Blinded by the Light and the Duality of Springsteen’s American Dream

Anyone who knows me knows how much I like Springsteen, especially his output from the early 1970s to the mid-1980s. Born to Run, The River, and Darkness on the Edge of Town especially are records that I still spin frequently. The characters that populate those songs remind of my hometown of Scranton, PA, or any other city that has fallen on hard times and is a gutted husk of its industrial past. With that said, I have to address the new film Blinded by the Light, which focuses heavily on those albums and draws off of Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir, Greetings from Bury Park. I will admit there are several cheesy scenes in the film, but it’s an earnest attempt to highlight the universality of Springsteen’s music and his conflicting depictions of the American dream.

Set in 1987, Blinded by the Light is the story of a young Pakistani writer Javed (Viveik Kaira), whose conservative father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), moved his family to the hardscrabble town of Luton, England to make a better life for his family. Initially, the plan works, until Malik looses his job after the factory closes down. As a result, his wife, Noor (Meera Ganatra), spends hours slaving away over her sewing machine to fulfill extra orders for neighbors as a means to support the family. The children are also forced to find odd jobs so the family can stay afloat. This economic struggle is reinforced several times when tracks like “Promised Land” play throughout the narrative, echoing the family’s woes and Javed’s frustration because he wants to be a writer, despite his father’s insistence that he become a lawyer or doctor. Their relationship is one of the driving conflicts throughout the film, and it’s exacerbated by the family’s economic woes. Springsteen is the only thing that makes any sense to Javed, and when his friend Roops (Aaron Phagura) introduces him to the Boss, his life changes. He realizes that he wants to be a writer, and he understands that his family’s economic strain at the height of Margaret Thatcher’s rule is not limited to England. The film draws overt parallels between Thatcher’s England and Reagan’s America, underscoring how working-class people were left behind as unions were busted and factories shut down, despite the fact both leaders initially appealed to the white working-class. Sound familiar?

The father/son conflict draws on Springsteen’s own life. Time and time again, including while introducing a song live, the Boss has talked about his hardworking, conservative dad and the clashes they had when he was a teen. His dad didn’t want him to play rock n roll and wanted him to go to college to make a good living.

There is a duality that exists within the film that reflects Springsteen’s music. On the one hand, Javed is attracted to the romanticism of Born to Run- era Springsteen, especially a track like “Thunder Road” about getting out of your hometown and chasing something bigger, the American dream, so to speak, with a lover. In one of the cheesiest scenes, Javed sings the song on the street to his love interest, Eliza (Nell Williams), an activist who spends her days handing out petitions and flyers to free Nelson Mandela, while wearing a pin-plastered black leather jacket and namedropping The Smiths.

Yet, as the film progresses, and as Javed’s dream, as well as his father’s dream, become more and more difficult, the music shifts to The Darkness on the Edge of Town-era Springsteen, an album that is lyrically quite a contrast to Born to Run. The lyrics show what happens when dreams are dashed, when the characters on Born to Run run out of gas, essentially. This is the recession-era Springsteen, set in 1980,  on the cusp of Reaganism and the explosion of economic inequality, trickle down economics. Other tracks highlighted in the film, like “The River,” about a young couple who marry early and essentially have no future in their dead-end town, also reflect the struggles of the people in Luton whose jobs were outsourced.

 

Lastly, the film doesn’t whitewash the story line. The immigrant experience is another central arc. The Pakistanis like Javed’s family that moved to England for a better life are terrorized by neo-Nazis and the National Front. Javed is harassed and chased several times by young skinheads. His family is later assaulted during a white power rally, and in one of the most alarming scenes, children pee in the mail slot of a friend/neighbor and repeat, “Stinky Pakis.” This story line is powerful and done just right, without being preachy. It shows the darkness that existed in Thatcher’s England when neo-Nazis marched in public.

Yet, despite all of this, Javed works hard at becoming a writer, and he’s still drawn to the promise of Springsteen’s music, the idea of chasing a runaway American dream, the idea that anything is possible. That romanticism, even to this day, still exists in the Boss’ music. He’s always encouraged an all inclusive America, one that celebrates the immigrant experience and praises the hands that built this country. At the same time, he’s always acknowledged economic exploitation and the consequences of trickle down economics. Blinded by the Light gets both sides of Springsteen right. Though cheesy at times, it’s an incredibly uplifting film. It probably won’t win any Oscars, but it’s very much a movie we need right now.

 

Thinking of Asbury Park, Thinking of Springsteen

I can scratch one thing off my bucket list. Last Friday, I saw Springsteen and the E Street Band rock First Citizens Bank in Philly. For nearly four hours, against record-breaking  heat, the band ripped through song after song spanning The Boss’ long career. The set was a mix of hits, including “Out on the Streets,” “Badlands,” “Born to Run,” and “Dancing in the Dark,” juxtaposed with deeper cuts, including “Loose Ends” and “American Skin.” The band was relentless, barely resting between songs. Early in the set, Springsteen picked out signs in the crowd and honored some fan requests, including a moving, even slower rendition of “Racing in the Street” from Darkness on the Edge of Town. I was more surprised, however, that the set, especially the first half, contained so many tracks from Springsteen’s earliest albums, Greetings from Asbury Park and The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle. His last few albums, Magic, Wrecking Ball, and Working on a Dream, got no love in the set, even though they are rockers, especially Magic and Wrecking Ball. I would have liked to hear a few tracks from them. However, they are albums so rooted in the times in which they were written. Magic is a response to the Bush years, and Wrecking Ball plays like a 45-minute anthem for Occupy Wall Street.

Later this month, Springsteen’s memoir, Born to Run, will be released. Perhaps his set was so loaded with early tracks because he’s been reflecting on where he’s been and what remains of his career. Maybe, while playing two shows in Philly last week, he recalled playing those small dive bars in Asbury Park and other seaside towns nearby.

I was also struck by the fact that in an election year, Springsteen avoided political stage banter. He didn’t tell anyone who to vote for, though anyone who has followed him knows about his liberal politics. To his credit, he did have an organization on hand collecting donations to fight poverty and hunger in Philly. However, about mid-way through the set, Springsteen played a quiet, subdued version of “American Skin,” a song he wrote in the early 2000s in response to the  police shooting of Amadou Diallo in NYC. The constant refrain of “41 shots” and “No secret my friend/You can get killed just for living in your American skin” was the most haunting part of the concert, considering we’re living in a post-Ferguson America. Springsteen followed that with “The Promised Land” and “My City of Ruins,” a three-song part of the set that contained some of the Boss’ most socially conscious tracks. We didn’t need any political banter. The music spoke for itself, organized the way it was in the set.

Since the concert, I keep thinking of Springsteen’s long career and how much energy he has, nearing 70. I have Jersey on my mind too, since I’ll be reading from my new book of poems at the Belmar Arts Center, right outside Asbury Park on Sunday, Sept. 25. I’m sure I’ll hang out in Asbury for a while, walk the board walk across from the Stone Pony, a bar Springsteen owns, and the Wonder Bar. I’ll think of the places where he got his start and all of those tracks from the first two albums that he played in the early 70s, before Born to Run hit.

Springsteen’s set in Philly last week was very much a reflection of his long and storied career, a tale of two sets that contained deeper tracks, early tracks, and a barrage of hits that has made him a staple of rock radio all of these years. I am eager to walk the streets of Asbury Park in a few weeks, and maybe, I’ll read my poem “Listening to Springsteen on I-81” at the Belmar Arts Center.

 

 

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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!