An odd thing has happened. I've lost interest in Bruce Springsteen.That isn't to say that I don’t still revere the man and his music. But maybe I've burned out on him, maybe a decade or so of relatively nonstop Bruce has proven to be too much for me.
So what’s taken his place on my musical Mt. Rushmore? Steely Dan. Yes, Steely Dan.
“Steely Dan” has been my preferred Pandora station for months now, and I've even delved into Donald Fagen’s solo work (which, by the way, is tremendous). I've rented Steely Dan DVDs off of Netflix, both live concerts and a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Aja. I've read about their lyrics, learned about their backgrounds and appreciated the layers upon layers of sound they put into every song. I think their music is catchy, probing and intelligent, all infused with a layer (or more) of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s jazz upbringings.
That being said, they’re surely a departure from Bruce musically, although Bruce does have a guy playing a horn and his earlier work (see: “New York City Serenade”) has distinct jazzy elements. Overall, I don’t think the Dan and Springsteen have too much in common, but maybe the only thing they share is a sometimes musical penchant to mask their lyrical intentions.
Editor’s note: I know that songs like “Surprise, Surprise” and “Last to Die,” among other Bruce tunes, could not be more in your face about what they mean/what they are. Fuck, “Outlaw Pete” is about an outlaw named Pete, and all the “symbolism” in the world doesn't make it suck less. But on occasion, Bruce has done exactly what I said, so read on and give me the benefit of the doubt. For now.
I remember George Carlin had a joke that insulted a certain group of people, I believe it was those who wear Bluetooth headsets, by classifying them as folk who “listen to Steely Dan.” My good friend Rob Turbovsky interviewed George Carlin on numerous occasions -- hell, Carlin actually left him a voicemail back in high school -- and I asked Rob a while back why Carlin felt the need to belittle Steely Dan. I think Rob had actually asked him that before, oddly enough, and Carlin’s response involved the band’s reputation, among casual music fans at least, as no more than an AOR band. Also, I think their name was short enough to fit perfectly into the joke’s cadence and wording.
Even if he had his reasons, I’m still surprised that Carlin would single out the Dan. Their subversive lyrics seem like they’d have been right up his alley. Maybe it’s the fact that they mask them behind supreme production values and awesome musicianship -- Carlin always was the kind of comedian who cut right through the bullshit, came right out and said it. Steely Dan is a band with songs that cover the gamut, from incest to immigration and back again, but it’s entirely possible that you never noticed. Becker and Fagen are geniuses in more ways than one, and even though they rarely pull punches, they also don’t smack you over the head.
Now, Springsteen is not often one to infuse his music with the same kind of pessimistic, veiled lyrics; pretty much everything on Born to Run means what it sounds like, and The Rising was basically branded as “THE 9/11 ALBUM.” But on Born in the USA in particular, and later on Magic, he does just that. A lot of it is probably timing; Magic was an full-band album with songs that Bruce apparently produced to sound good live, even if it was about life in America under the Bush regime, so tunes like “Livin' In The Future” rock without really needing to. And a bunch of the USA songs were written during the Nebraska sessions, which is an extremely depressing album. For whatever reason, he decided they’d sound just fine with the full band, which they did, and apparently didn't mind at the time that their meanings might be misconstrued.
Now that “Born in the USA” is a fist-pumping, go-America anthem, one adopted for a brief period by Ronald Reagan, I’m not sure what Bruce’s thoughts are on the matter. Hell, it made him millions of dollars and he still plays it at numerous live shows, so he can’t mind too much. But the fact of the matter is, many of those songs sound one way and say something very different. You could even make the point that the meaning of songs on Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River, while far less misunderstood, is lessened by the fact that they were recorded, and continue to be played, by what Bruce often calls “the biggest little bar band in the world.” The E Street Band, and Bruce in particular, often have something to say. But just as much of the time, they’re looking to rock, and it’s easy to get caught in between the two.
I have to say that, although I’m a writer and a huge fan of screenplays and movie dialogue, I don’t always read that deeply into music lyrics. Hell, I was blown away a few weeks ago when I found out that “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies” off Katy Lied was about a child molester. It was obvious when I listened to it again, but I never picked on it otherwise. I still think I often appreciate good lyrics, though, especially when they’re sung with honesty. Springsteen, obviously, does this extremely well. I’d argue that Elvis Costello also sings from the heart, and I love the darkly funny words of Warren Zevon.
And then there’s the Dan. While often going off on abstract topics and in unexpected locations, Donald Fagen always seem to be singing with a message that he and Becker believe in. They’re the rare band that has mastered their particular genre musically and yet doesn't ease up or lower their standards lyrically. Most of their songs can be appreciated merely sonically, and their hits have the necessary simplicity that everyone can enjoy. But if you want to look deeper, there’s something there, an oft-cynical, unfiltered, stinging and provocative look at the world.
Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, even combined, are not Bruce Springsteen. And right now, that’s what I like about them.