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POP MUSIC : Speaking Up in Her Own Voice : In her first album, Patti Scialfa uses fairy-tale imagery of childhood to write about the need to move beyond a careless youth

July 11, 1993|CHRIS WILLMAN | Chris Willman is a regular contributor to Calendar. and

Patti Scialfa's debut album is called "Rumble Doll." But an equally fitting name might have been borrowed from her famous husband's song titles: "Growin' Up."

Myriad comparisons are bound to be drawn between Scialfa's confessional, romanticized style and the similarly sin 'n' salvation-drenched lyrics of Bruce Springsteen, whom she joined as backup singer nine years ago and married two years ago. But "Rumble Doll," whatever its comparative merits, reveals that Scialfa definitely has her own voice--and it's most assuredly a woman's voice.

She uses, for instance, a lot of childhood fairy-tale imagery that a male writer probably wouldn't, dealing in decidedly feminine terms with the tough transition between an extended girlhood and a harder-fought maturity:

*

Now tomorrow comes abandoning

Painted ponies and a little brass ring

Well I got that ring I pulled it down

And my little girl's world came tumbling down

*

Scialfa's album makes profuse use at times of "toyland" and "rag man" images. But she insists the songs aren't about anything so sentimental as trying to stay in touch with that innocent side but, conversely, the bigger battle to instead put childish things away.

"It's such a big part of me that I don't feel I have to try and stay in touch with it," she says. "I think it's more of a struggle to stop it from ruling you.

"Children live in maybe a complicated imaginary world, but it's not as complex, it's not a real world and there aren't those real threats. So for me, I think it's more difficult to take the safety of that away and say, 'OK, I'm gonna be a woman here and stand inside a woman's skin, not a child's skin--and not a teen-ager's skin, because I'm not a teen-ager.' And wow, that's hard. It's easier to run and hide under the bed . . . under the bunk bed."

Rather than being nostalgia-indulgent, then, "Rumble Doll"--which sounds as much like a preternaturally matured Ronnie Spector album as a Springsteen record--is about facing the challenge to grow up.

"Even if it's a little bit late," adds Scialfa (who turns 40 this month) with a breezy laugh. "I did everything late. I got married late, I had children late. And part of that is I think I felt very safe not having all those adult things. The less you have, the less you have to be responsible for, and the less things can have power over you, to hurt you. . . . I guess some of it's when you're younger, you do a lot of things out of just sheer fear, making your world as small as possible so you can have control over it."

Having been writing original material, forming bands and trying to get a record deal since she was a 17-year-old Jerseyite--long before she was picked to become the E Street Band's last member, and a couple of decades before she wed its lead singer--Scialfa had stumbled upon that most peculiarly 20th-Century channel for the artificial prolongation of youth. Rock 'n' roll, that is.

"It's funny, because that was the first thing that drew me into being a singer when I was young--it was a refuge and a thing of sanctuary. But it can extend your childhood. I think I would've had that struggle no matter what I chose to do, though. And in crossing those lines, you're fortunate if you find somebody who helps you walk down those roads."

The somebody Scialfa found just happened to be the most popular rock singer in the world. Which meant that in the 1980s the erstwhile unknown suddenly did a lot of--to borrow a line from Lou Reed--growing up in public.

"I know there'll be that kind of shadow on it."

Scialfa is sounding resigned, momentarily, at least, about what kind of reception awaits her debut, due in stores Tuesday (see review, Page 71). The cloud she's speaking of is "the thing of having to justify yourself"--that is, the preconception many pop fans are likely to have that Scialfa was just some workaday professional backup singer who got lucky enough to cut an album through extremely good connections. The speculation that this could be some sort of vanity deal may be fueled by the fact that she's signed to the same label, Columbia, as her mega-platinum husband.

"I did get my deal after the 'Born in the U.S.A.' tour, way before Bruce and I got together (romantically)," she says, just in case anyone had the idea there might've been some kind of quid pro quo with the record company. In fact, Scialfa points out, she's not sure Springsteen even knew when the signing with Columbia first went down. But the potential suspicion of cynics "is there, yeah. I bump into it--more than I'd like to. And it's unfortunate, but it's a reality, and it's a small price to pay for the good things that have happened in my life."

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