There was no law preventing Bruce Springsteen from making a California-themed album, and Western Stars seems to have received a generally warm reception for its ballads of longing and regret, laden with strings, banjos and steel guitars. For myself, I find it a little bit soupy in texture, predictable in content and lacking in energy. I’ll probably be listening to “Moonlight Motel”, “There Goes My Miracle” and the title track occasionally in the future, but to these ears it’s his least distinguished work since the Human Touch / Lucky Town dual release in 1992, and far behind other non-E Street Band solo albums such as Nebraska, Tunnel of Love and The Ghost of Tom Joad.
Its arrival did have one unexpected benefit. While pondering the list of artists and songwriters that he presented as having provided direct inspiration for the project, I pulled out a couple of albums recorded in Los Angeles half a century ago by the singer Johnny Rivers, mostly because the first of them — Rewind (1967) — includes several songs by Jimmy Webb, one of the names Springsteen mentioned. The second album — Realization (1968) — has no Webb songs, but it does have a feeling of continuity with its predecessor.
Born John Ramistella in the Bronx in 1942, Rivers might easily have become one of those Italian American pop singers who found fame in the early ’60s: a rival to Dion DiMucci, John Mastrangelo (Johnny Maestro), and Francesco Castelluccio (Frankie Valli). Instead he moved with his parents to Baton Rouge, Louisiana as a child, absorbing the local R&B and rock and roll sounds as he grew up and became a guitarist. Having changed his name at the behest of Alan Freed, he moved to Los Angeles at the end of the ’50s, working as a songwriter before Lou Adler had the brainwave of recording his nightclub act at the Whisky à Go Go, where his repertoire — with a stripped-down trio completed by Joe Osborn’s bass and Eddie Rubin’s drums — included songs like Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee” and Willie Dixon’s “Seventh Son”, both of which became hit singles for him.
Rivers was a good songwriter (“Poor Side of Town”, his self-penned 1966 hit, is a beauty) but a better interpreter; whatever the material, he retained a kind of plaintive honesty. Rewind and Realization show him grappling with a broader range of material, from Motown songs (“Baby I Need Your Lovin'”, “The Tracks of My Tears”) to Paul Simon’s “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her” and Oscar Brown Jr’s “Brother, Where Are You”, as well as demanding Webb songs such as “Rosecrans Blvd” and “Sidewalk Song (27th Street)”. With arrangements by Webb and Marty Paich and great playing from the Wrecking Crew, the two albums form a fine snapshot of an artist getting to grips with material from songwriters exploring the new ways of living, thinking and behaving.
Out of the two albums, I selected four tracks to create what I think of as a perfect summer EP. The first is Webb’s “Do What You Gotta Do”; there will be those who prefer the later readings of this sublime song by the Four Tops, Nina Simone or even Roberta Flack, but I like this one for its conversational understatement. The second is “Positively 4th Street”, which Dylan names in Chronicles Vol 1 as his favourite cover of one of his songs, perhaps because Rivers took a gentler approach to the song’s bitter invective than the man who wrote it. The third is “Summer Rain”, a great piece of orchestral folk-rock written by James Hendricks, a former Mugwump (with Mama Cass, John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky) and a regular collaborator with Rivers. The fourth is Rivers’ own “The Way We Live”, in which he takes the sound and cadences of “Positively 4th Street” — particularly Larry Knechtel’s Al Kooperish B3 — and applies it to his own thoughtful meditation on life in America as the decade turns sour.
I suppose I can see what Springsteen was getting at when he namechecked Webb, particularly if he was thinking of the hits the songwriter provided for Glen Campbell: “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston”, with their powerful sense of geographical and emotional distance. (It was Rivers, as it happens, who took “Phoenix” to Campbell, having recorded the first version of it on an album already overloaded with hit singles.) More so, anyway, that Burt Bacharach, also on Springsteen’s list, whose chromatic melodies, sophisticated harmonies and games with metre are about as far from Bruce’s basic bluecollar style as you could get within the same general idiom.
I’m going to give Western Stars a few more spins in the coming days, but at the moment those four Rivers tracks are the ones I can’t get out of my head. And I’ll be thinking of the night in London in the spring of 1973 when he turned up at the Valbonne, a Mayfair discothèque, to promote his latest album by playing an early-evening showcase set with an A Team line-up consisting of Chuck Findley on trumpet, Jim Horn on saxophones, Dean Parks and Herb Pedersen on guitars, Mike Melvoin on keyboards, Jack Conrad on bass and Jim Gordon on drums. Few of us who were there will forget a storming show that, of its kind, rivalled Van Morrison’s Caledonia Soul Orchestra at the Rainbow the following month and wouldn’t be bettered until Springsteen turned up at Hammersmith Odeon with the E Street Band two years later — which is saying something, for all concerned.