Trouble in the Heartland

Once again, the Boss is untouchable. 

Magic is the kind of revelatory, despite-all-odds, nose-to-the-grindstone, rock n’ roll that only Bruce Springsteen can create.  And as an added bonus, it’s the kind that he can only create with the aid of his E Street Band back in full force.  It’s his first studio album with the band since 2002′s The Rising, a gorgeous sonic remembrance to 9/11 that paid respect and tribute without buying into all the jingoistic crap that seemed to be flowing through American culture like so much bad wine.  Springsteen himself even had to step up to remind fans that the album was not a call for war, but a dedication to the victims.


At their base, Springsteen’s songs have always been about people before anything else.  Whether it is war, national tragedy, racial tensions or recession, they have always been through the lens of ordinary people.  His ability to give epic dignity to these stories through his lyrics and sound is almost definitely what has given him his legendarily devoted fan base.  Magic is no exception.


That’s clear on the album’s first track, “Radio Nowhere”:  a hard-edged renegade anthem that seems to pay as much homage to the garage rock of yesteryear as to its present revival.  “I want a thousand guitars / I want pounding drums / I want a million different voices / speaking in tongues.”  The refrain of “is there anybody alive out there” hearkens the familiar cry of his live shows, when he takes the role of rebel preacher, invoking the kind of cathartic liberation that only the truest rock n’ roll can deliver.  The hero of “Radio Nowhere” is the lonely driver frantically searching the dial for that liberation.  Though he doesn’t find it, the song doesn’t bemoan this so much as predict and warn of its imminent return.


It’s not just the music that he wants back.  Just as he calls for a return to the days when music set your soul on fire, he continues to long for the simplicity and security of old Americana.  It’s a recurring theme, from “Glory Days” to this album’s playfully seductive “Girls in Their Summer Clothes.” 


Beneath the surface though, he’s pining for something much more meaningful than soda jerks and friendly neighbors.  Springsteen’s words have always come from some lost heartland of opportunity, where people might be secure in the knowledge that a life of hard work will be repaid with relative comfort.  In an America where that’s no longer an assurance (if it ever truly was), that longing is no doubt shared by most working people.


Springsteen is no fool.  He sees the heartland slipping away just like any of us do.  In “Your Own Worst Enemy” he achingly croons over rousing strings about a man who feels he is losing control of what he thought he once knew.  “Yesterday the people were at ease / baby slept in peace / you close your eyes and saw her / you knew who you were / Now your own worst enemy has come to town.”  It’s a story that could apply to any one of us who feel our grip loosening on our lives, in any situation.  Until the song’s last words, that is, when he declares “your flag it flew so high / it drifted into the sky.” 


A mere metaphor?  Perhaps—were it not for Springsteen’s own actions over the past four years.  Fans who paid attention to his solo Devils and Dust will hear Bruce’s own anger toward the invasion of Iraq.  His enthusiastic campaigning for John Kerry in ’04 also reflected a deep desire to find some alternative to Dubya’s rogue-ish policies.   If the heartland is indeed being hijacked, then it’s clear the war is the biggest force behind that.  The high-flying flag that gets lost in the wind might be a much more potent image at second glance.


In the case of “Gypsy Biker,” even the returning soldier’s hometown is changed.  He returns disillusioned and angry, knowing that “the speculators made their money / off the blood you shed,” and hoping to find some respite in his town.  But it is divided, lost in the idea of a worthy cause, far from the reality of what that really means:


“Sister Mary sits with your colors

Brother John is drunk and gone

This whole town’s been rousted

Which side are you on?

The favored march up over the hill

In some fool’s parade

Shoutin’ victory for the righteous

But there ain’t much here but graves”


The honking harmonica and surging guitars, along with the iconic imagery of the vet-biker, make this a song about escape.  With no solace even in his own town, he sets off, doing his best to get away in any way he can. The final lyrics tell of counting “white lines” and getting stoned.


While the images are vividly specific, their time and place are notably vague.  Iraq isn’t mentioned once on the whole album.  And the motorcycle veteran archetype obviously recalls the years of Vietnam more than the present quagmire.  The parallels are there, however, and are drawn with even more striking clarity on “Last to Die,” a righteously angry piece that recalls John Kerry’s famous line from his long-gone days as the militantly anti-war vet testifying to congress: “who will be the last to die for a mistake?”  It’s a far cry from Kerry’s sheepish behavior when Bruce endorsed him.  Maybe just as he longs for the days of blue-collar pride, so he does for the days when we had reason to believe in leaders. 


To call all of this a simple case of nostalgia, though, would be off the mark.  Bruce’s sound has always pointed towards a sense of revival, not mourning; the defiant knowledge that despite everything, his characters do in fact have the power to survive in this world.  The critics who put down his lyrics as being “depressing,” or “too political” miss the point.  Though he may not preach from the mount about why we need to go to the marches and build a movement, he hits us in a deeper way:  he challenges us to find that strength somewhere deep inside us that continues to hold our shoulders high.


No song off Magic exemplifies this struggle like the closing tune “Devil’s Arcade,” a haunting ode to the troops coming back wounded and confused.  The weariness of four years of war drips from the atmospheric opening, giving way to simple acoustic guitar as Bruce sings about the exhaustion of the soldiers themselves:


“You said ‘Heroes are needed, so heroes get made’
Somebody made a bet, somebody paid
The cool desert morning and nothing to save
Just metal and plastic where your body caved
The slow games of poker with Lieutenant Ray
In the ward with the blue walls, a sea with no name
Where you lie adrift with the heroes of the devil’s arcade

You sleep and you dream, your buddies Charlie and Jim
And wake with a thick desert dust on your skin”


The inability to shake the experience, the memory of your friends blown away, the loneliness and alienation of the military hospital, the untold stories beneath the flag-waving and yellow ribbons.  It all builds in this song like a slow tide.  And it’s so real that it’s almost heart-stopping.


But as hopelessness seems destined to drag it into sadness and depression, a steady drum-beat leads the band into a symphonic rising and a guitar solo that cries out to be done with it all.  As the song reaches its crescendo Bruce sings in poignant testimonial, repeating over and over:  “the beat of your heart, the beat of your heart.”  One final note rings out as Max Weinberg’s pounding drum soldiers on, reminding us that the people beneath the uniforms are human being with hearts and souls all their own.  Life, after all, is the one thing that matters in this world.  In times of war, though, the lives of ordinary people are the first forgotten.  In Magic, those lives take center stage.



Alexander Billet is a music journalist and activist living in Washington, DC.  He is a regular contributor to Znet and Dissident Voice, and has also appeared in MR Zine, CounterPunch, and UK Watch.  He is currently working on his first book, Sounds of Liberation: Music and Social Change in the 21st Century.


His blog, Rebel Frequencies, can be viewed at http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com, and he may be reached at [email protected]


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