Boss Songs Part III: Springsteen Vignettes

Image Credit: Chalkie Davies, Getty Images
Image Credit: Chalkie Davies, Getty Images

Song – “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” Album – Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ 

This song is three minutes of pure bravado that concludes the album in a way that must’ve left initial fans clamoring for more. It’s also another example of Springsteen’s superfluous yet pleasing rhyme, reminiscent of “Blinded by the Light”, a song also included on Greetings but later popularized by Manfred Mann. The speaker of “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” is a young man who demonstrates a sort of hyper self-awareness, knowing right from wrong. Yet his hand is forced by circumstances beyond his control in the predatory city, a theme often visited in Springsteen’s songs. The most often noted lines in the song are chilling: “The devil appeared like Jesus through the steam in the street / Showin’ me a hand I knew even the cops couldn’t beat / I felt his hot breath on my neck as I dove into the heat / It’s so hard to be a saint when you’re just a boy out on the street.” Since it was recorded before Clarence Clemons joined the band, the album version is mostly guitar and piano, but watch the video of the band performing it at the Hammersmith-Odeon in 1975. This utterly enthralling live version is everything a live rock song performance should be. It includes a ragamuffin Springsteen looking every bit like a “king of the alley” who “could talk some trash.” Clarence Clemons, bedecked in an all-white suit, uses his saxophone to add an eerie tension that is sorely missing on the album. Roy Bittan is caught repeatedly manhandling the keys of the Steinway, and right around the three and half-minute mark Steve Van Zandt dares to duel the Boss and his Fender Telecaster. If the performance wasn’t so quintessentially rock-and-roll it could pass as punk before there was punk. Watch it here—you won’t regret it.

Song – “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?” Album – Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ

Like “Lost in the Flood” here’s another Springsteen song without a chorus. Instead, we see a typical Springsteen collage of images and fanciful characters (interstellar mongrel nymphs), but the grim reality that pervades many of his songs is absent. Although there’s no real story here, the Boss keeps it freewheeling and upbeat as he describes the cityscape with a barrage of allusions (Joan Fontaine) and quirky rhymes, with Mary Lou telling the Daily News, “Man, the dope’s that there’s still hope.” The music is pared down, the song is over before it hardly begins, and it can’t be slowed down. I’ve never heard of Bruce playing this song live, but if so I’d pay a fortune to see him perform this two-minute romp in a blazing sixty seconds of stream-of-consciousness rock.

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Litany: Seinfeld Quotes + Poets = Seinquoets

As an avid Seinfeld viewer and poetry reader, I enjoy when the two inexplicably coalesce in my mind. The more I considered it, the more I realized that quite a few famous Seinfeld quotes could have been uttered or written by famous poets. If you truly know your Seinfeld and your poetry, you’ll understand why I paired the Seinfeld quote with a specific poet. Some are more obvious than others, but since it’s safe to assume more people know their Seinfeld better than their poetry, I added the hashtags as context for those not as knowledgeable about poetry. Think you can add to the collection? Click on the “leave a comment” section at the end of the post and don’t forget the hashtag.

Image Credit: commons.wikimedia.org
Image Credit: Castle Rock Entertainment & Sony Pictures, commons.wikimedia.org
  • “Sometimes the road less traveled is less traveled for a reason.” – Robert Frost #roadnottaken
  • “I can’t go to a bad movie by myself. What, am I gonna make sarcastic remarks to strangers?” – Dorothy Parker #acidtongue
  •  “I’ve never heard of a relationship being affected by punctuation.” E.E. Cummings #modernistpoet
  • “Actually it was in gym class. I was trying to climb the ropes and Jerry was spotting me. I kept slipping and burning my thighs and then finally I slipped and fell on Jerry’s head. We’ve been close ever since.” – Allen Ginsberg #howl
  • “The sea was angry that day my friend, like an old man trying to send back soup at a deli.” – Stevie Smith #notwavingbutdrowning
  • “You have the chicken, the hen, and the rooster. The chicken goes with the hen… So who is having sex with the rooster?” – William Carlos Williams #redwheelbarrow
  • “Y’know I remember when I was a kid growing up, kids would make fun of my name like you wouldn’t believe – ‘Jerry Jerry Dingleberry’, ‘Seinsmelled.’”- Shel Silverstein #sidewalkends
  • “I’m not a lesbian. I hate men, but I’m not a lesbian.” – Anne Sexton #herkind
  • “Do you ever get down on your knees and thank God you know me and have access to my dementia?” – Edgar Allan Poe #darknessilluminated
  • “This woman hates me so much, I’m starting to like her.” Charles Bukowski #misogynisticlove
  • “Do you have any idea how much time I waste in this apartment?” – Emily Dickinson #aloneintheattic
  • “I couldn’t raise a kid? C’mon, I love bossing people around.” – Gertrude Stein #mentor?
  •  “Man, it’s the nineties… It’s Hammer time!” – Frank O’Hara #celebritypoems
  • “I’ve always been a stall man.” – T.S. Eliot #uptight

Poems You Might Have Missed: Emphasis on Mister or Peanut, Robo or Boy by Matthea Harvey

If you’ve never read Matthea Harvey‘s work, you’re missing one of the most insightful and fascinating imaginations in contemporary poetry. Reading Harvey’s work reminds me of the words of the French poet Rimbaud: “Woman will discover the unknown! Will her world of ideas differ from ours? She will discover strange things, unfathomable, repulsive, delightful; we will accept and understand them.” While Harvey has published several books, Rimbaud’s words most aptly describe Modern Life, .

Image Credit: poetryfoundation.org
Image Credit: Doug McNamara, poetryfoundation.org

Modern Life, like much of her other work, includes a hybridity motif, splitting and splicing together objects, animals, and language. It includes a series of poems including the bionic Robo-Boy, perhaps my favorite portion of this serious yet decidedly playful work. This series of poems are a good example of Harvey’s ability to fuse a sense of humanity into the premise of a futuristic creature that in fact doesn’t feel that futuristic, progress being progress. And while the vast majority of readers and real-lifers will undoubtedly frown upon the humanness of a bionic creature, Robo-Boy is not so unlike us in the series’ final poem, in which “he’ll sit on a fence and look at the clouds, through exhilaration, hysteria, delight, despair.”

Emphasis on Mister or Peanut, Robo or Boy 

In the chapters on Special Children, the parenting books stress
the need for role models. Hence the silver-framed portraits of Mr.
Peanut, the Michelin Man and Mrs. Butterworth in silver frames
on Robo-Boy’s bureau. Robo-Boy has never quite known what
to do with them. For a while he thought they might be estranged
relatives, especially since his parents never mentioned them. Mr.
Peanut, debonair as Fred Astaire, looks like the kind of uncle who
might tell you over steak and a cigar that with a pair of gloves and
a monocle slotted over your eyesocket, you can have your pick of
the ladies. Mrs. Butterworth figured more in Robo-Boy’s brief religious
phase–there’s something holy in her maple syrup glow, and
in her shape, something of the Buddha. The Michelin Man is the
one who worries him. With his perpetual thumbs-up and cheerful
expression he looks like he might be hoping to hitchhike his way the
hell out of here–

– from Modern Life by Matthea Harvey, published by Graywolf Press, 2007.

Harvey’s newest collection If the Tabloids Are True What Are You? has already garnered numerous positive reviews and will be released 19 August 2014.

Boss Songs Part II – Springsteen Vignettes

Image Credit: Art Maillett
Image Credit: Art Maillett

Song – “Backstreets”
Album – Born to Run

This is perhaps my favorite Boss song of all time, although it is admittedly difficult and probably unfair to have to choose only one. The piano intro being played by Roy Bittan at the beginning of “Backstreets” feels like home and heartbreak all at the same. In his Rolling Stone review of the album Greil Marcus said it should be a “prelude to a rock and roll version of The Iliad.” The lyrics are also a perfect mixture of nostalgia and desolation. I love the first and last verses especially, which demonstrate Springsteen’s poetry of the lost. He uses the poetic sound devices such as the alliteration in “soft infested summer” and the internal, imperfect rhyme and assonance of “tying faith between our teeth”—all of which balances nicely against the grammatically incorrect yet fitting sound of the phrase “we was born in.” In the final verse he sings, “Remember all the movies, Terry, we’d go see / Trying to learn how to walk like heroes we thought we had to be / And after all this time to find we’re just like all the rest.” At some point in our youth, we dream we’re rising, trying to live up to some unattainable ideal. Then one day we discover that glory passes most of us over, our youth is gone, and all that’s left is life on the backstreets.

Song – “Born in the U.S.A.”
Album – Born in the U.S.A.

When I was eight years old I owned two very distinct cassette tapes: Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A What a combination! I listened to both albums every weekend for something like a year. Just like nearly everyone else in the eighties I misinterpreted “Born in the U.S.A.” as a patriotic theme. With the “I was born in U.S.A.” lyric, you can’t  help being jingoistic and dismissively arrogant about being an American. The phrase had to be a boast, but of course, that is all part of the irony of the song about a soldier pushed aside by the economic circumstances of the very nation he defended. Once you really listen to the lyrics you realize this song is anything but patriotic. It’s about a man run afoul of the law who can’t catch a break. He’s sent to Vietnam, does his duty, but returns home brotherless, jobless, and hopeless. He’s wasted from waiting, a “long gone daddy in the U.S.A.” The song is saturated in irony, but most people just don’t get it. Musically, I love the snare drum that opens the song, Mighty Max Weinberg’s concluding drum solo, and in the live version, the wailing guitar at the end. Also, check out Springsteen’s solo version on the slide guitar—it’s intense and much less likely to leave you in a misguided nationalistic stupor.

Litany: Rules for Users of the Lone Star Card at Grocery Stores

Image Credit: decodistrict.org
Image Credit: decodistrict.org

My local grocery store is known as the Deco District H-E-B. Sounds glamorous, I know, but don’t let the moniker hoodwink you. The Deco District is a small area in Central San Antonio that feels incomplete, like an experiment in haphazard gentrification. The store itself is a mishmash of repulsive humanity, not unlike what you might see on a Saturday night at 2 A.M. in the emergency room. In fact, an ambulance has graced the premises numerous times…at a grocery store.

To endure shopping in a store like this, you have to be one of two types of people. You must be either utterly oblivious to your surroundings or have a really good therapist to work out your anger subsequent to shopping.

Since I’m neither oblivious nor able to afford a consumer therapist, I now shop at the next closest H-E-B, a much more pleasant and civil grocery store.

Perhaps one of the things that frustrated me the most about this store before I made the switch was customers using their Lone Star Card (LSC), which offers “access to SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) food benefits and TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) cash benefits”. While I believe in helping those who truly need it, the LSC was obviously one malfunctioning part of an overextended welfare system degraded by the lazy and corrupt. Its misuse became increasingly exasperating.

Therefore, following rule list is composed of somewhat facetious rules I’d like to see implemented by the Texas government. It details my frustrations with LSC users who abuse the system and is entirely based on my real-life experiences. It is not directed at those truly in need of government assistance.

Rule 1 – You must memorize which foods are eligible to purchase using a LSC. If you make a mistake in this regard your card will be confiscated. You will no longer delay other customers in line behind you. Instead, you have to use all the cash that is clearly visible in your wallet.

Rule 2 – You are not allowed to use a LSC to purchase items in order to sell them to the ice cream truck driver in my neighborhood, only so he can resell them at higher prices for a profit. This is especially true if the ice cream truck is already embellished with a fanciful paint job, an aftermarket stereo system, or custom rims.

Rule 3 – You cannot carry your card in an actual Burberry handbag or a faux Burberry handbag. If you are even aware of Burberry, you are in no position to qualify for LSC benefits.

Rule 4 – You cannot use your card if your nails (finger and/or toe) are immaculately trimmed, manicured, and painted, obviously the work of a nail salon. Additionally, if your nails (finger and/or toe) are painted a color offensive to others’ aesthetic sensibilities, such as a neon lime color, any remaining benefits will be deducted.

Rule 5 – You cannot use a LSC and then unload your groceries into a $30,000 vehicle, such as a Chevrolet Suburban with twenty-two inch chrome spinner rims, heavily tinted windows, dual exhaust, and aftermarket grill guard. Because the LSC views nutrition as more important than transportation, your “vehicle” must be a large rectangular one with the word “Via” painted on the side of it, a bicycle, or you must use your own two feet to carry you and your groceries home.

Rule 6 – You cannot use a LSC while wearing more than a single piece of gaudy jewelry, otherwise known as bling. Any more than that is just poor taste, but probably also an indicator of mishandling money.

Rule 7 – Your children, of which there are undoubtedly too many, may not touch any of the other customers’ items, step on their feet, scream uncontrollably, or throw the impulse items across store floor. There must discipline, or there will be disavowal.

Rule 8 – You cannot use a LSC if your body is painted with a dizzying and inky array of colors and designs depicting the guard tower or spider web, which indicate pride in the fact that you’ve been previously incarcerated for illegal activities.

Rule 9 – You cannot use an iPhone or Android mobile phone while checking out. Actually, you cannot even own a smart phone. While enjoying LSC benefits, you are only allowed to use a colossal “Saved by the Bell Zach Morris” style phone, if you happen to find one available.

Rule 10 – You cannot use the LSC if you verbally abuse or contest the actions of the cashier, who on a daily basis exhibits work ethic, self-reliance, and patience, the very qualities with which you are completely unfamiliar.

Rule 11 – You cannot use your LSC if you cannot determine that you have more than ten items in the “ten items or fewer” line. There’s a reason this is rule eleven.

Boss Songs Part I: Springsteen Vignettes

Image Credit: Frank Stefanko
Image Credit: Frank Stefanko

Song – “Cover Me”
Album – Born in the U.S.A.

There’s nothing amazing about this song; it’s just a simple and somewhat cheesy 80s-style rock song with a good guitar solo that gets me every time. When I was eight years old I used to listen to this song in the back den of my house while playing pool. When Bruce sings “This whole world is out there just trying to score / I’ve seen enough I don’t want to see any more,” you understand we all need some kind of savior, and many people are finding it in the false things of this world. Despite my age and innocence, this song made me feel down and out, just an eight-year-old kid hard pressed for a break in this insane world. Check out Juliana Hatfield’s acoustic cover of this here.

Song – “I’m On Fire”
Album – Born in the U.S.A.

“I’m On Fire” is a song of brevity and desire. If it were any longer it would be ruined. As it is you have to replay it several times to get your fill. To me it’s about those certain moments when your passion takes over and nothing else concerns you. It’s a passion that makes it worth living, but also soul-destroying if you can’t act on it. If you’ve ever lusted after someone, you’ll know Bruce got this song just right. Emily Dickinson claimed she knew when she read poetry because it felt like the top of her head was taken off. That’s what this song is like—it just hits you heavy like a shot to the gut.

Song – “I’m Going Down”
Album – Born in the U.S.A.

If you’ve ever been in love with someone who fell out of love with you, this is your song. There are two lyrics I especially like: “We get dressed up and we go out, baby, for the night / We come home early burning, burning in some fire fight.” Sometimes you naively think one wonderful evening on the town will solve all your problems, but somewhere in the night it all goes wrong and ends in a drunken argument. Then the guy realizes she now gets just as much joy from hating you as she used to in loving you. I think that’s what the Boss is getting at when he sings the last lines in the final verse: “You used to love to drive me wild / But lately girl you get your kicks from just driving me down.” That’s a realization you never want to experience, but it happens all the time.

Song – “Lost in the Flood”
Album – Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. & Live From New York

This is the first Springsteen song to drive me into a conscious attempt to learn its lyrics. To this day I’ll recite it in my head if I find myself stuck in a waiting room with nothing to read. Even though the song consists of three stories in three verses with no unifying chorus, Springsteen still brings it together like it’s an anthem of lost causes. On the album version David Sancious ensures the organ wails like an omen of death, but even so I suggest the live version with its blistering guitar solo and soft concluding piano play. Danny Federici’s work on the keys is tremendous and you can tell the Boss is trying to channel a younger version of himself, the self he was when he wrote the song years before. I’ve never owned a muscle car, but this song makes me wish I did, even though I’d probably kill myself driving it. The demise of Jimmy The Saint is perfect: “Well the blaze and noise boy, he’s gunnin’ that bitch loaded to blastin’ point / He rides head first into a hurricane and disappears into a point / And there’s nothin’ left but some blood where the body fell / That is, nothin’ left that you could sell / just junk all across the horizon, a real highwayman’s farewell.” It reminds me of the final race scene in American Graffiti, but far more tragic. Many of Bruce’s characters go out in a final blaze of glory that seems simultaneously beautiful and desperate. It’s a thought that gets captured perfectly when the “somebody” in the final verse sings, “Hey man, did you see that? / His body hit the street with such a beautiful thud.” It’s a verse loaded with a motley coterie of misfits who marvel at the spectacle of death, tragically unaware that their own demise, “the beautiful thud,” is right around the corner. Undoubtedly, one of Springsteen’s darkest songs, it’s utterly absent of the sliver of hope that survives many of his other songs.

The Sham – Mock News for the Cultured: Ken Burns on Ken Burns

By Brad Wise (Flickr: keystone 8mm model B8) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Image Credit: Brad Wise (Flickr)
NEW YORK, NY—Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns recently announced plans to make yet another epic documentary. The topic? Himself.

Ken Burns by Ken Burns is reportedly over 20 hours in length, due to the fact that it documents the making of all of his previous documentaries.

Critics await the documentary with anticipation after sources indicate that the new film also includes many of Burns’s own highly-prized personal documents, such as lists entitled “Favorite Civil War Nicknames”, “Documentaries I’d Like to Make”, and “101 Ways to Celebrate Independence Day Like an American Filmmaker.”

These rarely seen documents are reportedly scrutinized via the Burns effect, a dramatic yet agonizingly slow maneuver that begins with an extreme close-up of the featured artifact and then slowly zooms out to reveal a complete perspective. The maneuver can take several minutes per artifact, another reason for the length of the upcoming production.

To narrate his meta-documentary Burns originally sought American actor Robert Mitchum, who is well-known for his prominent roles in western films and his rugged narration in the “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner” advertising campaign of the early 1990s.

Yet Burns was surprised to discover that Mitchum has been deceased for some time. “I guess when you constantly look at life through a camera lens, even a super expensive one, you miss some of the grander details like the demise of an iconic American voice like Mr. Mitchum’s,” Burns said.

In Mitchum’s place will be the soothing David McCoullough, best known for his narration of the film Seabiscuit, an adaptation of his book by the same name.

Ken Burns by Ken Burns is tentatively scheduled for release next summer.