American Babylon 25th Anniversary

The story of American Babylon begins with a simple, but very important leap of faith.

Joe Grushecky had been cultivating a friendship with Bruce Springsteen for more than a decade. The Pittsburgh singer-songwriter had a new batch of songs that he had written, but he had also been struggling personally, dealing with a growing amount of frustration since he put out his previous record, 1992’s End of the Century.

He had built a sturdy reputation with the string of albums that he made in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s with his group, the Iron City Houserockers. But as he moved forward, working under his own name, his luck seemed to be running out, in spite of positive words in the press.

David Fricke of Rolling Stone praised End of the Century, writing that, “Grushecky’s hardy style of Steeltown roots ‘n’ blues and sharp vignettes of hard love and labor make sense at any time and are always good for what ails you, no matter how hard it hurts.”

“It got some great reviews and we had some terrible gigs, Grushecky recalls now. “It just seemed like nobody was interested in that particular type of music that I was doing at the time.”

The money from playing shows was also starting to dry up and the artist found himself taking on a full time job as a teacher to make ends meet. “I was really burning the candle at both ends,” he admits. “I was playing sometimes four nights a week and teaching every day. Plus, teaching GED and Adult Basic Education two nights a week. I was burning myself out.”

Still, he maintained his passion and love for making music and as he was getting ready to go in and start working on the next album, his wife interjected with an idea. “Why don’t you ask Bruce, if he could play a guitar solo on one of your songs and maybe sing a little bit,” she told him.

“To make a long story short, I got in touch with his manager, Jon Landau, and Bruce gave me a call,” he says. “I made my way out to Los Angeles with my wife. We stayed at his place for three or four days and worked on “Never Be Enough Time” and “Chain Smokin’.”

While Springsteen had taken a shine to those two songs, he was more blunt and honest when it came to the rest of the material that he heard during the Los Angeles summit. “I played him a bunch of songs that I’d written and he said, ‘Man, you can do better than that,’” Grushecky recalls. “They weren’t very good. He wasn’t insulting me.”

The pair agreed that there was good reason to continue working on the two tracks they had begun collaborating on. They made plans to reconvene in New York City at The Hit Factory. In the meantime, Grushecky went back to Pittsburgh, armed with determination to start writing additional songs that would measure up to the quality of what he and Springsteen had been working on.

Serendipity came creeping in, as a fan at one of the gigs brought the songwriter a book about Homestead, Pennsylvania. “I had been down there several times when I was a kid, on these tours,” he remembers. “I was really familiar with the whole story of the town, the big strike and all of that.”

He had a personal connection too, having helped to set up the area’s first food bank for the steelworkers during his tenure with the Houserockers and he had remained friends with many of them. Further, having grown up in the area, he had many childhood friends who had worked there as well. The subject matter hit home.

Grushecky quickly came up with the bones of the song that would become “Homestead.” While he liked what he had for the words, he knew the music itself could be better. “At the end of our second session, I was getting ready to leave. I told Bruce, ‘Hey, if you want to take a shot at coming up with some music for this.’”

The Jersey rocker called him on the phone just a couple of days later to share the results. “He played it for me on the phone and then we went out and recorded ‘Homestead.’ We had three songs done.”

Their collaboration as songwriters freshly minted, “Homestead” would be one of two co-writes between Springsteen and Grushecky on American Babylon. “Dark and Bloody Ground,” the stormy rocker that opens up the album, was the other one and emerged in a similarly fortuitous way.

While recording “Homestead,” the session engineer asked if Grushecky was familiar with a book, The Kentucky Cycle, written by Robert Schenkkan. He had a surface awareness of the book and the related six hour play, which had quickly come and gone from Broadway, opening in late ‘93 and closing nearly a month later.

Returning home after the session and heading back to his teaching job, Grushecky was stunned to walk into the school library, which he had helped to establish. He found a copy of The Kentucky Cycle sitting on top of one of the stacks.

The chain of events repeated. He wrote words and shared them with Springsteen, hoping for some musical input and it wouldn’t be a long wait.   “We were recording and he took the lyrics and disappeared for about a half hour or forty minutes, came back and had the song,” he says now. “We recorded it right on the spot, so it was conceived and recorded right there.”

“I read it and basically told that story in my own words,” Grushecky said, detailing how the lyrics of “Dark and Bloody Ground” came together. “I know from my history, the Native Americans would always call Kentucky “the dark and bloody ground,” because it was so rich, they said it sometimes looked like blood.”

Working with Springsteen on the American Babylon album was “easy,” as Grushecky recalls. They had a level of shared comfort that was there in part because of the two having similar personalities. They knocked the album’s songs out relatively quickly -- although the sessions themselves were spread out across a couple of years between 1993 and 1995 due to Springsteen’s heavy work schedule.

Grushecky’s own experiences recording professionally had helped to toughen his skin as an artist to navigate the experience. “By this time, I had worked with Steve Cropper, Steve Van Zandt, Mick Ronson and Ian Hunter,” he explains. “I was more comfortable in the studio. But every once in a while, I had to pinch myself. I said, ‘Geez, I’m working with Bruce Springsteen!’”

Springsteen made subtle, but important adjustments to Grushecky’s songs. “He’d add a twist and turn here and there, a different chord -- or suggest a different rhythm,” he adds. “Something that I wouldn’t have done on my own.”

The three demos that are being included here on the 25th anniversary edition of American Babylon for the first time offer further insight into the process that the two employed as they were working on the initial material. The demo for “Chain Smokin’” finds Springsteen himself playing all of the instruments. “He’d just pick up one instrument after another and play them really well,” Grushecky shares. “It was a lot of fun watching him work.”

The demo was so good, it seemed potentially unbeatable. It was Springsteen’s idea to have the members of Grushecky’s band play on the final version. “I don’t even think we really had to do that. It was Bruce’s idea to add the different musicians,” something that the songwriter indicates was done as a sign of respect.

Fans get to hear guitar work from Springsteen on the demo version of “Only Lovers Left Alive” that didn’t make it to the final record. As Grushecky reflected during a 2020 interview with writer Ken Rosen, although Bruce helped to arrange the track, “he opted to sit that one out” when the album version was recorded with the band.

“He does that really long guitar solo at the end of it and I thought that would be of interest to the fans,” Grushecky says of the demo version. “I loved hearing it myself. I had a bunch of different versions of “Only Lovers Left Alive” that I found. When I found that one, I said, ‘Oh man. I didn’t even remember that it existed, to tell you the truth.”

The second disc of this special edition of American Babylon documents the legendary and aptly named “October Assault” touring run that found Grushecky and the band knocking down six shows with Springsteen on board.

The scheduling on the trek was fairly punishing, with the first five shows coming one night after another, followed by a short three day break prior to the sixth and final show. The benefit of the heavy flow of the concerts was that Grushecky, Springsteen and the band were tightly connected by the time they arrived in Pittsburgh halfway through the run for the fourth and fifth shows.

Both nights, thankfully, were professionally recorded and as Grushecky recalls, they reviewed the material and “mixed the tapes down almost immediately, compiling their favorite performances from the two shows and over 70 minutes of those highlights are collected here.

“I think overall, it sounded pretty raucous. It sounds like a rock and roll show. I’ll say that much,” he says, looking at what was captured at Nick’s Fat City in 1995 on October 20 and October 21.

Timing was everything, too. “Playing those songs, we were still learning the material, how to present it and everything,” he explains. “It was brand new, so it has that ‘We’re playing it for the very first time’ quality.”

You certainly can’t miss the enthusiasm that Grushecky and Springsteen have on audible display, as they joyfully trade vocals on “Never Be Enough Time.”

They were having fun and good humor was in ample supply as Backstreets Magazine, who covered the entire run in their fall issue that same year, detailed in their review of the second night at Nick’s. Guitar strap issues led Springsteen to quip, “you know, I’m in the band for only a week and they break my guitars...a beer freezes my amps...and my fingers are bleeding!” “Yeah, it’s the hardest work he’s done in five years, Grushecky replies. “I’ll let you get away with that in Pittsburgh,” Springsteen shot back.

“We gave him the opportunity to just rip on guitar. I think it’s the most guitar he’d played since probably Darkness on the Edge of Town,” Grushecky says now. “I don’t think he played as much guitar as he does on this particular recording. There’s some smokin’ fuckin’ guitar solos on this thing.”

Noted critic Greg Kot backed up Grushecky’s assessment during his review of the Chicago date at the Park West, writing for the Chicago Tribune that Springsteen was “playing more lead guitar than at any time since the 1978 Darkness on the Edge of Town tour.”

The Stones-like swagger that’s injected as a result of Springsteen’s playing on perennial Iron City Houserockers favorite “Pumping Iron” is proof positive of the credibility of the above accolades.

“He was basically our lead guitar player on the album and tour. I played one solo on the title track for American Babylon, which we did here in Pittsburgh,” Grushecky shares. “The rest of the stuff, Bruce was primarily the lead guitar player and the background singer for the whole record and the subsequent tour.”

Ultimately, both the American Babylon album and tour were an important gift for Grushecky, who admits that he felt like he was “at the end of his rope” going into the sessions for the album. “I think it gave me confidence that I didn’t need somebody to show me how to do songs,” he says. Because Bruce, it was a collaborative effort. Working with Bruce, he’s such an icon. I’m the guy down the street that plays the guitar, so it was great working with him and seeing how he operates.”

“You know, there’s very few people that you can say, “Oh man, this guy’s a genius.” But with Bruce, you can sort of throw that word around and it becomes meaningful. So it was really a real pleasure and an honor to be able to work with him that closely,” he concludes. “I think the record is one of my better records. It’s right up there with Have A Good Time (But Get Out Alive), I think.

Grushecky’s hardy style of Steeltown roots ‘n’ blues and sharp vignettes of hard love and labor make sense at any time and are always good for what ails you, no matter how hard it hurts.

David Fricke,
Rolling Stone December 1992

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