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.
We Have Abandoned an Idea Central to the American Character
There aren’t many examples of her overt influence on Springsteen’s work. The title of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find (Pittsburgh)”, recorded in 1982, echoes one of O’Connor’s most famous short stories. Maybe Springsteen pinched the title of “The River” from O’Connor’s story, but their tales are quite different, even if the subject of redemption runs through both. More influential was O’Connor’s perspective on humanity, especially on Nebraska. In an interview with Doubletake in which he explained reading her work, Springsteen observed that O’Connor “got to the heart of some part of meanness that she never spelled out, because if she spelled it out you wouldn’t be getting it. It was always at the core of every one of her stories—the way that she’d left that hole there, that hole that’s inside of everybody.”
By comparison to protest folk, O’Connor was subtle, but in literary terms, she was a shouter. There’s a rage to much of her writing, rage at the hypocrisy of the religious and the apathy of everyone else, a wonderful shrillness that goes hand-in-hand with her utter weirdness and the unanswerable mysteries inside her characters. This she famously explained in a speech included in her book Mystery and Manners:
“When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”
It’s compelling to think that Springsteen read Mystery and Manners, or at least came across this well-known quote, but I can’t say with any certainty that he did. Like O’Connor, though, he got to the meanness in his characters, and he did it by never shying away from “large and startling figures”, never moreso than on Nebraska. Released nearly 30 years ago to the day as I write this, that record journeys as far down into the well of American blankness as you can go and still get out. Its muted voice is shocking, and its speechless rage a kind of shout.
I’m convinced that on Wrecking Ball, Springsteen is shouting at the hard of hearing. Which might mean that, as in 1978 and in 1982, Springsteen doesn’t assume his audience holds “the same beliefs” he does.
Which might be the most dangerous and exciting thing an artist can think.
May 2012: And what beliefs does Springsteen assume we might not share with him? To what have we become hard of hearing and almost blind?
If there’s one thing Springsteen is shouting on Wrecking Ball, if there’s one message he knows his audience in its fullest might resist and thus screams even louder, it’s that we have abandoned an idea central to the American character: the common good.
The promise of America was that a balance would be struck between the individual and the collective, one that avoided the uniformity of an oppressive government and, on the other hand, what the philosopher Thomas Hobbes called in Leviathan “a war of all against all”. This balance would be achieved by a sense of shared purpose and connectedness wherein the individual had room to breath but was not abandoned by his fellow man. It’s the tension at the heart of American culture, and the heart of its politics.
These days, however, individualism has never been a stronger ideal, and the collective good has been consumed by materialism; the only collective good we care about is the one we can buy. We have forgotten the question the late historian Tony Judt asks in Thinking the Twentieth Century: “How do you stop capitalism from creating an angry, impoverished, resentful lower class that becomes a source of division or decline?” Without a sense of public, common good, Judt writes later, “What gets lost…what is corroded in the distaste for common taxation is the very idea of a society as a terrain of shared responsibilities.”
On Wrecking Ball, the notion of a common good is pervasive: the many songs sung in the second-person, the equal opportunity of “Land of Hope and Dreams”—especially as it recalls Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready”—and the shared sacrifices of striking railroad workers, Civil Rights protestors, and modern-day Mexican immigrants in “We Are Alive”. More effective, perhaps, is how Springsteen brings to life the results of a society disinterested in being a civil society: the desperation of the couple in “Easy Money”, who might die this night; the bondage of the jobless man in “Shackled and Drawn”, the drifting “Jack of All Trades” and the infuriated voice in “Death to My Hometown”. There’s nothing subtle, sublime or ironic about any of this.
Why is it necessary for Springsteen to shout? I suspect it’s because he thinks too many in his diverse audience no longer believe in the common good. We write it off as a romantic, naïve ideal, one that simply isn’t pragmatic.
Maybe he thinks his conservative base of listeners have misinformed or narrow ideas about the common good. Springsteen unashamedly claims that a common good cannot be achieved solely through family, town and church, and yet reaffirms that each of those is worthwhile and in need of protection from greed, hypocrisy and crass materialism. Alternately, perhaps the Left needs reminding of the ideal upon which it was built: the progressive social vision of progress, which does not mean fiddling while unions burn or practicing Facebook slacktivism. (Okay, we all do that.)
On Wrecking Ball, Springsteen sings, “Hold tight to your anger… and don’t fall to your fears”. He dares to suggest that anger is equal opportunity. Those who’ve allied themselves with the Far Right and the Tea Party have legitimate reasons to be angry, he says, but warns that the fears nurtured by its opportunistic party leaders are destructive. The Left should hear a different message: Get angry. If you believe in equal rights for all individuals, and if you believe in the government’s ability to positively affect people’s lives—on and on the list goes—then damn it, you should be angry right now.
But the real strength of Springsteen’s vision is that he realizes most of his audience does not fall neatly into categories like Left or Right. He recognizes that most people hold conflicting beliefs and find themselves confused about what they believe. Even so, if we hold key beliefs which conflict greatly with others, we also believe in certain values that do not conflict—if we can just remember what they are.
And since nobody seems to remember or believe in the common good anymore, Springsteen is not only shouting for all of us, he’s shouting at all of us.
Walkin’ Tough, Walkin’ Blind
Perhaps no other song on Wrecking Ball has come under as much criticism as “Jack of All Trades”: Pitchfork claims it has “overly broad characterization”; in a New York Times review-as-conversation, Jon Pareles says it “verges on self-parody” and Jon Caramanica, actually expects us to believe that “the sodden workingman empathy literally made me nauseous”; and over on Slate, Rosen compares Springsteen to the well-intentioned but naïve director-protagonist in the Preston Sturges film Sullivan’s Travels. Apparently, like Sullivan, Springsteen has mainly been pumping out comedies up to this point (knee-slappers like Nebraska, Tunnel of Love, and The Rising), and now has abandoned the safe confines of Hollywood—or rather, New Jersey and its sixth-highest rate of unemployment as of April 2012—to mingle with the Common Man. Implicit in Rosen’s comparison is that The Boss can’t understand such folks because he is, after all, Rich and Famous.
What’s in the song is a simple, painful idea: a desperate plea for work. Give me something, anything, I’ll do whatever. When the job you were trained for disappears, when your education has not given you the tools to adapt, when what you thought was a sure thing vanishes, you’ll take all comers. “You want me to set some stone?” the song’s narrator asks. “I’ll do it. Want me to harvest crops? Done.” “Jack of All Trades” is the story of trying to cobble together an income, a livelihood, with some dignity.
Certainly a record reviewer has never been in that position, right?
What infuriates me about so many of the reviews of Wrecking Ball, positive and negative alike, is that they refuse to take the idea of a common good seriously. Maybe that’s impossible, though, if you refuse to believe that “common” and “ordinary” are anything but pejoratives, or if you simply have no idea what millions of people are experiencing.
On Wrecking Ball, Springsteen has re-imagined his audience, or rather come to terms again with its diversity, even if he knows his outrage will shake some people and give others unexpected ammunition. If he can throw a punch, he can take one, too; his career certainly can. But it’s invigorating to see him throwing punches at all. Whether or not the album works on its own terms—and those are the terms by which it should be judged—I don’t see anyone else taking the risk of being wrong.