Sunday, March 25, 2012

This Big Bruce Train

Ever since Bruce & his E Street boys did take after take, searching for the sound of emotional largeness that eventually combined the sonic lushness of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound with the incandescent textures of Roy Orbison and Blonde on Blonde, Bruce has never been afraid to appropriate varied sources to help form a singular aural experience. Time has only made him more ambitious, playing with synthesizers on Human Touch, molding a needed truce between his ensemble bandleader intuitions and his persistent wanna be Woody Guthrie complex on the Seeger Sessions and more recently on Working on a Dream’s Outlaw Pete, assembling a nine minute opus that accomapnies a tall tale about a mythical cowboy with strings and choirs and othe studio effects, bringing a boyishly exhilirated pulp sensibly to an Aaron Copeland homage.

All sorts of sonic accents –  drum and bass loops, penny whistles, raps, samples (from Alan Lomax) seasons Wrecking Ball, a collection of neo New Deal songs praising egalitarian ethos, with blistering rockers – We Take Care of Our Own to rocking dirges with both Celtic and industrial overtones, like Death to My Hometown. But the most fascinating appropriation and aural composition is the amazing Land of Hope of Dreams, one Bruce’s most ambitious – and accomplished – recordings.

I love train songs, and Land of Hope & Dreams – is probably the best new train song since Josh Turner’s Long Black Train (I could be wrong about this pseudo-stat). Bruce’s vehicle interest has been and always will be the automobile (Wendy doesn’t seem to be a mass transit kind of gal) and in his only other train song, Downbound Train (from Born in the USA), the train is a figment of an outsider’s imagination, becoming an ominous symbol of doom, similar to Folsom Prison Blues. For his second train song, Bruce creates an aural pastiche where the train becomes an allegory for America, and he does so by audaciously co-opting two train masterpieces – This Train aka This Train Is Bound for Glory, and People Get Ready.

Bruce wrote Land of Hope and Dreams written in the late 90s and some amazing live versions are available. Essentially the song is a suite – an introduction, two stanzas, an extended call and response sequence making up the body of the song, leading to an emotional climax and a coda. The studio version is truly an audio composition, a conglomeration of musical samplings, effects absent from the live takes. Usually a band will try to recreate a studio cut live, or if they’re feeling contrarian totally switches the arrangement from studio to stage. Many other examples show an artist trotting out new material on tour, refining it, basically rehearsing it before committing the track to tape. Bruce foregoes these two traditions; he doesn’t just mess with the arrangement, which he does only slightly, but essentially creates an aural poem. This version of Land of Hopes & Dreams can never be recreated on stage, it is as much a creature of recording technology as Outlaw Pete from Working on a Dream, and to a lesser extent, the more minimalist predecessors as Philadelphia, the Human Touch album and the more synthesizer folk mash ups on Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils in the Dust.

First we hear a lone black gospel voice repeating “This Train” until it is soon joined by a muted choir. Then we hear the beat – a bass with minimal percussion – and it sounds like a classic hip-hop sample. Bruce is obviously making a tribute to two African American musical genres that have and continue to shape music of our land and the world. But as those elements start rising, the plucking of a banjo emerges – album credits say it’s Bruce! – bringing in folk and mountain music. You realize that you also have been hearing organ swells – a sound that bridges Gospel with Soul and R&B. But when the intro melds into the opening of the song, you hear that organ-rich E=Street sound – the shore band sound on Classic Bruce and Southside Johnny album. Not only does this opening serve as a spectacular pastiche of American song, Bruce places his E-Street sound at the center, a culmination of the People’s Music.

He sings:  “Grab your ticket and your suitcase/You don’t know where you’re goin now/But you know you won’t be back/We’ll take what we can carry/Yeah, and leave the rest

The theme is escape, something Bruce has been thinking about in public since Growin Up and was the basis of his first major hit and signature tune, Born to Run. Here, the couple, apparent refuges in a landscape, which except for the train they have boarded, is one of anxiety and danger. The couple swears allegiance, not just to each other, but to hope, which Bruce believes is a virtue: “Well I will provide for you/and I’ll stand by your side/you’ll need a good companion now/for this part of the ride/leave behind your sorrows/let this day be the last/tomorrow there’ll be sunshine/and this darkness past.”

Springsteen conjures up an American idyll as he introduces the titular chorus: “Big Wheels Roll Through Fields/Where Sunlight Streams/Meet me in a Land of Hope and Dreams.” They are not there yet, but they are closer. He echoes the dream all progressives believe in – the dream of a better tomorrow.

Then the next segment of the Suite begins where Bruce sings what the Gospel Singers chanted when the song began, and as the choir returns Bruce leads the, with this This Train being the call, and Bruce’s egalitarian, neo-new deal vision manifested in the response. “This Train carries Saints and Sinners/This Train carries Losers and Winners/This Train Carries Whores and Gamblers.”

In Land of Hope & Dreams, Bruce appropriates the basic melody – which he airs out and adds a back-beat – of This Train, as in, This Train is Bound for Glory. The Glory the original refers is the glory of heaven, i.e. the paradise for the elect and worthy, a paradise not of this world but the next. But Bruce introverts the original metaphor, thus adopting it into his all-encompassing egalitarian vision.
Most versions of the classic This Train  begin: "This train don't carry no gamblers, this train/
No crap shooters, no midnight ramblers."
This Train is performed by a wide array of artists, from the folk music master Cisco Houston, probably my favorite, to such diverse folks as the Delmore Brothers and the Staples Singers. In the 90s, perhaps the most recent version, was by Rockabilly stalwart, Sleepy LaBeef. Rumor has it that Bob Marley even recorded a Version. Of course, Bound for Glory is the title of Woody Guthrie’s autobiography, although as far as I know, no recording of him singing this song exists.
This Train is a gospel song and is also one of the oldest train songs. Trains are a mutable metaphor, which is probably why there are so many of the damming things (I honestly have more than four hours of train songs on my computer and I have yet to rip all my CDs). I get goose pimples thinking that the first train metaphor was metaphysical.
Bruce tends towards gnostic Christianity: God is everywhere and in everyone. His faith is purely egalitarian. Bruce’s update of This Train is really not a rejection of the original, but a correction.
As the song concludes, with some interplay the Gospel Singers and a fading of the full band to the more sparse arrangement that opened this mini-Copeland-esque opera, the voice of Michelle Moore, featured in various spots throughout Wrecking Ball sings the other great train as heaven metaphor song that completes the mash up, People Get Ready, by the great Curtis Mayfield, the classic version being perfumed by his band, The Impressions.
As Land of Hope and Dreams shifts to the last portion of the suite, the coda reprises the intro, Bruce ending his litany of all the losers and outcasts forbidden to board the original This Train by declaring, “You Don’t Need No Ticket,” quoting Mayfield’s memorable lyrics: “People get ready/ there's a train comin'/You don't need no baggage, just get on board/All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin'/You don't need no ticket, just thank the lord.
Bruce’s vision is more in keeping with Mayfield, whose song – remarkably, a top 10 hit upon its 1965 release on the secular R&B charts – “Have pity on those whose chances grow thinner/For there is no hiding place against the kingdoms throne.” The Mashup and pastiche feel of this spiritual-based tone based poem is that Bruce points out the musical similarities between This Train and People Get Ready, and the latter is really not much other than a slower tempo arrangement.
Woody Guthrie’s Farm Labor Train and more recently, Dave Alvin’s Jubilee Train – train metaphors are always ripe to espouse new deal ethos. Land of Hope and Dreams combines both the Christian spirituality of train as heaven and the political we are all in this together train metaphor, building on past traditions to form a fresh message relevant to our own troubled times. What sells this song, making it truly transcended is one very special sample, serving as the climax of the entire enterprise as well as the segue between This Train and People Get Ready – and that sample is ClarenceClemmons, may his name forever be praised!
According to a recent Rolling Stone interviewwith Bruce promoting the album, Clarence was feeling poorly after recording with Lady Gaga, postponed a session with E-Street, went home and had what would prove to be a fatal stroke. The record producer added a solo from one of the live versions of Land of Hope & Dreams to the finish the track. Ironic and tragic that Clarence’s last studio solo would not be with for the glory of E-Street, nonetheless the sample of the solo enhances the pastiche nature that is the foundation of the Wrecking Ball version.
The solo comes in as the lush mesh of musical influences – gospel, folk, E-Street Rock & Roll – are on full throttle. As Bruce intones This Train carries Lost souls etc… ; as the litany bills Bruce is wailing into one of his trademark howls (pulling out this town a winnnnnner!); and he begins to sing not just about the passengers but the train itself – This Train, Hear The Steel Wheels Singing/This Train, Bells of Freedom Ringing.
Referencing this classic American dream image (also Bob Dylan’s Chimes of Freedom, which Bruce has also covered) – bells of freedom – the song reaches it metaphorical heaven on earth metaphor and as Lincoln continues to remind all Americans, that our country was and is The Last Great Hope For Mankind. Bruce takes two Gospel classics, and by filtering them through his gnostic vision that makes, at least for the purposes of this song – and our current political realities -- obsolete the separation of the spiral and the material. To underscore this message of freedom, Clarence, now in Glory himself, gives us what is tantamount to his last E-Street solo. What the listener is reminded of is not that the technical prowess of Clarence’s playing, but how distinctive it was, how easily his emotional warmth is conveyed by his playing. There’s no mistaking who is playing. There’s no mistaking Clarence Clemmons!
In the RS interview, Bruce talks about crying when he first head the mix. As John Stewart, who conducted the interview, says, it’s a powerful moment. When I was first hearing this song, thinking what a clever take on This Train, Bruce began his wail about the actual land of hope of dreams, getting to the bells of freedom line, Clarence appears suddenlly, unexpected but pefectly, as if from heaven, emerging through the now multitude of Aural Americana. Alive again, in our ears as he is in our hearts. The man who in the 70s returned the saxophone to its rightful place in Rock & Roll, the Big Man. Clarence made E-Street one of the few integrated Rock Bands of the 70s, and his presence in climax of this song echoes the hip-hop and Gospel references of the introduction.
Real tears appeared in my eyes when I first heard this song; it’s so moving to hear Clarence in this context, to hear one last solo in this multi-layered homage to American song and the human spirit. I’m sure I’ll be able to hear this solo with getting teary eyed and chocked up, but it sure hasn’t happened yet. It is simply, a musical moment of supreme magnificance. Consider for a moment, everything Bruce is doing in this song – the studio confections, the blending of musical traditions, the rewriting of two major, well known and beloved, Train songs and in it he interweaves a tribute to not just a comrade but a highlgy recognizable figure to popular culture as well as someone loved by the audience of the record. Bruce doesn’t play it safe. Just the attempt is admirable enough. That Bruce accomplishes these goals, balances them all, conforms them to his vision, augments the traditions the song is built upon, is remarkable. Land of Hope and Dreams is one of his great recordings, one of the few in his latter career that stands up to his heyday masterpieces.
The song begins with a couple on a train, and the fellowship needed to pull America out of the shit hole 30 years of Reganism has dumped us, emanates for the couple on the train. All we have is each other. Bruce, in his liner notes –taken from his eulogy for Clarence – writes: Clarence was Big and he made me feel Big, think, love and dream, big.”

As big as a train that is as big as a Land of Hope and Dreams

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