Thursday, March 17, 2005

How I Am Like Bruce Springsteen (and maybe you are, too)

I like Bruce. Okay, that's probably an understatement: I've been listening to his music since 1973 (I grew up in New Jersey), I've seen him in concert approximately 25 times, I have most of what he's ever released (I don't have the two "greatest-hits" collections), I have a half-dozen bootleg concerts on my iPod, and I'm looking forward to the new release next month. I do not follow him around the country, I've never met him, and I don't spend time talking about him, e.g., on message boards or the like. And he fits into this discussion in a couple of interesting ways.

He released two albums in 1973, which got him lots of attention in the New Jersey/Philadelphia area. (He played a zillion concerts at the now-defunct Main Point in Bryn Mawr. He'd drive to Philadelphia, sleep in his car, then wander into a local radio station where the DJ, Ed Schiacky, was a huge fan, and hang out there. WMMR in Philadelphia used to have a station ID that Springsteen recorded, a take-off on "Growin' Up" from his first album.) The third release, Born to Run in 1975, catapulted him to the cover of Time and Newsweek in the same week but also turned a lot of people off because of the major publicity. He then dropped out of sight for three years, because he was fighting to regain control of his work. The first contract he signed--when he was young and unwise in these matters--basically gave his manager the rights to Springsteen's music, and Bruce wanted it back. He released Darkness on the Edge of Town (still one of my favorites) in 1978 and The River in 1980, and began to win over fans in places other than Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Boston. He released a solo album, Nebraska, in 1982, probably to the dismay of the various business types at the record company. Born in the USA, released in 1984, really made him world-famous in that stratospheric way that few people manage, but about half of it was written at the same time as Nebraska. The first three releases were about cars and girls and taking chances and playing music and having a good time. The second four releases broadened that vision a bit (though cars and girls were still prevalent) to include stories of people whose chances didn't work out so well; this was especially true of USA and Nebraska. There was an increasing awareness of some of the class issues, specifically the working-class issues, about which I've been writing (though I don't write as lyrically or have the E Street Band to back me up). This was, in part, because of his association with Jon Landau (who wrote "I have seen the future of rock and roll and his name is Bruce Springsteen"), who became both his manager and his mentor--his college education, really.

That early work still resonates with me. He told stories about people I knew. (Not really, of course, but I certainly knew people like them.) He understood what it was like to have a parent who worked in a factory or what it was like to feel like you'd been forced into a bad choice. He understood how working-class people have limited resources, and what the limitations on those resources meant, not just for an individual, but for a family and for a community. Not many other people have written songs like that and have had such a large audience, except maybe Woody Guthrie.

In any case, after the world-wide fame that came with USA, there was a middle period where Springsteen basically had to take a step back. He could no longer write about the old subjects, at least not with the same point of view, because, really, he was now a very rich man. Tunnel of Love has some good work on it, but most fans regard most of Human Touch and Lucky Town as forgettable--Backstreets, a long-time Springsteen zine, once ran a contest asking readers to come up with a single CD's worth of music from the those two releases, and called the result "Lucky Touch." Only the most die-hard among us listen(ed) to The Ghost of Tom Joad, and even Springsteen noted that only an artist of his stature (read: income) could afford to put out a release like that. He reunited with the band, played lots of the old hits, etc., but nothing new seemed to be coming along any time soon. After, and as a result of, September 11, though, came The Rising, which I regard as uneven in some ways, but which, along with the reunion tour of 1999-2000, returned him to the spotlight in a big way for the first time since the mid-1980s. In the intervening 15 years, he'd become a rich man, and a father, and divorced and remarried.

And, in some ways, he returned to old themes, albeit from a different perspective. That is, he no longer tells working-class stories as someone who is working-class himself. He can't, no matter his roots, no matter his father's work in a factory, no matter the stories he used to tell of his childhood. What he can do, though, because of his current position, is tell those stories and get them heard in a way that the people who live those stories cannot, and part of the reason he can do that is because he once lived the stories himself. And that, it seems to me, is the position that people like me, and Bitch, and Charlie, and maybe others of you find ourselves.

We're no longer working-class, in any strict meaning of that phrase. We have too much education, we have too much of certain kinds of experience, we sometimes have too much income, we read the wrong things and see the wrong movies and live in the wrong neighborhoods for that. (Yes, I realize there are exceptions to every last thing I listed there, but I hope you get my point.) But neither are we wholly of the middle or professional classes, strictly speaking. We are related to people who work with their hands for a living, or who don't have college degrees or "professional" jobs. This is not to lionize either class, mind you; as noted in a comment over at green gabbro, being an asshole is an option open to everyone, regardless of class. (Wolfangel had some commentary, too, on this subject.)

My point is that those of us who have some working (or poorer) class in our backgrounds but who are no longer really a part of that class have some duty to remind the comfortable classes that not everyone has a car, or health insurarnce, or food for every meal, or safe shelter. We've been there, we've lived there, and, just because we don't live there any longer doesn't mean that no one does. If so many of our politicians weren't so set on destroying every last shred of whatever safety nets exist, this would be a much less necessary and urgent task, of course, but as the gifts to the credit card companies and pharmaceutical companies and oil companies show, working people of whatever class are not the first priority of the men and women who are supposed to be representing us.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey Bruce Springsteen rules and don't feel bad that no one posted a comment but i am only 14!!!! my fave new song is obvously devils and dust!!!!

1:02 PM  
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Anonymous Anonymous said...

first of all anybody who likes bruce stringbeen ought to have his ass removed, i hate every song he's ever sung. i feel that bruce is a no talent terd burglar and i hope his plane crashes over cleveland so i can piss on his ashes!!! i'm sure his new cd will suck just as much as all the rest. (GIVE IT UP ALREADY DOUCHBAG)

2:31 PM  

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