Back in the day, Southside Johnny was often thought of as Bruce Springsteen Lite, but that doesn’t really get at it. He was more like the Uncomplicated Bruce: the songs more straightforward, less ambiguous and ambivalent, and the music simpler, more recognizably steeped in that R+B bar band tradition. Southside was less ambitious but in some ways more fun. Bruce was the greater artist, but this was what I put on to psych myself up before heading out to the Greenwood Lake bars on a Friday night.
(I’m talking about Album Bruce. I’m aware that Bruce himself could as the mood struck him operate in the role of Uncomplicated Bruce, and he even contributes a couple of songs here. I think of that “The Promise” collection of Darkness-era outtakes that came out a few years ago less as the great lost Bruce album than the great lost Southside Johnny album.)
What Southside and Bruce share is that both were, in my mind, addressing that age-old question, How should one live their life? I first listened to “Hearts of Stone” when I was piecing together my own philosophy of life, from existentialism, Zen Buddhism, Norman Mailer’s essays, Paul Nelson’s record reviews, and albums like this one–lots and lots of album like this one. This philosophy, complex and elusive as I expounded and revised it in numerous girls’ dorm rooms, now seems pretty simple to me. You don’t often get to choose what you do, so when you do have the opportunity, you better be twice as good and work twice as hard in order to earn the privilege. There’s something at stake even when you’re doing the things you didn’t get to choose. How you judge yourself matters more than how anyone else judges you. Relationships, though important, are secondary to the pursuit of transcendent truth. There’s such a thing as transcendent truth.
I’ve backed off a little on those last two, but the first three have served me pretty well.
Do the lyrics on this album, mostly written by Bruce compatriot Steven Van Zandt, actually support about any of this? Well, they don’t not support it. There are a few–“Take It Inside,” “Next to You,” the epic “Trapped Again”–that seem to be hunting bigger game. But on rehearing, it’s hard not to notice the majority are about a guy complaining to or about his girlfriend, the omnipresent “baby” (also occasionally referred to as “girl”).
Now, there’s a grand tradition in rock and roll of acting like you’re writing about your relationship with your girlfriend when you’re really writing about your relationship with authority or society or your record company. I do think there’s some of that going on, but I also think the songs, good as some are, are only partially what I responded to. More it was Southside’s all-in-all-at-once vocals–no bel canto breath control for this guy!–his gravelly, aspirational strain on the choruses, the very sound of wanting more. It was the Jukes playing their hearts out behind him, especially the horn section. Has any album ever used horns more metaphorically, as so many different metaphors? On “Got To Be a Better Way Home” they are a blaring goad to a bigger night, a better performance; on “Talk to Me,” insinuating punctuation to a come-on line; and on “Trapped Again” a thicket Johnny must sing his way (live his way) through. These were what for me gave this album a depth beyond just pumping myself up for a night out.
And just so you don’t think I’m a totally blindered fanboy: that last song, “Light Don’t Shine,” sucks.