Once again, as our nation deals with Trumpism, Bruce Springsteen's poetry and prose can bring courage. When returning to the United States in 1982, I was stunned by the way the Reagan administration had sped up deindustrialization, expanded the arms race, escalated the dirty wars in Central America, and ignored the first signs of AIDS. My best friend had just bought Springsteen's newly-released Nebraska but he had been waiting for just the right time to ceremoniously open the album and share the first-listen. Reassurance was found in his words, "Man turns his back on his brother, he's no friend of mine."
And, yes, the "Boss" continued to provide the wisdom and inspiration that helped guide us through Supply Side Economics, Iran-Contra, the crack and gang years, followed by the War on Drugs and, in general, Americans retreating from the values that had made our democracy great.
Years later, we were challenged and comforted by Springsteen's "The Streets of Philadelphia," "American Skin," "The Rising," and his recent incorporation of music that drew from Pete Seeger to Irish balladeers and New Orleans jazz to help us grapple with bigotry, the Iraq War, and Hurricane Katrina. As we come to grips with the Trump election, Springsteen's autobiography, Born to Run, may contain more insight into the roots of our political crisis than anything I’ve read.
Springsteen starts with the "Pax Americana" of the 1950s. Speaking for so many Baby Boomers, he begins his life story, "Here we live in the shadow of the steeple, where the holy rubber meets the road, all crookedly blessed in God's mercy, in the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, race-riot-creating, oddball-hating, soul-shaking, love-and-fear-making town of Freehold, New Jersey."
Working class kids (or, at least, white youth) during "the American Century" were "destined to live the decent hardworking lives of their parents ... if they could scoot through these years of wild pounding hormones without getting hurt or hurting someone else." Bruce was acculturated into a value system where you "remain true to your crew, your blood, your family, your turf, your greaser brothers and sisters and your country. This was the shit that would get you by when all of the rest came tumbling down."
However, Springsteen doesn't romanticize the so-called "Greatest Generation." Despite all of his family's and neighbors' strengths and the cross-cultural fertilization that he experienced, when his family migrated to California, his mom's first words were testimony to the segregation that also pervaded American life. She asked at the gas station, "Where do people like us live?"
Fans who parsed Springsteen's lyrics for insights into his relationship with his father will not be disappointed. As Bruce would explain before singing "The River," Douglas Springsteen had his son's hair cut while hospitalized in the wake of a motorcycle accident. A veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, his dad taunted him saying that the army will make a man out of him. When Bruce came home from a secret trip to the draft board, however, and said that he had failed his physical, his father was typically tight-lipped when revealing his true emotion, "good."
Springsteen would then sing, "I come from down in the valley, where mister when you're young, they raise you up to do what your daddy done."
Not surprisingly, given the number of references to radios in his lyrics, Springsteen finds multiple meanings in the "radio days" of his youth. The radio was more than a "CB-cult cross-cultural outreach" allowing hungry hearts to come together across hundreds of miles of the night sky. It was a hands-on tool for experimentation. Just as Bruce's grandfather wired and soldered electric wires and filament, and sold rebuilt radios to poor black harvest workers, his mentor, "Tinker," could redesign "anything at all, patch it up, jury-rig or jimmy it back into working order." When "the Apocalypse rolls back the clock to year zero, you'll want and need only Tinker at your side."
The radio stories are more than nostalgia about "Yankee ingenuity." They were grounds for frontier-style experimentation and the improvisation which is an essential component of the education needed for self-rule and for reinventing ourselves for the 21st century. Between the lines, Bruce is recalling the need for a post-modern means of self-expression to replace the hands-on inventiveness of the industrial era. By the time Springsteen found his "adult voice" in Darkness at the End of Town, he clearly was wrestling with the way that deindustrialization was undermining hope. I had not realized, however, that his previous album, Born to Run, was not about teen spirit but about the threatened spirit of our democracy in a post-frontier, pre-globalization era. Springsteen describes the reasons for both of those transitional albums:
I was a child of Vietnam-era America, of the Kennedy, King, and Malcolm X assassinations.
... Dread - the sense that things might not work out, that the moral high ground had been swept out from underneath us, that the dream we had of ourselves had somehow been tainted and the future would forever be uninsured - was in the air.
With Born in the USA, Springsteen became the poet of the people at a time the extreme segregation by economics replaced de jure segregation, and became joined with de facto segregation as the original sin of our new post-industrial world. The Boss knew he was now a "fortunate son," but he felt accountable to the people he'd grown up with. His discovery of Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie, combined with travels west into the new frontier where Hispanics followed in the path of the "Okies," inspired a new series of masterpieces.
"The Ghost of Tom Joad" helped crystalize the issues of the 1990s multicultural frontiers. Springsteen started with his personal need "to know where my family, my grandparents, my mom, dad and sisters - fell in the American experience." He told the tales of folks who felt "weathered, wiser but not beaten." Springsteen "traced the stories out slowly and carefully." He "thought hard about who these people were and the choices they were presented with." Even as the hope of working people declines, his lyrics insisted that they and we must shun escapism. Appropriately, the hope he sought was found in the writing of "Across the Border."
We are now paying the price of too many people in America and other nations failing to face up to "the weight of our unsorted baggage." It became "heavier ... much heavier," and "with each passing year, the price of our refusal to do that sorting rises higher and higher."
As Springsteen wraps up his story, he explores his battles with depression, as well as his relationship with his father. His dad taught him the "blue-collar narcissism of 'manhood' 1950s-style. An inner yearning for isolation, for the world on your terms or not at all. ... The distorted idea that the beautiful things in your life, the love itself you struggled to win, to create, will turn and possess you, robbing you of your imagined, long-fought-for freedoms." But, his father was more than "another chaos-sowing schmuck." Bruce was determined that "the sum of our troubles would not be the summation of our lives together."
Springsteen's genius is the way he shares these quests with his audiences. "I work to be an ancestor," he affirms. He pursues a story with no end that "is simply told to your own blood until it is passed along to be told in the blood of those you love, who inherit it." As his story is told, it is altered, creating "the rebirthing seed of renewal, a different destiny ..."