Song 152: Van Halen, “Jump” (1984)

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I’ll start with this: I know basically nothing about Van Halen. I know about David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar, and I know about Eddie Van Halen’s tapping technique. I know about “Right Now” (which I used to play on the piano) and its relationship to Crystal Pepsi.

And, of course, I know “Jump.” This song may have the best use of synthesizer ever. I liken the synth in “Jump” to T-Pain’s and Kanye West’s use of auto-tune: if you’re going to use something so artificial sounding, why not use it as an obviously artificial tool? In the case of “Jump,” it makes the song, and the title action, sound superhuman.

The lyrics, of course, are… not great. But they don’t need to be, because we have the synth, Eddie Halen’s guitar, and David Lee Roth squawking out words like they’re just occurring to him. Even though the song’s idea was apparently inspired by Roth’s martial arts teacher (!), Roth reportedly hated the song because it signified a more commercial approach for the band, who split with Roth soon after the release of 1984. The fact that David Lee Roth was bitter about something being too commercial makes me question everything I’ve ever known about anything, but again, I know very little about Van Halen.

Hearing and reading the words to “Jump” always make me think of this Saturday Night Live sketch featuring David Hyde Pierce. This song makes an appearance at the end, and it always makes me giggle uncontrollably. You’re welcome.

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Song 22: Bruce Springsteen, “Downbound Train” (1984)

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The late, great magazine Musician once ran a humor piece featuring supposed Rorschach test interpretations by various rock stars. I don’t remember much about it, except that some artists had flowery, descriptive responses (and that Pete Townshend’s answer was something like “You weren’t fucking there! I was fucking there!”). Bruce Springsteen’s analysis was, “It’s a bus.”

How perfect is that? Springsteen tends to keep things as simple as possible without sacrificing emotional complexity, and to that end, “Downbound Train” may be the most Springsteenesque Bruce Springsteen song in existence. There are no buses, but there’s a car wash, a guy named Joe and, of course, a train.

My dad bought Born In The U.S.A. shortly after its 1984 release, which means I was four or five when I first heard it. I’m sure it was another few years until I began to realize that I liked it, but still, six or seven years old is pretty young to enjoy songs like this. I’m not saying that I was a musical prodigy (I also loved a record featuring Mickey Mouse singing “Don’t Fence Me In”). I’m saying that, in many ways, Bruce Springsteen writes songs that even a six-year-old can understand.

For example, the verse in “Downbound Train” about the narrator running to his lover’s house in the middle of the night was terrifying when I was little. I would picture him running through the woods (the scary woods!), the moonlight providing just enough light for him to see where he was going, and effectively breaking in (like a criminal!) to his lover’s house before sobbing like a baby on the floor (in the dark!). The song then snaps back in to focus with “Now I swing a sledgehammer on a railroad gang,” as if the narrator is working off an endless prison sentence. (At least the car wash, “where all it ever does is rain,” provided something to help wash away one’s sins.) “Downbound Train” is an uncomfortably bleak song, made bleaker by its repeating chord structure. It’s claustrophobic and its darkness is suffocating, and why I liked it as a child, I’ll never know. Actually, this explains a lot.

Anyway, Born In The U.S.A. is my favorite Bruce Springsteen album. It’s about the pressure of encroaching adulthood, but it makes me think of being a kid, riding in the backseat of my family’s Honda Civic (made the same year as Born In The U.S.A.) in Cape Cod humidity. My long relationship with the record makes it hard to hear it objectively, but that’s okay with me.


Song 18: Prince, “Take Me With U” (1984)

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I wrote off Prince for an embarrassingly long time. The simple reason is that the first time I heard him, his big song was “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” which I hated. Prince, I decided, is not for me.

Terrible right? There’s really no excuse. I finally got around to hearing Purple Rain when we moved to Minneapolis, where Prince is rightly treated like a tiny, untouchable deity, and I immediately understood. His songs are just weird enough to be interesting but, of course, he’s completely accessible. Sex and love are for everybody; why wouldn’t songs about sex and love also be for everybody?

I’m still woefully ignorant about most of Prince’s output, but I know a little, and “Take Me With U” is my favorite from what I’ve heard. The main reason is that acoustic guitar, chugging away in the background of what is ostensibly an R&B song. How did Prince even think to have an acoustic guitar powering this song? Then there’s those strings, which are out in front, but never distracting. I met a guy in Minneapolis who briefly worked as Prince’s sound engineer, and he said the guy is as much of a perfectionist as you’d guess. This song, with all its bells and whistles, makes that clear.