfortably during services. At the front is a basic altar with a bench in front for the choir to rest and a piano in the corner. Seeing the house itself was humbling enough, but to sit in the church that the Presley family attended and in which little Elvis Presley first began to develop his musical skills was altogether a different experience that raised goosebumps on my skin due to the efforts of the museum staff. Every 30 minutes, you can view a filmed recreation of a typical 1940s era service that was  in the building itself. As you sit in the pews, with a screen in front of you and screens on either side, you feel like you have been transported back in time and are sitting amongst the congregation as you watch Brother Frank Smith testify, sing and preach in front of you with members to either side. During the service, Brother Frank, played ironically enough by an actor named Memphis Jones, breaks into song several times and brings up young Elvis to sing. Having listened to Presley recordings for much of my life and having heard him sing gospel songs time after time, it was a moving, cosmic spiritual event. Like peeking through a keyhole in time, you can see young Elvis sing along on gospel songs like Just A Little Talk With Jesus, On The Jericho Road, I, John and most movingly, Down By The Riverside, songs that he would sing thousands of times over with friends, family and musicians, songs that formed the core of who he was.

Assembly of God Church, interior shot of altar and piano, Tupelo, Ms

Assembly of God Church, interior shot of altar and piano, Tupelo, Ms

It was also there in Tupelo that Elvis was exposed to  and absorbed the musical styles that would soon form the basis of rock and roll.  He heard the blues while living in the black Shakerag section of town. He snuck over to house parties on Saturday night and watched African-Americans sing and dance to rhythm and blues. He and the family listened to the Grand Ole Opry on the battery operated radio every Saturday night. And, while living in a mixed neighborhood on Green Street, Elvis befriended Sam Bell, an African-American. Speaking in the documentary, Bell says “There wasn’t no black and white thing doing, it was just us boys being boys.” As a boy, Elvis would go with Sam to tent revivals at the black Sanctified church in town. “He wouldn’t stay out of there, he’d be singing all the time. They welcomed him in and once the invitation was extended, he’d get right in the middle of everything. Man, we thought he was fanatical ’cause he liked to go so much. He’d say man, we got to get down to the sanctified church.” Finally, according Gordon Stoker, member of Elvis’s long time backing vocal group The Jordanaires, “Elvis loved black singers and thought God had made a mistake when he was born. He’d say ‘The Lord messed up on me twice. He didn’t make me black and he didn’t make me a bass singer.”

Tupelo Hardware Co: The Jump Start of Rock and Roll

Tupelo Hardware Co, Tupelo, Ms

Tupelo Hardware Co, Tupelo, Ms. Photo by Shawn Poole

For Elvis’ 11th birthday, Elvis and Gladys went to the Tupelo Hardware Co to buy a birthday present using money he had earned running errands for his family and neighbors. Being a young, country boy, Elvis had his heart set on a rifle. According to store employee and Presley raconteur Howard Hite, young Elvis and his mom walked through the front door of the store, strode by the rack of bikes and walked up to the display case with his eye on the rifles on the wall. According to Hite, the salesman that day, Mr. Forrest Bobo, let Elvis hold a rifle for a few minutes, but Gladys wanted Elvis to try something else and said no which caused the young boy to begin crying and carrying on. Bobo then handed Elvis a guitar, $7.75 plus tax, and said, “Why don’t you try this Elvis?” Elvis then played the guitar for a few minutes and Gladys said, “Elvis if you want the guitar, I’ll pay for the difference.” And Elvis responded, “Ok. Ok mama, I’ll get the guitar.” Hite jokingly said he wished Elvis had said, “That’s All Right Mama, I’ll get the guitar.” So in that single moment of time, Elvis and his family’s fate changed with a birthday wish, and an x on the floor marks the spot.

X marks the spot. Location where Elvis stood in Tupelo Hardware Co the day Gladys bought him his first guitar

X marks the spot. Location where Elvis stood in Tupelo Hardware Co the day Gladys bought him his first guitar. Photo by Shawn Poole

That moment was eerily echoed many years later in Freehold, New Jersey, when Presley acolyte Bruce Springsteen asked his mother for an electric guitar for Christmas. The Springsteen family often times was in financial straits, but Adele Springsteen saw the hope and desire in her young son’s eyes and bought a simple electric Kent for young Bruce who took that guitar and ‘learned how to make her talk.’ Gladys Presley’s decision that day speaks power to the love between a mother and her son. And that decision by a financially strapped young mother, made in a small storefront in a small southern town revolutionized the world.

Hite states, “I like to say the Presley house in Tupelo is the cradle of rock and roll, but the Tupelo Hardware Co was the jump-start of rock and roll.” According to Hite, the store gets visitors from all over the world on a daily basis who want to see the spot where Elvis stood. His favorite visitors include:

– Prince Albert II of Monaco- The Prince is apparently a serious Presley fan and travelled to Memphis to see Graceland and other sites, then went to Tupelo to the birthplace and walked into the store, looked around and said, “I’ve now seen it all. This is the end of my pilgrimage.”

Edison Pena, Chilean miner – One of the miners who was trapped below ground for months in 2010. Pena came to the United States to run in the New York City Marathon. Afterwards, he was asked by his guides if there was anywhere in America he wanted to go, and Pena, being a huge Presley fan, immediately said Graceland. He was shown all the sites on the Presley tour and upon coming into the hardware store said, “I want to live here, this feels like home.” You can see some of Edison’s appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman in a link below including a totally improvised performance of Suspicious Minds, with music supplied by Paul Schaffer and the Most Dangerous Band in Television, with an astounded Letterman looking on.

– Joe Perry-  Aerosmith played a concert in Tupelo, and on the way out of town, lead guitarist Perry spied the store and demanded the bus driver pull over so he could come into the store. The driver asked what the big deal was and Perry responded, “Hey man, this is where Big E bought his first guitar.” Perry bought a sunburst acoustic guitar from the store’s selection and a dozen tee shirts.

Tupelo Hardware Co, guitar town

Tupelo Hardware Co, guitar town. Photo by Shawn Poole

Below is Howard Hite recalling much of the above in more detail and in his very colorful delivery.

Epilogue: ‘Someday You Will be The Leader of a Big Old Band’

1939 Plymouth, replica of vehicle used by the Presleys to move from Tupelo to Memphis

1939 Plymouth, replica of vehicle used by the Presleys to move from Tupelo to Memphis. Photo by Shawn Poole

 

In 1948, Vernon decided it was time to give up on Tupelo and left once more in search of a better life in Memphis, Tennessee. The family packed what belongings they could into a borrowed 1939 Plymouth and headed north. Elvis attended and graduated from Humes High School and while driving a truck for Crown Electric, decided to stop into the Memphis recording Service, located at 706 Union Avenue to record a demo for $4 dollars. While Elvis presented himself to Marion Keisker, Sam Phillip’s secretary, as recording a birthday present for his mother, he most certainly knew that Phillips, as head of Sun Studios, was recording some of the finest music of the time including BB King, Jackie Breston’s Rocket 88(many claim this as being the first rock and roll song), Howlin Wolf, Rufus Thomas, and many more. On that day in 1953, Keisker asked Presley who he sounded like and Presley responded, “I don’t sound like nobody.” Which was only partially true, for he sounded like an incredible, electric, door busting amalgamation of a lot of people he had heard sing over his lifetime, going all the way back to Tupelo, Mississippi. He gave the music all he had because all he had was the music. As Jimmy Lafave sings in his great song Elvis Loved His Mama,  Elvis ‘left the streets of Tupelo for Memphis and made that yellow Sun glow.’ And he rose to incredible heights of fame and fortune, and all the rewards and dangers that came with it. He earned critical and financial acclaim, but, always going back to his roots, he gave it all away to friends, family, charities, and strangers. For a man who dreamed of a ‘better land where all my brothers walk hand in hand’, what else could a poor country boy from Tupelo do?

I’ll leave the last words to Elvis’ daughter Lisa Marie, “He was always giving. Sometimes he gave more than he kept for himself. He never forgot where he came from and what it was like to have nothing.”

Elvis Presley, Tupelo, Ms

Elvis Presley, Tupelo, Ms

Thanks for your time, thank ya very much

Thanks for your time, thank ya very much

More Pictures, Notes, Sources and Odds and Ends

Shawn Poole and Ryan Hilligoss and Little E, Tupelo, Ms

Shawn Poole and Ryan Hilligoss and Little E, Tupelo, Ms. Photo by Dawn Leinebarger

Pictures taken by Ryan Hilligoss, Shawn Poole and Dawn Leinberger

Elvis Presley Birthplace and Museum: http://www.elvispresleybirthplace.com/

In the Blessed Name of Elvis, Shawn Poole's Elvis spectacular article, Backstreets Magazine

In the Blessed Name of Elvis, Shawn Poole’s Elvis spectacular article, Backstreets Magazine, with contributions from Christopher Phillips and Paul Trimble

Elvis: Return to Tupelo, documentary. Written and produced by Michael Rose, narrated by Kris Kristofferson. A great film for any music fan and especially for any serious Elvis fan. Below is a link to their website.

Elvis: Return To Tupelo

Elvis Presley with Vernon and Gladys at Tupelo fairgrounds, 1956

Elvis Presley with Vernon and Gladys at Tupelo fairgrounds, 1956

Below you can hear Jimmy Lafave sing Elvis Loved His Mama and see some great pictures.

“At Sun Studio in Memphis, Elvis Presley called to life what would soon be known as rock and roll with a voice that bore strains of the Grand Ol’ Opry and Beale Street, of country and the blues. At that moment, he ensured-instinctively,unknowingly- that pop music would never again be as simple as black and white.” David Fricke, Rolling Stone

Guitar Man, here's one for my son, Graham Hilligoss

Guitar Man, here’s one for my son, Graham Hilligoss. Photo by Shawn Poole

James Brown. “I wasn’t just a fan, I was his brother. He said I was good and I said he was good; we never argued about that. Elvis was a hard worker, dedicated, and God loved him. Last time I saw him was at Graceland. We sang Old Blind Barnabus together, a gospel song. I love him and hope to see him in heaven. There’ll never be another like that soul brother.” Brown was one of the few entertainers allowed into Graceland for Elvis’ private funeral, held in the Music Room where Elvis and James had jammed on gospel songs in the past. Brown requested and was granted a few moments alone with Elvis’ casket and was overheard to say emphatically, time and again, “Why’d you do it Elvis?”

The Music Room, Graceland. The piano in back is the one Elvis and James Brown used on their jam session

Graceland’s Music Room decorated for Christmas. The piano in back is the one Elvis and James Brown used on their jam session

Edison Pena, Chilean Miner on Late Night with Letterman. Below is a clip of the interview Pena did with Letterman, and if you wait until the end, you’ll hear and see a little Suspicious Minds.

3 6 Mafia

In 1969, Elvis recorded several songs at the American Studios in Memphis with the help of producer Chips Moman. One of the songs recorded was In The Ghetto, which Elvis could empathize with much of the meaning of the song personally due to his own background. It became one of his first Top Ten hits in years. Years later, the song was used as the basis for the Memphis hip-hop group Three Six Mafia’s cover version of In The Ghetto with some new lyrics. Two members of the group have stated that they grew up in houses within a few miles of Graceland and their mothers used to listen to Elvis records when they were kids. Check it out for yourself below.

A Throne fit for a "King". Sun Studio mens room, Memphis, Tn

A Throne fit for a “King”. Sun Studio mens room, Memphis, Tn

Born in the Promised Land: When Politics and Rock and Roll Collide

By Ryan Hilligoss, September 2012

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

Elvis Presley with Richard Nixon at White House along with aides Sonny West and Jerry Schilling, December 21, 1970

Fitzgerald’s quote above first appeared in The Crack Up, a posthumous collection of the artist’s work a few years after his death in 1940. The quote is often used by writers in an attempt to justify or rationalize the thought process or philosophy of persons who seem to carry extremely discordant views with nary a concern or thought to the irony and unsound mental footwork needed to keep from toppling over from the weight of mental dishonesty. Fitzgerald probably was being ironic, as I think another of his lines from the same work better speaks to the heart of his thoughts on the matter: “Of course all life is a process of breaking down.”

A little known historical fact: during the height of the anti-communist McCarthy hearings in the early 1950’s, Senator Joseph McCarthy listed Woody Guthrie as one of his favorite singers despite the fact Guthrie was known to travel in circles populated with well-known communists. OK, you got me. I dreamed that scenario after recently reading an article on Republican Vice-President Paul Ryan‘s love of the music of Rage Against the Machine. In an article published in the New York Times (my conservative friends can insert proper shudder here) on August 13, 2012, Ryan is described as follows: ” Yet even if he is viewed as politically pure by the modern-day standards of his party’s base, he is not without contradictions. The nation’s first Generation X vice-presidential candidate, he is an avowed proponent of free markets whose family has interests in oil leases. But he counts Rage Against the Machine, which sings about the greed of oil companies and whose Web site praises the anti-corporate Occupy Wall Street movement, among his favorite bands.”

If this were a dance club and the DJ was playing Bombtrack on the turntable, the needle just jumped and scratched the hell out of the vinyl. Paul Ryan, the newly named Republican vice-presidential candidate, who is the ardent right-wing, fiscal conservative poster boy of the Tea Party and whose main focus the last few years has been in dismantling Medicare and other social services for the poor and disenfranchised likes the music of ultra left-wing Rage Against The Machine?? RATM, an LA based rap/metal/punk band released their first album in 1992 and played together until 2000, released songs such as Voice of the Voiceless, Know Your Enemy, Vietnow and People of the Sun which spoke out against, to name a few, the American  two-party political system being controlled by corporatist, cultural imperialism, and the treatment of Native Americans while supporting leftists rebels in Mexico, labor unions, the homeless, immigrants  and social justice for all here in America and around the world.

While I whole heartedly believe that all people have the right to listen and support the music of their choosing, I don’t understand the dichotomy of listening to the music of a band that stands in direct opposition to everything you stand for politically and philosophically. Ryan has said he likes the band’s sound but willfully tunes out the lyrics. This is like someone saying they are die-hard anti-war pacifists, but they like country music and can’t help be drawn to Toby Keith’s Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue. While the band’s pounding beats, driving rhythms and guitar hooks can be hypnotizing, it’s hard to miss the meaning of the lyrics to songs such as Bombtrack:

Instead I warm my hands on the flames of the flag

As I recall our downfall

And the business that burned us all

See through the news and views that twist reality

Enough/I call the bluff/Manifest destiny

Landlords and power whores

On my people they took turns

Dispute the suits I ignite and then watch em’ burn

The thoughts of a militant mind

Hardline, hardline, after hardline

And it’s hard to ignore the lyrics and meaning in another Rage track, Killing In The Name, when lead singer Zach de la Rocha implies that some law enforcement and military personnel may also be part of the KKK, “The same that were enforcers, are the same that burn crosses.” de la Rocha then launches into the phrase “F$%@ you I won’t do what ya’ tell me” repeatedly at the top of his lungs, over and over. 16 times to be exact. This is why I think Ryan is being more than just a little disengenous, to borrow John McCain‘s description of Michael Moore at the 2008 Republican convention.

Tom Morello, the band’s guitarist who, since the band broke up in 2000, has been performing under the guise of The Night Watchmen, spoke out emphatically against Paul Ryan’s politics in Rolling Stone on August 16, 2012 in a piece entitled, Paul Ryan Is the Embodiment of the Machine Our Music Rages Against, in which he writes, “Ryan claims that he likes Rage’s sound, but not the lyrics. Well, I don’t  care for Paul Ryan’s sound or his lyrics. He can like whatever bands he  wants, but his guiding vision of shifting revenue more radically to the one  percent is antithetical to the message of Rage.”

“I wonder what Ryan’s favorite Rage song is? Is it the one where we condemn  the genocide of Native Americans? The one lambasting American imperialism? Our  cover of “F$!# the Police”? Or is it the one where we call on the people to  seize the means of production? So many excellent choices to jam out to at Young  Republican meetings!”

Read the full article here: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/tom-morello-paul-ryan-is-the-embodiment-of-the-machine-our-music-rages-against-20120816#ixzz24uH6c9Iz

And apparently, Rage and Morello are not the only ones who feel this way as in the past week alone, Dee Snider of Twisted Sister asked Ryan’s office to stop using We’re Not Gonna Take It and Silversun Pickups requested Ryan stop using their song Panic Switch.

In another political campaign song choice gone awry, last year Michelle Bachmann chose to open many of her campaign stops with Elvis Presley’s cover version of Chuck Berry’s The Promised Land. While not nearly as politically divisive or perplexing, but to me equally disturbing, given the original intent and meaning  of the song for both Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, and Bachmann’s far right conservative views, Bachman misappropriated the song for her political agenda and, given her beliefs and statements in religion, meant the song to be thought of by her supporters as a biblical theme.

Elvis recorded his cover of Chuck Berry’s Promised Land in 1973. Berry wrote his version in 1963, ironically enough, while he was serving time in prison. Given that Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream Speech” was given in August of 1963  in which he talked about making it to the “promised land”, it is very possible that Berry was influenced by King. Elvis Presley covered many of Berry’s songs, both in concert and in recording studio. Presley’s recording of Promised Land stands as one of his finest rock recordings ever, driven by the core of his touring band musicians, and was almost a telling of Presley’s own story of a poor boy from East Tupelo, Mississippi finding his way to the American Dream through sheer tenacity and determination.

During the Republican presidential race last year, Bachmann told a crowd of supporters that they needed to say happy birthday to Elvis despite the fact the date, August 16th, was actually the 34th anniversary of Elvis Prelsey’s death, not his birthday which was January 8th, 1935. She told the crowd, “You can’t do better than Elvis Presley.” Well, I guess there is one thing she and I can agree on.

But I digress. Back to Morello’s main argument about the inherent contradiction of Paul Ryan being an ardent supporter of RATM. I think his concern is the same of many artists who struggle, through their work, to reach their observers and fans and to truly communicate a part of themselves only to find out the message isn’t clear. Morello writes, “Paul Ryan’s love of Rage  Against the Machine is amusing, because he is the embodiment of the machine  that our music has been raging against for two decades. Charles Manson loved the Beatles but didn’t understand  them. Governor Chris Christie loves Bruce  Springsteen but doesn’t understand him. And Paul Ryan is clueless about his  favorite band, Rage Against the Machine.”

Morello’s use of Springsteen here carries significant weight for a few reasons. First, Morello is a die-hard  fan of Springsteen’s music and has guest appeared with Springsteen on stage to play scorching guitar solos on The Ghost of Tom Joad and appeared together again on  Late Night With Jimmy Fallon on Death To My Hometown from the Wrecking Ball album, for which Morello added incredible guitar solos on recorded versions to My Depression and Jack of All Trades. Secondly, Springsteen and Morello have similar thoughts on some political and social justice issues. But more importantly, Morello may have mentioned Springsteen’s name in this situation given what happened when Ronald Reagan misappropriated Bruce’s name and song Born in the USA during the 1984 presidential campaign.

‘Yankee Doodle Springsteen’

In June 1984, Springsteen, the self-described “hardest working white man in show business” (James Brown being the hardest working black man in show business), released the album Born in the USA, a collection of songs he had been working on since The River album was released in 1980. The album’s title track was a song he had originally written during the Nebraska project and which was recorded in a solo, acoustic fashion that leant great credence to the power of the lyrics which told the story of a Vietnam veteran who came back to the United States only to find there was no place for him anymore at work, at home or in society in general and was told by his VA man, “Son you just don’t understand.”

The album became a smash sensation, propelling Springsteen from a rock star into a world-wide phenomenon. The album sold 15 million copies in the US alone, peaked at #1 on the Billboard chart, spawned seven top ten singles, and remained on the charts for over 2 years. Speaking on this new stage of his career, Springsteen said, ” I don’t really think [money] does change you. It’s an inanimate thing, a tool, a convenience. If you’ve got to have a problem, it’s a good problem to have. (…) Money was kind of part of the dream when I started. I don’t think…I never felt like I ever played a note for the money. I think if I did, people would know, and they’d throw you out of the joint. And you’d deserve to go. But at the same time, it was a part of the dream.” Another part of that dream was getting unwanted and misunderstood attention from media members and even politicians.

In early September, 1984, conservative columnist George Will attended a Springsteen concert at the invitation of E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg and his wife. A few days later, his column, entitled Yankee Doodle Springsteen was published in papers across the country and contained this, “I have not got a clue about Springsteen’s politics, if any, but flags get waved at his concerts while he sings songs about hard times.  He is no whiner, and the recitation of closed factories and other problems always seems punctuated by a grand, cheerful affirmation: ‘Born in the U.S.A.!’”

George Will alone cannot be held responsible for hearing the thundering, anthemic song as recorded on the album and performed in the same arrangement on that tour, as a patriotic, flag waving send up to Old Glory and all it stands for, because millions of other listeners made a similar mistake. The ‘cheerful affirmation’ Will wrote of was written specifically as a paean to the trials and tribulations of returning military personnel best exemplified by Ron Kovic, who wrote Born on the Fourth of July about his own experiences. While Springsteen often played concerts on that tour with a huge American flag behind him, ala Bob Dylan in 1960s, that flag might have easily been turned upside down, which is the universal sign of distress for those Springsteen was singing about.

George Will had some friends within the Reagan White House who either were impacted by Will’s column or were whispered advice, and worked a Springsteen reference into a campaign stop speech within days of the column’s publication. In a stop in Hammonton, NJ, Reagan told the crowd,  “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts. It rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen.  And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.” Reagan’s office also quietly reached out to Springsteen’s management about the possibility of using the song for their campaign interests, and the request was politely declined.

Playing a concert on September 22, 1984 in Pittsburg, Springsteen addressed the situation directly with his audience while introducing his song, Johnny 99, a song about an unemployed auto worker who turns to murder.  “The President was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album musta been.  I don’t think it was the Nebraska album [about hard times in America].  I don’t think he’s been listening to this one” [“Johnny 99”].

To clarify his thoughts even further, Springsteen told Rolling Stone, “I think people have a need to feel good about the country they live in.  But what’s happening, I think, is that need — which is a good thing — is getting manipulated and exploited.  You see it in the Reagan election ads on TV, you know, ‘It’s morning in America,’ and you say, ‘Well, it’s not morning in Pittsburgh.’”

If you strip down the song to its’ bare essentials and look at the song in the stark realities of black and white by reading just the lyrics on the page, it’s hard to miss the true meaning of this enduring song:

I had a brother at Khe San

Fightin’ off the Vietcong

They’re still there, but he’s all gone

He had a woman that he loved in Saigon

I got a picture of him in her arms

Down in the shadow of the penitentiary

Out by the gas fires of the refinery

I’m ten years, burning down the road

Nowhere to run now ain’t got nowhere to go

I was born in the USA

I’m a long gone daddy now

You can also get a full sense of the meaning and emotion of the song by watching the clip below of the blues version, played solo with a slide on a 12-string acoustic taken from the Live in New York video.

Earlier this year, Springsteen released his 17th studio album, entitled Wrecking Ball, which partially plays as a retelling of what happened with our economy and society over the last four or five years. The first track on the album is We Take Care of Our Own. On first glance, the song plays as a scorching indictment of the Bush presidency response to Katrina and the aftermath with the following verse and chorus:

From Chicago to New Orleans
From the muscle to the bone
From the shotgun shack to the Superdome
We yelled “help” but the cavalry stayed home
There ain’t no-one hearing the bugle blown
We take care of our own
We take care of our own
Wherever this flag’s flown
We take care of our own

With pounding drums, guitars wailing a warning call, catchy guitar hooks and the refrain that “wherever this flag is flown, we take care of our own,” the song is a perfect companion piece in the irony of Bruce Springsteen. What he really thinks is that we haven’t and don’t take care of our own, whether here or around the world, as a people and as a government. In 2008, Springsteen openly campaigned for Barack Obama and sung at many campaign rallies. Since then, like many who supported the president, Springsteen has quietly separated himself and has openly stated he will not campaign for the president this year. However, Obama has begun using We Take Care of Our Own at some campaign stops, apparently with Springsteen’s blessing as Obama has not been asked to stop using it. The past truly is prologue.

To bring this back around, in a 1987 BBC interview Springsteen said, “Born in the USA is not ambiguous. All you gotta’ do is listen to the verses. If you don’t listen to the verses, you’re not gonna get the whole song, you’re just gonna get the chorus. What you do if someone doesn’t understand your song is you keep singing it.” If that is true, then I guess Tom Morello needs to stand outside of Paul Ryan’s campaign headquarters with a boom box held aloft over his head, just like John Cusak in Say Anything, while blaring Know Your Enemy over and over until Ryan can no longer just hear the catchy beat but has to confront the verses.

I wonder what songs Paul Ryan likes from Morello’s latest album entitled Union Town that was recorded and released in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement, as well as the demonstrations in Wisconsin last year surrounding Governor Walker’s actions against state employee unions, for which Morello travelled to Madison, WI to play and support the cause. Maybe it is Morello’s cover of Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land, or maybe What Side Are You On,  or just maybe it is the title track. I can’t quite remember the lyrics, something about if you live under a bridge, then all roads lead to  home and this being a union town all down the line. Not sure what that guys is saying, but it sure is a foot stomper and a catchy little ditty.

Notes of Interest:

Elvis meets Nixon– In true irony, Elvis Presley went to the White House on a whim a few days before Christmas without an appointment or prior notice to ask the President to issue him official documents certifying Elvis as an honorary member of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency. Elvis and two of his friends/body guards Sonny West and Jerry Schilling, flew from Memphis to Washington without notifying anyone else of their whereabouts. On the flight, Elvis met a serviceman returning from Vietnam who was in route to visit his family for Christmas, and in typical Elvis fashion, gave the soldier the only cash the three had on them, $500, so the soldier could buy his family and friends gifts, much to the consternation of his aides. After arriving in Washington, Elvis went to the White House and gave a guard a personal letter he had written to the President along with a gift of a pearl handled, Colt .45 pistol. Shortly after, a presidential aide reached out to Elvis at his Washington area hotel and made arrangements for the meeting. After some wrangling and arm twisting, President Nixon obtained the papers and DEA badges Elvis requested and presented them to him along with White House trinkets for Sonny and Jerry and their wives.

While Nixon was President, his office contacted Colonel Parker to request Elvis to perform at the White House. Parker demanded a performance fee of $150,000  which was declined as all such performances up to that time had been done gratis.

Vietnam/Light of Day/Born In The USA:

In 1981, Springsteen was asked to write music for a film by Paul Schrader called Born in the U.S.A. (Schrader’s movie would eventually be released 1987, entitled Light of Day, featuring Michael J. Fox and Joan Jett). Shortly after, when Springsteen was working on a song titled “Vietnam,” he glanced at the script and sang the title. The song, entitled as the work-in-progress movie, was already finished during the sessions of Springsteen’s introspective album Nebraska, and Springsteen originally wanted to include it on the album. However, it was removed as it did not coincide with the dark feel of the rest of the songs.

Chris Christie on Bruce: Christie is an ardent, militant Springsteen fan who has seen him in concert more than 200 times and has the ticket stubs to prove it. Christie recently gave the opening keynote address at the 2012 Republican Presidential convention and dropped this line into his speech, “I was her son as I listened to “Darkness on the Edge of Town” with my high school friends on the Jersey Shore.”