Taking the Moments in Our Hands
Greasy Lake, 1996, by: Laurence Brauer
"I thought I could change the world if I could just write the right song," Bruce Springsteen confesses during The Ghost of Tom Joad concerts. It's become a cliche to declare that in the Eighties Springsteen discovered rock's limitations ? the right songs did not change the world. Now he also fully understands success and fame's limitations, not only in attaining personal happiness, but also artistic freedom and satisfaction.
For the past 12 years, Springsteen career's has been a struggle between the merchandised Boss and the artist who writes and sings his songs. He says, "I know that it was always something that I aspired to, to do work that meant something." Like Dylan or Robert Altman, Springsteen has defied the simplistic analysis that treats popular artists as another commodity in a throwaway culture. When discussing popular art, unfortunately the emphasis remains primarily on the first word. For The Ghost of Tom Joad shows, too many people, even critics and fans, focus on Bruce Springsteen, the once and future rock star.
The Ghost of Tom Joad performances and interviews make clear Springsteen no longer cares about being a rock star. He knows in the future sales figures will not be a measure of his work. Whether or not Springsteen's music ever again achieves huge mass appeal is more a comment on the public and the media than his music. To its shame, the American music press has largely ignored the decade's most artistically significant tour. There is obviously an audience that is genuinely moved by this music. It's also obvious its stark beauty and deep truths do not conform with the superficial gloss of People, Entertainment Tonight, MTV and VH1, or even the so-called "Arts" section of daily newspapers. And the music is better for it.
Many fans and Sony may desire a blockbuster album and international tour with the E Street Band, but that reunion would succumb to the overwhelming force of a hype machine Springsteen cannot control. Just as with the Born in the USA and Tunnel of Love shows, the substance would be lost. While I believe a large portion of the audience always "got it," many did not. If Springsteen and the E Street Band want to get together, they would be wiser to record a few songs and/or play a few shows for the fun of it, keeping it as low-key as possible. Include any new recordings on a four CD boxed set of outtakes and B sides. They could finally release the 1978 Largo and 1985 Los Angeles concert videos, acknowledging that was then, this is now. And now Springsteen is creating something wondrously fragile and magically beautiful.
The Ghost of Tom Joad concerts are far removed from a rock concert, even previous Springsteen concerts except in their intensity. They are also not "folk" concerts, despite what the categorizers maintain. What Springsteen is doing is unprecedented. No one else has even tried, let alone succeeded, in presenting a cohesive 2-1/2 hour solo acoustic concert of original songs. Night after night in city after city, Springsteen gives a performance that audiences proclaim is the best concert they've ever experienced.
The Ghost of Tom Joad concerts are not "entertainment." At a time when channel surfing jumps us from sensation to sensation and movies leap from special effect to special effect, Springsteen demands we sit still and listen. As he points out, the silence is an essential part of the music. At a time when albums and concerts rely on electronic gadgetry to manipulate and construct the music, Springsteen relies on the elemental emotions created by his mouth, throat, hands, and fingers. There is nothing to distance us from the songs' essence. We focus on the pictures painted by the sounds and words from the guitar, harmonica, and voice. That voice leaps from breathy whispers to guttural screams, plaintive wails to eerie howls; every word comes alive.
The shifts in mood aren't forced or jarring. They seem like the changes of life itself, integral to the natural flow of things. The humorous raps don't simply break the doom and gloom, they remind us that life should also be laughed at. The raps tell us that Springsteen the artist is a quite fallible human being who recognizes his music's pretensions. It's hard to put someone on a pedestal who's talking about potty training, cunnilingus, and not having change for a pay phone. It's as if the raps shift between the real person and the artist while in the songs the artist acts as the song's protagonist. And Springsteen seems quite clear about the differences between those roles.
Each night, Springsteen tells us that "It's a real collaboration between the singer and the audience. And it's a gift that you give me." Each of us feels the singer is singing to me. We see who we are, individually and collectively, who we are alone and who we are together. Each of us gains insight into something real and true. The encyclopedia of ideas and emotions cannot be quickly analyzed, categorized, and explicated (and then dismissed). They gnaw at us, striking something that we cannot easily explain or even understand, but we realize conveys something essential about our being.
As the concert progresses, Springsteen speaks of art's ability to transform us. Before "Balboa Park" he observes how through art we seek to rediscover childhood grace. The description of Tom Joad's farewell to his mother in The Grapes of Wrath testifies to art's eternal power. Too often popular art is merely product, something that as Elvis Costello put it, is designed to "anesthetize the way that you feel." There's nothing wrong with escapist fun. Indeed, it's a necessity for human sanity. The danger comes when we believe it's something more than just fun and so depreciate the work of the few artists who do create something of greater value.
When Springsteen spoke of Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath in San Jose, he also addressed his own work. "I think that as a writer you try to increase understanding and compassion, in order to combat that fear, that seed of all that hate and prejudice; that's sort of what art can do. It can't do everything, but it can do some things. You get a chance to sort of fight some of that isolation you feel is part of the American character in some fashion. In The Grapes of Wrath, Preacher Casey calls that isolation `the wilderness,' and that's what it is. I think that Steinbeck's work, particularly The Grapes of Wrath, it was there to reach in and pull you out of that wilderness, out into the world . . . And for me, that particular novel always showed the usefulness of beauty. Because where there's beauty, there's hope, and where there's hope, there's faith. It was a book that was filled with divine love, it really was."
Those words can describe The Ghost of Tom Joad performances. Like The Grapes of Wrath, the songs are depressing stories of fundamentally decent men and women confronting life's choices and often making the wrong decision. Like Steinbeck and other great artists, Springsteen takes us through the darkness to the light on the other side.
The mood is both sustained and built upon, song by song, story by story, image by image, until the culmination of the final two songs, "Galveston Bay" and "The Promised Land." The previous 22 songs resonate (one of Springsteen's favorite words) in the cinematic tales of two Vietnam veterans ? one from Texas, the other Vietnam ? and a Utah auto mechanic. The images' implications endow Springsteen's simple narrative with a depth that echoes to the core of American culture. There's racism, classism, fear, and hate. There's also love, hope, and faith, the central virtues proclaimed by Springsteen's art since the beginning of his career.
At the conclusion of "Galveston Bay," a man stands alone in the dark, a knife in his hand. Texan Billy intends to kill the yellow man, Le Bin Son, who Billy is told is his enemy. When the moment comes, he makes his choice. Billy "took a breath and let him pass." A breath of life. In choosing life over death and love over hate, Billy shows us while real triumphs may seem small, they possess majestic grace. We feel our common humanity in two men born thousands of miles apart. Each kisses his sleeping child and fishes the same waters. Each connects us to the one big soul.
The narrator of the new "Promised Land" contemplates his soul's fate over the guitar's heartbeat tap. When he says he's a man not a boy, this is no longer a young man attempting to assert he is now a grown-up. This an adult declaring the end of youthful idealism. This is not someone waiting for the world to open up its possibilities. This is someone who's truly experienced life's pain, the struggle of day-to-day living ? the agony of a dead-end job, the heartbreak of maintaining a loving relationship. The aching wail at the end of "Promised Land" takes us to the brink of the abyss and leaps over to the other side.
What remains is the resolve to retain the spirit of youthful dreams and continue the search. No more than a song, none of us will "change the world." But we each can change the choices we make and so change our small piece of it. The promised land isn't out there somewhere waiting to be discovered. It's somewhere deep inside each of us. As Springsteen says introducing "Long Time Coming," it's about "happiness and knowing it when you make your way to it."
Copyright Laurence Brauer
Used by permission