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Sat

13

Oct

2007

The Wisdom of “Magic”
Saturday, 13 October 2007 13:23
by Ed Naha

Boy, the way conservatives are howling about Bruce Springsteen’s new CD, “Magic,” you would think he was a twelve-year-old car accident victim defending S-CHIP.

“Bruce’s mind is a little warped,” opined one critic. Eugene R. Dunn in “The Philadelphia Inquirer” referred to Springsteen as “a lifelong anti-GOP hack.” Bill O’Reilly accused Springsteen of “using his music and his talent to try to persuade people that his view of the world is right,” after posing the question:
“Is Springsteen’s dissent legitimate or anti-American?”
From this type of sampling, you would think that “Magic” is filled with musical rants along the lines of the Airplane’s “Volunteers of America,” Country Joe’s “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag,” Dylan’s “Masters of War” or Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction.”

It’s not.

It’s a musically exhilarating outing, filled with lyrics that are subtle, heartfelt, wistful and, Neocon critics beware, truthful. That adds up to a lethal combination for those who still think George W. Bush is a great leader.

Springsteen has always been a slightly schizophrenic songwriter, alternating between nouveau folk and classic pop/rock sounds. “Magic” showcases the best of both approaches. Guitars wail in harmony. Saxophones soar. Strings swirl. The rhythm section rumbles and roars. Background vocals materialize and disappear like will-o’-the–wisps while harmonicas howl achingly in the background.

But it’s the lyrics that truly haunt. Springsteen songs, like those of Warren Zevon, have always told stories. Whereas Zevon relied on dark humor and a strange sense of romanticism, Springsteen has always mixed melancholy with a sense of defiant spirit. In his early works, his canvasses were small. Nowadays, they’re more universal. The lyrics are more observant and the melancholy is tinged with a sense of frustration, bewilderment and loss.

The title track, “Magic,” is almost cinematic, the narrator being a small time magician whose “tricks” grow more and more ominous. As the carnival-like arrangement builds, the magician moves from sleight of hand to his grim grand finale.
“I’ll cut you in half, While you’re smiling ear to ear, And the freedom that you sought’s, Driftin’ like a ghost amongst the trees, This is what will be, this is what will be.

“Now there’s a fire down below, But it’s coming up here, So leave everything you know, And carry only what you fear.”
What Springsteen does on the “Magic” CD is disarmingly daring. Even in the most popish sounding tunes, he’s painting a grand portrait of a country that has lost its way, of a population that has lost its absolutes.

In “Long Walk Home,” the narrator, after noting that everything in his small town seems off kilter, reflects on what it once had been.
“My father said ‘Son, we’re lucky in this town. It’s a beautiful place to be born. It just wraps its arms around you. Nobody crowds you, nobody goes it alone. You know that flag flying over the courthouse means certain things are set in stone. Who were are, what we’ll do and what we won’t.’”
The narrator’s response: “It’s gonna be a long walk home.”

Even the “it has a good beat and you can dance to it” strains of “Radio Nowhere” asks “Is anybody alive out there?”
The raucous “Livin’ In The Future” is both a love song and something more as the narrator reveals: “The earth it gave away, the sea rose toward the sun. I opened up my heart to you. It got damaged and undone. My ship Liberty sailed away on a blood red horizon. The groundskeeper opened the gates and let the wild dogs run. My faith’s been torn asunder. Tell me, is that rolling thunder or just the sinkin’ sound of somethin’ righteous goin’ under?”

“Gypsy Biker” opens with:
“The speculators made their money on the blood you shed.”
It includes lines like:
“To the dead it don’t matter much ‘bout what’s wrong or right.”
“Last to Die” is probably the most outright condemnation of America as warmonger, shifting from the thoughts of a family on an outing: 
“The sun sets in flames as the city burns. Another day gone down as the night turns. And I hold you here in my heart. As things fall apart.” 
...in a world where war is raging: 
“Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake, the last to die for a mistake. Whose blood will spill. Whose heart will break. Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake. The wise men were all fools. What to do.” 
“Devil’s Arcade” is as spooky as the title suggests, concerning a soldier who’s either dead or grievously wounded, either anticipating the future or reflecting on the past as the world he knows crumbles.
“You said heroes are needed, so heroes get made. Somebody made a bet. Somebody paid. The cool desert morning, then nothin’ to save. Just metal and plastic where your body caved.”
It ends with a heartbeat drumbeat.

In nearly every song, the narrator is witnessing destruction of one sort of another, sad changes. In “You’ll Be Comin’ Down,” which could be read as either comments regarding a woman’s life in the fast lane coming to an end or a metaphor for America today, the lyrics read: “Like a thief on a Sunday morning, it all falls apart with no warning.”

The CD is filled with either/or lyrics and musical turns that leave you breathless. In the end, the message is clear. We’re down. But we’re not out…yet.

Springsteen realized that he would be pilloried in some circles for his political take on America today. Heck, everyone realized that. As “Rolling Stone” Executive Editor Joe Levy told Reuters re: the backlash:
“You’re talking about a right-wing media machine that can manage to make a war hero like John Kerry look like a faker. These people are not burdened by reality.”
Of course, Springsteen stirred the pot a bit on “The Today Show” introducing “Livin’ In the Future” by commenting:
“In the past six years we’ve had to add to the American picture rendition, illegal wiretapping, voter suppression, no habeas corpus, the neglect of our great city of New Orleans and her people, an attack on the Constitution and the loss of our best young men and women in a tragic war.”
Springsteen’s take on torture led critic Scott Rogers to pen:
“Listening to my hero talk politics is torture. Bruce should stick with music, not politics.”
Springsteen, in an interview on “60 Minutes,” didn’t exactly shrug off the criticism but put it in its perspective: an artist has to be honest. And, perhaps, an American artist in these times has to try harder than most to shine a spotlight on the truth.

He writes, he said, to:
“Find out who you are, and who I am, and then who we are. I’m interested in that. I’m interested in what it means to be an American. I’m interested in what it means to live in America. I’m interested in the kind of country that we live in and leave our kids. I’m interested in trying to define what that country is. I got the chutzpa or whatever you want to say to believe that if I write a really good song about it, it’s going to make a difference. It’s going to matter to somebody.
“I guess I would say that what I do is I try to chart the distance between American ideals and American reality. That’s how my music is laid out. It’s like we’ve reached a point where it seems that we’re so intent on protecting ourselves that we’re willing to destroy the best parts of ourselves to do so.”
When asked what he meant by that, Springsteen said:
“Well, I think that we’ve seen things happen over the past six years that I don’t think anybody ever thought they’d ever see in the United States. When people think of the American identity, they don’t think of torture. They don’t think of illegal wiretapping. They don’t think of voter suppression. They don’t think of no habeas corpus. No right to a lawyer … you know. Those are things that are anti-American.”
When asked what he thought about being called “un-patriotic,” Springsteen replied:
“Well, that’s just the language of the day, you know? The modus operandi for anybody who doesn’t like somebody, you know, criticizing where we’ve been or where we’re goin’. It’s unpatriotic at any given moment to sit back and let things pass that are damaging to some place that you love so dearly. And that has given me so much. And that I believe in, I still feel and see us as a beacon of hope and possibility.”
Springsteen, who sees some of his roots sprouting from the topical folk songs of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seger sees his role as an extension of theirs. “There’s a part of the singer going way back in American history that is of course the canary in the coalmine. When it gets dark, you’re supposed to be singing. It’s dark right now.”

When conservative critics attack Springsteen as being an elitist or a “surrender monkey,” they might want to take into account the underlying optimism of this blue collar guitar strummer from New Jersey:
“I think we live in a time when what is true can be made to seem a lie. And what is a lie can be made to seem true. And I think that the successful manipulation of those things have characterized several of our past elections. That level of hubris and arrogance has got us in the mess that we’re in right now. And we’re in a mess. But if we subvert the best things that we’re about in the name of protecting our freedoms, if we remove them, then who are we becoming, you know? Who are we, you know? The American idea is a beautiful idea. It needs to be preserved, served, protected and sung out. Sung out.”
Eugene R. Dunn apparently missed the point when he wrote in “The Philadelphia Enquirer:”
“Twenty-seven years after admitting that he found the 1980 landslide election of Ronald Reagan ‘terrifying,’ Springsteen is in the process of morphing himself into an unpaid mouthpiece for the Democratic National Party. But this is America. He can do what he truly believes in. However, it’s important his audience knows who and what he has become, so it can make an informed decision on Election Day 2008.”
(It should be noted that Reagan tried to use “Born In the USA,” Springsteen’s tale of a disenfranchised Viet Nam vet trying to salvage his life stateside, as an up-tempo, patriotic anthem for his campaign. Until Springsteen told him to stop.)

Probably the funniest response to Springsteen’s “Magic” has been delivered by fair and balanced Bill O’Reilly, who has dared Springsteen to debate him.
“You know, Mr. Springsteen objects to almost every anti-terror measure put in place since 9/11. Almost every single one. Yet, he won’t come into a forum like this and answer any questions about it. I think that’s irresponsible.”
O’Reilly said that musicians like Springsteen have “much more influence than the Speaker of the House, the president of the Senate, or anybody else. And I say if Bruce Springsteen wants to undermine anti-terror measures, he has a responsibility to come in here and other places and explain it. Not just to do ‘drive by’ stuff.’”

But, O’Reilly’s big finish was truly priceless.
“America is a torture nation, no habeas corpus. We’re eavesdropping on everybody. It’s bull. It’s bull. It isn’t happening. It’s out of context. Bruce Springsteen doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I’ll give $25K to Habitat for Humanity if he’ll come in and sit here. And you know why he won’t come in and sit here? Because he knows that I’d wipe him out. He couldn’t stand up to the questioning. And we’d be respectful.”
Wow! Does that sound like an offer Springsteen can’t refuse? Surely, the dialogue would be calm and intellectual (as well as fair and balanced). Were I O’Reilly, I would have upped the ante. If Springsteen appears on Bill’s show, then O’Reilly should open one of Bruce’s – fronting his band The Fox Falafel Five.

Sigh.

As Springsteen said from the stage a few nights ago.
“It isn’t about magic. It’s about tricks.”
Sing it out, brother.

Full disclosure department: I first heard of Springsteen back around 1970. I was in a nine-piece band called Factory and Bruce was fronting Steel Mill. Another group, Blackstone Forest, featured drummer Max Weinberg. The three bands played throughout New Jersey, desperately wanting to be the state’s biggest band.

Blackstone Forest got signed to Epic Records, changed its name to Blackstone and released an album. It tanked. I got fired from Factory because of my “smart mouth” and Springsteen formed Doctor Zoom and the Cosmic Boom.

Fast-forward two years. I had become a rock writer and landed a job at Columbia Records as a publicist. For some reason, the legendary John Hammond (the man who signed everyone from Bob Dylan to Bessie Smith to the label) took a liking to this longhaired weirdo because I genuinely loved music. He was always playing me songs.

Now, John was in the twilight of his career at the time, an aging lion that the label respected but also thought old hat. John came into my office and asked me if I’d like to meet someone he’d just signed. It was Bruce Springsteen.

Springsteen was a scruffy, wiry Jersey kid who seemed shy. He’d brought his girlfriend with him for the meeting. He said about six words as we listened to a tape of a few of his songs. I was blown away. Because Hammond has signed him, he was being hyped as “the new Dylan” by the promotion department. The was the easiest way to go. Simple. To the point. Waay' off base. (Plus, it was a real burden to Springsteen.)

Fast-forward to the release of “Greetings from Asbury Park,” Springsteen’s first album. I loved it. I was also a tad jealous. Springsteen was a year older than I and really knew how to write.

I worked the door at his first New York gig for the press at Max’s Kansas City. It was a small area above a restaurant. The band was so big that they didn’t all fit on the stage. Half of them stood on the floor. Clarence Clemmons played tuba on a coupla songs.

The record sales were underwhelming. I asked my boss if I could bend the rules a little. Although I was his publicist, I wrote the first stateside piece on Springsteen (in the “On the Horizon” section) for “Circus” magazine, where I was resident record reviewer. Didn’t help.

A second album was released, “The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle.” It was great. Nobody bought it. The label was considering dropping Springsteen. My boss (who was REALLY a fan) decided that the publicity department could ride to the rescue. And we did. Bruce was amazing on stage. We worked his concerts extra-hard. I called every photographer in the book, from the “A-listers” to the “non-listed.” (Bruce’s “Time” magazine cover was taken by a young lady who was almost unknown. It ran the same week as his “Newsweek” cover!) Critic Jon Landau declared, “I have seen the future of rock and roll and his name is Bruce Springsteen.”

The label staged a special concert in a joint on Sunset Strip just for label employees during a Columbia Records convention in L.A. Somebody dosed my boss and I and, somehow, I got it together enough to work the door. It was an invitation only gig. I wound up letting in about 100 civilians while checking off names and talking to my hands. (To this day, if I’m working out of Los Angeles, I sometime encounter folks who say: “Are you the same Ed Naha who let me into Springsteen’s concert?”)

The concert kicked ass. Springsteen wasn’t dropped.

By the time Springsteen recorded “Born To Run,” I was in the A&R department and was the album’s co-coordinator. This largely consisted of okaying the mushrooming bills (the album took nearly a year), getting yelled at for allowing the aforementioned bills to occur and being forbidden to talk to the artist or his manager. Bruce was officially “Big Time” and only the head of the department could talk to him. Plus, there were legal problems. Bruce had a new manager, Jon Landau. His first manager wasn’t appreciative.

Anyhow, the album came out and was a smash. Springsteen earned his first Gold Record. I got a Gold Record, too, attended about a dozen concerts and, then, quit the music business – a line of work that makes the movie business seem like a love-in.

Today, I don’t think Springsteen would recognize me if I danced naked with weasels three feet away from him. That was what the circus was like back then. The corporate clowns took the credit while the acrobats worked in the shadows.

I still love music, but I find less and less to love. When I was a teenager, buying an album was an event. They went for $1.98 in monaural (look it up) and $2.98 in stereo. Being cash-strapped, if you went for a stereo album, you were making a commitment. You’d take that album home, lock yourself in a room, put it on the cheesy stereo and play it over and over and over. You read the lyrics. You closed your eyes and imagined images to go with the songs. That album became part of you and you became part of it.

I hadn’t done that in years.

I’m still doing that with “Magic.”

So thanks, Bruce, for reawakening my teen spirit.

It’s a great CD. It has wisdom and you can dance to it.
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Comments (4)add comment

Jimmy Montague said:

Jimmy Montague
Springsteen was always one of those
Springsteen was always one of those who care about what they do. So are you, Mr. Naha. Good piece.
 
October 13, 2007
Votes: +0

Jeff Shackelford said:

0
Everyone's view
I appreciate your piece here. Unfortunately, I do not totally agree. Bruce says he wants to chart the differences in America. Much of his last few albums, including "Magic" have done the nothing but force feed us his personal views. Since reading his biography, penned by his old buddy, Dave Marsh, I am convinced Bruce takes himself too seriously. He has lost the ability to let us enjoy his music without commenting on this so-called "Orwellian nightmare" of the last six years. As far as the sound of the album goes, Brendan O'Brien has completely overblown his production. Vocals and instruments are so crowded up the middle and compressed, it gives me a headache. What happened to the definition and clarity of production say from "The River" or "Born To Run"? I guess the $100 million dollar contract from CBS/Sony says Mr. O'Brien, one of the VP's, can do anything he wants.
 
October 13, 2007
Votes: +0

Keith Richard Radford Jr. said:

0
Agree to Disagree
Bruce is always proven right. Those that disagree have that right... Too Be Proven wrong.
 
October 14, 2007
Votes: +0

uncle bob said:

0
are you the same ed naha
who let me take over fangoria? hahaha. Nice that you and Bruce are still fighting the good fight.
 
October 25, 2007
Votes: +0

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