"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Springsteen's Wrecking Ball (Sunday, May 6, 2012)

The darkness is no longer on the edge of town. It is now at the very heart of our nation.

Almost thirty years ago, in the song “My Hometown” from his seminal album, Born in the U.S.A., Bruce Springsteen wrote of “Main Street’s white washed windows and vacant stores,” and factory closings and jobs heading south. The tone of the song was something of sadness, as a young man and his wife lie in bed at night, discussing their future: Do they move, or do they stay? Do they uproot their young son, in search of (perhaps) better economic prospects, or do they remain in the place that has been their home for generations, and give him a sense of belonging, connection, and family?
The insinuation in the song is that they will stay in their hometown. It probably wasn’t a good decision.
Now, in the face of the economic devastation that came to a head with the financial meltdown of 2008, the whitewashed windows on Main Street seem almost quaint. Main Street has become, in too many American cities, a war zone. Thirty years of greed, speculation, globablization, and unfettered, robber baron monopoly capitalism, have brought, in Springsteen’s words, “Death to My Hometown”.

He sings:

… no cannon ball did fly, no rifles cut us down
No bombs fell from the sky, no blood soaked the ground
No powder flash blinded the eye
No deathly thunder sounded
But just as sure as the hand of God
They brought death to my hometown…

They destroyed our families, factories,
and they took our homes.
They left our bodes on the plains,
the vultures picked our bones…

Even worse, perhaps, is that no one has been called to justice for the devastation. Not a single person has been prosecuted for the crimes that nearly toppled our entire financial system just a few years ago. No, instead the perpetrators “walk the streets as free men now,” Springsteen sings, and he warns that “they’ll be returning sure as the rising sun,” he warns.

 So, listen up my sonny boy, be ready when they come…
Now get yourself a song to sing
And sing it ’til you’re done
Sing it hard and sing it well
Send the robber barons straight to hell

Springsteen’s tone isn’t one of sadness or nostalgia or resignation any longer. The overriding tone of Wrecking Ball (the first half of the album, at least) is one of unmitigated anger. This work is a word of prophecy and judgment, with plenty of blame to go around—and plenty of work for all of us to do.

There are other allusions to Born in the U.S.A. here, as well.

The opening track, “We Take Care of Our Own” also speaks of “the promise from sea to shining sea” and American flags waving in the breeze. (And, no doubt, like the song “Born in the U.S.A.” before it, “We Take Care of Our Own” will be woefully misinterpreted by people who refuse to listen to-- or at least read-- its completely unambiguous lyrics):

I been stumbling on good hearts
Turned to stone
The road of good intentions
has gone dry as a bone.
We take care of our own…
wherever this flag’s flown,
we take care of our own.

 But like the priest and the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan, we have come answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?” much too narrowly. The years have killed something in us, and we are circling the wagons and drawing in on ourselves.  

From Chicago to New Orleans
From the muscle to the bone,
From the shotgun shack to the Super Dome,
there ain’t no help, the calvary stayed home,
there ain’t no one hearing the bugle blowin’…

Almost in desperation, Springsteen cries out:

Where are the eyes, the eyes with the will to see
Where are the hearts that run over with mercy.
Where’s the love that has not forsaken me.
Where’s the promise from sea to shining sea?

 But there is no answer, not in this song at least. There is only the repetitious refrain, over and over, “We take care of our own. We take care of our own.” Like a discussion ending declaration, meant to cut off discourse, not further it; like Scrooge slamming the door in the face of the solicitors coming to him, asking for compassion and charity, and receiving only a cold stare and icy sarcasm in response.  “Charity begins at home,” the greedy wretch at the door seems to say, “and ends there, too.”

That’s the note of anger with which Wrecking Ball begins. Don’t look for things to improve any time soon. (As some of us have learned over the years, hope is always a long time coming with Springsteen.)

We’re lead first to “Easy Money”—about the shallowness and shakiness of a life based on acquisitiveness alone (and about how those at the bottom of the pyramid are always the ones who pay first and pay most).

There’s mothin’ to it, mister
You won’t hear a sound
when your whole world comes tumbling down
and all of them fat cats, they’ll just think it’s funny,
I’m goin’ to town now, lookin’ for easy money.

 But from “Easy Money” we get led to being “Shacked and Drawn”. ”Trudging through the dark in a world gone wrong,” it’s as though we’re all part of a universal chain gang—trudging through life, just trying to survive. All notions of the nobility of work and the dignity of labor lie buried by the side of the road in the face of this dystopian new world we have inherited:

Freedom, son’s, a dirty shirt,
The sun on my face and a shovel in the dirt
A shovel in the dirt that keeps the devil gone
 I woke up this morning shackled and drawn.

But nor is our sad fate merely the result of the acts of some detached or impersonal God or the disinterested spinning of the wheel of Fate. No, once again, there are real people—embodied social forces—to blame for the crushing of hardworking, decent folk:

Gambling man rolls the dice (like the bankers and speculators who facilitated the crisis of 2008)
Workingman pays the bill.
It’s still fat and easy up on banker’s hill.
Up on Banker’s Hill, the party’s going strong
Down here below we’re shacked and drawn.

In the song “Mansion on the Hill” from Springsteen’s album Nebraska in 1982, a young boy and his sister listen longingly to the music coming from a big house on the edge of town. Now, Nebraska is hardly a sentimental work; it is, rather, almost unrelentingly gritty and stark. But even there, there was, in that boy and his sister at the bottom of the hill, at least a glimpse of hope, the idea that good things can come to those who wait and work hard and have patience. Now, thirty years later, it is as though the young boy is still standing at the foot of the rich man’s hill—but now, with his legs in irons—enslaved in an almost neo-feudal economic system, with no hope, no dreams, only anger welling up inside him.

Only slightly better off is the “Jack of All Trades” of Wrecking Ball’s next song:

He’s the guy who will “mow your lawn, clean the leaves out your drain. [He’ll] mend your roof, to keep out the rain”. He is one of those countless hard working souls who kept America moving for so many years:

I’ll hammer the nails, I’ll set the stone
I’ll harvest your crops,
When they’re ripe and grown…
I’ll take the work that God provides,
I’m a jack of all trades, we’ll be all right.”

But times have changed for him, too. It is as though a great storm has come through:

The hurricane blows, brings the hard rain,
When the blue sky breaks
It feels like the world’s gonna change
And we’ll start caring for each other
Like Jesus said that we might
I’m a jack of all trades, we’ll be all right.

But we won’t. be all right, not any time soon. After the storm, things won’t change. Not this time. Not given how far our civic fabric has been frayed. Not given how far we have fallen from our high ideals. The album Wrecking Ball is freighted with images of storms and hurricanes—Hurricane Katrina in 2005 in particular. The decimation of the poor and working class neighborhoods of New Orleans by that storm, and the inability or unwillingness by those in power to respond marked, I think, a milestone in the radicalization of Springsteen’s message. Combined with the financial meltdown of 2008, the effect is highly combustible—indeed, explosive.

The banker man grows fat,
working man grows thin.
It’s all happened before and it’ll happen again…
So you use what you’ve got,
And you learn to make do,
You take the old, you make it new

Then, our ever optimistic handyman, our ever hopeful Everyman, offers his solution for repairs on our body politic:

If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight.
I’m a jack of all trades, we’ll be all right.

“Sometimes tomorrow comes soaked in treasure and blood,” Springsteen sings, and he reminds us that drought is often followed by  flood. History often teaches of the rage that festers beneath an unjust social code, and of the mayhem that can be unleashed when these tensions finally explode.  Springsteen dares to hint that it can happen here, and that even America is not immune to the lessons history teaches.

How then, do we channel this anger that “This Depression”—psychological no less than economic—has wrought? The album’s title track, “Wrecking Ball”, gives some hints.

The song is ostensibly about the demolition of Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands of East Rutherford, New Jersey, in 2010. Bit its opening lines could be a fragment of Springsteen’s own autobiography:

I was raised outta steel
here in the swamps of Jersey
some misty years ago
through the mud and the beer
the blood and the cheers,
I’ve seen champions come and go…

In any of our lives, we tell our own stories, play our own game, and bear witness to the Giants whose paths have crossed ours. But there comes a time for each of us to lift our own parting glass, and we hear their voices call, and our spirits rejoin theirs, in a seamless garment of destiny. The passage of time is relentless and immutable; that’s something we all grasp more clearly the older we get.

Now, when all this steel and all these stories
drift away to rust
and all our youth and beauty
has been given to the dust
when the game has been decided
and we’re running down the clock
and all our little victories and glories
have turned into parking lots
when your best hopes and desires
are scattered to the wind
and hard times come and hard time go
...just to come again…

Then it is time for the wrecking ball of history to swoop down and level the whole edifice that has been, so that a new creation may rise in its stead. This is the inevitable pattern of life—the lives of any of us. But even more: it is the call of justice and history. “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low, and the rough ground shall become a plain, and the rugged places an open valley.”

We know that, come tomorrow,
none of this will be here
So hold tight to your anger,
And don’t fall to your fears.

Between that choice—holding onto our anger or giving in to our fear—lies the redemption of our lives. Anger can empower. It can clear the way for a new day. It can kindle seeds of hope. Fear merely stops us in our tracks and freezes us in the present. It leads us onto “Rocky Ground” but then, merely leaves us stranded there.

But anger can lead to righteousness, and righteousness to action, and action can lead to hope; and hope—yes, to change.

It does not make the ground any less rocky. It does not solve all our problems or redress all our grievances or make pain and sorrow and tragedy any less than they are. Indeed, it might actually bring more pain, more challenge, into our lives. But often, the only way to the Promised Land is over “Rocky Ground”.

But we must not stay there. We must move. We must go forward. That requires leaders who are willing to lead; leaders who understand that the essential of leadership lies not in pretty speechifying and eloquent sloganeering,, but in decisive action (even if that means divisive action, at times—like Jesus with the money changers in the Temple). Real leadership lies in action and example and courage and will. Nothing will change if all our good intentions remain ideas alone. Our hearts are made sick by leaders who are too quick to compromise with evil, and will not lead.

So, Springsteen sings “Rise up, Shepherd, rise up. Your flock has roamed far from the hill… Find your flock, get them to higher ground. The floodwater’s rising. We are Canaan bound…”

There will be difficult times ahead. The rocky ground will seem to go on forever. The night will grown dark. We will despair. We will be alone. We will cry out, but will be greeted by only silence in return.

But the still, small voice of hope will abide. And a glimmer on the horizon will remind us that, indeed, “A new day’s coming…”

If we cling to our faith. And hold one another in love. Then we will find, at last, our hope.

When he was a younger man, Springsteen sang a lot about cars—cars as a symbol of freedom and individuality and a wide open road and the unique, individual journey that each one of us takes.

It is interesting, then, that in recent years, his chosen vehicle of redemption and salvation is no longer a car, but a train. A train that carries all of us—saints and sinners, losers and winners—to that land of hope and dreams.
"Land of Hope and Dreams” us a song that Springsteen first performed in the lat 1990s, as part of his triumphant Reunion Tour with the E Street Band. It is a song that predates the election of George W. Bush and 9/11 and Iraq and Afghanistan and Katrina and the Financial Meltdown of 2008 and the hopes and disappointments that have come since. In some ways, it’s really quite an old song, relatively speaking.

 But it’s a song that Springsteen sings still (and included again on his most recent album) because its message will abide as long as his music abides. It is a song of an often weary, unsentimental, realistic, resilient, defiant hope. The hope that beats always at the heart of Springsteen’s music and inspires his worldview, a beating heart that comes to life all the more movingly here, with an extended saxophone solo from Springsteen’s late, great friend Clarence Clemons—playing for us again as though from the grave itself.

And Clarence speaks from the grave, as it were, in the album’s final song, “We Are Alive”, too—along with all the other dear souls who have lived and died and fount and loved and bequeathed their lessons and their hard won wisdom to us.

We are alive, Springsteen sings,
and though our bodies lie alone here in the dark,
our spirits rise
to carry the fire and light the spark
to stand shoulder to shoulder
and heart to heart.

 If we keep faith with those who have come before—that blessed communion of saints and sinners—then they will rest in peace, indeed; but they will not simply rest—rather, they will abide with us still, though they may be long gone. They will continue to inspire us and enlighten us,  as we, too, take our own stumbling, unsteady steps into an unknown future, They will abide with us still, and testify to us that the music we make in our own lives resounds not only in these  times in which we live, but also in the lives of generations yet to be born.  


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