Turning Back the Clock with New Releases from Bruce Springsteen, Prince

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If it seems like you’ve stepped into the DeLorean from the movie Back to the Future when you look at the Billboard Album charts, you would be correct. Later this week, Madonna’s new record Madame X will ascend to the top of the charts. Likewise, veteran rocker Bruce Springsteen will be there in the second slot with a collection of western swing and acoustic tunes on his album Western Stars. Finally, the late Prince will make his own appearance as his estate releases his Originals CD, a collection of demos that the Purple One performed and gave to other artists for their own success.

All three of these artists were highly influential on the development of MTV – you know, that channel that used to show music videos before it devolved into a reality show hub of hedonistic and oversexed muscle heads from New Jersey and knocked up teenagers before they head to porn to make a living. And Madge and “The Boss” have been in this position before – in 1985, with her Like a Virgin album taking down his Born in the U.S.A. in February of that year. Since I’ve never had a great affection for Madge, however, we’re going to focus on the two men in this look back in time, Prince and Springsteen, and what they bring to the table.

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For better or worse, the late Prince’s estate is continuing to release materials from “The Vault,” which supposedly contained thousands of Prince’s outtakes from studio sessions that either he never felt should be released, that he didn’t consider good enough for release or that he felt he could still work on and improve. Last year, The Prince Estate released Piano and a Microphone 1983, a stark piece of work that showed Prince’s creative process but also highly early drafts of songs he could have made better. Reviews for that were mixed because of these facts and those arguments will be revived for his new CD.

On Originals, The Prince Estate has cobbled together 15 songs that Prince originally wrote and put down on tape, but then did the unexpected. Whether he planned on it (and, with some of the songs, it was planned) or whether it was out of the blue, Prince gave the songs and, perhaps most importantly, the credit for creation to other artists. This is unheard of in the industry; the most valuable right that an artist can have is the songwriting credit, which gives a lifetime of royalties for performance and playback.

The CD begins with two songs that were readily recognizable as Prince songs but were made famous by others. “Sex Shooter” (done in the move Purple Rain by Apollonia 6) and “Jungle Love” (performed OUTSTANDINGLY by Morris Day and the Time in the same film) sound as if they could have come off the movie soundtrack. While “Sex Shooter” sounds more come hither with Apollonia and her backing singers, Prince does give the structure of the song. The same can be said for “Jungle Love,” but it is arguable that Day and Jesse Johnson, the guitarist on the song, provided the swagger that it would eventually earn.

The third song on the CD is arguably the most noteworthy of the songs on the collection and shows how artists collaborate well. “Manic Monday,” which an infatuated Prince gave to Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles, is a powerful piece of pop craftsmanship in the hands of the Purple One. All Hoffs and the Bangles had to do was fill in some blanks, changing some of the piano tracks and adding in the four-part harmonies that they were famous for.

What are the jewels of Originals, however, are the lesser-known tracks. Tunes that were recorded by Vanity 6 (“Make-Up”), Mazarati (“100MPH”) and – believe it or not – Kenny Rogers (“You’re My Love”) could have used a little support from their Creator, but he was happy to just be able to try to help his proteges/friends. And, to finish off the record, the simply amazing recording of his version of the song he would give not only to Sinead O’Connor (and would make her an international superstar) but also to The Family, “Nothing Compares 2 U” closes the album with a smash.

Even though I am an unabashed Prince fan, I STILL feel a sense that we aren’t supposed to be hearing these pieces, however. Much like when Microphone came out last year, it almost seems as if you’re infringing on the private thoughts and noodling of an artist in a creative process, not someone who was laying down a track for the public to hear. On these songs, Prince was giving the framework to the performers who would later make them smashes. He WASN’T doing it for himself and he probably never intended for them to be heard, content in staying in the shadows and allowing his friends to shine on their own.

Does this mean I am going to stop purchasing the new releases when The Prince Estate puts them out? HELL NO! Originals is an outstanding piece of musical history and, arguably, should have been released last year instead of Microphone. It shows that Prince was quite altruistic with his creative output (for whatever reason that may be) and it did help some artists become big and big artists become huge because of his involvement. It also shows that he could have made these songs hits on his own, but he decided they were better in the hands of others – truly a man who knew his boundaries.

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Another performer also known for letting other artists make hits out of his songs is Bruce Springsteen. Such artists as Patti Smith and 10,000 Maniacs (“Because the Night”), Manfred Mann’s Earth Band (“Blinded By the Light”), the Pointer Sisters (“Fire”) and even the late Natalie Cole (“Pink Cadillac”) have recorded his songs, entrenching him as one of the great songwriters of our time. But artists are going to have a hard time remaking anything from “The Boss’” most recent work.

Western Stars is a love letter from Springsteen to the “California sound” of music from the 70s that fused country and rock into a softer sound. To be honest, though, it misses the mark in that area. It isn’t an ode to the sounds of Fleetwood Mac, Jackson Browne, the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt; in fact, it’s difficult to determine just WHAT sound Springsteen is going for on the CD.

Springsteen uses way too much orchestration for it to be a “country rock” album in the vein of those 70s artists. But it doesn’t quite reach all the way to country music nor western swing music. There seems to be but one reason for the CD to be in existence…Springsteen’s gravitas as an artist.

It isn’t like Springsteen hasn’t done some off the beaten path material in the past. After the success of The River, people were expecting a massive smash from “The Boss.” Instead, Springsteen gave them a stark, four-track album of acoustic material that was artistically outstanding in Nebraska. He would repeat this style of acoustic music a little more than a decade later on The Ghost of Tom Joad (the title an homage to John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath about the western dust bowls of the 1930s).

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But this effort from Springsteen lacks something. On both Nebraska and Tom Joad, there was a heart and a passion to the music that made it sound like Springsteen was invested in the work. With Western Stars, it sounds like Springsteen is going through the motions, not really putting his all into the music and content to tread the same musical boards he’s walked before.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t some good pieces among the 13 tracks on the CD. “The Wayfarer,” “Drive Fast (The Stuntman)” and “Chasin’ Wild Horses” evoke some of what Springsteen might have been attempting to do with the album. The rest, though, have an overdone quality, especially with the sweeping orchestral arrangements that you never heard on a Jackson Browne or Warren Zevon (another troubadour responsible for the “California sound”) song.

At 69, Springsteen has earned the right to do whatever the fuck he wants to do when it comes to his music. And, if you’re like me, you’ll be there to pick it up when he puts it out for the public. But for those who were looking at Western Stars as an album in the strain of the Eagles or some other stalwart of the “California sound,” you’ll be a bit disappointed.

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The Paradox of Ted Nugent

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There are occasions in our lives when we regret some of the things we’ve enjoyed. Everyone has that particular hair cut that, if there are photos still in existence, they cringe when the Polaroids come out. There are clothes that have been – or, in many cases, still are – in our closets that are so far out of style that they might be coming back into favor any day now. But what happens when it is some of your favorite music, actors or other performers who have gone so far off the rails that you’re in a paradox of how to justify supporting them anymore?

The man that is known as Ted Nugent has worn many a hat in his nearly 70 years on planet Earth. First known as a guitar virtuoso with the Amboy Dukes in the late 1960s, Nugent segued into a highly successful career as a solo artist through the 1970s and 1980s, the era of “Album Oriented Rock.” As the grunge movement of the 1990s began, however, the “Motor City Madman” suddenly fell out of favor, which ushered in the next, more controversial phase of his life.

Long an outdoorsman that talked about his connection with the “spiritual” nature of the world (AKA in relation to the Native American mode of thought and lifestyle), Nugent suddenly moved into more dangerous territory as a vehement supporter of the National Rifle Association and its vigilant (some might say dangerous) support for the Second Amendment. That was fine when there was a Republican in the White House, President George Bush (Bush II), but when President Barack Obama was elected in 2008, Nugent went off the deep end…in fact, it started before President Obama was even elected.

In 2007 during a concert appearance, Nugent allegedly said to the audience, “This country should be ashamed. I wanna throw up. Obama, he’s a piece of shit. I told him to suck on my machine gun.” When the elections came around again in 2012, Nugent piped up again in stating, “If Barack Obama becomes the president in November, again, I will be either dead or in jail by this time next year.” Nugent has also gone to the lengths of calling the President of the United States a “sub-human mongrel,” a term so vile and racism-laced that virtually no one supported him. Obama hasn’t been the only one who was the target of Nugent (no pun intended), in fact it seems that anyone with a “D” in front of their name has drawn the ire of Nugent’s political scat.

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Political viewpoints aside, Nugent has also gone after homosexuals, the poor, “foreigners” (“Foreigners are assholes, foreigners are scum.”) and feminists (“What’s a feminist? A fat pig who doesn’t get it often enough.”). But it seems that Nugent finally found a group that he couldn’t take on…or maybe it was a subject that he shouldn’t have broached.

In February, Nugent went on a rampage on his Facebook page, accusing prominent Jewish leaders of promoting the anti-gun agenda in the United States. In his screed, Nugent scathingly and derisively touched on their association with anti-gun activities in saying, “They hate freedom, they hate good over evil, they would deny us the basic human right (hey, Nugent’s words) to self-defense & to KEEP & BEAR ARMS while many of them have tax paid hired ARMED security!” While some of his fans tried to point out that he might have gone too far, Nugent instead ranted further, stating, “Never fucking again, assholes!”

The targets of Nugent’s rant? Such prominent Jewish leaders as former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg (called “Mikey” on the rant, as many of the photos had some sort of derisive commentary that mentioned their ties to Israel), California Senator Dianne Feinstein, New York Senator Chuck Schumer, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and prominent attorney Alan Dershowitz, among others. Naturally, the comments drew a huge amount of outrage, not only from those that disagree with Nugent but also those who support the NRA that went as far as calling for Nugent’s removal from the Board of Directors of the organization. Perhaps realizing that he’d finally stepped too far (and apparently the NRA was about to pull the trigger on his removal), Nugent issued an apology and said he “wasn’t anti-Semitic” (but that was after he had already said…well, here).

As a fan of hard rock music, I like Nugent’s work. While we’re not talking Beethoven or Mozart, some of his work is among the best classic rock and hard rock tracks in existence. When his solo career slowed in the 80s, he formed the powerhouse super group Damn Yankees with Tommy Shaw of Styx and Jack Blades of Night Ranger and put out a couple of albums of really good music. And Nugent puts on a great live show, if you can get by the political rants that he goes off on nowadays.

I’ve also had the chance to meet him on a couple of occasions through my days in radio. Both times were like a force of nature had swept through the room as Nugent – who says he has never had any drugs or alcohol – bounded through the fans with an energy that would rival that of a 20-year old. He also always seemed to have time for his fans before, during and after every show.

But that doesn’t negate his actions of today nor those of his past. When I was younger, I could overlook Nugent’s history due to that youthful ignorance. Today – and especially with the power of the internet – it is difficult to do that.

There are several questions regarding his proclivities with wanting his ladies to be – and I will put this as delicately as possible –a little on the younger side. Spin Magazine found that Nugent somehow persuaded the parents of a 17-year old girl to allow him to became her legal guardian, naming it the 63rd “sleaziest” moment in rock history (and that’s saying something). And there are legends that Courtney Love – yes, the widow of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobainonce performed a sex act on Nugent when she was 12.

Now, if that weren’t enough, there’s also the question regarding Nugent’s method for avoiding service in Vietnam. Of draft age when the war was at its apex in the late 1960s, Nugent was able to get a deferment, but just exactly how is the question. According to a 1977 High Times interview, Nugent supposedly let personal hygiene go for up to a month – including performing bathroom functions in his clothing – to get the military psychologists to give him the deferment. In 2006 – not surprisingly at the height of his paramilitary, right-wing rebirth – he told the British newspaper The Independent that he made that story up. Whether he is a draft dodger or not – he did actually get a 4F deferment, the question being was if for a worthy reason or not – is the big question.

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This is where the paradox takes place and it is something that we have seen in many of our pop culture icons throughout history. Arguably the first noted case of this type of situation (since we have a hard time going back before “yellow journalism” or the paparazzi) was popular) was in the case of actor Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who was a popular actor and performer in the 1920s. Despite his bulk, he was a noted dancer and his comedic timing was impeccable, leading many to admire him and Hollywood to pay him $1 million in 1920 for his talents.

That was before a highly publicized rape trial, however. From 1921 through the next year, Arbuckle was the defendant in the rape and manslaughter trial of actor Virginia Rappe. Two trials ended in hung juries and the third finally acquitted Arbuckle, but the damage was already done. Arbuckle would never again reach the level of success he previously found, passing in 1933 of a heart attack at the age of 46.

That type of situation – celebrities with public admiration tainted or destroyed by scandal – has been seen through the 20th century to present times. Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh, the “Hollywood Blacklist” that ensnared Dalton Trumbo and the “Hollywood Ten,” to O. J. Simpson, Michael Jackson, Sinead O’Connor or Jared Fogle…all have seen or saw their careers either crippled or ended by scandal in their lives. But what do people who admire them do?

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There is no easy answer for this situation. I can still enjoy listening to Nugent’s music, but there is a constantly nagging voice in the back of my head that will not silence some of the things he’s done. Others might be able to easily separate the juxtaposition – it seems that fans of Donald Drumpf find it far too easy to do that – but does that say more about their either pleasure of enjoying an artist or thinking that an egregious error is “OK” (sorry, there’s some things that just aren’t allowable)?

You might be able to put a different subject in its place and you might have a different answer for each different subject, but the paradox that is Ted Nugent is still something that I have to ponder and, unfortunately, I’ll probably never come up with an acceptable answer…either to myself or to anyone else.