Ahead of Bruce Springsteen’s 2012 Tour coming to the UK this month, Alan Fisher writes about the enduring positive values that remain constant in the work of The Boss.
Rock music is fast approaching the Era of the Geriatric. Those stars from six decades of rock and roll who aren’t bloated on royalties or substance abuse are shlepping round revival tours, a pallid cardboard cut-out version of their former selves. Many make more money than they ever did in their heyday. Where the acts themselves can’t quite get it together or didn’t make it this far, tribute bands fill the vacuum. For those of us of a certain age, three chords over a snappy backbeat will always set the toes a-tapping but there’s no denying a lingering unease that we’ve heard it all before.
Bruce Springsteen has chosen a different option. At 62, he’s discovered a rich seam of creativity that shows little sign of running out. After a fallow period in the middle of his career, Springsteen can’t stop writing and touring. As a misunderstood punk-kid on New Jersey streets, the songs tumbled out faster than the embryonic E Street Band could keep up and forty years on little has changed. Albums, concepts, styles from full-blown storming rock through American folk to acoustic, his prolific energy puts his contemporaries to shame. His latest album, Wrecking Ball, released earlier this year, is his 17th studio effort, adding to a catalogue fans own including a cannon of live recordings and collections of previously unreleased material, and he’s already begun a world tour that comes to Britain this month. The album was number one in the States and they still queue overnight for tickets, even though he tours regularly. Seeing Springsteen perform remains special.
Despite the variety and vigour of his work, for many, fans and detractors alike, he’s the epitome of anthemic stadium rock. Critics point to tired clichéd chords and played out lyrical themes of a rock mythology that belongs to a bygone age. Much of Wrecking Ball has an undoubted familiarity. Whether that’s reassuring or dull is up to you. Yet the core values and beliefs, of respect, honesty and integrity, of humanity and compassion, that Springsteen has written about throughout his working life and which have never resonated louder than in this his latest record, are more relevant than ever before. In an uncaring individualistic world riddled with uncertainty, exploitation and doubt, Bruce Springsteen has become a man for our times.
Springsteen does not represent a political ideology. What he does have is a point of view. He treats his subjects with respect and empathy, chronicling the lives of blue collar families with the unflinching honesty of a photographer who reveals their hopes and dreams in a single shot. He lets you gaze right into their eyes.
As time has gone on, the themes and language have remained constant but Springsteen has brought us closer to his subjects. We identified with the characters but were onlookers as the street epics of Born To Run played out on a wall of sound. Gradually, his vision became darker. Redemption is a hard tough road but as in the track Born To Run or his romantic masterpiece Thunder Road it could be found in the transcending power of relationships.
By the time we reach Tunnel of Love, his finest set of songs, he expresses stifled hopes and numbing alienation via the day to day frictions of domesticity. His couples are weary and distant from each other. ‘Tonight our bed is cold, lost in the darkness of our love. God have mercy on the man who doubts what he’s sure of.’ The Rising is best known as a series of strident rock songs that are both homage to the bravery of those caught up in 9/11 and inspiration for the future, that life goes on. The memorable images, however, come from other less well-known songs, such as Nothing Man. To the world he’s a hero with the medals to prove it but inside he’s hollow and empty.
And so it is with Wrecking Ball, which opens with a classic Springsteen anthem, a dense riff, heavy drumbeat and singalong chorus – ‘We Take Care of Our Own’. He uses the sentiments and language of a strain of Americana storytelling stretching back to Guthrie, Seeger and beyond that he clearly feels part of. The simple message, in these troubled times we must look after each other, is delivered in a menacing growl to emphasise both the urgency of the matter and the consequences if nothing is done.
Having set the scene, we discover precious little unity in Springsteen’s sombre disturbing vision of contemporary life. Like so many of his couples, the protagonists dress up to go out on the town but in this dark world it’s not redemption or love that they seek, it’s ‘Easy Money’. They take a gun and don’t fear the consequences, because in this world it’s dog eat dog: “when your world comes tumbling down, all them fat cats, they’ll just think it’s funny.”
It’s followed by ‘Shackled and Drawn’, a song filled with more hopelessness than even the title suggests:
Gambling man rolls the dice
Working man 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.
In ‘Jack of All Trades’ the narrator is Everyman. He’ll work hard, do anything and do it well, and things will be all right. Springsteen has been here many times before, to the brink of self-parody, and until now this is where it would have been left. Honest labour and love is something to be proud of, an upright man as a bastion in an uncertain world. Then something remarkable happens: Springsteen snaps. Making do is no longer enough: “If I had me a gun, I’ll find the bastards and shoot them on sight.” It’s the most violent imagery I can recall in his entire body of work. After 35 years, Bruce’s Everyman has had enough.
At the close he returns to the themes of the opening track with ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’, a studio version of a song from 2000 that he has performed live and is part of Live in New York City. As he did in the Crystal Place tour he segues into People Get Ready, a sublime mid-sixties soul track by Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions. Both songs use the imagery of a train. Springsteen’s gathers up the lost and lonely, the saints and sinners. We don’t make judgements, we just take care of own. Redemption now comes in the form of a collective response. Mayfield’s gospel train refers to the civil rights marches to Washington.
These values are reflected not just in the content of the songs but in the way he performs them. From the very beginnings of the E Street Band, Springsteen has been driven to put on a show, to play each and every night to the very best of his considerable ability, to take nothing for granted and blow the audience away with the passion of his music. It’s still the case today, where he plays for at least two and half hours with no light show, stage set or choreography to distract or hide behind, just presence to reach out to the back row and the music will do the rest.
No other rock artist who is this popular goes anywhere near this subject matter let alone treat it with Springsteen’s sensitivity. Yet it’s debatable how closely people listen. A few years ago, I was persuaded against my better judgement to join my wife and daughter at a gym class, led by a desperately enthusiastic instructor and set to music. One evening we were uplifted and encouraged to sweat to the beat of ‘The Rising’, then to stretch and quietly contemplate with ‘Streets of Philadelphia’ in the background. I pointed out that one was a song about a modern catastrophe, the other a melancholy story about the suffering decline of a man with HIV/AIDS. The instructor looked blank but I swear the following series of punishing squats and press-ups were purely for my benefit.
Wrecking Ball is not an easy listen because of the subject matter and some frankly ponderous tunes and vocals, plus irritating loops and electronics that add nothing and smack of over-production. Clarence Clemons plays his sax for the last time, a welcome injection of contrast and soul. I’m all for the symbolism but sometimes it’s repetitive and laid on with a trowel, notably in the video for the title track where the lyrics appear on screen on top of the Stars and Stripes. Bruce, we get it.
This and his lack of affiliation to a political movement mean his sentiments can be misused. He’s not campaigning for the Democrats this time so the Republicans are sniffing around to make the chorus and flag their own, just as Regan thought Born in the USA was perfect even though a cursory listen to the song would have clearly told him otherwise.
Springsteen has a different rallying call in mind. This is our land, the people’s land, that’s what the flag represents and the nation should have values to match. It’s debatable whether he should be the right man to voice the concerns of working people. Music has been his only job. It’s made him extremely rich and although he lost millions in a Ponzi scheme, he had plenty to fall back on.
Whatever, this is a consistently authentic voice, one of the few in modern music able to reach millions of people without fear of diluting or compromising a powerfully humanitarian message. And there’s no need to be ashamed of those cracking guitar riffs, if they fill stadiums across the globe, so be it. If he’s repetitive, it’s because we still need to be reminded of these basic human values. Springsteen has something to say and it needs to be heard by as many people as possible.
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