In honor of Bruce Springsteen’s 63rd birthday (and because I’m really don’t feel like posting much more at the moment), I hunted down one of the better live versions of my all time favorites.
“Thunder Road” is a transformative song, but whether the transformation is good or bad is left entirely unresolved. Part of Springsteen’s appeal for me is the fact that he pulls no punches. He doesn’t try to force a happy ending on his characters, knows damn well that a happy ending might be impossible for them. But there’s hope that these people really can win if they can just make it to the car together, “take that long walk, from your front porch to my front seat. The door’s open, but the ride ain’t free.” That’s all they have to do. But those are the hardest steps of all, and there is always a price for escape.
I love watching the E Street Band play together. These people are consummate musicians, perfectly in synch with one another. But something that really shines through in this clip from a concert at Madison Square Garden is how much they love what they do, how much they love the music. Bruce, Patti, Little Steven, the late great Big Man. The looks on their faces say they know how truly blessed they are. (FYI: Max Weinberg has the most perfect posture I have ever seen in a drummer.) They are true believers in the transformative power of music, a belief that can’t be bought or sold. It just is.
I guess that’s why I’ve always like Springsteen. He believes in the things he sings about, he believes happily ever after is possible. More importantly, he makes us believe in it, too. And that’s the biggest transformation of all: Believing in what is possible.
Bruce Springsteen recorded an album of songs that dealt with the psychic fallout from the September 11, 2001 attacks. The Rising is by turns inspirational, angry, determined, and desolate. It is also one of the finest albums of Springsteen’s careers. I love this album not because it’s the same patriotic drivel that politicians were spouting as soon as they could open their mouths in front of a microphone. Springsteen doesn’t do patriotic drivel. (Don’t believe me? Try actually listening to the lyrics to “Born in the U.S.A”.) This is a visceral, agonized patriotism. This is someone who loves his country, despises the criminals who attacked it, and mourns the thousands of innocent lives lost. But he knows that the response is not fear and hatred toward the Other (in this case, Muslims and Middle Easterners). The only response that matters is to band together in love, to rebuild and repair the damage, to extend a hand of tolerance and fellowship to the world.
The Rising was released in 2002, but Springsteen was working on it immediately. Just a few days after the attacks, a televised benefit to raise money for the victims and their families aired on virtually every broadcast channel and many cable channels. I remember him playing this song that night. I felt like someone finally understood how I felt about it. I am not a New Yorker, native or otherwise, but for that little while, I felt like New York City was my city, too. My city of ruins.
Dad had a true crime show on tonight, which got me thinking about sociopaths, which got me thinking about spree killer Charlie Starkweather, which got me thinking about Bruce Springsteen (who is neither a sociopath or a spree killer).
But he wrote the haunting, devastating song “Nebraska” about Starkweather. It is as stark and bleak as the crimes he committed with girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate, as stark and bleak as the flat midwestern landscape. Starkweather was a horrible excuse for a human being, Fugate not much better. There is nothing romantic in their vicious acts, nothing to be celebrated. Springsteen handles the whole topic with amazing care, really. The song is from Starkweather’s POV, but it does nothing to make him seem sympathetic. The most notable thing about this song is the utter lack of emotion. He feels no remorse, no empathy for the victims, seemingly nothing at all: “I killed everything in my path. I can’t say that I’m sorry for the things that we done. At least for a little while, sir, me and her we had us some fun.”
Springsteen gives a good basic outline of the whole sordid mess, which is more complex than a few minutes can convey. What makes the Starkweather case so compelling is that it’s so unmotivated. They just went out and murdered eleven people, including Fugate’s entire family, for no real reason. There’s still some question about the level of Fugate’s participation in the spree, but the enormity of the whole thing is unchanged. The flat, unaffected tone Springsteen adopts here mimics the landscape, just a long flat line on the horizon that goes on as far as the eye can see. It is an endless kind of evil–no way to determine where it began, no real way to end it. Because there will always be another Charlie Starkweather. There will always be another Manson Family. There will always be another Columbine.
“I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”