The Boss, Flannery O'Connor and The Common Good
“You’re walkin’ tough baby, but you’re walkin’ blind….”
—Bruce Springsteen, “The Ties That Bind”
“Seems like every time I got a nickel, I had to spend a dime.”
—The Canton Spirituals
5 March 2012: The first sounds we hear on Wrecking Ball are resolute drums and the nervous siren of a lead guitar processed to sound as if it’s emanating from Mars. Cue the wall of guitar, the chiming melody soon doubled by Springsteen’s trademark glockenspiel. Quickly the sound of “We Take Care of Our Own” is as big as “Born in the U.S.A.” but more orchestral, more carefully arranged, and, because it’s been staring for too long at the unfulfilled promises of America, not as surprised by what it sees. “Easy Money” and “Shackled and Drawn” lope along, free and vicious. The tone plummets on “Jack of All Trades”, where a desperate man—it could be a woman just as easily—says, “If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight”. Is it a threat or a boast? “Death to My Hometown” jigs along to its bitter end: the first act’s promised gunfire.
(Columbia; US: 6 Mar 2012; UK: 5 Mar 2012)
The first five songs on Wrecking Ball constitute the most sustained bout of anger Springsteen has put to record since the four-song sequence on Live 1975-1985 which began with a furious version of “Born in the U.S.A.”. That performance was recorded in 1985, well after President Reagan attempted to hijack the song for his re-election campaign, and in the song’s final minutes, Springsteen and the E Street Band strangle the song’s neck so there will be no misunderstanding of its meaning. This segues into a brutal version of “Seeds”, a performance so good the song never needed to be recorded for a studio album, a touching, bitter “The River” and a stomp through Edwin Starr’s “War”.
Together those four songs told the story of a young man who goes to war, survives, and comes home to a lack of jobs, pervasive desperation, depression and rage.
I took immediately to Wrecking Ball‘s anger. For whatever its aesthetic misfires, the album speaks to the despair, confusion, frustration and drift in our lives, including my own: work lost, unavailable, and scrounged for; medical conditions uncovered, untreated; bills unpaid, bill collectors dodged, tightropes walked between responsibility and reality. This is what it means to be working poor in America.
It’s embarrassing to talk about one’s own economic status, particularly in our materialistic, glamour-of-success culture. And there are limits to what I’m willing to share, and what you are most likely willing to listen to. I will say this, however: for many years I lived in a constant state of tension. Even when my income was relatively secure, I felt that one mistake or one day of bad luck—a car breakdown, a slip on the ice, a misplaced word—could ruin me. Next thing you’d know, I’d be walking across cars like Michael Douglas in Falling Down.
This is the kind of personal narrative Springsteen has always excelled at: songs about frustrated working-class men and women who cannot fathom the political forces shaping their lives and lash out in personal, local ways. Yet most of Wrecking Ball is unabashedly pointed, broadly drawn, public and deeply political.
Why has Springsteen set aside his storytelling in favor of social jeremiads? Who is he singing to? Why is he trying to do something different now, or is it just, as some critics claim, his brand of righteous rock as usual? The critical questions are not about the subjects—he’s been singing about them for years—but instead, style, method and strategy.
28 March 1979: Everything goes to hell at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in the middle of the Susquehanna River in south central Pennsylvania. A valve sticks, man can’t talk to machine, and how-do-you-do: partial nuclear meltdown. A jeremiad almost comes true.
Living less than five miles from the nuclear plant, my father manages a local wastewater treatment plant and has to stick around while hundreds of thousands evacuate. Years later he writes me that, days after the incident and “to my utter amazement, the plant’s corporate owners GPU continued to report that there had been no leak of radiation material. By that, I took them to mean that there were no uranium rods laying out in the front yard.”
21-22 September 1979: Well-meaning musicians perform at No Nukes: The Muse Concerts for a Non-Nuclear Future at, where else, Madison Square Garden in NYC. (“Muse” is, in fact, an acronym: Musicians United for Safe Energy, and they raised money recently for tsunami relief in Japan.) As captured on film and as heard on the inevitable live triple-album, the performances seem oblivious to the terror and displacement months prior in rural Pennsylvania. Everyone has a good, easy time of it, and they look fab doing it. James Taylor, Graham Nash, Carly Simon and John Hall mime their way through, what else, “The Times They Are A-Changin’”. The Doobie Brothers perform something.
By performing at No Nukes, Springsteen wades into the Cool Whip of rock-star political consciousness for the first time. Until this point, he has infused his music with politics in the primal sense of the word: politics as the meeting place between the individual and society. Like most recording artists, he’s done this by way of character and story, only with more acuity and toughness. But now he’s on stage for a cause, and he responds with “The River” more than a year before it will be released on the eponymous album. Dedicating the song to his brother-in-law and sister, Springsteen nonetheless conjures up the fears and bitterness of people besieged by forces greater than themselves. “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” he sings—worse as in the forced evacuation from your home in the wake of a partial core meltdown, or having to stay because that’s your job.
Maybe there comes a time when you can’t afford to be subtle. Or maybe the anger just springs up, as it must have in the days after the incident at Three Mile Island, when Springsteen wrote and recorded the manic “Roulette”, a song which sounds like the soundtrack to a realistic horror film someone has yet to make. “Roulette” was recorded in the first days of the first session for what would become The River, but it never made that album and wasn’t performed at the No Nukes concerts. In fact, it wasn’t performed live until 1988 when Max Weinberg had to beat the hell out of the drums to rein the band to a tempo Springsteen could sing over.
1978-1982: Springsteen Reads Flannery O’Connor
Until The Ghost of Tom Joad, Springsteen revealed more about his politics on tour than he did on record—he didn’t campaign for a political candidate until he played at rallies for John Kerry in 2004—and like many of us, he stuck to causes, not parties or overarching ideals except for the highest and most abstract: equality, freedom, dignity. These aspirations worked because Springsteen has always known how to throw a punch. In the liner notes to the outtakes CD which accompanied The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen wrote that around that time:
“I knew the stakes I wanted to play for, so I picked the hardest of what I had, music that would leave no room to be misunderstood about what I felt was at risk and what might be attained over the American airwaves of radio in 1978. Power, directness, austerity were my goals. Tough music for folks in tough circumstances.”
But Darkness on the Edge of Town was not “We Shall Overcome”. The lyrics were not explicitly topical, and only occasionally optimistic. Springsteen’s directness was contained within stories that maintained a degree of ambiguity. It was up to the listeners to make the connections, even if, on startling songs like “Roulette”, the connections were glaring.
I’ve always found it interesting that beginning in the late ‘70s and especially close to the time he recorded Nebraska, Springsteen was reading the American and very Catholic fiction writer Flannery O’Connor. Known primarily for her odd, brutal short stories of grace and violence in a South divided by race and class and tradition, O’Connor cared less about her characters’ politics than she did their salvation. These are recognizably normal people whose strangeness seems to be the great American secret, and through relentlessly terrible decisions, blind ignorance, comfortable smugness and simple bad luck, their salvation is real, even if it’s horrifying to witness.