The Best American Band: Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Steve Miller, and Nine Inch Nails

Bruce and the E Street Band

Bruce and the E Street Band

As Richard and I have explored various candidates for best American band, we’ve also discussed a fundamental question: how do you treat groups like Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Steve Miller Band, or Nine Inch Nails? Each of those bands consists of one principal member who has been the focus of the band; the other members have changed over the years. Our cut is that those groups really shouldn’t be considered because they aren’t “bands” in a true sense of the word. A band presupposes some members who contribute on a more or less equal basis to the group’s musicial work and who stick with the band for a significant period of time. It’s not just one star and a back-up band whose members change from one tour to the next; instead, it is a cohesive unit that functions as such. I recognize this is an arbitrary distinction, but trying to come up with “best of” lists is necessarily an exercise in arbitrary line-drawing, anyway.

Steve Miller Band

Steve Miller Band

If I hadn’t drawn this line, I would view Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, the Steve Miller Band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Nine Inch Nails as very strong candidates for designation as the best American band. The first three bands were mainstays of late ’70s college student stereos. Born to Run is a classic album; Born to Run is an anthem, and songs like Thunder Road and Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out are terrific hard-driving rock ‘n’ roll songs. The Steve Miller Band pioneered guitar-oriented space rock and offered songs with a lot of humor to them — songs like The Joker, Livin’ in the U.S.A., Space Cowboy, Fly Like an Eagle, and Jet Airliner — as well as songs with interesting messages, like The Stake or I Want to Make the World Turn Around.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

The lyrics alone — who is “Maurice,” and what is “the Pompitus of love,” anyway? — were worth repeated listenings. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers recorded a series of excellent, straightforward rock songs, like Breakdown, Refugee, American Girl, Here Comes My Girl, Even the Losers, and Free Fallin’. Tom Petty and the topics of his songs would have fit very comfortably into the ’50s and ’60s rock eras — witness the classic “Watch her walk . . . ” passage in Here Comes My Girl — which is probably why he also was successful with The Traveling Wilburys. Nine Inch Nails, founded by Cleveland native Trent Reznor, has produced a long line of great songs that straddle many different sounds and styles.

Nine Inch Nails

I’m particularly fond of Suck, Head Like a Hole, The Wretched, The Hand That Feeds, Only, and Capital G, among many others. I like heavier music, and Nine Inch Nails is right up my alley.

So, we aren’t dissing these guys — we just think that a band should be a band.

Edited to add: Time to Vote for your choice for Best American Band!

Nine Inch Nails

Common Decency

I think the whole David Letterman-Sarah Palin controversy presents an interesting question of line-drawing in an era where there is increased interaction between political figures and the entertainment world.  When I was a kid it was a notable development when Richard Nixon went on Laugh-In and said “Sock it to me?”  These days, it is common for candidates to go on Saturday Night Live, late-night talk shows or other venues, and earlier this year President Obama appeared, as a sitting president, on The Tonight Show.  Governor Palin herself made a cameo appearance on Saturday Night Live during the recent presidential campaign.

Politicians have long been the target of jokes and humor; it comes with the territory.  As our culture has become coarser, the humor has been coarser as well.  I don’t think Letterman’s comment associating Governor Palin with a “slutty flight attendant” look is either funny or accurate, but I also don’t think it crosses the prevailing line in modern American culture.  (I have to confess that I enjoy “insult humor” and think that “Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog” and South Park are often very funny.)  I think Governor Palin understands that prevailing line, accepts it, and has shown some deftness in deflecting such attempts at humor in a self-deprecating and winning way.

It’s not unfair, however, to insist that entertainers show some common decency in deciding who should be the subject of their barbs.  I think Letterman crossed the line by targeting Governor’s Palin’s daughter for   tasteless humor of a crude sexual nature.  Most teenagers are highly sensitive about themselves; they feel awkward and inadequate by nature.  I can’t imagine the embarrassment Governor Palin’s 14-year-old felt when she heard Letterman’s comments.  I don’t believe Letterman’s excuse that he was talking about Governor Palin’s 18-year-old daughter, but in any case I don’t think that excuse would make any difference even if it were true.  Any children of public figures who do not themselves take steps to affirmatively enter the public eye should be viewed as off limits with respect to any humorous comments — much less comments about sexual activity, appearance, or other highly personal matters.

I therefore don’t have a problem with Governor Palin or others strongly criticizing David Letterman for crossing the line with his comment.  Such criticisms are not a sign of benighted attitudes or a lack of a sense of humor, but rather an effort to protect innocent kids from unfair comments and to keep our public discourse from sinking irreversibly into the mire.  I would not be surprised if Letterman feels shame and perhaps even humiliation at his lack of good judgment.  It would be a good thing for our culture if more entertainers experienced such feelings from time to time when they cross the line, and adjusted their future comments accordingly.

Temptations Unresisted

The Alabama football program, and other Alabama sports programs, have been put on three years’ probation for giving student-athletes improper benefits in the form of free textbooks. It is not clear whether the students sold the free textbooks to other students, but in any case the benefits received amounted to thousands of dollars for some individuals.

The NCAA student-athlete program depends on universities and student-athletes who self-police and self-report. If the institution and the individual can’t resist temptation, then situations like that at Alabama are inevitable. Moreover, all of the pressures of major college sports like football and basketball makes the temptations all the more alluring. Programs are trying to recruit blue-chip athletes who, in many cases, have been coddled and lionized for years already and who expect to go on to make millions of dollars in pro sports. Programs want winning seasons to fill large, debt-financed stadiums and arenas with boosters who will contribute handsomely to the school and to get lucrative bowl bids and NCAA Tournament invitations. Coaches who win are rewarded with enormous annual salaries and bonuses; coaches who have losing seasons are castigated and then cast aside.

Big-time college athletic programs are like reformed drug users. The temptation to engage in prohibited conduct to lure the stud athletes and fill the stadiums and athletic department coffers is always lurking there, under the surface, at war with the knowledge that if such conduct occurs it may lead to ruin. Alabama couldn’t resist the temptation, and now it has paid the price.