The Fifth Element #23

The screen door slams
Mary's dress waves
—Bruce Springsteen, "Thunder Road" (footnote 1)

Novelist Walker Percy (1916-1990) was an unusually acute observer of the effects—for good and ill—of modernity on traditional societies and the people who live in them. A Southerner and an adult convert to Catholicism, Percy was indeed a "Southern writer." But he was a Southern writer who owed more to Camus, Sartre, and Pascal than to Faulkner. Although he studied philosophy, Percy's undergraduate degree was in chemistry. He went on to become a doctor, but his medical career in New York was cut short early on by an infection he contracted, probably while performing an autopsy. He returned to the South to convalesce, and there turned his attention to writing.

In his novels and other writings, Percy grappled with the difficulty of separating the accidents of personality from the essence of personhood. Above all, he chronicled the struggles of flawed people trying to act decently and remain faithful in an imperfect and hurtful world. Percy illuminated the distinction between being a wanderer and being a wayfarer. For him, there had to be more to life than dividing one's time between being a producer and being a consumer. Percy's lost, loss-suffering, and alienated characters search for a more authentic existence than what is offered by postmodern capitalism: a lifetime of often meaningless work.

Therefore, while I was pleasantly surprised, I was by no means shocked, recently, to learn that, toward the end of his life, when Walker Percy spoke enthusiastically about his "favorite American philosopher," he was referring to Bruce Springsteen.

Now, please go back and re-read from the beginning. Thank you. Doesn't it now make perfect sense? Everything that I said about Percy's novels can also be said about Springsteen's songs.

That particular tidbit about Walker Percy comes from Robert Coles' new book, Bruce Springsteen's America: The People Listening, a Poet Singing (New York: Random House, 2003), to which I will return in a bit.

I have been musing on Bruce Springsteen quite a bit in recent months. Many years ago—it must have been 1974—I heard Springsteen and the E Street Band in a small auditorium at Brown University. By "small" I mean that the traditional, flat-floored, raised-stage, proscenium-arched hall, the daytime site of Professor Beiser's Political Science 1 lectures, probably could not have held more than 1000 people, including the balcony. In that hall I also heard Fairport Convention, Leo Kottke, Billy Cobham, and Leon Redbone, as well as many classical concerts. (Large concerts were held in the hockey arena; there I heard Yes, J. Geils, and Procol Harum.)

As I listened to Springsteen, who at the time was unknown to me (and almost everybody else), I remember being impressed that he was doing a very workmanlike job of "borrowing" equally from Bob Dylan and Van Morrison. (Dylan I found and still find pretentious, tedious, and, as a singer, annoying; but Morrison was and is an idol of mine.)

The one detail that most stuck in my mind was that the piano player was playing a grand piano with the lid removed, and there was a clear acrylic barrier about a foot high running the length of the piano's strings at about the Middle C point. About a foot beyond the hammers, a pair of microphones was clamped to the barrier, one hanging down on either side. When the keyboard player (in retrospect, it would appear that it must have been Roy Bittan) played a run, the sound traveled across the stage, the PA towers being stage left and stage right, and the concert obviously being mixed in stereo.

The Old Grey Whistle Test
What set me off retracing my steps was sitting with my kids and providing my own additional commentary on the music-documentary video The Old Grey Whistle Test (DVD, BBC Video E1812). But as I delved deeper, I slowly came to understand that there were more fundamental reasons why this was a good time to reappraise and give thanks for Springsteen's career.

The title The Old Grey Whistle Test calls out for explanation. Apparently, back in the days when most American popular music was written on New York's Tin Pan Alley, music-business executives would ask older doormen or delivery workers in to listen to the writer play through a new song. If the "old greys" could whistle back the tune after a few hearings (footnote 2), that song had passed "The Old Grey Whistle Test."

Thirty-three years ago, when the BBC was instituting a weekly live rock-music television broadcast, The Old Grey Whistle Test must have seemed like a good name for it. (A note to younger readers: Things were like that back then. Dadaism was often mistaken for profundity, and delusions of grandeur were given adolescent free rein.)

The Old Grey Whistle Test DVD makes for rather fascinating viewing and listening, though I'm not sure how many repeat viewings it has in it. While it is something out of the ordinary to watch a video all the way through six or eight times, I recall an RIAA statistic from years back saying that the average record got played 50 times. While one might think that a music-documentary video would split that difference, I find that this one has not, perhaps because most of the performances are prefaced by a talking-head segment in which OGWT presenters in varying stages of decrepitude offer their two cents' worth as to the cosmic significance of what we are about to see. Whether you should purchase OGWT probably depends on the intensity of your interest in the subject matter, and whether you can instead borrow it from the library or rent it. You can always buy it and, if you tire of it, donate it to your local public library.

OGWT is fascinating primarily for two reasons. First, with very few exceptions, all the performances were taped in OGWT's very small studio space, which provides a level playing field and minimizes the amount of help the performers can get from technology. These are anti-music-video music videos. Some of the performers manage quite well in adapting their playing to the circumstances, others less well. In any event, seeing them play live and unaided by even rudimentary technology is a refreshing change. Perhaps it owes something to the simplicity of the hookups, but the recorded sound on most of the tracks is not at all bad.

Second, many of the performers were captured at the outset of their careers. For this reason, many of them who are still with us (Elton John, Sting, Bono, and Emmylou Harris, for examples) look ridiculously young. More to the point, some of the performances (Sting and Bono, take bows) are lame-o to the omega point. One would never predict their later careers from these particular 15 minutes of fame.

The performers on OGWT divide up roughly between British acts getting their first big mass-media exposure in their home market, and US acts being introduced to the British public. My overall observation is that there is a very marked divide in the quality of the music and musicianship as you pass from the 1970s and the early 1980s on one side, and the bulk of the 1980s on the other. Part of this I assume is from a "selection effect," or several such effects.

It is entirely possible that there were better performances (or performers) in the archives, for which the producers were not able to negotiate licenses for their inclusion on a DVD. Case in point: Why no Elvis Costello? Baffling. In similar fashion, perhaps it is the case that some artists who appeared on OGWT on their way up declined invitations to return after their careers were established, so all that is left is the comparatively unpolished first effort.

But my impression remains that the earlier performances are in every way the better ones. Bill Withers is soulful. Emmylou Harris is lightheartedly ironic. Bonnie Raitt is quietly compelling. In artistic terms, Tom Waits' "Tom Traubert's Blues" towers over all the other performances. If all I knew about popular music of the past 30 years had come from this DVD, I'd want to say that Tom Waits is a genuine artist, Bruce Springsteen is a clever and boyishly enthusiastic journeyman, Bonnie Raitt has potential, half of the rest are passable entertainers, and the other half should seek training for other jobs.

There are two exceptions to OGWT's in-studio-only rule. The first is John Lennon, apparently filmed in New York, singing "Stand By Me." The sound is very poor. Lennon's singing is no better than you would expect in a karaoke bar in a town where the public schools do not have any money for teaching music.

Footnote 1: Copyright 1975 Bruce Springsteen, renewed copyright 2003 Bruce Springsteen. All rights reserved.

Footnote 2: This is indeed what it says in the DVD's booklet notes, but when the show was first televised in the UK the back story was that the BBC folks would ask either the grey-haired tea-ladies in the BBC cafeteria or the grey-haired office cleaners.—John Atkinson