Hi there. Hope you had a good Christmas!
In the early 1990s, the Boss went through something of a trough, with the Human Touch and Lucky Town LPs both critical and commercial misses, and an MTV Unplugged set failing to hit the mark, too. Bruce had temporarily parted ways with the E Street Band and was using LA session players on his records – another source of fan ire. So when those fans heard Streets of Philadelphia, it was received as something like a 1990s version of Nebraska – Springsteen throwing out the trappings of stardom and big-time rock’n’roll to make something hushed and intimate alone in his house. And if the record featured synth and drum machine rather than acoustic guitar, so be it. Better a drum machine than the drummer from Toto.
Me, I had (have) no real attachment to or fondness for the E Street Band. They’ve always been a little too gaudily showbiz for my taste. Not lean enough, not hard enough. Much of my favourite Bruce music (Brusic?) doesn’t feature them at all. And I loved the sound of Streets of Philadelphia. The warm synth and drum machine* sounded perfect to me – and completely emotionally appropriate to the song. The artificiality of the programmed beat puts me in mind of the kind of devices (pacemakers, LVADs, artificial hearts) that allow the weakening body to continue to live. The drum machine thus provides the song’s pulse in both a literal and figurative sense.
The key thing about drum machines is that they aren’t people; try to make a programmed drum track stand in for a human drummer and you’re on a hiding to nothing. But allow the drum machine to be what it is – a metronome that can play something more than just quarter notes – and they can be wonderful tools for writing and recording. In the case of Streets of Philadelphia, the feel provided by the drum machine just wouldn’t have been achievable with a human drummer – not without editiing the performance to the point where it would have been much quicker simply to program the beat.
The song’s instrumental backing, steady and unobtrusive, was an ideal accompaniment for Sprinsteen’s heart-rending vocal, so full of empathy and humanity – much needed at the time. Streets of Philadelphia was written for the soundtrack to the movie Philadelphia, which starred Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington. In the movie, a lawyer with Aids, played by Tom Hanks, is fired from his firm, and though dying enlists a former colleague, played by Washington, to represent him in an unfair-dismissal suit. That kind of thing did happen (indeed the story was the subject of a legal case brought by the family of Geoffrey Bowers, whose story inspired the film) – and probably still does, though the prejudice underlying it would have to be more carefully disguised.
In 2017, it may be hard to remember the ignorance and fear that surrounded Aids in the 1980s and 1990s, or the prejudice that attached to those with the disease. But at the time, even the existence of Philadelphia attracted controversy. It is reported that director Jonathan Demme asked Springsteen to write a song for the soundtrack specifically in the hopes that Springsteen’s presence would reach out to audiences who may not otherwise be receptive to the movie’s message. In that sense, Bruce probably never wrote a more important song. In my view, he never wrote a better one. And it’s impossible to imagine that all the players in the world and all the fanciest technology could have produced a more moving result than Springsteen cooked up at home. For those purists who disdain the programmed or looped rhythm track, Streets of Philadelphia is a powerful rejoinder.
*I’ve read in one biog that during this period Springsteen was actually writing using premade loops from a CD he’d bought. Most writers and fans discussing the song have assumed he used a drum machine (no one seems confident which one though), so I’ve gone along with that for the purposes of this post.