These Three Things Are Not The Same, Heck They Aren’t Even Vaguely Similar: Bruce, Dylan and Waits

Youtube is tripping. It suggested that Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits are ‘similar to Bob Dylan’ and I might like to listen to a mix of their music. This proves that computers can never rule the world. Music is not the sum of an algorithm, it is not a quantifiable mathematical equation, however essentially mathematical music is on an essential level. It doesn’t matter that music is essentially groups of twelve notes, repeating in higher and lower registers, it also has that ‘vox humana’, that human voice, that false note, that immeasurable factor that numbers can never explain or describe or predict.

I learnt to play the piano as a child and in my head, no matter how long I play the guitar for, I will always see music in variations of black and white keys, and it will always end a few octaves below middle c and terminate a few octaves above it. The youtube system is either programmed by fools who make connections between Bruce and Tom and Bob, telling the computer foul lies that ruin my listening experience, or else, ok, computer, you have a lot to learn my mechanical friend.

However, in no normal and reasonable person’s musical lexicon are Bruce and Tom even in Dylan’s ballpark, but why? How does a system quantify tone and quality and vibe? Bruce does bombastic and patriotic blue collar hype music, which if music had a color, it would be absolute and total lilly white, hailing from somewhere between Norway and Germany. There is nothing wrong with that, per se, I guess, but it can hardly be compared to Dylan’s range and sensitivity.

Waits and Springsteen

Dylan writes rainbows of love for his fellow travellers on the road of life. Dylan is all the colors of light in the spectrum. He encompasses humanity. He writes civil rights protest songs, sweet gentle love songs that somehow make the listener patch Dylan’s love and longing and loss onto their own affairs. Dylan writes stream of consciousness poetry that Joyce would be proud of, and songs that were instant ‘traditional’ timeless folk classics. The story of Donovan playing Dylan Mr Tambourine Man, yet changing the lyrics to something like “My Darling Tangerine Eyes”, with Dylan pointing out that he just stole his song, and the confused and apologetic Donovan declaring he thought that it was a traditional classic and therefore the melody up for grabs. Dylan apparently replied with something along the lines of ‘well it isn’t….yet’…Even the man knew he was writing timeless greatness, and so did everyone else who was around him, even when these songs were fresh born babies.

Tom? Tom might well be American, but the man bleeds green. He might only have one part Irish parent, but his music is almost disturbingly Pogues-like. He sounds as if he belongs entirely in New York tenements, possibly running with some outlandishly named gang in the early 1900s, bootlegging whiskey and fighting with knives. Tom belongs with some woman called ‘Toothless Sally’ who runs a gaggle of pickpockets. Tom does not sound like he is from Pomoma California, which is the actual reality of his bizarre situation. Yes, Waits is Californinan to the fucking core! He cut his musical teeth playing Dylan covers, but he ain’t no Dylan. Some songs sound ‘hot’, sound “California”, sound as if they are born out of palm trees and sand and carved out of California redwood. Tom’s songs sound like they have come from the frozen over gutter of some Bowery slum. I guess he got that from Bob. Ask me what whiskey and cigarettes and mean-hearted, delirium tremens black out drunkenness sound like, and I would pass you Hell Broke Luce and almost the entirety of Heart Attack and Vine; but there is the secret hidden within. Inside every black out drunk is a hopelessly disappointed romantic who sees life as a need to ‘hold on, hold on’, if only to stop themselves from falling over.

Both Bruce and Tom (in his younger less ripped-up-throat-days) can come on all Billy Joel schmaltz in a piano bar. Take San Diego Serenade by Waits. Never has a song sounded less San Diego and more Manhattan and still claimed geographical western affiliation.

Bruce has a little more sexual thrust and grind to his saccharine love-light, I’m On Fire is a slow burner full of desire for daddy to get out the way, so Bruce can have his wicked way with some pretty young thing. The River doesn’t have the levity that Joel and Tom can produce, that weighed down by the rock, but it is of the same ilk, and bleeds the same sweet blood. His story of unplanned pregnancy and a life that gets swallowed up by mundanity can almost make me feel something. Almost. You might have guessed that I don’t enjoy Waits or Bruce. To be frank Wait’s music makes me feel like someone is dragging their nails down the chalkboard while pouring Bushmills down my throat, an anaesthetized kinda horror. Of course I worship Dylan in a way that should properly be reserved for some kind of religioso fervor. Dylan intoxicates in a way that doesn’t make you want to puke up your bile and smash your head against the closest wall that reads ‘Desolation Row’, or “San Diego Bus Station” or even “The Streets of Philadelphia.”

Bob and Bruce

The pinnacle of Springsteen’s art was the story song 4th July, Asbury Park (Sandy). Bruce’s voice has never sounded sweeter, and the song is the perfect mix of kitsch and desire, lust and love and loss and longing. Bruce, for once, doesn’t sound like the most stand up steel worker meathead that ever pulled a righteous 18 hour shift making the means of American world cultural and economic domination, and then went home to the next door girl that he met while he was quarterback in highschool, and married at 18 years old, after proposing to her after the final high school glory daze game where they won, won, won everything and won it good. For once he has an edge and a wide eyed open innocence that is blurred with the street and the law and the life of this ‘boardwalk life’ dream that America the beautiful sells its favorite sons and daughters.

For once he is both young and idealistic, and also might just not turn up to work, and instead roll a joint (for someone else, don’t be silly, it IS still Bruce), and hop a freight train with Dylan and Woody…at least for a few weeks before he comes back into his right mind and begs for his job and wife and Yankee dollar dream back once again, just how it should be, Bruce is living the free man on the road beat dream. It might be 4th of July, that most patriotic of dates, in this song, but we aren’t in Philly now, baby.

This is a New Jersey fairytale. Bruce is chasing ‘all those silly New York virgins’, while Dylan is watching Johanna and her lover through a window at the Chelsea Hotel. Dylan is a New York Rimbaud. Bruce is a factory troubadour, and I don’t mean of the Warhol kind. They chase ‘factory girls’ of different breeds. This is not just two sides of a bay, this is two halves of two entirely different worlds. No one who longs for Dylan at a particular moment in time and for his mule that is decorated with ‘jewels and binoculars’ feels drawn to hanging out on the fucking Jersey Shore. No. There is no hope of algorithms running the world, they just don’t get the essentially human experience that is expressed through 12 notes and the sadness of human experience.

Despite the brutishness of Bruce’s lyrics, with its crude double entendres – “And me I just got tired of hanging in them dusty arcades, banging them pleasure machines”, Bruce’s story song is far the superior of Dylan’s western story song, Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, but even so, this worst song in Dylan’s catalogue has more sensitivity and class in it’s saloon room little finger, than Bruce mustered in his entire career. I can’t listen to Bruce without wanting to slap him, and ask him if he was born not only in the USA, but also a bonehead chauvinist and misogynist to boot. I am sure Bruce would say just how much he really loves women, but then there is loving women, and loving ‘unsnapping their jeans under the boardwalk’ to paraphrase him. Bruce loves sex, not women and boy oh boy does he love to talk about it. Patti Smith and Bruce doing a duet is one of the most unlikely pairings in history. I certainly can’t imagine even Bruce getting frisky with Patti, yet the two of them pulled it off with aplomb….’because the night belongs to lovers…’ and in the end she is just another New Jersey girl. I guess Bruce has charms. I appear to be immune. It is not wholly Bruce’s fault, John Landow got hold of him and made him anthemic. He made some nice songs, most of which are entirely forgettable filler, but everyone loves Bruce, at least everyone in America who doesn’t feel alienated by the shallowness of his soul and sound.

Lou might have complained that Sally Can’t Dance.…well if Sally has any groove in her soul, she certainly can’t dance to Bruce. Bruce encourages fist pumping, occasional cigarette lighter waving and sometimes swaying, but dancing? No. I might be onto something. Tom Waits? No one dances to Tom. Tom is a drunk circus act at best, a stumbling rabble rousing inebriated closing time brawl of a lyricist. Tom writes music for that time of the evening when tears flow like wine and the fool is telling the entire bar that he loves them, no man he really really does. Tom is like a twisted Cohen with less talent, and nobody dances to a man who makes you feel like your dog just died and perhaps calling a mental health helpline might be a good option for the man wailing about thinking about cutting his throat and committing a pointless suicide as he shaves.

Try dancing to Dylan. It doesn’t work. Feet stop moving, minds get distracted by the thought provoking essential-ness of his lyrics, and to be frank who can dance when Dylan is reminding us about ‘poor Hattie Carroll’ who gave birth to ten children and was murdered in 1963 by a young white tobacco farm owner, the grotesquely racist and cruel William Zantzinger, who was then handed down a sentence of only 6 months for a crime that befitted life in jail. Dylan is to be absorbed not danced to. Perhaps the algorithm decides music is to be paired together on simple dance-ability. That seems like something a computer would think to be human, whilst ensuring that it offers suggestions that are outlandish at best, and offensive at worst.

Waits is a phony. Waits is who someone likes if they want to be strange and different. I often wonder does anyone really love his music or do they just think they should? Do they love him just to argue with their friends and feel as if they are special for liking the sound of gravel in a cement mixer doused with pure ethanol aggro insensibility? Tom Waits, if he is the horse you choose to back, can be your own private hero. He is not for conformists or sensitive souls who look at life straight on. He comes with a jar of vaseline to smear on the mirror he looks at life through, and to ease his bleeding tonsils, as well as a card that says, ‘I am different.’ To be frank, I see Waits as a big ole phony, and I don’t like phony things. He is Californian to the core, but stole Dylan’s Manhattan smog and frozen grimness as a lens to sing through. Waits sounds like hell, but wants to pretend he is giving us a glimpse into heaven, and love and all that good stuff. You don’t have to listen carefully to hear the phlegm in his throat, and gross-out is his game. Dylan is above all that. Dylan is truth, even if he wants to insist that all he is, is a ‘simple song and dance man’ it just ain’t true. Dylan is like looking me a universal ‘me’ through the crystal clear lens of the eternal ‘you’.

I am not going to pretend that Dylan has the voice of an angel, and for the less imaginative and sensitive, Dylan’s voice is a stumbling block towards appreciating his work. For them I suggest Bruce Springsteen, he sounds like velvet and ky jelly, and isn’t overtly challenging and weird, and nor does he require much thought, just feeling and hormones. People love Bruce for his likeability. People love Tom Waits for his dislike-ability and the way he splutters and spits saliva through a song, gargling words, getting epically soggy and horrendously grotesque. With Tom even the straightest straight tee totaller can get the experience of vomiting your own bile and choking on your arterial blood, but without the liver disease and early death that should attend it. Tom is for gutter voyeurs, and I am cool with that, but Tom just comes off as Fake as Shane Macgowan comes on Real, and that makes me feel kinda sick. People love Dylan because he is a genius in tune with the zeitgeist and the human condition and has a celestial musical sensitivity.

These three things are not the same. They are not even in the same city ballpark, I don’t care what the computer says, or the suggestions that things who are only artificially intelligent have to say, it takes a soul to know what things belong together, which sounds are sympatico. Not all music is to soothe, but the experience of listening to this trio in one unholy computer chipped mixtape makes me recoil in horror. It is not for the faint hearted. I am going to go hang out with Bob and his ‘other world’ that he sees through his dark eyes, like a Shinigami who sees to the heart of the matter of this world of life, all the way through death, Chelsea Hotel windows, and historical Bravos River gunslinger fights. I need it after that meathead Bruce and listening to Tom Waits gargle whiskey and kidney stones.

“All I see are dark eyes…” and I kinda like it that way.

Leave a Reply