True blue tributes

Two new albums celebrate the songs of Bruce Springsteen and Jimmie Rodgers -- with mixed results.

Published September 19, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

I don't have any idea how this too-much-hate-and-violence rumor about the
American entertainment industry got started, because from where I'm sitting,
media nicey-nice is out of control. All the actors on the late-night talk
shows loved working with the fabulous other actors and the brilliant
director of their amazing new film. Plus, even though Gandhi was telling
us for years that we're all connected and stuff, it was award show
acceptance speeches that made us realize how right he is: "I am a Hindu,
a Muslim, a Christian, a Jew, and I'd like to thank the Academy, my agent, my
manager, my parents, my dry cleaner and my pizza delivery guy." And
finally, there's the tribute album mania sweeping the land. Lately,
musicians from Van Morrison to Van Halen are being blown audio kisses by
their colleagues in fans' clothing. "Love ya, Eddie! 'Hot for Teacher' really helped me get through a downer period in my life. Thanks, man!"

Even surly, cryptic Bob Dylan's playing nice. In his liner notes to the
likable new album "The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers: A Tribute," he writes
of the singing brakeman, "His message is all between the lines and he
delivers it like nectar that can drill through steel," and even, "He's like
the smell of flowers." Et tu, Bobby? I respect Jimmie Rodgers, the
so-called "Father of Country Music," and I admire his contribution to
American legend, giving us descendants a kicking legacy of romance -- the train
songs and out-of-luck songs and lonesome songs I hope we never live down.
And what a catalog: "T for Texas" (of which Dwight Yoakum does a
head-bobbing take here) and "In the Jailhouse Now" (see actual ex-con
Steve Earle's amusing version) are just two of his compositions.

But I have a confession to make: I HATE yodeling, which has always
kept me away from the Blue Yodeler's recordings of his own material. There
are still a few ay-hee-hoos scattered on this tribute, but not so many as to
send me packing. The album is uneven, but these things always are. Dylan's
lovely, if straightforward, "Blue Eyed Jane" and the sure-of-herself seduction of Alison Krauss' "Any Old Time" are keepers, though Mary Chapin Carpenter and the late Jerry Garcia are same as they ever were -- dead dull. Strangely, the best performance here might be Bono's "Dreaming With Tears in My Eyes." Mr. Irish Irony actually sounds sweet here, deep even. In light
of his recent work, maybe he finally understands regret, which helps him get this
lost-love song just right. He even irons out those annoying yodels into
gorgeous little Roy Orbison-style cries. (There must be some kind of
sweetness pollutant floating through the air if I'm saying nice things about

In other For He's A Jolly Good Fellow music news: The excruciatingly long,
two-CD set "One Step Up/Two Steps Back: The Songs of Bruce
Springsteen" contains a little booklet that prints up Brooce love letters
by every last performer on the album, including Joe Cocker, Donna Summer,
Marshall Crenshaw and the Knack. They're all super-sweet kudos -- except for
David Bowie's. Finally, a naysayer in this land of yes men! He describes
meeting Springsteen in the '70s, points out that Bruce didn't much care for
what Bowie was doing to his song "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City" and
describes a weird photo of the two of them taken at the time. "I look like
I'm made out of wax," he writes, which is the best description of David
Bowie I've ever read.

But I like Bowie's "Saint" version. He sounds like a more human, more
excitable, more melodic Lou Reed, which gives the song -- an ode to a glam
street tough -- a kind of overblown drama, a queeny New Yorkish sneer that's
missing in these mostly reverent covers. The only other real bright spot is
the always adorable Syd Straw doing "Meeting Across the River." She messes
with the story just by choosing the song, changing the small-time crook
narrator into a breathy, melancholy moll. "Change your shirt," she instructs
her partner in crime, "'Cause tonight, we've got style."

If the point of a tribute album is to make you appreciate the commended
artist more, then I suppose "One Step Up" succeeds. It's not like I was
exactly immune to Springsteen's charms before, but hearing wrong-headed
versions of songs I love sent me flying back to the originals. One of my
all-time Boss faves, for instance, is "Atlantic City," from the
"Nebraska" record. I have no idea who this Kurt Neumann is, but from
the sounds of his cheesy, electric guitar try at "Atlantic City," he might be
a lost member of REO Speedwagon or some other '80s Top-40 trauma, because he
turns a desperate masterpiece of realism into just another song about a date.
When Springsteen does it, his voice is full of the kind of hope born of lost
sleep and frayed nerves, and he makes a night in Atlantic City sound like it's more about
gambling in the cosmic sense.

"One Step Up/Two Steps Back" never even comes close to the depth and
possibility lurking in Springsteen's best songs. Part of the problem is the
roster of performers. Who are these people? Joe Gruschecky & the
Houserockers? Robbin Thompson? Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes?
Listening to them do songs that are better than they are reminds me of
nothing so much as happening onto a bar band that has enough taste to pick
great songs, but not enough taste to pack it in like they oughta. Why anyone
would shell out hard cash to bring that sort of thing home on a record is
beyond me. Because if I want to listen to a random sampling of mediocre
covers for a couple of hours, I'll just turn on the radio.

By Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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Bruce Springsteen Music