Bruce Springsteen’s Land Of Hope And Dreams


Carter

As
we come to the end of the 20th century, it’s 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
Springsteen’s 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 tradition’s 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,
Springsteen’s 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), Springsteen’s
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 ain’t kids, they’re older— you
been beat, you been hurt. But there’s still hope, there’s always hope.
They throw dirt on you all your life, and some people get buried so deep in
the dirt that they’ll never get out. The album’s about people who will
never admit that they’re buried that deep."

Springsteen’s
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 nation’s 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 album’s 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 ain’t a party unless everyone’s invited") that
didn’t divide the world into "winners and losers." In a radio broadcast
of a concert in Sweden, he introduced his version of Woody Guthrie’s "This
Land Is Your Land" with remarks about class and racial solidarity: "In
America there’s 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, there’s a lot of hard times, and when that happens there’s
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 don’t 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 1995’s 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 evening’s primary themes of commitment
and community.

All the grand
elements of the classic Springsteen sound were intact—the bittersweet soul
sax lines of Clarence Clemons, the intricate keyboard interplay of Roy Bittan
and Danny Federici, Weinberg’s 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 can’t 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 Springsteen’s
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

I’ll 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 Springsteen’s boldest affirmations of radical democracy. And an
appropriately transcendent finale.   Z