(rating 4 stars out of 4)
In some far off parallel world, Bruce Springsteen signed a record contract with Bill Graham for his band Steel Mill. Instead of saxophones, the sound was defined by soaring guitar licks, thundering drums, and pounding bass and the E Street Band was never formed. Steel Mill took their legions of fans in New Jersey and Virginia and became one of the major rock bands in the country playing music festival after festival. And judging by the tunes found on Steel Mill's second release, "All Man The Guns For America", that might not have been such a bad thing.
While the first Steel Mill record featured some of the band's most popular and enduring songs like "The Wind & The Rain" and "Going Back To Georgia" (tunes of lore through the art of bootlegging) - this new disc by the legendary E Street and Steel Mill drummer Vini Lopez sounds fresher and more alive than the first. The songs also hint of the songwriting genius that was to come and the enduring legend of the band.
Vini Lopez was one of the original members of Steel Mill, a band that became a legend along the Jersey Shore and Richmond, Virginia. They did, in fact, travel out to California to record a 3-song demo for Bill Graham, but turned his contract offer down. The band soon morphed into the Bruce Springsteen Band following their return to the east coast. Fast forwarding about 30 years or so, Vini Lopez asked his old friend if he would be ok with him if he brought the Steel Mill tunes back to life. Springsteen agreed and the songs, which were among the earliest written by Springsteen, were no longer relegated to the quality heard by 1969 bootlegs.
If you've ever heard a Steel Mill bootleg you will be amazed by just how incredible these songs really sound within a good recording. "All Man The Guns For America" features nine songs including many that routinely showed up on the band's most well-distributed boots. The disc includes the title track, "Sherlock Goes Holme", "Crown Liquor", "The Train Song", "Cowboys Of The Sea", "Sweet Melinda", "Lady Walking Down By The River", "Do Run Daddy (Down to Mexico)", and "Resurrection".
The sequencing of the record would make for an excellent concert. I'm not sure if that was the plan or not, but from the opening song with its classic rock intro (a quiet, intense piano solo that blends into a very melodic guitar solo and finally into a playful country tune) through the following instrumental to get the crowd going, the set list include a mix of spirited rock tunes and songs you can easily imagine the crowd singing along to. The night ends with "Resurrection" where you can picture the crowd all singing along "Hail Hail Resurrection Day" as the band members leave the stage one by one. This is truly a brilliant record -- not for archival reasons, but because it simply is a great rock and roll disc.
"All Man The Guns For America" is very different from the songs about war Bruce Springsteen would write later on. Lines like, "You know I've got my duty to do because I'm a God-fearing patriotic man." might surprise those on political right who would have expected something closer to a song protesting war -- especially one written in the sixties. While not jingoistic, the song is about a soldier about to head off to war that accepts his role, but obviously isn't looking forward to it. "The sooner it's done, the sooner we've won, the sooner I can get home."
Musically, the title track is reminiscent of something you might hear from The Band. Lyrically, the song revolves around the soldier's desire to have one last night with his girl. Somewhat ironically, the girl's name is Mary. Whoever was the original Mary in Springsteen's life must have been really important to him as that name probably shows up more times than any other in his lyrics. The song's ending is extremely powerful. "We'll all man the guns for America" sings Lopez. "We'll all man the guns for America… just be there when I get home."
"Sherlock Goes Holme" is a very cool instrumental that I can easily imagine Steel Mill playing during a long set at the Upstage. It's got an extremely loose jamming flow to it, mixing B3 keyboard playing with crunching guitars and melodic solos. Some people write instrumentals that are just songs without words, but Springsteen has written some very good instrumentals through the years -- instrumentals that stand out on their own. I've always felt that some of the best instrumentals were songs that you could hum along too. Halfway through "Sherlock Goes Holme" you'll probably find yourself humming along as well. In a strange way, this song sort of reminds me of a more guitar-based version of "Paradise By The C", a fun song that showed up on the Springsteen Live Set 75-85.
"Crown Liquor", a song that early Springsteen books erroneously listed as one written by Bruce, was actually written by fellow Jersey Shore artist Bill Chinnock who played in several bands with Vini Lopez during the early days of the Asbury Park scene. The version on this disc starts off -- somewhat eerily -- with what sounds like an early demo version of the song actually sung by Bill Chinnock (who sadly passed away a few years ago after a long bout with Lyme Disease) before Vini and Steel Mill take over.
"The Train Song" was one of the few Steel Mill songs to ever see the light of day in the past few decades. Robbin Thompson (a one-time lead singer of Steel Mill) had released versions of "The Train Song" and "Going Back To Georgia" on his solo records. This is another song reminiscent of something The Band or even the Grateful Dead might have released. The song contains an extremely memorable chorus: "It's been a long time riding on this rusty track and a fear that I'm never getting home, I've been a long time dreaming of what I do when I get back. Be there when the morning comes, when the morning comes." Unlike most lyrics by Springsteen, this song also features a very surprising ending that will most likely throw you for a loop the first time you hear it.
The highlight of the record may be the explosive, hard-rockin' "Cowboys of The Sea". Lyrically, the song is close to the style found on Springsteen's debut record, "Greetings From Asbury Park", but musically the sound is closer to the Steel Mill sound once compared to Led Zeppelin.
So on wings of sleep I pierce the deep
And ride like a hurricane
At midnight still I paid my bill
And turned my back on the land
With the help of old paint, that seaweed nag
It's just jesse james and me
We ride the depths and rob the banks
At the bottom of the sea
"Sweet Melinda" is one of the most ambitious tunes on the record. A slow, sexy tune with lines like "Sweet, sweet Melinda, you turn my heart to a cinder, the way you do them things that you do." Close your eyes and see if you don't imagine couples that recently dropped acid dancing cheek to cheek during this song! I can imagine this song got many people in the mood back in the day.
"Lady Walking Down By The River" is another classic rock song featuring a beat that just grows louder and louder until it pulsates from your speakers. The song is another example of how Steel Mill straddled the border between what would today be the musical labels -- rock band and jam band.
Lady walking down by the river
Won't you come and sing me a song
Lady walking down by the river
Won't you come and take me along
"Do Run Daddy (Down To Mexico)" actually has opening guitar work that reminds me of Prince with its funky guitar solo. This is one of the songs I can't say I ever heard on any of the Steel Mill bootlegs floating around in my collection. It's a rather bouncy number that reminds me a bit of the Jersey Shore sound that Bruce was probably starting to form in his head.
The disc closes out with "Resurrection" -- one of my all-time favorite Steel Mill songs. This song is just bursting with memorable lyrics stemming from Bruce's Catholic upbringing. The protagonist doesn't know where he stands on religion, but has the sense that the religious ideas pumped into his system don't contain any answers. Lines like "I can't say that I'm a believer, yeah, and I can't say that I ain't." and "You must believe what we are saying to believe for without belief you are dying. They told me you must believe what we tell you to believe and yours is not to question why" are among the most spiritually charged ever written by Springsteen.
The song is a wonderful blend of serious subject matter intertwined with doses of comedy. At one point, the singer reveals, "They drag us to church on a Friday and we confess our sins. For the special low price of three Hail Marys my soul is clean again." Written during the latter part of the 60s as Springsteen was moving out of his parent's house, it's a clear sign of the independence about to come along with revelations that Bruce was not intent on following the path led by others -- even that of his own family.
I've got to thank Vini Lopez for rescuing these wonderful songs. For everyone who grew up with the bootlegs, as I did, these recordings prove that those boots failed to do the songs justice. If you're a fan of Bruce Springsteen, chances are you found yourself hunting down Steel Mill tapes at one time or another. Maybe you even became hooked, like I did, to the point where you parked your car across from Springsteen's place in Rumson and listened to Steel Mill tunes on a boom box until the police came. If that's the case, you will flat out love "All Man The Guns For America". And, if you have never heard Steel Mill before, this disc will simply amaze you. It's a side of Springsteen that hinted at future greatness while harboring a musical side very different from the world in which he would spend the next few decades. It's a side that will always lead some of us to wonder what could have been. Hopefully Vini has enough songs left to create a third disc because these tunes are too good to fade away.
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.