To Carry The Fire & Light The Spark
As Bruce Springsteen begins the 2nd North American leg of his “Wrecking Ball” tour, it’s hard to think of an analog for the artistic, cultural and political project in which he’s engaged. This isn’t a group of musicians touring on behalf of a cause (e.g., the Amnesty International tours of the 1980s) or a campaign (e.g., the 2004 Vote For Change tour). It’s not an artist hitching his star to a candidate and appearing at rallies (as Springsteen did with Barack Obama in 2008).
Instead, he’s taking his entire song catalog (as well as the hundreds of other songs his band can cover), every bit of stagecraft he’s learned from 45 years of performing, and as much of the past 150 years of American popular music as he can gather, and bringing it all to bear on the central social, cultural, economic and political challenge of our day: how to survive (and overcome?) our current depression, now nearing the end of its 5th year.
Take, for example, the 3 shows in Boston last week that kicked off Springsteen’s return to the U.S. after touring Europe for the previous three months. He sang over 60 different songs. The shows were all at least three and a half hours long. Unlike most performers his age, at least a third of the songs—including most of the ones at the heart of any given show—were written in this century.
Here are some of the key elements that—in one observer’s view—Springsteen uses to create this unprecedented series of shows. More (much more) after the jump.
“The Legendary E Street Band”
The central artistic conceit of a Bruce Springsteen show is that this is nothing more than a really big house party, or a really large pub. The band dresses plainly. There are no costume changes or elaborate sets—just risers for the backup singers and horn players. There’s no curtain. When it’s time for the show to begin the band members simply walk onstage, take their places, and Springsteen counts off the first song.
Just like at your local bar, the band takes requests. Just like at a house party, everyone’s welcome to sing along on the songs they know. There is a presumed intimacy in the way Springsteen addresses the crowd (e.g., explaining that his wife and bandmate, Patti Scialfa, “is home tonight, protecting the house from our teenagers”). There’s also a presumed responsibility for those attending. Sing, clap, cheer, get on your feet, raise your hand. It’s not really a party if only the band is performing. For the show to work, there has to be an exchange, a mutual sharing of energy, a call and response.
For this tour Springsteen has added a five-piece horn section, a second percussionist and three (more) backing vocalists. With 17 people on stage (every one of who can and will be featured during the course of the show), and with the bandleader changing the set list on the fly, the closest musical analogy to the current incarnation of the E Street Band—most of whom have played together for decades—is the great jazz orchestras and big bands of the mid-20th century.
Like any rock and roll show, you’ll hear drums, bass, and guitar. You’ll also hear piano, organ, violin, accordion, banjo, mandolin, steel guitar, trumpets, trombones, saxophones, tuba, tin whistles, cowbells, congas, and maracas—the full range of musical instruments. You’ll hear these instruments in combinations familiar and unexpected. And you’ll hear voices—male and female, solo, in unison, and in two, three or four-part harmonies.
In the course of a single song, the band will go from everyone playing and wailing in a wall of sound that Phil Spector would envy, to just a single instrument or hushed voice carrying the song. At times, the entire band will cut out as Springsteen holds his microphone aloft from the stage and the audience carries the song for a chorus or two.
“I Hear America Singing”
Much of the audience at a typical Bruce Springsteen concert looks like the folks you might see at the 11:00 Sunday Mass in suburban parishes across the country. (In some cases, they are the same people.) There’s one notable difference: the people at Springsteen’s shows sing. They sing song after song—knowing every word, catching the slightest tempo change, reasonably in tune and definitely in full voice. Furthermore, in the course of an evening they’ll sing and listen to songs that touch on the full spectrum of American popular music.
Bruce Springsteen is not a musical innovator. His talent—and it’s a characteristically Catholic talent—is for absorbing influences, choosing both/and not either/or, and making them his own: Elvis and Dylan, Chuck Berry and Darlene Love, Woody Guthrie and Aretha Franklin, Stephen Foster and Blind Alfred Reed, Johnny Cash and Chuck D.
Since he was a young boy listening to the sounds brought into the house by his mother’s AM radio, Springsteen has soaked up musical genres: rock and roll yes, but also pop, folk, gospel, boogie-woogie, country, rockabilly, spirituals, hip hop, Celtic, soul, punk, doo wop, Motown and Brill Building, Nashville and Memphis, Chicago blues and New Orleans jazz, work songs, love songs, prison songs, dance songs, church songs. All those influences come tumbling out in the course of an evening—playing off each other, crashing, colliding, resonating, giving the audience as full a range of human sound, emotion and experience as can be packed into a single concert.
Most Americans under the age of 75 (which is to say, most Americans) have no experience of an economic depression like our current one. Both on the Wrecking Ball album and on this tour Springsteen digs deep into the rich, multi-layered soil of American popular music and history to find words and sounds and rhythms that are equal to the challenges of the present moment.
Wrecking Ball is full of old words—words like shotgun shack, cavalry, fat cats, shackled and drawn, gambling man, workingman, banker man, banker’s hill, robber barons, hard times, rocky ground—that evoke dim, faded, almost forgotten images from the 1930s, or the 1870s.
And it’s full of old sounds. Always open to new influences, Springsteen has been experimenting since the early 1990s with the hip-hop technique of sampling—taking a snippet of an older recording to serve as the basis for a new song. On Wrecking Ball he and producer Ron Aniello incorporate decades-old samples (some also used recently by rappers like Ludacris and M.I.A.) from the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers, the Peerless Four, Johnny Cash & June Carter, Curtis Mayfield, Lyn Collins and James Brown.
Earlier generations of Americans created those songs and sounds to keep themselves singing, dancing, working, praying, laughing and loving as they struggled to survive hard times. In effect, Springsteen offers his audience a chance to “drink from our own wells”, so as to be able to carry on through the struggles we face today.
I’ll Fight You For America The Beautiful
Spoken word artist Taylor Mali’s poem, “I’ll Fight You For The Library” is a battle-in-four-letters between a veteran teacher and an administrator over whether the school’s library will be available for the teacher’s students to conduct research for an assignment, or will be used for a committee meeting. (It’s well worth viewing. Go ahead, click the link…..Everybody back? Okay, let’s proceed.)
Months before the Obama campaign took aim at Mitt Romney’s repeated use of “America the Beautiful” on the campaign trail, Springsteen’s new single, “We Take Care Of Our Own” in effect raised a similar challenge: I’ll fight you for “America the Beautiful”.
This is, on the whole, a good thing. Defining the promise of America, and to whom that promise is available is supposed to be contested. That’s why we have elections. That’s part of what underlies the political theory of a republic. It was part of the genius of the Founding Fathers. Even though they didn’t include most of us in their understanding of what it meant to be fully American, they understood that creating a culture and politics of robust debate and argument, and of widespread participation was the best shot they had at creating a republic that could survive and thrive. It’s because of the best parts of that culture that the promise of America has expanded as much as it has over the last two centuries.
Springsteen has long spoken of his vision of a “big-hearted America”, one that is a broadly inclusive and welcoming land of opportunity. The opening track on Wrecking Ball, “We Take Care Of Our Own” raises the questions that the rest of the album responds to: Who’s included in “our own”? Do we take care of our own? How do we take care of our own? What does it mean to “take care of our own”? “Where’s the promise from sea to shining sea, Where’s the promise from sea to shining sea, (that) wherever this flag is flown…we take care of our own?”
It’s immediately clear from the verses (“From the shotgun shack to the Superdome; There ain’t no help, the cavalry stayed home”) that Springsteen, like many Americans, is still flushed with shame and anger at the abject failure of our political commonwealth in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. That anger burns throughout Wrecking Ball as Springsteen measures—one human story at a time—the cost of the recession that began in late 2007, the financial collapse that followed in 2008, and the depression (economic, social and psychological) that continues in their wake. On the album and on tour, Springsteen presents his vision of America the beautiful: the dignity of work, the solidarity and joy of community, the power and solace of love, the worth of each person’s life, even the sacredness (my word, not his) of anger.
Bruce Springsteen came of age musically in the early 1970s, when serious popular artists aspired to make great albums, not just great singles. Even though albums disappeared nearly 20 years ago (replaced first by single-sided CDs, then by digital MP3 files), Springsteen still makes albums—collections of songs that form a cohesive whole and that gain meaning from their relation to each other, and the sequence in which they appear.
Following “We Take Care Of Our Own” on Wrecking Ball, the rest of “side 1″ is filled with songs narrated by individuals whose lives have been overrun by “This Depression”. More specifically, what happens to people—as sociologist William Julius Wilson first asked nearly 20 years ago—when work disappears? A reckless and desperate young couple goes out looking for “Easy Money”. The narrator of “Shackled & Drawn” asks questions—“Let a man work, is that so wrong?” “What’s a poor boy to do in a world gone wrong?” —that have no answer. In a voice heavy with experience and resignation, a “Jack Of All Trades” tries to reassure his wife (and himself) that “we’ll be all right”.
With the title track, “Wrecking Ball”, at the start of “side 2″, the album takes a definite turn—not exactly hopeful, but at least one of people beginning to find their bearings, to gather the resources needed to confront the evils they face, to take a stand for themselves, their communities and their values.
The first of those resources is anger (from the Old Norse angr meaning “sorrow, affliction”). “Wrecking Ball” was written and first performed in 2009 as a farewell song to the old Giants Stadium (“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.”) But midway through it takes an unexpected turn to the afterlife: “…tonight all of the dead are here, so bring on your wrecking ball”.
Springsteen’s narrator implores, “So hold tight to your anger, hold tight to your anger, hold tight to your anger, and don’t fall to your fears”. And then suddenly the subject has switched again to the listener’s own approaching end: “When…all our youth and beauty has been given to the dust, when the game has been decided and we’re burning down the clock….When your best hopes and desires are scattered to the wind, …and hard times come and hard times go, just to come again…Take your best shot, let me see what you got, bring on your wrecking ball.”
This is Dylan Thomas not going gently into that good night. It’s also every saint, martyr, hero and heroine who looked death in the eye and decided not to blink.
Surrounded By A Great Cloud Of Witnesses
Not a practicing Catholic (“We’re raising a bunch of pagan babies” he once told a fan asking about the religious imagery in his music), Springsteen has (as befits a man in his 60s whose friends are aging and dying) increasingly written about death in recent years. As he’s done so, he’s has drawn upon the Catholic language, imagery and symbols that pervaded his youth, and upon the Black church’s traditions—often as transmuted through soul music—to confront the topic.
In concert, Springsteen uses “My City Of Ruins”—which samples and echoes Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready”—to introduce the E Street Band members both living and dead. Speaking of the E Street Band’s late organist, Danny Federici, and saxophonist, Clarence Clemons, Springsteen declaims to the audience in preacherly fashion, “If you’re here and we’re here, then they’re here.”
Wrecking Ball itself ends with a blizzard of religious images in the service of its tenuous and tentative hope for a brighter day. In “Rocky Ground”, the singer implores “Rise up shepherd, Rise up….Find your flock, get them to higher ground; The floodwater’s rising, we’re Canaan bound.” “Land of Hope and Dreams” is a reworking of the old gospel standard, “This Train Is Bound For Glory”; but instead of welcoming only the righteous and the holy, Springsteen’s train “carries saints and sinners…losers and winners…thieves and sweet souls departed”.
The album’s closing song is “We Are Alive”; and those making that claim are the dead and martyred themselves. “A voice cried I was killed in Maryland in 1877 when the railroad workers made their stand. I was killed in 1963, one Sunday morning in Birmingham. I died last year crossing the Southern desert, my children left behind in San Pablo. Well they’ve left our bodies here to rot; Oh please, let them know, we are alive”.
Those voices are carefully chosen by Springsteen: from the 19th century workers who waged the closest thing to a national strike the U.S. has ever seen, to leaders of the great Freedom Movement of the mid-20th century, to the largest wave of immigrants to come to this country in living memory. These are the voices of those who have fought to make a place for themselves—and for us—in America the beautiful. Springsteen, the songwriter-and-performer-as-shaman, says the message our beloved dead have for us today is this:
We are alive, and though our bodies lie alone here in the dark;
Our souls and spirits rise to carry the fire and light the spark,
To fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart….We are alive.
Or as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews (12:1) puts it: Therefore since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us….
When facing hard times that exceed the limits of personal experience, remember your history. Remember those who’ve gone before you. Draw strength from their stories and examples.
You may need to do what you’ve never done before. If you’re a rock and roll star, you may need to dig deep into your own catalog of songs to find the ones that resonate most powerfully with your new songs and these new times. You may need to cover songs that served as inspiration in your own childhood, and draw on songs and sounds from earlier decades and centuries. You may need (at age 62!) to give 3 1/2 hour concerts—comforting, challenging and inspiring your audience with songs old and new.
It is as apolitical a pop confection as any dance song ever written. And yet, coming at the end of a Wrecking Ball show, a listener could be forgiven for wondering: “Shake it up baby now…Twist and shout…come on baby now…come on and work it on out”. What does that really mean?
It may not exactly be a call to arms, but it just might be a call to keep moving, keep laughing, keep talking, keep dancing, keep singing, keep working, keep loving, keep on keeping on. Don’t give up the fight.