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Springsteen and His Boss Hogs

The Boss' music continues to inspire new generations of rockers, from Gaslight Anthem to The Hold Steady

By Steven Rosen · September 15th, 2010 · Music
Bruce Springsteen hasn’t played in Cincinnati since 2008, but various iterations of him promise to keep the local concert and record scene busy this fall.

There are at least three major acts coming to town that — in the style and substance of their material — have been pronouncedly influenced by The Boss. The first, Gaslight Anthem (from Springsteen’s home state of New Jersey), arrives at Bogart’s Sept. 22 in support of its latest album, American Slang.

That’s followed Oct. 2 by The Hold Steady, fronted by Craig Finn, which plays Newport’s Southgate House on the strength of its latest album, Heaven Is Whenever.

And, on Nov. 1, one of the most successful and longest-lived of the “next Springsteens,” John Mellencamp, arrives at Music Hall with his rustic, mono-recorded new record, No Better Than This. It's the nation’s top-selling Americana album and represents the 58-year-old Indiana native’s ongoing interest — just like Springsteen’s — in Rock’s origins in populist, humanist, scruffy Folk music.

Meanwhile, Columbia Records is preparing for the Nov. 16 release of Springsteen’s six-disc (three audio, three video) The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story package, which will inevitably posit that 1978 album as his greatest achievement.

All three of the recent records by Gaslight Anthem, The Hold Steady and Mellencamp are likely to turn up on end-of-the-year “best of” lists. Gaslight Anthem’s American Slang, the quartet’s third album, is a particularly incendiary, passionate mixture of extroverted, inspiring Rock & Roll energy and poetically circumspect lyrics.

Like Springsteen, the band has a knack for ruing and celebrating the past simultaneously.

In its attention to ringing, chiming melody and big anthemic moments, the album is definitely Springsteen-inspired — the group’s singer/lyricist, Brian Fallon, has even shared the stage with The Boss. But it’s also harder and faster than Springsteen’s Rock, owing a lot to The Clash and the post-Punk American Rock bands inspired by The Clash, like Social Distortion, Green Day and Rancid. On the other hand, the song “The Diamond Church Street Choir” has that sinewy, finger-popping groove of Springsteen’s “The E Street Shuffle” or “The Fever.”

It isn’t unusual for Rock & Roll’s great originators to have spawned countless derivative acts. We’re still getting singers and bands influenced by Elvis, Ray Charles, The Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Velvet Underground, Aretha Franklin and the aforementioned Clash.

But Springsteen is different in that he isn’t so much an originator as a derivative act himself. So it’s odd that he’s been so influential since his rise to stardom in the mid-1970s. In fact, some consider his original rise a reactionary movement — a Jersey Shore rejection of the arty glam/glitter music of British artists like Bowie and Roxy Music and of the confrontationally minimalist, anti-superstar ethos of Punk. As you probably know from watching a certain MTV program, the Jersey Shore can be a backward-looking place.

But sometimes there is genius in recombining and reinterpreting what's come before. And Springsteen did that, coming along at the exact time — his first album, Greetings From Asbury Park NJ, was released in early 1973 — that a hierarchal canon was being formed about Rock’s then-20-year history.

And almost uncannily — as if he was a Rolling Stone critic moonlighting as a Rock musician — Springsteen and his band encapsulated all the high points. As the All Music Guide to Rock puts it, “critics hailed him as the savior of Rock & Roll, the single artist who brought together all the exuberance of ’50s Rock and the thoughtfulness of ’60s Rock, molded into a ’70s style.” He also communicated a sense of honesty, whatever that term means in recorded music, over artifice.

The go-for-broke storytelling ambitions of Springsteen’s early and most Dylanesque-wordy Rock songs like “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” — along with the Ben E. King-like urban romanticism of ballads like “4th of July Asbury Park (Sandy)” — are an inspiration for the Brooklyn-based Hold Steady. And on its new album, the band might actually have come up with the best Springsteenish take on Rock-as-redemption ever, “We Can Get Together” (“Heaven is whenever/We can get together/Lock your bedroom door/And listen to your records”).

Besides inspiring other musicians, Springsteen also inspired a pretty good movie about Rock. And it featured one of the best — but now thoroughly forgotten — Springsteen-influenced acts, John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band.

The film, 1983’s Eddie and the Cruisers, had a tantalizingly “meta” scenario. It wondered what fate would have awaited a Top 40 Rock/Soul band if its leader had the music-making ambitions — but not the record-making freedom — of an Album Rock-era star like Springsteen. If that leader wanted to make fun party music and explore life “on the dark side” — to quote the title of the movie’s hit song, itself inspired by “Darkness at the Edge of Town” — could he succeed?

In a way, that’s still a pertinent question with bands like Gaslight Anthem and The Hold Steady (as well as other Springsteen-influenced modern rockers from The Arcade Fire to The Killers). They have the freedom to make the record they want, but can they ever become as big as The Boss or even Mellencamp? It’s a question that only time can answer.



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