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Bruce Springsteen's Land Of Hope And Dreams
As we come to the end of the 20th century, its increasingly difficult to believe in the power of rock and roll to change lives. But with the current reunion tour of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, the tradition rediscovers a glorious, life-affirming eloquence.
In the final concert of a three-day late October stand at the Oakland Arena, Springsteen and his reunited eight piece band rallied a capacity crowd to a thunderous sound of drums and guitars in a passionate three-hour performance preaching a message of liberty, community, and fun for all. Though some may have come for a charge of nostalgia, what they got in song after song, was the challenge to bring a better world alive.
When Bruce Springsteens debut album, Greetings From Asbury Park, appeared in 1973, rock and roll had already been around long enough to betray its promise. Elvis, of course, had become a pathetic figure reduced to parody and show business. But in his wake, rock icons of the 1960s had also gradually caved in to the corruptions of wealth and celebrity. As notions of rock rebellion diluted in mass marketing schemes demanding product, the entire genre of rock and roll seemed to be surrendering integrity. By the mid-1970s, cynicism in the rock audience had grown to the point of spawning punk and "alternative" movements that viewed mainstream performers of rock as sell-outs.
With the arrival of Bruce Springsteen, however, rock and roll of the old school seemed to have one last true believer. Immersed in the sounds that fueled two generations of music, Spring- steen created an amazing and singular weave of early rock and roll, blues, gospel, R&B, folk, and country. Casting his vision in accessible references to his heroes, from Elvis and Roy Orbison to the Beatles and Stones to Stax-Volt and Motown, Springsteen clearly aspired to link his music with the glory and idealism of the traditions past.
Yet in his songwriting, Springsteen managed to describe his life and times in a voice that was personal and contemporary. Early on his songs overflowed with wordplay and dense poetic imagery expressing an obvious and heavy debt to Bob Dylan. But in time, his language would be stripped to a lean and colloquial lyricism. From the beginning to the present, and like no other rocker before him, Springsteen anchored his world view in the hopes and dreams of working class Americans.
Remarkably, Springsteens grand ambitions succeeded artistically and commercially. His second and third albums, The Wild, The Innocent, And The E Street Shuffle (1973) and Born To Run (1975), are masterpieces delivering sweeping cinematic dramas of adolescent turmoil and the struggle to escape "the death trap, the suicide rap" of blue collar life. Performing live with a gang of kindred spirits (known as the E Street Band) and energy and conviction that was absolutely mesmerizing, he left no doubt that this music aimed for nothing less than worldly salvation.
But as his audience gradually expanded to near pop star dimensions, the youthful optimism that spurred his breakthrough gave way to darker, more haunted themes. By Darkness On The Edge Of Town (1978) and The River (1980), Springsteens characters had become adults struggling through anger, regret, and despair as they confront the stifling realities of wage labor, failed marriages, and dying hometowns. No longer can problems be solved through a sheer act of will or racing off down an open highway. Ironically, as his songs turned toward a stark realism, Bruce Springsteen became a household name.
While some found his new work depressing, working class fans found their wounds and injuries acknowledged and given context. Routines and rituals of ordinary life gained meaning and significance. Despite all the darkness in the songs, this was music that celebrated hope and endurance. Discussing Darkness On The Edge Of Town with writer Tony Parsons of New Musical Express, Springsteen explained: "The characters aint kids, theyre older you been beat, you been hurt. But theres still hope, theres always hope. They throw dirt on you all your life, and some people get buried so deep in the dirt that theyll never get out. The albums about people who will never admit that theyre buried that deep."
Springsteens New Jersey working class background (his father worked as a bus driver, factory worker, and prison guard) certainly inspired insights and identification with the hard bitten characters in his songs. But the compassion and toughness of his new songs came from a growing awareness that American society was structured in a way that robbed most people of their full humanity. Although still proclaiming belief in a "Promised Land," he was realizing he would never reach it alone. If his songs now carried a heavier sense of loss and disillusionment, they also seemed to extend the egalitarian visions of Walt Whitman, John Steinbeck, and Woody Guthrie.
Underscoring this awareness, Springsteen retreated from popularity, producing a bleak acoustic record entitled Nebraska (1982). Repudiating the sentimental and reactionary Americanism of the Reagan era, Nebraska unfolded forgotten and brutalized lives adrift in the nations heartland. Allowing the characters in his songs to speak as if being interviewed for some imagined documentary movie, Springsteen captured a paralyzing despair triggered by an indifferent post-industrial economy.
Reaching only a fraction of his former audience with the relentlessly grim Nebraska, Springsteen returned to his trademark rock sound with the stirring and versatile Born In The U.S.A (1984). Again the subject matter was widening class divisions, de-industrialization, and the false promise of the American Dream. On the albums majestic title track and in the quiet, mournful "My Hometown," Springsteen achieved accessible and powerful indictments of the Vietnam War, racism, runaway jobs, and community breakdown. On his accompanying Born In The U.S.A tour, he did his best to celebrate a new inclusive dream ("It aint a party unless everyones invited") that didnt divide the world into "winners and losers." In a radio broadcast of a concert in Sweden, he introduced his version of Woody Guthries "This Land Is Your Land" with remarks about class and racial solidarity: "In America theres a promise that gets made, and over there it gets called the American Dream, which is just the right to be able to live your life with some decency and dignity....But over there and a lot of other places in the world right now, that dream is only true for a very, very few people...Right now in the States, theres a lot of hard times, and when that happens theres always a resurgence of groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the National Socialists, and it seems like hard times turn people against each other, people that have common interests, people that dont understand that the enemy is not the guy down the street who looks different than you."
Unfortunately as the infectious and heartfelt tunes on Born In the U.S.A catapulted Springsteen to megastardom, many in his mass audience translated his message as mom and apple pie patriotism. With the American flag as a backdrop on his album cover and concert performances, the bombastic chorus of the title track, and a vast repertoire of rousing fist- pumping anthems, more casual music listeners took to "the Boss" as a symbol of white silent majority working man America.
Confronted with this gross misreading of his work and the inevitable "unreal" expectations that come with superstar success, Springsteen has struggled since Born In The U.S.A to refine and expand his vision while downsizing audience expectations. On solo albums such as Tunnel Of Love (1987), Human Touch (1992), and Lucky Town (1992), a quieter blend of acoustic and electric sounds wraps around stories of love and loss, parenthood, aging, and mortality. And on 1995s folk based The Ghost Of Tom Joad, he returned to themes of community and social inequality in songs focused on Mexican immigrants.
Beyond music, Springsteen struggled to adjust to fame and fortune, married, divorced, married again and became a father. Accepting his role as a very public citizen, he continued to clarify his politics. Through financial donations, interviews, and rally appearances, Springsteen threw his support behind unions, homeless advocates, food banks, affirmative action, gay rights, the fight against aids, legal aid services, the anti-death penalty movement, and immigrant rights.
Still his most effective pulpit remained the stage. Given the passing of 11 years since Springsteen and the E Street Band shared the spotlight, however, the big question looming for a reunion tour was whether or not a group of wealthy, middle aged musicians could still play with enough energy and conviction to ignite anything more than memories.
In Oakland, Springsteen and E Street wasted no time in laying doubts to rest. Opening with a blistering rendition of "Adam Raised A Cain," Springsteen spit white hot fury into the lines "Daddy worked his whole life for nothing but the pain/Now he walks these empty rooms looking for something to blame" while the scorched earth guitar leads of Steve Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren boiled pure rage. Then with Max Weinberg launching thunder shots from his drum kit, the band kicked into trusted crowd pleasers "Prove It All Night" and "Two Hearts," establishing the evenings primary themes of commitment and community.
All the grand elements of the classic Springsteen sound were intactthe bittersweet soul sax lines of Clarence Clemons, the intricate keyboard interplay of Roy Bittan and Danny Federici, Weinbergs explosive drums, screaming guitarwork, and magnificent gut-wrenching singing. But this was not a show geared to glory days of a youthful past. With acute, dramatic pacing and song selection that steered clear of hits (except for the uplifting release of "Hungry Heart" and "Born To Run"), Springsteen led the mostly over 40 audience through a fresh, urgent exploration of dashed hopes, faded dreams, and the struggle for personal and social redemption.
Turning the concert toward new arrangements of some of his heaviest material ("Atlantic City," "Mansion On The Hill," and "Youngstown"), Springsteen laid open bitter truths of class divided society against the haunting harmonies of Patti Scialfa and lonesome pedal steel accents of Lofgren. From here on the program maintained a balance of rousing struggle anthems ("Badlands"), joyful rockers ("Out On The Street"), and poignant social protest ("The Ghost Of Tom Joad") as the evening slowly gained the air of a Holy Roller tent meeting.
With the house lights turned on to allow the audience to fully appreciate the communal fervor, Springsteen paced the stage hamming the role of preacher while bellowing on about a journey to "the river of resurrection, where everyone can find salvation. But you cant get there by yourself." Following his sermon with "Working On The Highway," he hammered his point that all dreams are hard-won.
The high points of the night, however, and the most clear expressions of Springsteens ideals came late in the show. On the gorgeous lesser known ballad "If I Should Fall Behind," Clemons, Van Zandt, Lofgren, Scialfa, and Springsteen gathered at the microphone to trade vocal lines embracing loyalty and compassion. After stepping back for a stunning sax break by Clemons, all joined again for the closing chorus:
Should we lose each other in the shadow of the evening trees
Ill wait for you
And should I fall behind
Wait for me.
Then once again elevating the promise of rock and roll, Springsteen cut loose a new populist anthem, "The Land Of Hope And Dreams," rooted in the left-wing folk heritage of Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Describing a train bound for glory with a load of yearning and hurting passengers, the tune offered one of Springsteens boldest affirmations of radical democracy. And an appropriately transcendent finale. Z