Springsteen and “Dream Baby Dream”

On Thursday, October 10, at 2:35 Eastern Time, the @springsteen Twitter account sent out two tweets letting Springsteen fans know there was a thank you message from Bruce and new studio recording waiting for them over at the official Springsteen web site:

Go read the letter. It gets right to the experience of what it means to be a fan—the long lines, the rain, the sleeplessness, the energy, the active participation in making each show what it was—and, to me at least, echoes the thank you Bruce made to fans at Kilkenny (starting at 0:25; go buy the T-shirt the full thank you on the back and support a good cause):

But the real thank you comes in the form of the video for the recording of “Dream Baby Dream”:

The movie was edited by Thom Zimny and shot by Chris Hilson. The audio produced by Ron Aniello with Bruce Springsteen, and mixed by Bob Clearmountain. Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” was released as a single in 1979 and included in a 2000 reissue of their second album (see the Wikipedia page). Springsteen’s version is stirring, ethereal, haunting, and meditative. The mantra-like lyrics are repeated on top of a pump organ that builds to a crescendo when it is joined by guitar and strings. The video shows footage of fans, Bruce, and the band, filmed during the Wrecking Ball tour. It’s a tour de force. Or, as one commenter wrote: “If someone told me when i was a little boy, that when i am 45 a video from an artist they call The Boss, would make you cry, i would say your Dreaming. Guess what this 45 year old man who rarely cries is crying.”

I wasn’t aware that Springsteen sang a cover of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” until just this past week when I was reading Talk About a Dream: The Essential Interviews of Bruce Springsteen edited by Backstreets editor Christopher Phillips and Louis P. Masur. Springsteen closed with “Dream Baby Dream” on the Devils and Dust tour, which I did not see (if you haven’t either, Mindy C. Jones has created a playlist with Springsteen’s live covers of the song). The videos included in the playlist suggest that the studio recording just released is very similar to the ones Springsteen played live during the tour.

The song is mentioned in two interviews included in Talk About a Dream: the first in Nick Hornby’s July, 2005, interview for The Guardian, and the other in Phil Sutcliffe’s January, 2006, profile and interview for Mojo. Hornby asks Springsteen, “How did that Suicide thing come about?” and added this footnote: “Springsteen closed the Royal Albert Hall shows with an extraordinary cover of ‘Dream Baby Dream,’ an old song by the scary punk-era experimental duo Suicide. He got some kind of echoed loop going out of his pump-organ and strolled around the stage singing the song’s disconnected phrases; there were no beats, of course, but it was as hypnotic and [it was] as hymnal.” Then Bruce, responds:

I met Alan [Vega] in the late Seventies. I was just a fan. I liked them, they were unique. They’re very dreamy, they have a dreamy quality, and they were also incredibly atmospheric and were going were others weren’t. I just enjoyed them a lot. I happened to hear that song recently, I came across a compilation that it was on and it’s very different at the end of the night. It’s just those few phrases repeated, very mantra-like.

NH: It’s especially striking in a show that’s built almost exclusively on narrative.

BS: Right, but it’s the fundamental idea behind all of the songs anyway. (Laughs) It’s just a different moment at the end of the night, where you go to some of the same places with virtually very few words. I like narrative storytelling as being part of a tradition, a folk tradition. But this envelops the night. It’s interesting watching people’s faces. They look very different while that’s happening. It’s a look of some surprise, and that’s part of what I set the night up for—unconventional pieces at the top to surprise the audience and to also make them aware that it’s not going to be a regular night. It’s going to be a night of all different things and the ritualistic aspect of the night is dispelled. As long as it’s not something that I’ve done before …

Sutcliffe writes,

[Set] list complete, he’ll sit and play guitar a bit, gathering himself in. No conspicuous signs of nerves except, just when he’s due on, he might suddenly decide to change his shirt. When he’s set and he starts his walk towards the stage that’s one time nobody ever talks to him. And from then on, he’s told them, he doesn’t see anyone, not a face, only feels a crowd and a place, he’s so deep inside himself.

“I’ve liked Suicide for a long time,” he said. “I met the guys late in the ’70s in New York City when we were in the studio at the same time. You know, if Elvis came back from the dead I think he would sound like Alan Vega. He gets a lot of emotional purity I came across Dream Baby Dream again because Michael Stipe included it on a compilation and I thought maybe I could do it.

“It’s a mantra and it works because the night is filled with so much narrative and detail and then at the end there’s just those few phrases repeated and they are the essence of everything else I’m saying and doing in the course of the evening. The night opens and opens and then, at the end, when you think it can’t open any more it does and it’s completely embracing. It’s yeah, I guess… I have, an eye for a lot of detail and this is about it it’s so simple and so purely musical.”

The key phrases for me here are that the song “envelops the night” and with “those few phrases repeated . . . they are the essence of everything else I’m saying and doing in the course of the evening. The night opens and opens and then, at the end, when you think it can’t open any more it does and it’s completely embracing.” In the interviews collected in Talk About a Dream, Springsteen often discusses how the songs included in a set list are supposed to tell a particular story. The story might be different every night—or, a similar story might be told a different way with different song—but a similar point is going to be made. He hopes that his fans realize that story and go along with him for the ride that is telling it.

What he doesn’t discuss is what he is trying to get across here: reflection. The slow, meditative, crescendoeing version that Springsteen sang in concert and released on Thursday is about reflection: when at the concert, the reflection is about the evening; when presented in Zimny’s video, the reflection is about the the whole Wrecking Ball tour. But, the lyrics—dream baby dream // forever, / and ever keep those dreams burnin’ forever—combined with Springsteen’s haunting music, result in deep introspection, the kind of which makes one wonder about their own dreams and hopes, their successes and failures, the life they live and the one they maybe wanted but couldn’t get, the people who are in their life, the ones who they love and the ones who they have lost. It is about connecting to their own soul. About who they are as fans, which is to say, it is about who they are as individuals. And that is why it is so (emotionally) powerful.

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