BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN is one of the few artists of the past decade to create a myth larger than the sum of his songs, a myth of beaches, highways and street corners where night time is the right time to escape the daytime drudgery of 9-to-5 jobs and to prove one's courage and loyalty over and over again. All to the tune of an imagined past where folk music, soul music and frat-rock were integrated into a single tradition.
Though this myth isn't too accurate about the rock 'n' roll past or about present day working-class kids, it is nonetheless a vision too large to be exhausted by one artist--especially one like Springsteen who has only released three albums in the past eight years. Over those years, Springsteen's friends--Southside Johnny, Miami Steve Van Zandt, Gary "U.S." Bonds and Beaver Brown--have staked out corners of the myth for themselves, with the Boss' blessing. They have often made important contributions despite being damned by inevitable comparisons to their mentor.
Southside Johnny Lyon's friendship with Springsteen goes back to the days when they were both bar-band nobodies on the Jersey Shore. Lyon got his moniker from fervent renditions of South Chicago blues numbers, but his records have emphasized the early soul era of Sam Cooke and Stax Records. Despite a great blues belter voice and a hot horn section, Lyon has never seemed able to escape the past despite songwriting help from Springsteen and Van Zandt.
On his new album, "Trash It Up" (Mirage 90113-1), Lyon shifts from soul music's past to its present cutting edge. Nile Rodgers--the co-founder of Chic who guided comebacks for Diana Ross and David Bowie--produced the album with modern funk synthesizer, guitar and drum sounds. Over these modern dance tracks, however, Lyon adds his old-fashioned braying vocals.
Except for a remake of the Young Rascals' 1967 "Ain't Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore," the songs were written by Lyon's longtime guitarist Billy Rush. Often underrated as a songwriter, Rush has a knack for contagious guitar riffs and melodic hooks. Aided by Rodgers' production polish, he creates some first-rate funk dance tunes, especially "Get Your Body on the Job." For all his musical invention, however, Rush has absolutely nothing to say. His lyrics are treadworn cliche's about lust, romance and heartbreak. By abandoning lyrics about yearning restlessness and music rooted in an established tradition, Lyon also has largely abandoned the Springsteen myth that has dominated his career. "Trash It Up" is a blue-eyed soul version of the new Chic-Luther Vandross sound, and a pretty good one at that.
Beaver Brown--a Rhode Island sextet that often has shared the stage with Springsteen and Lyon--has had trouble getting a record contract because it sounds so much like its friends. The band has protested that it didn't copy Springsteen but emerged at the same time from the same milieu--East Coast blue-collar shore resorts. Ironically the group finally was signed to do the sound track for "Eddie and the Cruisers" (Scotti Brothers BFZ 38929), a thinly disguised bio-flick about Springsteen. Lyon is even listed as the film's technical adviser.
The movie, which opened here Friday, is no more accurate nor sophisticated about Springsteen than "The Rose" was about Janis Joplin. This shouldn't obscure the fact that Beaver Brown plays the Springsteen myth genre with more originality and feeling than Lyon, than Van Zandt, than Bonds, than anyone but Springsteen himself. John Cafferty, Beaver Brown's singer-songwriter, has self-consciously tried to translate the Beach Boys' West Coast middle-class utopias into his own East Coast working-class experiences. The result is a dynamic tension between the song's soaring full harmonies and the gritty dissatisfaction in Cafferty's voice and Gary Gramolini's guitar.
Unfortunately, the sound track contains only six Cafferty originals, and two of them were on Beaver Brown's 1980 independent singles. The other four are exuberant versions of overdone oldies with two vocals by Cafferty and two by the record's self-indulgent producer, Kenny Vance. The originals are compelling; the combination of Bobby Cotoia's piano and Michael Antunes' tenor sax build the stairs on which Cafferty's agitated shouts climb to one breakaway climax after another. This is an album that belongs on the shelf next to every copy of the "The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle."
On last year's "Nebraska," Springsteen made a solo acoustic album that tried to tie his myth to the folk music tradition of Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. He succeeded on about half the songs. Now Cash has taken two of Springsteen's failed attempts from "Nebraska" and has resuscitated them on his new album "Johnny 99" (Columbia FC 38696).
If anyone still doubts that Springsteen belongs in that folk tradition, they should hear how natural these songs sound in Cash's hands. Over acoustic guitar arpeggios and subtle backing, Cash's relaxed but careful drawl turns "Highway Patrolman" into a suspenseful narrative; you wonder how this tale of two brothers--a cop and a criminal--will turn out. "Johnny 99," the tale of a young, wild criminal loose on the highways, is given a country-rock backing as jumpy and restless as the title character.
The two Springsteen tunes aren't the only gems on the record. Guy Clark's "New Cut Road" is a vigorous, bluegrass-flavored tale about a young man who refuses to leave Kentucky when his family does. Eric Von Schmidt's "Joshua Gone Barbados" is a captivating folk song-story about a Caribbean sugar cane strike. The other songs--including two fine Paul Kennerley compositions--share the same narrative bent. Cash has always been at his best as a storyteller, and this is one of his best albums ever.