The Highway Is Alive Tonight: Reflections on Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball — Lew Rosenbaum

[In the following piece a few things might need to be clarified.  Greta, my sister, died almost 4 years ago, at 80 years old.  Often I want to have a conversation with her.  Occasionally I’ll write a letter, as this piece begins, because I still feel the loss and because there is something I want to say anyway.  She was a trained classical musician who listened to me because she said she envied my ability to appreciate so many genre’s that she could not.  Chris Drew has contributed to this blog and I’ve written about him in the People’s Tribune as well. Chris died on May 7, 2012 after a heroic battle with lung cancer.  Bill Glahn is a friend and music writer and jack of all trades who shared his insights generously to a community of political thinkers and music enthusiasts of which I am privileged to be a part. Clicking the link for each song will lead you to a video recording of the song.  The entire album may be heard by clicking on Wrecking Ball here.  And last, the comments in this piece reflect what I think of this music, what I take from it into my life, in the spirit of Gwendolyn Brooks, when she wrote: “I give you my poem, it is my life, now do with it what you will.”  Because I do believe the Highway is Alive Tonight in ways I have never seen.  This is the most amazing time in which to live.]

Dear Greta,

May 10 is drawing to a close.  I wanted to wish you Happy Birthday, even if it is an abbreviated greeting.  There are just so many things on my mind now, things that I want to talk over with you.  Things like why I think this is such an amazing moment in history.  Things like how it has felt  — felt, not what I think about it, but felt — to wind up the artistic life of Chris Drew.  I want to tell you how that feels.  I want to tell you how when I looked into his eyes as I saw him dying, I thought every minute of you.  That will never go away.

And I want to tell you, perhaps most of all, about music.  I want to tell you about the Bruce Springsteen album, the one I have been listening to over an over again. Wrecking  Ball.   How I would have made you a copy, how you would have said the words were good, but the music is still too loud for your ears.  How we would have had a conversation about the structure of the album.  How I listened over an over to We Take Care of Our Own, learning by bits and pieces the irony and anger and ambiguity and hope in that song.  How my friend Bill Glahn made me understand, even before I heard it, the meanings of Jack of All Trades, how the dirge resonates with me more than any other song in the album.  How at the same time the travelers on the rocky road remind me so much of the rocky road we are all traversing, and how the bridge to Land of Hope and Dreams is so perfect.  And how the tribute to Clarence Clemons which illuminates each show this tour, makes it clear why I am writing this letter.  Bruce tells his audience:  if you’re here, and we’re here, then they (Clarence and Danny Federici also) are here.  And so it is with Chris Drew.  And with you.

But as with Clarence’s now stilled sax,  so it is with your stilled voice.  Rest well.

May 10, 2012

The Highway Is Alive Tonight

I admit to some confusion, some anxiety when I first heard “We Take Care of Our Own,”  the song that opens the new Bruce Springsteen record.   “We take care of our own, wherever this flag’s flown,” he sings. And inside my head I said “Wait a minute: from Fort Bragg to Baghdad, we are not taking care of our own nor of others — or we are taking care of them like the mob does.” More and more, though, the song resonates with questions, ironies, ambiguities.  Who are “we,”  who are “our own,” what is “this flag,” and where indeed is it flown?  This song cannot be taken at face value.

“The road to good intentions has grown dry as a bone.”  This line ends the first verse, that emphasizes the stance of the song and the album.  The “good intentions” –debatable of course, but rhetorically correct — of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society,” FDR’s “New Deal” have no promise left in them.  They came from knocking at the door of the throne room.  The throne! The uncrowned emperor of the USA.  So when the singer intones that we take care of our own, from shotgun shack to the Superdome, it evokes an abdication of responsibility during Katrina specifically, but a more general abdication, a boast that covers a festering reality.

Where are the eyes with the will to see . . . where’s the promise from sea to shining sea?”  This series of questions deepens the dissatisfaction with we take care of our own. We can’t really be doing what we are saying. And “this flag” — if it is the flag of the USA, that “wherever” also is an opening to a bigger question, since “this flag” is flown in the most distanced parts of the world, from countries in a crescent surrounding China and Russia, to the NATO countries to wherever there is an armed forces presence around the world, thousands of military bases.  Are we taking care of our own?  Even if “our own” is defined as US citizens?  The casualties, deaths, trauma just among “our own” soldiers.  But what about the question about who “our own” really is? Don’t we bear responsibility for the destruction of the countries we bomb, the people killed and left homeless?  Are they not as much “our own” as the soldiers we have sent to render that destruction?

These are all questions raised by this song not because the song is explicit, but because it is deliberately ambiguous.  And because of this it raises the ultimate question for me:  how do we get to the place where “we”  —  the working class — take care of our own, protect our international class brothers and sisters, wherever our flag, the flag of the international working class, is flown.  That is the challenge of this album and it starts from the first song.

Easy Money” seems like it doesn’t belong.  But here is this character in the bleak world, that is tumbling down without him even seeing it, already described, who takes his Smith and Wesson 38 to go out on the town looking for easy money.  “Put on your red dress,” we’re goin’ out on the town “lookin’ for easy money.”  Bravado without substance marks this song, it seems to me.  Can’t make it any other way, which then leads into “Shackled and Drawn.”   Bruce Prescott, in a blog he calls “The Mainstream Baptist,” writes about this song:

Bruce Springsteen describes the result of the inequities of our economic system in a number of songs on his new “Wrecking Ball” album. Here’s my favorite:

Gambling man rolls the dice,

working man pays the bill

It’s still fat and easy up on banker’s hill

Up on bankers hill, the party’s still going strong

Down here below we’re shackled and drawn.

Shackled and drawn, shackled and drawn

Pick up the rock son, carry it on

We’re trudging through the dark in

a world gone wrong

I woke up this morning shackled and drawn.

The gambler and the banker are the ones making the easy money. The poor boy in a world gone wrong can pick up his smith and wesson, but that won’t get him anywhere.  The bankers rob you without a gun (or rather, with the armed force of the state behind them).  The song ends calling on you to stand up and be counted and pray tonight.

Prescott might like “Shackled and Drawn” best, but “Jack Of All Trades”   hits me hardest.  “I’ll mow your lawn, clean the leaves out your drain,I’ll mend your roof to keep out the rain.”  I’ll do anything, I can do anything — pull that engine apart  —  “the hurricane blows, brings a hard rain,  when the blue sky breaks, feels like the world’s gonna change, we’ll start caring for each other, like Jesus said that we might, I’m a Jack of All Trades, we’ll be all right.”  We’ll be all right is still sung like a dirge, an enduring funeral march almost, a death march, a survival march.  But with a hint of possibility this time.  It’s not the fantasy of easy money, it’s not the despair of shackled and drawn, it’s not the sarcasm or irony of we take care of our own.  It is the bridge to possibility of taking care of our own.

Now, jack-of-all-trades, in my family recollection, was always followed by the phrase “master-of-none.”  Meaning not being able to do anything well.  You can always count on him, he can do anything, he’s a jack-of-all-trades;  versus don’t let him do anything too complex, because he can’t do the really tough jobs. Taken collectively, and referring back to “we take care of our own,” the working class is that jack of all trades.  All trades are found within the class, all are developed to their specialities within the class.  The class will survive.  The class will be all right.

I’m not writing an exegesis of each line or even each verse, but read these lyrics, listen to the patience and sorrow of “it’s all happened before, it’ll happen again,”  living through rough times and good times, and bad times of all varieties, and yet you see a chance, a possibility, a new world that hearkens back to a promise made before (the Jesus image), meanwhile living with what exists, making and re-making.

the banking man grows fat

working man grows thin

it’s all happened before

it’ll happen again

now sometime tomorrow

come soaked in treasure and blood

we stand the drought

now we stand the flood

there’s a new world comin

I can see the light

I’m a jack of all trades

we’ll be all right

so you use what you’ve got

and you learn to make do

you take the old

and you make it new

. . .And then there is that one line, coming near the end, where  frustration breaks out but where the tone is the same patient sound that has filled this song, the same dirge, and still the character says what he would do

if I had me a gun

I’d find the bastards and shoot em on sight.

No hint that that was coming.

The song ends with an instrumental wail of defiance. This is a Tom Morello solo, a scream of guitar sounds which says more than we’ll be all right, says we will triumph, foreshadows the challenge to those who wield the wrecking ball of the title song. Which then leads into “Death to My Hometown.”

This is not a quiet death, but it is accomplished without one shot being fired.  No blood soaked the ground.  No bombs from the sky. Still “they brought death to my home town.”  The singer mourns the destroyed factories and homes, the vultures picked their bones.  Intensity identifies the corporate enemy, and while others have commented about the allusion to Irish music, I hear a French carmagnole, the tumbrils of the mind filled with the bodies of the oppressor. In a workshop on May 13, leading up the the protests against the NATO summit taking place in Chicago, poet Matt Sedillo reminded his audience that the bombs raining down on civilians (and combatants) in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere were only part of the story.  The economic side of NATO, the G8 were carrying out murder in the cities of their own countries, but without weapons of mass destruction, other than starvation, deprivation of health care, and numerous other methods accomplished without soaking the ground in blood. The very point that this song intensifies.

Next comes “This Depression,”  another dirge.  And death to my home town is something to be mourned, to be depressed about.  I’ve been down, but never this low.  I need your heart, I need your love in this depression.  There is a depression of the economy, clearly spelled out in “Death to My Home Town,” alluded to in “Jack of All Trades” and “We Take Care of Our Own.”  And perhaps when he sings “I’ve been strong but I’ve never felt so weak” it’s both the physical and emotional toll of the overwhelming and matching depression.  I mean it is obvious that there is an emotional toll taken and sung about.  But when he says “I’ve never been so low,” it seems that is both.

Wrecking Ball,”  the title song, is a song of defiance.  Written about the destruction of baseball stadiums (Mets and Giants), these arenas assume a metaphorical relation to society, where indeed giants have also played the game and suffered the same consequences that we learned about in “Death To My Home Town,”.  The character in this song, having weathered the coming and going of hard times over and over again, refuses to accept this fate.  Bring on your wrecking ball is at once a voice of experience, coming from the depths of depression, and a challenge.  Here is a John Henry for the modern era. In the mythic past, men strove to compete with machines, to prove they were better, faster, harder working.  They could not be replaced.  But as the machine itself was replaced, so was the life of the town in which they were housed.  That death also squelched the lives of the people left behind.  Except from out of the rubble, people emerge to challenge the wreckers.

What is it that can tell the rulers/destroyers of our society “Bring on your wrecking ball”? From where does the defeat of the new world order come?  “No school ever taught it,” Springsteen sings,  “no one ever bought it,  Baby you’ve got it come on and give it to me.”   This is the real thing.  One thread running through all of Springsteen’s work has been trying to find out if love is real.  In the context of this record, what are we to think of this love song, “You’ve Got It”? There is a quiet intensity to this piece, sort of a parallel in intensity to “Jack Of All Trades.”   No school, because you can’t teach someone “this.”  “It” is not a commodity to be bought and sold.  We inherit this consciousness by our experience and by our devotion to exploring and learning.  It demands an engagement with new ideas that challenge our connection to what makes up the old society.  For me this means definitively a break with private property.  I say “for me” knowing I am treading on my ground here, not necessarily Springsteen’s.  But I would also argue that now that it is out in public, it is the responsibility of the listener to make of it what he or she will.  And I would argue that this is a love song to the collective, and “give it to me” is the only love that can transform society.

And then comes “Rocky Ground,”   which is my second favorite song on the album.  We’ve been traveling over the rocky ground.  We certainly have. From “We Take Care of Our Own”  to this one, filled with religious allusion without hope for religious redemption. There’s a new day is coming (repeated quietly in the background), but its up to us. Of course every song on the album is a collaboration.  But this one seems even more a collaboration of styles and artists, reinforcing the collective response to the collective experience of traveling on rocky ground.  Just the repetition of “we’ve been traveling” makes this a journey of suffering and of quiet redemption. In the midst of this comes a  gospel influenced rap segment that leads inevitably and seamlessly to the “Land of Hope and Dreams,” where all are welcome.

All of the cast out characters of the previous songs are welcome on the train leading to the “Land of Hope and Dreams.”  This train is filled with people who will take care of their own. Whores, gamblers, lost souls, saints, sinners, losers and winners. Don’t know where you’re going but you know you won’t be back.  Thankfully.  We’ll take what we can carry and we’ll leave the rest. We don’t need the baggage that drains us where we live now. It is a glorious celebration, reaching  back to “there’s a new day coming,” rescuing us from the depths of despair and misery.   (The album contains a version that includes the Clarence Clemons solo;  touring for the album and playing sax is Jake Clemons).

“We Are Alive” closes the album .  “We” are of course reading this.  “We” are listening to this album.  “We” are listening to Clarence Clemons saxophone solo, Clarence who died 6 months ago. “We” are the ancestors who died in freedom struggles, but who are alive and with us.  Bruce intones, in his concert performances, “If you are here and we are here, then they are here.”  We are alive if we are engaged in the struggle for the future that this album implies is possible.

In another song, from another album, one which he performs regularly with Tom Morello, “The Ghost of Tom Joad,”   Springsteen’s narrator sings “the highway is alive tonight.”  Indeed it is, it has not been so alive in decades.  And if you look in their eyes, those who populate the highways, you will see the ghost of Tom Joad everywhere.

The highway is alive tonight.


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