Jesse Kornbluth on Bruce Springsteen, music and politics.
Polls tell us that 51% of Americans believe the bailout of the banks was wrong. An overwhelming majority — 86% — disapproves of big bonuses on Wall Street. And more than 50% feel that “the power and influence of banks and other financial institutions represent a major threat to the country.”
You’d think that a lot of bands would have a song for those people.
It’s no great mystery what that music might sound like. A shout of rage for what vulture capitalists have done to workers and the dispossessed. A raised fist at the fat cats, politicos and pundits who know exactly how the game is fixed and don’t give a damn because they’ve got theirs. A shout-out to those who are struggling to pay their bills, so they know someone cares. And, far from least, a message of hope to all those who are struggling to pay their bills.
The silence of [fill in the name of your favorite musician or band] is egregious, but finger-pointing no longer matters — we have that CD. It is fierce and blunt and angry, and unapologetic about its rage; in the Guardian’s phrase, it’s “a sledgehammer holding a megaphone.”
And the guy who made it is 62.
In Bruce Springsteen’s world, the plane leaves when he shows up. He’s got acreage that a Texan might envy. His kid rides expensive horses. If he were so inclined, he could go on a Greatest Hits tour until the end of time and end up far north of a billion dollars. As he once wrote, “I’ve got the fortunes of heaven in diamonds and gold / I got all the bonds, baby, that the bank could hold.”
But then he would not be Bruce Springsteen.
If you’ve listened to Springsteen over the decades or even just dropped in on his seminal CDs, you know that one bright thread in his career is his concern for workers, the poor, the lost and the broken. It starts with “Born to Run” (1975). On one level, it’s a wet kiss to the American dream of endless youth and a four-lane highway with no speed limit. On another, it’s a rebel yell, the defiant statement of a kid who’s not going to let his soul be crushed.
That kid grows up fast. “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” released just three years later, describes what it’s like to discover you’re not going to realize the dreams of your youth. The new challenge: to find dignity in defeat, to get married and have kids and still maintain some respectable definition of manhood in a system that reduces you to a cog.
Jump-cut to “The Rising,” the 9/11 record that begged someone to make it. Not my favorite Springsteen, but it brought comfort to many, and that’s not small.
And now “Wrecking Ball.” If we were to talk about the music here, I might say this is Springsteen’s most interesting CD in a long time; you’ll find jaunty Celtic melodies and gospel and rap and references to Pete Seeger and Johnny Cash. But the politics overshadows the music. As someone has said, this is the soundtrack of “Occupy New Jersey.” [To buy the CD from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]
What are the politics of “Wrecking Ball?” Simple: Springsteen hates the way people who have gained the world have lost all sense of connection to the rest of the planet. And now we — he’s in the 1%, but he identifies with the 99% — are jobless and ignored. “The country we hold in our hearts is waiting,” he said during the 2004 election; eight years later, we are “shackled and drawn.”
Some critics have dived into the politics of “Wrecking Ball,” and boy, that conversation can get granular fast. I admire their erudition, but I really don’t think the politics is the main event here. Emotion is.
By emotion, I mean primal feeling, what’s revealed when everything you think you’ve got is stripped away and there’s no way out. You can’t really channel this; you need to have lived it. And Springsteen has. He’s spoken of his father, “emasculated” when he lost his job in the ‘70s:
Unemployment is a really devastating thing. I know the damage it does to families. Growing up in that house, there were things you couldn’t say. It was a minefield. My mother was the breadwinner. She was steadfast and relentless and I took that from her.
In this CD, the wrecking ball that took down the old Giants Stadium becomes every dirty deal — and every lost job:
Now when all this steel and these stories, they drift away to rust
And all our youth and beauty, it’s been given to the dust
And your game has been decided, and you’re burning the down the clock
And all our little victories and glories have turned into parking lots
When your best hopes and desires are scattered to the wind
And hard times come, hard times go,
Yeah, just to come again…
What do you do when you can’t win? Just stand your ground. “Take your best shot,” he taunts the wrecking crew. “Hold tight to your anger/ And don’t fall to your fears … Bring on your wrecking ball.”
And this isn’t the stance in just one song. The CD is shot through with a fierce refusal to sugarcoat bitter knowledge. Start with “We Take Care Of Our Own,” the song he did at the Grammys; only the brain dead could miss the irony.
Then move on to “Rocky Ground,” which features this bit of rap (yes, rap):
You use your muscle and your mind and you pray your best
That your best is good enough, the Lord will do the rest
You raise your children and you teach ‘them to walk straight and sure
You pray that hard times, hard times, come no more
You try to sleep, you toss and turn, the bottom’s dropping out
Where you once had faith now there’s only doubt
Samuel Johnson, 250 years ago, noted, “The natural flights of the human mind are not from pleasure to pleasure, but from hope to hope.” But as I hear it, the question at the heart of “Wrecking Ball” is: How can we go on when the game is rigged — and there’s no hope? That is, first, a commercial question. No one wants to listen to a 45-minute dirge — you gotta give them something that doesn’t make them want to slit their wrists. But beyond commerce, that is the emotional question that “Wrecking Ball” must address if it’s to be any kind of help to us.
And Springsteen does directly address it in what I see as the key song of the CD, “Land of Hope and Dreams.” It’s not a new song; it’s been a high point of his concerts for years. And deserves to be — it’s an invitation to salvation, and for everyone.
Well, this train carries saints and sinners
This train carries losers and winners
This train carries whores and gamblers
This train carries lost souls
I said, this train carries broken-hearted
This train, thieves and sweet souls departed
This train carries fools and kings thrown
This train, all aboard
There’s a video of Springsteen and the band playing “Land of Hope and Dreams” in Barcelona, in 2002. It lasts 9:30, but you can skip the 90-second ovation at the end. If you like, you can even start at the most compelling part, at the 6-minute mark, when the song is basically over. He’s about to segue into “People Get Ready.” But the music isn’t why I ask you to look — it’s Springsteen’s face. I see a man in prayer, a man at one with his belief. “People get ready” — it’s an incantation.
Show biz theatrics? I think not. I think this is the moment when it all comes together, and the world drops away and the reason you’re the one standing up there is revealed. It’s a moment that chills and inspires, and it doesn’t happen often enough.
“Faith will be rewarded,” Springsteen sings in “Land of Hope and Dreams.” “Wrecking Ball” is the argument against that. And yet, against all evidence, this is what Springsteen affirms. Because although he’s a fallen-away Catholic, he believes — as I find myself believing — that there is something bigger than we are. And that, just maybe, we’ll be okay.
A CD for the ages? Maybe not. But later, looking back, this feels like the CD that will remind us what it was like in the late winter of 2012.
This review first appeared on Head Butler. Jesse gives major thanks to Ronald Fried.