30 July 2009
I promised a friend I'd convince him that Bruce Springsteen deserves his reconsideration. I’ve been thinking about how to persuade him for a couple of months now and haven’t gotten much footing on the problem. In fact, my failure to come up with a strong argument on The Boss’s behalf seems to be part of a larger problem I have explaining my musical preferences. So let that serve as a bit of a disclaimer to this post and feel free to skip to the bottom where you can download my very own Springsteen “Best Of,” entitled Reason To Believe, which I compiled from my three favorite albums: Greetings From Asbury Park N.J., Darkness On the Edge of Town, and Nebraska.
Although far from exhaustive, the compilation of songs represents the originality of Springsteen’s work and demonstrates his proximity to several musical genres that I hold dear: Southern soul, mid-century pop, rockabilly, 70s glam, urban blues. By “proximity” I mean simply that he fits none of those genres and does not even produce a self-conscious hybridity of genres as does, say, Bob Dylan. Rather, Springsteen makes smart music that celebrates rock n' roll's un-intellectual roots. At certain points in his career that mission has led him astray, toward reductive representations of “middle America” and working class culture. At his best, however, Springsteen paints a sufficiently complex portrait of America's collective emotional life.
I do want to add one awkward caveat, though, and say that to me the portrait he paints specifically addresses the life of white America. That's not to say that racial politics are insignificant to his music. Obviously he sings loud and proud about his blue collar background and, as Jim Dickinson once explained about a distinctively black and generally political music: “You hear soul music explained in terms of oppression and poverty, and that's certainly part of it -- no soul musician was born rich -- but it's more than that. It's being proud of your own people, what you come from. That's soul.” That was the explanation he gave Stanley Booth anyway, who then glossed it with this quote from a Hayes-Porter song made famous by Sam & Dave’s performance of it:
I'm a Soul Man
Got what I got the hard way
And I'll make it better each and every day
I'm a Soul Man
Springsteen too sings about getting things the hard way, but he rarely puts that boastful touch on it, never really looks to the future for improvement. In fact, he tends to linger on the past that broke the present:
You're born into this life paying
For the sins of somebody else's past
Daddy worked his whole life for nothing but the pain
Now he walks these empty rooms looking for something to blame
In that quote from “Adam Raised a Cain,” Springsteen describes a father-son relationship as a problem of repetition and cyclical violence. The hard work is “for nothing” because it goes toward paying down debt. The workingman here exists in a diminished state of subsistence -- just below breaking even -- that makes progress impossible. Springsteen also hints, however, that assigning blame for inheriting problems becomes an arbitrary, useless and miserable vocation. And indeed, the son/narrator, refuses to blame his father for raising a monster. The relationship, although marked by violence and regret, is quite loving.
The Biblical reference points in “Adam Raised a Cain” are slightly unusual in Springsteen’s lyrics, but the touching and troubled depiction of family life is not. Throughout his work he creates sparse narratives driven by complex characters, complicated emotions. And he does so with complete sincerity. I think it is that sincerity that makes The Boss’s work so special, so unusual and, perhaps, so easily dismissed. He is not the distanced ironist, not a clever satirist, not even an engaged protestor. In fact, his most famous attempt at irony, satire and protest was so poor that it backfired and turned “Born In the U.S.A.” into a national anthem for proud social conservatives.
The Boss is at his best when he’s telling private stories in the first-person. Songs like “Used Cars,” “Highway Patrolmen,” “Racing In the Streets,” and “Mary Queen of Arkansas” all create fictions close to Springsteen’s heart while “Nebraska” demands identification with, if not also sympathy for, a serial killer. That he has successfully and consistently employed sincerity speaks to The Boss’s disciplined power as an artist. Bald sincerity easily turns toward melodrama or, with a wink, camp. But in Bruce Springsteen's hands, sincerity maintains a level of seriousness that really does demand reconsideration from non-believers.
Of course, if the sincerity thing doesn’t grab ya, note that The Boss also has punk credits to cash in. He wrote Patti Smith’s biggest hit, “Because the Night,” which he’s performing here with the original lyrics. (Be sure to check out the lead guitarist, Nils Lofgren, really feelin’ it.)
And here’s recent footage of The Boss transforming the artistic intent motivating Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream.”
Get the best of The Boss here.
Reason To Believe
1. Blinded By the Light
2. Growin’ Up
3. Mary Queen of Arkansas
4. Lost In the Flood
5. For You
6. Adam Raised a Cain
7. Candy’s Room
8. Racing In the Street
9. The Promised Land
11. Prove It All Night
12. Darkness On the Edge of Town
14. Atlantic City
15. Johnny 99
16. Highway Patrolman
17. Used Cars
18. Reason To Believe