Springsteen's 'Joad' revisits the disposessed

Hartford Courant, 1995-11-20, by: Roger Catlin
In 'Born to Run' the 21 year old anthem that introduced Bruce Springsteen to a mass audience, the highway was 'Jammed with broken heroes, on a last chance pwoer drive.' Still, its protagonist was fairly bursting with optimism that he'd 'Get to that place where we really want to go....and we'll walk in the sun.' His wild success a decade ago may have represented that walking in the sun. But, on 'The Ghost Of Tom Joad,' the tiltle track to the fine new Springsteen album due out tuesday, it's homeless protagonist notes that 'The highway is alive tonight, but nobody's kidding nobody about where it goes.'

Springsteen moved to California a few years back, maybe to escape is overblown New Jersey legend, maybe attracted a bit by the same promise that lured John Steinbeck's Fictional Tom Joad from Oklahoma. The new surroundings have given him a new inspiration and chilling tales about a land where the highway, and its promise, runs out.

Rather than focusing on his own relativley contented family life on his last albums "LuckyTown" and "Human Touch" in 1192, he's shifted his sharp gaze to the downtrodden- inspired on part by the success of his 1993 AIDS meditation. "The Streets Of Philadelphia", and brought to life in the same gritty black and white realsim of his stark 1982 solo album, "Nebraska". Back among America's underbelly, it's petty thieves, cornered poor, and hardboiled characters struggling to make the right choices, "TGOTJ" shows Springsteen as commited, focused and intense as he's ever been in his career, on songs that are among his best written. In a sense, it revists the same "Nebraska" underclass after a decade, more battered and desperate in the Gingrich 90's than they were in the Reagan 80's.

The highway isn't the only old Springsteen metaphor turned around in the tiltel song. "Got a one way ticket to the promised land," he sings, following one of the most chilling lines on the album: " Got a hole in your belly, and a gun in your hand." The seriousness these choices represent is further explores in the special song, in which an ex-con \struggles with going straight. "In the darkness before dinner comes, sometimes I can feel the itch." He says.

While Springsteen still has a stron affinity for the dying hopes of the rust belt factory worker (In a mournful "Youngstown" that has a strong historical sweep), he's been more recently taken in by the stories of desperate Mexican immigrants, risking all for a better life in El Norte. The most shocking and original of these stories takes place in a desert drug factory, where illegal aliens ar sought to do the dangerous work. Another is from the point of view from a border guard, smitten by a young woman seeking to cross .

It's similar to a plot in "The Border," the 1982 Jack Nicholson film for which the theme, "Across The Borderline", by Ry Cooder, John Hiatt and Jim Dickinson had been part of Springsteen's live repertoire. But Springsteen does the film one better by adding a subplot of a friend's loyalty- a mystery whose answer, in the best fiction writer's traditions, are not truly told. These are songs that invite repeated listening, rumination and analysis.

He's borrowing again from the traditions of Woddy Guthrie, the acoustic troubadour and wanderer who watched out for the downtrodden. Along the same lines, Springsteen's songs tend to stand on the lyrics and not the music, which in many cases sounds similar to previous ballads. And if your memory of "Nebraska" is an album of unrelenting gloom, it absolutely rocks compared with "Joad."

As with a collection of powerful short stories, it might be best ot consider the songs one a t a time rather than at one sitting. Like a volume of Raymond Carver, it may be too much to take in all at once. And like a good writer, Springsteen quotes source material- mostly newspaper stories. But he also clarifies that he's citing John Ford's cinematic vision of Joad based on Steinbeck's "The Grapes Of Wrath" and not the novel itself. At the end of the title song, Springsteen quotes Joad's moving speech from the classic film. "Wherever ther's a cop beatin' a guy.....wherever somebody's strugglin' to be free, look in their eyes Mom, and you'll see me." And despite whatever diminished commercial prospects this project may have, that's Where Springsteen will go to.