An­wen Craw­ford on Bruce Spring­steen

The Monthly (Australia) - - FRONT PAGE - An­wen Craw­ford

When Bruce Spring­steen ar­rived in Australia late in Jan­uary for a month-long tour, his third such in four years, Don­ald Trump had just be­come pres­i­dent of the United States. Both men are used to per­form­ing in front of large and ador­ing crowds, and both are adept at let­ting their au­di­ences feel the plea­sure of be­com­ing, if only for a mo­ment, some­one spe­cial. “When I’m out in the street / I walk the way I wanna walk,” sings Spring­steen on ‘Out in the Street’, a song from his 1980 dou­ble al­bum The River. When Spring­steen plays this song live, as he did dur­ing his last Aus­tralian tour, ev­ery­one in the au­di­ence sings these lines, and the sen­sa­tion is akin to be­ing lifted sud­denly clear of the ground. Here we are, with a view on the whole mess, and a chance at last to call the tune. “When I’m out in the street / I talk the way I wanna talk.”

And isn’t the de­sire – and more, the li­cence – to speak freely, with­out ref­er­ence to any­one else’s needs, a key part of Trump’s ap­peal? And hasn’t Spring­steen been warn­ing us, since at least The River, of the eco­nomic and psy­chic col­lapse of Amer­ica’s in­dus­trial work­ing class, a class whose sense of silent aban­don­ment was trans­formed into the rau­cous and bit­ter re­sent­ment that pow­ered Trump’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign like a ma­lig­nant fuel? Spring­steen is a mil­lion­aire rock star and Trump is a bil­lion­aire busi­ness­man turned dem­a­gogue, but their sta­tus is a ve­hi­cle through which their re­spec­tive au­di­ences (and who knows, but maybe these au­di­ences over­lap) can en­act re­venge against the pow­er­ful. “Poor man wanna be rich / Rich man wanna be king,” sings Spring­steen on ‘Bad­lands’, one of the defin­ing songs of his ca­reer, “And a king ain’t sat­is­fied ’til he rules ev­ery­thing.”

Spring­steen de­liv­ers these lines as a state­ment of fact, a fact re­in­forced by the mass of in­stru­ments – gui­tar, piano, or­gan, bass, drums – build­ing like a wave, or like a wall, be­hind his voice. The in­flu­ence of Phil Spec­tor’s “Wall of Sound” on Spring­steen’s song­writ­ing and pro­duc­tion style has long been noted, in­clud­ing by Spring­steen him­self, but he turns the force of Spec­tor’s teenage sym­phonies to­wards a dead­lier pur­pose. What’s at stake here isn’t only the girl; win­ning the girl is just a step on the way to­wards supremacy. The con­ser­vatism of Spring­steen’s mu­sic – the clas­sic chord se­quences, the in-built rev­er­ence for pop his­tory – en­hances, by con­trast, the reck­less­ness of his lyrics, and in bring­ing these el­e­ments to­gether his songs sug­gest that an overly fa­mil­iar form might still con­tain within it an un­tapped sup­ply of en­ergy. His live shows are a gam­ble on this premise: play it well enough, play it loud enough, and the world could turn up­side down. When Spring­steen plays live a cu­ri­ous noise can be heard through­out the venue, a low, sus­tained note: Bru­u­u­u­u­u­u­uce. But it sounds just like boo­ing, as if the peo­ple have fi­nally had enough of be­ing spo­ken for. Who’s the boss now?

Last time Spring­steen and his E Street Band played in Syd­ney, three years ago this month, he had, af­ter half a dozen songs, an an­nounce­ment to make. It was time for the mu­si­cians on­stage to play his al­bum Dark­ness on the Edge of Town (1978) in its en­tirety. There are cer­tain ex­pec­ta­tions that a fan brings to a Spring­steen show, and, though he has played the full al­bum in con­cert be­fore, this wasn’t among them. One could sense, more than hear, the col­lec­tive in­take of breath. We stood on the precipice of some­thing. The al­bum’s open­ing song is ‘Bad­lands’, and be­fore any­one could stop to think for too long about what was go­ing to hap­pen next, the band plunged into it.

In his re­cently pub­lished au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Born To Run, Spring­steen de­scribes Dark­ness as his “samu­rai record, stripped to the frame and ready to rum­ble”. It is a set of

songs that dwell upon an iso­la­tion that is partly eco­nomic and partly ex­is­ten­tial. At the fur­thest edge of these cir­cum­stances lies the prospect of be­com­ing an out­law, a nar­ra­tive logic that Spring­steen would carry to its end on Ne­braska (1982), where his char­ac­ters are (mostly) mur­der­ers.

The rage that punc­tu­ates Dark­ness had its ori­gin in Spring­steen’s own New Jersey child­hood (“I never saw a man leave a house in a jacket and tie un­less it was Sun­day or he was in trou­ble”), but the al­bum is also a re­sponse to the punk move­ment that was brewing on both sides of the At­lantic at the time. The punks mightn’t have cared for Spring­steen – he wore blue jeans, for God’s sake – but he was in­trigued by them, recog­nis­ing “a dis­tant kin­ship” between their anger and his own. Both were re­act­ing to the wide­spread eco­nomic cri­sis of the late 1970s, a cri­sis that was un­do­ing any ma­te­rial gains made by the work­ing class since the end of World War Two.

But Spring­steen also grasped a cou­ple of things that many punk bands didn’t. The first, as he re­calls in his book, was a sense that “there was a great dif­fer­ence between un­fet­tered per­sonal li­cense and real free­dom”. He had es­caped his own up­bring­ing, but the struc­tural in­equal­i­ties that shaped it re­mained in place. The se­cond was his re­al­i­sa­tion, born in part out of his en­gage­ment with the tra­di­tions of folk and coun­try mu­sic, that an an­gry song didn’t al­ways have to be a noisy song. What might hap­pen if in­stead of giv­ing anger full vent you clamped down more tightly upon it?

The an­swer was ‘Rac­ing in the Street’, the song that splits Dark­ness in half. And Spring­steen’s per­for­mance of this song in Syd­ney lingers in the mind.

Through­out most of it, his gui­tar hung limply around his neck: the rock hero di­vested of his pri­mary ar­mour. ‘Rac­ing in the Street’ is a piano-based bal­lad, but the word “bal­lad” can im­ply mawk­ish­ness, and ‘Rac­ing in the Street’ isn’t mawk­ish. It is ter­ri­bly sad, and, for a song that is set among and in­side of cars, ter­ri­bly still. The mu­sic doesn’t re­ally go any­where. The char­ac­ters in the song don’t go any­where. They just edge closer to de­spair.

The nar­ra­tor of ‘Rac­ing in the Street’ races cars only for money. And the dev­as­tat­ing though un­spo­ken re­al­i­sa­tion at the heart of the song is that money is all there is left, the sole mea­sure of hu­man en­deav­our. The song’s arrangement is bare, the vo­cal melody repet­i­tive; the one op­por­tu­nity for de­par­ture comes af­ter all the words have been sung, when an or­gan re­frain takes over – here, the stu­dio ver­sion be­gins to fade out, while on­stage, that night, Spring­steen and his band cir­cled around it for min­utes on end, as if they might yet find a way to es­cape the song’s emo­tional force field, which of course they couldn’t. “Tonight, tonight the high­way’s bright / Out of our way, mis­ter, you best keep.” It is an im­po­tent warn­ing, a fury swal­lowed down.

Be­hind ‘Rac­ing in the Street’ stands Martha and the Van­del­las’ 1964 Mo­town hit ‘Danc­ing in the Street’, a song that was, in its time, both a party favourite and a har­bin­ger of the civil un­rest about to hit Amer­i­can cities. Spring­steen has spent his ca­reer in di­a­logue with African-Amer­i­can pop­u­lar mu­sic, a di­a­logue per­son­i­fied by his broth­erly re­la­tion­ship with the E Street Band’s late sax­o­phon­ist, Clarence Cle­mons. Their fra­ter­nity was gen­uine, and it was also the sym­bol of a pos­si­ble rec­on­cil­i­a­tion between white and black Amer­ica. But, writes Spring­steen in Born To Run, “we lived in the real world”, where noth­ing, “not all the love in God’s heaven, oblit­er­ates race”. This isn’t fa­tal­ism, but a recog­ni­tion that pop mu­sic trades in signs, and that signs alone can­not change the world, though Spring­steen and his band play as if this wasn’t true. This, apart from any­thing else, gives his mu­sic its pathos.

Spring­steen can build a wall in his songs and then, through a change in pace and pres­sure, knock it down again. Cir­cum­stances close in on his char­ac­ters, cir­cum­stances that the mu­sic yearns to be free of, even when it can’t be. Trump in­tends to build a wall, a real one, that will par­ti­tion real peo­ple from one another. Ven­omous and per­ma­nent di­vi­sion between the pow­er­ful and the pow­er­less is his rai­son d’être. And that is the dif­fer­ence between them.

At the very end of that Syd­ney show, af­ter more than three hours of per­form­ing, Spring­steen re­turned to the stage and sat down be­hind a pump or­gan. The song he chose to play was ‘Dream Baby Dream’, which is in­cluded on his most re­cent stu­dio al­bum, High Hopes (2014). This is a cover ver­sion of a song first recorded by the New York punk duo Sui­cide in 1979, and out of Sui­cide’s ner­vous ag­i­ta­tion Spring­steen pulls some­thing fer­vently beau­ti­ful. It’s not a be­trayal of the song’s orig­i­nal terms, but an en­large­ment of them.

There’s a film clip that ac­com­pa­nies Spring­steen’s stu­dio record­ing of this song: slow-mo­tion footage of his live con­certs, and par­tic­u­larly of his au­di­ences. Faces are picked out from the crowd, and the ex­pres­sions on these faces (young and old faces, male and fe­male, black and white) range from prayer­ful to goofy to over­joyed. It is a demo­cratic vi­sion, be­cause it im­plies that democ­racy is not merely the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of num­bers but is in­stead cre­ated by the com­plete pres­ence of each citizen’s in­di­vid­ual be­ing.

I don’t know, en­tirely, why this song has the power to dis­solve me, but it does. As with so much in Spring­steen’s cat­a­logue it walks a fine line between af­fect­ing and hack­neyed, and I re­sist the trace of ma­nip­u­la­tion, though I don’t think in the end that it’s ma­nip­u­la­tive. Spring­steen, be­ing only a mu­si­cian, can­not bring his vi­sion of democ­racy into be­ing, but that isn’t the point. The point is that for the length of a song one can be­lieve it.

Slaven Vi­a­sic / Getty Im­ages for (RED)

Bruce Spring­steen per­form­ing in New York City, 2014.

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