Western Stars, Bruce Springsteen

For a while it has been mostly used vinyl, old records, that I've been after. Then a couple months ago my friend and I went to Albany for a show, stopped into Last Vestige Records, and I went through every record in the rock and jazz sections twice but couldn't find a single one to buy. Some of that is due to luck — there's no telling what I'll find on any given day — but a lot of it has to do with having built out my collection to the point at which the used albums I might want are too pricey and rare. There's just not that many old albums I need right away. Sure, I'll find some time to time as I have since that trip to Last Vestige, but I've reached a kind of tipping point.

This morning I'm listening to Bruce Springsteen's Western Stars on my turntable and thinking that it is one of several newly-released albums I've bought lately. There was Brad Mehldau's spectacular Finding Gabriel (which seems to have been mastered much better for vinyl and CD than it was for streaming), and I've preordered Mehldau's Live In Tokyo which is one of my top five desert island albums. There have been others and more are on the way. This is the way to listen to new music.

I stream these albums too. Or at least, I do until I buy the records and they come with an MP3 download. Then I copy the MP3 to my computer, spare hard drive, and phone so that I'm listening to something I bought. (I'll stream them too just to make the streaming company pay the artist a cent and a half or so, but I prefer to play the copy I own.) Streaming is fine. I'm not going to complain about something so convenient, but today I walked into The Sound Garden, grabbed Springsteen's Western Stars out of a display right up front, talked with the clerk about the album, drove home, put the album on the turntable and sat down to listen. My daughter rode with me to the record store and looked at stickers and t-shirts while I paid for Bruce's album. We talked about prom and stopped for coffee. Streaming's fine, but doesn't touch this kind of experience.

I just finished side D of Western Stars, pulled the album from the turntable and put side A back on. I'll listen again and again and again because it sounds and feels so good. Anyone who isn't raving about this album isn't listening. Or maybe they're listening to the stream and just aren't paying attention. Digital can have that effect on a person. Even as I'm typing this, I pause and savor what's playing. It's so good I have to stop writing now and go listen. I'm curious: What album will be next? Will it be old or new? Who is it going to be and where will I be when I find it? How will I be feeling when I let it spin for the first time? I wonder all these things, but for now this album is about all I need and answers all the questions I need to ask.

Albums & Empty Boxes

As I've said before, listening to a record doesn't sound better than streaming, but I listen better and enjoy the experience much more. This is why I was disappointed when the new Brad Mehldau record I had ordered wasn't in the box from the record company. It's the thought that counts, but a box of packing material and a packing invoice isn't much of a thought. I so wanted to listen to that album.

I could have streamed it, but no.

Mehldau is a jazz artist and those folks, more often than not, know how to write liner notes. A good evening is listening to a record while reading the sleeve, learning who played what on each track, and getting some of the story behind the music. Sure, some of this is online, but on the computer I'm likely to check email, Twitter, or, God help me, the news, all of which wrecks the listening. Holding an album make the music that much better, makes it more interesting.

Streaming is like listening to the radio, something I've long avoided because when I want to hear Supertramp's "The Logical Song" or Pat Metheny's "As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls" the radio sticks me with the Thompson Twins' "Hold Me Now" and Foreigner's "I Want To Know What Love Is." I'm often depressed, but that's suicidal. This is why I bought a tape player in middle school, a turntable in high school, and a CD player in college so I could play what I wanted to hear. Actually, I bought none of those. They were generous gifts from my parents. Thanks Mom and Dad.

I bought my own turntable this time and have given up tapes and all but a few CDs in the car. I also use my streaming service. It's convenient and sounds clean, but it isn't in any way romantic. It's not a whole experience the way it is listening to a record, reading the album cover and sleeve, and focusing only on the music.

I can't wait until the record company ships the album. This time I'll open the box nervous of more emptiness but hoping to be filled up by what's inside.

Nebraska, Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska It's an acquired taste. A dark album. Sure, there are a couple tracks to sing along with. It's Bruce Springsteen after all and if you don't want to sing "Atlantic City," I don't know how to help you. But the album starts with a retelling of the Starkweather murders, sung pretty much in a dirge, and it mostly goes that way for the rest of both sides. This is not an album with a good beat that you can dance to. Unless you're about dead. Yet, it's spinning on my turntable and I can't tell you how happy I was to find it in a bin for a measly twelve dollars.

Springsteen recorded it as four-track demos. I picture him working alone though he probably had someone there with him. It's a lonely sounding album. To paraphrase what Hayden Carruth said about Raymond Carver's last book: Jesus, this is the saddest son of a bitch of an album I've heard in a long time. A real long time.

"Atlantic City" is on and, as I've said, you just have to like this tune. "Down here it's just winners and losers and don't get caught on the wrong side of that line." There's stuff like that all over this album:

New Jersey Turnpike, ridin' on a wet night, 'neath the refinery's glow, out where the great black rivers flow. License registration, I ain't got none, but I got a clear conscience 'bout the things that I done. — "State Trooper"

Well your honor I do believe I'd be better of dead. So if you can take a man's life for the thoughts that's in his head, then won't you sit back in that chair and think it over judge one more time. And let 'em shave off my hair and put me on that execution line. — "Johnny 99"

Seen a man standing over a dead dog lyin' by the highway in a ditch. He's lookin' down kinda puzzled, pokin' that dog with a stick. Got his car door flung open, he's standin' out on Highway 31. Like if he stood there long enough, that dog'd get up and run. — "Reason To Believe"

Your eyes get witchy in the wee wee hours, sun's just a red ball risin' over them refinery towers. Radio's jammed up with gospel stations, lost souls callin' long distance salvation. Hey, Mr. Deejay, woncha hear my last prayer? Hey ho rock n' roll deliver me from nowhere. — "Open All Night"

Listen to that again: "Lost souls callin' long distance salvation." That's a killer line. I mean, come on. That's writing, man. It's perfect. Spectacular.

A lot of artists have moments when it all comes together. Nebraska is like that, but it's not even his best album. He made Born To Run and Tunnel Of Love, two perfect albums. He wrote The River and Darkness On The Edge Of Town. In a couple weeks he'll release Western Stars which has all the marks of becoming classic. That much greatness come out of one brain, heart, and set of hands, that's genius.

The genius of Nebraska is reserved and distant like the sound of a train in the distance or the wind sweeping across the Midwest. It's full of possibility and maybe danger. I can't get enough of all that. Give it a spin. "Atlantic City" is track two. I swear you won't be able to resist.

Elusive Music

At a record store in Burlington I heard some music so incredible I had to ask one of the guys up front, "Who is this?!" I said it with some desperation because I couldn't believe what I was hearing it was so good.

"It's this guy," the kid said, holding up this album.


I was about to say, I'll take it, when he said, "it's this crazy rare thing. This record goes for hundreds of dollars. It's crazy good, isn't it?"

I said that it was and noted the artist and title — Fitz Gore & The Talismen's Soundnitia — in my phone so I could find the music later. It's the twenty-first century. Everything's available online.

Except, not so much.

Of Fitz Gore & The Talismen there is all too little available, damn it. There's this magnificence and he does a great version of Horace Silver's Song For My Father (from which Steely Dan lifted the hook for "Rikki Don't Lose That Number"). If that's not enough to make you want the album, we are hearing different things. I want that album bad! But it just isn't there.

This is disappointing but I also like that there is something so great in the world but not available to me. I can dream about it but not have it immediately. I need more of that in the world. More of less. Yeah, that sounds almost as good as Fitz Gore & The Talismen.

Still, if I find Soundnitia in a record bin for anything less than $150, I'll probably buy it on the spot. Less is good, but Fitz Gore is even better.