BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: LIVE 1975-85 (1986)
1) Thunder Road; 2) Adam Raised A Cain; 3) Spirit In The Night; 4) 4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy); 5) Paradise By The "C"; 6) Fire; 7) Growin' Up; 8) It's Hard To Be A Saint In The City; 9) Backstreets; 10) Rosalita (Come Out Tonight); 11) Raise Your Hand; 12) Hungry Heart; 13) Two Hearts; 14) Cadillac Ranch; 15) You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch); 16) Independence Day; 17) Badlands; 18) Because The Night; 19) Candy's Room; 20) Darkness On The Edge Of Town; 21) Racing In The Street; 22) This Land Is Your Land; 23) Nebraska; 24) Johnny 99; 25) Reason To Believe; 26) Born In The USA; 27) Seeds; 28) The River; 29) War; 30) Darlington County; 31) Working On The Highway; 32) The Promised Land; 33) Cover Me; 34) I'm On Fire; 35) Bobby Jean; 36) My Hometown; 37) Born To Run; 38) No Surrender; 39) Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out; 40) Jersey Girl.
Nothing but the biggest for The Boss! Unless I'm very wrong, this was the first ever live album to be released not on two or even three LPs (that did happen in the prog-rock era), but on five. And of course, it is a live retrospective that spans a whole decade, but even so, I don't think even the Grateful Dead had the gall to put out anything like that in 1986. Bruce did have a certain excuse, though — he had established his reputation as a major kick-ass live performer already at the time of his first studio records, yet somehow even after the major success of Born To Run live albums did not appear on the horizon. Modesty? Laziness? Lack of interest?
Well, whatever. Live 1975-85, released as a sort of major summarization of Bruce's live career, is neither modest nor lazy, and, judging by its careful construction, shows somebody who is very interested in establishing a memory of himself as one of the greatest live players in his generation, so we should assume that this is just Bruce catching up. (We could assume that he intentionally waited all this time, so he could accumulate enough material and market the biggest live album ever made — but then, rock musicians don't usually plan that far ahead). The downside, of course, is that the album is so goddamn sprawling, there probably are very few people in the world, bar complete Springsteen nutsos, who sat through it more than once — and I, too, have to confess that I am writing about it after only just one listen. It was a good listen, though, and I might find myself coming back to at least parts of the monster at later dates.
The title is actually a bit misleading, because only one song here, out of a whoppin' 40, really goes back to 1975 — the opening ʽThunder Roadʼ, presented here in its stripped-down, totally non-thunderous rendition (just piano, chimes, and harmonica). To listen to Bruce in all his early bearded glory, loyal bootleg-hating citizens would have to wait for another twenty years, until the archival release of Hammersmith Odeon '75. The real bulk of this album, though, begins July 7, 1978, at the Roxy Theatre, and takes us through three consecutive sections: the 1978 tour, the 1980-81 River tour, and the largest and the most recent section, occupying almost half of the set — the 1984-85 Born In The USA tour. Understandably, most of the sections focus seriously on contemporary material, but, also understandably, the first section dips heavily into the man's early catalog, so, all in all, all of his seven studio albums up to that date are well represented (Nebraska suffers the most, but it would also be the least reasonable source of material for live performances, unless Bruce started doing all those acoustic songs in full E Street Band arrangements or something. Which he would later do, but not in 1984).
Unless you are of the utterly cynical persuasion, it makes no sense to insist that the tremendous energetics that has always been the norm for Bruce's shows is somehow not felt on this collection: it is, all the way through. Regardless of the «inherent» quality of the song being played, it is always played at the top level — admittedly, maybe the man could have occasional weaker nights, but that is what the selection process is there for (though I guess that tracks were shuffled from different shows largely because of varying sound quality). As the E Street Band kicks in with full force into ʽAdam Raised A Cainʼ (great choice for a lead-in track), you understand that this live rendition from The Roxy is every bit as powerful as its studio counterpart, and the studio counterpart was one of Bruce's most powerful moments in the studio, ever. Later on in his career he would, unfortunately, begin to slur and speed up the words, disrupting the perfect flow of the song, but back in 1978, when it was still fresh, he just made sure that his demons were properly exorcised in front of the population, night after night.
Most of the other songs also stay true to their studio versions, with just a few variations (ʽCover Meʼ gets a pathetic-dramatic introduction, with Patti Scialfa wailing "nowhere to run!" and her future husband calling back drama-pop-metal fashion — totally unnecessary, I'd say, but apparently Bruce thought back in 1984 that the song needed something to «cover» it up. Some great soloing from Lofgren and the Boss himself, though). Nothing really needs to be reinvented, though, as long as the songs come to an extra life on stage due to the raw passion of all the players involved. Stuff like ʽRosalitaʼ would be the perfect example, but for some reason I am really digging this version of ʽCadillac Ranchʼ — a song that never jumped out at me that much when it was on The River, but here, it is just admirable how great a song consisting of 16 simplistic bars can be if you just give it your all (unfortunately, it also means that these bars have become so permanently lodged in my head that it will take quite a few days to get it out — I guess I have The Big Man to thank for that. By the way, if you check some of the old live videos for that song, Bruce does some really hilarious dance moves at the end).
It is somewhat different about the stories, though — an integral and indisputable element of each of the man's shows, but every time he starts out with some recollection of how he was abused by his parents (ʽGrowin' Upʼ) or of his girlfriend troubles (ʽThe Riverʼ, naturally), some red light comes up in my mind: «man, you're overdoing it». The music is heartfelt enough; do we really need that additional element of intimacy? Granted, we are spared here from his foam-at-the-mouth impersonations of an Afro-American preacher, all set to baptize you in the alleged name of rock'n'roll, that would become the norm at later concerts — but those nasty jabs at his folks that accompany ʽGrowin' Upʼ are really just as irritating. This is where Bruce the musician, in my opinion, becomes completely overshadowed by Bruce the populist, and I don't really buy it that the two are inseparable — after all, these stories were not present on the studio recordings, were they? At least if they were improvised and spontaneous, that'd be an excuse, but clearly they were just as well rehearsed as the songs themselves. Not good at all.
Fortunately, that's just three or four spoilt tracks out of forty, and for compensation, you have a bunch of tracks that were (back then) unavailable anywhere else — such as Bruce's own rendition of ʽBecause The Nightʼ (he did right to give the song to Patti Smith, who sings it better, but she never had the full power of the E Street Band behind her, alas); ʽFireʼ, which ended up as a huge hit single for The Pointer Sisters, but is actually done better by Bruce (less pop, more feeling); ʽSeedsʼ, a surprisingly tough and gritty blues-rocker from the Born In The USA era that may have been left off the album due to being too heavy (bad synths, though); and a couple of R'n'B covers like ʽRaise Your Handʼ and ʽWarʼ, to which the man's hoarse roaring voice is ideally suited. Oh, and just so that you do not forget where the roots are, the record ends with a cover of Tom Waits' ʽJersey Girlʼ (whose lyrics Bruce doctored a little bit, replacing "whores" with "girls" so that, you know, Jersey people would feel less confused about their homeplace).
Because this monster is so big, this makes it really hard to get into any of the tracks in major detail — and it probably isn't the point anyway. The point is that the monster is big, big, B-I-G, American size big, and whether you like it or whether you don't just don't matter, because it is simply an objective fact. Tons of songs, top volume, top energy, most dedicated people in the business, and sooner or later, the atmosphere becomes contagious. Despite the length, at no particular point does the record become boring (maybe only a little bit during the Nebraska section, but it also has its place as a «breath-catcher» in between all the high energy jolts), and, well, it's just three and a half hours long in the end — the approximate length of a single Springsteen live show, as it were. Thumbs up.