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Rock/Pop

Dylan & Springsteen

How 'the spokesman for a generation' and 'the voice of the American working class' really feel about the things you actually care about

MT Illustration: Justin Rose
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Published 11/4/2009

Recently, I got a chance to see Bob Dylan bring his "never-ending tour" to a state fair. The real show, however, was watching the simple folk who gorged on Indian fry bread, cotton candy and turkey legs (that were only slightly juicier than a 2-by-4) getting to wander into a Dylan concert for the price of fair admission — and probably for the only time in their lives. Here was a chance for the nonchalant to pass instant judgment on a legend and get mad because he didn't play, um, "Eve of Destruction" before heading back to the Tilt-a-Whirl. Among the mutterings of disrespect I overheard that night — "What's next for Dylan? Supermarket openings?"

The funny thing about that barb is Dylan would probably really enjoy playing a supermarket at this point in his career. In fact, I know he would! Remember how he threw himself into his first movie role as a mumbling general store schlub in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid? Or the feeling he put into his inventory of canned goods: "Beans, carrots, beans, chicken soup and string beans"? Well just imagine Dylan singing to a stack of Spam! 

Maybe I'm biased — Mr. Dylan can do no wrong in my book. And the more harebrained the idea, the bigger his enigma and legend grow. Victoria Secret commercial? Check. A Christmas album? Check. Home Shopping Network appearance? You start to question why you yourself never understood the cool cachet of those institutions, now that they've caught the attention of the poet of our times. You see, by virtue of his half-century of myth building, the man can pull off any stunt and have Dylanologists scratching their heads, pondering whether it's significant or if it's a joke, much like this was still 1965 and Dylan was only trying to crack up Bobby Neuwirth. 

No longer the Dylan of Don't Look Back, though, the 2009 Dylan is more like one of us than we ever knew, even if, these days, he dresses like a silent movie chiseler who wants the deed to your ranch ... and he'll stop at nothing to get it.

Bruce Springsteen's years of myth building (the myth here being that he still is one of us) also continues unabated. For one thing, the Boss is now a millionaire several times over, yet he still lives in Freehold, N.J. I mean, would you live in Freehold, N.J., unless you had to prove you're still the voice of the working class? And this year's Working on a Dream album had "Costco impulse purchase" stamped all over it, particularly "Queen of the Supermarket," wherein the Boss falls for a checkout girl and then suffered "worst Springsteen song ever" reviews by everyone from Pitchfork to The Detroit News (but not Metro Times!) because of it. Here's what Bruce had to say about that bolt of inspiration to The New York Observer:

"In the States, supermarkets are sort of shameless; the bounty in them is overflowing. So the sexual subtext, well, maybe it's just twisted me, but, wow, it's my new favorite place."

Wow, indeed. Springsteen's put out 16 studio albums in 36 years and we're just now finding out that the Boss gets hot and bothered by an overstocked cantaloupe display. What else don't we know about him — or Bob Dylan, for that matter? Fuck songs about war, politics, love and death. How do Dylan and Springsteen feel about dogs? Or snacks? Or carpet cleaners? Between them, they've written thousands of songs. Surely, there must be some mention of lint removal, stomach antacids, or chips and salsa somewhere.

Used to be you had to raid a Dumpster, like garbologist A.J. Weberman used to do, to get into Dylan's inner workings. But now, through the magic of print and cross-referencing, we're taking this virtual shopping tour of Kroger Supermarket with the songbooks of Dylan and Springsteen as our shopping list, to see how they feel about the things that are really on the mind of the Everyman.


Aisle 1: Fruits and vegetables

Yes, he has no bananas in his entire catalogue! But Dylan has clocked in time "Under the Apple Suckling Tree" and name-checks nearly every kind of fruit in "Country Pie." And for a guy who was once rumored to be a vegetable following his motorcycle accident, he has no aversion to "Hot chili peppers in the blistering sun" ("Romance in Durango"). Furthermore, as The Basement Tapes illustrated, he has been known to get his potatoes mashed in public ("Million Dollar Bash").

For someone who's rewritten The Grapes of Wrath and picked Tom Joad clean for inspiration, you'd think Springsteen would mention grapes at least once. But nah! If Bruce mentions a fruit in a song, it's generally the kind you don't want to eat. Whether it's bitter ("Lonesome Day") or forbidden. "They say Eve tempted Adam with an apple" ("Pink Cadillac"), he'll remind you, and then keep walking.


Aisle 2: Beer, wine and spirits

Dylan references wine in 14 songs, beer in six songs, whisky in five, railroad gin in one, white rum in one and Jamaican rum in another. But since he complained "businessmen they drink my wine," he'll probably still need to stock up on some vino to take back to the watchtower. You know how thirsty businessmen get. It should also be noted that Dylan can't hold his liquor. That's according to Mrs. Henry, who recalls him once pleading with her, "If I walk any further, my crane is gonna leak."

When Bruce sang, "A dream awaits in aisle number two" in "Queen of the Supermarket," alcohol is surely what he must've meant. After all, he ties Dylan for beer references, enjoys drinking brewskis (or Bruce-skis), driving ("Sherry Darling") and likes to crack open a few while telling boring stories of "Glory Days." But he's also a man who desires "drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain" ("Jungleland") so he probably won't pay extra for the chilled ones. He usually uses wine as a descriptor ("the wine of love" in "Life Itself") or as an allegory ("the wine from blood" in "Human Touch"). Yep, Bruce has lots of references to drinking ... and it's usually preceded by someone closing down an auto plant.


Aisle 3: Jams and jellies

Dylan's skipping this aisle. The "jelly-faced women" all sneezing from "Visions Of Johanna" still give him nightmares!

"I got in a little hometown jam," sang "Born in the USA" Bruce. Leave it to the Freehold boy to buy locally.


Aisle 4: Peanut butter

In his Before the Fame recording of "Eloise," Bruce goes down to a luncheonette and orders a "fried peanut butter and banana sandwich." "I'm turning into Elvis and there's nothing I can do," he sings.

No PB&J sandwiches for Dylan, even though he told a reporter he thought he'd be meeting the King during his heart infection a few years ago. But, hell, the Peanut Butter Conspiracy never even recorded one of Bob's songs!


Aisle 5: Coffee 

Dylan started out playing coffeehouses so it's no wonder he won't leave without "One more cup of coffee for the road, one more cup of coffee 'fore I go."

There are coffee references all over Bruce's Magic album, most notably the groggy start and gradual lurch of "You'll Be Comin' Down" which sounds shockingly similar to Folgers' "The best part of waking up" jingle, though his reference to "red mornings" indicates a preference for red Classic Roast over green Decaf.


Aisle 6: Sugar 

Anyone with a working knowledge of "The Mighty Quinn" knows Dylan's credo "I like my sugar sweet." Sweet & Low, we're not so sure about, though.

Sugar is just something Bruce calls a woman in only a few songs. More than likely, he's gonna call the checkout girl "honey" since he uses that word in 20 songs! And in "Ramrod," he switches off and calls his mama "sugar" and "honey"!


Aisle 7: Cereal

For some reason, this morning food staple only turns up in the "misheard" lyrics department. Hard of hearing Dylan fans thought "Silvio" was an actual plea for "cereal" while some Boss hardliners still won't hear "Adam Raised a Cain" as anything but "I want Raisin Bran!"


Aisle 8: Baked goods

Dylan demanded, "Why wait any longer" and "You can have your cake and eat it too," in the same song ("Lay, Lady, Lay"). In supermarket jargon, he's what's known as an "in-store sampler."

By the time Bruce made it up to Greasy Lake, Janey's fingers "were in the cake." I'm betting that's why he likes to shop alone.


Aisle 9: Baking supplies

Dylan has two songs that mention a bakery, one just because he needed a rhyme for fakery. In "Tangled Up in Blue," he recalls having "a job in the great north woods, working as a cook" until "one day, the ax just fell." Besides falling weaponry, other reasons he shouldn't be trusted near a stove include his musing "the little boy and the little girl were both baked in a pie" in "Under the Red Sky." And any guy who could write "Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread" is sampling way too much cooking sherry already.

But unless "The Rising " is about a Bundt cake, the Boss will just let others do the baking.


Aisle 10: Hispanic foods 

Alas, Dylan's "Spanish Harlem Incident" was not a food-studded event.

And Bruce hasn't had Spanish Johnny and Puerto Rican Jane over since that "Incident on 57th Street" all those years ago.


Aisle 11: Ice cream

Neither man has even touched the stuff in a song, although in one of his self-pitying moments, Bruce does liken himself to "an ice cream truck on a deserted street" ("Waiting for a Sunny Day").


Aisle 12: Snacks

Despite a bout of Christianity in the '70s, Mr. Zimmerman is back in the original faith since 1983, and, as such, might stroll to the Kosher Aisle to get some Latke Crisps and Babka Bites.

Bruce needn't stock up on Jiffy Pop since "the man-beast in his cage sniffin' popcorn" hasn't dropped in since "Wild Billy's Circus Story" dropped out of the set list. 


Aisle 13: Soft drinks

Despite Dylan product-placing Coca Cola in two songs, the Coca Cola people have yet to tap him to sell their pop. 

In two songs, Springsteen just mentions a generic "coke." C'mon Boss, throw Royal Crown Cola a bone! It's American made!


Aisle 14: Party supplies

Dylan mentions, "balloons made out of lead" in two numbers, and a child's balloon in "It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding." But mostly, supplies are superfluous to Dylan because any party he sings about is already over.

In "Mary's Place," the Boss announces "We're gonna have a party" in the same breath as "Tell me how do we get this thing started." Unless someone reminds him to bring booze from other songs (and the other aisle), this party is in trouble. All he's promising here is Mary's favorite record and "seven pictures of Buddha." How fun is that?


Aisle 15: Kitchenware

Dylan: "A lot of people don't have much food on their table, but they got a lot of forks an' knives, and they gotta cut somethin'" ("Talkin' New York Blues").

Anytime Springsteen mentions cutlery in the first person, it's for self-mutilation, like "Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart." Think of what he could do with a cheese grater!


Aisle 16: Automotive supplies

It's a rare event when Dylan mentions actually driving a car in a song — like when he's piloting an abandoned Cadillac in "Talking World War III Blues." Mostly, he just turns up somewhere and at least seems to have a destination. 

Bruce, on the other hand, would put "I drove downstairs" (in his own home, too!) in a song if he could get away with it. Think of all the songs Bruce has written about automobiles — and yet there's not one car mat or cup holder. In these areas, Bruce is completely out of touch with the everyman.


Aisle 17: Shoe polish

Dylan's "Boots of Spanish Leather" could surely use a shine.

Of course, Springsteen needs shoe polish. In The River's "Drive All Night," he vowed to drive all night "just to buy you a pair of shoes." Clearly this man will use any excuse to guzzle gas. And there are no shoe stores in Freehold? Besides, I would question the logic of a shoe store that stays open 24 hours for just such an impulsive nocturnal purchase. Clearly, the Boss is a foot fetishist!


Aisle 18: Light bulbs

Dylan once said his real message was "Keep a good head and always carry a light bulb." And on his 1965 U.K. tour, he carried one through Heathrow Airport to make that very point.

With "Blinded by the Light" or "Shut Out the Light," it can go either way. But you try asking anyone called the Boss to replace a bulb.


Aisle 19: Baby care 

Dylan: "I've heard newborn babies wailin' like a mournin' dove/And old men with broken teeth stranded without love/Do I understand your question, man?" Apparently not, but he does mention babies in 14 songs — so load up on the Pampers and Gerbers' food. Incidentally, he uses "babe" a whopping 20 times and only once is it actually about a newborn.

Springsteen: "Then I got Mary pregnant, and, man, that was all she wrote/And for my 19th birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat." Enough already, sad sack! Stop thinking about yourself all the time and get that kid some "no tears" shampoo! 


Aisle 20: Pet care

In the 30 songs in which Dylan sings of dogs, their barking mostly serves as background noise and only three indicate his ownership. "Well, the dog collar's from India," he says in "Union Sundown," which seems to indicate he might fuss over a beloved hound. And in 10 songs that mention a cat, only one denotes ownership. Besides, I'm not sure if "I'm letting the cat out of the cage" is Minnesota slang for something. 

Anytime Springsteen sings about a dog, it belongs to someone else, whether it's the dogs on Main Street howling in "The Promised Land" or the dead dog on the highway he pokes with a stick on "Reason to Believe." And then more recently, there was "If you've ever seen a one-legged dog, then you've seen me" from "The Wrestler." In Springsteen's universe, pooches have to fend for themselves. On the opposite end of the pet spectrum, if "Kitty's Back" ain't about a chick, then put this man down for some "Fancy Feast" in a can!


Aisle 21: Meats

Dylan advocates eating bird, dog and pig in "Tiny Montgomery." And when he says, "The sun's not yellow — it's chicken," clearly he sees poultry as an alternate source of energy.

In "Seven Angels," one of those angels says to Bruce: "Do the right thing, meat," which sounds like a new National Cattlemen's Beef Association slogan. As for fowl, he once sang, "Well, they blew up the Chicken Man in Philly last night, they blew up his house, too." What does that tell you?

Things neither man sings about: Canned fruits, deodorants, furnace filters, pharmacy, Band-aids (unless you wanna count Springsteen and Dylan singing with USA for Africa, which was the American version of Britain's Band Aid), air fresheners, wild bird seed, lint removers, stomach antacids, canned fish (although we can argue over what Dylan's "With your mercury mouth in the missionary times" from "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" really means), cooking oils and shortening (not unless Bruce is working on a song about cars that run on corn oil, that is), Asian food, macaroni and cheese, carpet cleaners, condiments, frozen breakfast treats, pretzels, frozen pizza, salad dressing, vinegar, powdered drinks, greeting cards, school and office supplies, kitty litter, pet grooming supplies, Chia Pets. ...

Bob Dylan and his band (including Charlie Sexton) play Friday, Nov. 6, at the Fox Theatre, 2211 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-983-6000; Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band play Friday, Nov. 13, at the Palace of Auburn Hills, 6 Championship Drive, Auburn Hills; 248-377-0100.

Serene Dominic is a music writer for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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