Sunday, March 1, 2009
A Song For A Recession
I am a huge Bruce Springsteen fan. Born To Run remains one of my favorite albums of all time. He taught me how to chase girls, how to make memories out of what you have in front of you, how to recognize and love yourself while humbly confessing your sins and transgressions to the public. His 2007 album Magic may have taught me even more than all of the above.
I love Magic. I really do. I have heard every argument about how Springsteen has "aged" and "has been too big for too long." The public prefers that our rock gods give us ten or fifteen years of greatness before we ask them to politely step aside and stop making records. So stupid.
Springsteen has never been a "rock god" in the same mold of the hair metal freaks that helped to ruin the 1980s. He has been a relentless social critic in the mold of Guthrie and Dylan that has used the joy of rock music and the soul of 1960s pop to light up the dark alleyways and make our citizens dance on their street corners while he exposes the open wounds of his heart. Teenage love, social disillusionment, funky street vignettes, the fears for America and its working class- it's all in their from 1973 on. While Dylan invites us into his conversations, Cohen into his prayer books and diaries, and Bono into his faith and doubt, Springsteen invites us into his scrapbooks and back pages. He introduces you to his childhood friends and long-lost loves- the American ideal often being one of the latter.
Enter Springsteen in 2006. The American economy is beginning to slide and no elected officials are responding.The line between the people and the White House has gone dead (unless, of course, some illegal wiretapping is in order). The gap between the rich and poor is widening. Affordable healthcare, political accountability, the rule of law, our values written into our founding documents- all of these are becoming the stuff of dreams. The Iraq War is raging without an end in sight and torture is becoming the secret weapon of our times. The airwaves are controlled by pundits spewing Orwellian threats to dissenters: If you don't like, why don't you just get the fuck out?
Just as Dylan's great electric albums of the mid-1960s reflected the turbulent American times back then, Springsteen's Magic is an exceptionally powerful reflection of a disastrous and haunting time for our country. The furious guitars that introduce the first song "Radio Nowhere" have a Clash-like anger as a musician from New Jersey who saw many of his friends drafted in another disastrous war in the 1960s seems to yell: "Again? Are you fucking kidding me?!"
The lush 60s melodies of "You'll Be Comin' Down" and "Your Own Worst Enemy" are powerful metaphors for the way the cronies in Washington and on Fox News make us believe that everything is alright when it certainly isn't. It's all intentionally superficial, and the darkness of the lyrics attests to that. The Truth is never in the headlines. Consider the lyrics "Easy street/ a quick buck and true lies/ smiles as thin as the dusky blue skies" sweetly sung in "You'll Be Comin' Down" beneath a harmony-rich atmosphere reminiscent of The Byrds.
Followin the swirling and demoralizing headlines of the first five tracks, including a funeral for a free spirit sent to war in "Gypsy Biker," comes my favorite track, "Girls In Their Summer Clothes." The turmoil and fury of the opening songs gives way to a wonderful and uplifting pop symphony. Springsteen says he wanted to create the "perfect pop universe," and it's hard to imagine anything could get closer. Violins, electric guitars and organs open this beautiful foray into a beautiful territory in the worst of times.
It reminds me of another powerful song for the spirit from 1965: The Byrds' extraordinary cover of Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man." Imagine sitting in a diner way back when and hearing this gem for the first time in the middle of a decade wrought with upheaval and uncertainty. The search for the sounds that let you walk through the outside world unafraid "with one hand waving free" has ended That's how it was introduced to me. My good friend and 60s guru Sydney was sitting with me in a diner in upstate New York when all of a sudden I heard it: those golden notes opening a track that sounded like it came from a gospel choir.
"What is this?," I asked.
"You don't know? This is The Byrds' cover of 'Mr. Tambourine Man," Sydney said.
And I imagined what it must have been like to hear something so beautifully reassuring forty years earlier. "Girls In Their Summer Clothes" gave me something of a better idea of what that must have felt like as I listened to Springsteen's Elvis-like howl coming from a man looking into the heart of America.
"Well the street lights shine down on Blessing Avenue/
Lovers they walk by holding hands two-by-two"
Young people are still in love. They are enjoying cool, starlit nights by the oceanfront outside a divided community inside a divided nation. The lights shine down on the most important thing: home.
"..Downtown the stores alight,
As the evening's underway/
Things been a little tight
But I know their gonna turn my way."
If you have ever walked through the Boston Common on a cold December night just as the Christmas lights in the trees are switched on you know exactly how Springsteen feels in this verse.
Your neighbors have been forced out of their home. Big brothers and fathers have gone to war. Those lucky enough to return cannot find a job. The corner store has been boarded up. Everything you used to call your own has been seized by forces beyond your control.
And yet the most important life force still stands in the middle of this desperation. This song is shot through with the idea that they can take everything from you but who you are. The market may rupture and betray those with the best interests. The lines necessary for good communication may have gone down, but everything that makes you who you are is still there on the streets you walked as a kid and later as a love-stricken teenager.
Springsteen is driving home in this song. He is turning around on Thunder Road and revisiting what he tried to leave so long ago. His hometown has changed and its people are struggling. He himself has aged and has learned about struggle, too. But he still feels for his companions, the ones who shaped him.
"Frankie's diner, an old friend on the edge of town/
Neon sign spinnin' round
Like a cross over the lost and found/
Fluorescent lights flicker above Pop's Grill
Shaniqua brings a coffee and asks "Fill?"/
And says "Penny for your thoughts now, my poor Bill?"
The Summer of Love has passed. An autumn full of missteps and betrayal is giving way to a Winter of Discontent (notice the Christmastime feel of this track contrasting with the image in the title). An entire nation wakes up in the middle of the Bush economy and counts their losses. One must begin standing defiantly against the harsh wind off the Jersey Shore. But Springsteen still lovingly laments that, "the girls in their summer clothes pass me by."
"She went away
She cut me like a knife
Hello, beautiful thing
Baby, you were gonna save my life
In just a glance down here on Magic Street
Love's a fool's dance
I ain't got much sense but I still got my feet."
And this is where the song intersects with the lessons of these past few years. People are committing suicide over their lost millions in this financial crisis. But most are still pressing on with dignity and love. This song reminds us of the soul we posses and the "non-marketable values" the great Cornel West talks about that have been undermined in the past two decades within a culture that rewarded greed and deceit. In the end, we need a return to a sense of who we are, what life is supposed to be about and what America is. For Springsteen, part of the answer lies in the beautifully simple sight of young lovers "holding hands two-by-two."
All that being said, I also highly recommed the video:
Here is "Mr Tambourine Man" by The Byrds: