christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: Rock

The Boss at 70: When I was kidnapped by Bruce Springsteen fans for a lost weekend in the north

It’s a cold, Saturday night in March, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1996. My flatmates – medics and geography students with exams approaching, are making pasta in their dressing gowns or watching Friends on TV, their revision notes resting on their laps. As an English student, I have a somewhat more relaxed schedule. But this evening there is renewed sense of urgency. Tonight, Bruce Springsteen is in town.

But this is not the barnstorming Bruce of Born in the USA and Badlands, all chiming electric guitars and thunderous drums. This is The Ghost of Tom Joad acoustic tour. He’s picking up where he left off with the Nebraska album: mournful downbeat ballads inspired by the lost souls of the American south and Mexican border; Steinbeck anti-heroes. Still Bruce is Bruce and I’m drawn like a moth to the light.

It all began five years earlier. Babysitting for the neighbours’ kids, I was rummaging through their tapes, and stumbled on Born in the USA and Dark Side of the Moon. I had heard of both, but had listened to neither. While my fourteen-year-old self found himself impatient with the celestial space-rock of the Floyd’s album, what punched home was the whip snap guitar, the howl and bear-like roar of The Boss. While I was later to discover his soulful depths, the folk, the storytelling, like millions of others, I was lured in by the big, bright, bold production, the Chuck Berry-like torrent of lyrics and the lock-tight band.

It was the start of a journey that took me from boy to a man. I dropped the needle on Born to Run when I got my GCSE results. I prepped for my driving test by listening to Racing in the Street (I would have been better off swatting up on my highway code) I snogged to The River and drive through France with the Live album ringing in my headphones. At one point my lovely American aunt takes me to his front drive, where I collect a pebble and put it in my pocket (my little brother later lobs it in the sea…). By the time his flawed twin albums Human Touch and Lucky Town arrived, I was loyal enough to look beyond their weaknesses and appreciate that even below-par Bruce was above-par everyone else. Which takes us up to ‘96.

Approaching the end of my third year, all three of my student loans have now evaporated in a cloud of Newcastle Brown Ale, second hand books and cheese and pickle stotties. I have about fifty pounds to make it to the end of term, still a couple of weeks away. My credit card is lying in two pieces at the bottom of an HSBC wastepaper basket after it was neatly snipped in half in front of me.

Bruce collage

All the evidence says I should stay in. Instead I grab my coat, withdraw all my earthly wealth and head down to the City Hall. Declining a hundred-pound ticket from a tout, I shuffle to the back of the returns queue and pray to the angels of E-Street to let me in. I’m with a couple from Manchester, Dave and Sue. Between them, they carry a flask, packed lunch and a vinyl copy of The River from 1980, hoping for a signature. They saw Bruce last night and loved it so much they drove across the country on the off chance of getting a ticket for tonight. We hang around for twenty minutes exchanging Bruce-lore, all of us quietly aware that the chances of someone deciding not to go and see Bruce Springsteen and stay in and watch Friends instead, are quite slim. That is until the president of the Bruce Springsteen fan club ambles up and waves three tickets like winning lottery tickets. At first we think he’s gloating, until he says: ‘Face value is fine,’ he adds casually. ‘Who’s a three?’

‘We’re a three,’ Dave says immediately, grabbing his wife and me, and holding us up by our collars to demonstrate the fact. The deal is swiftly done and we glide into the venue, unable to believe our luck. Bruce is reliably magnificent, playing an all acoustic set of Mexican border songs peppered with dramatic renderings from his back catalogue. His new version of Darkness On the Edge of Town now sounds like Pinball Wizard. He essays a blistering slide guitar version of Born in the USA, its fist punching chorus entirely absent. When someone calls for Thunder Road, he growls: ‘I ‘aint playing that old bastard.’ With a ponytail, goatee and torn white t-shirt, he looks more like a pirate shipwrecked at Whitley Bay than a millionaire from New Jersey.

I get chatting to the fans on my other side, two blokes and their sister, all from Liverpool, who tell me their allegiance is divided between Bruce and Jackson Browne. ‘When I listen to Jackson,’ says one of the brothers, ‘I kind of feel like I’m cheating on my wife.’ They ask me what I’m doing here on my own, and I tell them the smallest white lie: that I’m covering the gig for the local paper.

‘A journalist!’ one of them exclaims. ‘Flippin ‘eck, we’ve got a journalist here! Mind your Ps and Qs Deborah.’ I daren’t tell them that it’s just the student paper.

After the gig, they whisk me across town to a tiny club where, in a surreal twist, Denny Laine, the Moody Blues and Wings’ guitarist is just finishing a gig. One of the brothers pushes me to the front. ‘Hey Denny, he says, ‘we’ve got the press here! Will you have a word?’ Forced to improvise on the spot, and without so much as a pen and paper for a prop, I tell him I love Again and Again and Again, an obscure late Wings’ song he wrote. He seems to like this, but I quickly realise it’s not a question. ‘Er, what songs are you playing on the tour?’ I blunder. ‘The ones I just played,’ he replies. I retreat to the bar.

The next thing I know, I’m in a new-build house in a village outside Newcastle being plied with more booze. We sing Jackson Browne, Bruce and Neil Young until the small hours. I’m younger than the rest of them by a good ten years, but they seem to have adopted me. ‘How come you know all this old stuff?’ Deborah ask me. ‘Well you see,’ I explain, ‘there was this stack of cassettes…’

When I wake in the morning dribbling into the grey carpet of a home office. A cup of tea is delivered, and I’m informed we’re heading up to Edinburgh.  I wonder whether I’ve been kidnapped. If I have, then I’ve developed a serious case of Stockholm syndrome.

Over the next 24 hours, I’m driven to the Scottish capital, plied with more booze, bought a ticket for Bruce’s Edinburgh show (‘We’re earning, you’re not’ they tell me) and taken on a pub crawl. We stay over at Deborah’s house. Next day, I’m deposited on a grey street in Newcastle with a telephone number scratched on a piece of paper, watching their car disappear around the corner. Two Bruce gigs and about fifteen pints for twenty-five quid. This is the sort of thing that only happens at Bruce Springsteen gigs.

I can’t help but feel it’s the sort of thing the man himself would approve of. Ordinary decent people sharing what they have and looking out for each other, bonded by a common love for music. Bruce keeps adding new chapters to his story and everyone else’s. His latest album, Western Stars, is a jewel. But for my part, I still treasure those two lost days of adventure, travelling up the beautiful Northumbria coast into Scotland, stepping out of my own life for a little while, with the windows down and sound of Bruce’s voice and guitar filling the sky.

Happy birthday, Bruce. Thanks for the music and thanks to your great fans too.

The Penguin Diaries by Christopher James, 65 sonnets about Captain Scott’s last expedition, is available now.

‘Sing us an old song’ – Review of Before by Boo Hewerdine

A new album by Boo Hewerdine is always an occasion for bell-ringing, carousing and general rejoicing. In short, it’s something to look forward to. ‘Before’ is no exception. Except ‘looking forward to’ is perhaps the wrong phrase, because this is another impeccable collection of those irresistibly old-fashioned songs in which Boo excels.

He admits as much himself in ‘Old Songs,’ in praise of the ancient melodies that had families gathered in parlours singing with grandad, a pint of stout and a woodbine. ‘Sing us an old song,’ he begs, ‘one we all know, that lives in our memories from so long ago.’ It’s a lament for a simpler, happier time when families didn’t disappear into their devices and Netflix box sets on a Friday evening. Not only does it seem like it was written about the 1930s, it sounds like it was written then too. What makes Boo’s music so audacious is that he attempts (and usually succeeds) in creating brand new classics.

There are two theories. Either he has a stash of Sinatra and Nat King Cole albums that no one else has heard, and is slowly releasing the songs, or else he has an ear trumpet that reaches all the way back to 1937. His ability to transport you back to the golden age of popular song is consistently astonishing.

Last Rays of the Sun is a nostalgic, elegiac reflection on ageing, with toy piano accompaniment. ‘We see true beauty in the last rays of the sun.’ It’s one of those luminous, mid-pace numbers that Boo has made his own. His McCartney-esque melody is a counterpoint to the gloomy ruminations, the metronomic ticking in the background reminding us of the unstoppable march of time.

One of the many delicious quirks of this album are the extra tracks between the songs – eccentric instrumentals that foreshadow the main songs. For example, the one before Before is called Before Before. It’s a little confusing, but you get the idea. These are recorded in bizarre, creaky, arrangements on what sound like Japanese banjos and toy pianos. They’re like those odd, lean-to sheds that are squeezed into the gaps between houses. My favourite is Prepared, a funky, lo-fi interlude that threatens to turn into something interesting before vanishing into the ether.

If the opening track is a reflection on advancing years, then Imaginary Friends is a bittersweet look back at childhood spent on bicycles riding ‘by the old canal.’ It conjures images of a lonely existence, but with the consolation of a vivid imagination. It’s graced with beautiful instrumental passages, descending lines and unusual instrumentation.

Silhouette is the first of the true classics, beginning with a delicate, timpani-like accompaniment, rather like opening a music box. The lyric is masterful ‘When shadows are your own company, then you’re a silhouette.’ While classic sounding, the melodies are genuinely affecting, reliably inventive and freshly minted.

The title song, Before, continues the purple patch. Except this time, we’re not merely returning to the early 20th century. Instead Boo transports us back several million years ago, to an unspoilt planet Earth untroubled by human meddling. ‘Come with me and understand, this was never our own land.’ It’s a brilliantly original take on conservation, climate change and a warning against hubris. We weren’t around for billions of years and the Earth did just fine without us.

Reno is something of a departure; a low-key country balled, complete with mournful dobro. ‘Don’t go to Reno’ is Boo’s advice – ‘you won’t come back this time.’ By the resigned tone of his singing, he doesn’t believe you’ll follow his advice. He knows you’ll be led into temptation.

Undoubtedly the jewel of the collection is Starlight, a song he had already gifted to Eddie Reader. She delivers an ethereally beautiful cover; yet Boo’s stripped back version is arguably better. His voice is high and keening and the melody utterly mesmerising. If it found its way into a Disney film it would earn him a million pounds.

Wild Honey is another magical tune, with fragmented poetic lyrics, but like so many of the songs on Before, it’s tinged with melancholy. That’s perhaps why the optimistic, defiant sounding ‘I Wish I Had Wings’ is such a welcome closer. I imagined hundreds of synchronised swimmers performing to it, in a lavish finale to an MGM musical. ‘I know these words aren’t much, but I don’t care/I can hear an orchestra it’s in the air.’

One day, these new songs will become old songs and people will appreciate more than they do now.  Bravo Boo Hewerdine on a first-class return.

Before is released in September.

The summer of Bruce

When it comes to Bruce, it’s all about the power and the glory, the hope and the dreams. These are the sort of words that come up when people ask you what the fuss is all about. It’s also about jangling rock and roll, wild soul singing, stinging guitar solos and drums that make you think the stadium is collapsing around your ears.

Bruce spent a significant portion of his summer touring the cities of Europe like a one man EU trade delegation, and if ever a continent needed cheering up, it’s Europe with its youth unemployment and economic woes. I was lucky enough to catch him twice (thanks to friends Mark and Stephen) and I was able to remind myself why I’ve played his records at all my life’s significant moments – after getting my GCSE results (Born to Run) before my driving test (Cadillac Ranch) arriving in my Student Room (Out in the Street) before I got married (The River) before my son was born (Walk like a Man). So it was good to catch up with the man himself.

Coventry was a rain swept experience with some frustrations as well as plenty of highlights. Events were a overshadowed further by the fact that it was the same day we heard James Gandolfi had died and fellow actor and Bruce Right Hand Man Steve Van Zandt wore a black bandana. Managing what should essentially be a party under this double rain cloud was a potentially difficult trick to pull off. Such melancholy fare as Seeds, Trapped and Long Walk Home, requested by the die hard fans down the front, while stirring stuff, confused some of the more casual fans and held up the show a little. ‘I’ve got no idea what’s going on, ‘ confessed one baffled Brummie near me, ‘I’ve only got the best of.’

Wrecking Ball and Death to my Hometown (whose anti banker vitriol and stomping power chimed with the crowd) brought the gig back on its feet and the entire Born to Run album that followed was hard to argue with. I’d never heard the full electric Thunder Road live, and it was a thing of awesome beauty. My voice started to shred as I sang along, but other voices around me carried it home as the rain poured down. We Are Alive was another winner – a superb piece of song writing telling the story of America in forgotten voices singing from beyond the grave. With some crowd pleasing Born in the USA selections (with the title track back at its bombastic best) as well as belting folk sing-alongs Shackled and Drawn Pay and Me My Money Down (where he impersonated the crowd’s collective ‘British ass’ inviting them to ‘shake me!’) the battle was eventually won.

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In contrast, Bruce at Hard Rock Calling, on a hot summer night next to the Olympic Stadium was how the man is meant to be appreciated. Uninhibited by rain or bereavement, this was foot on the floor party central. Disposing of Badlands and Prove it All Night early on – in other circumstances the culmination of a show – Bruce laid on a feast of rock and roll. Johnny 99 was a soaring highlight, recast from the Nebraska album as a kind of Status Quo meets Woody Guthrie protest rocker. It’s hard to explain but the towering, electrified performance of one of his best songs was the gold standard for me.

Bruce‘s announcement: ‘You get the Born in the USA album start to finish’ was greeted with the kind of reception you would otherwise get in an office if the boss walked in and announced he was giving everyone the day off. While most Bruce fans, rarely play this one anymore, hearing I’m Goin’ Down and No Surrender live is to experience the kind of delirium you might only otherwise get if England won the World Cup and you won the lottery all on the same afternoon. Yes, Bruce is all about being over the top.

As the sun set over the silver Olympic Velodrome and the strings of Jungleland rang out, I remembered what all the fuss was about. Bruce is about the triumph, the joy and the glory, as well the courage to get back on your feet. He banishes fear and makes everything possible. Of course, like any drug, the effects wear off after a while, but then you are left with the enduring miracle of how a 63 year old man can lift the spirits of an entire continent. As Joe Strummer said, it’s ‘a public service announcement – with guitars!’