Tim Sommer’s first reaction to the Boss’s latest single “Hello Sunshine”
Dear Mr. Bruce Springsteen:
What the actual fuck?
The melody and vibe of “Hello Sunshine,” your first new studio recording in four years, is pretty much identical to that of an old and familiar song, “Everybody’s Talkin’” by the late, great Fred Neil (probably best known in a version covered by Harry Nilsson for the soundtrack of the film Midnight Cowboy).
You might say, “Okay, the melody is kind of the same, and yeh, the chord changes, too, but lots of melodies and chord changes sound the same.” But I am no fool, Mr. Springsteen. The real giveaway comes about 44 seconds in, when there’s a chimey guitar part that is lifted straight from both the Fred Neil original and the Harry Nilsson cover. That guitar part is like DNA left on a cigarette butt, my friend.
A catastrophe like this likely reveals less about an artist, and more about the fundamental sickness in an artists’ organization (any artist, not you specifically). Here’s what I mean:
So, Mr. Springsteen, you sit down and write this song. Sounds pretty good to you. Maybe you played it for your wife, Patti. Perhaps Marcie, Patti’s friend from high school, was visiting at the time, and she heard it too. Marcie’s dad passed recently, and her mom isn’t doing very well. Marcie’s sister — Suzan with a ‘z’ — really needs to bear some more of the responsibility of taking care of mom.
I have two kids in Middle School, and an ex who is off making babies with the yoga teacher. That’s right, the goddamn yoga teacher. Suzan lives freaking alone — the girls got married and left the house five fucking years ago — three-bedroom house in Summit, why can’t she take mom? Can I have another Diet Sprite, please? Thank you, Patti. No I don’t need a glass. Okay, give me a glass.
Now, both Patti and Marcie knew there was something familiar about the song you played them– Patti was pretty sure it had something to do with an old movie that you and her had watched last Fall – but neither of them mentioned it.
Next, Bruce, you played the track for your producer and some of the guys who were going to play on it.
Now, these guys are all pretty smart and have big record collections, and each and every one of them bloody well knew that the goddamn thing sounded a lot like “Everybody’s Talkin’.” Yet apparently not one of them raised one little pinky and said, “Uh, Bruce, that’s someone else’s song.”
Then you recorded the damn thing. It’s a nice little recording: subtle but enchanting, and rich with a lonely southwestern/roadside motel vibe. And I truly like how bloody simple the production is. It shows that you have learned well from Suicide, and you’re finding a nice starry-night in Joshua Tree/weed’n’whiskey texture to wrap around the minimalist confessions of Nebraska.
VIDEO: Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska Sessions
Which is all to say: I probably would really, really like this track if it didn’t sound exactly fucking like “Everybody’s Talkin’” by Fred Neil.
So anyway, Mister Springsteen, you record the thing. And all the way down the goddamn line, from your producer to your manager to your publicist to your musicians to the video director to the video director’s kid visiting on break from UC Santa Barbara to poor old Marcie, not one single person said, “Hey…uh…this is actually someone else’s song.” Not one of them stopped the process. Not one of them spoke up and kept you from looking like an ass.
Honestly, every single recording artist makes mistakes like this to a greater or lesser degree. There is zero sin in that. But it is a really bad sign that no one had the nerve to point it out to you. See, it takes a village to make this kind of dumbass mistake: A whole village of sycophantic, terrified people, each and every one of whom was somehow utterly unwilling to say the fucking obvious, this song sounds a helluva lot like “Everybody’s Talkin’”. Heck, when push comes to shove, that’s the real catastrophe here: Dozens of puffy, arrogant, frightened fools on the payroll, afraid to tell the boss the truth.
Good time for an aside: Fred Neil, who passed in 2001 (but retired from the music business in the late 1960s, and devoted the rest of his life to the protection and preservation of the world’s oceans in general and Dolphins in particular), was a singer-songwriter of great depth, and a major and influential figure in the folk music movement in New York City in the early 1960s. Neil had a voice that shimmered with depth and gravity, and his songs reflected a deeply emotive and sometimes minimal approach to blues and folk that anticipates everyone from the Velvet Underground to Nashville-era Dylan to the Cowboy Junkies. His tearful, trembling, nearly naked version of “The Water is Wide” is, arguably, one of the most powerful and intense recordings of the entire folk/singer-songwriter movement.
VIDEO Fred Neil – Everybody’s Talkin’
But back to “Sunshine Funtime,” or whatever this thing is called.
Mr. Springsteen, you are just a few months shy of your 70th birthday. You are coming off a few questionable career moves that, at the very least, see you sliding into social irrelevancy and a seemingly deliberate willingness to detach yourself from your traditional base of support.
In no particular order: During the 2016 election cycle, when you could have, theoretically, been stumping for a candidate – you, sir, are one of the only pop performers whose voice could actually sway votes – you instead chose to go on a deeply discomfiting book tour, during which you posed, stony faced and like a shocked and uncomfortable wax model, in eighty-eight thousand pictures with eighty-eight thousand grinning, trembling fans. Take a look at some of those pictures: At best, they show an artist in pain. At worst, they show an artist who will do anything for a buck. Who ever thought that our Bruce Springsteen would do anything for a buck? In any event, when two or three concerts from you in a Rust Belt state might actually have swayed a friggin’ Presidential election, you instead chose to act as a human cardboard cut-out dragged from Barnes & Noble to Barnes & Noble. In each and every picture, your clenched jaw and bugged, lifeless eyes seem to say, “For the love of a merciful god who watched his only son be impaled on a roughly-hewn cross made of persimmon colored cedar, please, please get me to the limo and hand me a plastic cup filled to the brim with Four Roses Bourbon.”
But you could have made up for it during the cycle leading up to the 2018 midterms. Yessir, yes you could have. But you did not pay a single benefit for Democratic candidates running for the House or Senate. Instead, you made a quarter of a billion dollars – that’s billion with a “b” – singing your songs on Broadway and charging your fans a months’ salary to watch you. Mind you, that is totally your business – I mean that – but just stop even pretending to give us that Woody Guthrie/Joe Strummer Man o’ the people act, okay?
I know: You are just a goddamn guy with a guitar (though you do look a bit like the G.I. Joe with Real Hair I played with in 1972). Do you have any obligation whatsoever to actually contribute your time, energy, goodwill or good name to support a candidate, or actually stand for something?
Of course you don’t. Honestly.
But let me paraphrase from a piece I wrote on this very subject two years ago:
Mr. Springsteen, you have spent your life singing about an America where everyman was King, an America that was defined by its workingmen and women, not its oligarchs. You have spent your life telling the story of an America where its citizens asked questions, and even if they didn’t find answers, they were better Americans because they asked. In the eternal battle between Us and Them, you always sang about Us.
But when you had the chance to prove that those words were more than just something you used to gain our trust and access to our wallets, what did you actually do? You were you on a book tour. You were in a Broadway theatre in front of the one percent. If we want to believe that Bruce Springsteen wasn’t a fictional character created by an artist, if we want to believe that the faith we had in you to tell our stories and speak for our hearts was real, than this inaction, this clear desire to chase mammon and not meaning, speaks for itself.
My point being: You have done a lot in the last three years to significantly tarnish your image. Releasing a song that sounds a lot like someone else’s song is not going to help.
And let’s talk about the video for a second. Certainly, I wasn’t the only one waiting for the camera to pull around and show Matthew McConaughey behind the wheel of the damn car (oh, and credit where credit is due: Dr. Jennifer Brout first pointed this out to me). In fact, let’s play a little game.
“Sometimes you got to go back… to actually move forward. I don’t mean going back to chase ghosts, I mean going back to see where you came from, where you’ve been, how you got here and see where you’re going. I know there are those that say you can’t go back. Yes, you can. You just have to look in the right place.”
“You know I always liked my walking shoes…You walk too far, you walk away…You know I always loved a lonely town…Those empty streets, no one around…You know I always liked that empty road…No place to be and miles to go. But miles to go is miles away…You fall in love with lonely, you end up that way.
One of those paragraphs is taken, with no significant alteration, from the lyrics to “Hello Sunshine.” The other is taken (again, with no significant alteration) from the dialogue muttered by Matthew McConaughey in one of those fucking Lincoln commercials.
So, Mr. Springsteen, if you are okay with being thought of as a song-thieving billionaire who re-writes Matthew McConaughey Lincoln commercials to the tune of “Everybody’s Talkin’” be my guest.
Finally, Mr. Springsteen: Fred Neil, who wrote the song you based your new single on, gave up his career to work for an organization called The Dolphin Project. Here’s a link to their website: www.thedolphinproject.com Please give The Dolphin Project some reasonable fraction of the money you will make off of “Hello Sunshine.”
And by “reasonable,” I mean every cent.
Timothy A. Sommer
VIDEO: Bruce Springsteen – Hello Sunshine