Patti Scialfa – Rumble Doll
1984: After over a decade of struggles, false starts, label conflicts, management shakeups and relentless touring, Bruce Springsteen was a superstar. Born In The U.S.A. was the kind of record that casts a shadow over everything around it [except maybe Thriller]. People who’d never liked or even heard of Springsteen sang along to songs from the album on radio and MTV. The title track was the sort of fist-pumping rock anthem that lifted your spirits whenever you heard it, and you heard it everywhere you went. Springsteen went from playing mid-size theatres to arenas and stadiums overnight. The record was so big, it made Bruce bulletproof: He had the clout to tell everyone from car companies to Ronald Regan’s Republican party to stick it when they came looking to use his music and image to sell things. His longtime fans loved the rejection of commercialism (as they spent millions on concert tickets, tour shirts and albums) while new/casual fans respected him for standing tall in the age of Corporate Rock. Bruce Springsteen was literally The Boss.
In the rock star fashion of the day, Bruce married a fashion model, and not just any fashion model either. Julianne Phillips was a $2000 a day Ford model just venturing into acting roles. She was the perfect mix of unapproachable perfection and girl-next-door charm. Phillips was so popular that her appearance in a music video could make bands worthless as .38 Special (briefly) relevant. Most (honest) male musicians will admit they started playing rock and roll to get chicks. Much like Eddie Van Halen a few years before him, Bruce had met and married the chick. It was a Rock’N’Roll fairy tale writ Big 80’s style.
Naturally Springsteen’s very next album was a song cycle about how miserable married life was with an actress/model that men all over America dreamed of getting just a smile from. Critics went wild psychoanalyzing Tunnel of Love while hardcore fans lamented the lack of rocking anthems and Bruce’s usual sidemen, the E Street Band. Before meeting Julianne, Bruce had been hanging out with Patti Scialfa, a background singer, aspiring songwriter and Rock Chick in residence in the Asbury Park scene Bruce ruled. You do the math: Rock star touring on a concept album about his fractured marriage with a talented, leggy, street-smart red head in the band. Before the tour ended Bruce and Patti were an item. Unfortunately (more for Patti than Bruce), the affair was major tabloid fodder for the duration of the tour (even the normally reverent Rolling Stone published multiple stories on their hookup). By the time the couple had moved in together back in Jersey, Patti was officially “the Other Woman” who had led Bruce (e.g.: The Hero) astray. In the eyes of his cult, Patti Scialfa spelled her name with a scarlet “A”. The fairy tale had become a cautionary tale.
What better time for Patti to make a solo record [/sarcasm]?
Released in late ’93 to zero fanfare, Rumble Doll has all the earmarks of a vanity project, something easy and inexpensive the label brass green lit to keep the Star’s Girlfriend happy. Even the cover photo [while gorgeous] made Scialfa over as The Boss’ arm candy, stiff, talentless and over-indulged. Co-produced by Tom Petty’s right hand, Mike Campbell and Bruce himself, the album is a who’s who of the late 80s early 90s AAA/roots scene [there’s a million dollars worth of drummers alone: Keltner, Aronoff, Russ Kunkel, Jeff Porcaro]. With a cast and crew like this, the sight of Patti’s name on the writing credits of all 12 songs (only one co-written by Campbell) doesn’t bode well either. One couldn’t be faulted for having visions of Jayne Mansfield screeching over the Ray Coniff orchestra in “The Girl Can’t Help It.” Not that it really mattered; this was the tail end of an era when singers as unlikely as Dale Bozzio, Julie Brown (the white one) and Jennifer Love Hewitt could be famous for 15 minutes. To Springsteen’s loyal base, Patti must have looked just as hollow and silly.
From the opening title track, Rumble Doll puts paid to all the cynicism and misgiving. Into a warm rippling bed of muted drums, distant guitars and soft-edged keyboards falls Scialfa’s voice, imperfect, hesitant, but honest and committed. Indeed, she uses the limits of her breathy contraldo to bring home the idea that this is Somebody‘s story. Not an entitled arm-candy voice, not a duplicitous vixen’s voice. Not a drama queen’s voice. A Woman’s voice. A singer-songwriter’s voice, with a True Story to tell:
In the age of Pat Benatar and Lita Ford, it’s impossible to think Scialfa didn’t deliberately choose such understated sounds and words of uncertainty. This was a year after Tori Amos ushered in the TMI style for women-songwriters and only three years before Fiona Apple’s arrival. She was smart enough to know an album of E-Street style bombast would make her sound like a Jim Steineman side project. She was also courageous enough not to shrink from telling the story everyone (thought they) knew about her, but telling her own truth about it. In “Come Tomorrow,” she paints a stark portrait of the forces at work within a affair with someone else’s man:
While she has an immediate story to tell, Scialfa isn’t averse to displays of the Jersey-Shore poetry that Bruce made famous in songs like “My Imagination” and “Valerie” that were most likely written (or at least started) before the affair with Springsteen. She’s also unafraid to revel in the pleasure that comes from “stolen” love, which she does in the dark slink of “Charm Light,” the coy Brill Building pop of “Baby Don’t” the Petty-esque “Lucky Girl” and the glowing romance of “Talk to Me Like the Rain”. It’s no surprise: the whole Jersey Shore scene was inundated with R&B values, a music that’s always been grown up and upfront about illicit pleasures. Maybe those songs were written before she and Springsteen got together, maybe they weren’t, but it scarcely matters; They round out her story in a way that a less serious artist could never manage.
So the debut album by the second wife of the biggest Rock Star on Earth came…and went. I honestly don’t know anyone else who bought this…I had a lot of hardcore Sprignsteen fans my circle at the time and they couldn’t have cared less about it. Bruce, still bulletproof and [near] infallible in the eyes of his people, went on to record and tour and make more millions, while keeping his politics and his image as a Man of the People intact [the last time I saw him was at a fundraiser for Obama’s re-election campaign] while Patti semi-retired to a life of raising Bruce’s kids, living in suburban New Jersey and occasionally writing enough new songs to put out 23rd Street Lullaby in 2004 and Play It As It Lays in 2007, both of which are fine albums. But the real story is still on Rumble Doll. It’s the sound of a woman of substance defying the odds, convention and expectations.
NEXT: SINGLES GOING STEADY