Bob Seger/Bruce Springsteen: Which Is the Real B.S.?
By John Sinclair
Detroit, and indeed the nation, seems to feel the need right now for some strong figure to emerge from the vapid wastelands of pop—a dynamic personage of music, decidedly not politics, who will be for now what the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Woodstock et al. were for the young white people of their time.
I say "young white people" because young black people—black people of all ages—have plenty of musical inspiration these days, whereas the artistically potent white musical superstars are few and far between. Popular black music has never been so vital and exciting, and the clear prospect is that black music will soon take its rightful place, indisputably in the forefront of all popular American music.
Young white people in Detroit, or at least 24,000 of them, got their hopes raised considerably last month when Bob Seger filled Cobo Hall for two nights of excellent rock and roll music. A truly triumphant home-town smash occasion, the Cobo concerts presented Bob's consummate writing, singing, and performing genius to a wildly supportive and genuinely loving audience of Seger's fellow Motor City-ites. Bob and the Silver Bullet Band (featuring the very tasteful guitar work of Drew Abbott) fed the crowd's energy straight back to them, and the evening moved beautifully, logically, and even quite swiftly toward a mutually satisfying climax for Bob, the band and the assembled multitudes.
By "consummate" I mean that Seger has mastered the form in which he has chosen to work—the art of rock and roll—the way few other white musicians have. (We must remember that rock and roll is a black art form just as much as jazz, blues, r&b are black forms. Often now they make it sound like it started with Elvis Presley, or the Beatles, but it didn't.) Masters of rock and roll would include Chuck Berry, Little Richard Penniman, Antoine "Fats" Domino, Ellas "Bo Diddley" McDaniels: the Big Four of the period 1954-59: men who created a coherent body of work based in their own compositions and their codifications of existing traditions. In recent years Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, the Who, and very few others have approached mastery of the form in the same term as the Big Four, above; the period was 1964-1969; and the first term is the level of sheer emotional excitement created in the listener, for "that is rock and roll."
Bob Seger is a person—an artist—I would add to the list of latter-day masters of the form; sad to say, he's one of the few such persons to grace our presence these days, and the fact that he has never sold millions of records nor appeared on national television in no way diminishes his tremendous artistic accomplishment.
It is important to understand why Bob Seger has never enjoyed a string of hit records, let alone even one national smash, and I will turn to that question shortly. But it is even more important to appreciate the breadth and the depth of Bob's works, as well as their poetic strength, their precision to actual street realities, and their always-exciting compositional force.
You can play "Heavy Music," "Lookin' Back," "2 + 2 = ?," "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man," and numerous of other Seger performances alongside the best pieces by any of the people named above and not turn away disgusted. You can even listen to "East Side Story," "Persecution Smith," "2 + 2 = ?" (my favorite Seger work), "Get Out of Denver," and "Highway Child" as true extensions of the original Chuck Berry tradition, just as Ornette Coleman was a true extension of Bird.
Seger writes truly great rock and roll songs, in short, and he produces them on records so they come out intact. He now produces them consistently in concert as well, with a band he's had together basically for the last three years, and a masterful delivery to top it all off. The Cobo concerts were superb in every way, and happily Bob and Capitol Records had the foresight to have them recorded for release soon as Bob's first "live" LP.
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So why isn't Bob Seger "making it"? Why aren't his albums and his singles hits? Why did it take him ten years to do his first major tour as a supporting act (to Bachman-Turner Overdrive)? Why aren't the rock magazines talking about Bob Seger instead of, say, Bruce Springsteen, whose latest record has gone to the top of the charts faster than any relatively "new" artist in memory. Why didn't that happen to Bob, in fact, when his last record was released? And finally, whose fault is it: Bob's, his fans, the record industry, some unseen force in the sky?
At this point it becomes imperative to understand some of the most basic realities of the modern-day music business. The fact is that an artist's career has very little to do with the music and almost everything to do with such factors as attorneys, record label executives, publicists, record promotion people, booking agency affiliation, radio station program directors, distributors, rack-jobbers, visibility at the retail level, and the precise coordination of all the above by someone who is not the artist. This person is generally the artist's manager. The manager's job is to work closely with the artist to secure, first, a recording contract with a label which will sell the artist's records in large quantities after allowing the artist to produce his or her best work. Second, a booking agency must be retained to keep the artist working regularly and before the right audiences,
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i.e., in those places where the record is getting radio airplay, and on bills with other, better established performers by contrast to whom the artist under discussion would appear quite thrilling indeed.
Fundamentally, tours must be arranged to coincide with the release of new recordings (LPs). These tours must be accompanied by magazine articles, full-page ads in the music and related media, billboards in L.A. and selected urban areas, high-pressure radio promotion to gain all-important radio exposure, appearances on the ghastly television "rock shows," and whatever other mass exposure can possibly be gained. All of this must be precisely engineered to coincide exactly with the release of "current product."
One of the reasons Bob Seger isn't making it yet, after ten or twelve years of steady struggle, and with some of the best rock and roll records of those years to his infinite credit, is his inability to put all these factors together at once, if at all. For example, while his current single ("Katmandu") and album (Beautiful Losers, the perfect title) were climbing the national charts, he was finishing a road tour and preparing to rest and record for 3 months. Then (according to a source within the band) he plans to put a new band together, with himself on lead guitar, and seek work with it. When his next record is released—hopefully, the live one from Cobo Hall—it will be like starting all over again.
The music business is a $2 billion a year operation. It is not an artistic advancement and preservation society but another means through which a few people can control the musical life of millions of people and make themselves millions of dollars in the process. It is not based on good guys should get a break. It is based on greed and the lust for money and power. There is a way to play the game successfully, but like other games, it is not all luck that brings victory. One must, as they say, "take care of business."
Seger's recording career, from the business point of view, has been a tragi-comedy of errors. First cut for manager Punch Andrews' own Hideout Records, Bob's early singles were bought by Cameo-Parkway for national release. C-P went out of business then, and Bob landed with Capitol for his first LPs. During this period, and despite their possession of the Beatles for U.S. purposes, Capitol was the dog record company of all the majors, and Seger's Mongrel album best describes the way his records were treated there.
He finally broke away from Capitol to set up Palladium Records of Birmingham, Mich., Punch Andrews, Prop. Palladium released Smokin' O.P.'s, a typically erratic Seger album streaked through with pure genius, and Punch managed to parlay the independent sale of some 50,000 album units into a label deal with Warner Brothers Records. A label deal! One more Palladium album was released through the Warner deal, a dreadfully packaged number called "Seven" which contained more brilliant music but never got anywhere either, and then Seger was no longer with the Bugs Bunny people in Burbank. In fact, he was back with Capitol again, surely a bizarre choice by any objective standard, and Beautiful Loser is the first Capitol release of the current period.
If Bob Seger is to end the "beautiful loser" parts of his career at last, he must overcome his reluctance and/or inability to function within the rigid limits of the recording industry—as must everyone who is making it today, with the exception of those who have become so well established through following the rules at any given time that they sell records just by putting them on the market. He will have to deal with a major booking agency, a major publicity outfit, interviewers, television shots, and the rest of that shit or he is guaranteed not to get over.
This is not my game. I would make Bob Seger Number One if I could, but unhappily such is not within my power. If Bob is ever going to make a breakthrough he is going to have to participate fully and carefully in the process of following the formula for pop success. Otherwise he will remain where he is now, on the outer fringes, denied recognition of his genius by the national and international music public, scuffling to keep a band together and working 266 nights a year just to keep even.
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Bruce Springsteen, the white pop hero of the moment, presents an interesting and indeed instructive contrast. Currently hailed by the vendors of pop comment—from Jon Landau and Dave Marsh to Christine Brown and Lisa ("Wherebuy") Katz—as everything from "the new Dylan" to "the new Mick Jagger" and even "the new King of Rock and Roll," Springsteen is an artist of little compositional interest and even less emotional depth who has parlayed a stable working band, an obviously careful and thorough manager, a major recording company (Columbia Records), a brilliant publicist, a competent booking agency, and the growing lust among pop writers for the rock equivalent ol' Adolph [sic] Hitler, into a hit album and (coming up last) major concert status. (By "major," I mean capable of filling halls of 7000-10,000 seats in smaller venues and 12,000-20,000 seats in cities like Detroit and New York.)
Musically not in Seger's league, in my own humble opinion, Springsteen is reaping the rewards of pop stardom which, if musical value were the standard, would rightfully be Seger's. Springsteen's songs, exactingly constructed to resemble superficially the compositions of the master poet Bob Dylan, are closer to the work of another pop hack also highly revered by the likes of Landau and Marsh: a one-shot pseudo-folk "singer-songwriter" named Don McLean whose smash single "American Pie" would seem to be the real inspiration behind the whole of Springsteen's compositional work.
You might wonder why I mention the shadowy pop figures Landau and Marsh twice in two paragraphs while discussing Springsteen's present market impact. Landau, the former record review editor for Rolling Stone, now elevated to columnist status there and also working intermittently as a record producer (he is given co-production credit on the Born to Run opus), and Marsh, a former Detroiter who cut his pop teeth as editor of Creem magazine, progressed to the music editorship of Boston's Real Paper, stepped up to music critic for Newsday, a Long Island (N.Y.) daily, and who now reigns supreme as Landau's replacement at Rolling Stone, are two of the most influential young men in pop criticism circles, which means that the musicians and entertainers they rave over stand a considerably better chance of selling a million records than those whose recordings are rejected as inferior by this dynamic duo.
Springsteen, who has released two albums previously, both with Columbia Records, has received what they call "widespread critical acclaim" throughout pop writing circles since his initial hype as "the new Dylan" three years ago. He has used basically the same band (including saxophonist Clarence Clemons) and the same producer (Mike Appel) for all three of his LPs, his songs are uniformly stilted and contrived on each, the reviews and articles have been overwhelmingly positive; yet sales of Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. (approximately 100,000 units) and The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle (120,000 units) (deep title, right?) have not been those of a major pop star, while Born to Run has vaulted to the top of the charts in three short weeks and will probably achieve gold (500,000 units sold) and possibly even platinum (1,000,000 units) status within a very short time. (In case you're interested, the difference between 100,000 and 500,000 units sold amounts to something like $1,200,000 to the recording company at the wholesale level.)
Early in 1969 I was managing a rock and roll band known as the MC (for Motor City) 5. We had released an initial album with Elektra Records, recorded live at the Grande BalIroom, which sold approximately 100,000 copies nationally before it was taken off the market, altered, and then reissued by
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the company. Cover stories had been arranged for Rolling Stone and other magazines even before the first album was released; TIME and Newsweek reviewed it; national touring was undertaken; we began production on the second Elektra album and then were suddenly offered the opportunity to terminate our contract there without opposition. A new contract, a very generous one, was negotiated with Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records, and we started pre-production work on the first Atlantic disc.
At this point I was faced with a terrific dilemma: although we were receiving rave reviews for our performances, many influential rock critics disparaged the band's musical ability, and our potential record sales—the "prime indicator" of pop success—were in danger as a result. We had to have full critical support for our second effort or the band would not be able to realize its fullest commercial potential as a major American rock and roll band.
The strategy I chose was that which Springsteen's people have evidenced with the Born to Run LP: I arranged for Jon Landau, then a rising young wimp from Boston who had firmly established himself in the burgeoning "rock press" as a 25-year-old "grand old man" of pop, to come out to Detroit to produce Back in the USA. I did this with the knowledge that the band and I would essentially control the production, as Springsteen and Appel apparently have on BTR, and Landau's name would go on the back cover as a seal of musical approval, thus producing the inevitable knee-jerk reaction in the lower ranks of popdom and generating the critical acclaim which was the one missing element in our formula at that point.
That Landau was entirely incompatible with the MC5's musical genius is embarrassingly evident on the abortive Atlantic LP. But the failure of that strategy was predicated more directly upon the disappearance of the 5's manager, who was falsely imprisoned by the State of Michigan for two and a half years, shortly after production had begun on Back in the USA; and the group's inability to retain effective management after that or even to keep themselves together personally.
In Springsteen's case the Landau Strategy has paid off beautifully. His presence at the sessions doesn't seem to have significantly disrupted Springsteen's recording direction, while his visible involvement in the crucial third Springsteen LP project was a clear signal to the entire industry that "the new Dylan" and his sponsors at Columbia were indeed serious this time around.
The third album by a new artist is generally regarded as the pivotal release; usually the first two generate less than overwhelming sales response, and the performer must break into the top 20 or 30 albums with record #3 in order to escape the hard fate of cult figures and those others whose sales don't top 150,000 units. It means years more of scuffling for gigs in bars and on small-town concerts across the US—more years of busting one's ass on the road, away from home for long periods, never making enough money even to keep the equipment in proper repair. This is the not very glamorous reality of life in the music business for, say, 95% of all rock and roll bands—the life Seger is still pursuing, I'm afraid, for the most part—and it is of course even worse for most jazz, blues, and R&B performers who also have the unmitigated racism of America in general and the music business in particular to contend with.
The recording company also views the third LP as a crucially important one because its response will indicate, executives seem to feel, the true extent of the artist's popularity, as opposed to the impact projected by the artist's management from the first day of negotiations through the release of albums #1 & 2. It is almost a last chance shot at the big time; if the artist fails to break through now, the company will be very hard to convince that it should put more money into promoting the artist's career since the sales figures don't warrant such an investment in advertising and promotion.
By the third album also, from the artist's point of view, the record company has had its chance to fulfill its initial promises to the artist. If the company doesn't make the maximum effort to sell the record, the artist most likely will start looking for ways to get out of the present contract and into a new relationship with a company that has the ability to merchandise the artist's product in a big way.
In short, the third LP is a crucial one, and both Springsteen and Columbia have resolved the problem in the happiest possible way for both of them. Landau's association with the project; an all-out publicity campaign, brilliantly conceived and executed; the decisive backing given the project by Marsh (in both Rolling Stone and Creem), Paul Nelson (in the Village Voice), Peter Knobler of Crawdaddy, and other heavy popsters in all possible print media; the scheduling of all-important showcase gigs at New York City's Bottom Line, where the capacity is 450 persons per show and "turn-away" crowds for a week of performances, two shows a night, amount to less than one full house at the Toledo Sports Arena but generate a thousand times the publicity; a national tour of small halls and other showcase performances; a relentless advertising campaign in the popular music press; an equally relentless promotional drive to get airplay on every possible radio station for both the album and the single; and full cooperation and support from the artist himself, in the form of extremely tight, dynamic live performances and an unceasing adherence to the New Jersey punk/street poet image he has so assiduously developed: all of these factors, plus the most precise coordination of each of them with the others, have given Columbia and Springsteen the third album of their wildest dreams, and from a business point of view everyone involved has done an incredibly good job.
I have purposely concentrated on the business end of the Springsteen phenomenon because it is far more interesting to me than his music, which is decidedly second rate. (Of course, my reasoned judgment is that the vast majority of contemporary white popular music is second one rate at best, and thoroughly abominable at worst.) Within the context of white pop music Springsteen is certainly more viable as a performer than most of his peers; with this widespread conclusion I have no argument. His band is exquisitely tight, hard-rocking, and visually interesting; his show is well-constructed, well-paced, and well-staged; his material is many cuts above the pop average, if only in its intentions; and Springsteen's voice and singing delivery are top of the line.
It is only when Springsteen is taken out of this context and inserted into the ranks of great writers and performers that I must take issue. His claim to greatness must be limited to that category which is inhabited by Elton John, David Bowie, and other masters of pure pop who have astutely analyzed the mass taste of a given moment and come up with a clever pastiche of popular styles and devices, devoid of sincerity or emotional energy, which rings enough bells in the mass musical mind to make people buy their records in great quantities.
Bruce Springsteen is like the Elton John of the Underground to me. He has all the elements—taken from the great white rock and roll artists of the current period, Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger, as well as several lesser lights—and he puts them together convincingly enough to get over resoundingly with his target audience, modern-day college youth. That his songs only parody Dylan's masterful achievements, and that his "high-energy" stage, act comes off closer to Abbie Hoffman than Mick Jagger, are considerations of little relevance in this connection; his audience has been so thoroughly miseducated musically that they can't tell the difference, and frankly, neither can the chumps who write about music for a living, which is one of the reasons the audience has it so bad.
The one Springsteen influence which no one seems to have noticed to date is the mid-50's pop opera, "West Side Story." In fact Springsteen's live performance, at Ann Arbor's Hill Auditorium Sept. 23rd, suggested nothing more positively than a mid-70's update of the Leonard Bernstein classic, with the now-popular stereotype of the repulsively romantic street punk replacing the Puerto Ricans of the earlier show, and with Springsteen playing all the parts.
What I mean is that Springsteen's are not songs of direct experience compellingly told as acts of cathartic artistic release; they are tales of a mythic urban grease scene which, taken together, form a scenario or script for a third-rate television treatment of delinquent white youngsters of the slums. It is easy to fool persons such as Landau and Marsh regarding the authenticity of such a fantastic proposition, since the streets are not where they feel most comfortable; and it is equally easy to convince well-heeled young college students of today, desperate for an identity separate from that of their despicable parents, that what they are seeing and hearing is the true reflection of the young thugs of the worser parts of town, whose dead-end existence is somehow more exciting than their own.
While this might add up lo great pop entertainment, there is no way one can allow it to be palmed off as serious contemporary rock and roll art. The artistic treatment of Springsteen's chosen milieu has already been done to perfection by one Hubert Selby Jr., a Brooklyn writer whose Last Exit to Brooklyn is infinitely better written and far more compelling in every way than Springsteen's tiresome songs. The rock and roll version was done by Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, whose drummer Johnny Bee (Badanjek) has reams of rock and roll songs of his own composition which are exactly what Springsteen's are supposed to be. Bee's work, like Seger's, and unlike Springsteen's, comes from within the culture or sub-culture he is writing about; that's what gives it its energy and makes it convincing, but you have to be one of the people you're writing about to make it work.
Springsteen, on the other hand, appears to be a person who shares the cultural reality—and the world outlook—of the pop critics and college students who are his idolators. His street punk characters are romanticized one-dimensional caricatures of urban proletarian youth as seen from the vantage point of a guilty, middle-class suburban kid. As such, their interest is slight for those who do not share this peculiar world view, such as myself.
It makes little difference what I might say about either Springsteen or Bob Seger, however; their fates in the music business will continue to unfold irrespective of my humble remarks. Springsteen now has the clear opportunity to establish himself irrevocably as a modern-day pop giant, provided his business moves are as sound as they've been to date; and Seger will probably continue to blow his chances for major success, unless his business moves are greatly upgraded. Seger's music will hopefully continue to delight all those who are fortunate enough to come into contact with it, while Springsteen's essentially boring—and even offensive—musical works would seem to have little chance of improving, given their consistency over three full LPs and the positive reaction to them which is now beginning to take on the effervescence of the True Rock Gospel.
Still and all I must invite my readers to make the ultimate test of such matters by playing the recordings one after the other on the record player and noting the differences between the two approaches to essentially the same thematic material. I must insist that, if there are any standards left at all, Seger's are far superior to those of the young New Jersey punk. But, if I may assert once more the maxim that the music business is mainly about business and hardly about music, I must also conclude that of the two, given the nature of his current mass success, Springsteen must be considered "the real B.S." I certainly don't begrudge him his victory, nor do I mean to insult his many fans among my readers by attacking their standards of taste, but I have never been paid enough by any agency of the recording industry to persuade me to love the thing which they are determined I love, and, to paraphrase the great Jon Landau, "it's too late to start now."
Freeing John Sinclair
Ann Arbor Sun