Friday, September 18, 2015

Friday songs: "Johnny 99" by Bruce Springsteen

     I was never all that big on Nebraska as a kid. Despite being spoon-fed Springsteen with my Gerber, it was an album that rarely left the shelf. My dad was never a big fan [1]. and it just wasn't for me. The record, conveyed beautifully by the album cover, was so cold and stark. There were no harmonies, no anthems. No Big Man. Just a guy and his guitar. Mostly, I think I just found it depressing.

      Later, when I became old enough to search out music that didn't make me want to shout along to or dance around like a spaz, I rediscovered Nebraska and it had a much greater impact on me. Springsteen channeling Suicide, stripping the songs of their instrumentation and forcing you to pay attention to the lyrics, which were less wry and stripped of their swagger [2]. The characters lost their cute names but kept their hardscrabble lives. The tales became bleaker. The back-alley salvations turned to the chronicling of American promise dying on the vine. I think for years it was my go to album for porch wine [3].

      The song that stood out to me almost immediately, though, is "Johnny 99." for one thing, it's probably the closest thing to a rock song on the album. It has a shuffling beat that damn near borders on rockabilly [4] , and he starts it (after a weird little studio hiccup) with a falsetto Orbison yowl before launching into the lyrics:
Well they closed down the auto plant in Mahwah late last month

      Right out of a gate, this is a Springsteen song. Referencing New Jersey, cars, and the oxidation of America's blue collar middle class. 
Ralph went out lookin' for a job but he couldn't find none 
He came home too drunk from mixin' Tanqueray and wine
     There's something about this detail that just kills me. I can't even tell if it's good songwriting or just weirdness, not even counting that who in their right mind would mix those things?
He got a gun shot a night clerk now they call 'm Johnny 99
     I still don't get where the 99 part comes in. Is he called Johnny 99 because that's what the judge sentences him to later in the song, or is it vice versa? Both Springsteen's timeline and phrasing in this song are amazing and sort of an anomaly. I can't think of another one from this era where he works so hard to make the words fit. That line is also the entirety of the attention paid to the initial crime in this song. Such a weird pace.
     It's also worth noting that Springsteen refers to Ralph as "Jawnny" throughout the song while the judge is clearly pronounced "mean John Brown." I don't know if this is some sort of commentary or class indication, but I never felt like it was an accident. But maybe it's just the nascent stages of Bruce's weird dust bowl accent that began manifesting itself around this time.
Down in the part of town where when you hit a red light you don't stop
     Despite almost never doing it, I'm a big fan of karaoke. I love to sing and I have no problem listening to a  song 200 times until I can sing it without prompts [5]. But this song has probably given me more trouble than anything else of Springsteen's. The phrasing is so stilted and difficult to get out that it turns into something of a challenge. It's a great image, mind you, but the phrasing always kills me.
     This line is where my singing goes starts to go off the rails every time. There's a few other lines that just trip me up even more, but this is where it always begins.
Johnny's wavin' his gun around and threatenin' to blow his top
When an off-duty cop snuck up on him from behind
Out in front of the Club Tip-Top they slapped the cuffs on Johnny 99
     Again, it's the details here. It's about naming the streets, it's about which dive bar in the shitty part of town was Ralph arrested in front of.  Also, the Club Tip-Top is is both a plausible and sort of quaint name for a place people get shot in front of.
Well the city supplied a public defender but the judge was Mean John Brown
He came into the courtroom and stared poor Johnny down
Well the evidence is clear gonna let the sentence son fit the crime
     It's here that he picks up the curious practice of having one character address the other one in the middle of a sentence. Sometimes, this can be completely organic [6] within a conversation, but here the "son" is in such an unusual place that I'm baffled by the songwriting process. It's almost impossible to have it as "sentence is clear son sentence gonna", but "Well son the evidence is clear" works. As does dropping the "son" altogether. Springsteen must've felt pretty strongly about having it in there, but it seems like a lot of tortuous re-working just to add some folksy syntax to the song. 
Prison for 98 and a year and we'll call it even Johnny 99
     It's here that the harmonica solo that comes in. As the only instrument in this song aside from the guitar, it's quite prominent but like most of Bruce's harmonica playing, it's unusual. His harmonica style is makes prominent use of the sort of twangy note-bending [7]. , so much so that the rest of the notes mostly just feel like setup for them. In all. it sounds slightly off until every 8 notes or so when he drops in a note that ties the whole thing together like a rug. Also, how is 99 "even"? Compared to 98.4 I guess?
A fistfight broke out in the courtroom they had to drag Johnny's girl away
His mama stood up and shouted "judge don't take my boy this way"
"Well son you got a statement you'd like to make
Before the bailiff comes to forever take you away"
     The sense of chaos that Springsteen conveys here is amazing. It just needs someone fainting and maybe the clerk's family cheering. By now the title character is no longer an unstable murderer, but a "poor" guy whose live is on the line. The narrator at this point is at least sympathetic to Ralph if he already hadn't been the whole time.
"Now judge I got debts no honest man could pay
     A line from "Atlantic City" makes an appearance. It's a good line and I could see why he'd want to get the most out of it. But it's also such a conspicuously good line that there's no chance that even a casual listener would miss it.
The bank was holdin' my mortgage and they was takin' my house away
Now I ain't sayin' that makes me an innocent man
But it was more 'n all this that put that gun in my hand"
     ...and now we're at the meat of the song. I'd bet that Springsteen started with this concept and worked backwards to write the rest of it.
"Well your honor I do believe I'd be better off dead
And if you can take a man's life for the thoughts that's in his head
Then won't you sit back in that chair and think it over judge one more time
     This line right here has killed probably every single attempt I've ever made at singing this song. It is so weird and stilted and I can't even imagine speaking like that let alone singing [8].  "Think it over judge one more time" sort of makes sense when spoken, but singing it is just brutal.
And let 'em shave off my hair and put me on that execution line"
     and then such a downturn at the end. This is nothing unusual for this album, and at best Springsteen's songs have a "life is fine at least until I go to bed tonight" sort of ending. But this one is just straight up a plea for death. It's practically Eminemian. 

     The rest of the song is just an outro, as Bruce strums as forcefully as he can within the confines of the song and yelps over the chords. Those yelps are almost feral, like they had a bobcat wrestling a dog or something in the studio next to him while he's singing. They're ferocious and muted and close down the song in such a beautiful way you almost forget about the end of the story he just told.

[1] My dad's primary interests in Springsteen involved jogging and/or dancing. It should not be a surprise that this album didn't appeal to him, nor did The Ghost of Tom Joad 13 years later, although by that point, I was coming around on it. Once, in high school, I was cutting class and I remember hearing Pierre Robert on WMMR announce that they'd be playing a rare early Springsteen set later in the day. I immediately decided to cut the rest of day and go home so that I could record it. I sat there glued to my old box (is that a term that will ever be even usable again?) waiting for them to play, and when they finally did, i was treated to a set from April 4, 1974 at the Main Point in Bryn Mawr, PA. I remember presenting this tape to him like I'd narrowly escaped a Mayan temple with it (of course omitting that I'd spent a day cutting school to get it). He was grateful, but never really listened to it much, despite it containing maybe the greatest versions of "Wild Billy's Circus Story", "Tokyo" and "Thundercrack" ever committed to tape. I've since found it 5 or 6 times over, but I'd love to have that original tape again. For all I know it might still be in a box in my mom's attic, slowly succumbing to the humidity of Maryland summers. Note: This story has nothing to do with anything. I think I might've already told it here years ago, too.

[2]The irony of course is that these sessions produced the most misunderstood lyrics in Springsteen's catalogue, and maybe rock music in general.

[3] Porch wine dates back to Pittsburgh, maybe? More or less a more intimate version of stoop drinking. Porch wine songs are usually accoustic and rarely swing. Neil Young and Will Oldham have some pretty great porch wine songs. Iron & Wine, however, is way too sleepy. It's a fine line.

[4] Despite my liking almost every adjacent musical genre, rockabilly still bores the shit out of me. I think I blame the dumb 90s revival for this. I realize the 

[5] Much of this probably stems from my only experience ever singing in front of a live band and I forgot like 2/3 of the words to the song. NEVER AGAIN, I cried!

[6] As it is later in the song when Ralph says "Now judge I got debts...

  [7] It's almost sort of punk rock, Bruce's harmonica style. He knows just enough to get by and he relies on that twang so much you'd think it'd get old after 2 songs. But between this song, "Thunder Road", and "The Promised Land" alone, he's gotten way more mileage out of that thing than you would've thought possible.

[8] You can even hear Johnny Cash tripping over it in his cover of the song!

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