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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Stuck on the tarmac at JFK the other night, I was scrolling around the JetBlue teevee when I came across "Eddie and the Cruisers". I'd never seen it, but it has Ellen Barkin, and the ads cracked me up, back in the day. ("Tell him Eddie and the Cruisers are here.")

I wouldn't go out of my way to watch it again, but Ellen Barkin is always a pleasure, even in something like this, which features her being earnest, rather than showing off a lot of leg; and the music was a respectable example of that sort of thing. The story, told in a series of flashbacks, is about a singer and his band who enjoyed a moment of success in 1963, then flamed out. The singer is thought to have died when his car went off a bridge on the night the band completed its second album. Titled "A Season in Hell", the new album is a visionary work, ahead of its time. Eddie wasn't satisfied with fluff like "Betty Lou's Got a New Pair of Shoes"-- he'd been reading Rimbaud, and aspired to something grand.

It could be perfectly awful, and a lot of it is, but some of it is pretty good. It helps, somewhat, that the music the Cruisers play, back in 1963, sounds quite a bit like the music Bruce Springsteen was playing around 1983, when the movie was released. That was part of the film's gimmick, actually-- the songs were done by John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band, journeymen that I could swear I remember from the old Oak Beach Inn. (If it wasn't them it was someone like them, let's put it that way.) It is a funny sort of thing to think about, in a way. When Jon Landau wrote "I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen," back in '74 he couldn't have been more wrong, but don't tell that to "Eddie and the Cruisers". The fact is that Bruce was never the future of anything, and has always really been at his best, both lyrically and musically, when he works with nostalgia. Springsteen was an agglomeration of influences that emerged at a time when the R&B roots of rock had gone missing. The effect was a tonic to anyone who had grown exhausted trying to find rock with some lilt and some swing, but really it was nothing new, and really he was working a mine that was mostly played out. Sure, there were still nuggets to be picked up there, but consider the question of Springsteen's influence. Who followed? Thin Lizzy. Melissa Etheridge. Meatloaf. John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band. I picked up a copy of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes' Greatest Hits a month or so ago-- you could say that Johnny fits into that category, I suppose, but he is really doing mostly Springsteen stuff, or stuff by Springsteen's guitarist, leading disciple Steve Van Zandt. In a funny way, what "Eddie and the Cruisers" really establishes is that Springsteen was, far from the future of rock'n'roll, actually rock'n'roll circa 1964. That's certainly not a bad thing to be, but it doesn't say much for the ongoing vitality of this music.

Once upon a time The Boss was a New Dylan, maybe the most successful of them all. Now, of course, he has forged his own identity, but it says something that he now shares with Dylan the fact that for years now new releases have been reviewed with critics saying that the new side is his best since.... Usually the sentence ends with either "Darkness on the Edge of Town" (released in 1978, kids) or "Nebraska" (1982). (Does anybody ever play anything off that besides "Atlantic City"?) Sometimes it's "Born in the USA" (1984). (Because we were good and backed up at JFK the other night, I watched Conan O'Brian, too, and got to see Max Weinberg in action-- has there ever been a stiffer drummer? You could make a pretty good case for Weinberg's joining E Street as the begining of the end.) I'd like to think that the latest new Springsteen side might be something worth listening to, but we are at a place now where critics' assessments of Bruce cannot generally be trusted. The great lost Eddie and the Cruisers album-- the Maguffin of the movie, turns out to sound kinda like "Tunnel of Love". I'm not in a hurry to get burned like that again.

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