Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Meeting Across the River

With the playoffs set to commence in a matter of minutes, it’s time to take a look at the field of playoff teams, and while my cohort’s club isn’t one of the eight for the first time since MLC was conceived, I do hope he’ll continue to weigh in throughout the postseason with commentary, asides and snides as play continues sans Sox of any color.

We’ve interwoven baseball and rock & roll for the entire season, so it’s only so much of a stretch to perform the following analogous exercise. Recently I’ve heard Bruce Springsteen songs used as the backdrop of montages for both the Yankees and Mets; while I think even the casual Bruce/baseball fan would clearly throw the lovably dingy Boss into the Mets’ camp rather than the white-collar Yanks’ (no bias here, natch), there’s more than enough Springsteen to go around. There’s a far better discussion to initiate, as least in my increasingly surrealistic brain. Trying to rank the playoff teams and their chances for success is a bit like trying to rank Bruce Springsteen records – they’re all good, but which stands out above the rest?

Let’s dive in, shall we? (For our purposes, we’ll stick to the first incarnation of Bruce and the E Streeters, before they busted up and he lost his musical way, only to be reborn to run some more. We’ll ignore the fact that The Rising is one of the best albums of the past decade and one of the greatest comeback albums in music history.)

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The first major release by “the future of rock and roll” came in 1973 in the form of Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ. This album was solid – more than solid, though not the complete open-to-close masterpiece of later releases. One thing that surely strikes the unfamiliar listener is the tunes that they’ve heard elsewhere. Manfred Mann’s Earth Band had a huge hit with Bruce’s “Blinded By the Light” and lesser hits with “For You” and “Spirit In the Night” (for this I admire the band’s taste greatly and respect their creativity not at all). Greg Kihn also covered “For You” to some success; it’s likely only die-hards who have tracked down Bowie’s takes on “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” and “Growin’ Up.” In much the same way, the Los Angeles Dodgers seem to be comprised of players you’re more familiar with on another team – not just any other team, for free agency makes most of the ballclubs fit that description, but Rob’s Red Sox. Nomar was the face of the Sox for so long, and Derek Lowe did so much to enable 2004 to end the way it did. Meanwhile, Rob’s old favorite Grady Little is perched at the helm. (Hell, Aaron Sele is even on the roster.) In addition to the ex-Sox haven, the Dodgers are also a team of youth. The team is young – a little green, perhaps, but they may build into something special in years to come. The same could be said for Greetings; a very fine album on its own, how it paved the way for some of Bruce’s classics is probably how it will be remembered.

Springsteen followed up Greetings with The Wild, The Innocent, & The E Street Shuffle, a more meandering collection of epic tracks. Even as we acknowledge that there are no duds in these eight great albums, very few folks outside the most impassioned would target Shuffle as their tops. Even as we acknowledge that there are eight mighty good baseball teams in the playoffs, very few folks outside of St. Louis are favoring the Cardinals this October. Even as we acknowledge that it’s arguable that the single greatest song/player in the library/league resides here (Albert “Rosalita” Pujols), that’s not enough to sway the conventional wisdom that this selection won’t be top dog at the end of the matter. Don’t get me wrong; leadoff dazzlers “The E Street Shuffle” and David Eckstein entertain me to no end. Don’t misunderstand – some of the more rabid fans on the planet cherish this record/club. But this is a fair assessment by any standards.

And then, in 1975, came true virtuosity . . . Born to Run. Appreciated by enthusiasts of the genre, not just the die-hards, it’s clearly among the finest around. Bruce’s characters evolved from the Shore’s Bohemian dirtbags into New Romantic heroes of the Tri-State area. The growing talent in Springsteen exploded to much fanfare (so said Time & Newsweek), very much in the same way the New York Mets have burst onto the scene as the pre-eminent contenders of the NL. Are the Mets an all-timer like Born to Run? Doesn’t seem likely at this point, but great teams aren’t crowned before the Fall Classic, anyway, so let’s wait on that judgment. Born to Run isn’t a perfect album by outside criteria – at eight songs and 39 minutes long, it could be deemed on the short side. The Mets have their shortcomings too, with a rotation and bench looking thin. Born to Run is certainly bombastic, with a tad of “Wall of Sound” style production and theatrics, just as the cheesy omni-coverage of the “The Team. The Time” Mets has been. But it’s also full of heart, and that’s an element artists and producers, players and managers all try to create – yet it’s less of a creation and more about things magically falling into place. I’m comfortable enough with the team Omar Minaya has assembled to throw the Born to Run link out there. Let’s see if the Mets will provide the runaway American dream for us New Romantic dirtbags in the Township.

An album that often gets lost in the mix is 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. Springsteen’s legal battles with his label meant a three-year wait for the masses, and it only reinforced the notion of a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately public. Dedicated readers of Backstreets magazine and the like hailed the release of Darkness, but there was none of the same widespread reverence as with its predecessor. Not for a lack of brilliance, mind you. From Max Weinberg’s “Badlands”-opening drum pounds to Danny Federici’s final organ notes on the title track, it’s vintage Bruce and should be reckoned with. The Oakland Athletics are a similarly overlooked force in the American League. They seem to get little of their opponents’ press, yet they cruised through their division without the usual late-season challenges this year. Their rotation looks increasingly solid, and there’s a cohesion among the lesser-knowns that’s missing in other clubhouses, from Huston “Racing in the” Street to Adam “Raised a Cain” Melhuse to Nick “Candy’s Room” Swisher. (Okay, so they don’t all work.) The A’s are no slouches. You give me Barry Zito, Frank Thomas, “Prove It All Night,” and two bottles of Wild Irish Rose, and I’ll take my chances most any night.

The Minnesota Twins and the double-album The River are linked by more than a motif of duality; they are both thoroughly complete, filled with talent, and easy to get behind. Both have stars of some acclaim: Joe “Hungry Heart” Mauer, Torii “Cadillac Ranch” Hunter, Justin “The River” Morneau, and of course, Johan “You Can Look But You’d Better Not Touch” Santana. The Twinkies complement respected veterans with rookie talent (Radke & Bonser), while The River abuts bleak solemnity with theretofore unseen optimism (“Point Blank” & “I Wanna Marry You”). They each have killer closers in Joe Nathan and “Wreck on the Highway.” Both are undeniably strong entries in either rankings; there’s every chance that they won’t hold up with the more highly touted submissions here, but you’re hard-pressed to see exactly why.

And then you get to Nebraska, which brings as much hoop-la in this progression as it does on an itinerary. This record is enigmatic; the stripped-down, E Street-less Bruce sports a popularity directly proportional to the musical snobbery of its judge. The general public dismissed the guitar-and-harmonica affair lightly, while many a purist credits it as his or her favorite. It’s certainly in vogue to say you favor Nebraska, and I kind of feel that way about picking the Padres this year. It seems like a lot of folks in and out of the media who like the Pad Squad haven’t actually watched much Padre ball this year, which included some true moments of suck. (The next person who swoons over Jake Peavy is going to have to explain his 11-14, 4.09 year to me in terms better than “He was better than that in August and September.”) Granted, none of that matters now, as whoever gets hottest in October wins, but in the – far from expert, but better than oblivious – glance I got at San Diego through Extra Innings this year, I believe they’re only pretty good, with a couple of stand-outs. Peavy can be great at times, but how Brian Giles, Woody Williams, and Trevor Hoffman fare could better dictate how far the team goes. Meanwhile, “Atlantic City” and “Johnny 99” make my best-of compilation every time. Beyond this collection of players and tunes, however, I see good, not great. That’s just one man’s opinion, of course, and I always like to be the kid to yell “Naked emperor!” when I smell groupthink, perhaps to my own detriment. But it’s my post, and I’m not elevating these entries to the top.

Back in 1984, if you had a radio, you heard Born in the U.S.A. Boy, did you hear it, again and again and again, well beyond the unenforced limits of overplay. Even I grew sick of the record, despite its obvious merit. There is a bevy of people that to this day would claim to hate the album – and some who can’t stand Springsteen – because of the reckless spinning of some unadventurous DJ’s of the mid-eighties. Bruce became an international superstar, much to the dismay of his legion of faithful fans.

Fast-forward a decade, when the New York Yankees began to evolve into the ubiquitous blitzkrieg of ball-mashing and overspending that they are today. They have made fans around the globe; at the same time, they have made fans of baseball loathe the current system even more than BITUSA turned music fans off Bruce. Though the mere mention of the team or the album may dredge negative connotations within you, however, you cannot deny the incredible assemblage of superior performances on each. Jeter is the title track, the central symbol of the team/album and when watched or heard, impossible not to admire. ARod is “Dancing in the Dark,” the former worldwide smash with dazzling appeal that has lost all luster of late and now stands out like a sore thumb.

Damon, Sheffield, Matsui, Posada. “Glory Days,” “I’m On Fire,” “No Surrender,” “Cover Me.” Mussina, Unit, Rivera. “I’m Going Down,” “Working on the Highway,” “Bobby Jean.” All great. Even the unsung ones like Cano or Wang? If you haven’t lately, listen to “Downbound Train,” then “Darlington County.” Unbelievably good songs, never played. This team and this rock and roll album are solid beyond all comprehension, and yet they annoy the hell out of a good many people. Bruce moved to L.A., distanced himself from the band, married a Barbie doll, and got soft, even . . . dare I say . . . mediocre for a time after this album. There is plenty of reason to be irritated at what this record symbolized for the purest of fans. As for the Yankees – you don’t need me to spell it out for you why any baseball fan with a soul detests what the Bombers of today represent in the game. We appreciate the performances, to be sure, but we cannot get behind what it means in the long run. Fair enough.

Finally, the end of the E Street Band’s run came with Tunnel of Love in 1987. The full band had little to do with the record, and it was disappointing but not surprising to learn that Bruce would be touring without them afterwards. “Brilliant Disguise,” the first single from the album, gave fans a big reason to expect good things from Tunnel, but it quickly went downhill with the synthy title track. It was going to be difficult to generate widespread support in the album in BITUSA's wake, and some argued that it never stood a chance. So go the ’06 Detroit Tigers. We’d have loved for them to be the dominant Tigers of two decades prior, but at this stage of the game, it’s not happening. There are bright spots – the rotation is sharp, while Pudge, Magglio, and Casey still possess some of their league-topping skills of a few years back, just as “One Step Up” and “Tougher than the Rest” manage to shine on ToL. That said, I’ve not yet met the man who objectively picks the Tigers to win in 2006 or chooses Tunnel of Love as the best Springsteen album.

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So there you go. It seems pretty clear that my relative fondness for Springsteen albums mirrors my feelings on the 2006 playoff picture. How would it play out if seeded as the playoffs are?

Born In the USA over Tunnel of Love, 3-0
The River over Darkness on the Edge of Town, 3-2

Born to Run over Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ, 3-2
The Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle over Nebraska, 3-2

The River over Born in the USA, 4-3

Born to Run over The Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle, 4-2

World Series:
The River over Born to Run, 4-3

Hey, I’d love to pick the Mets, but The River is that good. Check it out.

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