“Boring,” I heard, after Springsteen’s SNL performance. “Empty.” “The effect of the show,” said one fan, “was that it reduced him to just another rock ‘n’ roll star—and I found that very depressing.” Well, O.K.—I liked it, friends didn’t, that’s what it’s all about. Other complaints were more telling. “It was like they were all shoved together—why were they standing so close to Bruce?” “God, they were ugly.” “Did you see the way that guy moved, all down on his knees? He looked so stupid.” Ex-E Streeter Roy Bittan, bald and gray, was in the background on keyboards. Up front were drummer Zachary Alford, who has his own power trio, called Bodybag, and played like it; Tommy Sims, a heavyset man with a little bowler on his head who gave new meaning to the phrase “walking bass”; and lead guitarist Shane Fontayne, whose band Merchants of Venus released their self-titled debut album last year. They weren’t beholden. They charged the song, and Springsteen himself, with the same confidence he used to get to the mike.
So what were people talking about? They might have been talking about a feeling that, you know, the group didn’t look right—which is to say that Alford and Sims are African-American and that half-Burmese Fontayne, fleshy, with a mass of curly black hair, is the most androgynous person Springsteen has ever shared his stage with. People were definitely talking about the fact that the musicians with “the Boss” didn’t play with the studied, scripted deference that Springsteen received from the E Street Band.
“It was a mess,” I heard more than once. Sure it was. The song was “Lucky Town,” probably the most fierce and unclear of all the tunes on Springsteen’s two recent CDs, which were then plummeting on the charts—but even if you already knew where the song was headed, the musicians weren’t about to tell you how it was going to get there. They opened hard, with the huge chords of “Lucky Town” hanging a Western backdrop in front of your eyes: a gorgeous Bierstadt landscape with bloody Peckinpah losers galloping across it. Fontayne was plunging for the floor straight off. He holds his feet close together, then he shimmies and swivels—a strange movement, and altogether his, making you wonder why he’s getting so much out of the music. Isn’t he just a hired hand?
The performance was loose, open—as loose as Springsteen must have been when he wrote the song. “I had some victory that was just failure and deceit,” he spat. “Now the joke’s—” You’re ready for him to complete the line with “on me,” but he’s off in a different direction, off the map: “Now the joke’s comin’ up through the soles of my feet.” Craft can account for the way Springsteen continues with metaphors of “walking on fortune’s cane” and “steppin’ lightly”; it can’t account for the original appearance of the image, which is too physical to work as a metaphor. “Now the joke’s comin’ up through the soles of my feet”—the picture is strange, diseased, eruptive, unstable. It’s a clue that the Lucky Town the singer is heading for is no Big Rock Candy Mountain but a whorehouse, maybe no more than a bar.They’re in the third verse. The ambience is noisy, the emotional pace a lot faster than the meter. There are echoes of the cowboy ballad “Buffalo Skinners,” Leadbelly’s “Alabama Bound,” Bob Dylan screeching “When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez” onstage in 1966, with the Hawks surrounding him, demanding more than he’d ever given before. But the third verse of “Lucky Town” ends with its melody line hanging in the air; it takes the song right to the edge of a cliff and stops dead. Fontayne went over it.
There’s a special thrill when a guitarist, taking a solo, is working through the set theme of a tune and then leaps past anyone else’s notion of what there is to find in the song. This is what happens next. Fontayne shifts into high and bends a note so violently, so passionately, that his solo—at this moment the physical body of the song—turns over, is reversed, pulled inside out. If you hear what’s happening, you gasp. If you were lucky enough to have taped the show, you run the tape again and again.
Fontayne challenged Springsteen in the moment, taking “Lucky Town” to places the man who wrote it hadn’t glimpsed. Springsteen came off the solo with more energy, cutting away even from his own performance. By this time, the dramatic structure of the tune was barely big enough to hold the action the tune had kicked up. There was a freedom here that was new for Springsteen’s music—and if it is still there on the tour, it will be something to see.
Of course, you may have to be in the mood, and the mood may be elusive. Gossip about the SNL appearance was strictly that Springsteen was showing up to keep his records from falling off the charts. “Smells like failure, commercial failure,” said the lead-in to an Entertainment Weekly cover story. It’s one thing to trumpet your favorite cult act, but when a performer has been rejected by the mass audience he supposedly deserves… “Well,” said a friend, “it’s like, it’s a loser, and you don’t want to be a loser, just like you wouldn’t have wanted to be seen going into Hudson Hawk, right? Some things just have this stench about them.” As Pauline Kael once put it, if you bet on the wrong horse in the pop-culture race, if you display an interest that isn’t paying off, you take a real risk: “You risk associating yourself with failure.” Whether Springsteen and his new band will emerge from that swamp is as good a question as pop music will have to ask this summer.
Interview, 1992 (month TBC)