Gave the People What They Had

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Nebraska means little to most of the musicians here; it could have been any Springsteen record, even Human Touch. Deana Carter, three Dixie Chicks in one, told the Dallas Observer two weeks ago that she liked the "seductive twist" of "State Trooper"--a song about a man fleeing his family as he heads out into the dark and wet nowhere of New Jersey. Springsteen's original was dangerous, a song sung by a man with bloodshot eyes and white knuckles and a sweat-soaked shirt and a gun beneath his seat. Carter performs it like a come-on; she misses the point, and then dulls it to a nub.

So too do most of the other artists here: Chrissie Hynde turns the title song, in which 1950s serial killer Charles Starkweather waits for his soul to be hurled into "that great void," into a monotone lullaby; Dar Williams gender-bends "Highway Patrolman" (among the 12 perfect songs ever written) until it makes no sense; and Ben Harper burns down "My Father's House" with all the care of an arsonist. Only Johnny Cash has any reason to be here--he's covered songs from Nebraska before, on his own albums--but his contribution, "I'm on Fire" (a Nebraska discard later resuscitated for Born in the U.S.A. and MTV) feels like an afterthought, like something left off his new album Solitary Man. Oh, joy--the best song here could have been an outtake.

It's easy enough to understand why Sub Pop would choose this album to honor instead of, oh, Darkness on the Edge of Town or Born in the U.S.A. It's his finest, most forgotten moment, a harrowing album of straightforward, sparse narratives about what Springsteen would later call "the unknowability of God." After so many years of writing about the arrogance and ignorance of adolescence, after all those songs about boys fitting uncomfortably into adult skin while drinking and screwing on the Jersey shore, he sat down with a four-track in his bedroom and pretended he was Flannery O'Connor and Robert Johnson.

Springsteen originally intended these songs as demos for the whole band; in a note sent to manager (and former rock critic) Jon Landau that accompanied these rough sketches, he insisted over and over that these songs "need band...for full effect." He made these recordings sitting in a chair, singing and playing into two microphones leading into a Teac four-track, after which he would fill the remaining two tracks with harmony vocals and/or tambourine. He then mixed them using a guitar echoplex and a jambox. A bootleg of unreleased and, thus, unmastered songs from these "sessions," Fistfull of Dollars, sounds like John Lomax field recordings; you can hear the chair scraping the floor, the fingers scraping the strings. When Springsteen finally gathered the band in the studio to rerecord these songs, he discovered he had ruined them; the band only made things "worse," he recalled. "Finally satisfied that I'd explored all the music's possibilities," Springsteen wrote in 1998, "I pulled the original home-recorded cassette out of my jeans pocket where I'd been carrying it and said, 'This is it.'"

And it still is. (Robert Wilonsky)


The Kinks: You Really Had Me

There's an old parlor game, handy on first dates and family vacations, that goes something like this: You ask a person to name the three animals that, if given the opportunity, he would most like to be and why. Each choice betrays something about the respondent's psychology: The first reveals his self-image, the second his true self, and the third what he seeks in a lover. As quaint as such insights may be, though, there remains but one truly accurate gauge of a person's mettle, one guaranteed revelation of his character, one brief glimpse of his soul: which period of the Kinks' career is his favorite. If, for example, he (and it will most certainly be a he) tells you that he's most fond of the band's raucous early hits--"You Really Got Me," "All Day and All of the Night," and so forth--you can assume that he shoots straight, thrives on emotion, is possibly a hedonist (that, or a simpleton). If he says he doesn't particularly like the Kinks, he's either very lazy, very stupid, or hosts The Adventure Club. Regardless, you'll probably want to find another seat. And if he declares himself partial to the '90s comeback albums, it's a safe bet you're sitting next to an employee of the band's label.

The extent of the Kinks' influence has been well chronicled, and a detailed recapitulation here would only substitute obviousness with tedium. Suffice to say that of late, with perhaps a half-dozen exceptions, anything involving British people and guitars has been done before, and better, by the Kinks. Consider Britpop. It took Pulp 11 years to attain the quality and Anglocentric wit of His 'N' Hers, one of the top 100 albums released in 1994; it took the Kinks five years to attain the quality and Anglocentric wit of The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, one of the best albums ever recorded, and without which your life is not complete. Blur wrote "Girls who are boys who like boys to be girls." The Kinks wrote "I'm glad I'm a man and so is Lola." Liam Gallagher once hit his bandmate-brother Noel on the head with a tambourine; Ray Davies once stabbed his bandmate-brother Dave with a fork. And as for Radiohead...well, Ray was calling himself a "musical action painter" while Thom Yorke was still singing about creeps.

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Michael Corcoran
Keven Mcalester
Michael Roberts
Contact: Michael Roberts
Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky