If it seems from generally reading my website that I’m not the biggest Bruce Springsteen fanatic it’s probably because… I’m not the biggest Bruce Springsteen fanatic. And no, I absolutely don’t mean to say at all that I don’t like him. Growing up, I had experiences with him, aside from admittedly thinking “Born in the U.S.A.” was a patriotic song until about eighth grade, that ranged about from having a near religious experience hearing “Hungry Heart” at this goofy drunk dude’s birthday party to absorbing “Dancing in the Dark” as if not necessarily groundbreaking at least an apt, certified denizen of popular radio music’s subsequently eternal “median” or “norm” and not really feeling too bent out of shape about that. But I mean there are people out there who follow him for a whole tour and much to my disturbed surprise, according to Wikipedia, “The album (Human Touch) is generally disliked by Springsteen fans, and in 2012 was ranked last among Springsteen’s albums by the online magazine Nerve.”
Honestly, for a dude who started listening to music in ’92 and whose first loves were “All I Want” by Toad the Wet Sprocket and “Life is a Highway” by Tom Cochran (yes believe it or not there were people as uncool as me during the height of grunge… hey I was only eight though), The Boss is actually frustratingly hard to get into. Personally, and on a note that ardently clashes with my own individual music listening practice, I think he doesn’t really veer toward the “classic album” (a malady sadly corroborated by the whole of the Human Touch LP I must admit) — he’s a singles guy through and through and his “classic album” will always be his greatest hits, in my opinion. Some people hold Nebraska as the seminal LP but to me this album is so misunderstood, with the go-nowhere, maudlin “Atlantic City” prized over the astonishingly stark and haunting title track opener, that such an argument is debilitated anyway. But “Human Touch” has graced two of my playlists as of late, one wielding the studio version and then my last one housing the “MTV Plugged” live recording, and really I found myself playing it back and back so I felt this discourse about is rising up in me and had to do something about it.
And not that the song is COMPLETELY thrown under the bus by all parties involved — it did after all make its way onto The Boss’ authoritative Greatest Hits collection from ’95, but of the two “Top 10 Bruce Springsteen Songs” lists I saw which I think were on Ultimate Classic Rock and Louder, respectively, I did not see one mention of this gaudy, heart-tugging six-and-a-half minute opener. Granted, these lists tend to be grotesquely pretentious, favoring arcane and difficult material over obvious gems like “Hungry Heart” and “Glory Days” (and yeah don’t even get me started about “Atlantic City”) as probably a show of cultural heavy lifting high jinks, or whatever. It’s like how next week I’ll be claiming that “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” is Nirvana’s best song.
Anyway, regarding his ’92 progeny, The Boss went on the record, always his affable self, as saying “I tried (writing happy songs)… in the early ’90s and it didn’t work; the public didn’t like it.” Now, it almost seems tongue-in-cheek here, Springsteen phrasing it with this term “early ’90s,” as if to pointedly illustrate the stacked deck against him in this landscape with declarations like “I feel stupid / And contagious” and “The blood is on the table / The mouths are choking / And I’m going hungry” ruling the landscape. It’s also a possibility that The Boss recognized the size and magnitude of this song and so purposely cloaked it within this discursively maligning zeitgeist of “grunge” (temporally, I mean), so as to avoid attracting just an UNTOWARD attention and maybe some weird stalkers/axe murderers in his fan club. But he’d newly moved to LA with his new wife and was having kids around this time, so the poignancy in his personal life around “Human Touch” is undeniable. He also bizarrely saw fit to release another album, Lucky Town, on the same exact day, again perhaps to mask the potency of the emotion and melodic climax at play within this masterpiece song.
In about 2002 when the Chicago Bears were actually bizarrely in the playoffs, I and a bunch of buddies went to watch them get clobbered at a friend’s house. I remember that there was a Human Touch poster hanging up on the wall in the TV basement and I have to admit — it seemed just hopelessly awkward, and not just because it details somebody’s crotch in pictorial fashion on the cover, though that certainly didn’t help. But truth be told, this song has really always been the red-headed step-child of The Boss’ catalogue — it’s like an Aerosmith fan liking, say, “Jaded,” or “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” and being ignorant of “Sweet Emotion” and “The Same Old Song and Dance.” But I’m arguing that this is a cultural fallacy — “Human Touch” is actually The Boss’ best song. In fact, I think, it’s so good that it bothers people, and it sticks in people’s craw that he issued his most stunning and gravitational ode in the early ’90s, many new-wavers’ most hated time period.
As I mention before, lots was happening in the singer’s personal life — he’d just got married for the second time, had finally ditched his native New Jersey for LA, and was having kids. The lyrics themselves read as classic beat poetry in “Human Touch”: “Ain’t no mercy on the streets of this town / Ain’t no bread from heavenly skies”. This is absolutely The Boss at his loquaciously tip-top, with the ability to paint this universal panorama of human desolation and depravity and funnel it through this bright-chord, romantic pop song, somewhat like a slower, more poignant and deliberate step-brother of “Dancing in the Dark.” It’s a song with not a copious amount of kin within his own catalogue (he tended to veer toward the grim humanistic vignette on “Born in the U.S.A.”; “Hungry Heart” and “Glory Days”) but is perhaps all the better for this uniqueness: like I say “Dancing in the Dark” is a sort of hopeless romantic precursor but the fact of the song materializing during a truly unique and special time in his personal life, one that in a sense comes only once per lifetime and can’t be repeated, suggests its singular gravity and beauty which I think are transmitted in things like the set of key changes in the chorus and the rotund stature of six and a half minutes.
After this set of simultaneous albums in ’92, Springsteen would arguably never be the same again — he put out a live album, a greatest hits comp., and two of what you could probably dub “concept albums,” The Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils and Dust. The latter is likely his everyman’s, gut reaction to finally letting LA seep under his skin, with the charm of his newfound romantic enchantment under which “Human Touch” was borne, worn off. It could also, probably, refer to the alienating, callous tendency of his fans themselves to cast off such an important work and one which came at such an undeniably “human” time in his life.