Year in Music: Long walk home

Pub date December 12, 2007
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Years ago I ended up at a San Francisco Water Department dinner with my father and an old neighborhood friend, eating in the back hall of a half-century-old Italian restaurant in the Excelsior. The room spilled over with thick-armed men who were union, white, and not bad-off and from whom I learned a thing or two about old San Francisco family names and accents that tell you if someone is from the Richmond, the old Castro, or Balboa. It was a return to the blue-collar ‘Frisco that I was raised in: a posthippie, pre-dot-com city with a ubiquitous — and at one time iconic — KFOG, 104.5 FM, playlist composed of harder rockers by the Stones, Creedence, and the Beatles. My earliest memories of the city are tied to those songs, moaning from tiny car speakers, rattling empty cans of Bud, and wafting over garages that smelled of grease.

Yet there was one member of this blue-collar pantheon I could never get too close to. He was too bombastic. His character was too huge. Even before ingesting punk rock ideology via Maximumrocknroll and Epicenter, I felt in opposition to the stadium and the spectacle. Somehow I had internalized a belief that the Boss was my enemy.

Yet this year I found myself buying Magic (Sony), Bruce Springsteen’s latest album, literally on sight. My teenage self would have been horrified to know that at 30 I would be purchasing a Springsteen record not in spite of the E Street Band but because of it, and that after listening to it again and again, my greatest criticism would be that it has too few Clarence Clemons sax solos. The truth is that I’ve moved well past being appreciative of the man and into the realm of the fan — the kind who marks his Slingshot planner with the date and time tickets go on sale for Springsteen’s latest tour.

As with many young men with elitist tastes, it was Nebraska (Sony, 1982) that broke me. With its high-contrast cover, four-track production, and the slap-back reverb echoing of Suicide, the album suggested an almost punk quality, and it subverted all of my assumptions about Springsteen’s gross theatrics. Here was a serious songwriter with compassion for working people, concern for their dignity, and a subtle hint of darkness. Suddenly, I was listening, and, as I began to discover, so were my friends.

What surprised me most was the nonlinearity and consistency of his politics. Springsteen isn’t partisan, pro-union, antiwar, or above it all. He’s for ordinary people and their battles with life, injustice, and the institutions that seem set on killing their dreams, if not destroying the dreamers. It turns out that "Born in the U.S.A." isn’t a nationalist anthem but an indictment. He takes on police, poverty, and racism with "American Skin (41 Shots)," whose title pointedly refers to the slaying of Amadou Diallo by the New York Police Department. Springsteen is a humanist who never wanted to choose sides in the process of choosing between right and wrong. Perhaps for good reason — it’s hard not to wonder whether Clear Channel radio stations’ boycott of Magic isn’t linked to his fateful decision to openly oppose George W. Bush during the 2004 election.

My slow-burning appreciation for Springsteen’s moral and political iconoclasm wasn’t what really set my obsession with him into high gear. It was the unexpected but inevitable emotional connection that grew. Before I knew it, I was sitting in the dark listening to The River (Sony, 1980) and crying to its titular masterpiece. Conversion is strange, and when a person goes from being outside the church pews to singing in the choir it’s a hard thing to explain to anyone. I can listen to "Atlantic City," "The Promised Land," or even Magic‘s "Long Walk Home" and feel the agony of every person who’s ever loved or lost. I realize I’m willing to give up being aesthetically correct, intellectually above it all, and emotionally safe just to have something I can share with people who seem to live such different lives. Certainly it’s worth it to be transported back home, which makes Magic less like a throwback and more like a time machine. *


1. Top return to shitty form: Siltbreeze

After many years languishing in the land of the giant question marks, Philly scuzz-and-fuzz merchants Siltbreeze not only have begun releasing new records but also happen to be releasing some of the best records in the American (and Australian?!) underground. Harry Pussy, Charlambides, and the Dead C meet US Girls, Ex-Cocaine, and xNoBBQx.

2. Top new band from my new hometown, Portland, Ore.: Eat Skull

What we’ve got is ear-bleeding garage punk that makes up for a lack of speed with a heavy hand on the treble knob. Presented by members of the Hospitals, Gang Wizard, and Hale Zukas, this is the kind of pop violence that hasn’t hurt this good since Henry’s Dress.

3. Top new band from my old hometown, Oakland: Zeroth

Just when I thought I couldn’t be surprised by anything anymore. A trio of smarter than average weirdos, they’ve produced the kind of strangeness that lends itself to nonsense descriptors like "electric ovarian space prog." My butt shook.

4. Top trend: pop noise albums

Though this is really a trend that started a few years ago with records like Burning Star Core’s The Very Heart of the World (Thin Wrist, 2005) and Prurient’s Black Vase (Load, 2005), 2007 saw some of America’s noise heavyweights releasing major statements with actual production values. Mouthus, John Wiese, and Religious Knives all brought great records, but perhaps most startling were the sweet clarity and depth of Sighting’s Through the Panama (Load/Ecstatic Peace).

5. Top label A&R: Southern Lord

They’ve made a pretty clean sweep of the best of left-field cult metal: OM, Wolves in the Throne Room, Velvet Cacoon, Abruptum, and Striborg. My only question is, where’s WOLD?

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