Not to start off on a tangent, but I find it almost impossible to talk about American songwriting from the latter half of the 20th century without mentioning a certain album not written by an American musician: Astral Weeks, Van Morrison’s 1968 masterwork and the first of several records that would elevate the mercurial Irishman to the status of an icon, a work that’s been variously described as “impressionistic” and “modernist” and a litany of other inscrutable terms that are meant only to connote inscrutability.
Fortunately for anyone interested in the actual merits of the record, one of the greatest (and least pretentious) pieces of music criticism ever written happens to be a review of Astral Weeks, written by the one and only Lester Bangs, who revered the “swath of pure of beauty and mystical awe that cut right through the heart of the work” and yet largely refrained from dissecting its lyrics in any literal sense because Bangs, by his own admission, didn’t really know what Morrison was singing about and knew that sometimes Morrison didn’t know, either. “What Astral Weeks deals in are not facts but truths. Astral Weeks, insofar as it can be pinned down, is a record about people stunned by life, completely overwhelmed, stalled in their skins, their ages and selves, paralyzed by the enormity of what in one moment of vision they can comprehend.” Using the kind of language more often applied to serious literature than pop music — this was Bangs’s M.O. as a critic — he gets to the heart of what made and makes Astral Weeks such an arresting piece of art, more a musical gestalt than a set of songs, something not tethered to but liberated from the words and notes and circumstances that led to its creation — like the universe exploding forth from the Big Bang.
But Morrison did have to employ some practical measures to achieve this result: the recording sessions for Astral Weeks were held at Century Sound Studios in New York City and featured session musicians who cut their teeth playing with the likes of Gil Evans, Miles Davis, Eric Dolphy, and Charles Mingus. Thanks to them, the album is steeped in jazz tradition, specifically the modes of instrumental improvisation that rose out of the New York jazz scene in the ‘50s and ‘60s — a degree of “Americanness” that still serves the cosmic or astral dimensions of Morrison’s songs. This murky intersection between structured songwriting and totally free-form modes of expression was, at least in principle, the very same that Dylan pioneered a few years prior on his electric trilogy — with one distinction. Whereas Dylan used the blues and folk traditions like a belay on a cliffside, Morrison leapt off the edge headfirst. The looseness of the music, the circular swirling of voice and guitar and percussion and strings and woodwinds, the way that Morrison sounds like he’s making up the words as he goes along and yet still transcends whatever he or anyone else could have written ahead of time — these qualities set songs like “Astral Weeks” and “Madame George” on an entirely different plane than even the most surrealist of Dylan’s works.
Bob Dylan may not have taken any immediate cues from Astral Weeks — he was doing his own thing back when Morrison was still a teenager covering Dylan’s songs and has continued to do his own thing to this very day — but plenty of other artists did look to Van the Man for inspiration, the best and most distinctive example being the subject of this piece: Bruce Springsteen. To those who have only heard his radio hits and film soundtracks, the notion of the Boss — the heartland rocker who writes songs about mechanics and factory workers and fills football stadiums with your average ordinary moms and dads — experimenting with jazz instrumentation and nontraditional verse and all that heady shit might seem, well, absurd. But the reality is that, a decade before Born in the U.S.A. catapulted him into the hearts and homes of millions around the globe, Springsteen was still a wily bohemian writing and making records within spitting distance of a vibrant arts scene in Greenwich Village and ravenously devouring popular music of every variety: namely, East Coast soul from Motown to Philly to Memphis and British folk by the likes of Donovan and, you guessed it, Van Morrison.
What Bruce Springsteen extracted from listening to Astral Weeks was, at a textural level, an appreciation for string/horn sections, spritely arrangements, and an ostensible stream-of-consciousness as a lyricist and singer, letting the words drive his voice and not the other way around, spitting out syllables the way a soloist does notes: loose, scatty, rooted in a theme but buoyed by improvisation. No song better exemplifies this than “New York City Serenade,” the 10-minute stunner that closes out 1973’s The Wild, the Innocent & the E-Street Shuffle. Here Springsteen keeps his lyrics opaque without becoming inscrutable, taking us through a tableau vivant of Manhattan at midnight; we follow Billy and Jackie as they “boogaloo down Broadway,” past the fish lady as she resists the corner boy’s come-ons, past the street musician serenading the sidewalk. These images flow together like points of focus in a long-take tracking shot — think the opening of Touch of Evil or Boogie Nights — as Springsteen assumes each perspective, uninhibited by traditional verse-chorus structures, shifting ever so seamlessly between first, second, and third-person voices. The whole piece feels almost operatic — courtesy of the great David Sancious, whose piano playing and string arrangements approximate the grandiosity and poignance of Leonard Bernstein’s best work — and effectively foreshadows the shape of songs to come on E-Street…
Following the back-to-back recording and release of his first two albums, Springsteen began to diversify his approach as a performer and a songwriter. On the one hand, he developed a stage presence akin to that of the hardest working man in show business, Mr. James Brown; on the other, he turned to none other than the Great American Troubadour himself — Bob Dylan. In his new autobiography, a work replete with stunning personal-cum-cultural insight, Springsteen writes:
“Bob Dylan is the father of my country. Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing It All Back Home were not only great records, but they were the first time I can remember being exposed to a truthful vision of the place I lived… Bob pointed true north and served as a beacon to assist you in making your way through the new wilderness America had become.”
The distinctly theatrical narrative that Dylan employed in “Desolation Row” and “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” proved a consistent source of inspiration for Springsteen, who populated his songs with characters culled from the very real circles he himself inhabited as a young man. In songs like “Blinded by the Light,” “The E-Street Shuffle,” and “Jungleland,” Springsteen did not so much document as mythologize the bustle of daily life along the Jersey Shore: entire populations of restless adolescents — gasoline boys, schoolgirls, backstreet gamblers, teenage tramps, midnight gangsters, lonely-hearted lovers — gather in the streets to enact their quotidian melodramas, to dream aloud of whatever adventures may lay beyond the town’s borders. Automobiles, a recurrent symbol of escape, suffuse these characters’ imaginations and therein take the form of hallowed vessels; the possibility of passage into the unknown still reeks of terrestrial matter like oil, grease, rust, dirt, and sweat. And while the mighty E-Street Band and their Phil Spector-inspired “Wall of Sound” lend these fantasies appropriately symphonic dimensions, Springsteen’s lyrics manage to ground even the most aspirational of sentiments in tangible, relatable terms — a contextual empathy borne out by the imperfections of his raw yet powerful voice.
As with Dylan, it was only a matter of time before Springsteen lost interest in the cosmic and settled down upon a more terrestrial plane. In discussing the changes he made between the release of Born to Run in ’75 and recording Darkness on the Edge of Town in ‘77, Springsteen writes, “I began to find some inspiration in the working-class blues of the Animals, pop hits like the Easybeats’ ‘Friday on My Mind’ and the country music I’d so long ignored. Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie: here was music that emotionally described a life I recognized, my life, the life of my family and neighbors.” This return to tradition would bring with it a significant change in his songwriting and in the music itself, which drifted away from the Morrisonian tics and Dylanisms that defined his first two records and settled into something far more disciplined, Spartan, and ultimately unique: what Springsteen calls his “samurai record.” In this sense, Darkness was less an evolution than a regression, albeit one that freed Springsteen’s mind and helped him to refine his approach. He and the E-Street Band played live in the studio, with little to no overdubs, privileging lean arrangements and a wide-open production sound that evoked space rather than mass. His stories became less ambitious in scope but far more precise in their execution, a formalization better suited to his intent. Gone was the entertaining yet baffling prolixity of “madman drummers bummers and Indians in the summer with a teenage diplomat,” supplanted by starkly elegant portraiture like this:
“She sits on the porch of her daddy’s house / But all her pretty dreams are torn / She stares off alone into the night / With the eyes of one who hates for just being born.”
Songs like “Racing in the Street” and the title tracks from The River and Nebraska firmly established Springsteen as a storyteller, one who took more cues from Flannery O’Connor and Terrence Malick than he did Rimbaud or Ginsberg or even Dylan; this gift for cinematic prose remains Springsteen’s defining trait as a lyricist. It enabled him to pursue what he calls “a music of identity,” not as something independent of society at large but as a direct product of it, an identity that mirrors the economic and political climate of the nation. Springsteen saw the workingman’s ability to “get up every morning and go to work each day” as an act of bravery in itself; he deeply admired the fact that so many men and women across the country (his parents included) could scratch out a living in spite of whatever financial or familial hardships stood in their way. Just as Springsteen’s desire to represent the world around him brought a more utilitarian aesthetic to his music, his genuine respect for these subjects kept him from becoming cynical about them.