Springsteen’s America

Throughout Springsteen’s career, he’s always done a good job of documenting the times we live in. Darkness on the Edge of Town features gritty working-class characters in over their heads and trying to survive. Born in the U.S.A. also tackles blue-collar issues, especially Ronald Reagan’s trickle down economics and what it did to our country in terms of increasing economic disparity. Then, in the 1990s, Springsteen released the quiet acoustic album The Ghost of Tom Joad with a lot of songs from the immigrant’s point of view. On his latest album, Wrecking Ball, out this week, Springsteen addresses these issues again and the financial crash and economic meltdown that put a lot of people out of work. This album, in my opinion, is one of Springsteen’s best. It is big and epic, topical and direct.  Springsteen manages to contrast reality with the promises of the American dream and point out the stark differences.

Musically, Wrecking Ball is one of Springsteen’s most diverse albums, a criss-cross of genres, folk, gospel, rock, and even some hip-hop. “Shackled and Drawn” sounds like an old chain gang song. It also has some of his most poignant working-class lyrics. He sings, “Gambling man rolls the dice/workingman pays the bill/It’s still fat and easy up on banker’s hill/up on banker’s hill, the party’s going strong/down here below we’re shackled and drawn.” Has there been a song, poem, or novel in the last few years that so clearly highlights the economic inequality that has skyrocketed in this country?

Some of the tracks feel like sequels to some of his earlier work. “Death to My Hometown” could be seen as a follow-up to “My Hometown” from Born in the U.S.A. In the new track, there’s nothing left in the hometown. Springsteen sings, “They destroyed our families, factories/and they took our homes/They left our bones on the plains/The vultures picked the bones.” What a rustbelt anthem and truth!

However, the tracks on Wrecking Ball differ from some of Springsteen’s other working-class narratives in the sense that the working-class is starting to rise up and fight back. On “Death to My Hometown,” he sings, “Be ready when they come/for they’ll be returning/sure as the rising sun.”  Springsteen wrote a lot of the songs before the Occupy movement really took off, but he obviously realized enough was enough and America needs a social movement again to challenge power.

The album’s title track is also punctuated with some optimism in the simple refrain, “Hard times come and hard times go.” That seems to be a reoccurring theme on the album. A lot of the tracks state that America has always had periods of economic divide and great uncertainty, so it’s important for people to take care of each other through difficult times, and somehow, we’ll survive.

Wrecking Ball accurately depicts the times we live in, the great economic divides and  inequality, and while the album may feature some of the angriest lyrics the Boss has ever penned, it is clear he believes we will get through this if we take care of each other. Hard times come and hard times go.

The Boss is Back

About a month ago or so, I wrote on here about the collection of essays and interviews about Springsteen I read called Racing in the Street. The collection mostly explores his early days in Asbury Park, his huge success, and his evolution as a songwriter not afraid to shy away from social and political commentary. Today, Springsteen announced dates for the first leg of his U.S. tour, and I’m going to try my best to see him at one of the Philly, NJ, or NY shows because you never know how long he’ll be doing this for.

When I wrote the blog post about the book Racing in the Street, I predicted Springsteen’s new album, which has been named Wrecking Ball and is slated to drop March 6, would certainly feature some commentary on social and economic injustice, similar to his albums the Ghost of Tom Joad, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and Born in the U.S.A. This is the age of Occupy Wall Street, and even Newt Gingrich is talking about economic inequality and how much Mitt Romney pays in taxes.  Springsteen is one of the few big voices we have left to talk about such issues. Dylan pivoted away from that years ago. Jon Landau, Springsteen’s manager, made a few comments about the album to Rolling Stone. You can read them here. Two quotes intrigue me about the album. Landau said Springsteen feels this is his “angriest album yet,” and he says the music will include “unexpected textures – loops, electronic percussion… influences and rhythms from hip-hop to Irish folk rhythms.”
You can click the YouTube video below to hear one of the new tracks from the album, “We Take Care of Our Own.” You can certainly hear some of Springsteen’s commentary on the state of America in the new track. You can check out his tour dates on his website by clicking here.

Writings about the Boss

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!