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The Price You Pay: A Springsteen Sermon
Down In The Trenches With The Broken
In one of his earlier, pre-BORN-IN-THE-USA songs, The Price You Pay, Bruce Springsteen offers us a soul cry for the suffering, digging down deep to feel the pulse of his wandering neighbors, struggling through an unjust world of uncertain glory and decaying dreams. The beautiful thing in his song, though, like all Sprinsteen songs that were written and performed before his mega-fame is that he's not looking down on them as a millionaire rock star, empathizing from a luxury hotel suite. The Boss tells his own struggle and uncertainty in his earlier albums, specifically, his dream of making it as a musician. Whether explicitly said or not, it doesn't need to be. Many Boss classics about psychological struggle are not only about the characters in his blue-collar landscape, they are about him. He didn't know what was to come, what would happen in terms of his career. His father never supported his art or music, and the Boss is never shy to speak of his own rejection by women, his insecurities, his lack of capacity to be the hero he wants to be. But he still stands side by side with his fellows, sounding the anthem for them along with himself. And we all know where he is today....
So the song begins, then, "you make up your mind/you choose the chance you take/you ride to where the highway ends/and the desert breaks," and we can see that all choices are chance, and that these choices go forward into an unknown future, one where there is no map, where "the highway has ended," and "where the desert breaks." And then, "you learn to sleep at night/with the price you pay." As with every sacrifice, every choice, there is the downside, the hard work to be done, the "chance to take," and there are never any guarantees. But at the same time, a choice has to be made. And pain must come. You will pay a price either way, but you might as well, pay for what is most important to you, deep down.
One is reminded of the Hindu classic, The Bhagavad Gita, where Arjuna is deciding whether to fight in a war or not, conflicted with the idea of murder and the seemingly fruitlessness of a class war between powerful families. And Krishna makes it clear that choices must be made in life, that you are stuck with what you most truly are, and that at the end of the day, it's better to choose, risk, and make mistakes that it is to meditate in detachment as a holy man attempting to disconnect his karma for the larger, imperfect social reality.
Well, the Boss chooses from the depths, and he encourages his congregation to do the same: "Little girl down on the strand/With that pretty little baby in your hand/Do you remember the story of the Promised Land?/how they crossed the desert sand/and could not enter the chosen land....on the banks of a river we stared/at the price you pay."
Defeat is sacred here, and The Boss looks into fearlessly. In fact, mentioning this part of the Old Testament, the Boss realizes that for some noble warriors of the spirit, tragedy is fate. One can only live after accepting one's death. One can only reach the promised land after making peace with the possibility that one may never get there.
And one can only understand The Boss's glory after understanding the bloodiness of his wounds.