Bossing the Nightshift

Cover versions get a bad press. They’re rarely as good as the originals, or the originals as you remember them. They often try too hard to be tricksyly different. But one exception to the rule for me has been Bruce Springsteen’s version of “Nightshift” from his latest album. Only the Strong Survive is Springsteen’s 21st studio album and is made up of fifteen “soul music greats’. It came out late last year and, though I’m not a die hard fan, I’ve been revisiting this track for old times’ sake.

The Boss’s take on “Nightshift”, which was the last gasp of funk/soul from 70/80s band The Commodores, doesn’t mess with a good thing, although his chastened 73-year-old voice gives what was a smooth R & B inspired track, a more brawny melancholy.

Or is that just me?

The lyrics of “Nightshift” (released in 1985) celebrate soul greats Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson, who had both died the previous year. The song imagines them reunited, gigging together on a celestial nightshift. 

Gonna be a long night
It’s gonna be alright, on the nightshift
You found another home
I know you’re not alone, on the nightshift

Back in the 80s, when The Commodores were charting with the track (straight after Lionel Ritchie had left them for a solo career), I was literally on the night shift, working as a sub-editor in Dublin newspapers. There was nothing even vaguely celestial about the 8pm–4am shift. 

Politically and historically, these were dark years. As journalists, we maintained ghoulish vigils for hunger-strikers, warned of hurricanes and snowfalls that came in the wee small hours, charted the late-night casualties of sectarianism, war, air travel, cars and drink. Our job was to sit in deserted newsrooms waiting for the bad news to come.

On our nightshift, you were alone.

There was plenty of time to consider your debt, your broken heart, your unfulfilled ambitions, as you sat awake in the graveyard hours keeping watch while the normal world slept. And to wonder what the hell you were doing with your life. A time designed for existential angst.

Coincidentally, in the past week, two former colleagues of mine from The Irish Times and this era – Noel McFarlane and Liam McAuley – who’d have done their fair share of these shifts in their time, have passed on to the great subs desk in the sky. It gives added poignancy to the Springsteen track, and the memories it evokes. At our age, nostalgia has a treacherous undertow – the loss of companions who shared those times with you.

Despite the fact that it’s an elegy, “Nightshift” is paradoxically, a bouncy number. It has a danceable rhythm and a breezy, feel-good, optimistic mood – essentially a kind of “we’ll meet again” vibe.  So, I’m hoping. . . the promise of an afterlife is one of the last vestiges of religious belief to die.

Over 35 years on, I’m living with the legacy of those long ago night shifts. I still keep ridiculous hours. Late to bed, late to rise.  

But as Elaine Stretch memorably sang in the gnarly Stephen Sondheim classic – ” I’m still here!” And in the words of another classic from the now forgotten 1960s musical, The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd – “And I’m feeling good.” (Covered by Nina Simone, Michale Bublé, George Michael and a raft of others.)