The Rising: The Canonization of Bruce Springsteen

Marty Garner

The Rising:  The Canonization of Bruce Springsteen

In 1974, rock critic Jon Landau wrote “I have seen rock and roll future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen.”  Landau, who went on to produce Born to Run as well as manage the Boss’ career following that record, cannot have known how right he was.
Twelve months ago, one would have been hard-pressed to see Springsteen as indie rock’s newest icon.  April 2006 saw the release of We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, Bruce’s revival of centuries-old folk songs which were made famous by Pete Seeger in the 60s.  The record received mostly-glowing reviews but saw relatively few sales.  Ask your average college kid about Bruce Springsteen, and prepare to be met with either an ironic fist pump “Born in the USA” comment, a blank face, or, in those rare but beautiful occasions, a pair of fiery eyes who learn of salvation in the grooves of old records.
That last group started making pop music of their own.  A quick survey of popular and/or well-received records from Fall 2006 / Spring 2007 finds several records with at least minor nods to Springsteen:  the Hold Steady’s perfect Boys and Girls in America, the Killers’ mediocre Sam’s Town, and the Arcade Fire’s sprawling Neon Bible.  Even harpist Joanna Newsom’s in on the game, titling her upcoming EP Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band.  Add to that list the pocket of punk-rock bands like Hot Water Music who long ago picked up on the grit and soul of records like Darkness on the Edge of Town, bought Telecasters and started taking notes.
But why the sudden surge of indie bands eager to imitate Springsteen’s robust sound?  He hasn’t released a true E Street Band record since 2002’s The Rising, his response to 9/11 that reunited him with his closest musical friends with whom he had not recorded in a decade.  His other recent releases are 2005’s acoustic Devils and Dust and the aforementioned Seeger Sessions, as well as last year’s stunning Born to Run reissue and accompanying live DVD, Hammersmith Odeon ’75.  Of these, the Born to Run reissue is the only one that seems to have made an impression on the indie community.  Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson seems to have had a bit of trouble convincing himself that Springsteen was ever that cool of an artist in a 2003 review of The Essential Bruce Springsteen, claiming that “It’s been a long time since Springsteen has been hip, if he ever was.”
Watching Hammersmith Odeon, though, and it’s hard to understand what Richardson is getting at.  There’s Bruce: scruffy beard, denim, Converse, ski cap struggling to cover his curly hair.  Bruce Springsteen may not have been hip in 1975, but 1975’s Bruce Springsteen would sure be hip today.
But maybe that’s the point with Springsteen.  It’s more important to say something meaningful and lasting than it is to fall into fashion.  It is a truly grand thing, though, when these two merge like they did with the 1984 release of Born in the USA.  Twenty-three years removed, in a world punctuated by America’s mistreatment of its most recent Veterans, the bite of the title track takes on new life.  Granted, the big-time synth and 80s drums are a bit distracting, but Springsteen’s vocal performance on “Born in the USA” is perhaps his best ever.  This is the record that solidified Bruce Springsteen as a household name, the record that propelled him permanently into the national conscience.  It’s a rare thing to go to a baseball park – that most American of places – and not hear “Glory Days” boom its way across the field while the pitchers warm up.  Few baseball fans seem to mind the fact that Bruce’s baseball-playing friend in the song has since washed up and can only find happiness talking about the Glory Days.  It is a bit disconcerting, though, to hear the possible futures of the men on the diamond blared at them this way.  “Enjoy it, boys,” the Boss says, “’cause it all disappears.”
This mixture of hope and disappointment, of celebration and mourning, is one of the central themes of Springsteen’s music.  Detractors (including myself at one point) are quick to say that all he writes is car songs, or songs about “getting out,” or songs about desperate people.  Well, yeah.  And all the Beatles wrote about was love.  I think that this is what endears Springsteen to the common man.  Rather than offer a mere ideal, the Boss paints reality with a slightly hopeful brush.  It’s about finding beauty and meaning in a factory job, so to speak.  This notion is perfectly summed up in “Promised Land,” from 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, when Bruce sings

I’ve done my best to live the right way
I get up every morning and go to work each day
But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold
Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode.

Springsteen’s narrator continues on before announcing triumphantly “I believe in a promised land.”  All this while harmonicas are honking back at Woody Guthrie’s America and Danny Federicci’s organ nods its blonde-on-blonde head back at Bob Dylan.  Sure, Bruce is talking about a factory worker, but he may as well be talking about a student, a social worker, or a statistician.  That final plea, that confession of hope; that’s what makes the song distinctly Springsteen.  It’s the realization that the American Dream ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, but that life is still sure as hell worth living.
This is an idea that still matters, particularly to those of us here in Louisiana.  We get frustrated by our state’s considerable flaws, but we’ll be damned if we’re gonna move anywhere else.  All of Springsteen’s records are love letters to America, and perhaps Louisiana today is not all that different from the America that Springsteen was writing to on Darkness, an America that is bleeding and hurt but still proud.  We are a country who will “spit in the face of these Badlands,” to quote the Darkness album opener.
The Hold Steady, who most closely resemble Springsteen’s Born to Run / Darkness era, have picked up on these same themes.  Both Boys and Girls in America and its predecessor, Separation Sunday, play as small novels about common people doing common things.  To quote singer Craig Finn, he writes songs about “art, love, depression, alcohol, faith, and everything else that’s important to me and this band.”  He was introducing Boys and Girls’ “Stuck Between Stations” when he said this, but he may as well have been describing any song from Springsteen’s first four records.  That’s what makes this music so relatable; who here has not experienced all of the things Finn mentions, from the massive highs to the crushing lows, and lived to tell the tale?
But rather than wallow in the basement of the human condition, this music celebrates what may be on the other side; indeed, it celebrates the triumphant human spirit that emerges in the midst of suffering.  The big guitars and anthemic choruses have gotten the Hold Steady and the E Street Band labeled as Bar Rock, but it may be more appropriate to call them Hope Rock for the Common Man.  The Rising still works six years after the tragedy that inspired it not only because Bruce chooses to tell the story of suffering and loss but because he offers a sliver of hope, no matter how small, to the listener.  This is the same story that the film Reign Over Me examines; it should be no surprise that Adam Sandler’s character is a huge fan of Springsteen’s The River.  And while the themes may be depressing, the music is often celebratory.  Any city that hosts jazz funerals can likely relate.
But in the world of indie rock, we’ve perhaps forgotten how to have an honest good time.  If we’re not dancing ironically to 80s music, we’re scowling at the serious nature of our art.  And I’m just as guilty as anyone else, as anyone who read my review of Neon Bible last month can attest to.  But, well, rock n roll is supposed to be fun.  To quote Finn again, “these are heavy times politically in the world, so I hope when people come to our show that they really feel awesome for two hours.”  It’s a noble goal, and one that Bruce and the E Street Band perfected in the 70s.  Their marathon shows were long ago dubbed “The Church of Rock n Roll” by the press, either a nod to the incredible emotional highs that come with seeing Bruce live, his tendency to preach about whatever happens to be on his mind, or the fact that he believes so fully in the true power of rock n roll.  Indeed, if rock n roll were a church, Bruce would be its St. Paul, forever preaching the gospel of teenage runaways finding salvation under boardwalks.  What makes the E Street Band and the Hold Steady so special is their ability to bring their listeners to a euphoric place while singing about drug addicts, bored teenagers, and the homeless.  They understand that the world is harsh, and they celebrate life in the face of ennui.   As Hold Steady guitarist Tad Kubler has said of his band’s music, “like a lot of Springsteen songs, it’s about good people in bad situations trying to get to a better place.”
I think that this may be one of the reasons the Hold Steady and the Arcade Fire — who also objectively handle many of the same issues as Springsteen and the Hold Steady – have found so much success in their imitations of the Boss.  As appreciators of art, we long for it to do two things: teach us and entertain us.  Any work that only does one of these things will find very little long-term success, with a few exceptions.  When a band manages to both, and to do both extremely well, people tend to respond.  See, all of these bands have a strong interest in humanity, a strong and genuine love for all people around them.  It is precisely this reason why the Killers’ record fails.  Sam’s Town lead single and “Born to Run” clone “When You Were Young” comes across not as genuine expression but mere imitation.  Maybe Flowers is trying to say something, but his message falls flat for the lack of honesty in the music.  The Killers put Springsteen on but don’t teach anything, and while Sam’s Town may be a fine enough party record, it will never last and ultimately fails as art.
And I could be crazy, but I think that people are getting tired of that.  In the elitist realm of indie rock, it’s easy to avoid the hurt in the eyes of the person dancing next to you.  With Springsteen, there’s the notion that, yeah, life is hard, but we’re gonna work it out and we’re gonna have a good time doing it.  After Katrina, a close friend semi-joked that the Boss was probably out in the 9th Ward pulling people out of the water and saying “We’re gonna get through this, together.”  While not technically true, it’s utterly characteristic of Springsteen’s message; he’s the kind of guy who calls people he just met “Brother.” In the face of an apathetic art that ignores the suffering, or a nihilistic art that offers no solution, Springsteen shows us that hope is there.  Be it from God or from man, hope is always there.
I am told that nowhere has he relayed this message better than at last year’s Jazz Fest.  The Seeger Sessions’ jazzy, almost Klezmer sound was, by all reports, a perfect match for the festival.  The record had only been out for a week and the vast majority of those in attendance were likely unaware of its existence.  But Bruce came out and took charge, leading the multitudes in singalongs of “My Oklahoma Home” (which found the crowd of New Orleanians cheerfully shouting “It blowed away!”) and a rollicking “O Mary Don’t You Weep.”  But the most poignant moment is said to have come during “My City of Ruins,” a requiem for that other American tragedy.  As some New Jersey preacher in faded denim pleaded with God for strength, exhorting the crowd to “Rise up!”, tens of thousands of people slowly raised their hands to the sky, some to plead to the Real Boss, some as a sign of helplessness, some as a sign of humanity.  Randy Lewis of the LA Times wrote, “Sometime, somewhere, a more dramatic and exhilarating confluence of music with moment may have existed […] But in nearly 40 years of concert-going, I haven’t witnessed one.”
This is why Bruce Springsteen matters.  He cuts across every boundary, every border, into what is common in all of us: he is the grand seducer of the human condition.  And if there’s ever been a time when we needed him more than now, I’m not aware of it.

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