The longest song Springsteen has recorded since "Drive All Night," on The River, "Outlaw Pete" is the life story of a bandit and killer written in campfire-ballad cadence and swamped in spaghetti-Western ambience — Springsteen's return to the cinematic-parable scope of his mid-Seventies songs "Jungleland" and "Incident on 57th Street." "Outlaw Pete" was also, at first, his deliberate turn away from the struggle through 9/11 grief on The Rising and his Bush-years outrage on Magic. "I thought, 'I should write a little opera' something fantastic with a cartoon character, like 'Rocky Raccoon,' by the Beatles." Springsteen cracks himself up quoting one of the opening lines : "At six months old, he'd done three months in jail."
The ending is not so cute. Pete tries to run from his crimes, vanishing into thin air — maybe dead, maybe not. "I decided to follow the character, see what happens to him," Springsteen explains. What he found was terribly familiar. "We all have to reckon with our own history, because history catches up with you. That's what was not happening over the past eight years in the United States — that not knowing, the arrogance that led to thousands of people dying and the country having a complete financial nervous breakdown. If you do not reckon with your own history, it eats you. And if you have that level of authority, then it eats us."
Most of Working on a Dream takes place far from newspaper headlines, in darkened bedrooms, under starlight. There is ecstasy and pleading, promises made and broken, underneath the bright, clanging guitars and spiking harmonies in "This Life," "Surprise, Surprise" and the erotic fantasy "Queen of the Supermarket." A man and a woman count their time together and their time left in wrinkles and gray hairs in "Kingdom of Days."
Springsteen contends he is not the man, and that is not his marriage, in those songs — not all the time: "Patti and I have been together for 20 years. 'Kingdom of Days' is something you write after having a long, long life with somebody, where you see how much you've built together. You also see its finiteness, the passing of the day's light on your partner's face." The song "is about taking the fear and terror out of those things."
One line in there — "And I count my blessings that you're mine for always" could also be interpreted as Springsteen's thank-you to the E Street Band, one of rock's greatest enduring road shows. It is a group that labored relentlessly for him in the Seventies and Eighties, then was forced to accept his decision in 1989 to be a full-time solo artist for the next decade, Clemons was in Japan, playing with Ringo Starr, when he got Springsteen's call. "He says, 'Big Man, it's over,'" Clemons recalls. "I thought he was talking about the Ringo tour, that I had to come back and go to work. He says, 'No, no, it's over. I'm gonna break the band up.'
"Although I heard him say it, I knew it wouldn't last," Clemons swears. "Anything this great, that natural, cannot go away."
Springsteen acknowledges the Nineties as "a lost period. I didn't do a lot of work. Some people would say I didn't do my best work." He split the E Street Band because "I lost sight. I didn't know what to do next with them." But after the 1999-2000 reunion tour, he says, "the beautiful realization was "This isn't a phase. This is it.' The trick in keeping bands together," he adds, "is always the same: 'Hey, asshole, the guy standing next to you is more important than you think he is.'"
But Springsteen cautions about reading too much into his first-person voice in "Kingdom of Days" and other new songs: "I will steal directly from life." But that life is "things everyone goes through. I'm not interested in the solipsistic approach to songwriting. I don't want to tell you all about me. I want to tell you about you."
Weinberg got that lesson the day he auditioned for the E Street Band. His previous band had covered "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)," from Springsteen's second album. "I asked him, Who's Sandy?'" Weinberg says. "I thought it was a letter. He said, 'Who do you think it is?' Ever since I got that answer, I never ask what the lyrics mean."
"This record is a little different," Springsteen says of Working on a Dream. "Its text is not on top, as in The Rising or Magic, where you can immediately connect to the events of the day." In fact, Springsteen did not appreciate the real politics in the new album's title song until the night of November 4th as he watched the election coverage on television. He wrote "Working on a Dream" over the summer, a couple of months after he publicly endorsed Barack Obama for the presidency, but the lyrics are strictly nonpartisan, like a Pete Seeger work song sweetened with the mid-Sixties Roy Orbison.
"That was just the simple idea of effort — the ongoing daily effort to build something," Springsteen explains, "and that you can't give up. I write my songs. I go around the world to sing 'em, about a particular place that I have imagined, that I have hopes is real. I don't see that often. A lot of what I see is the opposite — less economic justice, democracy eroded.
"Then, suddenly, election night," he says with genuine wonder. "Suddenly the place you've been singing about all these years it shows its face. You looked in the crowds, you saw people crying, people who lived and worked in the civil rights era, and you completely understood — it's real. It's not just something I dreamed up. It can exist.
"I don't have any delusions about whatever power rock musicians have — I tend to believe it's relatively little," Springsteen declares flatly. But, he quickly adds, "though it may be little, it is important in its particularness. The first time I recognized the country I lived in, the truest version I ever heard, was when I put on Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited. I went, "That's it. That's what it feels like.'
"All you want," he insists, "is for your voice to be part of the record, at a particular time and place. You try to be on the right side of history. And maybe some other kid will hear that and go, 'Oh, yeah, that sounds like the place I live.'"
Danny Federici first played with Springsteen 40 years ago. Actually, it was Federici — a classical-trained accordionist from Flemington, New Jersey — who hired Springsteen when they initially worked together, in 1969 in the hippie-rock band Child, later renamed Steel Mill. "This skinny guy with long hair and a ratty T-shirt was an incredible guitar player and singer," Federici once said, "so we asked him to join." Federici stayed with Springsteen after the latter started running things and forming his own bands. The organist did not play on Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. but was back with Springsteen by late 1972, in the earliest, not-yet-named E Street Band with Clemons and Tallent.
"Those were real frontier days, some of the most reckless times," Springsteen says fondly. "And Danny was one of the most reckless members of the band. In lieu of any other authority figure, I was trying to manage everything." Springsteen smiles. "Danny didn't like to be managed.
"All of those things become part of your relationship," he continues. "Those are the people you make your miracle with. And the love that comes out of it is greater than your animosities, greater than time. It's strange, the way the dead remain among us."
The E Street old-timers have plenty of Federici stories, and they love telling them. "He was one of the wildest individuals I ever met, a real crazy guy," says Clemons, who roomed with Federici in the early days. Clemons describes crashing one night with Federici and Springsteen in an attic at the Boston home of the mother of one of their ex-managers. "Bruce and I were talking, on our beds. Suddenly, Danny sat up in his bed, wide awake, said, 'Semicomasomadoma,' and went back to sleep. Bruce and I looked at each other and went, What the hell was that?'" When Clemons visited Federici shortly before his death, "I said, 'Danny, tell me, before you go, what was that 'Semicomasomadoma' thing?'" Clemons laughs. "He didn't tell me. It remains a mystery."
Federici was "like Dennis the Menace, a kid with no respect for authority, going to do what he wants, no matter what," says Van Zandt, who played in Steel Mill. "Bruce came out of his hotel room once, and Danny was there, dismantling the elevator lights to stick on his organ. Another time, in a bar, we saw him dismantle the speakers in a jukebox — he was stealing them for his organ." But Van Zandt says Federici was "an extraordinarily instinctive musician. He couldn't have told you the chords in 'Born to Run.' And he never hit the wrong note. Always did the job." Van Zandt laughs. "He got into trouble on his own time."
"Danny was a very curious guy — incredibly scientific, extremely clued into technology and astronomy," Weinberg says. He too laughs, noting that Federici was also "very honest. Danny didn't want me to join the band. He told me years later, 'I voted against you.'"
Weakened by his illness and treatments, Federici made his final appearance with the E Street Band last year, on March 20th in Indianapolis, playing five songs, including his signature organ feature, "Kitty's Back." On April 22nd, five nights after Federici died, Springsteen opened his show in Tampa, Florida, with a film tribute to his old friend and a version of "Backstreets" without organ — and a spotlight shining where Federici should have been. "That was Bruce's way of saying, 'OK, everyone is wondering about our loss,'" says Lofgren. "'Well, let me show you how bad it is.'"
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