Still Looking For the Human Touch

Sunday Times Magazine, 1998-11-29, by: Roelof Aucamp
If you go for a drink in any bar in the American heartland and you start calling the Pope a mushroombrain after a few drinks, chances are you'll get no reaction. If you consume a few more and call President Clinton stuff that would make Larry Flynt proud, the chances of getting your butt kicked would move up to about twenty percent. But you would have to be very drunk or stupid (or both) to proclaim anything remotely negative about Bruce Springsteen. Not only is Bruce Springsteen a rock superstar, but he is also an American blue-collar icon. During the 70s and 80s he not only sang about the everyday challenges and triumphs of the ordinary worker, he also put his money where his mouth was. He donated millions to a fund helping the laid off workers of a Detroit motor plant. He donated much needed dollars to keep American heartland towns out of the red during the harsh Reagan era. Ordinary people weren't forgotten either. Like the cancer-ridden waitress whose whole medical bill was paid by Springsteen.

Most of these 'endeavours' were not publicised at all. Dr. Ruth (the well-known sex therapist) seemed to encapsulate the feeling of a nation when she said"... Bruce is a national monument. This is what America is all about!" But that was during the Springsteen heyday in the 80s. Lately, however, Springsteen has struggled to keep at the forefront of rock.

The fans received his first two albums of the nineties, "Lucky Town" and "Human Touch" somewhat coolly. Although entering at no 2 and 1 on the UK charts respectively (and no 3 and 2 on the US charts) the sales quickly cooled. A few weeks later "Lucky Town" could only be found at no 45 on the US charts. The overall reaction from disappointed record storeowners was that "the albums weren't as good as people expected". However, both albums sold more than seven million copies worldwide, and joined all the other Bruce albums on the platinum list. But the critics and the fans were wondering if Bruce had lost touch with his fanbase. After all, the trappings of his rock wealth began to show a mansion and farm in New Jersey, big cars and elegant suits. How could the typical blue collar identify with him? They waited with baited breath for the next Bruce product. All secretly hoping for a second "Born in the USA". But Bruce, as always, did the unexpected and in 1995 he released his "Greatest Hits". Critics and fans alike mourned the fact that it was more of a historical review than an actual greatest hits compilation. The album didn't feature songs like "Tunnel of Love", "Fade Away", "Cover me" and "I'm on Fire" to name but a few. But the album still carried enough of Springsteen's older songs to debut at no 1 on the charts. Just before that the adult orientated sync-laden "Streets of Philadelphia" gave him a much-needed representation on the singles charts in both Europe and America. The song won an Oscar and five Grammy awards. It became the most successful Springsteen single yet. Springsteen then recalled the E Street Band to the studios and the world was abuzz. Was Springsteen finally back on the right track? Would we see another "Born in the USA"?

But true to form, Springsteen yet again elected to do the opposite. He decided to fulfill a dream he long cherished to bring out a fully acoustic album and do a solo acoustic world tour. The critics raved over the album "The Ghost of Tom Joad", saying that the fire and steel that lacked in the Springsteen of the early nineties, were now again in evidence. This album won Springsteen a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. But the fans chose to ignore Springsteen where it hurt the most sales. To date "The Ghost of Tom Joad" remains the only Springsteen album not to be certified platinum. A stark contrast from his previous acoustic endeavour "Nebraska" that reached no 3 on both sides of the Atlantic in 1983. If the sales where disappointing (Columbia refused to let Bruce record another acoustic album) the tour was a revelation. All the venues were sellouts. Critics claimed it as the best Springsteen performance for at least a decade. The tour also brought Springsteen the coveted Swedish "Polar Music Award". This prize is awarded to the musician that contributed the most to his/ her art form. But still there seem to be something missing from Springsteen's music. Something he enjoyed throughout his career but lost in the nineties relevance. For it was losing the relevance to his audience that was the main reason for his waning record sales this decade. But Springsteen also needs to find new social relevance, time has changed since the 80s and Springsteen will have to adapt to that fact. If not, Springsteen will find himself left behind like so many other former great rock stars. Stuck in the marshes of aging rock and roll. His fans have high expectations of their "musical saviour", but it has been more than ten years since Bruce's last real relevant outing 1987's "Tunnel of Love". How much more difficult and complex would it be to satisfy the fans now?

The answer, Springsteen decided, lay at his roots. By going back to his roots he could utilise his huge store of unreleased songs from the 70s and 80s. With this he not only hopes to retain his relevance with his fans, but also some of the dizzy heights of a super rock star that he enjoyed so emphatically in the eighties. Now the world will see the launch of this bid for relevance a four CD box set titled "Bruce Springsteen Tracks". This box set contains 66 songs (over four hours of music) that span Springsteen's entire 25-year career. "Tracks", however, is not another Greatest Hits in that sense. Nearly all the songs on this box set (56 songs to be precise) have not been officially released before. These songs have been great favourites at Springsteen concerts over the past decades and fans have keenly awaited the official release of songs like "Rendezvous", "Roulette" and "Frankie". But will "Bruce Springsteen Tracks" be successful in its aim to provide Springsteen with much needed relevance? A good indicator of relevance won would be the sales of Springsteen's first box set "Live 1975-1985". That box set has sold the most of any box set in the history of the record industry. (About 12 million copies in the US alone.) If this new box sells anywhere near that figure Springsteen's relevance would be restored. But if this boxset do succeed, Springsteena would still have to come up with a new album to cement this newfound relevance. Whether or not Springsteen will face up to this challenge only time will tell. For now, however, "Bruce Springsteen Tracks" is the buoy that he chose to resurface him into rock's mainstream in time for his induction in 1999.

Next year (1999) will see the induction of Springsteen into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The sales of this new 4 CD box set "Bruce Springsteen Tracks" will determine if he does so as a relevant modern superstar of rock, or (as so many before him) a great rock star belonging to the past. For the sake of rock let's hope its 70s and 80s saviour's latest outing lives up to the expectations.


South African article