I’m listening to a great podcast called “Against The Rules” at the moment. The podcast is presented by Michael Lewis, an American author who wrote “Moneyball”. The theme of the podcast is “What has happened to our idea of fairness? Who protects people when life is unfair? What has happened to the role of referees? Not just in sport but in life.”
Obviously, as an ex-teacher, I believe that education is fundamentally important to shaping and informing people’s lives and attempting to remove the unfairness of different children’s backgrounds. I don’t just mean in learning how to solve quadratic equations but in setting goals and adopting an attitude to life which allows everyone to take every opportunity. Sadly, and as much as I hate to acknowledge it, parents can buy privilege for their children by paying for their education. Only 8% of children in the UK attend fee paying schools – sometimes known as “Independent” schools or “Public” schools or “Private” schools (which is very confusing). I honestly don’t believe that being educated at a fee paying school makes you a better person; anything but. On the other hand, it buys privilege. By going to a fee paying school, the chances of getting a University place at Oxford or Cambridge are enhanced. A lot of time and effort goes into ensuring that GCSE and A level grades are set consistently and a grade A at Oakmeeds is worth the same as a grade A at Eton. However, a degree from Kings College, Cambridge is worth much much more than a degree from Wolverhampton University (to pick an example, probably unfairly). Anyone with a degree from Oxford or Cambridge has a much better chance of getting a position as a judge (71%) or a media executive (54%) or a diplomat (53%). (The percentages show the proportion of people from fee paying schools in those positions according to a 2014 survey). Is this fair?
The proportion of successful UK musical acts that attended fee paying schools is much higher than 7%. Some examples of privately educated stars include Florence Welch (of Florence And The Machine), Lily Allen, Pixie Lott, Mumford & Sons, Chris Martin (Colplay), Laura Marling, Will Young, Jamie Callum, Grace Chatto (Clean Bandit), Alison Goldfrapp, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Charlie Simpson (Busted), Jack Penate, Jamie T and Charlie Fink (Noah & The Whale). A few years ago, “The Word” magazine claimed that more than 50% of artists in the charts were privately educated. Watching Glastonbury a few years ago, whenever an act came on, I looked at their background. It seemed that most UK acts were brought up with money in their family and most American acts came from no money. I know that there will always be exceptions but I do believe that, generally speaking, money buys privilege which buys people the time to “make it” in the music business. For example, Tanita Tikaram’s parents paid for her to have a one week residency at The Borderline to kick start her career.
Bruce Springsteen was not born into a family with lots of money. “Nebraska” is an album which tells the stories of ordinary people who have suffered setbacks and bad luck. Poverty doesn’t mean that people have to turn to criminal acts but it certainly doesn’t help. These three sentences have combined to make an album that sounds authentic/real/genuine and based on true life not some artificially enhanced social bubble which is divorced from reality.
When Bruce Springsteen was preparing this album, he made some home recordings of the songs, playing all the instruments. He took a cassette tape of these recordings into a studio so that he could teach the songs to the members of the E Street Band. However, after a few days when the sound didn’t seem right to him, he realised that he wanted to release the songs as he recorded them onto the tape and not with the full band. He said “And that was the tape that became the record. It’s amazing that it got there, ’cause I was carryin’ that cassette around with me in my pocket without a case for a couple of weeks, just draggin’ it around. Finally, we realized, ‘Uh-oh, that’s the album.’ Technically, it was difficult to get it on a disc. The stuff was recorded so strangely, the needle would read a lot of distortion and wouldn’t track in the wax. We almost had to release it as a cassette.”
I’m not really a Bruce Springsteen fan. I mean, I’ve got “Born In The USA” because everybody has and I like “Nebraska”, “Devils And Dust” and “The Ghost Of Tom Joad” because they are quite different – more laid back. I bought “The Seeger Sessions” and “Live In Dublin” because I like the country-rock style of those. Oh yes, I bought “The River” when it came out and played that a lot. “Tunnel Of Love” has got “Tougher Than The Rest” on it which is excellent. I seem to have “Magic” and “Darkness On The Edge Of Town” on CD but can’t remember buying those. Roo has got “Born To Run”, “The Wild, The Innocent And The E Street Shuffle” and “Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ” and they are all classics. No, I’m not really a fan although I do seem to have thirteen of his albums. Hang on….
One of the reasons that I admire Bruce Springsteen is probably the same reason a lot of people admire him – he does appear to be level headed. There was a great “Whistle Test” programme around the time of “Born In The USA” when David Hepworth went to interview him. The film showed a brilliant live performance of the title track from that album (edited out of the clip below) and then segued into the interview. David Hepworth asked Bruce Springsteen how he wound down after performing for three and a half hours. The answer (at 5:00) was the least rock’n’roll answer he could have given. “I like to go home and eat my dinner”.
I think the preamble in this blog about not coming from a privileged background and writing songs about ordinary people makes his songs more appealing. Appealing but not necessarily lovely. The title track, “Nebraska”, is about Charles Starkweather who murdered eleven people and felt no regret. “I can’t say that I’m sorry for the things that we done. At least for a little while, sir, me and her we had us some fun.” “Atlantic City” concerns a young man’s intentions to take a job in organised crime. “Johnny 99” is about a man who, angry at getting laid off, kills a night worker. “Highway Patrolman” describes how a man who has brutally attacked someone in a bar is allowed to escape to Canada by his policeman brother.
These are all great songs – they sound great as they are but they also sound great when performed with different arrangements. Take “Atlantic City”, for example. This clip shows the performance from Dublin in 2006 with seventeen members of the band. (Watch out for the great Greg Leisz on banjo). The excitement after 1:30 when all the band kick in is dazzling.
Here’s a version of “State Trooper” by Steve Earle from 2004. It’s a great song the way that Bruce Springsteen plays it on “Nebraska”, conjuring up the image of a man driving alone through the night along the New Jersey turnpike without a license or registration but convincing himself that he has a clear conscience. I happen to love the intensity of Steve Earle’s performance, maybe because when he sings the song of a man in the last stages of despair, it seems that Steve Earle has the life experiences to empathise.
Here’s a magnificent version of the title track by Bruce Springsteen, performed in the style of the original version on this stripped back, raw and powerful album.
There’s a whole discussion to be had here about authenticity. Listening to some public schoolboys singing about St. Francis receiving the stigmata and living a life of penance (“The Cave” by Mumford And Sons) isn’t quite as interesting as hearing a guy from a blue collar background singing about people who are down on their luck and to whom life has been unfair.