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Weblog From Nowhere-Land

Bruce Springsteen and the Celestial Radio

"One soft, infested summer..." Home from college, waiting for the next reel of my life to unspool, I lie feverish in the bedroom of my disconsolate childhood on the too-small single bed with the Moby Grape poster still on the wall, trying to sleep off a hangover made of equal parts gin and party drugs. A hangover, if it's a real slammer, is a kind of delirium. Body and mind are temporarily disabled, but pain has not been deadened. This approximates, as much as may be possible for modern man, the psycho-physiological state of the Desert Saints: men who went mad for God. It's by no means a 'pleasant' state, but it does give rise to visions, and those visions can be ecstatic.

There were a few days left in August. Sirius and its Dog Days still ruled the weather, and we were all, truly, wasted in the miasmic heat of summer's end in the Midwest. Into this low season, midway through the most vapid of decades, came a ragged prophet. A rock 'n' roll Elijah who called us back to the meeting grounds. (In 1975, rock 'n' roll had already been four years dead. My theory was that Nixon and Hoover had killed it with the Cointelpro program and that The Captain & Tenille had been on the payroll.)

But I was oblivious to all of this in my fetal curl. I was up a long flight of stairs from the living room, where my younger brother and sister (we were each eighteen months apart in age) were drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, and spinning a new album on what passed for a hi-fi in my mother's house. It's likely they had bought the album that very day, August 25, 1975.

The music reached me in little clouds of sound, at once completely familiar and utterly new. Record players of that vintage and of my family's economic stratum were primitive transducers, but with that queer clarity that delirium brings, I filled in all the missing frequencies. There was an organ--a Hammond B3, that was clear--but it sounded more like God's B3, if God knew Al Kooper's organ riffs on "Like A Rolling Stone." There was a piano, somewhere between Tin Pan Alley and the First Baptist Church of Yazoo City, but also hip to every Nicky Hopkins lick ever played. And there was a mighty roadhouse guitar, a Telecaster, twangy and shaking the coils of a Fender Twin Reverb as big as a house. Somewhere buried in the midst of all this was a voice, sullen and mumbling like Brando, crooning like Orbison, unintelligible yet as cocky as Elvis. Then the voice would rise up out of that rich pudding of tracks and begin to preach with the fervor of a Little Richard, or at least, a Mitch Ryder. If you can see the world in a grain of sand, I was hearing heaven squeezed into a garage. It was the real thing, all right, but it was also the real thing very much aware of being the real thing. Great rock about great rock. I suppose today we'd call it "meta." The singer's performance was as out-on-a-dramatic-limb as James Dean in East OF EDEN. And the music's effect was orgiastic, especially when this happened:

Blame it on the lies that killed us
Blame it on the truth that ran us down
You can blame it all on me Terry
It don't matter to me now
When the breakdown hit at midnight
There was nothing left to say
But I hated him
And I hated you when you went away

And then came the big build: one long, strung out V chord, ascending the celestial spheres, mounting higher and higher as the singer howled, finally channeling that howl into the strings of his guitar on which, against those monster greaser chords, I to vi, he played his solo, raising me from my torpor and floating me downstairs to ask, "Who the hell is that? It sounds like a rock 'n' roll station broadcasting from where the angels live."

It was Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. "Backstreets" from the BORN TO RUN album. It cured my hangover, and I may never hear anything quite that perfect again.
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