In 'Joad,' Springsteen answers ghost of his past

USA Today, 1995-11, by: Edna Gundersen
Maybe it was a ghost that inspired The Ghost of Tom Joad, Bruce Springsteen's spare and haunting album populated by luckless souls wandering parched deserts. "I heard a voice," Springsteen says backstage at the Wiltern Theater, the first formal stop on his first solo acoustic tour. "And I followed that voice." His muse made no mention of feverish sales or high chart figures or the type of rousing anthems on February's Bruce Springsteen Greatest Hits, a celebratory overview sweetened by new songs with the E Street Band.

"I didn't want to get caught up in making a record by the rules, where you have to have a single and a video," he says. "I wanted my freedom. I've enjoyed making more mainstream records, but that's not where I am now. This music means a lot to me. I feel a tremendous sense of purpose, the deepest I've felt in a decade."

Fans who boarded the Bossmobile during 1984's profitable Born in the U.S.A. joy ride may be unaccustomed to Springsteen's hushed tone and spartan show. Neither is new. He explored dark themes in 1982's acoustic Nebraska and in the early '70s performed sans bands at such Greenwich Village hot spots as the Gaslight and Max's Kansas City. After all, Columbia talent scout John Hammond signed Springsteen as a solo acoustic folkie in 1972. "About 25 years down the road, I've come full circle," Springsteen says. "I always wanted to go back to this." Touring solo is more liberating than limiting, he says. "It's an adventurous evening for me. I really get to sing the way I like to sing, which I haven't completely done in years, because I'm usually shouting over the band."

Joad marks a detour from the introspective themes on 1987's Tunnel of Love and 1992's twin releases, Lucky Town and Human Touch. And oddly, the solo foray stems in part from his brief reunion with his E Street pals. "The band always symbolized a certain sense of community," he says, noting that he's undecided about future collaborations with the group. "With them around, I tend to write, for lack of a better word, outwardly. I actually wrote The Ghost of Tom Joad as a band song around the time of Greatest Hits. A rock version." (Coincidentally, the raucous Born in the U.S.A. single was initially penned for Nebraska. Its original bleakness is restored in the current show.)

Much of Joad is set in the Southwestern desert. Sinaloa Cowboys, a song about two ambitious Mexican brothers who toil as migrant workers and then descend into the drug trade, grew out of a chat Springsteen had with a man he met on one of his frequent motorcycle trips to Arizona. "I was with my buddies in this Four Corners town last year," he recalls. "We'd stay in motels, play cards, drink a little. People there didn't really recognize me. This guy told me his brother died in a motorcycle accident. Something about the tone of his voice struck me. I thought, 'Two brothers. Yeah.' The song just came out. "Once I found myself in that geography, I stayed there," he says. "It's a fascinating place filled with tremendous tension, a lot of gray moral areas, clashing cultures and interesting people - hiding and running and searching and trying to sort it all out. I wanted to get that feeling on the record."

Joad was also shaped by John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath film, Jim Thompson's noir novels and newspaper articles on border issues. The new protagonists "felt like an extension of the characters I've written about in the past, the Steinbeckian influences in my work. I brought them into the present."

The album's somber narratives point to a deeply fractured nation. "I'm somewhat pessimistic about the ability of the system to address fundamental moral issues," Springsteen says. "A society is judged by not only its accomplishments, but by its compassion and sense of justice. At the moment, the tide seems to be rushing in the wrong direction. The answer isn't more prisons, though that may be the answer for people who think the disenfranchised are an acceptable body count."

He hopes The Ghost of Tom Joad finds a wide audience, but he's not dismayed by its lack of commercial sizzle. It enters Billboard next week at No. 11, behind the Beatles, Garth Brooks, Mariah Carey and sundry hitmakers. "I didn't expect to compete with those people," he says. "I just wanted it out there. I'm very, very sure about what I'm doing. When this record was finished, I knew it was good. I didn't have any fantasies about it getting an enormous amount of airplay. "I couldn't care less what number it comes in this week or next week or the week after," he asserts. "I'm going to be on that stage playing my songs, giving whatever I've got to the audience. "That's my job."