Working Class Hero

Guitar World Acoustic, 1996, by: Gary Graff
Bruce Springsteen hits the road in search of
The Ghost of Tom Joad
Bruce Springsteen is trying to be a proper host. It's backstage at the spanking new Rosemont Theatre in suburban Chicago, and much to his chagrin Springsteen can't find a proper iced beverage for a guest. Perhaps the promotors figured that since this was a solo show, Springsteen wouldn't need a full array of rock and roll accoutrements.

"Is there any beer or anything?" the performer asks as he looks around. "What... they didn't give us any beer? Well, you're welcome to some of that Jack Daniels," he says, pointing towards a mostly empty bottle on the counter.

He may not have much to offer in the way of refreshments, but Springsteen's spirits are high as he entertains a steady stream of visitors. There are writers from out of town. Reps from his British record label. And Eric Dinyer, the Kansas City artist whose painting adorns the cover of Springsteen's new album, The Ghost of Tom Joad.

Later on, filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, a pal from Los Angeles, walks in with his daughter and a friend. They're in Chicago working on a sequel of To Sir With Love with Sidney Portier.

"Whoa, big excitement!" Springsteen says, leaping up to greet them. "I can't believe you're here. Good Lord, this is a treat!"

The backstage scenes of bonhomie are in marked contrast to what had transpired before an audience of 4,000 earlier in the evening. There, Springsteen - accompanying himself with just a guitar and harmonicas - presented a bare-boned, two-hour show that showcased the somber material from Tom Joad along with similarly bleak material from his other albums, including revamped versions of " Adam Raised A Cain," "Darkness on the Edge of Town," "Nebraska" and "Born in the U.S.A.," the last number presented in a harrowing, bluesy arrangement.

The concert was a different creature from the buoyant, take-no-prisoners spectacles that established Springsteen's reputation as one of rock's best live performers. Taken together, the acoustic songs comprised a morality piece in which Springsteen examined the lives of migrants, drifters, criminals and just plain Joes hitting a wall of desperation in their quest for an American Dream. Like the new album, the show was stark and frequently gloomy; where just a few years ago Springsteen sang a praise of "Glory Days," past and present, he now murmurs, "Welcome to the new world order... No home, no job, no peace, no rest."

At the Chicago show, the dark subject matter didn't stop the ritual bellows of "Broooooce!" in between songs, but Springsteen wouldn't have any of that; at the beginning of the set, the charismatic performer actually asked his fans not to sing along or cheer him on. "If you do," he cracked, "you'll be arrested by the state police."

"This music means a lot to me," he told them at the evening's end. And back in his dressing room - with a Ry Cooder moviesoundtrack playing softly on a boom box - Springsteen leans back on a couch, clasps his hands behind his head, and explains why.

"It's different from anything I've done before," he says. "Ii's different than playing a few acoustic songs during the show. It's different than what I did during the early Seventies, when I was playing and it was just me. I don't know what kind of show we have. It's not quite a folk show; it's something else.

"It has a lot to do with cinema, maybe. It's just some different thing; I didn't know myself how diffferent it was until I did it in front of an audience."

As Springsteen notes, playing the acoustic troubadour is hardly a new role for him - although the image of him clutching his woodgrain Fender Esquire is pretty indelible. But before Time and Newsweek crowned him rock's great white hope, before his future manager Jon Landau dubbed him rock and roll's future, Springsteen was in fact a denizen of Greenwich Village, the latest Next Dylan discovered by John Hammond for Columbia Records.

That side of him surfaced periodically in the course of his career. There was, of course, Nebraska, the brooding 1982 acoustic album that shocked most fans in the wake of his Top 40 triumph with the ebullient "Hungry Heart." Springsteen has also played acoustically at Neil Young's Bridge Concerts, and at the Christic Institut benefit in 1990.

"That was fun," says Springsteen of the benefit. "It was kind of like this, but half of that was kind of 'Thunder Road,' some other things. Right from the top I decided that I didn't want any of those things. It wasn't going to be 'Bruce Unplugged.' I knew I had to do something different, because I hadn't done it many times in the recent past."

The greatest surprise of Springsteen's new acoustic voyage was probably its timing. He began 1995 by snaring an armful of Grammys for his Oscar-winning hit, "Streets of Philadelphia." Then he brought out his Greatest Hits album with the really big surprise - fresh tracks that he had recorded with a reunited E Street Band. E Street mania dominated the year, right through the group's September appearance at the Concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, playing its own set and backing Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. Springsteen also dueted that evening with Bob Dylan on "Forever Young."

But just as fans were about to start camping out for Springsteen and E Street Band concert tickets, he revealed his plans for The Ghost of Tom Joad.

"I worked with the band. I had a record I did that was a personal type of record, and I didn't feel like I quite got it - it wasn't finished and it wasn't quite right," Springsteen says. "I think we were going to do 'The Ghost of Tom Joad' as a rock song for the band record. But as I got into it, all of a sudden, I began to - I had 'Straight Time,' 'Highway 29' - get into that groove, kind of film noir.

"So I started to write... and I said, 'That's the kind of record I think I want to make. I want to make a record where I don't have to play by the rules. I won't have any singles or any of that kind of stuff. I can make whatever kind of music I want to make. 'I hadn't done that in a real long time; I guess I wanted to see if I could do it again. You don't really choose the voice you follow; you sort of follow the voice that's in your head. You're lucky if you find it. And once you,ve found it, you're supposed to listen to it."

The Ghost of Tom Joad is, in fact, a campfire album. The songs are dusty and sepia-toned; the only color is provided by harmonica and the occasional fiddle or pedal steel - and even those don't burst forward but rather rest quietly atop Springsteen's subdued acoustic accompaniment. Because it's a lyric-driven album, it's hardly a showcase for Springsteen's playing; mostly he favors subtle, almost offhand rhythmic picking that provides the songs with meter and only the most rudimentary musicialty. It's closer to "Mary, Queen of Arkansas," from Greetings from Asbury Park, than the aggressive strumming of Nebraska's "Johnny 99" or "Atlantic City." It's more Woody Guthrie than Hank Williams.

"A lot of it was me and an acoustic guitar, then putting the keyboards on," explains Springsteen, who recorded enough songs to make Tom Joad a double album. "The other stuff was cut live. I didn't want much more than that. It's all rough mixes; there's no eq on any instruments or any of the voices. There's no master on anything. We played it, then rough-mixed it in literally about 30 minutes. It's a little unusual; we tried to do all the other things - we tried to mix it, tried to measter it - and every time we did something to it, it made it sound more like a record and less like a living thing.

"We had kind of a variation of [Nebraska] going on. I guarantee you, [Tom Joad] will be the record released this year that has no eq and absolutely no master."

Which serves the purpose of Tom Joad just fine. The album is about Springsteen's characters - the homeless, the chriminals, the migrants, the ex-cons, the unemployed, the drug-runners. All down and outers, they're hard people living hard lives - some by their own choices, some as victims of corporate or governmental neglect. Springsteen's hushed, folkie arrangements are essential for conveying their almost unrelentingly bleak circumstances.

Across the Rosemont dressing room, Bogdanovich looks at Springsteen and says, "It seems like the idea of Tom Joad, that whole thing is somewhere in the air. You found it."

"It is in the air; it's all of what's out there right now," replies Springsteen. The songs were inspired by John Ford's film of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, which leads to a discussion of the movie.

"It's such an unusual film," Bogdanovich says, "Very tough, very dark. It's such a dark film for a major studio."

Springsteen nods in agreement. "That was something I always go back to, that movie," he says. "I looked at it again the other night; it's very tough. Incredible, really. I guess it was kind of unique for John Ford, too."

The album has other influences, too, including a series of books and articles Springsteen lists in the liner notes. He's written an introduction for a new volume of one of the books, Journey to Nowhere: The Saga of the New Underclass, that inspired the Tom Joad songs "Youngstown" and "The New Timer."

If Springsteen's guitar playing seems secondary on the album, it gains prominence during his solo shows, in which the songs are delivered with greater vigor. The easy lope of the title tracks is more pronounced, for instance. With no other misicians onstage, Springsteen ups the volume on "Straight Time" and "Youngstown" - just a notch, but enough to really hear the sturdy rhythmic drive that's present but harder to detect on the album.

Of course, he goes to town on the older songs. "Darkness on the Edge of Town" is recast with a steady strum that recalls "Pinball Wizard." "Murder Incorporated" becomes more foreboding, with Springsteen's 12-string ringing with long, loud overtones. "Spare Parts" is stark and bluesy, while "Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?" is animated and exuberant. For "Streets of Philadelphia" he replaces the synthesizer drone with a coiled, halting guitar pattern that's just this side of percussive.

Then there's "Born in the U.S.A.," Springsteen's long-misunderstood anthem - "The songwriter always gets the last shot," he growls during the show - which he turns into a biting, vicious indictment with some stinging slide playing. After all, the blues can't be misunderstood.

"Yeah, it's the blues. That's just what it is, Springsteen says with a smile. "The funny things is I cut the song for Nebraska originally; there's a version of it that's sort of like that, but didn't really work out. It was just electric guitar and voice. I'd like to hear it again now, see what I think of it. So this is kind of returning it a little bit to its roots, actually.

"I knew I wanted to do a show that was probably an hour and a half long, no more than two hours. With just one person and one guitar, anything shorter than that might not have been a full experience and anything longer than that and you've done it already. I just sort of broaden the theme with the other things, the older things; it doesn't interrupt the thread of the evening or where it's going. They just sort of broaden it out, bring in something different.

"These are versions I have of some of the older songs that feel closer to me... stripped down, completely what the songs are about. It's just very satisfying."

The acoustic show, Springsteen says, was put together during a week's worth of rehearsals in a theater in Los Angeles. "Basically I went in and played, just played almost the set that's there," he says. "I figured I'd start with 'The Ghost of Tom Joad' and see where it takes me." It was important, he says, that the show have "at least a little love and affection... and some laughs." But he balks at any notion that the album or the show are without hope.

"There's always something being revealed - something about them, something about you," he says. "Once you slip into somebody's story, you're having that experience. Once you get there, you're not sleeping at nights; you're up wondering, 'What's gonna happen to these guys? What's next? You put on someone else's clothes and it's just fun being them.

"That's always exciting, even if the stuff is dark, even if there's tragedy involved, it's still exciting. The truth is always hopeful. It's always inspiring, no matter what it is. That's what I find, anyway."

He's asked about his earlier concerts, reminded of a past remark that he always performed each show if it was his last. Is it the same thing when it's just him and an acoustic guitar?

Springsteen answers only after careful deliberation. "Not like that, no. I don't feel like that, really. That was a whole crazy thing we used to do; everyone has that side to them: 'Hey, I might Die tomorrow!'

"That's an interesting question, though. My sense now is that I'm 46 years old; I Want to walk onstage and bring the fullness of my experience to my audience... I believe that's what the show delivers, just life, living. I want to take all that, all that I can, and do my best to present it to you. In that sense, the stakes are high... because I have a commitment to it."