Saturday, October 11, 2008

Bruce Springsteen vs. Suicide - 'Dream Baby Dream', Nebraska

Bruce Springsteen, 'Dream Baby Dream' - cover recorded live for the Devils and Dust solo tour, 2005, and originally released on Suicide - Suicide, 1980. (Long file, give it time to load)


'State Trooper' from Nebraska, 1982.

'Atlantic City' from Nebraska, 1982.

Dream Baby Dream 10" (art/cover photograph - 'Stars' by Edward Mapplethorpe, 1994)

Nebraska LP (second-hand copy)

"To mark Alan Vega's 70th birthday, blastfirstpetite is releasing monthly limited-edition 10-inch vinyl singles featuring versions of Suicide songs, starting this month with Bruce Springsteen's cover of Dream Baby Dream.


Who are Suicide? Marty Rev and Alan Vega - two Jewish New Yorkers who founded the band after they met in 1971. Vega says: "We were angry and we wanted to wake people up"

Why are they important? Suicide had a punk-style attitude and violent edge to their music that predated the Sex Pistols by several years. They invented synthesiser rock, paving the way for a host of '80s and '90s electro-pop bands

Who have they influenced? Who haven't they influenced? Depeche Mode, Soft Cell, New Order and Pet Shop Boys would all probably never have existed without Suicide. U2, REM, Radiohead, and even Bruce Springsteen claim them as heroes...

(from - pretty much by accident - the Jewish Chronicle, 'Suicide: How the godfathers of punk kept the faith')

...Vega and Rev became part of a music New York scene densely populated with Jews, including Joey Ramone, Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Group, Richard Hell of the Voidoids and Chris Stein of Blondie.

Vega even jokingly refers to the legendary club CBGBs where all those bands played as "one big synagogue".

As Suicide, they created a new type of electronic rock'n'roll - they were a sci-fi Sex Pistols, before the Pistols existed. The problem was, nobody knew what to make of them or their guitar-, bass- and drums-free line-up. In fact, they were the prototype synth-duo, the model for Soft Cell, Pet Shop Boys and the rest, with the lugubrious keyboardist and gregarious frontman.

"If we were the future, it was a future that nobody wanted," admits Rev, who was once approached by the Pistols' manager Malcolm McLaren to form a boy-girl outfit with Blondie's Debbie Harry. "There was nothing about us that was familiar."

Rev is as thoughtful as Suicide's music is visceral. Of his religious beliefs, he says: "I can't box myself into any one system of practice or ritualised thought for very long." And he describes his upbringing as "social-oriented humanitarianism; non-religious bordering on agnostic". He admits, however, that he later "studied in-depth ancient Hebrew texts for a period of years". He concedes that he "can't imagine living in a world where there isn't a God". He admires non-believers but cannot quite make that leap himself. "Having that sense of awe about the universe, which is what religion is to me, I wonder how they can live without that.

It's like love - it doesn't have to be real or true, but to live without it... It's hard enough to get up in the morning as it is."

Vega is similarly ambivalent. He alludes to the "miraculous" nature of his career with Suicide and fateful meeting with Rev, begging the question - does he believe in a higher power?

"I distrust the name ‘God' but, yes, I do believe in a higher power," he says. He adds that he shares the rationalist stance of Spinoza, the 17th-century Jewish philosopher and "pantheist theologian". "God is in all of us," he says, before deciding: "There is an immense power. There has to be."

After years of changing his back-story, telling journalists his mother was Catholic, he is finally proud of his roots. "I made that up to fuel the myth, because really, my whole life has been a myth," he says. Now he can come clean. "It's funny, but I'll never stop feeling Jewish, no matter how much I might talk my way out of it.

I'm very proud to be part of this tradition. It's brought me a lot of knowledge."

He is equally proud of Suicide and flattered by the attention of musician-fans - artists as varied as Springsteen, Nick Cave, Primal Scream and Julian Cope are lined up to release cover versions of Suicide classics every month from now until 2010. Even Amy Winehouse is apparently keen to get involved.

"There's an authenticity to our music," he considers. "It's country 'n' eastern music, or New York City blues. I sometimes call it ‘Two Jews' Blues'. Really, though, we're our own category. People always say: ‘You're too much in the future.' And I tell them: ‘No, you're too much in the past.'"

Blast first (petite) is a contemporary reincarnation of Blast First, a sublabel of Mute Records founded in 1985 by Paul Smith, which released records by Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, Suicide and many more. The name came from the journal of the Vorticist modern art movement, BLAST, published in 1914 for the first of only two issues, but containing the Vorticist manifesto and considered a seminal text of 20th century Modernism.

The Alan Vega 70th Birthday Limited Edition EP series continues monthly (and when the vinyl sells out, as the Springsteen is supposed to have, you can buy it as a download from the site) with a whole bunch of different artists - amongst others, The Horrors and 'Shadazz' this month, Lydia Lunch and 'Frankie Teardrop' in November, Sunn0)))/Pansonic with 'Che' in January, and Grinderman, Liars, Spiritualised and Gavin Friday listed for later, as yet unnamed, versions.

If you haven't heard Suicide before, you're seriously missing out. It's been years since I first heard the first self-titled album from 1977, and then the more recent works including 2002's American Supreme (previous post on it here) and 1992's Why Be Blue?, but I have found few bands as novel and engaging. Suicide's second album, also self-titled, was released a couple of years after the first and doesn't sound a huge lot different, though it's not just a straight repetition either. To be honest, I don't like it as much as either the first self-titled or American Supreme, although it has got some undeniably great pop songs on it, of which 'Dream Baby Dream' is just one.

Their minimalism and their subversion of pop music (though of course from Suicide's point of view, it was the rest of the world which - before and after punk - had degraded the core of rock and roll, not them) don't quite seem like the qualities which would have attracted Bruce Springsteen, the Boss of extragavant, if soulful, rock and roll. However, they did, and he is obviously still their one of their biggest, and best-known, fans. (In a similar fashion, Joan Jett is a big fan of Lungfish.)

This fandom is most evident on Springsteen's most stripped-back, bleakest album, Nebraska. It was recorded as, and eventually released from, a four-track cassete tape demo - after finding that studio recordings with the E Street Band failed to capture the eerie, sharply emotional sound of the solo demo recordings. While the whole album is consequently minimalist by comparison with his other works (excepting other stripped-down, folk-influenced albums The Ghost of Tom Joad and the recent Devils and Dust), 'State Trooper' forms a particular homage to the sound of Suicide. In a previous post on this album, I wrote:

"I've seen this album described, half-jokingly, as Springsteen's emo record. If you've already heard Nebraska, you might just understand that. Emo like Moss Icon at their most repetitively circular and dirge-like, perhaps, or Hoover in one of their most pyschologically anguished ultra-quiet build-ups. You see, Bruce brings a lot of emotion to this recording, but it's not the heart-on-sleeve, slightly melancholy exuberance of Born to Run - instead, it's a catalogue of despair and brooding, incipient sadness. Often, it's not merely 'eerily' quiet, it's goddamn scarily quiet.

In fact, there's a different niche of punk that this album takes its influence: Suicide. Springsteen was a big fan of the no-wave New York minimalist duo, and presumably still is, since they continue to put out some very good stuff. Not only is their a sonic affinity audible in the sparse, empty arrangement of the album as whole, but one song - 'State Trooper' - is a direct homage to classic '77 Suicide. The same hollowed-out motorycle-engine beats, the same tense vocal delivery. It's not quite as terrifying as 'Frankie Teardrop', but it comes close."

Nebraska - as with most if not all Springsteen - is pure Americana, but all the more so for its unorthodox references to Suicide's style of proto-, electro- and post-punk. It's real American-dream-gone-wrong stuff, expressed in the language and features of that great society, and - just as Suicide took the idea of rock and roll and reconstructed it in a new, simultaneously harsh and beautiful mechanical medium - Nebraska survives on the pre-existence of its folk paradigm, mediated through Springsteen's then rapidly establishing style.

'Atlantic City', although also one of my favourites from the album, is included above mostly just to show what is probably only the most rocking song on the album, and so as an indication of just how suppressed the energy is on Nebraska. In fact, the opening title track is heartbreaking, evoking the coldness and gloom of the cover picture and the 'badlands' of the northern Midwest (though typically the other two tracks here revert to talking about Jersey). 'Johnny 99' and 'Highway Patrolman', like 'State Trooper', swing between inert sadness and active tension; and while 'Open All Night' injects some anomalous energy with the use of an electric rather than acoustic guitar, 'Used Cars', 'My Fathers House' and 'Mansion on the Hill' are all steeped in melancholy. Album closer 'Reason to Believe' at least offers somewhat of a rousing conclusion:

"at the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to believe"

Bruce Springsteen - Nebraska (1982)


lex dexter said...

i have a few springsteen shows from that long, interesting Devils and Dust tour that rank among my fave recordings of his.

also, bruce's comment about how obama joins him in "measuring the distance" between the "promise" and "reality" of America is apt. they're both of 'em much more interesting cultural critics of the USA then, say, greil marcus.

there's some great shit on MAGIC, too, fwiw. i'm gonna rock a new mixtape as soon as this prospectus-writing is over, and you'll see.

gabbagabbahey said...

In my musings here, I somehow completely forgot to mention (though I did in the first Nebraska post) that the only Boss albums I've listened to are this and Born to Run - which I love - (I started with Born in the USA, but it was too 80s for my sensitive tastes). Just like Waits, he is one of those artists I can be completely satisfied by getting deeply into one or two of their records and a general idea of the rest. So I'll be looking forward to that mixtape, yeah.

I meant to write more on the Americana aspect, though I think the Dream Baby Dream cover says it all - the iconic stars of the flag, but in stark b&w (nice double exposure, too. Edward was Robert Mapplethorpe's younger brother)

I gotta say, people here (in Ireland, but in Europe generally as well) love Bruce. He did three nights in Dublin in April, none of which I went to because a) they were high, though reasonable, prices and b) high average age (mentioned that already I think). went to Xiu Xiu in Whelan's one of the nights instead.

anyway, people are familiar with his anti-Bush stance - which I'm guessing gets him denigrated as a liberal artist at home - and I suppose in a way he represents the 'good' America that we all kind of half-think about.

but the connexion with Suicide is really interesting in that context - have you heard American Supreme? definitely recommended, an excellent contemporary album - as they were all about deconstructing the American Dream in a pop context as well; 'Frankie Teardrop' was a tale of an emotionally anguished factory worker/Vietnam vet(?); an individual under pressure from the structures of society/the economy.

just noticing some really great lines from Nebraska again, like this one from 'Atlantic City' - "down here it's just winners and losers/ and don't get caught on the wrong side of the line". Darn commie!

Anonymous said...

wow...bruce springsteen would be one of the last people that i would expect to cover a suicide song, and do it well for the matter. it amazes me that such a 'little' band, eh, artist can create so much inspiration for these larger groups.

and once again a band that changed my life, that unfortunately i do not appreciate enough. hearing suicide for the first time was one of...uh..i think i'm going to write something about this now.

gabbagabbahey said...

- brad, I guess it is surprising, but I'm used to it now. Nebraska never was one of Bruce's most popular albums, anyway.

there's a video on YouTube of Springsteen performing 'State Trooper' with Win and Regine of Arcade Fire. It's not actually that good, but that's mostly because of the quality of the recording.

but listening to this recording of 'Dream Baby Dream' reminds me of why Neon Bible is such a good album, and probably an underrated one at that... though the Boss still does it best.