Guitarist, songwriter, actor, producer, broadcaster, raconteur and the only human being that ever lived who could claim to be the consigliere to both Bruce Springsteen and Tony Soprano, Steven Van Zandt has had such a wide and varied career that it’s amazing that it took Springsteen until 2010 to write a song called “Jack of All Trades.”
None of this was apparent, of course, when Van Zandt took his leave of his boss to put out his first solo album, 1982’s stellar Men Without Women.
Coming from the feel over technique Keith Richards school of vocalists, Van Zandt rumbled & bellowed through several rock ‘n’ soul songs, backed by ringers from both the Rascals and the Plasmatics as well as a bunch of dudes from his once and future main gig.
The result was an E Street Band album in all but name, as any of the songs would have fit nicely as a change of pace on either Darkness on the Edge of Town or The River, had the E Street Band been, you know, a democracy. As it was, Men Without Women slotted perfectly in that interminable time between The River and Born in the U.S.A.
My favorite by a long shot was the title track, which just jumped out with Van Zandt’s vocals leading the way:
I worked all day and all night, too
I just can’t see enough of you
But the things men without women do
You just don’t understand
Unfolding at an anthemic, stately pace, full of stop-times and drum builds, “Men Without Women” was at once longing and defiant. The longing in the lyrics and music, the defiance in the rough-and-tumble vocals that got their roughest and tumblest at the bridge, when another (uncredited) vocalist tossed sloppy harmonies at him like they’d been doing it for years.
I’ve been on the outside so long
I don’t know how to treat you
Keep the tears out of your eyes
It’s hard for me to admit that I’m wrong
I never learned to compromise
I never have learned to apologize
The final verse is the kind of rock ‘n’ roll fever dream that you can only catch on E Street, with Little Steven and his good friend never quite matching up vocally as they plead their case one last time. But they also know it’s futile: he’s kind of a dick, really. Admitting that he’s not going to grow up or compromise even the tiniest bit in order to win her over. So good luck with that, Steven, no matter how lovely your song is.
And I think he realizes that, because in the end, while the organ is wailing, the piano is pumping and the drums are stuttering Van Zandt, abandoned even by his best friend is left wandering down the street repeating “You just don’t understaaaaaaand” over and over almost like he’s trying to convince himself more than he’s trying to convince her.
“Men Without Women”
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