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Bruce Springsteen: America and the Dream (Part One)
Author's Note: When I composed this, the essay came out to nearly 3100 words. I have decided to publish this in 2 parts. The Second part is available on the link below.
“We were driving across the desert, driving to Nevada, …[We] came across this house on the side of the road this Indian had built…… [there was] a sign that said ‘this is the land of peace, love, justice and no mercy’
Bruce Springsteen, spoken song introduction
Passaic, NJ September 19, 1978
To many casual music fans, Bruce Springsteen , is known by four or five of his biggest songs. He is a grubby, denim clad, raspy voiced rocker who is quite entertaining but not much more. To conservative pundits, he is just another left wing entertainer. To some liberal elites he is their troubador. He is a musician whose message echos their agenda for this country.
While Bruce Springsteen is all of these, he is also a patriot. From his first album in 1972, Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ, his music has been filled with a sense of love for America, it’s people, and their struggles to obtain and then hold on to the elusive “American Dream” His music is infused with what his biographer, Dave Marsh, has termed a “sense of place” . From the Jersey Shore, to the Southwestern Deserts, the steel mills of Youngstown, Ohio and the streets of Philidelphia, the American land is set as the backdrop for the dramas of ordinary people fighting for the promise of America.
Bruce’s politics are undoubtedly liberal and many left wing pundits over the years have concentrated on the negative in his work. Taken together the body of his work is hopeful and encouraging. He is not (and never was) an America basher and he certainly is not a flag waving, “my country right or wrong” jingoist. Many of his songs just present the facts and he lets the listener make their own opinion of the situation. Much of his work involves people who are badly shaken but still manage to maintain a reason to believe.
A perfect example is one of his most popular, yet misunderstood songs. In the full band version, the chorus of “Born in the USA” makes the song sound like a jingoistic anthem. But it is really the story of a very disillusioned, and beaten down Vietnam veteran who has returned to the USA only to find that the country has turned their back on him, his service and his sacrifice. But by the end of the song, Bruce’s vocals, which were pure rage earlier in the song, have softened. While the veteran is still angry, deeply disappointed and hurt, there is still a glimmer of hope.
Born to Run
Although by 1975, Springsteen had released two good albums, Born to Run established Bruce as a bona fide American rock and roll artist. It introduced the listener to American icons that would be a staple of his music for years to come, girls, fast American muscle cars, and the open highway. Born to Run was naïve and glorious. With it’s production heavily inspired by Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” it was, as rock critic Greil Marcus called it, “a ‘57 Chevy running on melted down Crystal’s records”
The album cycles through a day. It goes from the early morning invitation to freedom of “Thunder Road” through the late afternoon of “Backstreets” (a great, poetic, melodramatic tale of love and betrayal), through the early evening heat of the title tune and then onto nighttime and “Jungleland” (and the failure to escape).
The title tune, “Born to Run” is clearly one of the best rock songs ever recorded. Nearly every song Bruce has written in the 38 years since can be traced back to this work in some fashion. It is a song of the quest for freedom, love and the “runaway American Dream”:
Someday girl, I don’t know when
We’ll get to that place where we really want to go
And we’ll walk in the sun
But ‘til then tramps like us
Baby, we were Born to Run
Darkness on the Edge of Town
Due to management problems, Springsteen did not release another album for three years. When he released his next album in 1978. He was older and wiser. He had come to realize that a person could not simply run away to achieve his dreams and, as he later put it “I realized that home wasn‘t out there, it was someplace inside of me“.
Darkness on the Edge of Town was Bruce’s fourth album and, in my opinion his masterpiece. The production on this album is much more raw and leaner than that of Born to Run. It is, as Bruce himself claimed, his first “adult” album. The “characters” on this album are, as Springsteen put it “weathered, older but not beaten“.
“Badlands”, a vicous rocker kicks off the album. In many ways it represents the tone, feel and meaning of all of Bruce’s music. A concert mainstay, this anthemic, fist pumping tune has been played at nearly every E Street Band show since it was released in 1978.
Badlands, you gotta live em everyday
Let the broken heart stand as the price you gotta pay
We’ll keep pushin’ til it’s understood
And these Badlands start treating us good
“Racing in the Street” is a ballad that tells the story of a street racer and the cost of your dreams to you and to other people. It is chock full of American icons, Muscle cars, girls, highways (“I got a ‘69 Chevy with a 396“).His girl does not share his dreams and is miserable. He promises to “ride to the sea and wash these sins off our hand” It ends with a mesmerizing instrumental coda led by Roy Bittan’s piano. The coda fades out on the record, but performed live it increases to a series of climaxes. It is the E Street Band at it’s best.
In his book Songs, Bruce spoke of the characters on Darkness…as being “unsure of their fate, but dug in and committed”. Songs like “Prove it All Night”, “Something in the Night” and the title song contribute to the feel of the album. But nothing exemplifys the album’s tone more than “The Promised Land”
“The Promised Land” is a spare, anthemic rocker and like “Badlands” which opens the album, it is a concert favorite. It opens with a harmonica intro which gives way to ringing guitars and crashing drums. Bruce sings it like a man possessed and determined to make it despite the roadblocks that are in his way. He declares “Mister, I ain’t a boy no I’m a man and I believe in the promised land” with a religious fervor. But it is the last verse that exemplifies guts, perseverance and determination:
There’s a dark cloud rising from the desert floor
I got my bags packed and I’m heading straight into the storm
Gonna be a twister to blow everything down
That ain’t got the faith to stand it’s ground
Blow away the dreams that tear you apart
Blow away the dreams that break your heart
Blow away the lies that leave you nothin’ but lost and broken hearted
When rock great Pete Townshend heard Darkness… he said the album wasn’t about fun, it was about “fucking triumph”. That’s a fact that can’t be debated!
TO BE CONTINUED
The second part is available here
- Bruce Springsteen America and the Dream (Part Two)
Part two of an essay about Bruce Springsteen's music and America
The photo on the cover of The Promise was taken by Eric Meola, not Frank Stefanko as previously credited. The name of the photo is "Rattlesnake Speedway". Stefanko took the photo on the cover of the Darkness on the Edge of Town album. Meola also took the photo on the cover of Born to Run.
This mistake was totally the author's fault and I apologize for any incovenience or distress this may have caused. 7/10/2012
- Frank Stefanko | Bruce Springsteen, "Darkness, Front Cover, Album Square", Haddonfield, NJ, 1978
- Eric Meola photos from Snap Galleries
Eric Meola made one of the most iconic photographs in the history of rock 'n' roll: the cover photograph on Bruce Springsteen's landmark 1975 album Born to Run.
Check out this Hub, My Visit to Asbury Park
- My Visit to Asbury Park, NJ
In April 2011. I visited Asbury Park, NJ, the home of Bruce Springsteen, my favorite artist. This essay addresses my thoughts and impression about the city and passing time.