Bruce Springsteen does not need our help, but he deserves our attention. His new album The Promise returns to his Darkness at the Edge of Town sessions, where we hear and see (there's an accompanying DVD) the agony and exhilaration of songwriting. The Boss was young then, and struggling to find his voice. But throughout his career, what distinguishes Springsteen from most other rockers is his understanding of the American ethos -- the ebb and flow of our collective spirit. His best songs take the pulse of America in the same manner as John Steinbeck and Walt Whitman -- whom Springsteen has clearly read.
Springsteen's 1995 cut "The Ghost of Tom Joad" was his reminder of recent American failures. During Steinbeck's Dust Bowl era our country failed its people in fundamental ways -- food, shelter and hope. Nowadays it's not dust storms and grasshoppers but institutional failure and cultural decay. Tom Joad's impassioned speech about injustice at the end of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath is the heart of Springsteen's song. ("Tom Joad" was later covered by Rage Against the Machine, with Zack de la Rocha channeling an angrier Joad: "Shelter lines stretchin' around the corner/Welcome to the New World Order.")
Springsteen also knows his Walt Whitman. "Song of Myself" is America's classic long poem, and is much about Whitman lying around, sometimes naked, in the great outdoors "celebrating himself." But at another level it's a metaphorical love letter to America's great promise of personal freedom. Springsteen's song "If I Should Fall Behind" (Lucky Town) is probably a love song for his wife, Patty Scialfa, but the tone, the nature-based setting and the lyrics are all reverb-echo right out of Whitman. Whitman's poem ends with a direct address-type soliloquy: "Missing me one place search another/I stop somewhere waiting for you." Springsteen writes, "I'll wait for you/And if I should fall behind/wait for me." Works as a love song, works the way a democracy should for its people.
Springsteen does not just articulate American angst a la Jim Morrison or Kurt Cobain. His best songs try to move America off the dime it's stuck on. Yes America is screwed up, yes we keep making the same mistakes, but there's still hope, even if it's only alive in the rage, in the passion of one person. America is not only Springsteen's setting, it's his ultimate subject, which is what lifts The Boss into the company of America's literary greats.