Bruce Springsteen – The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995)

So, there were a couple of big concerts on in Auckland this last weekend.  Concerts by one of popular music’s biggest names, and it seemed most anyone over a certain age went to one, if not both.

We lost one-third of my team at work to the concerts.  All of whom are older than me.  And I’m no longer a spring chicken.  More a broody fowl.  Hang on, what?

Anyway, I didn’t go see The Boss in concert.  Bruce Springsteen in a big stadium gig doesn’t really appeal to me.  But I would’ve been all over a smaller, more intimate show.

But, then, I guess I’m not really that great a fan of Springsteen.  Well, maybe not an atypical great fan of Springsteen.  Because while he’s made one of my most loved albums, it is this one – The Ghost of Tom Joad; a quiet, introspective, moody and bleak set of mostly acoustic numbers.

Not the “average Springsteen fan’s” favourite album, I guess.  But one I hold very dear.

I can’t remember why I first picked this album up, during the mid-nineties.  I think it was because I’d become aware of reviews of the album talking about how it was far from a return to Springsteen’s Born in the USA heydays.  How it was more reminiscent of the angry, stark Nebraska.  How it was “difficult.”

But all that probably didn’t matter as much as seeing it on sale for $5 at The Warehouse.  Hey, I was a poor student.

Within a few listens it had become one of my favourite albums.  To be honest, I like things a bit sombre in of my music and this album plays right into that.  Simply plucked acoustic guitars over barely-heard moaning keyboards – a style very like that of 1982’s Nebraska, a feel very rooted in how Springsteen apparently demos his songs before taking them into the studio for the whole band to build up.

There’s a “full” band on a few tracks her, most notably the monumental “Youngstown.”  But even with drums and bass chiming in, the mood is resolutely downcast. This song of the building and failing of an Ohio valley steel town full of sadness and frustrated, barely expressed anger.

Twelve songs, peopled by characters sad, angry, desperate.  The paroled felon, unable to feel accomplished in his minimum-wage job, who turns his back on doing “Straight Time” to do the only thing that he feels can feed his family – and give him a feeling of accomplishment.  The young Mexican brothers coming north of the border to earn a wage, who fall in with the meth-cooking “Sinaloa Cowboys” to earn big money, with tragic results.  The lonely California Border Patrol guard who falls in love with a woman from over “The Line,” only to find himself in a moral dilemma with potentially tragic consequences.

All songs that wear Bruce Springsteen’s influences clear and loud on his sleeve – Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan.  But, on this album, stripped clear of the rock band, the full arrangements, the god-damn-fucking-horns.  Just voice, guitar, a bit of musical backing.  Honest and bare.  No waved lighters here.

Galveston Bay” is a particular favourite; where Springsteen lays out with a sense of impending dread the story of a Viet-Nam man who, after fighting alongside the Americans against the North, evacuates with his family to the coast of Texas.  Only to find the violent racism of the Texas Klan, wanting to burn to the waterline the pathetic ships the refugees earn their meagre livelihoods from.

It’s not easy listening.  But the best albums often aren’t.

And, yes, it’s not the sort of album that’ll get a stadium crowd pumping; at least without most of the songs being reworked so much as to lose their original impact.  (Don’t even get me started on what Springsteen and Tom Morello do to this album’s title track nowadays…)

But, hey, the guy does great stadium shows and great albums to quietly absorb with a glass of something nice in a darkened lounge.  He deserves his status as one of rock’s legends.

Beer match:  You know, I really need to get a more uplifting album to blog about.  I’m running out of dark beers…

…ha, not at all!

Anyway, I reckon this one needs something a bit dark, a bit American, with more than a touch of Mexican.   Listen while you sup dark, smoky, chilli lager that is Garage Project’s ‘Day of the Dead.’