Saturday, May 31, 2014

Call and Response: Springsteen & I

A musician’s lifeblood is his audience. He depends upon their response for success in fragile ways. Movies keep the star at a remove – the actor embodies a different role in each film. Movie audiences will quickly forgive a flop and proffer another chance. The role will be different, the actor’s quality built around a new set of tones and narratives. But though an element of acting and performance informs the musician, she invests more of her naked self into the enterprise. It’s her sound, his voice. He puts it all out there and the response is immediate and visceral. The ability of an audience to doom a musical artist came home to me recently watching the 2013 documentary Searching For Sugar Man. In the early 1970s, Sixto Rodriguez was a singer-songwriter with a ghostly tenor and gift for delicately embroidered lyricism. But despite industry backing, his records did nothing. It wasn’t until he found his audience decades later – in South Africa, of all places – that he claimed his cultural authority.

And so what will the generation known as the Millenials do with this power, to shape the rise and fall of many an artist? I do not know. This cohort of Americans has to rank as the most cynically detached in our history. Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, aptly captured it in a recent opinion piece from The New York Times: “The inquirer has taken the guise of the sophisticated (often ironic) spectator, rather than the messy participant in continuing experiments or even the reverent beholder of great cultural achievements.” A few weeks ago, I caught a double feature at a vaudeville theatre of two seminal rock n' roll documentaries: 1970's Gimme Shelter, and The Last Waltz from 1978. The outing, an isolated anecdote for sure, nevertheless lent credence to Roth’s pronouncement. I anticipated getting transported by the music and images, naturally. But I didn't expect my experience to center on the juvenile reaction of so much of the audience.

Gimme Shelter (1970)

Gimme Shelter follows The Rolling Stones on their 1969 U.S. tour, ending with the infamous concert at the Altamont Speedway outside San Francisco. Caught on hand-held cameras, Mick and the gang come off as some kind of demonic royalty. Jagger's egomania is intoxicating; they're constantly listening to and getting off on their own music. I figured everyone going in knew the story's dark trajectory: How a free concert billed as the Woodstock of the West descended into violence. Loaded on beer, Hells Angels (hired as security in a stupefying lapse of judgment) savagely beat crowd members tripping out during the sets. Four people died, one of them, Meredith Hunter, stabbed on camera as Mick struts in the foreground. Altamont came to symbolize the shadow side of the Sixties' counter-culture, where the peace movement’s utopian dream flew to crash and burn. But you'd never know it the way the twenty-somethings around me behaved. They giggled their way through the film, tickled pink over the Stones' alligator skin boots and wild top hats. The sight of all those hippies with their dandelion crowns and groovy lingo gave them a charge, as if they were ogling animals at the zoo. The notion that these were real people who actually believed this albeit unorthodox philosophy didn't register. It wasn't until the film literally freeze-framed at the moment the knife plunges into Hunter's neck that the laughs caught in their throats. Even Jagger onscreen was more somber when watching the footage. Early in the movie, he tells reporters that he's very satisfied sexually, while philosophically only trying. That's more than I can say about the crowd with me that night. They seemed to miss the point the film makes in its closing moments, as concertgoers silhouetted against the sunset walk through fog toward a dim horizon: War, children, it's just a shot away.

The Last Waltz (1978)

The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese's treatment of The Band's final bow, was a comparatively pacific experience. The tone of the documentary is celebratory and poignant, after all, wrapping its arms around you as rock royalty give Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson a grand sendoff. Altamont may have presaged the failure of the student revolutionaries, but Thanksgiving 1976 (also in San Francisco, appropriately) bid farewell to rock itself. All the luminaries of the era – Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, etc.–take the stage, delivering one showstopper after another. Even The Beatles, already six years finished, are represented in Ringo. When they join together under the chandeliers to sing the chorus of a pulsing “I Shall Be Released,” rock comes full circle to reach the religious heights that were its first source in the black church. The Band's music wells up from deep within the American heartland, hewing close to rock's blues, country, and gospel roots. Songs like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “The Weight” ache with America’s emotional history – grief and anger over the family tragedy that was the Civil War, hope and joy for a reconciled community. Biblical imagery meets Appalachian echoes. Scorsese’s deep frames match lush colors. It all combines to create a sense of dynamism and movement, nearly irresistible. After each number, the theatre audience reacted as if they were in the front row of the Winterland. But even then, a clique of hipsters near me kept up a steady stream of flippant commentary, wagering how much coke Neil Young had done by show’s end. Too cool for school (and, apparently, the classic rock that defined cool in the first place), they pumped their fists along with the gentleman in front of me. But he was of The Band’s generation, exuberantly reliving music that gave him meaning. They meant only to mock.

Pop culture’s endless documenting and commodification of the Sixties has put the era in permanent quotation marks. This kitschy filter makes poking fun at it easy and actually experiencing it difficult. And so musical artists like the Stones and The Band suddenly become emasculated in our time, robbed of their power by an audience that finds them dated. But if any rocker can withstand this gauntlet of irony, Bruce Springsteen is it. Like no popular musician of his era, he’s won the unabashed love and personal loyalty of millions. And he’s done it by totally dissolving the wall between performer and audience, night after night. When you see superstars play, they tend to hold themselves at arms length, lost in a haze of fatigue, drugs, or narcissism. Not Springsteen. He gives himself utterly to his fans – his crowd surfing is some kind of musical eucharist. Now they’ve responded in a 2013 documentary, Springsteen & I, from director Baille Walsh. A compilation of crowd-sourced home movies, the film is fan candy in certain respects. It’s light fare that goes down easy, and (being something like official merchandise) strikes no unified critical, artistic, or interpretive perspective. It doesn’t begin to approach the cultural impact of Gimme Shelter or The Last Waltz. But it doesn’t aim at that, either. Instead, it shows you the cultural impact of Springsteen himself. And by giving voice to his audience, it does offer a window into his music’s character and meaning.

Unlike the aforementioned documentaries, the performative subject rarely appears in Springsteen & I. Clips of his music and archival concert footage feature throughout, but only to serve as bridges between the main material. That would be the fans, who refract him to you like a diamond. The moviemakers asked Springsteen’s army to submit their own descriptions of his music, allowing for both lengthy ruminations and three-word summations. “Power, belief, togetherness,” says one. “Hope, heart, and perspective,” shares another. “Poet, comfort, and gluteus maximostus,” grins a third, a middle-aged woman holding the album cover of Born in the U.S.A. Walsh groups the longer clips somewhat thematically, and they get at prime features of the Springsteen discography.

Coming of age is the first. Fans recount hearing or seeing him as youths, and several current kids chime in with their own thoughts. One in particular, ten-years old Dominic Martin, hilariously confesses that his mother (sitting inches away) forced him to learn the music. “Do you hear the words?” she queries with raised eyebrow. “Do you really hear the words?” The film, appropriately, cuts to a young Springsteen strumming an acoustic version of “Growin’ Up,” from 1973’s Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. He had a pronounced troubadour quality in those early days, which flowed from the experience of being a wide-eyed kid taking in the world of the Jersey Shore. The lyrics of his first two albums catalogue what he sees in the manner of Whitman. “4th of July, Asbury Park” (from The Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle) takes in fascinating boardwalk characters, with a romantic accordion and pier setting: Greasers, switchblade lovers, wizards. “Incident on 57th Street,” and “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” describe street toughs and carnival performers (the latter reappear in 2008’s “The Last Carnival,” which brims with plenitude). In “Growin’ Up,” the singer exudes the bravado of a grinning prole ready to conquer the world.

Bruce, in 1978

Of course, that proletarian aspect is one of Springsteen’s distinctive features. He’s made blue-collar identification a hallmark of his approach to rock, even after rising above that demographic in his personal life. The film buttresses that image, featuring several fans with working class roots. Kitty, a younger devotee, describes from the cab of her tractor trailer the sense of worth Bruce’s music gives to her decision to drive freight. An English factory worker recounts how he saved money to attend a Springsteen concert for twenty years, and the rags-to-riches transformation that happened when he finally got there. This is the key to the Boss’s enduring appeal: The way he channels the anguished tribulations of America’s white underclass. 1975's “Born to Run,” perhaps the greatest rock epic recorded, is a perfect example. With its machine-gun drumming and wall-of-sound effect, it’s crammed to the breaking point with youthful desperation. These are the leather-wearing high school dropouts, Brando’s The Wild One motorcycle gang removed to a desolate highway at the edge of the earth. But with a new self-awareness and tone: The singer bares a sensitive soul to his sweetheart, looking to hurt no one but himself. And that he will do in his attempt to break out of the feverish scene, a night lit up by drag races and beach fires. Promising her escape, soul sharing, eternal love, he goes for broke: “I want to die with you, Wendy, on the streets tonight in an everlasting kiss.” Rarely has rock given such violent discharge to the inner turbulence of youth – the desire to flame out in some spectacular grasp at freedom rather than suffer another minute of crushing Rust Belt boredom.

Desperation of this kind animates much of the Springsteen canon. His world is one of oppressive social forces; his characters, poor souls forced to give into the machine or struggle against it in futility. “I’m caught in a crossfire that I don’t understand,” intones the maddened singer in “Badlands,” from Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978). He's the isolated, alienated anti-hero of modern art. Watching a mob rumble building in “Atlantic City,” he decides to join their ranks to stay afloat, the acoustic guitar twang and wailing harmonica echoing with Springsteen’s ethereal howls. The perspective of doomed criminal reluctantly fighting the law – laced throughout 1982's Nebraska – nods to Johnny Cash. This hero’s got an inherent integrity and dignity, however. Springsteen switches over to a rockability sound in Born in the U.S.A. as he celebrates labor and unions. On tracks like “Working On the Highway,” his jackhammer cadence channels Eddie Cochran as its hero joyously bops from road gang to chain gang. Such sound reminds you of rock’s ability to spark summertime fun, even when it tells a tale of blue collar blues. No one enjoys the fun of rock 'n’ roll like Springsteen.

Springsteen makes you instinctively think “working class” the way The Beatles makes you think “teen romance.” But the movie reminds you that love is just as much a feature of his music. His talent for romantic ballads is striking when compared with the snarling rage of “Adam Raised a Cain.” Is this the same man? “Who could do this?” one fan wonders. “What kind of power is that?” But his best romances share the exuberance and vitality of those all-out rockers. We hear one woman admit she lost her virginity to “Thunder Road.” Another Brit tells of the time Bruce pulled her onstage during “Dancing in the Dark” after seeing her sign proclaiming, “I’ll Be Your Courtney Cox!” She beams as he effortlessly sweeps her off her feet, realizing the dream of every rock fangirl. And who doesn’t desire to retain the thrill of such puppy love? “She’s the One” carries a cinematic shimmer to it, the singer describing his object of devotion in throes as erotic as the Bible’s Songs of Songs (as he does in 1992's "Leap of Faith"): “Just one kiss / She’d fill them long summer nights / With her tenderness,” he ebulliently chimes, conveying the magical feeling that infatuation brings, when one person fills your entire consciousness. As Bruce’s matured, so has the love he writes about. In “I’m Goin’ Down,” he takes that rockability sound and applies it to a stud about to be rejected. (One of the film’s many comic episodes depicts Springsteen playing the tune for a concertgoer with a sign announcing, “Hi Bruce, I just got dumped.”) Tunnel of Love’s “Brilliant Disguise” (1987) comes from his most introspective, downbeat period. Full of mystery and sophisticated lyricism, it finds a couple coming apart late in their relationship. They face a harsh truth in their inscrutable masks: We can never completely know our lover. “So when you look at me / You better look hard and look twice. / Is that me, baby / Or just a brilliant disguise?”

Springsteen & I gave me a new appreciation for the musician’s sex symbol status, not a title you readily give him. But his love songs are full of raw passion, the possibility of sex as rough and sweaty as his characters’ police chases. In one outrageous clip, Springsteen gives his audience advice on cunnilingus before launching into “Red Headed Woman.” (“Patience, patience, and more patience!” he chuckles in his high-pitched, overgrown kid laugh.) During another, more astonishing one, a woman recounts her first E Street Band concert as a teenager in the ‘70s. She speaks about a orgasmic experience bordering on divine ecstasy:
And all that man and men and song and sound became bigger and more powerful than anything I understood or knew yet in my young body. And it was something about rock n’ roll and sex and men and music and myself. And I grew a few years and a few inches when that incredibly beautiful man had his perfect body moving perfectly to that crazy, sexy, sad song. Everybody was transfixed, tranced out...I think I cried. I must have. I was ripped out of my skin. I was ripped out of my senses. It was like the thunderbird had swooped down and caught me in his talons.
Fuck. Her description of the concert’s ferocity speaks to another crucial aspect of Springsteen’s mystique: His legendary live performances, which combine transcendent arena anthems with shared intimacy. One after another, fans speak of the personal connection they feel to the musician in those settings. Pop figures can elicit a mass vulnerability that is at once personalized and anonymous – personal for the fan, anonymous for the singer. A Dane named John tells of feeling both lost in the collective and alone with the artist during a concert: “At some point, it felt like I was the only one there, that he was playing only for me,” he recalls a woman telling him. “I know,” he replied. “I know exactly what you mean.” The most moving moment in the film comes when a middle-aged American, driving in his car, tries to put words to what Springsteen’s music has done for him: “Bruce's lyrics always made me feel like I was going through someone's family photo album and looking at their life, and feeling what they felt. And smelling their coffee. And feeling their sadness. And their triumph...” Then he breaks down, sobbing uncontrollably.

Lest this adulation get out of hand, Walsh humorously includes a video from a non-fan. David from England finds himself married to a Bruceophile, and his dry counterpoint to his wife’s giddiness is priceless. “Bruce Springsteen means love,” he states when she excitedly prods. “Not for him. But for you. You being a fan, I've had Bruce Springsteen songs rammed down my throat 24/7. It tends to lose it's edge.” (What happens when the two of them run into the Boss later at his hotel is gold.) But what’s amazing about the rocker is that he’s never let his fame go to his head. At least not too much. Time and again, the stories from the fans reveal an authenticity and sincerity. He’s managed to keep his Jersey salt-of-the earth quality and genuine love for giving people musical pleasure. Songs like “Sherry Darling” from 1980’s The River and “Mary’s Place” from The Rising have a beach-music vibe to them, painting the image of a good old block party with your best friends and neighbors and the local band onstage. Community is as much a theme in his music as isolation.

What three words would I use to sum up the man? A Sisyphean task. I'm tempted to agree with one fan’s choice: “Supernatural divine inspiration.” The Christian overtones to his music, after all, are undeniable. Take his use of St. Paul’s three cardinal virtues in “Badlands”: “I believe in the love that you gave me, / I believe in the hope that can save me, / I believe in the love and I pray that someday it may raise me above these badlands.” He repeats them over and over in the titular track to The Rising, adding a fourth, strength, to the litany. Springsteen can shift seamlessly from testosterone machismo to solemn psalmody. He came from a Catholic family and has discussed the influence of Flannery O’Connor’s Gothic stories on his song-writing. His Christianity isn't saccharine or cheaply pious, though – rather, it gives voice to the loss of faith and the struggle to find meaning again in the face of life's disappointments. The way he can interweave overt biblical language with the quotidian lives of his secular characters – even on a pop song like "Pink Cadillac," all about chrome and cruising –illustrates, better than any sermon, how the Scriptures can dialogue with our everyday reality. His concerts are like a barnstorming tent-revival, with himself as preacher, prophet, and king. “Can you feel the Spirit?!” he cries to the crowd at the documentary’s outset. His most recent efforts, Wrecking Ball and High Hopes, draw on a gospel choir, call-and-response dynamic as he never has before. When I saw him live in 2006, his ability to jack the audience through the roof one moment and lead them in hushed prayer the next astounded me. A Springsteen song can just as easily bring you to your knees as make you burn your house to the ground.

But I’m also drawn to the flip side of his religiosity. At one point in the film, the trucker Kitty calls him “political but poetic,” and that’s an apt description of what his music’s meant to me. His politics are not complex, yet they're easily misunderstood. A Polish fan tells the filmmakers that “Born in the U.S.A.” became the Solidarity movement’s anthem in the late 1980s. As they could only understand the chorus, they took it as a tribute to the glory of living in America. “It was the sound of freedom!” he laughs, wiser now. The song is actually a stinging rebuke of the nation, recounting the bitter fate of a Vietnam vet. But even English-speaking Americans didn’t get it – Ronald Reagan famously tried to appropriate the song for his re-election campaign. Unhappy with the frequent misreadings, Springsteen subsequently adapted the song to an acoustic (and superior) version, released on 1998’s Tracks (a goldmine of some sixty-plus previously unreleased songs he recorded over the years). Gone is the shredding guitar and voice, replaced by a lonely singer in an echoing vault. Barely articulating his words, wound tight with pain, at last he forsakes human language altogether, lifting into primal coyote cries. Springsteen is of the working man, but in the tradition of the Roosevelts, not Reagan. He affirms unions over corporations, asking for a square deal for an honest man.

My own story of Bruce Springsteen began in medias res. I came late to the party, getting into him only in 2002. He was on a ten-year hiatus from The E Street Band while I was growing up, before reuniting around the millennium. Then, during a long road trip that summer, my father put on The Rising, telling me that each song was a response to September 11th. Somewhere in the hills of Pennsylvania, my mind was carried away, lost in the sonic landscape of the album. To date, it remains the most significant cultural response to the terrorist attacks on the U.S. Springsteen uses his gift for emotional identification in a way unprecedented for him, shifting his terrain to grief, loss, disconsolation. With “Empty Sky,” “Countin’ On a Miracle,” and “Waitin’ On a Sunny Day,” he gets at the national experience of 9/11 through individual stories and telling personal details: The vacant space on the bed where a departed lover lay, rain falling from a sky now wide from vanished skyscrapers, smoky graves for ascending firemen. He captures a hero’s tortured struggle with PTSD in “Nothing Man”and the clash of Islam and the West through the doomed lovers of “World’s Apart.” The Christian imagery emerges full-on in the record: The cross of my calling, holy pictures, precious blood. The concluding tracks become anguished prayers: “With these hands / I pray for your love, Lord.”

The album attempts to escape the pain and suffering in its middle section, its people trying to lose themselves in celebrations (“Mary’s Place”) or the heat of a lover’s mouth (“The Fuse”). To no avail. The weight of tragedy pulls it back down in the last third, collapsing into a suicide bomber’s hallucination (“Paradise”) and the personal artifacts of a dead spouse (“You’re Missing”). “God’s drifting in heaven. / Devil’s in the mailbox. / Got dust on my shoes. / Nothing but teardrops,” Springsteen whispers in the latter. The song hovers for a moment, floating close in, before the electric organ peels the perspective away. Into the stratosphere it soars, the singer gazing heavenward, growing smaller and smaller below, until enveloped in the smoke from the towers’ hulking ruin. Springsteen almost singlehandedly lifts the country and carries it on his broad shoulders. He implores us in “The Rising” and “My City of Ruins” to rise up, as if he could revive us by sheer force of will. But the songs end on mournful, unresolved notes, the last one a lilting piano that concludes its soft religious throb: “Without your sweet kiss / My soul is lost, my friend. / Tell me, how can I begin again? / My city’s in ruins.”

It’s this cultural significance that makes The Rising Springsteen’s greatest record. On a purely musical level, Born to Run and Born in the U.S.A. edge it out – the former transformed rock’s sound, and the latter contains his largest number of pop hits. Darkness On the Edge of Town rains fire, brimstone, and judgment right out of the Old Testament. But for social impact and historical context, The Rising is of another category. To capture the national mood less than a year after 9/11, without succumbing to cheap jingoism or sentimentality, is no mean feat. Thoroughly grounded in its moment, it rises above it to be for all time. I’d never encountered anything that so mirrored my experience of those days, which were defining to my generation and mark our coming of age. What’s more astonishing is how Springsteen kept his finger on the nation’s pulse in this way for the next decade. Over an astonishingly prodigious creative streak, his succeeding albums precisely charted my own response to the events around me. And he did it with songs that stand on their own as music – they don’t run into the limits a merely topical song can hit. With We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, he trades in rock for pure folk. He formed the loudest jug band you’ll ever hear and recorded Pete’s old protest songs as a way to comment on the darkness of the Bush Administration.

Magic (2006) continues the commentary, but this time by employing the pop song as cover. Springsteen plays with your mind in masterful ways, the bopping rhythms of “Livin’ In the Future” and “You’ll Be Comin’ Down” belying menacing lyrics. “The groundskeeper opened the gates / And let the wild dogs run,” he sings in oblique reference to torture and espionage. The grinning magician of the title track threatens to cut you in half while casting a spell – the paternalism of the police state. Anger like a red hot coil burns through “Gypsy Biker,” with its tale of a son lost in war, and “Last to Die,” which imagines two speeding desperadoes stacking bodies outside a door like the caskets fresh from Iraq. This anger gives way to hopeful expectation in 2008’s Working on a Dream, reflecting the renewed idealism surrounding Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Springsteen draws on the mythology of the West and the spirit of the New Deal to restore the American dream once more. “Sunrise up, I climb the ladder. / The new day breaks and I’m working on a dream,” the striding singer chimes, a chorus of whistling workers at his back. Of course, that dream is always out of reach, and Wrecking Ball returns to righteous fury over the current economic depression. Again, he reinvents himself, appropriating the sound of sea shanties and Irish reels to channel his populist rage.

All this is to say that Springsteen occupies an elite category of musician in his gift for crossing multiple genres and styles. He’ll plug in with The E Street Band on one album, then go acoustic solo on the next. His early sound has what one fan calls a “punchy soul” quality to it. Born to Run moves to pure rock and seems to reinvent it in the process. On The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995) and Devils & Dust (2005), Springsteen continues the singer-songwriter folk turn he makes in Nebraska. His lyricism rivals that of Dylan. In the process, he’s created what many fans (myself included) consider a soundtrack for life. My favorite tracks, like “Long Walk Home,” carry me back to the small town I remember from my youth. People are quick to mark their lives with music, associating songs with specific times, events, places. Springsteen’s music not only does the same, but tells you about that experience even as you’re having it.

The ironists would struggle to dismiss Springsteen & I because it turns the camera around and confronts you with your peers, ordinary people who’ve been touched in extraordinary ways by this man and his band. Who could be hard-hearted in the face of such connection? Our generation can’t scoff at our parents over this rocker, for he’s as much of our time as of theirs. His music catalogs the messiness of life that mirrors our own mess. This empathy – what the Greeks call pathos – is what allows us to admire his cultural achievement. “Your music doesn't have a time or a place,” one Millennial tells Bruce at the film’s conclusion (she's evidence my generation might yet have hope):

Your music is a story, and it bends and flows into the stories of everyone who listens to it...We all go through dark times in life, and sometimes things aren't going to get better, and they're not going to be alright. In those times, music can be the best companion, because it reminds you that there can still be beauty in this world, and that all is not lost.  

– Nick Coccoma is a film, theatre, and culture critic. He blogs regularly at The Similitude and contributes to Full-Stop Magazine. His articles and postings on movies, religion, and drama have been featured on Andrew Sullivan’s The DishThe Rumpus3 Quarks Daily, and Catholic How. A native of Cooperstown, NY, he studied theatre, philosophy, and theology at the College of the Holy Cross and Boston College. He lives in Boston, where he's worked as an actor, teacher, and chaplain. 

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