Adam raised an Eve

Why Patti Scialfa matters
By JOYCE MILLMAN  |  November 14, 2007

RUMBLE DOLL: Scialfa’s new Play It As It Lays is singer-songwriter perfection, concise and intimate.

On the Internet, they call her “Yoko.” They trash her singing. They claim her guitar isn’t even plugged in. Why do some Bruce Springsteen fans have such a big problem with Patti Scialfa?

Let’s refute the charges as if they had nothing to do with plain old meanness. (Surely Boss fans are classier than that.) Guitar? Plugged in — and she knows her place as a humble rhythm strummer. Singing? Like Dusty Springfield crossed with Emmylou Harris, which is fine by me. Yoko? News flash: E Street Band still together.

Scialfa may not bring Clarence’s charisma or Steve’s chops to the party, but she matters. Before Scialfa, an experienced session singer, joined the E Street Band in 1984 (she and Springsteen were not yet together), women existed in the Boss’s boys’ club only as the idealized lonely angels of his songs. By including Scialfa, Springsteen finally acknowledged that female rockers and fans were not merely along for the ride — this was their journey too.

It would be a shame if haters’ nonsense dissuaded listeners from exploring Scialfa’s three fine solo albums: Rumble Doll (1993), 23rd Street Lullaby (2004), and the new Play It As It Lays (all Columbia). The last (produced with percussionist Steve Jordan) is singer-songwriter perfection, concise and intimate. Scialfa wraps her husky/sweet vibrato around rock, country, and R&B originals that depict a woman in middle age riding the ups and downs of a long-term relationship. The soulful “Like Any Woman Would” is a clear-eyed take on the varied and conflicting roles women play in marriage: “Mother, brother, sister, lover, wife, or friend/A confidante, an angel/Or just a fool in the end.”

Scialfa portrays rock and roll as both soundtrack and salvation in a woman’s life; it’s the feminine flip side to Springsteen’s faith in the redemptive power of the music. Quotes from the girl-group classics “He’s So Fine” by the Chiffons and “Sally Go Round the Roses” by the Jaynetts weave through “Like Any Woman Would” and “The Word,” ironic glimmers of girlish romance amid the darker realities the songs describe. And Scialfa’s lyrics, like Springsteen’s, are colored by Catholic guilt; on the chugging “Town Called Heartbreak,” she feels Eve’s sin in every kiss, but she demands that her own Adam share the burden with her. “Gotta work with me, baby,” she urges in the steamy refrain.

Patti bashers begrudge the occasional performance of “Town Called Heartbreak” on the current E Street Band tour (which hits the Garden November 18 and 19), even though it’s sung as a duet with Springsteen. The song was missing from the show I saw in Oakland last month; instead, Springsteen and Scialfa sang a sexually charged “Tunnel of Love” a kiss apart at the microphone. They also duetted on the apocalyptic “Magic,” from Springsteen’s new album. As they strummed their guitars side by side, Scialfa’s shivery trill floated above Springsteen’s rumble, suggesting a gloomy romanticism reminiscent of Richard and Linda Thompson in their heyday.

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