The Pretender (1981)
Gary U.S. Bonds
Like an eagle, Gary U.S. Bonds seizes Jackson Browne’s “The Pretender” in his talons and, with Bruce Springsteen, much of the E Street Band, plus a handful of almost unbelievably accomplished backup singers, soars off into immortality.
There are many good things to say about Jackson’s version of “The Pretender,” which was released in 1976 on the album of the same name. The composer’s unease at a world suffused with phoniness and materialism is spot on. The message is genuine, but there seems to be little resolution in the original. It is flat. He has succumbed to the madness, upset but not outraged.
Jackson Browne gets Bonded
Bonds, though, instills the song with a world-weariness, a street wisdom and a blues-infused sound that is fatalistic on one hand and inspirational on the other. Jackson seems worried; Bonds has actually passed on through the hard life and survived – it is crystal clear in his interpretation.
Gary U.S. Bonds had been absent from the national music scene for decades when he and Springsteen collaborated on Dedication, an underappreciated gem of an album from 1981.
Originally from Jacksonville, Florida, with time spent in Norfolk, Virginia, he became enormously popular by absorbing the “Philadelphia sound” that in the late ‘50s to mid-1960s was dynamic, bold, and rivaled Motown for supremacy in the world of R&B music that increasingly was finding a receptive, record-buying white audience. His early songs and albums were produced in Norfolk and embrace a shouting gospel style that rambles through many, many great classic Rock songs.
Bonds’ early hits include the classic Rock-N-Roll jump and shout tune, “(We Danced Till) A Quarter To Three”; the joyously anarchic “School Is Out (At Last)”; and a great sleeper piece, “Where Did The Naughty Little Girl Go?” Then came the British Invasion. Bonds and countless others were swept away.
From the outset, Bonds’ “The Pretender” signals a dignity that only those who have fallen a number of times and gotten up from the deck can convey. It is also, perhaps, the conceit of the outlaw we hear as the singer longs to return to “normal,” everyday life. Once you’ve gambled on the high wire, can you live comfortably on the ground?
Gonna pack my lunch in the morning
And go to work each day
And when the evening rolls around
I’ll go on home and lay my body down
And when the morning light comes streaming in
I’ll get up and do it again
It’s a prayer, a plea to be let back in. Interspersed with Bonds’ plaintive vocals is a fabulous Springsteen-inflected backing, complete with Bruce’s and Steve Van Zandt’s dueling guitars. Going one step further, Bonds and Springsteen had the wonderful creative ingenuity to stir a trio of legendary backup singers into the batter:
Ben E. King, (lead singer for The Drifters on songs like “Up On The Roof”); Chuck Jackson, a relatively obscure early ‘60s soul singer, who created a landmark love song in “Any Day Now”; and Ellie Greenwich, who not only has sung back up for just about everyone, but wrote such Rock classics as “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Be My Baby,” and the best holiday song ever, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).”
“Sadder but wiser” often describes people of a certain age who have won and lost all sorts of battles – romantic, economic, political, social, and so forth. The hard trick is to take the amalgamated experience of all those campaigns and whip them into a renewed optimism. Jackson Browne’s version of “The Pretender” seems to disintegrate into a self-absorbed wistfulness as it ends. The Bonds version begins to soar as it nears its end. Jackson’s lyrics beg for that kind of spiritual, uplifting performance:
I’m gonna find myself a girl
Who can show me what laughter means
And we’ll fill in the missing colors
In each other’s paint-by-number dreams
And then we’ll put our dark glasses on
And we’ll make love until our strength is gone
And when the morning light comes streaming in
We’ll get up and do it again
Get it up again
“The Pretender” by Bonds fades away exhilaratingly on a voice jam, taking the last of Jackson’s middle-class irony with it, as Gary and his backup singers trade shouts, yowls, and gospel-like singing. We are in some Southern black church 50 years earlier and there is Bonds as a little boy, listening and absorbing. They repeat over and over in a call and response structure:
Say a prayer for the pretender
Are you there for the pretender?
Say a prayer, say a prayer, say a prayer
It is one of the best vocal closes to a classic Rock song ever, up there with the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” or The Beatles’ “Hey Jude.” You get the impression that Bonds and his crew went on singing and playing as “The Pretender” fades and fadess – for minutes, hours… hell, for days. It is so energized and so damn perfect, why would you ever want to stop?
- Jackson Browne’s original version of “The Pretender,” was no slouch when it came to backup singers. David Crosby and Graham Nash did the honors.
- When he wrote the song, Browne was enduring the aftereffects of his wife’s suicide earlier in the year 1976.