A few posts ago, I mentioned that one of my resolutions for 2012 is to share more on here about books I’m reading. So, to adhere to my resolution, I want to mention a book that I got for Christmas from my girlfriend– Racing in the Street: The Bruce Springsteen Reader. Lately, I’ve been reading more non-fiction than usual. I just finished a long bio on Hemingway called Hemingway’s Boat. I recommend it. Now I’m reading this collection of essays, interviews, and articles on Springsteen. It begins with his career in the early 1970s, shortly before Born to Run was released, and it concludes with his post-9/11 album The Rising.
What impresses me most about this book is how it details the evolution of Springsteen from a New Jersey rocker who played the clubs of Asbury Park and struggled early on to a rock star with an evolving political/social conscious and a willingness to speak out for the working-class, especially on the albums Darkness on the Edge of Town, Born in the U.S.A., and The Ghost of Tom Joad.
The book contains the first major article about Springsteen, published in 1973 in the magazine Crawdaddy!, a little after Springsteen released his first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, and had yet to hit the mainstream. What surprises me about the Crawdaddy! article and some of the early articles about Springsteen from the New York Times is how much he was compared to Bob Dylan. I’m a big fan of Dylan and Springsteen, and I don’t like one more than the other, but I don’t see a lot of similarities. Springsteen’s early albums were not folk albums, and they weren’t at all political or social, like Dylan’s first albums. That would come later for Springsteen. Furthermore, Dylan always worked in the abstract, with wild characters, word play, and layers of metaphors. Springsteen’s songs are more concrete, often centered around character-driven narratives.
I especially like the section on Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. album and how Ronald Reagan tried to co-opt the title song for political purposes, despite the fact the title song and a lot of other tracks on the album are about people struggling for jobs in Reagan’s trickle-down America. But my favorite section includes the essays on The Ghost of Tom Joad album, which may be Springsteen’s most political/social album to date. Released in the mid-1990s, the album is a barebones folk album, filled with stories of immigrants struggling to survive and references to Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath.
One of my favorite essays is entitled “The Ghost of History: Bruce Springsteen, Woody Guthrie, and the Hurt Song.” Here, the writer, Bryan K. Garman, compares Springsteen’s Joad album to the work of folk pioneer Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan’s earliest albums that focused on the Civil Rights Movement and racial injustice. Here a distinction is made between Springsteen’s songs and Dylan’s early work that I think is poignant. Garman writes, “While Dylan constructs his working-class characters as passive ‘pawns’ who are wholly manipulated by historical and social forces beyond their control, Springsteen’s characters make their own history, but they do so under very difficult circumstances. Springsteen’s working-class narrators proudly and faithfully proclaim, ‘Mister, I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man/And I believe in a Promised Land!”
I like that quote because I think it sums up Springsteen’s work rather well. Over the years, he’s always written about the working-class, and even on some of his darkest albums lyrically, including Darkness on the Edge of Town, which includes the track “Promised Land” referenced above, there are rays of hope. In an interview with Springsteen published in 1985 by the Los Angeles Times, when he was really at the height of his success, Springsteen says, “I’m a romantic. To me, the idea of a romantic is someone who sees the reality, lives in the reality every day, but knows about the possiblities too.” That quote also sums up his work and characters well.
If you’re a fan of Springsteen, rock ‘n roll history, or politics, check out The Springsteen Reader. You won’t be disappointed. Springsteen and the E Street Band are also set to have a busy 2012, including a tour and a new album promised to be one of their best yet. I’m excited to hear where Springsteen goes lyrically for the new album, considering he is still mourning the loss of his childhood friend and long-time sax player in the band Clarence Clemons. The country is also so fractured politically, and the promised land Springsteen sang about for so many years seems unobtainable for a lot of Americans now. His songs are more relevant now than ever.
As far as poetry goes, I’m currently reading Elizabeth Alexander’s collection Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010. Alexander teaches at Yale and gained more notoriety when she delivered a poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” during Obama’s inauguration three years ago. I like Alexander’s work. Her poems draw on everything from first kisses to race in America. Check her out.
That’s all for now. Happy writing folks!