The Gripes of Boss

New Musical Express, 1995-11-18, by: Steve Sutherland
Sometimes only words are left. When all else fails, when effort comes up empty and reason can't be found, just talking it out can get you through. Words were John Steinbeck's answer when he wrote The Grapes of Wrath as his desperate reaction to the poverty he witnessed being ignored in '30s America. And words were the weapon employed by his hero, Tom Joad, the farmer turned preacher in the face of oblivion. "I'll be all aroun' in the dark... Wherever they's a fight so hungry people can eat... Wherever they's a cop beatin' up a guy... I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad an' I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry an' they know supper's ready...". Woody Guthrie used these words, wrote songs around them. And so, now, does Springsteen. Ironic, perhaps, that he should rediscover his strength by tapping into a tradition detailing others' hardship but Bruce has hit his own tough times of late, his creativity sacrificed to celebrity, so it is to words he returns.

He's been hereabouts before. In 1982 he released Nebraska. Highway Patrolman from that stark solo album inspired Sean Penn to make the movie Indian Runner. The Ghost of Tom Joad is starker and more cinematic still. Its mostly words with minimal musical accompaniment as if music itself would be a conceit and tunes an intrusion upon the stories told. And such stories! It's dark out here with this hoarse, intense, whispering narrator. So dark that sometimes it's only mankinds foolish spirit in the face of hopeless odds that illuminates us to any kind of a future. Springsteen has not just purloined Steinbeck's character as a totem for the downtrodden, he has discovered the Nobel prize-winner's deep, hard-won compassion. There are no sins in the folks who inhabit these songs, and no particular good. There is just greed and longing and a mad, unquenchable desire to survive. And there is lust that thinks it's love and love that acts like lust and, no matter how desperate the individual realities there are, miraculously dreams. Springsteen casts no stones. He dispenses no judgement upon Charlie, the ex-con of Straight Time, who is constantly tempted by the void inside him to go back on the rob. There is just the thrill of the cold fact: "In the basement huntin' gun and a hacksaw/Sip beer and thirteen inches of barrel drop to the floor...". Like film director Sam Peckinpah, Springsteen accepts that violence is part of the human condition and, no matter how determined we are to establish and protect society, it will only ever be a tissue of morals to be brutalised again and again. The search for reasons, for a code by which to continue, is constantly shattered in these songs. Youngstown is a history of disillusion, from the building of a blast furnace in northern Ohio in 1803, through the productive years making cannons and ammunition for the wars in which sons and fathers die at the hands of their own invention until, equally as bad, the slump in productivity brings mass unemployment and its own creeping form of death.

Over and again these characters stand bemused and amazed, all faith lost, all hopes betrayed. From the brothers of Sinaloa Cowboys who venture north from Mexico and end up fatally cooking methamphetamine, to the guy in Highway 29 who botches a bank robbery, to Spider the San Diegan crack runner, the sole reality for these characters is death. There are no lessons to be learned, no examples to be followed. There is just Frank, a kindly veteran bum, remembered by The New Timer: "They found him shot dead outside of Stockton/His body lyin' on a muddy hill/Nothin' taken, nothin' stolen/Somebody killin' just to kill." The total pointlessness of it all wraps the narrator in the cloak of regret that warms into country music's sentimentality - Bruce's voice assumes a country twang for this song. And with this justification - more wronged-against than wrongin' - comes a recognisable heroism. The man, insignificant and a failure, turning his back on God, standing alone: "My Jesus, your gracious love and mercy/Tonight I'm sorry could not fill my heart," he concludes, just as the unemployed scarfer in Youngstown wants no part of heaven when he dies. And yet, those hopes, those dreams...

The album closes on a trilogy of songs that appear to move us forward from the murk of mortality into some kind of muddy light. Across the Border is a beautiful glimpse of a fool's paradise, the Mexican longingly looking north the way Steinbeck's Okies looked to California 60 years ago. There is no promised land of course, but there is a comfort and a reason to persist in the vision. And so is there succour in embracing harsh reality. The penultimate song is Galveston bay, where a race revenge murder doesn't take place solely because Billy with the knife discovers more power in ending the inevitable chain of retribution then in perpetrating further murder. And then, finally, there is My Best Was Never Good Enough, a wry laugh at the kind of cliches that sometimes render country music - the white mans blues - kitsch and useless. The same cliches that of late have fearfully revised cinema's grasp of political reality through the perniciously successful Forrest Gump: the very cultural betrayal Springsteen avoids.

With The Ghost of Tom Joad, Springsteen has not only re-established himself as a moving voice in a tradition of social documentary but, in evoking Steinbeck to tell these contemporary tales of bellies full of coke-stuffed condoms and illegal border crossings, he has placed their desperation in an historical context which offers an awful indictment of a civilisation that has always been prepared to ignore these people in the hope they will just go away.

9 out of 10