They just stand back and let it all be

 

I had a job, I had a girl
I had something going mister in this world
I got laid off down at the lumber yard
Our love went bad, times got hard
Now I work down at the carwash
Where all it ever does is rain
Don’t you feel like you’re a rider on a downbound train

Springsteen, Downbound train

 

“The America of Poets”

The above phrase was coined by the poet and critic Randall Jarrell about New Jersey poet William Carlos Williams (1883 to 1963). Williams was, in my opinion, one of the greatest poets America has yet produced and he spent almost his entire life in the town where he was born (Rutherford NJ).

In that regard, he reminds me of another great New Jersey wordsmith writing in the American idiom, Bruce Springsteen whom, despite his frequent tours and travels, cannot quite seem to stray too far from the town of his birth for any great length of time.

That is not the only similarity the two great men share in common.  Both have used their work and talents to explore the minutiae of everyday peoples’ lives. The comedian John Stewart once famously said of Springsteen “When you listen to Bruce’s music, you’re no longer a loser, you’re a character in an epic poem… about losers”. This assessment could just as easily be applied to Williams.

The epic poem Paterson, written in five volumes over a period of twelve years, was Williams’ ode to that Northern Jersey city and its people. Joycean in its scope, Paterson is built around the modernist poet’s philosophy no ideas but in things.

I take this to mean that the seed is there in the commonplace situations and mundane moments of ordinary life, that there is no need to create grand poetical ideas; the poetry resides in the world around you.

An example of this can be found in his simple work The red wheelbarrow;

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

In focussing on the very ordinary, Williams allows us an in to the poetic beauty and simple grandeur of the everyday.

This sort of greatness in the small things approach has come to be a hallmark of Springsteen’s work also. There is a no ideas but in things element in songs such as My hometown:

I was eight years old and running with a dime in my hand
Into the bus stop to pick up a paper for my old man
I’d sit on his lap in that big old Buick and steer as we drove through town
He’d tousle my hair and say son take a good look around this is your hometown

Both men have been deeply touched by the lives of everyday folk and both have striven to express the simple nobility to be found in unremarkable lives. Williams, in his poem Pastoral, conveyed his admiration for those who can only abide:

Meanwhile,
The old man who goes about
Gathering dog lime
Walks in the gutter
Without looking up
And his tread
Is more majestic than
That of the Episcopal minister
Approaching the pulpit
Of a Sunday.
These things
Astonish me beyond words.

Both Williams and Springsteen were of mixed heritage (Springsteen Irish, Italian, and Dutch and Williams English, Dutch, and Spanish) and both have struggled with bouts of depression – a condition which, I believe, lends insight and compassion to the efforts of poets.

Williams was a not insignificant influence upon the beat poets and was mentor to Alan Ginsberg who, like Williams, hailed from Northern New Jersey. The beat poets were, in turn, an influence upon the very counter culture which, indirectly, birthed Springsteen.

I have found, in the works of both men, my personal entrée into the heart and soul of New Jersey; perhaps America as a whole. Certainly, as an immigrant coming to this land to build a new life, the America I am longing for is the America of Bruce Springsteen and William Carlos Williams.

William Carlos Williams is as magically observant and mimetic as a good novelist. He reproduces the details of what he sees with surprising freshness, clarity, and economy; and he sees just as extraordinarily, sometimes, the forms of this earth, the spirit moving behind the letters. His quick transparent lines have the nervous and contracted strength, move as jerkily and intently as a bird. ~ Randall Jarrell

 

 

©2017

 

 

 

The Swamps of Jersey

 

“This is Newark, New Jersey . . . This is Newark, New Jersey . . . Warning! Poisonous black smoke pouring in from Jersey marshes.” – Orson Welles Mercury theatre production of The War of the Worlds (1938)

 

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The Swamps of Jersey

We might have a competition on our hands here if we restrict ourselves solely to the shenanigans of lawmakers working in or around the state capital, Trenton. Lord Cornbury, New Jersey’s first Colonial governor, was famous for taking bribes and filling key posts with relatives. He also happened to enjoy dressing like a woman. One of Cornbury’s most recent successors, Jim McGreevey, appointed a former Israeli naval officer named Golan Cipel to oversee the state’s homeland security interests—not, it turned out, because he was qualified for the position (which foreign nationals aren’t actually allowed to fill), but because he and McGreevey were allegedly having sex. When Cipel (who denies the affair) threatened to sue McGreevey for sexual harassment, the married governor resigned and came out of the closet.

Newsweek 2010

 

 

I was raised out of steel here in the swamps of Jersey….

 

And my machine, she’s a dud, out stuck in the mud somewhere in the swamps of Jersey…

 

An Iron Maiden riot in the swamps of Jersey thirty years later

“You were crunching on glass,” said Tony Kingslow, a 15-year-old who was part of the Teaneck group. “It was just a mess. Bottles everywhere, glass everywhere, you saw rags with blood on it. You couldn’t believe that happened.”

As they continued walking, Mulligan and his friends saw a burning, overturned car.

“There was a huge circle of people around it, throwing everything and anything in the fire,” he said. “We hung out until we were almost hit with some flying bottles.”

News reports alleged that concert-goers threw bottles at firefighters responding to the car fires.

 

“A heavy black fog hanging close to the earth . . . of extreme density, nature unknown. No sign of heat ray. Enemy now turns east, crossing Passaic River into the Jersey marshes.”

 

Image is my own.

Local heroes

 

Tonight I’m layin’ here
But there’s something in my ear
Sayin’ there’s a little town just beneath the floodline
Needs a local hero
Somebody with the right style
Lookin’ for a local hero
Someone with the right smile
Local hero local hero she said with a smile
Local hero he used to live here for a while

Springsteen, Local Hero

 

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In many ways, this blog is about dreams coming true. After finding each other in this vast ocean of humanity and then being forced to live a world apart for over five years, Jersey girl’s and my dream of being together finally came to pass last month.

And last night another dream came true.

As a special Birthday treat, Jersey girl took me to Asbury Park to see the world premiere of ‘Just Before the Dawn’, a new documentary about the history of the local music scene and in particular the jam club known as the Upstage.

After the movie (which screened at the Paramount theatre), there was to be an Upstage style jam session featuring some former E Street band members including David Sancious, Vini ‘Mad Dog’ Lopez, and Ernest ‘Boom’ Carter.

I was really looking forward to seeing these E Street legends play and was thrilled by rumours that Little Steven (Van Zandt) might join them up on stage.

We arrived in Asbury about an hour and a half before the show and, after a quick pit stop (burgers and a couple of beers at the Anchor’s Bend, conveniently situated in the Convention Hall), we joined the queue that was now snaking through the Grand Arcade. After a small wait, we got inside and took our seats in the balcony with a good view of the stage and screen. There was a lot of equipment on the stage and I realised this was going to be a bigger jam than I’d imagined; all the better.

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The movie was great. I’m not going to write a review but it was thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking in equal measure. I’ve covered many of the events that the movie focused on right here on this blog but this was different. These were the experiences of people who lived these events so it was fascinating for me to see how their recollections added to the historical tapestry.

After the movie, the thing we’d been half expecting was announced, “Little Steven is in the house!” Uproarious applause, then, “Southside’s in the house!”

I was ecstatic. Two of my idols! Then the curtain went up on the show and those in the know were already cheering with delight. Jersey girl was looking at a certain guitarist in the back behind Stevie. “Wow, he looks like – wait – is that?”

“SPRINGSTEEN!!”

The man himself – fresh from his well-documented celebrity cruise with the Obamas on Geffen’s mega yacht – had made it back to Jersey for this most special of nights. The crowd, predictably, went wild and we were treated to a night of raw musicianship from some of the very best in the business.

Highlights for me included a spirited rendition of The Band’s classic ‘Up on Cripple Creek’ and David Sancious and Marc Ribler executing a perfect performance of the Hendrix standard ‘Voodoo Child’. It turns out keyboardist Sancious can shred on a guitar like a boss.

The real Boss also managed some primo shredding and, though he chose not to dominate the proceedings, certainly made his presence felt.

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It’s obvious from the photos that we only had our phones with us to capture the event. Jersey’s phone is slightly better than mine and so the closer shots come courtesy of her.

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I’m sure that, in the days ahead, there’ll be a plethora of wonky videos shot on smartphones capturing every aspect of the evening. Like, for instance, these…

This night was a real ‘I was there when’ moment if ever there was one. Just one month in New Jersey and the magic’s already sparking.

Springsteen, Southside, Steven, Sancious, Mad Dog and more at Upstage Jam.

Words and images (with the exception of pics 6 & 7 by Jersey girl) are my own.

©2017

Black Coffee

 

Seditious brew

 

“black in colour and made by infusing the powdered berry of a plant that flourished in Arabia. Native men consumed this liquid all day long and far into the night, with no apparent desire for sleep but with mind and body continuously alert, men talked and argued, finding in the hot black liquor a curious stimulus quite unlike that produced by fermented juice of grape.”

– Aytoun Ellis. 1956. The Penny Universities; A History of the Coffee-houses

 

Alcohol-free venues like Café Wha? and The Gaslight in Greenwich Village and The Upstage Club in Asbury Park have passed down into legend as places which provided early opportunities for some of the greatest musical talents of  20th Century America.

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Cafe Wha? Still very much a fixture in the Village.

 

I’m sitting here at my laptop sipping my morning brew and contemplating a passage I read yesterday in Dylan’s excellent autobiographic tome Chronicles (volume one). In said passage, Dylan speaks of first encountering the New York Greenwich Village live music scene in the early 60s. Many of the places he played were no booze joints.

“I probably played all the places at one time or another,” Dylan writes. “Most of them stayed open ‘til the break of day, kerosene lamps and sawdust on the floor, some with wooden benches, a strong-armed guy at the door—no cover charge and the owners tried to offload as much coffee as they could.”

“Talent scouts didn’t come to these dens. They were dark and dingy and the atmosphere was chaotic.”

This could be a description of an English coffeehouse from three hundred and sixty years ago. Europe only discovered coffee in the mid 17th Century and the very first Coffeehouse to open in England (in 1650) was situated in the academic capital of Oxford. This and other coffeehouses established in Oxford came to be known as penny universities because they offered an alternative form of learning to that being taught in the universities proper. Very quickly, this stimulant became the drink of choice for the fashionable, the philosophers, the intellectuals, and the revolutionaries.

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A detail from Hogarth’s ‘Four Times of the Day’ depicting Tom King’s Coffeehouse.

 

The English coffeehouse was an significant venue for one very particular reason, it quickly became an important centre for the dissemination of news. Most modern historians associate English coffeehouses with the flourishing of the printed news sheet and these fashionable dens were where people came to drink coffee as they read and discussed the events of the day.

In fact, so popular did these places become, that King Charles II grew nervous that they might be hotbeds of sedition and ordered them all shut down. So paranoid was he of any potential threat to his shaky throne, that he issued a proclamation to end the legality of coffeehouses. And this did not just affect the estimated three thousand coffeehouses either, he also banned people from selling coffee, chocolate, and tea(!) from any shop or house.

 

A PROCLAMATION
FOR THE
Suppression of Coffee-Houses.
Charles Rex

Whereas it is most apparent, that the Multitude of Coffee-Houses of late years set up and kept within the Kingdom, the Dominion of Wales, and the Town of Berwick on Tweed, and the great resort of Idle and disaffected persons to them, have produced very evil and dangerous effects; as well for that many Tradesmen and others, do therein mis-spend much of their time, which might and probably would otherwise by imployed in and about their Lawful Callings and Affairs; but also, for that in such houses, and by occasion of the meetings of such persons therein, diverse False, Malitious and Scandalous Reports are devised and spread abroad, to the Defamation of His Majesties Government, and to the Disturbance of the Peace and Quiet of the Realm; his Majesty hath thought it fit and necessary, That the said Coffee-houses be (for the future) put down and supressed, and doth (with the Advice of his Privy council) by this Royal Proclamation, Strictly Charge and Command all manner of persons, That they or any of them do not presume from and after the Tenth Day of January next ensuing, to keep any Publick Coffee-house, or to Utter or sell by retail, in his, her, or their house or houses (to be spent or consumed within the same) any Coffee, Chocolet, Sherbett or Tea, as they will answer the contrary at their utmost perils.

And for the better accomplishment of this his Majesties Royal Pleasure, his Majesty both hereby will and require the Justices of the Peace within their several Counties, and the Chief Magistrates in all Cities and Towns Corporate, that they do at their next respective General Sessions of the peace (to be holden within their several and respective Counties, Divisions and Precincts) recall and make void all Licences at any time heretofore Granted, for the selling or retailing of any Coffee, Chocolet, Sherbett or Tea. And that they or any of them do not (for the future) make or grant any such Licence or Licences to any persons whatsoever. And his Majesty doth further hereby declare, that if any person or persons shall take upon them, him or her, after his, her or their Licence or Licences recalled, or otherwise without Licence, to sell by retail (as aforesaid) any of the Liquors aforesaid, that then the person or persons so Offending, shall not only be proceeded against , upon the Statute made in the fifteenth year of his Majesties Reign (which gives the forfeiture of five pounds for every moneth wherein he, she or they shall offend therein) but shall (in case they persevere to Offend) receive the severest punishments that may by Law be inflicted.

Given at our Court at Whitehall, the Nine and twentieth day of December 1675, in the Seven and twentieth year of Our Reign.

God save the King

 

This draconian law was passed on December 29, 1675, to take effect on January 10, 1676, but it was unceremoniously revoked on January 8. As it transpires, several of Charles’ own ministers were themselves coffee devotees.

Thus, the coffeehouses survived Charles’ paranoia and continued to flourish well into the 18th Century. They never ceased, however, to be regarded with suspicion by those in power.

I find this connection between coffee and revolutionary thought (real or imagined) fascinating. The great protest movements of the 50s and 60s centred initially around folk music and the coffeehouses in which it was played. Beat poetry too found a ready audience in such places.

We associate pot and acid with the anti-war movements of the mid to late 60s but that other drug of choice, caffeine, played just as great a role.

Who would have thought that something as innocuous as the morning cuppa could be so steeped in controversy?

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The sad shell that’s all that now remains of the vaunted Upstage Club.

 

As a side note, on Friday night, Jersey and I will be heading down to Asbury Park to view a new documentary about the Upstage Club, that other famously alcohol-free venue which played such a pivotal role in the formation of Springsteen and the E Street band (as well as a good many others). The main beverage on sale at this all-night venue was – you guessed it –  coffee (the second floor was a coffeehouse called the Green Mermaid).

Springsteen has famously said he was a non-drinker in those days but coffee can’t take any credit for his early hi-octane success either as he revealed in his autobiography, Born to Run that he cannot abide the taste.

The Boss’ personal preferences aside, however, it can be argued that the humble coffee bean has had a significant impact on the development of our society and culture.

Words and images (except where otherwise stated) are my own.

©2017

Two introductions

 

Hey vibes man, hey jazz man, oh play me your serenade
Any deeper blue and you’re playin’ in your grave

She’ll come, she’ll go
She’ll lay belief on you
But she won’t stake her life on you
How can life become her point of view

 

Lady Grinning Soul, David Bowie (pianist Mike Garson)

Released 1973 from the Album Aladdin Sane

 

New York City Serenade, Bruce Springsteen (pianist Roy Bittan)

Released 1973 from the album The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle

 

 

 

 

 

Speed of life

 

 

Highs and Lows

You can’t tramp the streets of NYC without experiencing the contrasts.

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New York is arguably the greatest city on Earth, alive with the bustle and the hustle of millions of souls. It is a hub for financial and creative energies.

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The signs of poverty and despair are also ever present.

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She is a city constantly renewing, ever changing, audaciously hopeful.

All images are my own.

©2017

Connecting baby, your heart to mine

 

Way back in the misty beginnings of the blog, I wrote this piece based upon my notion that Springsteen is, in fact, the American Bowie. Hardly anyone read it then as I had about 10 followers and it was a pretty long piece. I reposted it last year and again – though my audience had grown considerably – very few people showed any real interest.

That might be because it isn’t a very interesting subject to most people or it may be that it just wasn’t that good of a piece. Whatever the case may be, I was asked recently (obviously by someone who had not read said piece) how it is that my two all time favourite musical artists are so very different from one another? That got me thinking all over again about the similarities I see at every turn between these two.

I’m guessing that part of the problem people may have with seeing the similarities is the quite opposite energies these two project. Bowie’s is much more feminine while Bruce exudes an undeniably muscular male energy.

And don’t get me wrong, I can certainly see that they are miles apart when it comes to the particular individual aesthetics they each embody. Springsteen has worked hard to project a very homespun, authentic, working man image. Whilst Bowie was always mercurial in his adoption of twitchy avant-guard and bleeding edge personas.

All of that, however, can be considered mostly surface gloss. These carefully constructed artifices were both artists’ ‘way in’ to their respective audiences. It was what they had to say having won those audiences that showed where their true similarities lay.

Both Springsteen and Bowie have had a lifelong fascination with the outsiders, the outliers, the alienated. Bowie chose to use metaphor to express that alienation, often presenting his character as an actual otherworldly being, a literal alien.

 

Ziggy the main character from the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was the most obvious example of this. However, right to the end, the theme peppered his recordings. One of his outtake Tracks from his penultimate album The Next Day is a song called Born in a UFO. And the Blackstar album (and accompanying video) is also permeated with such metaphorical extraterrestrial imagery.

And so, yes, it’s fair to say that Bowie was ‘weirder’ than Springsteen. Ultimately, however, the two artists are dealing with different takes on a very similar idea. Both are asking the question; what is it like to live on the outside of a society that largely ignores or even denigrates its fringe dwellers?

Springsteen writes about aliens too but his come from a little closer to home, illegal aliens from across the border populate many of his songs. This is especially true of his solo albums The Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils and Dust. Tracks like Across the Border and  The Line deal very heavily with the issues of transplantation and the desperate need to find a better life that so many poor people feel.

In The Line, even Springsteen’s Border Patrol Officer lives in a state of emotional isolation.

Of course, Bruce was writing about alienated anti-heroes long before those solo albums. Darkness on the Edge of town is a lone loser album par excellence. And the operatic Born to Run is all about the dream of escaping from a town where you simply don’t fit in.

 

Since writing the original post, I keep turning up unexpected links between the two artists. The fact that long-time  E Street pianist Roy Bittan played on such iconic Bowie tracks as Station to Station, TVC15, Ashes to Ashes, and Up the Hill Backwards still kind of blows my mind. And recently I discovered that drummer Zachary Alford, who played with Bowie during his ’95 tour with Nine Inch Nails and drummed on The Next Day album, was also the drummer in Springsteen’s ‘other’ band (the one we don’t mention in polite conversation because it wasn’t E Street). Zach is a phenomenal drummer as should be apparent from these two clips.

 

For two musical giants who never actually collaborated (though Bowie, of course, did cover two of Bruce’s songs very early on in both their careers), the threads that bind them seem pretty numerous.

 

 

Since I wrote that original blog, this article has come out. It kind of treads the same ground but with a slightly different take.

©2017