There is probably a good bromance film to be made about the relationship between male songwriters. They dynamics of a songwriting partnership mirror that of a romantic union – giddy joy at meeting a compatible soul, the steady rhythm of fruitful collaboration, independence and wanting to branch out and then either acceptance and adaptation or estrangement.
Some partnerships – like Morrissey and Johnny Marr – burn hot and bright, flaming out quickly. Others, like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, settle into marriages of convenience. Jack White is quite promiscuous as a songwriter, flitting from the White Stripes to the Raconteurs, Loretta Lynn and Dead Weather. Some songwriting partnerships turn into real marriages, like Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan or Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.
Then there are the songwriters who have flown solo: Phil Ochs, Neil Young, But even the most ardent songwriting bachelors have had a subtle and unseen hands guiding their way and providing resistance to make the song better. Rivers Como had Matt Sharp, Jeff Tweedy had Jay Bennett, Stevie Wonder had Syreeta Wright. And Bruce Springsteen had Miami Steven Van Zandt.
Van Zandt made his presence in the E Street Band known immediately. He arranged the horn line in “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and contributed to the signature guitar line on “Born To Run.” For the next eight years his guitar was the muscle behind Springsteen’s songs, constantly challenging the band and its leader to keep moving and top themselves.
When Van Zandt left the E Street band in 1984, he was replaced by Nils Lofgren. Lofgren had established an outstanding reputation on the basis of his solo work and his stints with Neil Young and Crazy Horse. As a musician he was a more-than-worthy replacement for Van Zandt, but was too easygoing to musically aggravate his new boss the way Van Zandt had.
In 1995 Van Zandt returned the E Street Band and Lofgren remained. The pair has now spent more time in the band together than they did apart. But during that time, Springsteen’s concerts have turned into carnivals rather than escapades. Musicians that used to labor over albums as a unit now record their parts separately. In short, the E Street Band is less a team than an all-star squad of longtime ringers.
Although Springsteen concerts remain incredible experiences and his albums are very good for the most part, Springsteen’s songwriting lacks the urgency, grit and desperation of his early work. Since Springsteen’s early ‘90s retreat from the E Street crew, he hasn’t had a foil, poking, prodding and disturbing him.
When Tom Morello joined the E Street Band onstage in April, 2008, the long absent counterpunch returned. Although his career was considerably shorter, the guitarist had been searching for his own artistic gadfly since the break-up of Rage Against the Machine and the disappointment of Audioslave.
Both performers were familiar with the material. Springsteen wrote “The Ghost of Tom Joad” as the title song for his 1995 solo album and Rage Against the Machine released a covered it two years later. There are several elements in the live collaboration missing on either incarnation. Morello emulates Woody Guthrie in his solo guise as the Nightwatchman, but here and Springsteen add an element of longing and loneliness Guthrie would have liked.
Five guitars are played, but only two of them matter. Springsteen rips off a blistering solo with more intensity than anything he’s recorded in years – he came closest in his appearances on Warren Zevon’s farewell album “The Wind” – and Morello soars with passionate extended solo that combines Public Enemy’s Terminator X and Eddie Van Halen to end the song.
Springsteen originally wrote “Tom Joad” for the E Street 1995 reunion project, but didn’t like the band’s arrangement and set the number aside. That it took an outsider to help the group get the song right 13 years later points the direction Springsteen’s music should head. Too comfortable with the E Streeters, he needs an album-length collaboration with obvious disciples like the Hold Steady or a partnership with more-obscure-but-still-simpatico Black Keys.
Springsteen doesn’t need anyone reverential or deferential. He needs someone like Morello kicking his ass, forcing him to be better. Hopefully these eight tantalizing minutes are the first draft of an upcoming screenplay.