Of Heroes and Villains



There are a couple of interesting shows by a couple of pop music legends on Netflix at the moment.  Springsteen on Broadway is getting rave reviews as pretty much everything the New Jersey rocker does does. Surviving Twin, an hour and a half with folkie Loudon Wainwright III, is, by comparison, flying low under the radar but for my money the better of the two shows.


I would recommend you watch them in close temporal proximity but not necessarily back to back. There is a lot to absorb in both shows and you’d be doing Bruce and Loudon a disservice if you didn’t give them the time they are asking.  After all both men are consciously baring their souls. They are sifting through the entrails of the relationships in their lives, especially with their fathers. They are seeking some sort of expiation, and trying to set the record straight.  The shows are essentially about saying ‘I love you’ to their long-gone daddies as well as making amends for their own sins.


As you’d expect the tone and style (and even the length) of the individual shows reflect the artist himself. In Springsteen on Broadway Bruce is earnest, self-deprecating, intense and polished. He looks amazingly fit and even more handsome than in his youth. His set list rarely deviates from his greatest hits but he is able to connect aspects of each song to the goings on in his emotional life in a way that makes each of them fresh and even new. As he reveals the backstory of his family and their hardscrabble existence songs like Growing Up and Born to Run seem more real and more grounded.


Surviving Twin opens with Loudon singing the title track, a typically entangled Wainwright portrait of himself and his father as equal parts of the same person. Springsteen said in an interview once, that all of rock ‘n roll is about men crying, ‘waah, daddy!’ but his show moves on from this painful relationship pretty quick.  For Wainwright, however, this central father/son dynamic is the show.  In between songs, most of which are nowhere near Loudon’s best known repertoire, he enacts readings from his father’s LIFE magazine columns.  While in Springsteen on Broadway, the music is the part of the show that sparkles, in Surviving Twin, I found Loudon’s fantastic, embodied performances of his father’s writings to be the real attention grabber. He’s a natural, engaging performer, full of humour, lightness, spontaneity and comic timing. And by memorising such long passages of his father’s writings and bringing them to life in a way his old man never would have imagined, he pays a truly touching tribute. An undeniable statement of forgiveness and love.


In On Broadway, Springsteen tells his life story starting from being raised in a poor working-class Catholic home in industrial New Jersey, through his obsession with becoming a rock star, on to his finding love and eventually being compelled to speak out on political causes.  From the opening line—“I come from a boardwalk town where almost everything is tinged with a bit of fraud. So am I.”—Bruce brings some of the parish confessional to the event.  For those of us who grew up with ‘The Boss’, the ultimate rock god whose loud, long and exhilarating live shows guided our own growing up, to learn that he lived none of the experiences he describes in his classic songs is momentarily jarring. But to hear Tenth Avenue Freezeout and Backstreets played on only a piano and sung in a low voice is powerful evidence of the truth of Springsteen’s unique artistry. Which is his unfailing ability to touch and illuminate something in his stories and characters that transcends mere individual experience.


The many characters that inhabit Springsteen’s music are fundamentally, archetypes. They emerge from the suburban collective conscious, saddled with existential dilemmas. The Factory Worker [Early in the morning factory whistle blows/Man rises from bed and puts on his clothes/Man takes his lunch, walks out in the morning light/It’s the working, the working, just the working life], The Broken Hearted, The Restless [It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap/We gotta get out while we’re young/Tramps like us baby/Baby we were born to run], The Desperate.  Even, The Killer [From the town of Lincoln, Nebraska/With a sawed off .410 on my lap/Through to the badlands of Wyoming/I killed everything in my path]. Bruce may have a love-hate relationship with religion but he’s as familiar with Biblical themes and motifs as any preacher. Consequently, his heroes—and all of his characters, even the criminally flawed ones, are heroic—take on a larger-than-life, prophetic dimension.  Springsteen’s early lyrics may be full of ‘real people’: Sandy, Young Scott, Early Pearly, Sherry Darling, Eddie and Mary.  But over the years these faces fade into the background and he sings mainly of ‘you’ ‘they’ ‘girl’, ‘me’ and ‘I’. The Boss’s stories are allegories. His characters transcendent, massive and symbolic.


Springsteen would put his success down to hard work, and it is true there are few others who have given so much of their soul, guts and sweat to the cause of music. But his secret, in my book, is a basic eternal verity.  The truth of Springsteen’s music does not depend on personal experience and the ‘real life’ he sheepishly confesses to having avoided. Bruce Springsteen, like Jeremiah, was born it seems to deliver one essential message:  man must struggle, even fail. But in the end, there is love. And that love, is the only way.

If Wainwright’s music has a theme it may be best summed up in his song Nice Guys (Therapy:1989)

Nice guys are a dime a dozen
You know what a dime is worth
I was born to be the villain in your life
That’s why god put me here on earth

You could not design a more perfect foil to Springsteen than Loudon Wainwright III.   Born into privilege, the ultimate East Coast Yankee, Wainwright was, as the roman numeral at the end of his name indicates, a well-established member of the Establishment. Springsteen’s dad was a toiler in the factories of New Jersey. Wainwright’s dad was a distinguished and popular writer for LIFE magazine.  Three years older than Bruce, Loudon was sent to an elite boarding school in Delaware; Springsteen graduated from a mediocre public high school. Bruce busted his ass working. Loudon probably wouldn’t have had to work a day if he didn’t want to.  Wainwright’s mother was southern aristocracy. Bruce’s mom was the daughter of immigrants from southern Italy. The Wainwrights felt entitled. The Springsteens, forgotten.


But there are commonalities as well. Both fathers, the labourer and the writer, were alcoholics and when they were needed the most by their sons, unavailable. Both boys hated their respective educational institutions but were close to their mothers. And most importantly, guitars and songs provided the opportunity to move away from home and out of the oppressive shadows of their dads.


If Springsteen’s songs are all about Truth, Wainwright’s are all about himself.  They are musical lesions that ooze cynicism and doubt. Many—Screaming Issue, IDTYWLM, The Suicide Song, Revenge—are little more than accusations hurled at lovers, parents, peers and even his children.  But always, a dark humour and sense of the ridiculous help to staunch the wound. Springsteen can be self-critical in his monologues but his songs almost always resound with hope.  Loudon on the other hand is a man who loves to mercilessly flail his subjects, including himself, prodding their weaknesses and laughing at their failings.


Loudon Wainwright III has got to be the most intimate of American singer songwriters. His songs explore the foibles and follies of being himself: a father, a son, a husband, a human, a lover. His self-reference is huge and could be too much in the hands of a lesser artist. Yes, he’s a victim but Loudon can punch himself in the guts just as hard as anyone else. Just listen to Hitting You, if you don’t believe me.  In his songs he turns himself inside out and hides absolutely nothing. He makes no excuses, but if one slips through, he is quick to burn it to ashes with a sneer. Loudon is no Narcissus.


Like his dad, Wainwright is a born wordsmith. He can make a song about doing cannonballs into a pool as interesting and as meaningful as a song about the breakup of a long-term relationship. Some consider Wainwright to be a writer of novelty songs–think Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road–but this is way off the mark. He simply writes about everything that enters his experience, be it failed relationships, drinking too much, current events or roadkill. As a writer the whole world is his subject and if there is such a thing as Truth, it is to be found in the mundane, the quotidian, the ridiculous.  The message of life is not ‘out there’ in some transcendent Biblical allegory. It is here in the emotional violence, in the buffoonery, in the artifice and ultimate cheapness of human endeavour that the lessons of life lie buried.  If Bruce sings of the American working class hero, Loudon is the voice of the upper class lout.  Just as light cannot exist without darkness, Bruce’s heroes make no sense without Loudon’s villains.


Both shows are fascinating and among the best ‘rock’ films I’ve ever seen. Like the genre itself they are raw but life affirming.  They represent very different approaches to art, song writing and life itself but are absolutely spot on in their expose of the human (mostly, male) condition.