Bob, Bruce and me

I got a slagging from someone a while back for writing a blog about music and neglecting to mention Bruce Springsteen. I was relieved to be able to throw back at him that the first blog I ever wrote was pretty-much all about Springsteen.

But, to be honest, that was really just a lucky coincidence. I love Springsteen. So why didn’t I mention him?

See, I think it’s all Bob’s fault. I am a Dylan fan and I could fill a book with my love and admiration of the man’s works. Dylan got into my life three decades ago and he set up shop in my soul, expanding his operations there every year. (God. That sounds like something Bono would say. Man.)

This is the man who, just to pick a few, very unfairly-unrepresentative songs, wrote “Blind Willie McTell“, a seminal meditation on American malaise and on the American Civil War. Anyone else would have been happy to leave it at that. Not Bob. Twenty years later he also wrote “Cross the Green Mountain“. This is the man who wrote the staggering “Series of Dreams” and put it in a drawer because his albums only have ten songs and this song, no matter how special, was surplus to requirements.

I’ve known Springsteen’s work for at least as long as I’ve known Dylan’s but I’ve only come to really appreciate the Boss in recent years. Now, I could never be in the same league of fan as, er, some people, (i.e. the sort of fan that Springsteen is probably slightly afraid of, if he’s honest with himself) but the Boss has, through the course of my life, come to mean an awful lot to me.

Springsteen has been in the background of my life for most of my life but I suppose that, much as I did like Springsteen’s music when I was a kid, I disliked terribly the people who liked it too. Remember, this was the ‘Eighties. “Born in the USA.” Ronald Reagan wasn’t the only irredeemable asshole to misinterpret that song as an anthemic justification for his own assholic irredeemability. Bruce himself wished he’d gone with his preferred version of “Born in the USA“…

Sadly, when I was young, the bullies liked The Boss. I enjoyed some popularity with the cool kids because I could draw the Madness “M”. This was before the U2 logo took off, a square intercut with lines to spell the band’s name, like some tedious Jesus woodblock. This was a design so simplistic that even fans of the early U2 could replicate it. Springsteen, though. Nothing easy to draw that summed up the man from Jersey and his fans locally were usually delighted if they managed to tie a headband over their Neanderthal foreheads. So I misjudged Springsteen by way of Matthew 7:16: “By their fruits shall ye know them”.

When you’re a kid, your music can be as big a part of you as your football team. Sometimes you get to decide the badges you wear rather than the person you’re going to be. Sometimes that’s the only choice you get to make.

Years passed, but, to be fair, Springsteen was never too far from the soundtrack of my life and I always had a Greatest Hits and I always did love his songs. But in those early years  I was always more a Dylan fan, in theory, in that way that you bluff your allegiances when you’re a kid. In truth I hadn’t even heard that much Dylan. And anyway, though I didn’t know it then, Springsteen would have been the first to reject a false rivalry with Dylan. And he was. At a very early point in his career, he famously asked why anyone would want a “new” Dylan when the “old” Dylan was only thirty years of age.

I used to listen to a local pirate radio station called ERI when I was a kid and my favourite DJ by far was a fella who went by the name of John Blake. He used to play a bit of Dylan and he introduced me to Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed too. The Boss was peppered in there as well. John Blake always seemed a really nice fella and he educated my early musical tastes. I often wonder whatever became of him. Hope he’s okay.

As for me, I grew up, a bit, and I went to work in London, in the late 1980’s. I was lonely and miserable, missing my family and my friends, and all I had for company was a tape machine (go on, Google it) and whatever tapes I could buy from the Del-Boys down the market.  The Tom Robinson Band. Steely Dan. REM. The Kinks. Vivaldi. Gluck. Mingus. The best thing about music is that your learning experience can go backwards or forwards but, best of all, it can always go sideways.

Time moved on and eventually I found myself back home. My life too moved on but the music stayed with me. I got busy doing what John Lennon said happens while you’re busy making other plans. I got older but no wiser. I drifted along and maybe the world did too.

Then 9/11 happened. America suffered its worst attack since Pearl Harbour. The towers fell and just then it felt like the Fall of the Western World. And the man whose “Born in the USA” had been misinterpreted at America’s highest levels as a jingoistic anthem stepped forward and he looked the horror square in the eye. Springsteen addressed America’s darkest hour and he did so with honesty and compassion and optimism. “The Rising” acknowledged America’s grief and shock and it spoke of an understated heroism and a particularly American un-showy perseverance. It also warned, in its first track, that the US “better ask questions before you shoot”. If only it had listened…

(Coincidentally, it should be acknowledged, Bob Dylan released what I still think was the best album of his career, “Love and Theft”, on Tuesday, September 11th, 2001. “Sky full of fire, pain pourin’ down, nothin’ you can sell me, I’ll see you around.” )

After “The Rising” I fell into the habit of always buying Springsteen’s new albums and, because I am a bit of a completist, I started to go backwards too and bought his older albums. And I almost got it. I almost understood.

But I was a Dylan fan. All through his wilderness years, I had stuck with Dylan. For nearly twenty years, it seemed, he had pumped out, with a few magnificent exceptions, some terrible rubbish. In his inexpressibly-brilliant autobiography, “Chronicles”, he more-or-less accepts that he thought he was washed up through those years. Then “Time Out Of Mind” came, just in time for a new millennium, and just in time for a suddenly-revived Dylan to enter a glorious phase of his career, a time when his maturity as an artist could rival his incredible first flush of youthful genius.

But here’s the thing. Do you know when you’ve been button-holed by a pub bore? He (and it’s always a he) will drone on and on until he gets to his point and you’re there, long past the point of having no more will to live, but he’ll keep on talking anyway. That’s me on the subject of Bob Dylan live and, frankly, it’s also my image of Dylan as an unbearable bore who has cornered an audience unwilling or incapable of telling him he’s awful. It’s a Dylan I can never reconcile with the genius of even his weakest albums or the kind-hearted wisdom of “Chronicles” or the jokey good humour of “Theme-Time Radio Hour”.

Live Dylan never acknowledges his audience at all. He sings and plays his greatest hits at an angle designed to render them unrecognisable. Breezing through the lyrics at a groaning, sneering pace, he sings his songs to a changed and unfamiliar melody. There is a certain perverse fun to be had when three-quarters of the way through a song, everyone, all at the same time, pieces together what the song actually is and starts singing it right.  I swear I once saw the great man smirk as we all roared “HOW DOES IT FEEL?” at him. He kept going, though, singing an alien version of an iconic song, at people who maybe, just maybe, deserved just a little bit more respect.

Really, though, a Bob Dylan concert is all about Bob Dylan and has little or nothing to do with the listener. I am glad I can say I saw Dylan live but I will have to confess the experience gave me very little pleasure and I was left, after the fifth or twelfth occurrence, with very little interest in seeing Dylan live ever again. Eventually, I came to foolishly assume that all superstars thought the same amount of nothing of their fans. To be honest, coupled with far too many occasions when Van Morrison showed up looking like he was there at gunpoint, it had a dampening effect on my enthusiasm for live gigs.

It’s not that long ago but I can’t remember why I decided to take a chance and overcome my lack of interest in live concerts and go to see the Boss.

Having somehow never seen Springsteen live until then, I stood in Dublin’s RDS in the pouring rain nearly a decade ago, soaked to the bone, at probably the best live concert I will ever see and I watched Springsteen launch into “Waitin’ On A Sunny Day” and crack up at the first line “It’s raining”. It was. It was running down my neck and it was already lodged in my boots. But that didn’t matter, not once the man on the stage had acknowledged it and, in doing so, let us in on the joke.

The “HELLO DUBLIN!” was rehearsed, of course, and not a hair was out of place throughout the gig, not from the little kid he brought up to sing, to the perfectly-timed third encore. It didn’t matter. Springsteen sells a perfect package. For the guts of that €100 you can scarcely afford, promises Bruce, I will lift you to heaven for three hours. And, if we can get away with it, we’ll stay there for an extra hour too and you’ll remember this night when you most need a smile. Because tonight, my friend, tonight is all about you.

Springsteen sees his audience as king.

Bob Dylan was asked, many years ago, and as he would say, in Nineteen and Sixty-Five, whether he saw himself as a songwriter or a poet. He replied “I think I see myself more as a song and dance man”.

If only he had remembered that.

(In defence of Bob, there was one gig I really, really loved. Well. One song of one gig. Kilkenny 2007. The song was “Summer Days“. I was dancing with the prettiest girl in the world at the time. And you can punctuate that sentence whatever damn way you want.)

Donal O’Keeffe.