Back to the Badlands

Newsweek, 1995-11-27, by: Karen Schoemer
Bruce Springsteen revists the spirit of Nebraska
Spirits are at home in Bruce Springsteen's new album, "The Ghost of Tom Joad," and not just the one in the title. These bare, half-whispered songs, many recorded with just Springsteen accompanying himself on guitar and keyboards, are crawling with ghosts of everyday life: drifters and freight-train jumpers, street kids and drug dealers, illegal immigrants and migrant workers, absentee fathers and vanished lovers. There are ghosts, too, of Springsteen's past songs: Mary, the heroine of "Thunder Road" and "The River," crops up in "Straight Time" with a cold new glint in her eye. But the ghost that most pervasively haunts "Tom Joad" is that of a scrawny, wiry loner who 13 years ago wrote a dark little masterpiece called "Nebraska." After its release, that loner kind of disappeared. Nobody's quite sure what happened to him. A bigger, buffer fellow took his place, and he wrote some good songs, too, but that scrawny guy was missed. So sorely missed, in fact, that even today people haven't forgotten about him.

And the truth is that the pop world need him. Springsteen has always had his imitators, earnest singer-songwriters who put blue-collar concerts to catchy pop hooks. But from John Mallencamp to Melissa Etheridge, none has ever satisfied. The reason is that most of Springsteen's disciples cop his muscle and his car imagery without approaching his gift for storytelling. Etheridge's new album, "Your Little Secret," is a perfect example. On ballads like "All the Way to Heaven," she shows that she knows how to get her characters into a car but doesn't know how to drive them anywhere.

"The Ghost of Tom Joad" may be the first indication in more than a decade that Springsteen himself hasn't forgotten about the gangle guy he used to be. (He's supporting it with his first-ever solo acoustic tour, starting Nov. 26 in L.A. and continuing on into next year.) In the most obvious sense, "Tom Joad" is a sequel to "Nebraska." It follows similar skeletal arrangements, and it explores themes of displacement and despair. But what makes "Tom Joad" remarkable isn't just that Springsteen is finally singing quiet, pretty songs about convicts and killers again. Rather, it's that he seems to be reconnecting with himself and his artistic past. Springsteen's early albums formed a stunningly consistent body of work; Paul Nelson, writing in Rolling Stone in 1980, described "Born to Run," "Darkness on the Edge of Town" and "The River" as a trilogy tracing lives through innocence, experience and rebirth. But since "Nebraska," something has been missing. "Born in the U.S.A." may have been a blockbuster, but artistically it pales. The lowest point was the 1992 single "57 Channels (And Nothin' On)." Springsteen's life had changed drastically. He was rich now, and famous. Were we supposed to believe he was spending his time sitting around watching TV?

"The Ghost of Tom Joad" delivers not just because it picks up the threads of "Nebraska" but because it spins them out further. California has replaced New Jersey as the ground where his dramas are played out, and Mexican migrants have replaced the greasers and hot rodders of yore. In "The Line," a white border patrolman gets duped by a lovely Tijuanan who wants to escape to Madera County. "Sinaloa Cowboys' tells the story of dirt-poor field workers who take treacherous new jobs cooking crystal meth. Put these together with the title track, which borrows from Tom Joad's final speech in "The Grapes of Wrath" ("Where there's a fight gainst the blood and hatred in the air/Look for me Mom I'll be there"), and you get an inkling of Springsteen's message. In the 56 years since "The Grapes of Wrath" was published, conditions haven't changed much--only skin color.

There's another important distinction between "Tom Joad" and "Nebraska." Back then, Springstene seldom left his characters without setting them on some definite course, be that on the road to escape or to the electric chair. On "Tom Joad," though, he leaves lives hanging. The bank robber of "Highway 29" sees his girlfriend die in his front seat, and all he can do is close his eyes. "Balboa Park" ends as a boy who's been hit by a car lies bleeding beneath an underpass. Will he live or die? The song doesn't say. Springsteen might be leaving loose ends for a purpose. As long as these stories are unresolved, he can take them anywhere he chooses.