This is our truth, tell us yours
Men without women; Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul
I didn’t set out to pick two songs in a row that speak to me about ambivalence, but it’s happened that way.
This song has been in my mind ever since I blogged about Bobby Jean by Bruce Springsteen.
It’s a classic Jersey Sound album, but complicated by the web of relationships that gave birth to it. Both Springsteen’s E Street Band and the Asbury Jukes contributed to the album, but neither of the two lead singers (Southside Johnny and Bruce Springsteen) were credited for their backing vocals on the original album.
The links go deeper; some ofthe unattached musicians who played on this album went on to be members of the Asbury Jukes. Other guys who were around went on to keep playing with Springsteen, with Bon Jovi and other Jersey acts. I promised myself this wouldn’t be a flashy, look what I know blog post, but it’s hard not to notice the idea that as much as there were these big label bands in Jersey, there was a collective, a mood and a method. Bringing Springsteen’s band into a recording session wasn’t a political statement; they were just a team who knew how to do what they did, and they included players like Roy Bittan who routinely recorded with Meatloaf, Bob Seger and other solid gold recording artists. Part of the Springsteen schtick was that even when he was being deep and meaningful the band played as if Phil Spector was conducting and they were in a bar, but it worked because it was the band doing what they knew best.
So how did these guys from the party scene on the shore, guys who could play all night and end up doing a Sam Cooke melody to send the crowd home dancing, end up doing a song inspired by a Hemingway short story collection and full of ambivalent lyrics about being men without women?
They weren’t men without women, of course. Springsteen had female musicians in his band in the mid 70s, and the Jukes, famously, included Patty Scialfa, the future Mrs Springsteen, as a backing singer. All three men married women at one stage or another while building their stage acts around fraternal values and interplay. So why were they men without women for the purposes of a song?
The answer in part is that the song is about brotherhood, about the solitude of men as a group, silent, sullen and unable to explain themselves. They might be brothers against the world, but they’re also brothers who struggle to talk to and listen to the world.
Van Zandt’s relationship with Springsteen was turbulent; he moved in and out of the E Street band. His departure from the Asbury Jukes coincided with Southside Johnny declining to record the songs that made up the Men Without Women album. I got the impression, listening to this song, that these were men struggling with things they could barely even say to themselves.
The joy of doing seven songs in seven days is that it’s about the personal reaction to music. The theme, of speechless men, robbed of words by culture and circumstance, crops up in another of Springsteen’s great songs, Independence Day;
“So say goodbye it’s Independence Day
Papa now I know the things you wanted that you could not say
But won’t you just say goodbye it’s Independence Day
I swear I never meant to take those things away”
If I thought he would have got the point I would have played that song to my father when I was a teenager. When I heard Men Without Women I started to ponder if my father had nothing to say because of who he was, or because of where he was brought up and how men were. Somewhere along the way I wondered if that applied to me, and I started to wonder if I should listen and learn.