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Jewish World Review March 5, 1999 /17 Adar 5759


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Springsteen Ain’t No Chopped Liver

( RON ROSENBAUM, THE EXCELLENT ESSAYIST who contributes the "Edgy Enthusiast" column to The New York Observer, scored again with a riveting piece about Bruce Springsteen last week. He doesn’t begin with a bang: Preciously, the piece is datelined Asbury Park, NJ, as Rosenbaum takes a road trip to the anachronistic, seedy amusement park town that Springsteen put on the map again nearly a generation ago. I’ll get the bad stuff out of the way first, as Rosenbaum writes: "I’ve always had a guilty fondness for tacky beach towns, the bittersweet, decaying glamour of splintered boardwalks, melancholy bungalows, boarded-up Dairy Queens and disintegrating Tilt-A-Whirls." Ron, anyone with a heart has a fondness for such faded Americana, whether it’s Coney Island, Rye Beach or the Jersey Shore, but there’s no reason to feel "guilty" about it. Don’t turn into Rick Hertzberg on me, friend.

Once Rosenbaum gets this out of his system, he writes about Springsteen in a fascinating way, explaining that years ago he felt guilty—there’s that word again—about admitting to himself that he liked the man’s work despite the hype of The Next Dylan that hindered the younger songwriter at the start of his career. It was a betrayal to the altar of Dylan that Rosenbaum had to work through. And indeed, as Rosenbaum points out, Springsteen’s first two records aren’t particularly memorable and contain some dreadful writing, "Blinded by the Light" just the most obvious example. Rosenbaum overcame the Dylan bugaboo and became a fan as Springsteen matured as a writer and escaped the Dylan curse that ruined the careers of so many performers. Rosenbaum is partial to Springsteen’s middle and late work and cites 19 of his favorites that he argues hold up against any 19 by Dylan. I believe that’s a crazy claim, that Rosenbaum must’ve been in some weird trance when he wrote it, but I’ll return with my own volley below.

First, my own take on Springsteen. Ron, at 51, is eight years older than me, and so missed out on the early Springsteen mania, and more importantly, the concerts before he became BRUUUUCCCCE! I was in school at the time and was with Springsteen from the beginning: Despite the jejune lyrics of Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., his first album, "Growin’ Up" and "Spirit in the Night" were killer songs, and when you saw Springsteen perform them before fewer than 1000 people, playing for nearly three hours, it was easy to forgive a lot in the developing artist. I heard "Jungleland" and "Born to Run" in concert before they were released on his first huge record, Born to Run, and was hooked.

At the time I was living in a rowhouse in Baltimore, on 33rd St. right above Greenmount Ave., with four close friends. I was the last one in, so I drew the basement; still, since the rent was $160 a month for the entire house, my $32 share was pretty sweet. There were a lot of local bands in Baltimore at the time, but none had the charisma of Ocean Rose, a group that played at Hopkins for about three years running, always drawing huge crowds. Jimmy Owens, the lead singer, was one of my housemates, and the band often practiced in the basement, my living quarters. I could sleep through anything, even when they rehearsed at 2 in the morning. Ocean Rose is an example of a band that might’ve made it to the top: The songwriting was smart, the guitarists top-notch, Owens’ singing often breathtaking, but it just never happened. They never won the rock ’n’ roll lottery, and now all those old songs—my favorites were "Buccaneer" and "Smiles Lightning"—are just sweet memories for hundreds of Hopkins students and Baltimoreans who followed the band in the mid-70s.

But let’s return to Rosenbaum’s Top 19 Springsteen songs. He lists: "Spirit in the Night," "Rosalita," "Thunder Road," "Backstreets," "Born to Run," "Darkness on the Edge of Town," "Badlands," "The Promised Land," "Hungry Heart," "The Wreck on the Highway," "The Price You Pay," "Atlantic City," "Dancing in the Dark," "Tougher Than the Rest," "Brilliant Disguise," "I Wish I Were Blind," "If I Should Fall Behind," "Streets of Philadelphia" and "Secret Garden." And here’s where I disagree with the delirious Rosenbaum: "There! Dispute it if you like, but I’d argue that these 19 songs, my personal greatest-hits list, rival Dylan’s at his most powerful and lyrical (although not at his most visionary and Joycean)."

This is just silly. I have a list of Springsteen favorites, too, but only one of those songs would I compare to Dylan at his best, which comprises at least 50 different tracks. I’ll pit Springsteen’s against Dylan’s Top 10s and you’ll see what I mean.

Springsteen: "Growin’ Up," "Spirit in the Night," "Backstreets," "Jungleland," "The Promised Land," "Badlands," "Prove it All Night," "Dancing in the Dark," "The River" and "Brilliant Disguise." Dylan: "Percy’s Song," "Mr. Tambourine Man," "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," "Like a Rolling Stone," "Queen Jane Approximately," "Fourth Time Around," "Visions of Johanna," "All Along the Watchtower," "I Shall Be Released" and "Love Minus Zero/No Limit."

Just picking one from the barrel, Springsteen never wrote lyrics like this, the last stanza from "Mr. Tambourine Man"; just didn’t have the talent: "Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind,/Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves,/The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach,/Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow./Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free,/Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands,/With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves,/Let me forget about today until tomorrow."

Springsteen came close, with "Brilliant Disguise," my favorite tune, and the following words aren’t matched by many tunesmiths. "Now you play the loving woman I’ll play the faithful man/But just don’t look too close into the palm of my hand/We stood at the altar the gypsy swore our future was right/But come the wee wee hours maybe baby the gypsy lied/So when you look at me you better look hard and look twice/Is that me baby or just a brilliant disguise/Tonight our bed is cold/I’m lost in the darkness of our love/God have mercy on the man/Who doubts what he’s sure of."

By the way, Rosenbaum doesn’t mention a cover that David Bowie did of Springsteen’s "Growin’ Up" that’s available on Pinups (Rykodisk). It was the mid-70s, near Bowie’s Thin White Duke guise, and his version of the early Springsteen song is a campy romp. Word has it that the macho Springsteen heard the recording and just freaked. Anyway, I’m just calling Ron on his hyperbole. Must’ve been all those Tilt-A-Whirls that got his mind a wanderin’.

Vanity Press Musings

JIM KNIPFEL IS JUST BACK from the road hawking his book Slackjaw (Tarcher/Putnam), which has received mostly rave reviews. One of the oddest came in the March Mirabella, written by Jerry Stahl. I don’t care much for Stahl’s prose, but I love the glowing notice he gave to our man in the 333 bullpen. Stahl concludes his piece: "From such ugliness—his own and that of the world he can no longer see—this wisecracking Tiresias has constructed a vision of brave and astonishing impact. By the time you finish Slackjaw, you’ll be glad you’re not Jim Knipfel. But you’ll be glad he is."

Not surprisingly, Jim also received a glowing notice in The Philadelphia Weekly, formerly The Welcomat, where he first started the "Slackjaw" column. Mike Walsh writes: "It’s inevitable. You grow a little older, maybe a little wiser, and you just aren’t so angry at the world anymore. You might still be grumpy and bitter, of course, but just...not so furious." Walsh quotes Knipfel, obviously on his best behavior: "I’m not making fun of other people as much as I’m making fun of myself now. Rather than assaulting people with this torrent of words, I eventually decided that I just wanted to tell simple, funny stories."

He didn’t fare as well in the Leonard Stern-owned Minneapolis City Pages, where Michael Tortorello wrote the following in the Feb. 17 issue: "As a former reader of the New York Press, I never had much time for columnist Jim Knipfel’s brand of nihilistic braggadocio: his poverty, his drunkenness, his unyielding self-laceration for being a broke drunk... Generous readers might compare such a diseased soul to Raskolnikov; I’d call it Bukowski-worshipping foolishness—an evaluation Knipfel might very well share."

Anne Roiphe, the Upper West Side loony who writes every other week for The New York Observer, treated readers to a series of dreams she’s had recently that starred some of her hated bogeymen: Henry Hyde, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. When she awoke these were the words that came to mind, excerpted from the March 1 Observer: "So now that the impeachment has been aborted though its remains are not yet quite disposed of, now that Christopher Hitchens has proved that journalists can be bad eggs and Linda Tripp has shown that a new hairdo is no cure for bad ethics... I think it might be safe to go back to bed and get a good night’s sleep."

Just two weeks earlier, the Observer ran an editorial called "Three Cheers for Hitchens" that more than makes up for Roiphe’s biweekly slop. Unlike most members of the press, this editorialist calls Hitchens a hero and here’s why: "If his account is correct—and there is no reason to suspect it is not—it would confirm what we already know about the Clinton White House and its character assassins. The Clintonites look to crush what they don’t understand: character. They will smear anybody, even a young intern who fell in love with the President, who threatens their hold on power. Confirmation that the White House orchestrated well-placed whispers about Monica Lewinsky would remind us just how cheap and dishonorable Bill Clinton and his attack dogs have been. In siding with truth over convenience, Mr. Hitchens has performed a public service. In Bill Clinton’s Washington, integrity is a scarce commodity."

JWR contributing columnist Russ Smith --- AKA "MUGGER --- is the editor-in-chief and publisher of New York Press. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


02/26/99: This Must Be the New World: The Mainstream Is Left Behind
02/26/99: Hillary, Juanita & Rudy Kazootie; First Baker, then Rich and Soon Lewis
02/24/99: The New Yorker Takes the Local: Mister Hertzberg Strikes Out; A Search for the Clemens Upside
02/19/99: The Howell Raines Conspiracy
02/17/99: History Lessons: An Immigrant’s Advice
02/12/99:The Man Who Owns the World
02/10/99:The Impeachment Trial Splatters: Lindsey Graham Emerges a Hero
02/05/99: A Slight Stumble for Bush
01/29/99: Rich Is Back in the Tank
01/29/99: Not So Fast, Mr. & Mrs. Pundit
01/27/99:This Is Not America: Clinton’s Set to Walk and Party On, Suckers
01/25/99:Sniffles and High Fever: Kids Say the Darndest Things
01/20/99: Whole Lott(a) Waffling Goin' On
01/14/99: Senator Hillary Rodham in 2000: The First Step Back to the Oval Office
01/08/99: Drudge Is the Hero
01/06/99 : MUGGER & the Martians
12/30/98 : Last Licks of ’98: Some Heroes, Several Villains & Many Idiots
12/17/98 : Boy Mugger's obsession
12/11/98: Irving’s the King Wolf
12/09/98: What do Matt Drudge and Tom Hanks have in common?
11/26/98: Starr’s Magnificent Moment
11/18/98: Who could have imagined!?
11/11/98: Send Dowd Down to the Minors
11/05/98: Feeding Gore to a shark named Bush
10/30/98: "Pope" Jann and his rappers speak ---it's time for fun again
10/28/98: Lowered expectations, but the GOP holds the cards
10/23/98: Speaking from Zabar’s: Michael Moore!
10/21/98: Bubba redux? His uptick won't last
10/16/98: Gore for President: The Bread Lines Are Starting to Form

©1999, Russ Smith