Bruce Springsteen’s “Magic”: Is Anybody Out There?

Bruce Springsteen 2012 (Wikipedia)

Bruce Frederic Joseph Springsteen has a new record called Magic. The first single off the release is the one he opens his current tour with—“Radio Nowhere”—with the chorus line: “Is anybody alive out there?” The song is a kick in the seat of the pants, lyrically and sonically, a throwback to raspy, raw, quasi-Pearl Jamian guitarisms. It has a decidedly “867-5309” tincture, but it is all Springsteen in swagger and growl, as infectious as it is impetuous.

In Chicago, Greg Kot of the Tribune reported that the Boss’s sold-out show was aggressive, lean, with “guitars raised on high.” His E Street Band, including guitarist Steven Van Zandt, saxman Clarence Clemons, bassist Garry Tallent, and drummer’s drummer Max Weinderg, “squoze” blood out of stone-cold tracks, a mighty, mighty squadron for Springsteen’s mounting-climbing vocals. I saw Springsteen in concert years ago, maybe it was the 80s, in a big arena, and by the third song, he was out 40 rows into the audience—and this was a 12,000-seat venue, mind you—up on some big guy’s shoulders, playing his Telecaster, perched up there like nobody’s business, and having a ball. It was an amazing sight, a tribute to both the intimacy Springsteen has enjoyed with his audience, as well as the many, many nights he has spent doing his craft on the road.

Springsteen’s vocals live, by the way, are impossibly majestic. On record, they are great, but nothing prepares the listener for what is heard in concert. I found the exact same thing to be true with Elvis Costello. Have you ever seen Dylan on a good night? Same damn thing. But with Bruce, it’s like somehow the studio has never squarely butterfly-netted him. Live recordings are replete with their own hurdles.

According to Kot, the low point of the recent United Center concert in Chicago was when Springsteen soap-boxed on the current state of political affairs: “The rushed, mumbled monologue about citizens’ rights and the Constitution briefly broke the momentum, and came off as sheepish next to his music.”

Hey, some of us don’t mind public figures taking a minute to remind us that our forefathers had to fight to create a country based on human rights, wrest it from the hands of kings and despots to enshrine freedom of speech, religion, and assembly, to construct a system of checks and balances designed to impede tyranny from rising its ugly head again—all in order to set up a government created by, of, and for “we, the people.” Some are warning us these days that if we, the people don’t stop acting like Halloween zombies and wake up to combat the erosion of our private rights and the blurring lines of the military-government-police-industrial complex—which is looking more and more like a Jackson Pollack painting every day—the spirits of those souls who started this Great Experiment in participatory Democracy might just up and fly away. Add the expensive ubiquitous inundation of presidential hopeful-speak filling the airwaves these days, and I think the answer to Springsteen’s query couldn’t be more germane. Perhaps Magic is Bruce’s way of saying it’s trick or treat time as a nation.


I was driving through the misty rain
Yeah, searchin’ for a mystery train…
I want a million different voices
speaking in tongues…
This is radio nowhere, is there anybody
alive out there?


I’m going to try and get in touch with Springsteen right after I finish this article, invite the Boss to check out Fairfield’s little grassroots community radio station. We’re a few shy of a “million voices” but nearly a hundred people are producing 75 shows a week with 10 to 12 hours of live programming a day. The fact that it’s misty outside as I write this, and that KRUU-FM is less than 200 feet from a double set of railroad tracks, has nothing to do with it. As the G Man, Gary Garles, whose show Centripetal Sounds airs every Thursday from 2 to 4 p.m., likes to say, “We may be low power but we’re definitely high frequency.” Whatever it is or isn’t, it’s definitely alive.

(LPFM licenses are only issued to nonprofit educational organizations and state and local governments and have only been offered once, in 2003. While various community broadcasting legislation wends its way through Congress, there is speculation a new window may open sometime in the future.)

The Ruse Less Traveled

In completely unrelated news, Radiohead has made waves with the release of their new CD, In Rainbows. (Cue: Red Hot Chili Peppers’ 1992 Grammy-winning funk anthem “Give It Away.”) In a surprise move, the English supergroup offered up their latest musical labors up as a sacrificial lamb to the download gods. Pay what you like, they said. Too good to be true? In Music Week, a British trade magazine, Radiohead’s managers, Chris Hufford and Bryce Edge (no relation to “the Edge”), admitted that this innovative noble gesture was also a publicity stunt geared to stimulate further sales. Far from being a giveaway, they reasoned, the scheme would serve as a tease for the physical release of the CD. This has led to grumbling from some fans who have felt slighted to be used as marketing guinea pigs. I think it’s cool major artists are trying new things, clearly a sign that the recording industry may be losing steam.

As for the music on In Rainbows, it is squint eastwood, Yorkshire pudding genius-as-usual. Lush, psycho-ambient, psychedelic and ecstatic, less introspective than ultraspective, it flies. When I saw these guys at an outdoor venue in Chi-town a few years ago, it was Van Gogh meets Judy Garland at the corner of chic-geek and sublime. Such a tightknit, seamless mosaic of spectral kaleidoscopistry, this is a band’s band’s band. Sorry, there are simply not enough adjectives in my vocabulary to convey the delicacy, power, and intuitive reach of the group’s sinewy feel or York’s “honeyed mewl,” as Edna Gunderson put it in a review for USA Today.

Meanwhile, Madonna has ended her career-long relationship with Warner Brothers, after a quarter of a century. She’s signed on with Live Nation, eschewing the trad record deal in favor of a Dr. Bronner’s all-in-one approach with a tour company that will also have rights to her music-related projects, including albums, merchandise, websites, TV, films, and more. Madge, who is revered in certain circles as much for her ample business acumen as her ample assets, wants to take advantage of a new paradigm. One of her strengths has been spotting emerging trends and fashions. Live Nation’s chief executive Michael Rapino has called the new relationship a “defining moment in music history.”


Before getting your undies in a bundle over the revolutionary implications of this brave new direction, a reminder: Live Nation was formed in 2005 by a spin-off of Clear Channel Communications. Go figure. Radio Nowhere spreads its wings. In other news, Sir Paul McCartney has ended his 43-year relationship with EMI in favor of working with Starbucks’s new label, and Bob Dylan is hawking Cadillacs.
Roll over, Beethoven.