Bring On Your Wrecking Ball


                                                                  And I will provide for you  
                                                                 And I’ll stand by your side
                                                                You’ll need a good companion
                                                                For this part of the ride
                                                                                                Bruce Springsteen
                                                                                              From “Land of Hope and Dreams”

It’s no secret that I’ve been a huge Bruce Springsteen fan for over 30 years now.  To me, he is the greatest songwriter (Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen may be superior lyricists, but aren’t as good of songwriters, in my humble opinion) and live performer in rock and roll history.

Despite the consistent high quality of his output and the unadulterated articulation of his themes, he remains one of the most misunderstood and polarizing voices in serious rock criticism.   This is hard to understand, because he has never been the enigmatic contrarian that, for example, Dylan or Neil Young have been.

There are some critics who look down on Springsteen because he identifies with and writes about the common man, the working class.  It is a form of elitism, critics who see these people as unsophisticated and simple, and assume that any artist of any integrity would keep them and their culture at arms’ length.  Springsteen has embraced and celebrated their values, even when criticizing some of the ugly specifics.  The result has been tremendous success and frequent misinterpretation.  The biggest example is the song, “Born in the USA”, misinterpreted by many on the right as a jingoistic anthem supporting blind faith patriotism, and by many on the left as a sell-out of his artistic morals to the fist pumping and empty headed masses who fill stadiums and arenas.

Rock and roll, from the beginning, has always belonged to the poor and working class.  This is where one of if its two dominant themes, rebellion (the other one being sex) comes from.   In the 50s and 60s, when the music was being formed, the genre’s biggest stars, from Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones came from this class.  The problem always was that, as these stars became successful and wealthy, they lost touch with the class they came from, resulting in the quick artistic burn out and ultimate self-parody of Presley and Berry (who despite longer careers stopped producing original music of any quality after their first 10 years or so).   The Beatles broke up in 1970, and most of their solo work was uninteresting, and the Stones, who started out paying tribute to the black rhythm and blues musicians who inspired them, by the late 60s were struggling to maintain an edge while becoming a part of the jet-set heroin culture (still producing great music from time to time, like Beggar’s Banquet and Exile on Main Street, which found the commonality of the gutter in their R & B roots and the high class drug culture). By the late 70s, even the Stones had become caricatures of themselves.

Springsteen was born into a middle to lower class existence, but he was also born with gifts of intelligence and musical ability.  From the beginning, his songwriting was always very introspective.  He always had an acute sense of who he was and where he came from.  This is why, as time passed on and his craft became stronger, he openly embraced being a spokesman for the working class¸ and has been able to maintain a connection to those roots even after becoming wildly successful.  The ability to maintain this connection and to explore the depths and complexity of these roots, is, I think, Springsteen’s unique gift

With most of rock’s superstars, as they become successful, a distance from their roots always emerges in their work.  Take John Lennon, for example, who came from the slums of Liverpool, and his song, “Working Class Hero”:

                               they keep you doped with religion and sex and T.V.
                              and you think you’re so happy, and classless and free
                              but you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see
                              A working class hero is something to be
 

 Compare this to the 1980 Springsteen song, “The River”

                                I got a job working construction
                                For the Johnstown Company
                                But lately there ain’t been much work
                                On account of the economy
                                Now all those things that seemed so important
                                Mister, they’ve just vanished right into the air
                                Now I just act like I don’t remember
                                Mary acts like she don’t care

Both songs are about the exploitation of the working class.  Where Lennon’s song is filled with hurt and rage, it comes from the perspective of one who has gotten out, and that’s how we view it.  Springsteen, however, gets into the character’s heart and mind.  This is Springsteen’s genius and what I think sets him apart from everyone else:  his ability to get inside of a song and make it intimate and immediate and vital.  In doing so, he makes us care about what he cares about

Next Monday (March 6), Springsteen’s new album, Wrecking Ball, will be released, and he again takes on the role of spokesperson for the working class.  At 61 years old, and 28 years after Born in the USA, it would seem unlikely that he has anything new to say, particularly about the working class, since it’s been so long since he’s been a member.   But Wrecking Ball may well be the most ambitious and audacious effort of his long and storied career.  In the end,  I don’t think it cracks his top five best albums list, but he still pulls off most of it, and the album is incredibly relevant to what is going on today.  So relevant that I predict it will be one of the most praised and criticized albums of this election year.

The album opens with the anthem, “We Take Care of Our Own”, which has already been compared to “Badlands” but to me, musically at least, conjures up Patty Smith’s “People Have the Power”.  The lyrics are, unlike the rest of the album, unusually ambiguous.  He references Katrina and New Orleans and says “There ain’t no help, the cavalry stayed home”, instances where we obviously didn’t take care of our own.  In the end, the song stands as a cry to return to the shared principles of looking out for one another, as a reaction to the divisive politics of extremism that have recently dominated the national discourse.

Wrecking Ball is, if nothing else, the angriest album Springsteen has ever put out.  In “Easy Money” and “Shackled and Drawn” , he turns to the Irish roots sound of  The Seeger Sessions and spells out who he is angry at: 

Gambling man rolls the dice, working man pays the bills
It’s still fat and easy up on bankers hill
Up on bankers hill the party’s going strong
Down here below we’re shackled and drawn

This is followed by one of Springsteen’s best and most poignant ballads ever, the real centerpiece of the album, “Jack of all Trades”.  In “Jack of all Trades,” his ability to inhabit and articulate the soul of one of his characters is at its strongest since “The River.”  It opens with:

I’ll mow your lawn, clean the leaves out your drain
I’ll mend your roof to keep out the rain
I’ll take the work that God provides
I’m a Jack of all trades, honey, we’ll be alright

Note the element of the spiritual, of work as a God given gift.  One of his consistent themes over the years is the dignity that work provides.  This dignity has repeatedly been the target of exploitation:

The banker man grows fatter, the working man grows thin
It’s all happened before and it’ll happen again
It’ll happen again, they’ll bet your life
I’m a Jack of all trades and, darling, we’ll be alright

“Jack of All Trades” is a slow and beautiful, with simple, repetitive piano scales and strings, and horns and a lovely guitar solo at the end.

This is followed by the angriest and best of the Irish flavored stomps, “Death to my Hometown”, in which the assault from Wall Street on the working class is as invisible as it is insidious:

Oh, no cannonballs did fly, no rifles cut us down
No bombs fell from the sky, no blood soaked the ground
No powder flash blinded the eye, no deathly thunder sound
But just as sure as the hand of God, they brought death to my hometown
They brought death to my hometown, boys

The song concludes with a cry for action, for some form of economic justice:

So listen up, my sonny boy, be ready for when they come
For they’ll be returning sure as the rising sun
Now get yourself a song to sing and sing it ’til you’re done
Yeah, sing it hard and sing it well
Send the robber barons straight to hell
The greedy thieves who came around
And ate the flesh of everything they found
Whose crimes have gone unpunished now
Who walk the streets as free men now

This is followed by another beautiful ballad, the emotional and powerful “This Depression”, in which the deceptively simple lyrics play beautifully on the double meaning of the word “depression:”

Baby, I’ve been down, but never this down
I’ve been lost, but never this lost
This is my confession, I need your heart
In this depression, I need your heart

This song is another illustration of Springsteen’s gift to show what is really at stake.  By getting inside the heart and mind he gets past the statistics of unemployment statistics and empty rhetoric and reminds us that there are real people impacted, and that their suffering is real

And I’ve always been strong, but I’ve never felt so weak
And all my prayers have gone for nothing
I’ve been without love, but never forsaken
Now the morning sun, the morning sun is breaking

The next song, “Wrecking Ball”, was written for the concert he gave on the eve of the destruction of the New Jersey sports arena, the Meadowlands, but also stands as an aging man’s defiant stance to the onslaught of age and death:

So if you got the guts mister, yeah if you’ve got the balls
If you think it’s your time, then step to the line, and bring on your wrecking ball

The song concludes with the mixture of resignation and defiance that can only come with age, with the recognition of the cyclical nature of good times and hard times:

Now when all this steel and these stories, they drift away to rust
And all our youth and beauty, it’s been given to the dust
And your game has been decided and you’re burning the clock down
And all our little victories and glories have turned into parking lots
When your best hopes and desires are scattered through the wind
And hard times come, and hard times go
And hard times come, and hard times go
And hard times come, and hard times go
And hard times come, and hard times go
And hard times come, and hard times go
Yeah just to come again

 The album then takes a more hopeful and gospel inspired tone with “Rocky Ground”,  and “Land of Hope and Dreams” before closing with the inspirational “We Are Alive”, which celebrates the long history of Americans who have died fighting for their rights:

A voice cried out, I was killed in Maryland in 1877
When the railroad workers made their stand
Well, I was killed in 1963 one Sunday morning in Birmingham
Well, I died last year crossing the southern desert
My children left behind in San Pablo
Well they left our bodies here to rot
Oh please let them know
We are alive
Oh, and though we lie alone here in the dark
Our souls will rise to carry the fire and light the spark
To fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart

 As dark and angry as he might get, in the end there is always hope:

 Let your mind rest easy, sleep well my friend
It’s only our bodies that betray us in the end

I awoke last night in a dark and dreamy deep
From my head to my feet, my body had gone stone cold
There were worms crawling all around me
Fingers scratching at an earth black and six foot low
And alone in the blackness of my grave
Alone I’d been left to die
Then I heard voices calling all around me
The earth rose above me, my eyes filled with sky
We are alive
And though our bodies lie alone here in the dark
Our souls and spirits rise
To carry the fire and light the spark
To fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart
To stand shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart
We are alive

Wrecking Ball serves as notice that there is still a place for serious rock and roll.  And as Springsteen and his listeners head for the old folks home, one thing remains true as it has always been for the past nearly 40 years – we’re lucky to have as good a companion as Bruce Springsteen with us for this part of the ride

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2 thoughts on “Bring On Your Wrecking Ball

  1. i really like this dave.

    and ignore the people over at btx. they seem to hate everything, or are certainly looking for a reason to.

    as for this whole “mere blogger” thing, i’m reminded of a great cartoon in a recent new yorker: a man is sitting in front of his computer. he looks up at his wife and says “Those who can’t, comment.”

    heh.

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